Review Blog

May 18 2017

South Australia on the eve of war by Melanie Oppenheimer, Margaret Anderson and Mandy Paul

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Wakefield Press, 2017. ISBN 9781743054741
In August 2014, a symposium involving History SA, the Professional Historians Association and the three South Australian Universities was held to commemorate the beginning of the First World War.
Papers presented have been selected for inclusion in this work which helps us to better understand the social conditions, political climate, gender relations and multicultural interactions which prevailed at the time. These all unavoidably influenced or were influenced by South Australia's involvement in the Great War and this book helps us appreciate what life was like in the years and months prior to this momentous event.
The late John Bannon explains South Australia's position from a political perspective, having recently evolved from a colony to being a state within a Federation. Unfortunately, whilst supporting National progress, South Australia had limited voice and power in comparison with the more powerful Eastern States.
Another chapter considers conditions for women. It's noted that on the eve of war, birth rates were declining as women accessed various forms of contraception and sought education and increasing work opportunities. Sadly the situation for many remained unchanged with unmarried pregnant women seeking illegal abortion, travelling to undergo anonymous birthing and even secretly disposing of babies. More mundane but positive developments in the home such as the connection of gas and electricity improved family life and eased the burden for women somewhat.
The euphemistic 'Protection' of Aboriginal people which in reality constituted a powerful means of state control is explained in terms of the regulation of place of residence, employment, personal relationships and custody of children. The laws and regulations which prescribed how Indigenous lived were clearly racist and ignorant but also incredibly divisive in terms of segregating Indigenous people and consigning them to specific reserves such as Point Pearce. It is pointed out that whilst Aboriginal people had voting rights, their citizenship was compromised in practical terms through administration. The trauma caused by the forced removal of children is also well known and was practiced in South Australia at this time.
Other chapters have an agricultural focus. The British Farm Apprentice scheme was implemented with British boys migrating to serve the needs of an industry which was labour intensive and crying out for employees. Life on the Eyre Peninsula, community development and the importance of the region to the State's economy is also considered in some detail.
The final chapters in this work focus on the contribution by South Australians from differing nationalities and the various tensions present prior to the Great War. We learn of the Indian community's objection to the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy) which expressly excluded migrants from Asia and Africa. Whilst officially restricting selected nationalities, successive governments had allowed labourers from those same countries when the demand for labour under harsh conditions was required, e.g. building railways. Economic downturn however caused renewed focus on the restrictions and increasing tension within the wider community.
Reference is also made to what is described as the 'myth' of South Australian Germans' bid to escape religious persecution. The author notes that economic factors were equally important in motivating German people to seek better lives and also emphasises that the S.A. German population was not in fact united by heredity and religious belief. It would appear that whilst German cultural influence and tradition was evident in many aspects of life, generally the migrants had assimilated to the point that they felt little allegiance to their former country by the outbreak of war. Being associated with the enemy in the pending conflict and considered potentially hostile in their own right clearly caused division however, and South Australian Germans suffered during and after the war accordingly.
South Australians of Irish Catholic descent could also have been regarded with suspicion prior to war, given the agitation for political independence in Ireland. Local Irish support for the Empire in opposition to Germany appears to have been almost universal and was accepted to the extent that their allegiance was accepted. The author notes however that this and military service by Irish South Australians was not enough to overcome decades of prejudice by the majority of citizens of English descent.
This book presents well researched and considered points of view on varied aspects of South Australian life by contributors who are clearly knowledgeable in their field.
Rob Welsh

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