Category Archives: Politics

Matthew Flinders – hello, sailor!

By Michael Burge 

SPECULATION about the sexual orientation of iconic English seaman Matthew Flinders rose like a colourful maritime flag over a decade ago when previously unknown letters surfaced, including emotionally charged passages written by Flinders to fellow explorer George Bass.

In his 2007 Meanjin article “Exploring love: did they or didn’t they?” historian Garry Wotherspoon asserted: “If the excerpts from Flinders’ letter to Bass had been written to a person of the opposite sex, we would be in little doubt as to what sort of relationship it was or what kinds of hope and expectation it had once contained”.

It’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.

“We would probably even confidently presume a sexual component in it, a basis in physical feelings if not actions. The possibility of a physical side to or a sexual element in Bass and Flinders’ relationship should therefore be acknowledged and considered.”

In the years since, little acknowledgement or consideration has been given to the sexuality of either man.

NAVIGATING HOMOPHOBIA Matthew Flinders (1774-1814).

Historians are invariably baffled by Flinders in particular. Many of his extraordinary reactions lead them to describe such moments as out-of-character; but for anyone genuinely wanting to understand him, it’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.

Both Lincolnshire-born, Bass and Flinders met on a voyage to Australia in 1795 onboard the HMS Reliance. Once in the new colony, the two made a series of expeditions together. First it was short trips along waterways close to Port Jackson. Eventually, onboard the Norfolk, they circumnavigated Tasmania.

It’s tempting to paint all kinds of Brokeback Mountain-style possibilities for two unmarried men isolated on vessels in far-flung locations.

“There was a time, when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure …” Flinders wrote to Bass towards the end of this period, “And yet it is not clear to me that I love you entirely …”

Both men returned to England on separate ships in 1800 – the year of Flinders’ ‘love’ letter – and were married within six months of one another.

Bass soon left on a trading mission to the southern hemisphere in January 1801, leaving Flinders’ letter at home, where Mrs Bass – Elizabeth – had plenty of time to consider its contents and form the response she penned onto the letter itself.

“This, George, is written by a man who bears a bad character … no one has seen this letter but I could tell you many things that makes me dislike him,” she wrote.

Her warning was given during a major turning point in Flinders’ life.

He shocked his friends and family by responding to a suggestion of marriage from a friend, Ann Chapelle, who he’d discouraged in previous letters.

HMS sloop Investigator in 1802.
MARRIAGE VESSEL HMS sloop Investigator.

Then he went so far as to invite her to return to Australia with him, keeping the reality of the Admiralty’s strict rules on wives from her until she was forced to get her things off the HMS Investigator and let him embark.

What the speed and the controversy of the marriage achieved was widespread gossip within the Admiralty and his circle that painted Flinders as a fervently married man.

Any Brokeback-style expeditions were off the cards in the following years for Bass and Flinders, whose paths did not cross again. Bass captained the Venus on trading jobs to New Zealand and Tahiti, while Flinders completed the first circumnavigation of Australia.

By the time the Investigator docked in Sydney in 1803, Bass had departed on the Venus bound for Tahiti and South America on a voyage for which there remains no known end – the ship and her crew all disappeared completely.

Flinders also had problems returning to his wife, when, in December 1803, he was arrested on the island of Mauritius, a French-held colony.

Much has been made of Flinders’ seven-year imprisonment at the order of Mauritian Governor Charles Decaen. The records revolve around spying accusations against Flinders and his incorrect passport, understandable concerns considering the English and the French were at war.

But what if homophobic whispers had pursued Flinders to the southern hemisphere? 

By the time Flinders limped into Mauritius in his damaged schooner the Cumberland, Decaen had heard of Monsieur “Flandaire”, probably from French captain Nicolas Baudin.

French captain Nicolas Baudin.
CORDIAL CAPTAIN?  Nicolas Baudin.

Baudin and Flinders had two previous encounters onboard Baudin’s ship, the Géographe, off the coast of southern Australia in early 1802.

After much flag-raising and shouting, when Flinders pulled the Investigator next to Baudin’s vessel and boarded, the men had the stilted, competitive discussion about charts and landmarks that has become folklore in the maritime history of both nations.

Researchers Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby had another look at the accounts of the Flinders-Baudin meetings in their 2005 essay A Cordial Encounter?

“Certain discrepancies between the accounts of the two captains are difficult to explain,” they wrote. “These have generally been attributed to communication difficulties between the French navigator and his English-speaking counterpart”.

“This assumption, however, is far from self-evident. We have thus chosen to canvass the full range of possible explanations for the conflicting accounts of that meeting, including the hypothesis that Flinders, who is generally considered a reliable witness, may indeed have misrepresented his encounter with Baudin.”

But the one possibility they neglected was that Nicolas Baudin knew a homosexual when he saw one.

Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will.

Eleven years prior to this encounter, the French Revolution recognised the existence of homosexuality when it left consensual, private sexual relations between two men out of the French Penal Code of 1791 (and again in 1810).

Before this, gay men could be burned at the stake if caught in sexual acts. As a consequence of the change, they were generally free to be themselves in public.

Compare that with Flinders’ place of birth, where, at the time of his meeting with Baudin, Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 still listed sodomy as a hanging crime. Consequently, writing love letters would only have been for the extremely courageous.

Baudin arrived in Mauritius, and died there of tuberculosis, just months before Flinders’ incarceration. Its doesn’t require a great leap to imagine him describing Flinders to Decaen as “pédéraste pétulant” instead of “un navigateur qualifiés”.

We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will, from letters the French Governor received from the explorer.

Decaen requested Flinders dine with he and his wife on the second day of Flinder’s detention. Flinders, who’d refused to remove his hat when he met the Governor, declined the olive branch and kept to his prison room dusting-off more missives.

His responses were so stinging that the Governor never repeated his invitation and kept this bird in a cage for a further seven years. 

The cage wasn’t entirely austere for Flinders – trips to the theatre and stays with local aristocrats, and parole for extended periods, took place in a civilised French colonial society which tolerated any gay rumours and allowed him to pass the time writing.

But Decaen maintained his personal control over Flinders’ detention, even contravening Napoleon’s 1806 directive to free the Englishman. The Governor’s excuse was the kind of blanket term used to beleaguer Oscar Wilde: Flinders was dangerous.

After his release and return to England in 1810, where he continued writing on his many groundbreaking explorations, Flinders’ ill health brought about his untimely death at the age of forty.

Yet his remarkable achievements resulted in inexplicable omission from the ranks of the Royal Society, the Admiralty’s old boys’ club that may, like Baudin, Decaen and Mrs Bass before them, have suspected the truth.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS COVER PR (4)Michael Burge is an Australian writer and journalist with an upcoming podcast and book about homophobia in Australia – Questionable Deeds.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords


Gough Whitlam’s liberal legacy

By Michael Burge 

IT took me almost half my lifetime to work out what I owe Gough Whitlam.

The second son of a NSW grazier and a nurse from Sydney’s north shore who gave up her career to have kids, I was a five-year-old when Whitlam was dismissed. At twelve I was given a fearful lesson on what would happen if the Australian Labor Party ever got back into power, which consisted of a darkly-uttered statement: They’ll spend all the money the country has, just like they did under Gough.

By then my family was a victim of the D-word (‘divorce’), a fate no other family seemed prone to, one that was uttered behind cupped hands. Mum still wore her wedding ring and kept her married name. It makes things easier, she said.

Gough Whitlam got conservatives in Australia on the move in the late 1960s and they have never stopped running.

At 18, I saw Gough and Margaret Whitlam enter a lecture hall at Sydney University. Not making for the stage, that practical pair equipped with a rug for both laps and a thermos, but for whichever spare seats they could find. A ripple of recognition ran through the capacity crowd, which turned into an electric standing ovation. Both acknowledged the accolade, and proceeded to dampen our enthusiasm with a few waves of their long arms, because they didn’t want to distract proceedings.

They seemed harmless, the instantly recognisable yet strangely anonymous Whitlams, portrayed as villains on both sides of my city-country family, so I started asking questions.

My parents didn’t vote for Gough, it just wasn’t done on the land, but mum did reveal when asked about life during the Whitlam era that when it came to the survey on changing Australia’s national anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair, two votes – hers and my father’s – were registered in the affirmative in our region. I turned this seed of progressive thinking in my family into a world of possibilities.

Soon after, I left Australia for six years. A political and economic dunce up to that point, the experience of living in another economy taught me everything that being a high achiever at private school never could.

In post-Thatcher Britain all the elements of an economic rationalist society were at work. Working alongside people who had families to feed for the same meagre weekly return as I managed, I started to realise how stacked the deck was. The cost of living was extortionate, the financial burden on the average family of a day trip to the coast so prohibitive that many I knew just stayed at home. What if that happened in Australia? I thought. A trip to the beach only for the very wealthy? Imagine how Australians would complain!

Returning home for breaks, I suddenly saw my country for the vibrant place it was, full of life, light and colour, whereas England was an economic web, waiting to trip you up if you didn’t feed the machine like you had to feed the electricity meter with pound coins. I decided to come home and embrace the land I was born in before it changed beyond recognition, and I only just got back before the damage really started. Ever since coming home I have despaired at the way Australia has bought the economic line of leaders intent on emulating Thatcher and her P-word (‘privatisation’) here.

Today, I feel like I have lost a family member. All day the media has covered reaction and response, from Prime Ministers past to an indulgent set of speeches in the House of Representatives, and I have tried to work out why.

Walking the dogs after work it struck me how distracted we are by the loss of Gough, because he has become so ingrained in our nation’s consciousness. For progressives, he’s held in our hearts, but his actions are possibly most ingrained in the hearts and minds of Australian conservatives, those who live under the great Australian misnomer of ‘Liberal’, because Gough came to embody their greatest fear – that people are infinitely more important than economies.

FIRST COUPLE Gough and Margaret Whitlam at the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generation, 2008.
FIRST COUPLE Gough and Margaret Whitlam at the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generation, 2008.

Gough didn’t think that way, and he didn’t act that way – he simply gave us what we needed.We live in a world where a tsunami created by an earthquake can occur in front of our very eyes, live on television, and yet the commentary, response and analysis is not about the people dying on a screen in our living room, it is about whether the economy will survive, forget about the people. I feel this same lack of compassion in the Ebola and Iraq coverage and the lack of action it inspires in Australians.

When my family found peace away from the expectations of ‘happy marriage’ for the childrens’ sake, and didn’t have to find someone at fault and someone to play the victim, that was Whitlam’s legacy.

When my mother needed to work and still had nursing up her sleeve, started at a local hospital as a casual and ended up being night supervisor for a decade, her self-determined life as a single mother was Whitlam’s legacy.

My presence in that lecture hall, a student at an Australian university, free of charge, that was Whitlam’s legacy. My right to vote that same year, my eighteenth, was probably far more significant, although I didn’t understand it at the time.

I hope he felt the greatest compassion for himself after the dismissal. When I consider how he never seemed bitter, I feel a strong life lesson about failure, because even in the midst of his ‘well may we say …’ speech, a wry smile that always reminded me of Dame Edna crept up his mouth and projected his profile out to the crowd. Bitterness could have taken him away much sooner after such a diminishing moment, but he lived almost forty more years after that speech – my lifetime.

Gough Whitlam got conservatives in Australia on the move in the late 1960s and they have never stopped running, afraid of debt and deficit and spending money on people or places where it’s needed, as though money is a thing of power that could do something positive while stashed away in a nation’s coffers. For a man who was so ingloriously dismissed, I loved the way Gough dismissed economically fearful Australians with such panache, and held to account those who think it’s okay to make huge money by doing nothing.

Instead of wishing he’d had more time, or wishing he’d not been dumped, I want to see the whole thing in reverse, just like Malcolm Fraser does. Australian conservatives have simply been reactionary, because progressive thinking has been in Australia’s driving seat ever since Menzies. It took losing Gough to see it.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

France, a country driven by différence

300px-Eoliennes_d'Is-en-BassignyBy Michael Burge Photo: Wikipedia

IT’S safe to assume our Treasurer Joe Hockey would not have enjoyed a trip to France with Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this month.

There’s just too many wind turbines across the French landscape. Hockey would have been offended every few kilometres.

I should know, I spent hours admiring the French commitment to clean wind-generated energy as endless, slender, spinning white needles slid past on my high-speed rail journey into the heartland of the country’s southwest.

In the region known as the Lot (with its capital Cahors), massive forests reach wide green arms into built-up areas and quickly swallow visitors into an ancient rural landscape which still sustains its farming industries.

These abundant forests are not national parks, but a regularly harvested source of timber and firewood, large and well-managed enough that supply is not threatened and wildlife has a permanent refuge alongside livestock.

LOCAL FARE White asparagus at Cahors market.
White asparagus at Cahors market.

Supporting the regional agricultural economy, serious fresh food markets take place in most towns a few days every week, a vibrant and profitable exchange of local produce and other goods for the benefit of residents. Compare that to token farmers’ markets once a month, begrudgingly permitted by local chambers of commerce in Australia.

Every day, street sweepers (teams of people with brooms employed by the local council) clean the towns. Not just a cursory brush here and there, but every cigarette butt and scrap of paper.

Far from major cities, reliable service connects people to the internet without the same dropout I regularly encounter at home, a mere 35 kilometres from the central business district of Brisbane.

But the greatest surprise, for me, came with the palpable sensation of creativity happening all around me.

Millennia-old heritage architecture abounds. Wherever recent building work has been undertaken, it complements townscapes instead of fighting against them. Modern repairs are completed with ancient building techniques. New properties are built in the same manner as homes that are hundreds of years old. Satellite dishes and solar panels are positioned to blend in. From their homes, to their public spaces and their everyday items, the locals are not afraid of heritage or design.

Local theatres, cinemas, galleries and ateliers (artist ‘workshops’) are in high saturation. Their output is not tourist fodder, but art for art’s sake.

In a region whose food export relies heavily on dubious animal welfare principles (foie gras, anyone?), and where hunting is commonplace, I spotted the word ‘vegetarian’ more often in advertising than I have ever encountered it in Queensland, where I’ve had a worse time as a veggo than a homosexual.

Travelling with my husband, we didn’t sense a hint of homophobia. Same-sex marriage has been legal in France for a year.

About now, you might be thinking: “If it’s so great, why don’t you move there?”, along the lines of the ‘Australia: love it or leave it’ principle.

Well, we did go into a real estate agent in the Medieval town of Gourdon, only to find that our dream home (a flat above a 15th century shop) was on the market for 55,000 euro (just under AU$80,000). Tempting enough to admit that I really don’t love Australia to the point that I would never leave it.

As we left the region, I got the sense that I was returning to a world that is busy destroying itself. There is no doubt in the Lot they know that they’ve got, culturally and environmentally, and they are busy protecting it.

I felt bereft as this special place disappeared in the wake of the high-speed rail journey back to Paris, where the sight of cars plugged into electrical recharging points, which have become part of the very infrastructure of the streets, was a sign that even French cities are connected to an alternative present, not just dreams of a different future.

No one demographic dominates the Paris population. Mass immigration has resulted in the kind of melting pot of cultures which goes well beyond tolerance of unfamiliar cuisine. Both days we were in the city, loud, peaceful political protests for Sri Lankan and other refugees occurred. Australia’s base fears about racial and cultural differences, and our government’s cry that we are being overrun by asylum seekers, simply fade into the multicultural Parisienne haze.

Western masterpieces are just the tip of the iceberg.
Western masterpieces are just the tip of the iceberg.

At The Louvre, all the great Western masterpieces are on show, but included in this ‘greatness’ were acres of decorative arts from the Muslim world in the museum’s permanent collection.

Yes, I could be accused of seeing the grass as greener through my rose-coloured glasses, but before leaving the Lot I asked a couple of local British expats about the region.

Wages are low. The economy is seasonal and almost shuts down over the deep winter. To counter this, most residents live well within their means. Perhaps that is what people did before economies relied so heavily on debt, deficit and the need for everyone to spend, spend, spend?

I don’t know why France and Australia are the way they are. Penal colonies, bloody revolutions and wars feature in the histories of both countries. Both have elected conservative governments for most of the years since the turn of the millennium. Something is at work in France which is beyond political ideology.

I left with far more questions than answers: What lies about the environment, immigration, culture, heritage and development have we believed, that such vast differences have become the reality in two Western economies?

What makes it possible for Australia’s Treasurer to be so vehemently offended by something which is already deeply embedded in France’s way of life? Are France’s wind turbines more or less offensive to Joe Hockey than Australia’s tradition of exporting uranium to France for their nuclear electricity generation program, which is Europe’s largest?

The French have a term for it – vive la différence (‘long live the difference’) – and perhaps they have learnt to say it about themselves more than others?

A much younger nation with an ancient first population, Australia doesn’t yet have words to express the same sentiment, and that is a telling difference indeed.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords