Monday, 3 March 2008

Management of Sheep

In 1988 Australia celebrated her bicentenary. I remember Australia Day that year very clearly. It was the day that I returned to Australia “for good” as a teenager. My family had all returned to Australia several months earlier. I had to stay at school a bit longer to finish off my then-seen-as-all-important “O Level” exams. The amusing thing is that after preparing for these exams for years, I don’t think anyone in Australia even looked at my results. I was simply slotted into a fifth form (grade eleven) class and put to work on preparing for my senior exams. Anyway, my plane landed in Sydney on 26 January 1988 and I amused myself with the thought that all the festivities: the harbour full of tall ships, the fireworks, the banners and parades were in honour of my return.

In honour of the bicentenary the German government sponsored the writing and publication of a booklet on “Two Hundred Years of Contacts, Relations and Connections.” Sadly it is as dry as this title suggests. However, tucked into its dry litany are some gems, particularly of insights on German perspectives on immigration to Australia. Most of the material I’ve looked at has been from the perspective of Australia or from the migrants themselves. This material draws on some of the official German archives and historical records.

I managed the first chapter with only a small snooze on the sofa. In my defense, I’m recovering from a vicious bout of flu and to the delight of my children have almost entirely lost my voice. Somehow admonitions whispered at them aren’t as daunting as my usual volume.

From the German perspective, Australia wanted German migrants to do the farming that English migrants couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Especially of value were experts in wine, tobacco growing and sheep breeding. According to the author, Johannes Voight, much hilarity was engendered in German circles by a letter from the British envoy to Berlin, sent to the Württemberg government in 1852 asking for “women conversant with the Management of Sheep.” The Württemberg minister for the interior wrote to the foreign minister saying “according to the enquiries he had made, there are no girls in Württemberg earning their living by looking after and shearing sheep” and pointed out the difficulty of ensuring that such women as might be found would be of good virtue and not simply in pursuit of “pastoral amour in Australia.”

Voight also spends some time discussing the land order system and the fact that some perceived it as exploitation and as a new form of slavery. Employers in Queensland received land orders (that is an order equivalent to 18 sterling pounds worth of land) from the government when they advanced money for an immigrant’s passage. Once the immigrant had worked for the employer in Australia for two years, that employer received a further 12 pounds sterling. In essence this was bonded labour. For the poorest immigrants, it meant free passage in return for a minimum of two years’ labour on arrival. Some considered it a fair deal. I suspect it depended a great deal on the employer. You had more freedom if you paid your own passage, but you then also had no guarantee of employment on arrival. As with today, your way in the world then depended on your financial assets and your toleration of risk.

I promise to dedicate myself to sifting out more gems. I’m hoping to discover some of that promised “pastoral amour.”

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