Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

From heresy to beauty products–the idea of South in France


It is tempting to position the South as a victim of the North. Certainly, the conflict between the French North and South appears to be a story of ruthless oppressor that violently subjugates a peace-loving and tolerant victim. Is that necessarily so? Whichever way, French history straddles a cultural fault-line that continues to move in opposing directions.

France contains at least two nations. While the north was populated by Franks from Germany, the south was a separate entity ruled by Visigoths in the Middle Ages. They were more closely connected laterally with the Catalans than vertically with the Franks. During its independent history, the South, known as Occitania, was a site of resistance to imperial rule.

Their first form of Christianity was Arianism, which taught that God came before Jesus. Around the tenth century, an interest in ‘courtly love’ emerged under the influence of poetry from Andalusia. The word “troubadour” was derived from an Arabic root ta-ra-ba meaning “to be transported with joy and delight”. The literary genre of ‘chanson de geste’ emerged celebrating refinement of taste in contract to the tales of war and heroic deeds prevalent in the north.

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209

At the same time, the religion of the Cathars developed, which denigrated earthly life and adopted values of simplicity and abstinence. In 1208, a Papal legate was assassinated in Saint-Gilles which prompted the Franks in support of Rome to cleanse the South of heresy. The Albigensian crusade led by Simon de Monfort became legendary for its brutality. In 1209 the town of Beziers was sacked and none of the population was spared, even those who sought refuge in the church. When the commander was asked by a Crusader how to tell Catholics from Cathars once they had taken the city, the abbot supposedly replied, Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet, “Kill them all, God will know His own.”  The second crusade against the South involved the siege of Montségur (Montsalvat) during which the inquisition was first established.

The successful completion of the crusade led to the Frankish domination of the South and the status of France as a unified country. Nonetheless, the South continued to be a source of suspicion, characterised as stubborn and greedy. During the reformation, it contained Protestant strongholds. As administration became more centralised around Paris, French was enforced as the language of administrations.

Frédéric Mistral
Frédéric Mistral

From the Revolution, the South was identified as a source of political change. Some autonomy was restored to the Midi, as it was now called. In the nineteenth century, writers such as Augustin Thierry and Michelet celebrated the South as a source of democracy. In 1854 Frédéric Mistral founded the Félibrige, dedicated to supporting Occitan literature, which gradually shifted to support for the Catholic Right. Inspired by his Nobel Prize in 1904, the Chilean poet Lucila Godoy Alcayaga changed her name to Gabriela Mistral. The mystical legend of Cathars was established by Napoléon Peyrat with the 1871 publication Histoire des Albigeois. But at the same time, there was pressure to standardise French under la Vergonha (the shaming), which prohibited the teaching of Occitan in schools. In reaction, the youth movement

Hartèra emerged to promote Occitan, as one of its posters says:

To hell with the shame…
Our patois is a language: Occitan;
Our South is a country: Occitania;

Our folklore is a culture.
We want respect for our difference.
Share, mix, walk!!

During the 1930s, there were attempts to identify the Cathars as ancestors of the Nazis, particularly through the romantic myth of Montsalvat. However, during Second World War, the area of France not occupied by Germans corresponded to that of Occitania. In 1940, editors of Cahiers du Sud, including Simone Weil and Louis Aragon called a gathering in Marseille to found a community of tolerance. As Weil said at the time, ‘Catharism was the last living expression in Europe of pre-Roman antiquity. It is from this thinking that Christianity descends; but the Gnostics, Manicheans and Cathars seem to be the only ones that remained faithful to it.’ After the war, the South became a site of creative experiment. In 1946, the Dada poet Tristan Tzara founded the Institut d’Etudes Occitanes in Toulouse.

Popular interest developed in 1960 with a two-part television series Les Cathares, drawing on Peyrat’s romantic history. The South became an issue in the revolutionary movement of May 1968

imageNow the South has become a significant luxury brand, associated with the region of Provencal in cuisine and home goods. Olivier Baussan founded the company l’Occitane, ‘L’OCCITANE has drawn inspiration from Mediterranean art de vivre and traditional Provencal techniques to create natural beauty products devoted to well-being and the pleasure of delighting and caring for oneself.’ This company has now extended its southern taste to other countries. The brand L’Occitane do Brasil expresses the authenticity of a first natural sun care line made exclusively in Brazil.

Part of the mythology of L’Occitane revolves around the ‘everlasting’ flower immortelle, the source of eternal youth.

Meanwhile, the flower has become a rallying point for revival of Occitan culture. In 1978, the band Nadau composed the song L’immortèla (The Edelweiss) which tells of the flower of love and the mountain journeys of the southern people,

Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, to the edelweiss
Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, until we find that place!

Occitania follows a familiar path in Europe, where civilisations known for their tolerance and poetry fall victim to the northern military regimes. This internal colonisation then provides the rehearsal for the subjugation of peoples beyond. Once the target of heresy has shifted to the colonies, then the internal other becomes a subject of nostalgia and commodification.

Rather than a single identity, countries like France seem constituted by a dialogue between opposing halves. While the heretic South helps to sharpen the values of the North, the brutality of the North conjures the idea of a sensual and tolerant South.

Spain as South – the Black Legend has a warm heart

‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees.’

“Whatever has black sounds has duende.”
Garcia Lorca

imageSpain seems an exception to civilised Europe. While the Enlightenment promoted the pursuit of reason based on natural order, Spain remained captive to a theatre of violence as it persecuted heretics and bulls. Is this a true image of Spain?

What has been termed the ‘Black Legend’ of Spain emerged during the Reformation, where the Inquisition was depicted by Protestants and Anglo-Saxons as a sign of inherent Spanish cruelty.

The negative view of the Spanish was further elaborated by the French. To their neighbours across the Pyrenees, the Spanish were a barbarous people, tainted by their African influence. They were variously described at Turkish or Arab Christians—anything but European. According to Stendhal, ‘Blood, manners, language, way of living and fighting, everything in Spain is African. If the Spaniard were a Muslim he would be a complete African’.

French soprano Emma Calvé as Carmen in George Bizet's opera Carmen From 1795, Spain was occupied by Napoleonic France for nearly ten years. After expelling the French, the restored King Ferdinand VII initiated a reaction against liberalism. The resulting French disdain for the Spanish cast an orientalist shadow, popularised in the literary genre of travel writing known as the Espagnolade. The Spanish themselves conspired to construct a romantic image of themselves: the middle class reacted against the Bourbon invaders by inventing a defiant national culture drawn from the Madrid working class, including bull-fighting and flamenco.

The rest of Europe used Spain as a stage for the grand passions. The Spanish south, in particular Seville, became the setting for the passions of European opera, such as Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, and Il Travatore. This culminated in Bizet’s Carmen, which orchestrated and choreographed the wild Andalusian spirit. Spanish orientalism continues today in the world music scene, as flamenco is celebrated in the cinema of Carlos Saura and Tony Gatlief.

As with Italy, Spanish culture internalises this division within its own territory. For nearly 800 years, from the early eighth century, the south of Spanish was an Islamic civilisation. In 1492, on the same year that Christopher Columbus set out to find the New World, the new Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella forced the surrender of Granada, the last Muslim city, and expelled the Jewish population from the entire peninsular.

Capitulación de Granada, por Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz: Boabdil frente a Fernando e Isabel. 1882After the Reconquista, those of Moorish background were always under suspicion. The original terms of surrender guaranteed that Moors would keep their goods and continue to observe Sharia. But forced conversions soon followed. Even those who converted became victim of new laws, such as the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). Granada soon lost its once thriving silk industry and was eventually eclipsed by Seville, which became the gateway to the new world.

image After having brutally expelled the heretics, signs of regret began to appear. This ambivalence is particularly strong in the classic novel of Spanish literature, Don Quixote. The story of the knight-errant and his squire takes the form of a journey south, from Castile and towards Seville. In the course of his adventures, Quixote feels free to identify any untrustworthy character as an Andalusian moor. However, in attempting to revive the earlier romances of Spanish classical literature, Cervantes finds parallel in the opposition between brutal Visigoths and noble Basques and the harsh treatment which the Spanish handed out to the Moors. Don Quixote in the end sides with a Moorish lover (Abindarráez), against his Christian rival. Most remarkably, the book itself is revealed to be written by a Moor, Cide Hamete Benengeli and includes a long passage identifying all the Spanish words that come from Arabic language, such as almorzar, to have lunch.

At the end of Don Quixote, a lead box is found that contains laudatory poems. This alludes to the lead books that were supposedly discovered in Granada in early sixteenth century. Known as the plomos, they contained manuscripts in Arabic, supposedly signed by St. Cecilio, which implied that Granada was at the heart of the mystery of Immaculate Conception. They were in fact forgeries attempting to show that the Moriscos were actually early Christians, thus deserving respect.

image The north-south fault line re-emerged in the twentieth century with the Spanish Civil War. The Republican forces were focused in the south-east of the country, supported particularly by Catalan radicals. Soon after the war began, the Republican poet Garcia Lorca was murdered by fascist forces. Lorca had championed the South as the spiritual home of ‘duende’, the dark passion that informs great art, embodied in the cante jondo (deep song) of Flamenco singing.

The continuing feeling for the South as a region of the vanquished past is evoked in Victor Erice’s film, El Sur, which conflates the rift between families caused by the civil war and a story of love  lost in the division between south and north. One of the films touching scenes is during the daughter’s first communion when she dances with her father, joining together the southern past with the northern present.

Given more recent tensions in the Middle East, this south of Spain has become particularly interesting as a region where the three religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity were seen to co-exist relatively peacefully and productively. The Convencia was known particularly for its philosophy: scholars such as Averroes developed the Greek classical tradition of Aristotle into systems of thought that would lay the ground for Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas.

image What joined these philosophers was a sense of the limits of knowledge. Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed developed an apophatic theology which argued that divinity could never be understood within human terms, only negatively. In the early 12th century, Ibn Tufail wrote a philosophical novel, which was eventually translated into English as Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan. This tale of a man who grows up isolated from all civilisation inspired the first novel in English, Robinson Crusoe. Tufail encouraged Averroes (Ibn Rushd) to write his commentaries on Aristotle, which developed the belief that ‘existence precedes essence’. Such views had a strong influence on the Enlightenment and secular views that emerged much later in eighteenth century Europe.

It was through the Convivencia that the West ‘discovered’ Arabic numerals, paper, rice, sugar, cotton and the tradition of courtly love poems, including troubadours. From this perspective, the Reconquista seems like an act of grand theft, in which the benefits of civilisation were stolen and all traces of their previous ownership removed. But that would be to forget the curiosity about this abandoned past that continued to shadow the glories of the Spanish nation. Recent gestures like Erice’s El Sur attempt to rediscover how those pieces might fit together.

The possibility of reconciliation continues to haunt contemporary Spain. It’s part of a larger story about the two Europes – the modern North and backward South. The price of victory in the North came at the cost of the heartfelt traditions it seems to yearn for in its lost South. Whether or not reconciliation is possible, this dialogue continues to define the identity of Europe.


José Colmeiro ‘Exorcising exoticism: Carmen and the construction of oriental Spain’ Comparative Literature (2002) 54: 2, pp. 127-144

Judith Etzion ‘Spanish Music as Perceived in Western Music Historiography: A Case of the Black Legend?’ International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music (1998) 29: 2, pp. 93-120

Nicholás Wey Gómez The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 2008

Eric Clifford Graf Cervantes and Modernity: Four Essays on Don Quijote Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2007

A. Katie Harris From Muslim to Christian Granada: Inventing A City’s Past In Early Modern Spain Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007

Michael Richards A Time Of Silence: Civil War And The Culture Of Repression In Franco’s Spain, 1936-1945 : Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 67-69