Tag Archives: australian-american relations

Sausages at the Shrine of Remembrance

Last week I went to the book launch of Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45, a fascinating study of same sex relations between men during the Second World War, in Australia and the Pacific.

Much of the book is based in Brisbane, which for a brief time between 1942 and 1945, played a central role in the Pacific war effort. A million American servicemen passed through my hometown during these years. They were, according to the catchphrase, ‘Over paid, oversexed, and over here’ – and for some of them, as well as for the Australian servicemen and civilians they met, the turbulence of war brought with it new opportunities for sexual expression – and opportunities for new forms of sexual expression.

cover of Yorick Small Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific

Some of the people Smaal writes about were openly homosexual – or as open as it was possible to be at a time when such activity was illegal. Others were experimenting surreptitiously with homosex (Smaal’s preferred term) as a passing phase that they barely acknowledged to themselves.

Smaal is particularly interested in the geography of sexual encounters, so I found it fascinating to see my city laid out in a new way. My first memories of Brisbane date from the 1950s but my family’s stories go back to wartime experiences. My father used to tell the tale of seeing a man cooking sausages over the Flame in the Shrine of Remembrance in Anzac Square. When Dad questioned him, the man said he was an ex-serviceman, which seemed to be an adequate justification for his transgression. I wonder, though, if Dad realized at the time that this place was a gay beat?

At school, we were told not to wait for buses in the city at the covered bus stop in William St – another pick up point. And my mother’s dark but obscure references to the Pink Elephant Café make more sense now – the proprietor of the café was Frank Mitchell, a close associate of the artist Donald Friend, whose painting of naked men showering is on the cover of Smaal’s book. Mum visited the café as a teenager, all the same, though whether she met ‘Lana Turner’, ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the other cross-dressing waiters, she has never divulged.

By the standards of the day, I think my family was pretty relaxed about same sex relationships. My grandparents had a self-contained flat attached to their old Queenslander, which they rented out to a series of ‘confirmed bachelors’. One of them was the distinguished poet Val Vallis. My grandmother got on famously with them, and many of them came to her funeral.

Smaal’s research for this book is remarkable. Sodomy was illegal, so there are numerous court and police records – both civilian and military, Australian and American – and he has made good use of these. Many consensual encounters never reached the courts, though, especially if the participants were discreet and could conduct their encounters in privacy, though this was not always easy in a military setting. Smaal has interviewed a few remaining survivors of this era, and has used earlier interviews from the 1980s onwards. There are also memoirs and diaries. Faces are pixellated and pseudonyms are used where an unexpected revelation could cause someone embarrassment.

Sources on sex are always hard to come by, and so are sources on illegal activities, so Smaal is working under a double disadvantage, but one of the characteristics of military organizations is that they are vast bureaucratic regimes with a capacity for generating endless paperwork – the raw material of historians.

Both the Australian and the American armies worried about homosexuality within their ranks, and its implications for the civilian community. These concerns were less moralistic than practical: as with women in the army today, the top brass worried that consensual same sex relationships might change the group dynamics of the fighting unit. They worried about non-consensual sex, or sex with young boys (though since all homosex was illegal, no legal age of consent existed). They worried about venereal disease.

Smaal looks beyond Brisbane to other places across the South Pacific where soldiers met and mingled – and encountered other races and cultures, with different attitudes towards homosexual relations, looking particularly at the experiences of the Australians in New Guinea and the Americans in New Caledonia.

Studies of same sex relations can often be a rather cheerless read, partly because medical and criminal records invariably form an important part of the research on which they are based. What I like particularly about Smaal’s book is that his subjects are not constantly viewed in the dock, or under the microscope, but were frequently joyful participants of the world they inhabited, ‘a very social world. Australian girls and US belles made their own fun. Friends and lovers organized regular get-togethers and sing songs.’ [83] It sounds like the obverse of the nurses and marines in South Pacific, and no doubt it was fun – though the slightly hysterical fun that young men on a battlefront engage in, constantly aware of their own mortality in a war zone.

It was a world that operated below the radar. Though many of the men Smaal describes were good soldiers and brave men, they inhabited a world that was out of kilter with the dominant narrative of manly fighting men and the Anzac spirit. As Robert Aldrich said, when he launched the book last Thursday, the word ‘Anzac’ is even missing from the index – and how good is that.

The President and the Barmaid

And I spent my soul in kisses, crushed upon your scarlet mouth,
Oh! My red-lipped, sun-browned sweetheart, dark-eyed daughter of the south.

With all the kissing and cuddling that’s been going on lately between Barack Obama and Julia Gillard, maybe it’s time to quote the words of another American President with a thing for Australian women.

I have heard several times in the last week that until LBJ came to Harold Holt’s funeral in 1967, no American President had visited Australia.  The truth is, Australia is a long way from the rest of the world.  Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said (though I can’t find hard evidence) that he had never visited Australia, because he had never been on the way to Antarctica.  So it is not surprising that world leaders didn’t visit Australia before the era of fast air travel.  Nowadays, of course, they all find an excuse to come, especially during the northern winter.

But in fact, one American President spent a considerable time in Australia and left his mark on it.

President Hoover stamp 1965

Hoover stamp, 1965, from Wikimedia

Herbert Hoover arrived in Kalgoorlie as a young geologist straight out of Stanford University, in 1897. Continue reading

Oh Shenandoah! Australians in the American Civil War

Confederate Navy Jack, courtesy of Wikipedia

Americans this week are marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour on 11 April 1861.  As a result, American historians and journalists have been looking at the long term effects of that war on any number of issues – race relations, naturally, but also other fault lines that, to an outsider, still seem remarkably raw, 150 years on.

The impact of that war on Australia was marginal – Queenslanders started growing cotton as the world price rose, the newspapers covered the story, there was a minor diversion of immigrants from America to Australia – but in general, it was all a long way off.  But a few dozen Australians played a tiny but embarrassing part in the war, and eventually cost Great Britain a fortune.

In January 1865, the Confederate steam ship Shenandoah sailed into Port Phillip Bay in need of repairs and fresh crew.  By then, the land war was going badly for the Confederates.  Britain – and therefore her colonies – were neutral in the war, so although the American Consul in Melbourne objected, Melbourne turned out in force to meet and greet the captain and crew.

Sydney had a long history of welcoming visiting naval ships, not just British, but French, German, Russian or American – just so long as they weren’t at war with Britain at the time.  Their officers were usually presentable young men in uniform who enhanced a ballroom; their crews brought good money for the pubs and brothels of The Rocks.  Melbourne, less than 30 years old, had less experience of dealing with foreign naval ships, so the arrival of CSS Shenandoah caused great excitement.

…now comes an American representative to testify the reality of that fierce fratricidal contest which interests us all so much,’ wrote the Melbourne Argus on 26 January.  ‘Melbourne yesterday was startled by the telegraphic announcement that a Confederate war steamer had entered the Heads, and report was confirmed by a large steamer, with something of a warlike aspect, casting anchor, a little before sundown, at an easy distance from the Sandridge Pier.

What was Shenandoah doing in the Pacific, anyway?  While the Civil War dragged on up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the Pacific American seamen continued to hunt for whales.  Most whalers were New Englanders, so closely linked to the Union cause.  The CSS Shenandoah set out to destroy these whalers, and other merchant ships, as a way of attacking the Union’s economic base.  This was, after all, a war in which civilians were targeted by both sides.

When Shenandoah arrived in Victoria, she had already sunk a number of ships, with an unknown loss of life, and the people of Melbourne knew it.  As the Argus wrote,

The Shenandoah has not been unsuccessful in her mission of destroying the enemy’s shipping, having altogether taken eleven or twelve sail of all kinds, and some nine chronometers on board are trophies of large vessels captured between this and the Cape of Good Hope….

Perhaps it says something about conditions aboard the ship that a number of crew deserted in Melbourne, while some prisoners, including two women, were also released.  Captain Waddell badly needed to recruit new crew, and American ships had been signing up Australian crew since convict times, often in the teeth of official opposition.   He had no trouble finding about 40 local men, who joined the Shenandoah on the day she left Melbourne, 18 February.

Shenandoah then resumed her attacks on American shipping.  Back home in America, the war drew to a close – General Lee’s troops negotiated a surrender on 11 April, on 14 April Lincoln was assassinated, Jefferson Davis was captured on 10 May.  But in the North Pacific, Captain Waddell continued the war.  These were the peak months for the whaling industry around the Arctic Circle, and on 28 June he captured and destroyed 10 whalers in a single day. Waddell heard about Lee’s surrender at the end of June, but it was only at the beginning of August that he finally accepted that the war was truly over, and sailed to Liverpool to surrender.

In all, Shenandoah destroyed 25 ships in the months after leaving Melbourne, most of them after the war ended.  Which meant that most of those attacks were not acts of war, but of piracy, and amongst her crew were a number of British subjects who shouldn’t have been there anyway.  In 1871, Britain paid the re-United States £820,000 damages, for the actions of her subjects, as well as for providing repairs for the ship at Williamstown.

Why did those Victorian men join up? Most were probably out for adventure, rather than any ideological commitment to the Confederate cause.  But Australian colonists were sympathetic to separatist causes in general – both Victoria and Queensland had only recently separated from New South Wales.  Besides, by 1865 the gold rush was over, and many ex-diggers were unemployed.

And they shared the racist attitudes of the Old South.  As Exhibit A, here is the flag that was brandished by rioters who destroyed Chinese diggings at Lambing Flats in 1861, the year that the Civil War began.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that it seems to have been modelled on the Confederate flag – which was known, ironically, as the Southern Cross.

Whalers in the Pacific

Maritime archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a whaling ship on a reef near the French Frigate Shoals, nearly 600 miles northwest of Honolulu.  And not just any ship either.

The captain of the Two Brothers was George Pollard Jr, the Nantucket captain who had lost his previous ship, the Essex, in dramatic circumstances, when it sank after it was rammed by a sperm whale, while most of the crew were in small whaleboats, away from the mother ship.  Pollard and the cabin boy were eventually rescued, but by then they had resorted to cannibalism.

The Sydney Gazette reported the details:

‘They had been 90 days at sea before they were fallen in with [by the Hope, which rescued them], and had experienced the most dreadful of all human vicissitudes; from the extremity of hunger they had been reduced to the painful necessity of killing and devouring each other, in order to sustain a wretched life, that was hourly expected to be terminated.  Eight times had lots been drawn, and eight human beings had been sacrificed to afford sustenance to those that remained; and, on the day the ship encountered them, the Captain and the boy had also drawn lots, and it had been thus determined that the poor boy should die!  Providentially, a ship hove in sight and took them in, and they were restored to existence.’

Cannibalism in these extreme circumstances was known as ‘the custom of the sea’.  Not surprisingly, it aroused fascination (it still does!), but was hedged about by certain conventions. Whatever the hierarchy within the crew, everyone, from captain to cabin boy, went in the draw. Drawing lots was morally important; it wasn’t done to pick on the weakest member of the crew.

Surprisingly, given this background, George Pollard went back to sea in another whaler, Two Brothers, the ship that has just been discovered where it was wrecked, 3 years later, in 1823.

Colonial Australia was a maritime nation, and our first contacts with America were based on common seafaring enterprises, in particular the whaling industry.  In America, the industry was based in a few New England ports, especially Nantucket.  These whalers were often reluctant revolutionaries, since they lost their markets, and their contacts with the big British whaling firms.  A few, such as the famous Ebor Bunker, even relocated to the new British colony of New South Wales.

Herman Melville recognised the Australian connection, when he wrote in Moby Dick in 1851:

‘That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman.  After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale ship touched there.  The whale ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony.’

As Melville knew, American ships rounding the Horn into the Pacific in pursuit of whales often stopped off in the ports of Sydney and Hobart. In June 1805, for instance, The Brothers from Nantucket arrived in Sydney, heading for the southern fishery.  They sailed south to fish during the short summer months, and were back in Sydney by April 1806.  (Was The Brothers related in some way to Two Brothers?  I don’t know – I’ve also found other American ships named Three Brothers and The Sisters visiting Sydney during these decades.)

The whalers were away from their home ports for years on end, so they often sailed into the Pacific with a skeleton crew, picking up replacements in Sydney and Hobart (including convicts, which could get them into trouble with the authorities).  And American sailors deserted in these ports too.

Like all hunters, the whalers followed the migration patterns of their prey. There are northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks and right whales, which rarely overlap.  They spend the summer months near the north or south poles where they fatten on krill, then travel south or north towards the equator to breeding grounds to calve and mate.   This is when they are at their most vulnerable – but also when their stores of blubber have been depleted.  The trick for the whalers was to find the breeding grounds just as the whales arrived, still plump from their summer feed.  One such place is north of Hawaii, where Two Brothers was wrecked.

Alternatively they could try their luck for the greater prize, the sperm whale.  Whale oil from the baleen whales (filter feeders) was used for general purposes, such as street lighting – but was too smelly to be burnt indoors.  Baleen, the sheets of cartilage they use to filter food, was also valuable – it is the ‘whalebone’ of corsets, for instance, and was used where we would use plastics today.

Spermaceti oil, from sperm whales, was much more valuable.  It made the best quality candles (one candle watt equals the light of one spermaceti candle), and it lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution.  Jet engines were still using spermaceti oil in the 1950s.  Sperm whales are carnivores, more intelligent, and much more dangerous, to whalers or giant squid alike.

Moby Dick was a sperm whale.  The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s novel, as well as a recent non-fiction best seller, In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The Sydney Gazette reported on that fierce tussle between whale and whalers:

And so on.  These days, for most of us, our sympathies lie with the whale, not the whaler.  But it was a cruel trade for both.


BBC News report

Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade: the saga of south seas whaling (1999) – great title, great book!

Sydney Gazette, 9 June 1821 extracts from the National Library of Australia’s site Trove: Digitised newspapers and more