Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: June 24-26th 2010
Effie Karageorgos (Flinders University)
Loyal to the Empire? An alternative view of Australian soldiers in the South African War, 1899-1902
This paper analyses the letters and diaries of common soldiers in South Africa in order to determine Australian perceptions of the British Empire from ‘below’. The lower to lower-middle classes – those who, incidentally, sent their brothers and sons to the war effort – are generally credited with unwavering enthusiasm throughout the war. Indeed, traditional responses attributed to Australians upon the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 depict the majority of the population as eager supporters of involvement. Such views have conventionally been based on the words of prevailing authorities of the time, including parliamentary majorities and the commercial press. Opposition is recognised by past historians who have examined public attitudes toward the war, but label it the product of middle to upper class minorities, represented by anti-war groups, as well as editors and owners of the less popular press. However, these views are ill-founded, as in-depth studies into the war based on solid evidence of attitudes from ‘below’ have not yet been carried out. This is due to the relative absence of such sources. Lower-class Australians either neglected to record their daily thoughts in writing, or simply could not. In addition, the atmosphere in Australia before and during the war emphasised ‘loyalty’, censuring those who failed to display their commitment to the British Empire, and silencing those who disagreed. Even Federationists identified the British Empire as a mostly separate, but essential, element of the ‘new’ Australia, labelling its citizens ‘Independent Australian Britons’.
As evidence of approval, past scholarship on grass-roots attitudes to the war and the role of the British Empire concentrates on early stages of the war, when overwhelming crowds farewelled troops leaving for South Africa or raised money for soldier contingents. Less publicised are Australian scenes from the later years, when indifference marked a general public more concerned with domestic matters. Despite this relative apathy, Australian men continued to volunteer throughout the entire war. Since the majority of enlisted men came from the lower to lower-middle classes, this suggests that traditional views on lower-class ‘home front’ opinion are correct, and soldiers faithfully went to war as loyal British subjects. However, an examination of archived soldiers’ letters and diaries reveals a much broader attitudinal basis for enlistment. This indicates that previous research into attitudes toward the South African war pays insufficient attention to the reactions of common soldiers, whereas ‘scribblings from below’ suggest a more complex view.
Effie Karageorgos, Flinders University, email
Effie’s research background is in Modern History, particularly the history of warfare from the nineteenth century, focussing particularly on the media in war, as well as the behaviour and attitudes of fighting soldiers. She is particularly interested in the Vietnam, second South African and French-Algerian wars. Her interest in the Vietnam War in particular, as well as the second South African war, has prompted her PhD thesis topic. Concentrating on the behaviour and attitudes of Australian soldiers in these wars, found in archived letters and diaries, Effie is using current theories on soldiering to re-evaluate the expressed opinions of common Australian soldiers on the front line. In this way, she is discovering links between home and battle front opinion, and the influence of the government and military on these viewpoints. She is currently in the latter stages of writing. From 2007- January 2009 Effie served as the History Editor for the Flinders Journal of History and Politics, and now remains a consultative editor.