Sybylla and Swagmen

The fortunes of Sybylla, the narrator of My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin, changes when she is sent to stay with her wealthy grandmother on a large farm. Here she describes her dealings with swagmen, or tramps, who travel the country in search of work. The ‘swaggies’ are one of the great images of Australia, as the subject of their de facto national anthem Walzing Matilda, and are generally seen in a heroic light, though it is never clear how they made their living. Given this was written in the 1890s, several decades after the gold rushes, I suspect some or many of them were former prospectors. They were part of the land, the mythical outback in a country that has for over a century been primarily urban and industrial, with over half its citizens living in its two main cities, Melbourne and Sydney.

“A man was never refused a bit to eat at Caddogat. This necessitated the purchase of an extra ton of flour per year, also nearly a ton of sugar, to say nothing of tea, potatoes, beef, and all the broken meats which went thus. This was not reckoning the consumption of victuals by the other class of travelers with which the house was generally full year in and year out. Had there been any charge for their board and lodging, the Bossiers would surely have made a fortune. I interviewed on average fifty tramps a week, and seldom saw the same man twice. What a great army they were! Hopeless, homeless, aimless, shameless souls, tramping on from north to south, and east to west,. Never relinquishing their heart-sickening, futile quest for work – some of them so long on the tramp that the ambitions of manhood had been ground out of them, and they wished for nothing more than this.

There were all shapes, sizes, ages, kinds, and conditions of men – the shamefaced boy in the bud of his youth, showing by the way he begged that the humiliation of the situation had not yet worn off, and poor old creatures tottering on the brink of the grave, with nothing left in life but the enjoyment of beer and tobacco. There were strong men in their prime who really desired work when they asked for it, and skulking cowards who hoped they would not get it. There were the diseased, the educated, the ignorant, the deformed, the blind, the evil, the honest, the mad and the sane. Some in real professional beggars’ style called down blessings on me; others were morose and glum, while some were impudent and thankless, and said to supply them with food was just what I should do for the swagmen kept the squatters – as, had the squatters not monopolized the land , the swagmen would have had plenty. A moiety of the last-mentioned – dirty, besotted, ragged creatures – had a glare in their eyes which made one shudder to look at them, and while spasmodically twirling their billies or clenching their fists, talked wildly of making one to “bust up the damn banks”, or to drive all the present squatters out of the country and put the people on the land – clearly showing that, because they had failed for one reason or another, it had maddened them to see others succeed.

In a wide young country of boundless resources, why is this thing? The question worried me. Our legislators are unable or unwilling to cope with it. They trouble not to be patriots and statesmen. Australia can bring forth writers, orators, financiers, singer, musicians, actors and athletes which are second to none of any nation under the sun. why can she not bear sons, men! Of soul, mind, truth, godliness, and patriotism sufficient to rise and cast off the grim shackles which widen round us day by day.”


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