Waltzing Matilda as Psychological Mask for Genocide

Waltzing Matilda as Psychological Mask for Genocide
Robbie Tulip
(3000 words)

Australian history is founded on the elimination of indigenous people by the settler colony. The process of genocide, completely removing the original inhabitants from many of the most productive parts of the country through systematic murder, was enabled by the technological disparity between the local and invading cultures, and was carried out through a semi-secret pact of military conquest. Physical genocide was as much a factor as epidemics in the collapse of Aboriginal population, and was followed up by cultural genocide, banning and belittling the practice of indigenous identity. The overall destruction created profound inter-generational trauma which persists today in indigenous communities and serves to corrupt white culture as well.

The despising of indigenous people in colonial times was so intense that the frontier wars and massacres were presented as merely policing operations. The process of genocide was masked through a culture of silence that continues to cripple the Australian character, with the domestic conflicts excluded from any formal memorials of war. The arrogant superiority complex of the British obliterated ancient cultural and environmental heritage in ways that are deeply tragic and destructive. This immense damage should have been foreseen and avoided, in view of the scale of loss. Instead the process of conquest was paradoxically both celebrated and concealed.

Banjo Paterson’s famous poem Waltzing Matilda is often called Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Its simple surface story of the jolly swagman is well known, for many off by heart. The question why this poem is so popular can be analysed against its psychological echoes of the real history of dispossession, murder and conquest. Nothing in Waltzing Matilda explicitly recognises the facts of Australia’s indigenous genocide. However, all its elements have this implicit metaphorical connection, beginning with the swagman as a symbol for the nomadic indigenous lifestyle.

The metaphorical relation of Waltzing Matilda to the real history of the frontier wars is not something which Banjo Paterson himself seems to have intended. Paterson was at the centre of the nineteenth century construction of the pioneer myth of outback Australia. His writing was decisive in creating the popular vision of white Australia’s national identity. The rugged individualism depicted in The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow presented a courageous picture of heroic conquest of nature. Banjo Paterson is featured on Australia’s ten dollar note, reflecting the enduring esteem accorded to his political agenda of promoting national pride.

Paterson appears to have seen mention of Aborigines as beneath his dignity. This attitude reflected and reinforced the general racist assumptions of his time. No sense of guilt or shame at the recent and ongoing theft of land and destruction of ancient cultures appears in his ‘vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended’. And yet the genocidal intent among settlers to extirpate Aborigines from the face of the earth was well known at the time. In 1883, the British High Commissioner, Arthur Hamilton Gordon, wrote to William Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain: “The habit of regarding the natives as vermin, to be cleared off the face of the earth, has given the average Queenslander a tone of brutality and cruelty in dealing with “blacks” which it is very difficult to anyone who does not know it, as I do, to realise.”

Metaphor in poetry can operate in both conscious and unconscious ways. A poet like Banjo Paterson can be unconsciously gripped by a powerful emotional experience that finds accidental expression in his writing without his deliberate intent. This process can serve to increase the emotional power of his work. The systematic secret murder of Australia’s indigenous people was a core element of Australian outback life in the nineteenth century. For most of the squatters and selectors arriving in Australia’s rich agricultural plains, any initial thoughts of partnership with Aboriginal people were soon overwhelmed by the discovery that systematic murder presented a far more lucrative and simple outcome.

Only a few scattered remnants survived this onslaught, in many places leaving little trace beyond the occasional place name. As a result, the indigenous population fell by over 90% by 1911 to an estimated 31,000. Professor A. P. Elkin wrote in The Original Australians, published in the 1950s, “In 1788 there were, as far as we can calculate, 350,000 Aborigines in Australia. There are now only 50,000 full-bloods. The cause of this decrease is quite clear, namely, we white Australians, Christian and civilized.” Noel Loos, in White Christ Black Cross: The emergence of a Black church, says more recent estimates suggest the pre-conquest population of Australia may have been up to one million people, indicating an even more extreme rate of depopulation through mass murder and epidemics.
Australian society found this experience impossible to discuss openly, creating a traumatised social psychology of secrecy, distortion and denial. Instead of the religious idea that repentance enables forgiveness and redemption, the sin of genocide appears to have been sublimated into various mythological forms, including the religious form of literal supernatural Christianity and popular secular poems like Waltzing Matilda.

The title of Waltzing Matilda celebrates the nomadic existence of the swagman, living carefree on the road with no fixed address. In popular Australian mythology, the swagman is part of the idealised egalitarian national identity of mateship. The iconic image of the swaggie waltzing through the bush as a symbol of freedom also bears strong comparison to the general impression of indigenous life before the invasion, regularly moving from place to place without personal property, poor but happy.

Looking at the real history of Australia’s frontier wars until the coming of the squatter and his troopers, the Aborigines were like the ‘jolly swagman’. In Western Queensland they camped by the billabong under the shade of the coolibah tree in the same way their ancestors had done for sixty thousand years. The appearance of the sheep ended this carefree existence, polluting the clean water of the waterholes, taking over the traditional hunting grounds and destroying the rich fragile soils with their hard feet. Shoving the jolly jumbuck into the Aboriginal tuckerbag was a natural response to this new situation of expropriation.

Waltzing Matilda presents the strange story of the suicidal overreaction of the jolly singing swagman after he is confronted by the settler and his police. Rather than seeking any negotiation or escape, the swagman immediately and conveniently sprang up and drowned himself in the billabong. Comparing this story to the disappearance of Aborigines as a result of frontier conflict, the suicide entirely absolves the squatter and troopers of any guilt or blame. As an unconscious metaphor for the genocidal elimination of Australia’s indigenous people, Waltzing Matilda provided the subliminal comforting message to white society that the disappearance of the natives was entirely the fault of the Aborigines themselves. This Waltzing Matilda complex supports the myth of peaceful settlement, providing an emotionally acceptable but entirely irrational and mythological explanation for the mysterious vanishing of the native population.

The song concludes with the evocative metaphor for the ongoing presence of Aboriginal memory, telling us that his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong. This spectre of guilt invites our pangs of conscience as we wonder what happened to the original inhabitants of the land, while continuing to ignore the indigenous people who have survived the hurt and torment. Australia’s dominant popular psychology until recent times simply ignored the destruction of indigenous people, except as something inevitable and necessary. Instead, the historical focus was on the heroic narrative of the skill and bravery of the British settlers and explorers. Where the embarrassing disappearance of Aborigines was even mentioned in the context of settlement, leading historians were highly deceptive. Claims included that they somehow mysteriously ‘melted away’ by coincidence as the colonial settlers arrived. Such language avoided engagement with the guilt of the deliberate extermination policies.

This situation produced an enduring false mythology about Australia’s history. The myth of peaceful settlement created powerful cultural and political barriers to understanding and addressing the situations facing indigenous people today. A way to help uncover and repair the effects of this pervasive false mythology is to analyse its psychological basis, to explain its ongoing negative impact on efforts to heal the damaged cultural relationships.

Sigmund Freud developed the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious with concepts such as repression, compensation, complexes and sublimation. Application of these terms to understand Australian history and culture is extremely helpful. Psychoanalysis is a controversial subject, but its concepts offer resources to interpret the hidden meaning of iconic anthems like Waltzing Matilda. The concealed psychological lessons help to explain social beliefs, seen in the light of broader knowledge of the historical context, potentially offering a therapeutic path to help overcome the blockages and trauma created by delusional traditions.

The theory of the unconscious holds that much of our motivation is hidden from our rational awareness and instead emerges in irrational emotional drives and symbols. Repression is a key factor in this irrationality, involving an instinctive exclusion of unwanted painful memories from conscious awareness. We imagine we understand ourselves, but in fact much of our awareness is highly distorted by the trauma of repression, especially at the cultural level of the intergenerational transmission of social beliefs.

An example of repression in Australian history is the use of the term ‘dispersed’ as a euphemism for the mass murder of Aboriginal people. A prominent artwork at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra critiques this deception by constructing the word DISPERSED using bullets.
src=”https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/images/lrg/183110.jpg” alt=”DISPERSED” />

When experiences that cause guilt and shame are hidden, they can soon be forgotten at the conscious level, while continuing to fester in the unconscious. Freud held that this repressive concealment does not destroy the memory. What instead happens is that the psychic energy of the repressed story bubbles up into consciousness in distorted symbolic form. Freud termed this process the return of the repressed, generating what he and his colleague Carl Jung called a psychological complex, a maladaptive pattern that prevents integration of the personality. This symbolic distortion of bad memories into an acceptable form can provide emotional comfort or help deflect the feeling of trauma. But this coping process is superficial and does not address the root dishonesty and damage of repression. As a result, repression causes a range of mental illnesses and social tensions, as people come to believe the distortions and myths. Another way to see this Freudian framework of the personal and social damage caused by repression is through the core Buddhist idea that delusion is a main cause of suffering, reflected also in the Christian teaching that the truth will set you free.

Compensation and sublimation are psychological defence mechanisms we use to cope with repression. In compensation, we focus on areas of success and pride in order to cover up and deflect our shameful repressed memories. This process appears in Australian history with the rejection of the so-called ‘black armband’ view. In sublimation, we transform the negative energy of repression into a positive spiritual form as part of the process of ordering our civilized society through conscious rules and values. The processes of sublimation and compensation tend to be highly irrational and mythological due to the distortions inherent in repression, replacing the needed comfort of mourning and grief with blockage and denial.

The return of the repressed operates at both individual and social levels. Looking at social trends, study of ancient mythology has found that gods of conquered people initially disappear from the culture as the new rulers impose their own beliefs. Over time, the suppressed beliefs then re-emerge in subordinate position within the religious framework of the society. The new ruling group seeks to identify emotionally with the country and to rule by consent rather than coercion. The overlords then find that distorted elements of the conquered mythology are congenial as part of their own construction of identity, offering a comforting and redemptive function. A similar process is happening in Australia as modern culture learns to respect indigenous heritage and culture.

The mythological processes of the return of the repressed in sublimated form can operate in modern popular verse and song. A fictional story that echoes historical events can generate feelings of pleasure and identification in ways that engage unconscious popular sentiments, without referring to the associated true story in literal terms. The entire process achieves its social influence and popularity by operating outside of conscious perception, as a psychological complex. Waltzing Matilda echoed the repressed historical story of indigenous genocide in ways that resonated with the shared emotional sentiments of the community, as white Australia sought to deny the history of murder.
This metaphorical psychoanalysis of Waltzing Matilda might appear strained or offensive to many patriotic Australians. Some will offer excuses for the genocide, such as that the destruction of Aboriginal society was an inevitable result of the clash of stone and metal technologies. The issue today is that ongoing exclusion of indigenous people reflects this history of trauma, and there are no excuses for genocide. Those who benefit today from the past theft of land and destruction of culture have a moral obligation to respect and recognise the special and unique circumstances of a people whose ancestors evolved for sixty thousand years to adapt to life on this continent. The extremely long history of indigenous presence generated deeply complex spiritual connection to the land, creating cultural identities that remain scarred but not broken. Indigenous culture should be fundamental to the broader Australian identity.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a short document agreed by indigenous people from around Australia in a meeting at Uluru in 2017. It offers a generous path toward national reconciliation through its proposal for recognition of the enduring spiritual sovereignty of the First Nations. The brusque rebuff of the Uluru Statement by the Federal Government showed how the repressed legacy of the genocidal colonial settler mentality retains pride of place in our institutional systems of power, continuing to traumatise our national conversation. The opportunity for dialogue and a journey of healing was spurned through a reversion to type as the government found it politically expedient to ignore the indigenous request for formal recognition and dialogue.

Working out a path through this tangled mess can greatly benefit from the insights of psychology. Exploring the unconscious resonances of Waltzing Matilda is one way to take forward this conversation. Another is to look at the cultural clash in religious terms. The Anglican Church through its Board of Mission published a study titled A Voice in the Wilderness: Listening to the Statement from the Heart. This study explores many of the repressed elements in Australian history, looking at the systematic and deliberate blindness that white society has employed in efforts to forget the legacy of genocide.
As an example of the religious echoes of Australia’s experience of genocide discussed in A Voice in the Wilderness, the original Biblical story of the human fall from grace into corruption tells of the murder of Abel by Cain, representing the victory of settled farmers over nomadic hunters and herders. In this conflict between the sons of Adam and Eve, God tells us that the blood of Abel cries out from the earth. The curse of Cain arises from the earth as a result of his lying to God about the murder, as a sign that the voices of the dead do matter, that we are our brother’s keepers. Continuing to lie about Australia’s history of murder means that we too live under the curse of Cain, marked by pervasive psychological damage.

This mythological reflection of cultural evolution continues into the story of Jesus Christ, who stood up against the invading Roman Empire in the name of the despised and rejected of the world. The repressive and belittling imperial response was crucifixion, but the moral victory of Christ is symbolised in the resurrection, marking the return of the repressed. Christ’s core message that forgiveness is conditional upon repentance rests upon a vision of universal love, seeing restorative justice as the truth that sets us free. Jesus was an Aborigine, and his ghost may be heard as his blood cries from the earth.

As we now look for a redeeming and unifying path to moral legitimacy in Australian national identity, an essential task is to expose the distorted myths of ignorant racial prejudice that continue to oppress indigenous people. Exploring the echoes of self-serving racism in Waltzing Matilda is one way to pursue this conversation, rebalancing the justified pride in national achievements against an open statement of lament and sorrow, repenting for the savage genocide of Australia’s indigenous cultures. Honouring the spiritual sovereignty of indigenous people as expressed in the beautiful poetry of the Uluru Statement offers a bridge to cultural integration, listening with respect to the sacred call for Makarrata, coming together in fair and truthful relationship.

References
Robbie Tulip was born in Epping NSW in 1963, and is a sixth generation descendant of English and Scottish emigrants to Queensland.
Tatz, Colin, Genocide in Australia, An AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper, 1999, https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/products/discussion_paper/tatzc-dp08-genocide-in-australia.pdf
Tatz, Colin, Genocide in Australia, An AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper, 1999, https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/products/discussion_paper/tatzc-dp08-genocide-in-australia.pdf
Elkin and Loos are cited in A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS: Listening to the Statement from the Heart, An ABM Study Guide for Individuals and Groups, Author: Celia Kemp, Reconciliation Coordinator, Artist: The Reverend Glenn Loughrey https://www.abmission.org/resources.php/163/a-voice-in-the-wilderness
John Harris, Hiding the bodies: the myth of the humane colonisation of Aboriginal Australia
http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p73641/pdf/ch0550.pdf
Fiona Foley, Badtjala people | Maryborough, Queensland, Australia born 1964 DISPERSED 2008 https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=183110
John 8:32
Robert Graves, Introduction to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology
https://ulurustatement.org/
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS: Listening to the Statement from the Heart, An ABM Study Guide for Individuals and Groups, Author: Celia Kemp, Reconciliation Coordinator, Artist: The Reverend Glenn Loughrey https://www.abmission.org/resources.php/163/a-voice-in-the-wilderness
Genesis 4
Mark 1:4

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