THEY CALL EACH OTHER BROTHER:
Secret Societies, Fraternalism and the Strange, Slow Death of Mateship in Australia.
Introduction – Posted November, 2022.
Fraternal societies have been crucial to the shaping of modern, ‘European’ Australia. [EA] For more than two centuries they maintained a massive, colourful and often outspoken public presence and influenced political, social and economic outcomes, big and small, across the continent. Collectively, they have been enormously popular – their wide-spread occurrence is easily shown – and their memberships have reached into the hundreds of thousands. Today, however, they are largely invisible despite physical evidence for their importance still being everywhere in plain sight. And they have been almost totally ignored by historians. Re-instating these societies to their rightful place in the EA narrative will fundamentally alter how Australians see themselves.
But further to a correction of the record there are benefits to be gained from knowing why they have been deliberately airbrushed from history. On opposing sides in the revolutionary wars between Britain, France and the United States, just as the convict fleets were being fitted out, the original ‘fraternals’ adapted to the demands of modernity by splitting functions and by creating ‘false histories’. These early examples of ‘fake news’, emphasising exploitation of the vulnerable for the good of entrenched interests, travelled wherever the British Empire sought to impose its will. They became the ‘accepted wisdom’ of the New World and have been taught in schools and universities ever since. This ‘wisdom’ continues to underpin thinking about and policy-making in the areas of industrial relations, welfare and gender relationships, minorities and immigration, and resource exploitation.
Before this imperial propaganda can be replaced once and for all its formation and transmission has to be understood. This manuscript brings the separated ‘fraternals’ back together and explains how centuries of mis-information have distorted and diminished their potential for community building. ‘Mateship’ is only a shadow of what might have been achieved.
1: Definitions and Blindspots:
Fraternal societies are defined here as societies which use, or have used, coded regalia, secret passwords, ritual and signs, and which have maintained a philosophy of brotherhood or mutual aid. NB: neither the term ‘fraternal’ nor its definition excludes women or female groups. Neither do they exclude any group on religious or ethnic grounds. I have grouped them into four categories. The first three are:
* Friendly Societies
* Trade-oriented Societies
The fourth group or ‘strand’ encompasses societies which are clearly fraternal but do not belong in the first three groups. Examples of these in Australia are the Orange Orders, Catholic Fraternities, the Methodist Order of Knights and the Scouts and Guides. Globally, this sub-group also includes the Ku Klux Klan, triad gangs, the Sons and Daughters of Temperance and the British Order of Free Gardeners. There have been many others.
Inevitably, fraternal artefacts and their contexts have also been discarded as unimportant and omitted from our national narrative. Lives of the members, many of them celebrated in other fields, and their roles in major events resulting from their fraternal allegiances, remain untold. Histories of initiation ceremonies and of higher degrees, of handshakes, cyphers and oaths of secrecy, of the religious. social and convivial concomitants of both private and public ‘lodge’ behaviours such as funerals, music, sporting and work rituals – all have potential to add enormously to our understanding of ourselves. To realise that potential, numerous errors and omissions in what has been written thus far have to be isolated and corrected.
My definition highlights secrecy and ritual and their importance to the notion of ‘mutual aid’. These three features are the essentials of fraternalism and mark the existence of a fraternal society. Highlighting their secrecy exposes the duplicity of the modernist myth which has claimed to prioritise openness and transparency while its agents have expanded their arsenal of ‘secret weapons’ to achieve their goals. Conflict over the nature and the ownership of the idea of secrecy has been a major but un-noted element of the transition from the ‘old world’ to ‘the new’ – the transition from supposed feudal darkness into the claimed ‘light’ of the democratic world. Of obvious significance to the success or failure of the settlement at Botany Bay, the first European secret societies in Australia have not even been satisfactorily described by scholars. Convict brotherhoods, for example, have never featured in any scholarly history and only rarely in fiction. ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’ by Marcus Clarke (1874), the story of the fictional convict Rufus Dawe, has references to ‘signs and mysteries’ among the exiles but these are still to be taken seriously. Not that Clarke’s account was free from doubtful speculation: the pseudonymous author linked convict ‘secret signs (and) their secret language’ to ‘a hideous Freemasonry of crime and suffering’. [i] A later collection of stories, ‘The Ring’, was published in the 1890’s by ‘Price Warung’ (another pseudonym). It detailed an underground convict network supposedly in existence as late as the 1840’s and contended that convict ‘lodge’ meetings included oaths of secrecy, secret signs and passwords, and that its organisation involved a hierarchy of concentric ‘circles’, the whole headed by ‘The One’.[ii] This account failed to sell. Australian scholar Roderick bizarrely argued in 1950 that ‘the Ring’ was the origin of larrikin pushes ‘that infested Sydney from the (1860’s) until 1918’, ‘the packs of jackals that scavenged the camps of Australian soldiers’ in WW1 France, and Sydney and Melbourne’s razor-gangs of the 1930’s and 1940’s.[iii] Perhaps the connection here is that the larrikin gangs were ‘(like) contemporary lodges’ with their members having to be nominated, balloted and initiated and put on probation. Readers have apparently remained unconcerned that such societies may have existed among the incarcerated exiles. Perhaps Clarke’s reference to ‘Freemasonry’ was a sufficient explanation for them. But that idea only raises other questions. Why assume the worst about ‘the Masons’ when a more logical question is: what is it about ‘Freemasonry’ (or secret societies in general) that has proved so enduring and yet so confusing? Their historical legacy is important, and they need to be re-inserted into the national narrative but it is equally important to understand why, today, it is as though the reality either never existed or has been invisible.
Ironically, the sense of ‘something missing’ has been palpable among Australian scholars for some time, certainly since at least the Second World War. One academic studying Catholic voting patterns, Professor R N Spann, for example, remarked in 1961: ‘No work seems to have been done in Australia on Protestant political behaviour, which is a pity, as any account of religion and voting is one-sided that concentrates on the oddities of a single religious group.’ [iv] In 1972, J D Bollen nominated the Protestant churches as the most prominent of the neglected ‘groups and institutions’ when he wrote: ‘Beyond the political parties are sections of colonial society of which little is known: groups and institutions which helped determine the climate of public opinion.’ [v] Thomas Keneally in 1986 mused that there was a ‘certain self-censorship on the part of Irish Australians …a willingness to forget certain sections of Irish and Australian history.’ [vi] Bolton and Hudson were probably not aware they were scratching the same itch when they wrote in 1997: ‘ …many Australians had hidden or covert identities hard to guess from their public personas…’ They chose to be very specific about the entities they had in mind. Firstly: ‘Many men joined the Freemasons, a body whose influence in Australian society has been grossly neglected by historians…’ The existence of the ‘Freemasons’, of course, has long been known and their literature is extensive and easily accessed, but membership was not publicised and professional historians clearly lacked interest. Bolton and Hudson in 1997 had continued: ‘Lodges, such as the Druids, the Rechabites, the Buffaloes and the Oddfellows, provided support systems of considerable strength and durability.’ They referred also to ‘the numerous Caledonian societies with their popular Burns nights, the German societies which flourished in South Australia until obliterated by the disgraceful jingoism of the 1914-18 War, the Russian club which excited the Brisbane rioters of 1919, (and) the organisations by which the Australian Chinese supported their members.’ They rounded out their brief summary with: ‘Catholics had their own religious orders and lay sodalities’. They implied that a single term for all of these bodies existed: ‘(Their) diversity and importance for¼Australian political and cultural life is little studied…’ [vii] The societies they named – the lodges, the Caledonian societies, the German, Russian and Chinese societies and the Catholic entities were all fraternal as I’ve defined them, with unique, coded regalia, secret signs and passwords and a philosophy of mutual aid. Together they made up a sizable absence, but Bolton and Hudson subsequently made no effort to fill any of the gaps. The Druids, Rechabites and Odd Fellows are among the ‘friendly’ or ‘mutual benefit’ societies, the sub-group which has been the most neglected of all. They first appeared formally in Australia in the 1830’s and 40’s but the only published account of them is not a history as such at all. In 1984, Cromwell and Green gave them little substance before the end of the 19th century, their thesis being that Australian self-reliance as manifest in the ‘friendlies’ in that pre-War era had been subverted by political interventions in the 20th century. They drew parallels between the resulting centralised system and the British national health system and the way they have blanked out memories of alternative models: ‘Clearly we think it is not good that the history of mutual aid has been ignored. We think that its mistaken absence from any general sense of Australia’s past leads too easily to thinking that there are only two political alternatives: centralised socialism or profit-seeking capitalism.’ [viii] Research into the health services run by ‘the friendlies’ has since been deflected into accounts of welfare payments and ‘medical history’ where it has been restricted mainly to the dominant insiders, the AMA, the doctors and nurses. [ix] The broader implications of the work done by Cromwell and Green have not been followed up, either: ‘‘This neglected part of the Australian story ought to engage not only those who wish to see the record put straight, but also those searching for an Australian identity. The spirit of self-reliance described in these pages has consistently been a prominent part of the Australian make-up.’ [x] It’s not a conspiracy theory to say that ‘fraternals’ are still being deliberately written out of our story and being replaced with variations of the myth. There are many conspiracies in this story but there’s no evil genius behind it all. It’s more like an understanding that was imported in 1788 and reinforced over the years. Mantle in 2004 argued that a ‘gentlemanly class’ of settler and visitors from Britain added to an already strong ‘horse’ culture, the values and aspirations derived from a ‘cult of masculinity – group loyalty, mental and physical strength, courage and physical skill’: ‘‘These values (became) reinforced and codified within the English public school system towards the end of the [19th] century, and later somewhat democratised in the Scouting movement…The challenges of dangerous sporting pursuits became increasingly associated with young men in the business of empire building and reinforced associations between hunting and war.’ [xi] In the same backwoods spirit, Australian feminists could still be found in 2004 basing their demands on the romanticised 1890’s. Donovan [xii], for example, evoked what she believed she knew about ‘mateship’ and wrote of ‘the overlooked phenomenon of association’: ‘The activities of the women’s clubs and societies in Australia at the turn of the nineteenth century are evidence of substantial change in the role of women in the society…Within the colonies women’s associations most often grew out of existing familial and friendship ties. Friendships and relationships forged within groups sometimes led to new groups being formed on the basis of mutual interest or ideology.’ (pp.9, 24,121) These particular ‘associations’ were bureaucratic, dominated by singular personalities and replete with hierarchical gamesmanship. One wonders what the basis was for female friendship or mutuality of interests before the 1890’s. Gascoigne’s 2005 thesis on the Enlightenment in Australia was a variant of ‘the radical illusion’: ‘The thin elite who largely determined the direction of events (from 1788 to 1850, when European Australia was largely formed) generally assumed that society’s problems could be solved by the exercise of reason and that if such a path were followed improvement would naturally follow…such beliefs…still largely determine the agenda for politics in Australia.’ [i] In the original text he wrote, also erroneously: ‘The less-than-complete-congruence between military and Christian values helps to account for the popularity of the Masonic cult within military circles in the early colony…In Britain…the Masons gave their allegiance to a set of ritual practices which had only a tenuous basis in Christianity’. [ii] In 2006 a potentially transformative event for all Australian historians occurred at the Victorian Trades Hall, Melbourne – a Conference called ”Mateship: Trust and Exclusion in Australian History”.[iii] The choice of venue, unfortunately, predicted the entrenched attitudes that were displayed by participants. [iv] Elsewhere, boosters of mythical ‘modernity’ have continued to claim it as an era of ‘friendship’, ‘politeness’ and ‘respectability’ and have incorporated it into a re-vamped rendition of the Australian myth: ‘Drawing on the work of British social historians, historian Janet McCalman has observed that a cluster of social traits associated with the idea of respectability (including self-reliance, independence and self-discipline) were popularised among all classes in the industrial revolution before being transplanted to Australia ‘by immigrants hoping for dignity and prosperity in a new land.[v] A 2008 version from Boucher and Sharp credited then-Prime Minister John Howard with ‘a total reversal of the progressive principles on which modern Australia was based’, to quote one reviewer.[vi] In 2018 attempts to ‘civilise’ indigenous Australians were still being described as built on ‘the general acceptance’ of the proposition that the Enlightenment ‘shepherded in modernity’ into an Australia thereafter obsessed with material progress.[vii]
A few encouraging signs have emerged on the edges. Mainstream academic accounts of the 19th and 20th centuries’ coal mines in the Hunter River District [HRD] of New South Wales have seen the area only as a hot bed of EP Thompson’s ‘trade unionism’ and the location of numerous struggles between ‘the workers’ and capitalism. The evidence actually shows the first known attempt at a ‘trade union’ in the HRD was not a result of a Communist conspiracy nor even a strike for higher wages by a militant minority manipulating ‘honest, hard-working sons of toil’. It was a benefit society, the ‘Mutual Benefit Society of the AA Company’s Colliery Establishment’. At the top of its agenda was the voluntary contributions by miners’ lodges to the support of one of their own who was directed to enter parliament and lobby for an improvement in air quality in the mines. If you can imagine the consequences of masses of men working underground for twelve or more hours without adequate sanitation or air filtration you will understand why this health issue came before any question of ideology or pay rates. No records have come to light of the meeting procedures of this ‘Mutual Benefit Society’ except that they were open, very large and boisterous examples of direct democracy in action. Further, in his break-through, self-published book, How Orange Was My Valley, (2009) an independent scholar, Tony Laffan, showed how the Loyal Orange Society’s network of loyalist lodges in the 19th and 20th centuries was a key but secretive support for the Hunter’s coal mining lodges and the strongest indicator of miners’ voting patterns in the region. The same men who led the miner’s lodges headed the Orange lodges. Subsequently, Laffan recovered the primary surviving evidence of a political party unique to this area, the Protestant Independent Labor Party, the founder of which represented Newcastle in State Parliament while leading his own breakaway Orange Order.[viii] Overall, the evidence displays the interconnectedness of party politics, the persistence of pre-modern fraternal artisan culture, industrialisation and religion in European Australia.
West Australian academic Jane Lydon’s 2019 ‘Imperial Emotions: The Politics of Empathy Across the British Empire’ (CUP, 2019) was very tentative. She chose ‘empathy’ to stand as ‘an umbrella’ for the ‘compassion, pity or fellow-feeling’ (which) underwrote the colonisation of Australia and continues to maintain imperial and local ties.’ (p.xi) ‘ In her words: ‘This book explores changing ideas about who to feel for and with across the British Empire from the late-eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. (p.2) The word ‘mateship’ does not appear here. The inequities of the Modernist masculinist historiography are savaged, as they should be, but out with ‘mateship’ she has thrown ‘fraternity’, centuries of pre-1789 evidence and the centuries of post-1789 ‘fraternalism’ in European Australia. Without that material her claims are potential only. More impressively, her 2021 publication, Anti-Slavery and Australia: No Slavery in a Free Land (Routledge) asserted: ‘ This book explores debates about slavery … Emerging at a time of rapid social change in Britain, the anti-slavery movement contributed to maintaining the social order, even as it responded to the radical changes demanded by industrialization … Abolition posed a problem of economic loss to which colonial expansion provided the answer…(The) ideology of ‘free labour’ (was embedded) within post-emancipation imperialist geopolitics, racializing freedom and citizenship as white…Perhaps the most lasting impact of abolition was to inscribe the dichotomy of ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ indelibly in the Western imaginary, in ways that continue to shape debates about history and identity in the present.’ (p.2)
The long overdue exposure of the heavy involvement of British merchant families in the slave and convict trades during ‘the changeover’ has been pursued by Dan Byrnes. (See below). Carr’s 2020 view of the British invasion also hopefully marked a major shift: ‘… Situating New South Wales... within (the global European) world, (this) paper examines how British gentlemen educated in Enlightenment principles and polite social mores responded to a landscape they considered the “residence of savages”… (It) will argue that politeness itself was violent and crucial to the imposition of British power in Eora country.’ [ix] My own introduction to Australia’s lost, secret history was a very focused but wrong-headed curiosity – why did late 19th century marching banners carried by trade unionists hold what I then assumed were ‘Masonic’ symbols – that handshake, beehives, Noah’s Ark, angels, and others? The evidence undermining a Masonic origin for ‘the labour movement’ was not long in coming to hand and a fraternal trail from 1788 throughout European Australia was easily established. Deeply involved in many headline issues Australia’s fraternal societies inspired and provoked an enormous spread of opinions and reactions, including legislative responses. They shared symbols because of their pre-1788 history. My new questions about ‘the Masons’ and ‘the workers’ were: ‘why the hostility when they shared so much?’ And how was it that neither knew about their shared history? Both groups appeared to have very firm ‘origin stories’ neither of which included information about the other. The evidence that I was accumulating, much of it in non-paper forms, showed that what I had come to label ‘fraternal societies’ had had enormous newspaper coverage up to the Second World War and then mostly disappeared – why? They had participated in thousands of community-building celebrations, such as Hospital Sundays, Labour Days and Peace Marches. Despite the accumulating evidence I recognised that most living Australians could not even name a local secret society, let alone explain why so many of their relatives had been ‘Free Gardeners’, ‘Odd Fellows’ or ‘Rechabites‘.
As a member of the board of the Australian Labour History Society I had tried to interest labour historians in my tentative findings, even co-ordinating the 1993 National Conference in Newcastle and curating an exhibition of fraternal regalia at the equivalent Conference in Wollongong. I gave talks to the Illawarra Labour History Society. I joined the ‘Ancient and Accepted Order of Freemasons’ and participated in the work of their Lodge of Research in Sydney. I addressed that body, similar research lodges in other jurisdictions, and the National Conference of the Australia and New Zealand Masonic Research Council, each on a number of occasions. I joined the ‘Odd Fellows’ and sat on the NSW State Board of the ‘Grand United Friendly Society Health Fund’ until it merged with ‘Australian Unity’, previously MUIOOF. I was authorised to spend $350,000 by AU on ‘a fraternal museum’ which I set up at the Newcastle Regional Museum until it closed to move to Honeysuckle, (Newcastle). I addressed numerous local lodge gatherings and national conferences of the ‘Australian Associations of Friendly Societies’. Some of these happened while I was scouring NSW for surviving banners with aid of a grant from the NSW Heritage Board to whom I submitted an illustrated report, just before that body cancelled the grant, apparently because I wouldn’t provide a list of the five most important items of ‘fraternal memorabilia for their Heritage Register. I explained this request was premature given that 99% of the necessary research hadn’t been done. I addressed numbers of local history conferences, mainly on the information family historians might find in fraternal records but apart from family names, dates and births they had no interest. As Secretary of the Hunter Branch of the ALHS, President of the Newcastle Lodge of Masonic Research and as member of Newcastle Local History Society I found similar lack of curiosity about anything not already part of the canon. I approached a number of local, State and National Museums but as with the others, my attempts to engage their interest in ideas which ran counter to the official line were unsuccessful. Indeed, all made clear they thought my evolving conclusions were dangerous. Getting no sensible conversation about these matters in Australia I began to correspond with Dr Dan Weinbren of the National Association for the Study of Friendly Societies, based at the Open University in Milton Keynes, and Professor Andrew Prescott then at Kings College at London University who paid my expenses to be a key-note speaker at a joint Labour, Friendly Society and Masonic Conference – ‘We Band of Brothers’ – at Sheffield University in 2003. Subsequently I gave papers to a number of International Masonic Conferences in Edinburgh and Washington. Brief bursts of enthusiasm produced the Sheffield Centre for the Study of Freemasonry and Fraternalism, run by Professor Prescott, and a Journal for the study of same. I participated in both but both have now closed for the same reason – pledges of tolerance and for research integrity could not withstand powerful reactions from traditionalists. I was sponsored by local Freemasons to speak in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur where I found the same situation. My ‘problem’ was clearly not confined to Australian historians, the huge gap between the reality of fraternal popularity and their absence from histories, popular and academic, was only one part of ‘the problem.’
As this brief summary implies, ‘Freemasonry’ was very much involved in both the good and the bad of what I was trying to unravel. Literature about ‘Masonic’ history written by ‘insiders’ could be used on its own to exemplify ‘the problem’ except that, partly because of the example set by the earliest boosters for this one Order, a set of false assumptions spread into the work of ‘outsiders’, non-Masonic authors who didn’t take enough trouble to analyse what the evidence shows. Some authors have ‘seen’ only ‘Freemasonry’, some have used the lower-case form, ‘freemasonry’, as a catch-all term when ‘fraternalism’ is meant, some have quarantined one sub-group from all the others as though isolation makes historical sense, some have created a story-line which implies that fraternal history has only been important in the 19th century, while others have theorised ‘fraternals’ on gender and kinship lines to the exclusion of their more universal characteristics. These interpretations have become entangled with the dominant narrative which has linked ‘modern’ or ‘western civilisation’ to 17th and 18th century French authors and the US and French revolutions, an entanglement productive of further difficulties. It has been possible to be very specific about the dating of the ‘changeover’ without remarking its coincidence with convict transportation to New South Wales: ‘The traditional narrative of European political history has a very simple shape. It consists of two stages, separated by the events that took place in the summer of 1789.’ [x] The chain of transmission idea has been very popular, however the chronology has been handled: ‘According to the textbook version of history, the Enlightenment played a crucial role in the creation of the modern, liberal democracies of the West.’ [xi] Still without the coincidence being noted, debates on the implications of the failure of post-Enlightenment events to deliver principled outcomes have recently intensified: ‘‘Ever since this view – which we might describe as the modernization thesis – was first formulated by Peter Gay, it has been repeatedly criticized as misguided: a myth.’ Importantly, as Annalien de Dijn has shown in her 2012 paper, it ’continues to survive in post war historiography, in particular in the Anglophone world. Indeed, Gay’s most important and influential successors – historians such as Robert Darnton and Roy Porter – all ended up defending the idea that the Enlightenment was a major force in the creation of modern democratic values and institutions.’ The chain’s persistence despite its vulnerability to criticism points to its acceptance at a deep-seated, subconscious level. Aided by repetition in media other than academic publications, however, the simplistic before/after metaphor – ‘secrecy/darkness/superstition vs openness/the light/reason’ – has had considerable, but un-noticed impacts in learned circles. Early rhetoric about ‘the new world’ to be found in the colonies and the new sorts of people to be found growing there often linked ‘the different light’ and a claimed transparency, an ‘openness’ in people’s attitudes towards one another. Any use of secrecy in politics was demonised – ‘the British people have no need for secret police, indeed for any police because British people police themselves’ was a common mantra. Today, secrecy remains a source of suspicion because governments have continued to make deals behind closed doors, spies continue to collect intelligence and agents continue to plant false or misleading suggestions against key opposition figures. Secrecy still allows power to be hidden, crimes to be covered up, connections to be disguised. The demonisation of conspiracy was intended to isolate any opposition groups wanting to keep their ways and means private and to declare them ‘outside’ normal civilised society. Doing so provided administrations with a strategic edge by way of their own conspiracies. Secrecy, and any attendant conspiracies, were a major source of power and a key to other tools being successful. The secrecy essential to fraternalism – in ritual, passwords, codes and in ceremonial ‘props’ – was collateral damage of broader strategy quarantining for sole use by ‘the authorities’. Association of secrecy with small group decision-making and unauthorised, ie uncontrolled procedures, made it vulnerable to charges of threatening public order, even the whole of society: ‘Intellectual historiography shows that the concept of secrecy has carried overwhelmingly negative, anti-social and primitive connotations in learned Western discussions since the Enlightenment’.[xii] Fraternal societies were impacted by their perceived association with ‘the past’, a past already mythologised. English academic JM Roberts in 1969 claimed a scholarly neglect of ‘Freemasonry’ had led to ‘the impoverishment of English historians’ understanding of European history.’ [xiii] His focus on what he believed was just one fraternity was a second effect of the same thinking. A third was the reactive assertion in 1991 by US academic Margaret Jacobs that ‘Freemasonry’ actually embodied Enlightenment ideals. Scottish scholar of architecture and design James Curl agreed, asserting that ‘Freemasonry’ was central to the Enlightenment. There has been no one ‘Masonic’ path, there has only been a myriad of variations on a theme. A last effect has been the invisibility of the wrong-headedness of the metaphor. Continuing contention around the major terms remains blanketed by pollyannaism and a disregard for negative realities. Rarely has it been pointed out by scholars, for example, that the main resources of modernist administrations, the tools with which they supposedly brought light, have been violence and duplicity: ‘The most barbaric product of the Enlightenment was ignored by the philosophes, and later, forgotten, or more precisely, never mentioned.’ This was, of course, slavery. Ernest Renan noted in 1882: ‘The ‘history that nationalists want… is a retrospective mythology. Forgetting history or even getting history wrong, are an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often dangerous to a nationality.’ [xiv]
Generations of Australian students have been taught to celebrate their European origins even though theirs is a society shaped by men who believed they had a right to detain, to torture or to kill, whenever and wherever it seemed necessary. This paradox, a further result of the metaphor’s persistence, has not been resolved at scholarly or a sub-conscious level. Whatever the arguments for colonisation might have been on paper, and whatever retrospective accounts have followed, the power the authorities exercised was not in support of a greater humanity, or some other benign, abstract principle, but in the interests of those who made the decisions. Global ‘adjustments’ in working and domestic conditions resulting from colonisation eventually affected multiple millions of people negatively and re-shaped if not obliterated whole cultures. Arbitrary privilege and force was not replaced by reason, tolerance and the settling of disputes by logical, impartial application of agreed-upon rules and standards. In the modernist process information became a commodity to be bought, packaged and on-sold. Competition for its control has been as brutal as any resource-based conflict of ‘modern times’, and the longest running. After the military had cleared a space, generations of bureaucrats, reporters and intellectuals have visited, observed and recorded knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. Waves of what Chomsky called ‘the new mandarins’ have defined what was ‘progressive’ and what was reactionary, conservative or irrelevant to the ‘modernist’ narrative. National myths have omitted state violence, racism and discrimination, while the personal, the less-easily controlled, the potentially more negative elements – corruption, emotions of loss, grief and resentment, vices and vanities – have been denied relevance. Stanner, Australian anthropologist, argued in 1968 that Australia’s sense of its past, its collective memory, had been built on a state of forgetting: ‘It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.’ [xv] He was addressing the consequences of European invasion for the indigenous population and was an exception to the prevailing rule. Schooled by their national narrative, most ‘good’ students have found it hard to ‘see’ that their basic assumptions have contained large percentages of propaganda. Over time, repudiation of the facts, including of a shared fraternal past, has been considered a small price to pay for a place in a pantheon inhabited by one’s (European) heroes. Australians went beyond mere dismissal. They sought to co-opt certain modernist phenomena being discussed in Europe – ‘mutuality’, co-operation and the labour movement, secret ballots and female suffrage – as unique to a new European (Australian) culture.
What European Australian’s have been taught about themselves since 1788 is not really history at all, it began as propaganda on a grand scale and has been constantly recycled. Scholars lecturing about the arrival of Europeans at Botany Bay in 1788 and its aftermath have been repeating myths that Europeans, mainly Britishers, told themselves to justify the expansion of the British Empire. The education of generation after generation in beliefs so strongly held that they’re in effect invisible has been a self-generating process. European Australians need to understand that they have suffered from what they have been taught, not in ways comparable to the suffering of the prior residents, but as though they have been imbued with a toxic heritage which has to be understood before it can be replaced. The difficulties involved in replacing long-standing, global cultural assumptions have proven to be greater in cases where entrenched notions have been in place so long they have moved beyond the contentious and become, as it were, ‘naturalised’. The ‘white’ Australian experience is proving to be among the most difficult to reshape, its resilience revealing a lot about the accumulated mythology held by today’s European Australians. The notion of ‘mateship’ and debates over ‘the Australian identity’ might appear to be the logical starting point for a study of fraternalism in Australia. The picture of ‘mateship’ described by Henry Lawson and others in the 1890’s was certainly attractive, offering as it did a view of ‘fair dinkum’ male friendship and mutual support. It seemed simplicity itself. But the truth is that ‘mateship’ was not invented in Australia, not at Eureka Stockade, in unionist bush camps or at ANZAC Cove. It came from Europe where it had existed for centuries, since at least mediaeval times. Its reality was dynamic and diverse. It combined both private and public ritual with mutual aid, citizen defence, worker solidarity, piety and conviviality. The idea that Lawson, Paterson and the founders of the ALP celebrated was a mere shadow of the reality. The idea of Australia’s ‘mateship’ has been contested, even very recently, but again only at the margins. Its substance has hardly altered since the 1890’s. Attempted re-interpretations by local scholars – those by Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen and Anne Summers in the 20th century, Alan Atkinson, Alan Frost, Casandra Pybus and Marilyn Lake in the 21st – come to mind – have failed to have the impact they deserved because they did not give sufficient weight to the ‘home-counties’ culture, in particular to that of the importance of secrecy and duplicity in the revolutionary decades which provided the impetus for European Australia. In the 20th century Australian scholars argued relentlessly whether E-A was the solution to the problem of overflowing jails or a solution to the need for trading posts. They are still doing this in 2022.[xvi] Botany Bay came about at a time when Europe was being told hereditary privilege needed to give way to a wider plebiscite: ‘Optimism that 18th century developments were ‘enlightened’ and that social and political reforms achieved then could not be reversed, led, in the 19th and 20th centuries to an equating of ‘progress’ with a mythology of ‘modernism’ which claimed enlightened ideals justified nationalist rhetoric and power struggles. Some now speak of ‘progressive eras’, for example the period 1880 to 1920 in the United States when a new generation of reformers committed ‘to forging an ideal social order’. Australia’s apparent success with the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and pensions, saw it described at the time as ‘the second New World’: ‘Both settler societies defined themselves as New World, against Old World feudal and aristocratic societies and Indigenous peoples deemed backward and primitive.’ [xvii] Note the use of ‘feudal and aristocratic’ to describe the ‘Old World’ of the 19th century. Appropriately labelled ‘settler colonialism’, this revised ‘modernist’ mantra similarly failed to live up to the hopes of its advocates. It is clear that in both periods ‘intellectuals and philosophers’ were not in possession of all the necessary information as they were not in charge of the relevant decision-making. Marilyn Lake’s analysis of ‘progress’ here is not as progressive as she believes. In the decades before and after 1788, home-grown secret societies often labelled ‘Masonic’ were heavily involved in conflicts sometimes fought in the open with deadly weapons and sometimes with speeches and mass-meetings. Fraternal contexts, including ‘Masonic’ vary greatly in detail and individual responses to events outside their fraternal ambit vary greatly. One can say that in the British experience, memberships were asked to choose between opposing ideologies, and to arm themselves in support of their choice, loyalty or reform, rebellion or electoral politics. The potential held by fraternities for mutuality and community-building was distorted by religious disputes and manipulation by government agendas. Their ingrained hostilities and contradictions came as baggage to the new colonies. In the case of EA they shaped outcomes before spreading nationally and building their prejudices into the fabric of thousands of mine-sites, cities and pastoral stations. Australian Catholics and Protestants, royalists and republicans, progressives and conservatives fought for political control, mostly in secret while more publicly they initiated developments in health, welfare and education. None of their moral and political dilemmas, nor their choices, nor the consequences of their choices, have appeared in British colonial history or in books claiming to tell students how European Australia came about. Behind the mythology, the dominant belief system brought to Australia from Europe was that of the decision-making cohort in Westminster. ‘Oppositional’ attitudes, among Irish convicts for example, were not influential in the designing of public policy, before or after 1788. Attitudes towards the environment, towards justice, towards women and families, towards government, towards themselves – evolved from the same system, which scholars, insufficiently objective or realistic, have perpetuated. The attitudes in the belief system were not monolithic, there was room for internal conflict and differentiation, but importantly they had a commonality – they shared rationalisations justifying self-interest. What was claimed to be ‘the future’ in 1788 has in the 21st century been assessed as flawed by some critics, even as a failure. But it was never intended to be a success in the terms of the rhetoric. The ‘modernist-enlightenment’ thesis to the decision-makers was only ever a marketing exercise and was never intended to presage government policies suddenly becoming rational, open and equitable. For them there was no blueprint, just a collection of ideas to be pursued – cheap labour, ‘unclaimed’ land, untapped resources, favourable deals – and a scrabble of egos in pursuit of opportunities. Britain in the period most relevant to this story, 1760-1820, was involved in external wars and internal rebellions which stretched the government’s hold on overall power to breaking point. The various administrations survived a near-revolution only by controlling relevant information and backing that control with judicious applications of physical force and a corrupted legal system. Fraternal societies were directly involved in these policies, some being complicit in the exiling of citizens as convicts.
Society’s decision makers are invariably big on ‘Guides to behaviour’. Not necessarily formalised, but widely-communicated ‘definitions’ set down what was acceptable and not acceptable behaviour. British ‘Freemasons’ rhetorically insisted on a clear demarcation between regular and irregular brethren. It was part of a rhetoric defining who was to be exiled and who wasn’t, who could vote, who couldn’t, and so on favoured (certain) individuals and a certain cohort because that was the point of having the power. The myths told about the people already here at the time are being widely challenged. Some myths around gender equity and the demands of industrial capitalism have been challenged, though only in very general terms. The myths European Australians have told each other, in order for them to construct their present, have rarely been examined. The saving grace of Cameron-Ash’s 21st century rehashing of the ‘origins of Botany Bay’ is that she has focused on the centrality of deception practiced at the top-levels of Whitehall. That it has taken so long for Australian scholars to engage with British duplicity goes to my argument. Deleting maps, changing references, the use of spies and interventions to distract ‘the enemy’ etc were normal parts of European diplomatic practice. The motivation behind all the lies, according to her was the myth, the well-being of the Empire. In the northern hemisphere long-standing elements of the mythology have been replaced and will be noted here where relevant, for example, the myths around the origins and early years of ‘British Freemasonry’.
‘Modern’ fraternals cannot be understood without knowledge of their predecessors, feudal era fraternities and guilds These should not be romanticised – their shared ideas are critical to an understanding of modernism but it is their conflicted practice which provided the necessary historical context for what came after. Feudal-era fraternalism was a diverse and dynamic phenomenon which began not with the group, but with an individual making a choice, to join or not to join others with common interests. This combining into groups has its generative causes in the individual human psyche – a person’s need for safety, security, recognition and mutuality – which together form our instinctive desire to survive. These basic needs are obviously not exclusively ‘Western’ or ‘European’ and fraternalism has been formalised in many cultures. In all cases, secrecy, coded signs and rituals, and a mutual quid pro quo have been natural and inevitable mechanisms for individuals and groups under pressure but seeking to survive. Where the earlier versions operated across a broad field – Rosser’s ‘(combination) of pious, social, economic and political purposes’ (Rosser, 2015 p.3) – modern fraternal societies operated only in sectors, having been fragmented by the processes of modernism. ‘English Freemasonry’, for example, debated the fundamental issue of mutual aid but rejected it in favour of charity, the Order encouraging its financially secure members to care informally or anonymously for others in less-secure positions. This is not the systemic concern for the sick, poor and infirm built into the original ‘fraternalism’. Modern Friendly Societies succumbed to government legislation and a barrage of actuarial advice and slowly jettisoned most secret practices to concentrate on member benefits. Modern trade-oriented societies have demanded that governments acknowledge ‘workers’ rights’ and provide such things as state-run compensation schemes. This has been despite ‘trade-oriented’ societies maintaining coded regalia, secret handshakes and ritual well into the 20th century, only slowly abandoning them and removing mention of them from Rule books.[xviii]
My definition of’ ‘fraternalism’ reflects modernism’s failure to achieve all of its ends. Continuity of the fraternal essentials in the post-1789 world tells us that human needs have remained the same and have provoked the same responses, even though, under the barrage of propaganda, the fraternal language has slowly been emptied of meaning and memberships have gradually forgotten the point of joining. Neither totally new nor manifestations of a lost feudal spirit, 18th century ‘fraternals’ were players in conflicts of which the enormously popular societies in the 19th and 20th centuries were the consequences.
[i] M Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, Penguin, p.260.
[ii]. B Andrews (ed), Tales of the Convict System, UQP, 1975, espec ‘Secret Society of the Ring’. Originally published in The Bulletin and other papers, these stories have not been authenticated. The author, William Astley writing as ‘Price Warung’ claimed to have carried out the relevant oral interviews and to have researched the appropriate documents, which appear to relate more to the 1840’s than earlier.
[iii]. C Roderick, An Introduction to Australian Fiction, Angus & Robertson, 1950, p.30.
[iv]. R Spann, ‘The Catholic Vote in Australia’, in H Mayer (ed), Catholics and the Free Society An Australian Symposium, Cheshire, 1961, p.134.
[v] J Bollen, Protestantism and Social Reform in in New South Wales, MUP, 1972, p.3.
[vi] Keneally’s ‘Introduction’, to P Adams-Smith, Heart of Exile, Nelson, 1986, p.x.
[vii] G Bolton & W Hudson, Creating Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1997, p.3. In his 2008, Land of Vision and Mirage: Western Australia since 1826, UWAP, Bolton had not moved to fill any of the gaps he’d identified.
[viii]. D Green and L Cromwell, Mutual Aid or Welfare State – Australia’s Friendly Societies, Allen & Unwin, 1984, p xvii.
[ix] N Hicks, ‘Medical History and History of Medicine’, in Osborne & Mandle (eds), New History, Allen & Unwin, 1982.
[x]. Green & Cromwell, as above, p.xviii.
[xi] N Mantle, Horse and Rider in Australian Legend, Miegunyah, 2004.
[xii] J Donovan, ‘The Intellectual Traditions of Australian Feminism: Women’s Clubs and Societies 1890-1920’, PhD U of Sydney, 2004.
[i] J Gascoigne, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia, UNSWP, 2005, p.169.
[ii] J Gascoigne, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European-Australia, CUP, 2002, p.25.
[iii] Conference Report, Dyrenfurth, Murphy and Quartly, ‘Mateship’, in Labour History, No 90, May 2006, pp.223-4.
[iv] See Labour History, Jnl of ASSLH, 2006.
[v] J Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, 2007, p.82.
[vi] ‘How the Aussie Battler Was Born’, review by N Abjorensen of G Boucher & M Sharpe’s The Times Will Suit Them, Allen & Unwin, 2008, in the SMH’s Spectrum, Nov 22-23, 2008, p.36. I Lazarev, The Enlightenment, Philanthropy and the Idea of Social Progress in Early Australia, 2018, Routledge, p.4
[viii] T Laffan, How Orange Was My Valley, Toiler Press, 2012.
[ix] R Carr, ‘A Landscape of Feeling’? Politeness, Violence and Masculinity in Early New South Wales, c.1788-1815’, Seminar Paper Summary, U of London, June 2020.
[x] M Prak, ‘Urban Governments…’ in London and Beyond, U of London, 2012, p.269.
[xi] A de Dijn, ‘The Politics of Enlightenment: From Peter Gay to Jonathon Israel’, The Historical Journal, V55, No 3, Sept, 2012,
[xii] G Jones, ‘Secrecy’, Annual Review of Anthropology, June, 2014, p.54.
[xiii] J M Roberts, The Myth of the Secret Societies, 1969. See also his ‘The Origins of a Myth’, The History Review, 1971.
[xiv] Ernest Renan in 1882 quoted by E Hobsbawm, ‘Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today’, Anthropology Today, V 8, No 1 (Feb 1992, p.3.
[xv] WEH Stanner, The Boyer Lectures, 1968.
[xvi] M Cameron-Ash, Lying for the Admiralty, Rosenberg, 2018; – Beating the French to Botany Bay, Quadrant Books, 2021.
[xvii] M Lake, Progressive New World, Harvard, 2019, p.1.
[xviii] See Prescott, 2001, and references to work by Andy Durr.
All Text by Bob James of Newcastle, NSW.