Battle of Mordialloc

I was intrigued by Edward Maitland’s The Battle Of Mordialloc as I thought it might contain some good local description from the 1880’s. How did the Europeans first impact on the flat floodplains south of Mentone prior to the coming of the car and the containing of the rivers and streams within defined channels? What was the birdlife like and was there a remnant population of ‘roos and wallabies bouncing around? I know so little of the natural history of my local region.
This is not that book. The author didn’t know the answers to those questions as he hadn’t lived in Victoria for 30 years. The book’s theme is given by the subtitle: How we lost Australia. It is an “Invasion novel” which contains a couple of morals within it; the strongest being that Australia must remain loyal to the British Empire. Invasion novels became popular in the UK in the 1870s and remained so until 1914, when the issue became a little too pointed for escapist fiction. The Battle of Mordialloc is a spinoff of the genre directed to the colonies. The secondary moral of the story related to the dangers of Australians playing with a cocktail of democracy, nationalism and anti Chinese xenophobia. The author also thinks that a secular education which does not teach religious observance and history will fail to produce a well balanced and competent electorate.
The plot involves an alliance of the Russians and Chinese sending a joint force of 55,000 soldiers to invade the newly independent Victoria in 1897 after cutting the telegraphic cable which was Australia’s sole high speed communications link to rest of the world. Having done this they sneakily attack from Hastings on Melbourne Cup Day, thus catching the Victorian military horribly under prepared. The battle is joined at Mordialloc, “a watering station 16 miles from Melbourne” where the soldiers have slept in the scrub to the north of the creek. The hopelessly outnumbered Victorians are defeated by the invaders and the survivors beat a hasty retreat to Melbourne where they hole up in St Patrick’s cathedral as larrikins take advantage of the collapse of order to lay waste to mansions in Toorak, Armadale and Malvern. Port Philip becomes “a Russian lake”.
The story is told in a journal written by a soldier in the Victorian army who escaped to England and is returning with the British invasion force a year later. Sadly, he does not live to see the British Empire once more victorious in Australia, dying before the final victory.
Bizarrely, Victorians were afraid of a Russian invasion in the late 19th century and this book reflected those fears. Our very own Victorian Navy, with HMVS Cerberus as its flagship, was built up to counter a supposed Russian threat.
The book doesn’t provide a description of the life, economy and ecology of late 19th century Mordialloc but it still offers a few insights within its 67 pages.
“An enormous territory capable of supporting its present population a hundred times twice told.”
This overestimated the ecological carrying capacity of Australia under any possible form of human occupation. The soils are thin and old and much of the land is desert or near desert. If nothing else, there would not be enough water for 600 million human beings.
“Perhaps in no part of the world were the artisan and labouring classes better paid, better clothed and fed or more comfortably housed than ours.”
British Empire chauvinism here, but it would have been either Australia or the USA. Certainly the artisan and labouring classes were more likely to get ahead via collective action in Australia as the union movement was about to move onto the political stage with the founding of the Labour Party in the 1890’s. In the USA it was the Gilded Age when the capitalists and politicians occasionally sent in the Pinkerton’s agents to do their workplace negotiating for them. The Haymarket protests and shootings had taken place in Chicago in 1886, leading to the establishment of May Day as a day of left wing commemoration. From the early 20th century the per capita GDP in the USA would have moved well ahead of that of Australians.
“There seemed no earthly reason why we should not go on for ever, crushing quartz and exporting wool, growing richer and richer until the crack of doom.”
Just ask any two bit Australian billionaire and she will tell you the same thing. Donald Horne secured his reputation as an intellectual gadfly in the 1960’s by ironically proclaiming Australia as the Lucky Country. Our politicians rarely follow up with rest of the quote: Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.
The germs of dissension in the social fabric were attributed to the fact that there were many different religions professed by Australians, although almost all white Australians professed some variant of Christianity. As such, it was thought advisable not to teach religion or history in our State Schools because it would upset some creed or other. Roman Catholicism, we’re looking at you. This was less of a modern sledge at multiculturalism and its attendant evils than nostalgia for the days when the central role of the Anglican Church was guaranteed by the state.
“In no country, perhaps (I write, be it remembered, of my native Victoria) could a more dangerous experiment been tried with the education of its rising youth.
Sundered from the past, the rising generation grew up for the most part strangers to the traditions of religion and loyalty, and breathing an atmosphere of the densest materialism. Heirs of the ages, they knew nothing, and could know nothing of their birthright.”
“So far as the rising generation was concerned religion and government, art, science and literature might have dropped down ready made from the skies.”
Plato may have been the first to point out that the rising generation were uncultured and had no respect for their elders and betters. For myself, while I had some valid, measured and well intentioned criticisms of my parent’s generation I, too, have noticed that my children are lacking in respect.
“Ambitious time-serving politicians and irresponsible agitators – the curse of democracies – saw, in a skilful manipulation of the Chinese question a sure means of personal advancement.”
Politicians playing the race card to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt among the voters have a long and ignoble heritage. “We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” You can probably whistle those words in such a way that your dog will hear them.
“How long, I ask, are the people of this growing empire to be governed by a trumpery island in the German Ocean, hardly big enough to furnish decent sheep runs for a score of squatters? When the British Empire busts up, as it is pretty certain to one of these days, we shall be forced to shift for ourselves, whether we like it or no. ….. a united Australia should now be strong enough, single handed, to drive into the sea any force which might possibly be brought against her.”
So spake the voice of confident Australian nationalism in the 1880’s, at least in fiction. In practice Australia was happy to ride along with the British Empire for another 60 years or so until it became impossible to base a defence policy around a declining regional power. Singapore has fallen!
“England, France and Germany and the rest of them may go on exterminating one another in their cockpits for aught we care. We shall send them as much wool and frozen meat as they may require to keep up the game.”
That would have been a useful attitude to adopt in August 1914 but no Australian politician could conceive of standing alone outside the British Empire and so our national myth of a nation baptised in blood trying to beat up on the Turks for no apparent reason was born, and still provides a useful guide to Australia’s approach to war. Imperial power says jump; Australia says “How high?”
“The moment we cease to be a member of the British Empire, that moment the German, the Russ, the Frenchman will be thundering at our gates.”
Thus far our (non-aboriginal) experience of invasion consists of some Japanese bombing of Darwin during WWII and a farfetched attempt to land some mini submarines in Sydney …. to do what, exactly? The logistics of mounting an invasion of Australia would be horrendous and the preparations would be fairly obvious to those charged with our defence. This side of tactical nukes taking out our major cities, (again, to what end?) the most obvious strategic threat to Australia would surely be an AQ type cell structure undertaking acts of random terror. Again, absent some massively coordinated jihad (against Australia!), this is likely to at most cause some infrastructural damage and a few thousand casualties. Think New York, London, Madrid since 2001. Life goes on.
The Battle of Mordialloc was a scary story for adults written 125 years ago involving threats poorly understood by the people who would buy the book: Russians, Chinese, the loss of telegraphy. Today we have books about asteroids, Ebola viruses or “rogue” computer hackers / financial geniuses to scare us more sophisticated readers. Thanks to SLV for putting it online; even though it is useless about the history of Mordialloc.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
This entry was posted in Books, Melbourne, Nineteenth Century, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Battle of Mordialloc

  1. Pingback: One Perfect Day I’ll get your Telegram | Greg Tangey

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