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10 Fucked Up Things About Australian History

January 26, 2016
Joe Banks

Australia pays homage to a founding father by naming an important monument after him

I recently did something that not many Australians do. I read about Australian history. I had no particular reason for doing this. Perhaps it was the fact that I’m old, and need to remain vigilant in the quest to be boring. Perhaps I got sick of not knowing the answer when foreigners asked why our capital was so far away from things and terrible. Perhaps someone stuck a book on the subject in my hand and I didn’t realise what was happening until I’d put down my sixth.

Whatever the case, I’ve being boning up. My grasp of my country’s backstory is still only about on par with that of an American third-grader of below average intelligence, but it’s a lot better than it was a few months ago. It’s also probably better than what most Australians have, and frankly that’s a disgrace. We’re under no obligation to bore ourselves with jingoistic horseshit about Don Bradman and the Kokoda Trail, and self-flagellation over the Stolen Generation, while worthy, tends to get repetitive after the first 250,000 listens or so.

There has been so much more to this place over the last 228 years, and most of it has been spectacularly, awesomely fucked up. In fact, to overlook it seems like not so much a patriotic failure as a waste of good material.

Because our country creates no mass entertainment of its own apart from sport, we fill the void with things like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Downton Abbey”, slowly convincing ourselves that Prohibition America and post-Edwardian England are cooler than any slice of our own country’s past. They’re not.

Australia was formed by an outrageous, unplanned experiment – something like “we’ll just ship all the minor offenders to a desert island on the other side of the world, then leave them there” – and its history matches it. Phar Lap’s big heart? The keel which won us the America’s Cup? Those things are warm cans of Foster’s Light compared to what has really gone down here.

And so, because it’s Australia Day, I give you John Johnsonson’s List of 10 Fucked Up Things About Australian History:

  1. Australia imported convicts for longer than America imported African slaves. Most Australians live their lives with a vague sense that the country started with a few chain gangs in the late 1700s, then basically got on with it. Actually, England sent convicts here from 1788 to 1868, a period of 80 years. By comparison, from the birth of America in 1787 to the end of slavery in 1865 was 78 years. The Americans imported about 350,000 African slaves; Australia imported 162,000 convicts.
  2. “Twelve Years a Slave” was an ice cream sundae with nuts on top compared to what the convicts went through. After sending folks out here chained to the hulls of rotting ships, the founding fathers found that the best way to get prisoner-slaves to do things like, say, build themselves a new prison, was to whip them raw. For offences like swearing at a superior or, in one confirmed case, “saying good morning to the wrong person”, you could expect 300 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails. The ground would be drenched in blood after a few dozen; you’d be almost unconscious. The point of flogging was live torture, but convicts died mid-punishment as a matter of routine. If you were “neglectful of duties” the next day, do I even need to say what would happen? Another 300, of course.
  3. Parramatta was once considered the coolest part of Sydney. In fact, it was considered the coolest part of Australia. I know what you’re thinking: that’s impossible. But I swear it’s true. In the early days when survival was everything, the land around the Sydney CBD was considered too dry and sandy to grow potatoes, plus the freshwater stream through town was too full of human shit. So Governor Phillip cruised down the river to Parramatta and set up house. He loved it there. And remember: that was before it had a Hooters.
  4. Australia was a communist regime for about 20 years. Karl Marx wasn’t even born yet, but this place was a 100% command economy, with a strict government ban on selling things for money. Even for non-convict settlers, every fish, cabbage and grain of wheat had to be handed over to the government, which would then decide how to split up the booty. Kim Jong-Un would have been so envious.
  5. The white folk killed their first ever aboriginal friend with booze. Yes, we invaded the place, but we also made an effort with the locals. Governor Phillip befriended an aboriginal man named Bennelong, who moved to the city as a kind of indigenous liaison officer. Then Governor Phil taught Bennelong to drink. Bennelong cut out the liaison work, ramped up the drinking, and died a crazy old pisshead. Oh well! At least we learned from our mistake! It’s okay, guys. I’m kidding.
  6. Australia had a military coup and was run by the army. You know how we get those travel warnings every 35 seconds telling us not to visit Thailand because it just had another army uprising? That happened in Australia, on Australia Day actually. Governor Bligh tried to stop corruption in the army, so the army stormed his house and arrested him. Within microseconds, the army started dividing up all the government property and land, drinking heavily and partying like it was 1999. Or more accurately, 1808.
  7. The authorities once kept a brain-damaged man chained to a rock on an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, for the sole purpose of entertainment. The idea was you could just row your boat up, toss food scraps, and watch the madman scramble for lunch. This seems harsh when you first hear it, especially since the kid was only 18. But then, I dunno, you see the kinds of hell 18-year-olds get up to these days, and you start to think maybe there was something in it.
  8. Our hip places are named after monsters. The main cross-street through sleeve-tattooed artisanal-whisky bartender mecca Surry Hills, Foveaux St, is named after the Uday Hussein of Colonial Australia, Major Joseph Foveaux. When Joe Foveaux ran the Norfolk Island outpost for naughty prisoners, he did things like execute a few dozen men on the spot because he heard a rumour that a riot was being planned. Usually, though, Foveaux relaxed by flogging prisoners to death, including women. While Foveaux’s foibles were confined to a small island, his biggest admirer, governor Ralph Darling, had the power to take his love of torture national, with a special interest in innovative new ways to keep the prisoner-slaves compliant. For his effort, he gets fashionable suburb Darlinghurst, wealthy waterside enclave Darling Point and tourist hotspot Darling Harbour.
  9. Good guys have diddly squat named after them. Bligh fought for the rule of law where there was none, and gets a sidestreet that nobody walks down. Alexander Machonochie, the pioneer of humane prisoner treatment who singlehandedly ended convictry in Australia, has one jail named after him… in Canberra. Joseph Banks, the first fleeter who pressed the idea back home that Australia should become a country, has a tree named after him. And one of the buildings in the shitty Sydney public housing block best known by its nickname, Suicide Towers.
  10. Brisbane was literally conceived as the worst place on Earth. Governor Thomas Brisbane, another tyrannical asshole, was worried that life was too sweet for convicts in NSW and Tasmania, and that they could potentially find their way back to civilisation if they escaped. Since Norfolk Island was too hard to manage remotely, he sent a team of explorers up the coast to find the furthest away, shittiest destination possible. They succeeded, and Brisbane was born. And you know what else? Some say the city has lost none of its original charm.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Pete Lowery permalink
    January 26, 2016 9:06 pm

    arse-hole, is more offensive; and less American

  2. January 27, 2016 2:03 pm

    Fabulous write up Jonno!

  3. January 27, 2016 5:21 pm

    Hey smart arse, I live in the ‘suicide towers’ and love my home and the Redfern community which has even more warm hearts than it has problems, so don’t be so quick to denigrate things you probably know very little about.

  4. chris permalink
    January 27, 2016 8:53 pm

    interesting stuff johnjohn

  5. Santouche permalink
    January 28, 2016 9:53 am


  6. February 13, 2016 1:38 pm

    On point 4, it was probably more Bear Grylls than Karl Marx. They arrived without a Bush Tuckerman and not much desire to become one soon and nearly staved to death.
    But you so right about the shithouse memorials we have for the pioneers and the even worse memories we have of the events.
    So I wonder if you could write a thinkpiece on Lachlan Macquarie next. TIA

  7. April 6, 2017 1:08 pm

    Banks is a Canberra suburb.

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