CHRISTMAS TRAVELS

We were at Yallambie and wondering where to go.
“What about carols?” said my good lady.
“She lives in Geelong. That’s too far to travel on Christmas Eve.”
“Not Carol’s.  I mean carols. The sort you sing.”
“Oh, I see. Then I suppose Noel’s is out of the question.”

It’s an unlikely story but Christmas carols in Yallambie usually means a bit of travelling. The only church, the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit on the corner of Yallambie and Greensborough Roads, was torn down in 1961.

All the same, “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas” and in the backstreets of our town right now the gardens and the exteriors of many Yallambie houses are already decorated with Christmas lights while nearby shopping centres have been adorned with Council sponsored ornament. Every year these shops begin posting their Christmas sales ever earlier, the sight of the Easter Bunny pulling a sleigh down Yallambie Rd a seemingly inescapable destiny.

An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).
An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).

The very first Christmas in what 50 years later, would become the Colony of Victoria, occurred in 1803 at the short-lived convict settlement at Sullivan Bay in Port Phillip near modern-day Sorrento. The weather that December remained blisteringly hot and fresh water was scarce. A more inhospitable or exposed location for a settlement could not be imagined but for homesick Englishmen far from the blazing Yule-log and holly bough of home, celebrating Christmas was a tradition, even if at Sullivan Bay it was not motivated by any particular sense of spiritual obligation.

David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).
David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).

Four days before Christmas Day, David Collins, the Lieutenant Governor of the settlement, ordered the stores to issue a pound of raisins to each person so that Christmas puddings could be made. In spite of the difficulties being experienced by the Sullivan Bay settlement at that time, it would seem from the record that Christmas was still an occasion for Old World ceremony. Plum puddings boiled in the oppressive heat of an Australian summer would become the prototype for the stereotypical Aussie Christmas but in December 1803 it was still all a very new experience. A time of goodwill and ghosts and an occasion to reflect on far away homes forever in exile.

As Christmas neared, those reflections took a turn. Some of those at Sullivan Bay were not so sure that Santa had their calling cards, lost as they were abroad in the wilds of this Great South Land. They decided to take matters into their own hands and in the early hours of Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1803, a few convicts stole from the settlement items including a kettle, a gun, boots and medical supplies. Not so much as a tin drum or toy trumpet among the whole Christmas shopping list, but these convicts, like Blackadder’s Baldrick, had a cunning plan.

“A daring robbery having been committed on Sunday morning in the Commissary’s tent, and the sick having been at the same time meanly plundered of their provisions in their tents by some person or persons at present unknown, the Lieut. Governor calls upon all the well-disposed persons in the settlement to aid and assist in bringing the offender or offenders to justice…” (General Orders, Sullivan Bay, 1803)

William Buckley from John Helder wedge's field book of 1835-6, (State Library Victoria).
William Buckley from the field book of John Helder Wedge,1835-6, (State Library Victoria).

Two days later on the 27th December, five convicts absconded from the settlement intending to “walk to China”. Four were never seen again (a sixth was shot by the garrison watch and severely wounded). The Sullivan Bay settlement itself was soon after abandoned in favour of the more promising Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) however the fifth escapee, William Buckley, lived on with Aboriginal people, learning their languages and their customs and becoming an accepted member of the tribes. He circumnavigated Port Phillip Bay, early on losing the kettle while crossing the Yarra River “falls” before eventually settling in the vicinity of the Bellarine Peninsula.

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )
John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )

More than 30 years later at the founding of Melbourne, Buckley emerged from the bush like a latter day Port Phillip Crusoe, carrying wooden spears and impressively dressed in native fashion to welcome John Batman’s party. Buckley, the “Wild White Man of Port Phillip” as he became known, would never really settle back comfortably into the European world but soon received a full if belated pardon from the colonial authorities proving once and for all that sometimes all our Christmases do indeed come at once.

"The first settlers discover Buckley", by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).
“The first settlers discover Buckley”, by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).

As an escapee from convict oppression, the story of William Buckley and his admission into an indigenous world unfamiliar to the land of his birth has a contemporary and somehow familiar ring as populations are displaced by change and internecine conflict across every part of this Pale Blue Dot. The corresponding rise in ethnic nationalism the world over highlights a need felt by all peoples for a tribal identity over and above even what they feel for the football team at the end of the street. Brexit and the movement for Scottish independence were driven by this, but closer to home the disconcerting One Nation movement in Australia is a part of this same social phenomena.

Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).
Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).

Last month in Eltham, just beyond the boundaries of Yallambie, about 100 anti-refugee protesters demonstrated against a proposal to install Syrian refugees at a former local care facility. One Nation declared the protest was nothing to do with them and in the end the rent the crowd that turned up was itself outnumbered by protesters protesting against the protesters. Eltham has a reputation for left leaning politics and liberal social values and has a historically strong artists’ community. The anti-protesters brightened up the streets in the days leading up to the “Battle of Eltham” by tying thousands of handmade, brightly painted butterflies to Eltham trees and stenciling butterfly images onto pavements in a show of solidarity with the refugees.

I was in Eltham on the day of the protest and saw some of the anti-refugee protesters in the street. They looked somehow out of place in those leafy Eltham surroundings. How is it, I wondered, that growing a bushy beard and donning a knee-length oilskin is supposed to make you a more patriotic Australian than the next man in a multicultural society? The answer of course is that it doesn’t. The underlying truth when you peel back the window dressing is that as a human race we enjoy more similarities than differences.

The writer photographed in a Syrian street.
The writer photographed in streets of Syria.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra.
Bel after ISIL
Bel after ISIL.

As a traveller in years past I have seen at first hand some of the points of origin of this latest installment in trans-border refugee movement. Travel is an enriching experience and has become almost an Australian rite of passage among young people but I find it hard now to equate the pictures I see of ruined buildings on news feeds with those far off places of my distant memory. I have walked those streets and wandered through the Al-Madina Souq of Aleppo. On occasion I was invited off the street into family homes where I was told that this was the way they would most like visitors to see them and not as governments have defined them. How could those places and those people have been bombed into ashes and their lives ground into so much dust? What does it feel like to lose your home, your livelihood and the lives of those you hold most dear? Surely we as a nation could do more to meet our moral obligation to the displaced peoples of this world?

Australia enjoys a remarkably stable, tolerant and inclusive democracy but we take very few refugees on the world scale. Our democracy is something most Australians take for granted and it must be one of the few places in the world where the government has enacted laws to obligate people to vote come election-day. As one wag at the ABC put it during the Australian Federal Election in July, in this country it’s all about the battle for the Australian political middle ground.

Mutuma Ruteere, a UN special rapporteur, this week warned that “fringe elements” were in danger of entering the political mainstream but he said that “Australia was not unique among western democracies in grappling with popular support for parties with discriminatory policies”.

It seems clear that extremist viewpoints are on the rise everywhere. When I was in the States in March this year a few months before our own Federal election I saw the then candidate for the Republican nomination campaigning on television in Fox advertorials, masquerading as current affairs which seemed to have been modelled on the illusory truth effect. I never doubted then that before too long the campaign of this most unlikely of US Presidential nominations would run out of puff. From a country of over 320 million people I asked myself, was this really the best they could come up with?

Who’d a thunk?

As a president time may show that, in spite of appearances, the election of a foul mouthed, misogynistic, xenophobic, tax avoiding casino mogul as unofficial leader of the Free World will prove to be the best thing for Americans since sliced bread. Stranger things have happened. I wouldn’t like to make a prediction but if nothing else, it certainly indicates some sort of a seismic shift although, like the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” who started walking around on their hind legs, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinction.

Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).
Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).

On the last day of November, 1835 soon after the founding of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner while ploughing for a potato bed near the falls on the virgin south bank of the Yarra, dug up an old and rusted kettle. Some settlers saw the pot as evidence that French or Spanish travellers had been at Port Phillip in a previous era but William Buckley recognized it as the pot he had lost all those years ago during his escape from Sullivan Bay.

Fawkner's house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).
Fawkner’s house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).

Fawkner secretly treasured this pot. During that first Christmas in 1835 at what was to become Melbourne, Fawkner saw it as link to that other settlement 32 years earlier. In his mind it somehow legitimized European presence on those Aboriginal lands, the legality of which remained (and remains) very unclear.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
“Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming at Yallambie…” Pastel by George Alexander Gilbert, (State Library Victoria, H29575)

Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming on the Plenty River at Yallambie. It was the start in Victoria in a wave of regular net migration into Australia that continues into the present day.

Tradition has it that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, the message of whose ministry 2000 years ago called on all people, even the poor and oppressed, to repent and love their enemies. It is a time when we wish peace and good will to all men (and women) and call for a better understanding for in a way, we are all travellers through life on this island earth.

This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.
This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.