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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 1


The Antique Orient1

David Walker

From the earliest days of the British settlement of Australia, India and the crown colony of Ceylon were a familiar part of the colonists’ world. As Margaret Steven (1965:26) has noted ‘the first links made by the new colony were with India’. When supplies ran short, as they often did, ships from Calcutta brought grain, foodstuffs, spirits, clothing and live animals. India provided a lifeline for the new settlement. Many trading and shipping connections then developed, creating an increasing flow of administrators, merchants, army personnel, clergy and tourists between the Indian subcontinent and Australia. Australians constantly heard about the conditions of life in India, along with its scenic marvels, architecture, philosophies, mysteries and climate. Australia’s Indian connection was to remain strong for much of the 19th century.

From the beginnings of settlement, the diverse traffic in people, ideas and products between Australia and India was largely supported by the imperial connection. Robert Campbell, the first independent merchant operating in Sydney Cove provides an excellent illustration (Steven 1965:26). He was born in Scotland in 1769 and went to India at the age of 27 to join his elder brother in the family export business, which by the 1790s had become a regular supplier to the new colony in New South Wales. Robert later emigrated to Australia, where he built Campbell’s wharf, an agency house to facilitate the Indian trade and a private home that was the first Australian house built in the ‘whole-hearted Indian bungalow form’, a building style that was to become something of a fashion in colonial Australia (Irving 1985:46). Campbell went on to become a leading public figure and a wealthy pastoralist. Many other early colonists had Indian experience. At the highest level of early colonial society there is the example of Lachlan Macquarie who served in India before arriving at Sydney Cove late in 1809 to become Governor of New South Wales. He brought with him an Indian slave who worked as his manservant. There were regional identities like Foster Fyans, who spent some years with the British army in India before becoming first police magistrate in Geelong in the 1830s, or the medical practitioner, John Coverdale, who was born in Bengal in 1814 and practised in India before moving in the 1830s to Tasmania’s more manageable climate. There are household names, like Caroline Chisholm, the famous philanthropist, who founded the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers in Madras, where she lived for six years before moving to Australia in 1838. Such links nourished an awareness of India in colonial society from the beginnings of European settlement.2

What motivated these various Anglo-Indians to come to Australia? Land grants to ex-army personnel and growing commercial opportunities made a new beginning in the Australian colonies an attractive proposition. There were, no doubt, less flattering reasons for thinking that Australia might be the place to go after India: legal trouble, money trouble, family trouble, drink trouble. Many early settlement choices were influenced by considerations of climate and health. In the 19th century, when the sources of disease were poorly understood, climate was thought to have a much greater impact on health than is now considered to be the case. Firm distinctions were drawn between demanding and healthy climates. Australia, it was hoped, offered a compromise between the extremes of cold in Britain and the tropical heat and associated diseases of India. Tropical heat was thought to coarsen white men and to ruin the health of white women and children. Writing as an intending settler in 1828, James Henty contrasted temperate New South Wales with India’s ‘pestilential climate under a burning sun’ (Bassett 1962:35). Climate was one factor which influenced Henty to emigrate to Australia and by 1830, when he had taken up land on the Swan River in Western Australia, he believed his settlement might serve as a health resort for British officers and their families serving in India (Bassett 1962:138).

Later in the 19th century, the effects of climate became the subject of serious medical study. Terms like ‘tropical neurasthenia’ were coined to characterise the state of settlers in tropical climates who appeared nervous and fearful, yet incapable of action or effort. The growing linkage between tropical climates and debilitating disease states in turn raised difficult questions about whether Europeans could ever successfully settle in tropical countries. In contrast to India Anglo-Saxons were expected to flourish in Australia. This certainly was the opinion of Phillip Muskett, the respected author of The Illustrated Australian Medical Guide, an influential text that appeared around 1899. Muskett based many of his reflections upon the relationship between climate and health on the British experience in India with particular reference to Sir William Moore’s earlier work, A Manual of Family Medicine for India (1874).

Once having chosen to settle in Australia, colonists would be given chances to reflect on the benefits of their choice. All too often in the 19th century Australians read in their newspapers dreadful accounts of outbreaks of disease or famine in India. In October 1877, The Town and Country Journal publicised a call from the Lord Mayor of London for aid from cities throughout the Empire for a major famine in India. The paper, noting how ‘wisely directed beneficence is better than artillery’, urged its readers to give generously and so strengthen imperial ties (Famine in India 1877). By November, at least £6,000 had been collected for the Indian Famine Relief Fund. At a meeting in the Town Hall in Sydney, donors were to see an exhibition of photographs from the famine areas and to hear disturbing accounts read from a letter by a Madras Native Infantry Captain of how ‘children were being killed and eaten by their parents’ (Indian Famine Relief Fund 1877). After such searing tales, Australian life seemed rather benign.

Trade provided even stronger links with India than did charitable aid. As early as the mid-1820s trade with the ‘East’, the idea of eastern and particularly Indian trade formed one important reason for Lieutenant-Governor James Stirling’s settlement of the Swan River district in Western Australia. Stirling anticipated that the export of horses and wheat to India would prove especially profitable. In the case of horses, these predictions proved correct as the export of Australian horses for use by the British in India expanded into a promising colonial trade from the 1830s. Remounts and sporting horses, soon called ‘walers’ by reference to New South Wales, were sent in increasing numbers until the 1870s when the once flourishing trade fell into some disrepute after dealers allegedly supplied too many animals ‘of wretched sorts’ (Australian Horses for India 1870; there was also discussion and correspondence in the Sydney Morning Herald, January to March 1870). By the 1890s most of these problems appeared to have been resolved and the Australian colonies were able to export 50,000 horses to India over the decade (Yarwood 1989:198).3 Many were sent from Victoria, particularly from the Western District where the squatter, Francis Henty, one of James Henty’s younger brothers, was one of the more successful exporters.

Australia also imported many goods from India. From the 18th century, India supplied the West with a range of new textiles, textile designs and loosely fitting garments, which were quickly appropriated into European style. The Indian banyan gave rise to the male lounging robe and dressing gown while the Kashmir shawl with its vivid patterns became an important item of fashionable dress for 19th-century women (Martin and Koda 1994:11). In addition, there were a wide range of culinary links traceable to India. Beverley Kingston (1990) has provided an extensive list of these items which included many herbs and spices, pickles, chutneys, curry powders and, not least, tea.

The habit of tea drinking, which colonial Australians seized upon with particular avidity, generated substantial imports. For decades, tea was routinely included in the staple provisions meted out to Australian shearers. Yet tea drinking was also a habit that had always been closely associated with British life in the tropics, particularly in India. That fortunes were there to be made in the Indian tea trade can be seen in the commercial success of James ‘Rajah’ Inglis, creator of ‘Billy Tea’. Inglis, rather a colourful character who liked to sport an Indian turban, was an active member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and an outspoken advocate of free trade. He gave public lectures in Australia on Indian subjects and also wrote books on India with rousing titles, including the alliterative Tent Life in Tigerland (1888). In the early 1880s James Inglis and Co. won the lucrative Sydney agency of the Indian Tea Association of Calcutta. Inglis consistently promoted Indian and Ceylonese teas, which he insisted were ahead of the rival Chinese product because they were made under British supervision. By 1897 Ceylon and India had come to dominate the Australian tea market.4

Even for Australian settlers without direct family or trading links, India was a country of great interest. India was seen as the glittering jewel in the imperial crown, a country of great strategic importance and one that also magnificently exhibited the benefits of British rule. In the 1830s the leading British historian, Thomas Macauley, marvelled how Britain managed to govern this distant country, whose people differed from us ‘in race, colour, language, manners, morals, religion’. He concluded that these were ‘prodigies’ without precedent in world history (Sharpe 1993:63). Most 19th-century accounts of the Empire propounded the belief that the British exhibited a unique capacity for governance. To these writers, the British presence in India only confirmed the overwhelming importance of the British. No other race seemed able to retain so much territory and rule over such huge populations. Australian colonists, however, had another satisfaction from secure British rule in India. They perceived it as a substantial barrier to Russian imperial ambitions. For many years, Russia was believed to be the major enemy to British and therefore Australian interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

But it soon became apparent that the British presence in India was under threat. Between May 1857 and late 1858 a series of Sepoy uprisings, collectively known at this time as the Indian Mutiny, although now interpreted by Indian historians as the early stirrings of the Independence Movement, challenged British rule. In response to the rebellion of native Sepoy troops in the Indian army, British troops and their families and dependents were driven into fortified positions at Agra, Cawnpore and the British residency at Lucknow. After fierce fighting, many British positions were eventually captured with heavy casualties. Women and children were prominent among the casualties. These actions swiftly generated severe retaliatory massacres of both Indian troops and Indian civilians by British units sent in to relieve the conditions of siege, which in turn sparked further Indian retribution (Hibbert 1978).5 News of these events soon reached Australia where most newspapers covered the Mutiny in considerable detail and an Indian Mutiny Relief Fund to aid the British survivors was quickly established.

At the time, imperialist accounts saw the Mutiny as an event where the heroic British male gallantly defended vulnerable women and children against murderous ‘natives’ guilty of ‘unreclaimed barbarism’. One example is the response of the Melbourne Argus to the Cawnpore massacre:

Fiendish malignity and ferocious cruelty could not well devise any forms of torture more ingeniously horrible, repulsive, and appalling, than have been resorted to by the brutal ruffians of the Bengal Native army for the maiming, mangling, and murdering of the inoffensive women and innocent children who have fallen into the hands of these remorseless wretches (Crowley 1980:357–358).

Although there has been no detailed study of Australian responses to the Indian Mutiny, the evidence of the major newspapers suggests strong contemporary support for British policies.

The tale of the Indian Mutiny quickly entered the complex mythology of the Empire. Its story was to be told many times over in histories, popular fiction and biography and its resonances reached deep into the British psyche. There was a prolific flow of stories about the events of 1857, usually featuring the genus, ‘Mutinous Native’. Stories about frontier life on the borders of empire also become popular, since the Empire had now burgeoned into a strident, red occupation of the globe. There were moves to ensure that children learnt correct Imperial sentiments. The history of the British Empire became an important school subject and from 1905 the celebration of Empire Day was an annual ritual in all Australian schools (Firth & Hoorn 1979).

India, with its wealth, size and diversity, its architectural splendours and mighty traditions was the great collector’s piece of empire. Given the maritime links between Australia and India in the 19th century, India attracted many curious and enthusiastic Australian travellers. India was a natural stopping point for British immigrants on their way out to Australia and for Australians returning for a visit to the Old Country. For help in planning their tour, these travellers could consult James Hingston’s The Australian Abroad on Branches From the Main Routes Round the World (1879). When Hingston’s book first appeared in two handsome volumes, it quickly attracted enthusiastic reviews. Hingston was acclaimed as a travel writer and compared to Mark Twain, often to the latter’s disadvantage. In 1885, The Australian Abroad was made more affordable and convenient, when it was reissued in a single volume by the Melbourne publisher, William Inglis and Company.6 It was one of the major travel books to emerge from Australia before the First World War and remains one of the most comprehensive and engaging accounts of travel through Asia to have appeared in our literature.

Already well-known for his journalism, James Hingston became something of a literary celebrity. His tone and jaunty manner marked him out as a distinctive voice. Hingston was a philosopher at large, for whom travel provided an opportunity to reflect upon human diversity. While not as circular and digressive as Laurence Sterne’s famous creation, Tristram Shandy, Hingston nevertheless displayed a Shandean wit and a gift for storytelling. He was drawn to the strangeness and intractable difference of the mysterious East. He saw India as ‘the land of the wonderful’, home of ‘all that is imaginative, fantastic, sensuous, and extravagant’ (Hingston 1879:291). Like many of his contemporaries, he found in India the appeal of the Arabian Nights, that ‘famous entertainer of our youth’. Hingston was fascinated by India’s sharp contrasts, by all the glory and shame, splendour and decay, grandeur and ruins, to be found in ‘this gorgeous Eastern Land!’ (Hingston 1879:291). India was a site for cultural feasting. Hingston was keen to see Delhi, the setting for Lalla Rookh (Moore 1817), Thomas Moore’s series of Oriental tales in verse. Here he found fascinating historical remains indicating how successive invasions had shaped this ancient city. It was a vivid reminder of that considerable 19th-century theme, the mutability of civilisations, captured in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ by the description of the ancient tyrant’s statue, broken and abandoned in the desert sand.

Admittedly, Hingston travelled through India as a confirmed imperialist. He retained his robust enthusiasm for British rule. Like Macauley, he marvelled at the way little Britain had come to ‘own’ a country with a population of 250 million people (Hingston 1879:265). He recognised the importance of British trade and the vitality of the great ‘producing powers’ of India (Hingston 1879:334). But he was also aware that at times Britain had been guilty of commercial excess, particularly in relation to the opium trade, a commerce which he believed to be as sinister in its impact as slavery. Hingston believed that the greed of the East India Company had been a major precipitating cause of the Indian Mutiny. He blamed the annexation of the Kingdom of Oudh in 1856, of which Lucknow was the capital, for quickening the tempo of resentment towards the British. While acknowledging that the British were not beyond criticism, Hingston supported their rule, believing the loss of India would quickly reduce Britain to a second-rate power.

In Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore, Hingston was presented with potent reminders of the comparatively recent Indian Mutiny. As he visited massacre sites and memorials, he copied inscriptions into his notebook and recorded his impressions as an Australian who felt himself still very much a member of the British family. As he noted in Cawnpore, ‘The dark blue sky of India has been terribly clouded for humanity, at many times, ancient and modern; but, for Great Britain and her family, never more so than in ‘57’ (Hingston 1879:282). Characteristically, Hingston used European literary associations when describing events. ‘We go to see Cawnpore’, he wrote, ‘as we would see Hamlet or Macbeth’. He found Cawnpore one of the great tragedies of the British Empire, as integral to the story of the British people as Shakespeare’s greatest dramas. He knew that the names he read on the monuments at Lucknow would be ‘familiar to all readers’—even those who read ‘nothing beyond the daily press’ (Hingston 1879:282). Yet as an Australian democrat he noted that, although the monuments listed the names of fallen officers, the rank and file were ‘lumped together in death’ with only a number (Hingston 1879:282).

Hingston took a keen interest in many aspects of Indian culture and threw himself into the life of the Indian cities, making a point of visiting and describing the bazaars and living conditions of ordinary Indians. In Benares he bathed in the Ganges and drank from the Well of Knowledge and the Well of Purification. He attended a cremation, which he described as one of the most moving and memorable things he had ever seen (Hingston 1879:277). Yet he honestly admitted there were some times when he would have gladly sacrificed time amidst the ‘gilded’ grandeur around him for a cold beer. Travel through India was thirsty work.

As he left India, Hingston was conscious of how much still remained for him to see and reflect on; ‘it would take years’ to thoroughly explore this vast country and a lifetime then to fully understand what had been seen (Hingston 1879:335). He was convinced that India was a profoundly important culture from ‘the oldest of peopled countries’ (Hingston 1879:334). No-one, he argued, was really fully educated without a knowledge of India. To see India was to learn ‘there is an object in life’ (Hingston 1879:265). Hingston was also deeply interested in India’s great religions and the spiritual links between India and the West. He often alluded to the common Aryan origins linking the British Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu. At the same time, he had little difficulty in reconciling his interest in India’s glorious past with a robust enthusiasm for British rule. He welcomed the British presence in India on defence and security grounds and also appreciated the potential cultural enrichment that might flow from a continued interaction between these two countries.

In later years, the antiquity and spiritual wealth of India noted by Hingston were to become regular themes in Western travel writing and an attraction for those fascinated by the ancient world and its treasures. But it is equally the case that many Australian visitors to India were powerfully struck by the specifically biblical nature of the scenes they encountered in Indian village life. The South Australian parliamentarian, Thomas Playford, sent by his government to investigate the suitability of Indian labour to develop the ‘Empty North’, was reminded of the Bible when he saw two women grinding corn not far from Delhi (Playford 1907:52). Others felt similarly when they saw women gathering water at wells. In the 1870s The Town and Country Journal identified the theme of ‘Women at the Well’ as a sign of the ‘unchanging’ nature of ‘Asiatic peoples’. It noted that the well formed a focal point for many biblical stories: Jacob first met Rachel at the well, Christ talked with the woman of Samaria at the well; the Scriptures were full of references to wells and the drawing of water (Women at the Well 1875). Later, TB Fischer, an Australian missionary visiting India in 1912, found the sight of oxen in the fields and women grinding corn or drawing water from wells was a constant reminder of the people ‘among whom our Saviour walked’ (Fischer 1914:118).

Fischer travelled with a camera in one hand and his Bible in the other. Like many Australians of the time, he was convinced that in India there was missionary work to be done. The ‘millions of India’ had to be saved from the ‘darkness of heathenism and the blackness of sin’. Fischer appealed to young Australians to help him in this grand Christian endeavour:

God’s word is a lamp—it guides in difficult places—it marks the rocks and shoals of the ocean—it is the lamp to light us through the valley of the shadow of death … Will you do your best to send that light to brighten dark India? (Fischer 1914:125).

Readers could follow the progress of missionary work in India in papers like the Murray Independent, including extracts from letters sent home by Eleanor Rivett, the first Australian to join the London Missionary Society in North India (Rivett 1965:10).

Alfred Deakin, one of the towering figures of Australian public life, was another to be struck by the biblical nature of Indian rural life. Born in Melbourne in 1856, Deakin grew to be an avid reader, fascinated by India. He quickly rose in public office, attaining the office of Prime Minister in 1903 when he was still an energetic figure in his forties. By his own assessment, India had been an enormous influence. He wrote:

Some words are enriched with historic memories and the reflection of early enthusiasms so that they present themselves before us with a glamour greater than that of romance. Such a magic name is India, before which the throng of unimpressive words falls back as if outshone by a regal presence, clothed ‘with barbaric pearl and gold’ (Deakin 1893b:5).

Deakin was first drawn to India for its inexhaustible stories, legends and mythologies. He then began to appreciate its human knowledge and spiritual depth and he began to study the great religions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. During the 1870s and 1880s, he found in India many answers to pressing questions of his day, particularly on the origins of humanity and the nature of religious belief. It was only from the 1890s, when his interest turned towards nation building, that he became less concerned with India. Fascination with India then seemed somewhat beside the point, a little disreputable, even a forbidden luxury. India now seemed to demand a sensibility hardly permitted in modern, early 20th-century Australian public life. Although the older Deakin wrote of India as a powerful, but awkward memory, India always remained one of the ‘impressive’ words in his vocabulary.

Deakin’s chance to visit India had come in 1890 when the proprietor of The Age, David Syme, invited him on a visit to inspect India’s irrigation program. Deakin accepted with alacrity; irrigation was one of his many enthusiasms. Walter Murdoch, Deakin’s friend and first biographer, described the trip as only a ‘two month dash’, but noted: ‘the preparation for it had been spread over many years of study; he knew the history of the country as few Englishmen knew it’ (Murdoch 1923:170). Deakin’s two books on India, Irrigated India and Temple and Tomb in India were published in 1893 and confirmed his reputation as a keen student both of Indian religions and the British Raj, interests that have sometimes been overlooked. Murdoch had stressed Deakin’s Indian enthusiasms, but his next biographer, JA La Nauze, researching his subject in the 1960s, clearly considered Deakin’s religious interests and his fascination with India subjects best passed over as briskly as possible (La Nauze 1979:480–482). These seemed regrettable lapses in an otherwise impressive career. In a more recent study, Al Gabay (1992) has given Deakin’s religious quests the centrality they deserve.

For his part Deakin wrote of India, its architecture, history, religions and stories without any sense that these were inappropriate subjects for an Australian politician. Interestingly, Deakin also could readily blur the boundaries between northern Australia and southern India to locate Australia firmly within an Indian sphere of influence. Deakin was convinced that Australian developments would be directly influenced by the course of events in India and that distances between the countries would soon decrease with rapidly improving transport and communications. He liked to describe Australians as a new people of Western background ‘settled under the shadow of an antique Orient’ (Deakin 1893b:151). Moreover, Deakin reminded his readers that people of Hindu background ‘were not without kinship’ to people in Australia. This was an acknowledgment of shared Aryan origins, the appreciation of which was sharpened by the new scholarship then emerging which marked Sanskrit as the source of all Indo-European languages. ‘The study of Sanscrit’, Deakin believed, has ‘given a new tone and turn to 19th century thought’ (Deakin 1893b:2).

This is not the place to test Murdoch’s assertion that Deakin knew the history of India as few ‘Englishmen knew it’, though the claim, an interesting one, merits closer scrutiny. But what is clear is that Deakin had looked to India to furnish answers to some of the great questions of his day. He understood the growth of civilisation as an ‘unceasing struggle for supremacy between East and West’. He felt Indian history confirmed this proposition, just as the British presence in India would help determine the outcome of the struggle. Deakin believed that anyone wanting to understand the modern world must understand the struggle for supremacy between East and West and so had a responsibility to learn about India. In Temple and Tomb he predicted that India and Australia would show a growing convergence of interests, arguing that the two countries were allied already ‘politically and intellectually as well as geographically’. It was evident that Australia should be well informed also about other nearby ‘Asiatic empires’ whose future, Deakin believed, would be bound up with the future of ‘our own tropical lands’ (Deakin 1893b:151).

Deakin returned to the theme of the close community of interests between Australia and India in Irrigated India, citing shared concerns over ‘trade and invasion, peace and war’ (Deakin 1893a:11). He saw considerable mutual benefit in closer trading links and believed that free trade policies created export opportunities for Australian products in India, while Indian products were likely to find a growing market in Australia. These trade links would then draw the two countries closer ‘year by year’. In addition, although Deakin was cautious about the future labour needs of northern Australia, he was prepared to make a case for the importation of Hindu workers, if ‘coloured’ labour should prove indispensable to northern development.

Deakin also turned briefly and rather tantalisingly to the intellectual implications of Australia’s proximity to India. He anticipated growing occasions for cultural interaction. ‘That intellectual give and take’, he wrote, ‘which is everywhere a stimulus to thought should be especially quick and prolific between Australasia, or Southern Asia, and its northern continent [India]’ (Deakin 1893a:13). Since travellers already flowed freely between the two countries, Deakin thought it reasonable to suppose that Indian students might be attracted to Australian universities and that Australian intellectuals might become authorities on India and its people. Since geography had brought Australia and India ‘face to face’ Deakin supposed that it might yet ‘bring them hand to hand, and mind to mind. They have much to teach each other’. Yet at the same time Deakin noted that many Australian colonists:

in their pride of descent and haughtiness of national feeling, seem apt to forget that they have made their homes neither in Europe nor America, but in Austral-Asia–Southern Asia–and that their fortunes may by this means be linked in the closest manner, in trade and in strife (Deakin 1893a:13).

Deakin’s use of the term ‘Southern Asia’ is of particular interest here, for it was a coinage that he hoped would encourage Australians to develop a more systematic awareness of how close they were to India. While Deakin acknowledged that Australians had made their homes on the edge of Asia, from his vantage point in 1890 this provided a golden opportunity to get to know India. He was ready to predict that India would have a growing and increasingly positive impact upon the cultural, spiritual and economic development of 20th-century Australia. Events, however, proved him wrong.

Deakin always remained deeply interested in Indian religions. He quoted the views of Sanskrit scholar and Oxford Professor, Max Müller, on how ancient India had been fundamental to the development of Western thought:

we know that all the most vital elements of our knowledge and civilization, our languages, our alphabets, our figures, our weights and measures, our art, our religion, our traditions, our very nursery stories, come to us from the East (Deakin 1893b:2).

But Deakin drew a sharp distinction between ancient thought and the ‘motley mass of degenerate and degraded beliefs’ which he believed constituted modern Hinduism (Deakin 1893b:51). In this, he also followed Müller’s opinions since Müller venerated the India of village communities 2000 years earlier but could argue in his private correspondence that degenerate modern India should best become Christianised (Müller 1892:7). Ancient India was readily celebrated while modern India and Indians were routinely disparaged (see Chaudhuri 1974; Rothermund 1986).

Deakin also subscribed to Müller’s view that ancient Indian literature could assist Europeans to develop a fuller, more perfectly realised inner life. At this time, Deakin was hardly alone in drawing a sharp contrast between the spiritual wisdom of the East and the material wealth of the West; between other-worldly and this-worldly approaches to life and its meaning. He pictured an ideally balanced civilisation as one that displayed Anglo-Saxon energies, which he greatly valued, but which could be deepened and enriched by the spiritual traditions of India. A century later this distinction between the spiritual East and the material West has been repeated to the point of cliché.

India not only had its own great religions, it also provided a fertile environment in which Western people in search of spiritual truths could develop new religious beliefs. One of the most important of these, emerging in the 19th century, was Theosophy. Jill Roe has shown how closely the rise of Theosophy in Australia can be related to the growing interest in Eastern religions in the late 19th century. Edwin Arnold’s celebration of Buddhism, The Light of Asia, first published in 1879, enjoyed great popularity. Its Australian readership is difficult to establish, though a character in Joseph Furphy’s Rigby’s Romance (1921) cites Arnold’s book as an indispensable spiritual guide (Kingston 1990; see also Godwin 1994). Deakin soon noted how Theosophy, the ‘latest doctrine’ from India was finding converts among ‘modern-minded men and women’ (Deakin 1893b:2). He joined the movement himself, albeit briefly, in February 1895. The imperial connection, which guaranteed a regular shipping service, aided those seeking this type of spiritual connection with India. A stopover on the way to England in 1882 allowed Professor John Smith of Sydney University to visit Bombay where he joined the Indian chapter of the Theosophical Society (Hoare & Radford 1976).

Those attracted to Theosophy were typically dissatisfied with the teachings and practices of institutional Christianity, yet were unable to do without some form of religious faith. The appeal of Theosophical thought to Australians at this time can be evidenced by an unpublished sketch of Wilton Hack, written for his children in 1907 to record his life and spiritual struggles. He outlines how his search for spiritual wisdom led him from Christianity to Freethought to Spiritualism and then to Theosophy. ‘I went through the most terrible misery when I gave up the Xtian platform’, he wrote. ‘I saw that the old dogmas were bad & untrue, but I had nothing to put in its place; & that state of mind is wretched indeed’. Hack journeyed to India and Ceylon ‘in search of wisdom & spiritual knowledge’. In the East he was sure he would find men of ‘great intellectual power’ with a ‘wonderful knowledge of Philosophy’ (Hack 1907:108). He visited Adyar, the Theosophical headquarters in India, where he worked as a librarian (Cross 1960). Returning to Ceylon, his attempt to initiate a mining venture ended in betrayal and bitterness. Only Theosophy, with its emphasis upon Brotherhood, could provide a stable point in his life. In the depths of despair and racked by illness, Hack turned to the Masters, the Mahatmas, the spiritually perfected ones, asking them to grant him a new beginning or put a swift end to his miserable existence. ‘During that night’, he wrote, ‘I awoke & there was a bright golden light about me’ (Hack 1907:83). Signs and occult messages persuaded him that the Masters had cured his physical and mental afflictions. On his return to Australia, Hack enjoyed the company of the ‘ladies and gentlemen of intellectual & mental prominence’ at the Adelaide branch of the Theosophical Society (Hack 1907:109). Yet, as will be seen later, for some others in the community, these small gatherings signalled the growth of a troubling pro-Eastern presence in Australia, a force to be counteracted.

As Roe (1986) reminds us, Theosophy spoke to its moment in history, to the ‘collapse of old prescriptions’ in the 1880s and the social turmoil that came with increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, both in Britain and her Australian colonies. It was one of a number of movements that ‘promised a new unity amid the bewildering changes of modern life’ (Roe 1986:54). The aim was to create a bridge between East and West. Using teachings from ancient Indian texts, Theosophy stressed the perfected inner life and the pursuit of a radiant spirituality. Its adherents believed Australia provided the ideal setting for spiritual awakening. They hoped the ‘light of Asia’ would shine brightly on Australia, a land whose providential purpose seemed to be to create a new race of beings of great spiritual sensitivity. Bernard O’Dowd, Melbourne poet, intellectual and parliamentary draughtsman, hoped for a new beginning in the Antipodes, among a race of ‘sun gods’ (Kennedy & Palmer 1954:105–106). He had studied Eastern wisdom throughout the 1880s.

Climatic affinities between tropical Queensland and India particularly encouraged the belief that Theosophy would flourish in Australia’s tropical regions. Indeed, by 1896 the Theosophical Society in Queensland had 80 members, a promising beginning for a new colony. Theosophists’ interest in Queensland stemmed from the belief that it provided the conditions suitable for the emergence of a new race. Madam Blavatsky, in her great tome The Secret Doctrine (1888), held that Mankind was divided into a number of root-races, each made up of various sub-races. Higher races supplanted lower races in an evolutionary cycle. She predicted that the Aryans, the fifth root-race, were at the end of the 19th century poised to evolve into a more spiritually perfected sixth root-race. The great event was expected to occur in California. But it quite possibly might also take place in Queensland which, Theosophists argued, had the right climate and a very promising population mix of British peoples augmented by Germans, Italians and Chinese. This was exactly the racial combination predicted for the emerging sixth root-race (Roe 1986:115). In these ideas, supported by its pursuit of spiritual truth and universal brotherhood, Theosophy challenged many concepts of racial exclusivity that had become so pervasive as themes in the intellectual debate at the end of the 19th century. Mainstream Australian opinion exhibited no enthusiasm for racial mixing under any pretext and was much more inclined to the view that Queensland’s future lay in the development of a climatically adapted white race, protected against tropical diseases and alert to the dangers of a tropical climate.

While Australians learned about India through many different channels, the most persistent conception of India was of an ancient land which had long been a source of deep spiritual truths. Fakirs, bearded prophets and philosophers seemed to spring from the soil. In 1924 The Pacific saluted antique India:

India is old. Before Egypt flourished India was. She saw Babylon rise and fall. Greece and Rome were but fragments of a passing dream beside the misty antiquity of this ancient Aryan land. That wisdom which she treasured through the ages she would give to the world were she but free and happy. She knows wonderful secrets of life (Girard 1924:4).

While the appeal of antique India persisted, the relevance of turbulent modern India as a guide to human conduct, with its complexities of caste, its crowded cities, dreadful diseases and awful poverty, was to fade for Australians as the 20th century wore on, not to be revived until the 1960s.

Works cited

‘Australian horses for India’ 1870, Town and Country Journal 5 February.

Bassett, Marnie 1962, The Hentys: An Australian colonial tapestry, Oxford University Press. (First published by Oxford University Press in 1954.)

Blavatsky, Helena 1888, The secret doctrine: the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy (3 volumes), Theosophical Publishing Company, London.

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1   This chapter was first published with the title ‘The Antique Orient’ in David Walker 1999, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850–1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

2   For more on Chisholm, Coverdale, Fyans and Macquarie, see their entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (Iltis 1966; Sorell 1966; Brown 1966; McLachlan 1967).

3   For more on early Australian trading links with Asia, see Tweedie (1994:12–21)

4   After spending ten years in India, Inglis came to Australia in 1877 where he prospered as a tea merchant. He was a prolific and popular author and prominent politician. For an account of his period in India, see his Our Australian Cousins (Inglis 1880:Chapter 1). For his involvement in the tea trade, see How a Great Firm Grew: The Story of the Tea Trade (Inglis 1901). His books on India, Tent Life in Tigerland and Sport and Work on the Nepaul Frontier, were published in a single volume (Inglis 1888). Inglis’s papers are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney (MSS6239, ML 1217/65). For the erosion of the Chinese tea market in Australia in the 1880s, see Sandra Tweedie (1994:26).

5   See also Chaudhuri (1979) and Brantlinger (1988:Chapter 7). For more recent Indian approaches to the subject, see Guha and Spivak (1988). For Australian responses to the Mutiny, see D’Cruz (1973).

6   For bibliographical information on Hingston and other Australian travellers abroad, see Pesman, Walker & White (1996)

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal