Category Archives: Australia

Tony Abbott and the ‘great south land’

Tony Abbott delivers the keynote address at The Australian-Melbourne Institute conference. Photo: Getty Images

On 3 July 2014, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the Australia-Melbourne Institute on the benefits of foreign investment. Himself an English migrant, Abbott praised the British colonisation of the continent as a far-sighted form of foreign investment.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Abbott said,

Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment.

I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land

The statement evoked criticism from a wide range of sources, mostly aimed at the idea that Australia had been ‘unsettled’ prior to the arrival of British settlers. But there are two other aspects worthy of note. The first is Abbott’s self-conscious vagueness: ‘I guess…’ and ‘unsettled or, um, scarcely settled’. This seems to be Abbott’s way of playing to his conservative audience, poking fun at political correctness.

The second is a little less obvious. The ‘Great South Land’ is an important construction in Abbott’s historical narrative. The description ‘Great South…’ or ‘Great Southern…’ is a familiar trope in Australian nationalism. It’s often added to anthems, names of hotels or businesses that attempt to proudly proclaim their Australianness. It has rarely been used politically until now, but Abbott has now tapped into the Eurocentrism that lies behind this epic title. This ‘Great South Land’ beckons opportunity, just waiting for an enterprising race to realise its potential. While we might hear strains of didgeridoo in the background, the real action is in pastoral development, mining and tourism.

This connection is made evident in the less common use of the phrase in Christian ministry. As this video tells, the Christian mission in Australia was foretold by the Jesuit explorer Quiros who discovered the continent in 1606 on the day of Pentacost, claiming it as ‘the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit’ (actually La Australia de Espíritu Santo). The singer Geoff Bullock engages this legend to construct a uniquely Australian Christianity.

But such a narrative remains steadfastly European. It depicts Australia as object of the European gaze, as an infinite land yet to be touched by civilisation. Like the other great nationalist trope, the Southern Cross, it is more about the remorseless extension of the familiar than engagement with the new. The challenge for Australia is to find a South for itself which is genuine – a South that does not contain within it a European exceptionalism, but offers instead a point of connection with other Souths across the periphery – Great Southern Lands.

The idea of Antarctica

Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland by Wanda Gillespie

Edgar Allen Poe’s novel ‘The Narrative Of Gordon Pym’ (1838) evokes the belief, prior to the exploration of Antarctica, that a lost civilisation may be contained within its icy borders. Rather than the black-skinned inhabitants of deepest darkest Africa, this furthest reach of the world would reveal a race of Hyperboreans, with a culture that was foreign but comparable to the civilised West.

Poe’s tale concludes when the hero manages to escape the violence of dark-skinned natives by fleeing further south, until the waters mysteriously grew warmer…

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us.  Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Rather than representing the end of the world, the icy wastes of Antarctica would turn out to be a means of keeping this other civilisation isolated from the rest of the globe.

Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Today, the artist Wanda Gillespie has revived this myth in an installation at Craft Victoria titled The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland. The story behind this work is of the discovery of wooden artefacts in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, as a result of global warming. It is suggested that these objects are from the same period as the ancient civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt. As the artist statement claims, ‘The meticulously crafted objects recovered from three initial archaeological missions suggest the culture may have been a precursor to such modern-day indigenous cultures of the South Pacific as Maori, Aboriginal Australian, Polynesian and East Indonesian.’

While the faces depicted are undeniably of European origin, the hair styles and demeanour suggest a Pacific culture, such as Maori. Gillespie surmises that these objects refer to a ceremony that attempt to ensure the safe passage of a spirit into the afterlife.

It’s a curious racial fantasy that white people preceded other indigenous groups to the South. It does have precedents, such as the notion that the Lost Tribe of Israel fled south thousands of years ago (shared broadly from Cecil Rhodes to Mormons). While the earlier fantasies had clear a imperial agenda, what does it mean to invent one today?

In Australia, the idea of one’s special relation to landscape has been largely given over to its Indigenous peoples, who are granted a privileged, if symbolic, relation to ‘country’. This is relatively easy arrangement for settler Australians as most live in cities, where there is little engagement with land, beyond real estate prices. But it would be argued that this does leave settler Australians with a undeveloped sense of place. Fair enough to give over country to traditional owners, but then what are you still doing here?

Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Antarctica seems immune to such issues, as it has no indigenous people. It thus provides a blank screen on which to project speculations about place and culture. One of the notable elements of Gillespie’s Hyperborean world is the prevalence of the banksia. This figures strongly in the early colonial imagination, which populated the bush with mysterious figures such as bunyips. So by this detour south, Gillespie seems to return to where she come from. She manages to imbue an otherwise sterile, commodified and urban world with the enchantment that once belonged to traditional societies, who had an active engagement in rites of passage, and believed there was something more than the sum total of individual interests.

As the world continues to warm, it will be interesting to see what more is revealed of this mysterious south.


Wanda Gillespie acknowledges Rodney Glick and Indonesian carver Made Leno (who produced the heads), writer Varia Karipoff and Alastair Boell from the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Her website is

John Stanley Martin – Australia as an Iceland of the south

One way of reading an antipodean country like Australia is through the lens of its symmetrical opposites. For many, Australia has been compared to Nordic countries. One of Australia’s leading Nordicists, John Stanley Martin, unfortunately passed away this week. Here he talking about the commonality between Australia and Iceland.

image John Stanley Martin, descendent of the Eureka rebels, went to Iceland to pursue a degree in Old Norse. He recalls a conversation with Icelandic novelist Sigurdur Nordal, who saw both nations as sharing the challenge of new beginnings:

As an Australian you understand Iceland better than the Europeans do, because we are Europe’s first colony. We are the first time they came. Every time there was a movement in Europe, there was always a group before—the Celts moving in, the Germanics moving in—and there would be an amalgam of the cultures… In Norway, from where they came, it was limited resources, someone gets more and someone gets less. Come to Iceland and it’s a free for all, grabbing land, so you don’t respect the environment in the same way any more.[i]

[i] John Stanley Martin, interview, 16 February 2001.

Vertiginous Africa

Tourist images of the African continent are dominated by scenes of safari adventures. While these entail their own colonial associations – Africa as nature rather than culture – there is a more phenomenological dimension to the African experience for westerners. This suggests a continent that we look down to.

Virgin Airlines have just released their first direct flight between Sydney and Johannesburg. To  tempt Aussie travellers to experience the wonders of Africa, they released a brief clip.

The clip starts in a sedate fashion, with images of relaxing familiar scenes involving swimming pools and safaris, but then it builds up pace to a vertiginous series of scenes mostly involving positions of great altitude:

  • View from Table Mountain looking down on Cape Town
  • Epic dam
  • Majestic waterfalls
  • Abseiling down Table Mountain
  • Flying in a helicopter
  • Teeing off from a precipice
  • Motorbike jumping
  • Flock of birds flying
  • Bridge bungee-jumping

Naturally, this is an airline company, so they are keen to promote the experience of flight. But the resulting engagement with Africa is puzzling. Would you fly to Africa in order to hit a golf ball into the seeming void? Surely, this is simply the expression of a deeply embedded colonial mentality that sees Africa as a vast playing field for Western adventure.

Sustaining this mentality is lofty point of view by which we gaze down on Africa. While they settle on a horizontal plane of nature, we move along the vertical axis of experience.

Today, few of us would admit to any racist attitudes towards those in Africa. Wearing Make Poverty History bracelets, we see ourselves as far from the brutality of those who scrambled for Africa in the nineteenth century. Yet, the Virgin ad shows us that the imaginary architecture of colonialism remains deeply embedded.

Come on down.

Jorgen Jorgenson returns yet again

Jorgen Jorgenson was a Danish adventurer who travelled to Tasmania twice, first in the founding party of Hobart and then as a convict. Between visits, he had been bestowed with the title of the first King of Iceland. He wrote many books, including a study of Tasmanian aborigines. His life sustains a ongoing link between the northern and southern extremes, which has come to prominence again with his upcoming bicentenary.

This story is being taken up by Kim Peart. Here is Kim’s response to south in a Tasmanian context:

When I consider "south" and as one who grew up in southern Tasmania in the path of the roaring forties, I think of the winds that blow around Antarctica in a continual gale that drives the ocean waves and currents in a rhythm and a hum of bounding breakers that now grow ever stronger with global warming in a giant vortex of ever marching waves that rise up like mountains to swallow anything that dares swim too low into their gaping chasm or send them flying off into the upper atmosphere should the howling winds take hold and swirl them from the frothing foam at their peak to sail upon the gathered smoke of the Victorian bushfires, made fiercer like an atomic furnace in a slowly heating world, now floating high above the great frozen sea of ice that is south.

  • Peart’s article in the Tasmanian Times.
  • The exhibition Haven where Jorgenson’s life was turned to art