Sunday, January 28, 2007

A tale of two utopias

This summer I've had the opportunity of learning about two seemingly contrary stories of collective aspiration. The Australian colony in Paraguay was a botched socialist project espousing equality of men, except for those who weren't white. On the other had, the freedom struggle in South Africa was an inspiring struggle for equality of men, which resulted in a workable nation state that provides a place for all colours.

DSCF0523.jpgThe leader William Lane combined his desire for worker's justice with a strong moral commitment to 'straightness', which included teetotalism and racial purity. It was interesting to read that after the failure of the colony in Paraguay, Lane went on to become editor of the New Zealand Herald, where he became a critic of unionism and advocate of imperialism, speaking often of 'We British...' There seem to be many reasons for the failure of the utopian quality, but a large measure of blame seems to lie with Lane whose self-pity left him unable to respond to the problems of others.

Gavin Souter writes about the racism in New Australia:


'...the assumption that Anglo-Saxons were inherently superior to Hispano-Indians was as much a part of the colony's creed as teetotalism, a principle which had also been made explicit in the New Australia articles of association, but was now an unwritten law. The racial attitudes the colonists had brought with them from Australia were revealed by some of the facetious advertisements in Evening Notes: 'Boycott the Chinkie and save yourselves from the Yellow Agony by buying your vegetables from white gardener -- John Wilson'; 'Baxter's shoes - Nigger tickler clogs.'… this was not gracious, for on the whole Cosme fared well in its deadlings with the Government of Paraguay.'
Gavin Souter A Peculiar People: The Australians In Paraguay Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968


By contrast, the lives of Walter and Albertina Sisulu demonstrated enormous courage and fortitude. The scenes at the Rivonia trial in 1963 were extraordinary, as men like Walter and Mandela were getting ready to spend an indefinite period in Robben Island, and their wives Albertina and Winnie virtual widowhood. At the time, it seemed like the apartheid regime so lacked legitimacy that it was bound to crumble. To think that it would take another thirty years to finally end.

A recent book by their daughter-in-law Elinor artlessly balances dramas on the main political stage with the small domestic scenes that hold life togther. Here's an interesting practice that developed late in the struggle:


'The Sisulu family observed a 'Black Christmas' at the end of 1985. This was the practice, began after the 1976 uprising, of eschewing the luxuries associated with Christmas and keeping expenditure to a bare minimum. Black South Africans felt that they had nothing to celebrate and saw no reason to swell the coffers of white-owned businesses. By 1985, there was almost a total observation of 'Black Christmas' in black communities around the country. Some white also observed this practice…'
Elinor Sisulu Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime London: Abacus, 2003 (orig. 2002), p. 430

I realise that this kind of comparison is in danger of being judged an expression of self-loathing typical of liberal elite in Australia. Rather than settling into a fixed position about Australia as a 'white fortress', I prefer to see its history as a challenge for the future. Lane's experiment provides us today with the challenge of establishing a relationship with the Guaraní that he disregarded. It was interesting to meet with Ticio Escobar, the director of Paraguay's Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud), which houses work of the Hispanic-Guaraní Baroque. He had never heard of Nuevo Australia. Here perhaps is an opportunity to restore the conversation, and bring something of the Paraguayan culture to Australia.

The example of South Africa shows that 'our roots aren't our leaves'. The failures of the past point us to the potential successes of the future.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Eat the Bustard!

An article in New Matilda argues that Australians are missing the opportunity to use its own resources -- choosing to farm the American turkey and chicken rather than its own indigenous bustard.

Given the palatability of the bird, why did Australians begin to lose interest in bustards and refocus instead on importing American turkeys - yet another introduced species that could potentially harm Australia? Why didn't they build an industry around sustainably harvesting, and in the process conserving, a valued Australian bird? Our guess is that native foods were increasingly seen as 'poor man's tucker' and as such were gradually removed from Australian cookbooks.
The contrast between the current status of the bustard and the chicken in Australia is stark: the former is struggling to survive and in decline, the latter is the continent's most numerous bird. Indeed, the chicken is now thought to be the world's most numerous bird, all eight billion of them.

Bob Beale and Michael Archer are co-authors of Going Native: Living in the Australian Environment (Hodder Headline)
Bob Beale and Michael Archer 'Sustainability: Eat the Bustard!' New Matilda (22/11/2006)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pommie Balandas

An article in the UK Telegraph by Richard Madden promotes the Gama Festival for English tourists. He positions it as an event for Balanda:

Garma is Australia's leading cultural exchange event, attended by about 1,200 tribal members from 20 clan groups of the local Yolngu people and about 800 Balanda - non-aboriginal "white fellas" like me.

In particular, he praises the festival as an experience of reconciliation. Yunupingu's position seems similar to the South African value of Ubuntu.

"We will walk side by side with each other, even with our worst enemy," Mandawuy Yunupingu had proclaimed on the first morning of Garma. Five days later, on the final night, as I watched him lead his band Yothu Yindi in front of an ecstatic crowd, it was hard not to become wrapped up in the spirit of optimism and reconciliation that Garma creates.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Euraustralians Unite

A recently replayed program on ABC Radio National features Xavier Herbert's letter to his publisher 'Inky' Stephenson, when he argues for the rights of the 'Euraustralians', those non-indigenous or half-breed settlers who cannot be called 'real Australians' because they lack Aboriginal identity, but belong here more than the 'pommies'. Hindsight - 24 September 2006 - In Capricornia Country: the Legend of Xavier Herbert

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I've just finished Hélène Clastres The Land-Without-Evil (trans. Jacqueline Grenez Brovender) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995 (orig. 1975). As an account of the Guaraní and Tupí cultures, it seems very conceptual, reflecting the Parisian critique of commodification. But there are many very interesting asides that suggest alternative narratives for first contact. It appears that the Guaraní have a belief in the Land-Without-Evil (yvy marä ey), which is a distant place to the east, across vast waters, where humans can achieve immortality. Their history has been marked by prophets (karai) who have led tribes to find this land, always with disastrous consequences. When they encountered Jesuit priests, they found in the Christian story of the hereafter a version of their own utopianism, but kept a convenient distance from this world. They adopted these priests as their new prophets. Well, that's one story.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Being Paraguayan

I'm reading a few books about the Guaraní in Paraguay. Barbara Ganson's The Guaraní Under Spanish Rule In The Río De La Plata (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2003) is a plainly written book. The subject is fascinating, but her narrative fails to inspire. I am particularly interested in tracing the exchanges between the Jesuits and Guaraní that led to mutual cultural influence. Ganson is mostly dependent on written records, so she tends to extrapolate from the official dialogue of the time (including some canny if quite obsequious Guaraní letters to Spanish rulers). What interests me particularly is the Hispanic-Guaraní Baroque that developed in the Jesuit missions during the 17c and 18c. What frames all this is on stunning contemporary fact about Paraguay:
According to the 1992 census, 49 percent of the population of Paraguay spoke Guaraní and Spanish, 39.3 percent were monolingual Guaraní speakers, and 6.4 percent spoke only Spanish… Paraguay has the distinction of being the only country in the Western hemisphere where a native language is more widely spoken than a European one…. Today, less than 1-3 percent of the population in Paraguay is considered 'Indian'. (Ganson, 2003, p.185)
Imagine that in Australia. With roughly similar proportion of indigenous people in our population, yet was all spoke Aboriginal languages. Perhaps the 'tyranny of distance' was not that we were too far away from Europe, but not isolated enough. More to follow.