Australia Day reflections: the 1888 centenary

Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived with her family in Melbourne as a small child in 1888 or 1889 – I’m yet to pinpoint the date. I do hope it was 1888, as it is a symbolic year – the centenary of white settlement. I’ve been reading about the centenary celebrations this week, and they reveal much about Australian sense of identity at that point. Australia was wrestling with its still recent (in some places) convict past; ignoring the white displacement of Aborigines, and still very excited about gold.

It had been Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations the previous year, and that had exhausted much of the money that might have gone into celebrating the centenary in New South Wales. The richer and newer “little sister” to the south – Melbourne – offered to take the lead, putting on a great exhibition that ran from August 1888 to March 1889, with two million people passing through. If the Prichards had reached Melbourne by then, they were surely among that number. In Social Sketches of Australia, Humphrey McQueen notes “Melbourne’s leading role in the centenary celebrations confirmed that it was recent wealth and not early beginnings which was being reviewed, though not scrutinised.” (2) Richard Waterhouse notes that “when those commemorating 1788 referred to the colony’s founder it was Captain Cook the discoverer of New South Wales who was valorised, not Arthur Phillip the founder of a convict colony.” (“Commemoration, Celebration, and ‘the Crossing'”). This suggests the long confused association of James Cook with 26 January 1788 is not simply a recent mistake of the ignorant.

The references to Aborigines in 1888 in the two contemporary sources I’ve read both call attention to their failure to “use the land” productively, a convenient myth which is still being corrected today. One of these sources is “A Centenary Review”, which appeared in The Argus at the opening of the exhibition. It’s a little tedious when it’s not being outrageous by today’s understandings, but in between it is also quite fascinating, offering a history of the nation as it was perceived in 1888.

The article looks toward the hope of federation, and Katharine Susannah Prichard was truly to be a writer of the new nation which would formally begin a few weeks after her seventeenth birthday. Growing up in Melbourne and Launceston, living for fifty years in Perth with a stint in Sydney and regular visits to Canberra, she cared about the whole nation and depicted so many phases of its life – from miners to station workers to Aboriginals and even to the comfortable suburbanites most of us have become.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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