CHAPTER 1: How Historians Have Missed the Point

‘The spirit of fraternalism permeates the nation’

– Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, 1964, p.12.

‘Fraternal societies’ are defined here as societies which use, or have used in the recent past, coded regalia, secret passwords, ritual and signs, and which have had a philosophy of brotherhood or mutual aid.[iii] I group them into four categories, or ‘strands’ of fraternalism. The first three are clear-cut, namely Freemasonry, friendly societies, and trade-oriented societies, trade unions if you prefer. The fourth ‘strand’ encompasses those societies which are clearly fraternal as defined but do not belong in the first three. Some of this last group have been as significant historically as any in the first three.

Fraternalism came to Australia on board the First Fleet and by way of both secret and public ceremonial, spread ‘mateship’ over the whole of the continent. The basic human material with which all fraternals worked has clearly been inadequate to the task set by abstract principles, but the fraternals as a whole prospered, some much more than others. However, even the earliest brotherhoods – the Freemasons, United Irishmen and others – were already infected with a debilitating ‘virus’. State surveillance and managerialism, significant factors when the transportation system was initially devised, also continued to build in influence over the next two centuries and have eventually brought Freemasonry and all the fraternities which followed to their knees. The brotherhoods’ best defensive weapon, their own history, has never been allowed to fulfil its curative potential. Australian ‘mateship’, as a result, while vigorous and broad spreading, has never been deeply-rooted and has rarely developed strong local references. Three minor exceptions, bush camps, the ANZACs and the Surf Life Savers, have proven of insufficient strength to counter centralising and hierarchical forces.

Why do Australians seem afraid of, anxious about, and uncomfortable with their own past? One scholar has suggested: ‘Because of the country’s ‘thief colony’ image, and for many years a lack of proper information, Australians have suffered from intellectual and emotional difficulties in developing a view of their national origins.’ [iv]

In the specific case of fraternalism, is the answer discomfort with ritual?

Horne, in the mid-20th century, categorically insisted: ‘Australians are self-conscious if they have to take part in ritual.’ [v] He appears to have assumed that he already knew enough about Australians’ rich and varied use of ritual, especially private ritual, making further research unnecessary. Despite saying about his birthplace: ‘(The) town’s tone was set by the Anglican-Presbyterian Ascendancy and its affairs were very largely in the hands of the Masons’ [vi] he added nothing to our understanding even of Freemasonry as an important social phenomenon. The myths and rumours about secret societies have, inevitably, been inaccurate. The fact that authors such as Donald Horne have appeared to be celebrating fraternalism while continuing neglect of the reality has been a major problem for research.

The general lack of curiosity about the fraternal artefacts, a caricaturing of secret societies as though they have all been the same, and the long-term scholarly neglect of ‘brotherhoods’, appear parts of a single problem, a problem which flows from the history itself. In any event, the tragedy is not their’s alone. Because of the central place of this idea in the building of Australian society and psyche, neglect of fraternalism has meant neglect by Australians of themselves. The clichéd celebration of a small gallery of heritage icons allows Australians to declare pride in their past in a way that avoids unsettling information. Safety in the superficial would even explain much energetic pursuit of births, deaths and marriages of family history by people who simultaneously lack curiosity about broader questions of context. But the problem appears to lie, firstly with sensitivities about our long history of ‘sectarian’, ie faith-based, struggles, and then with the academic and professional historians who have refused to stand up for their occupation.

Twenty-plus years of research have convinced me that there is much more to fraternalism than a mere spirit. And that mateship did not originate with isolated shepherds and cedar cutters, nor in an 1880’s bush culture, nor in World War I trenches.[vii] From 1788, the practice of mateship was brought to this country by fraternal societies, and for hard-headed reasons.

Years of exposure to its literature have further convinced me that there is a great deal more to secrecy than is allowed by the mindset among professional historians who make it the polar opposite to ‘rational enquiry and progress’, the supposed defining characteristics of ‘the Enlightenment’. The northern hemisphere has provided the bulk of the secret society literature on which the caricatures are based, but the real fraternal phenomenon has not been neglected quite as profoundly as it has in Australia. Even there, however, the tendency has been to treat ‘strands’ of fraternalism separately, ie, to talk only of Freemasons, or only of Trade Unions, or only of Friendly Societies. As in Australia, distinct genres – Masonic History, Labour History, Friendly Society History – have developed in isolation, one from the other. This has suited the various brotherhoods since projecting themselves as unique has been a major strategy during two centuries of competition with one another – for members, for resources, for status and for political pre-eminence. Their self-serving, in-house ‘histories’ have eventually, in the last part of the 20th century, played a major part in the profound difficulties each is suffering. Only very recently, most obviously among European Freemasons, has a welcome broadening of approach and a willingness to confront issues appeared.[viii]

It is important that fraternal societies, including Freemasonry, find location in the single dynamic context that is our total history, and that comparisons then be made with similar colonial and post-colonial situations. As the matrix of power, control, autonomy and independence has shifted during 200 years within the various Australian and international jurisdictions, fraternal societies with an Australian voice have been players in and sites of many of the major twists and turns. As a concept, Australian mateship has survived the passage of 200 years, but, very recently, only as a weakened secular ideal, with little historical context, increasingly prone to populist hijack and manipulation. Locating our societies in the full secret society context by treating the fraternal strands as elements of a single phenomenon better reflects historical reality, and reveals, not one, but two stories. One records the national expansion of specific societies, and their decline. The second is a deeper history of their competition and conflict, internally and with one another.

Fraternalism, as a whole, has not been class, religion, race or gender specific, and its expressions have not been confined to any one group, caste or social strata. Inevitably, fraternal organisations have been directly involved in events of consequence throughout Australian history, sometimes positively, sometimes not and, at times, in defence of conflicting positions. Individuals with fraternal connections have repeatedly played roles of significance in line with the aspirations of that fraternity, locally, and nationally. The Australian fraternal story is huge, with massive implications for what we believe we already know about ourselves. This account attempts only to establish the context. There are many more levels to be plumbed and many more stories to tell than those that appear here.