"Banjo" Paterson

Bush Poet and Nationalist Patriot

"Banjo" Paterson's poetry and stories, still popular to this day, are among the best writings of our national culture, often evoking a strong affection for, and affinity with, the Australian bush and community.

Andrew Barton Paterson (later to use the pseudonym of "The Banjo" for his magazine writings; an alias derived from the name of a racehorse the family owned) was born of pioneering stock, near Orange in New South Wales, on 17 February 1864. He excelled not only in his studies but was an all-round sportsman. He had a deep affection for horses, being a natural horseman, winning note as an amateur rider, and, not surprisingly, many of his works have a "horse theme".

In 1885 he commenced contributing to The Bulletin magazine, at that time a significant force for Australian nationalism, which crossed all boundaries of class and taste. He readily acknowledged a sympathy for the editorial direction of its founder J.F. Archibald, who pursued Australian nationalism in the face of the British mind-set current at that time.

In 1889 Paterson published, at his own expense, a pamphlet of social ideals, Australia for the Australians, with an underlying focus on individual and national self-sufficiency and reliance. It advanced the worth of honest work - against speculators and manipulators who produced nothing. Cheap labour he saw as a signal of the degradation of society. His ideals rejected unemployment and polarisation of the workforce due to "the strife of the world's markets".

In 1895 The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses was released, breaking all publishing records in Australia and becoming a cultural icon itself. Over 100 years later it is still being republished.

His great sense of Australianism can be seen not only in his penning of Australia's national song "Waltzing Matilda", but also in many of his other popular works, such as "Clancy of the Overflow", "The Road to Gundagai", "Mulga Bill's Bicycle", and "The Geebung Polo Club"; all contributing to the Australian consciousness.

Paterson was caught up in colonial Australia's commitment to the unfortunate Boer War, becoming a war correspondent. He was also a correspondent in the tragic First World War, providing a particular flavour and record of the participation and sacrifices of the Australian forces.

As a freelance writer he contributed to various newspapers and magazines. In some of his articles he warned Australians that the threat of Asianisation to the Northern Territory was not being effectively challenged. He attacked the demands of some employers for cheap Asian labour (particularly those in the Northern Territory), and told of the consequences for our nation of Asian immigration.

Banjo wrote of :

"the fear of the N.T.'s resumption as a Crown colony, an event which would be followed by an influx of cheap Asiatics from Britain's Eastern possessions. And, in fact, the Territory itself is now clamouring for the introduction of the cheap and nasty Chow, notwithstanding that it is breeding its own Chinky fast enough... The hordes of aliens that have accumulated are a menace to the rest of Australia." The Bulletin, 31 December 1898.

"Only eight day's steam from our Northern Territory there lies the great seething cauldron of the East, boiling over with parti-coloured humanity - brown and yellow men by the million, and they are quite near enough to us to do a lot of harm if their ideas run that way... If our dashing Australian soldiers are ever called on to fight at all it will be to fight these Eastern peoples, and they will have to fight in our Northern Territory... Furthermore, our Northern Territory, practically uninhabited by whites, is just the place to suit these people. On those great sweltering, steaming, fever-laden plains, where the muddy rivers struggle slowly to the sea, the Orientals are in their glory. If they once get a good footing there, they will out-breed and out-multiply any European race." Sydney Morning Herald, August 1901.

"Whatever danger there may be from the kanaka is as nothing compared to the danger of the Oriental invasion... The fact that a few thousands of these people have settled on our coasts does not trouble us much. They can do little harm in our time. But the same was said of the first rabbits let loose in Australia... it is the existence of this and similar depots of Asiatics along our coasts to which the attention of all thinking people is invited. We know what troubles the Americans are having over the black question, and these Asiatics will assuredly be all over northern Australia within the next few years." Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1901.

His concern over Asianisation also shows up in his poetry:

A Job for McGuinness

Oh, it's dreadful to think in a country like this
With its chances for work - and enjoyment
That a man like McGuinness was certain to miss
Whenever he tried for employment.

He wrote to employers from Bondi to Bourke,
From Woolloomooloo to Glen Innes,
But he found - though his wife could get plenty of work -
There was never a job for McGuinness.

But perhaps - later on - when the Chow and the Jap
Begin to drift down from the tropics,
When a big yellow stain spreading over the map
Provides some disquieting topics,

Oh, it's then when they're wanting a man that will stand
In the trench where his own kith and kin is,
With a frown on his face and a gun in his hand -
Then there might be a job for McGuinness!

"Banjo" Paterson. 1923.

A Bushman's Song

(An extract)

I asked a cove for shearin' once along the Marthaguy:
"We shear non-union here," says he. "I call it scab," says I.
I looked along the shearin' floor before I turned to go -
There were eight or ten dashed Chinamen a-shearin' in a row.

It was shift, boys, shift, for there wasn't the slightest doubt
It was time to make a shift with the leprosy about.
So I saddled up my horses, and I whistled to my dog,
And I left his scabby station at the old jig-jog.
"Banjo" Paterson. 1892.

As written above, the Chinese were often referred to as "lepers", due to the widely held belief that they carried leprosy, a disease which can render the skin as scabby. Hence, the term "scabs" arose to describe non-unionists and strike-breakers, as Chinese were often used as non-Union workers.

Many of Paterson's works reflect an awareness of the stark yet brilliant natural beauty of Australia;

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars"
(From "Clancy of the Overflow", 1889)

and no doubt today he would be appalled at the continuing environmental destruction and degradation of our eco-systems to meet the demands of international trade and Australia's "Asian destiny".

Banjo also wrote a warning about a future for Australians should personal freedoms and independence be lost:

The freedom, and the hopeful sense
Of toil that brought due recompense,
Of room for all, has passed away,
And lies forgotten with the dead.
Within our streets men cry for bread
In cities built but yesterday.
(From "Song of the Future" 1889)

"Banjo" Paterson was an author whose work reflected the new Australian cultural identity, evolved from the blending of our European pioneers with our unique environment, and thus laying the foundation stone for the bonding of our citizens together as one - the Australian People.

Before his passing on 5th February 1941, he had provided a timeless literary legacy of Australia's unique cultural heritage and identity.


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