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Australian Perceptions of the 1848 Revolutions

Distance affected the impact of the 1848 revolutions in Australia. The news, carried by ships w hich were routed via India, took two to three months to arrive. The earliest papers and dispatches to carry the news of the French revolution reached Adelaide first, then Melbourne and finally Sydney, in early June. Sydneysiders were reacting to news of the French republic, at the moment when the fighting in the Paris streets was overthrowing the socialists. Their understanding was shaped by a selective reprinting from British journals, assisted by editorials which reflected the local papers' political s tance. Mischievous reports which subsequently proved to have no foundation, such as one spread by a government employed captain in mid July that Britain and France had declared war on Russia, Austria and Prussian, were taken seriously. Local editors, commenting on this misinformation, doubted the right of "our" country to interfere with her neighbors, but robustly asserted that the colonies had little to fear. The enemy had no forces in the southern Pacific. Materialists all, they weighed up the commerc ial effects: war insurance might add to costs but embargoes would increase demand for Australian goods and send up prices.

A sufficiently distant event, it could be treated in a modestly jocular fashion. "Our Seymour correspondent" (a Victorian town 150 km inland) wrote in the Argus "Do you imagine that a little bit of and "emeute" in Melbourne would cause our valuable superintendent to follow the example of the King of the Barricades? If so, how exceedingly desirable. We had some i ntention of calling a public meeting here to take measures for fortifying Seymour, in case Johnny Crapeau should pay the province a visit, but upon second thoughts, we considered it better to trust to the bravery of the Melbourne Volunteers and Captain Dana's black Dragoons."

More serious accounts were fitted into an explanatory pattern dominated by France. Austria and Russian were seen as potentially dangerous enemies, but France was unreliable, blameworthy, an example both for good and evil, showin g that despotism could be overthrown but also opening up the possibility of countervailing mischief which might jeopardize the whole framework of society, the source from which all the revolutions in Europe were derived. Editors printed roughly an article a week on France between April 1848 and 1851, a far greater coverage than they gave the American Civil War. On the other hand, only the short-lived Australian gave much space to the revolutions in the rest of Europe. Lola Montez' role in Bavaria excited some prurient interest, and there was sympathy, of a contemptuous sort, for the states of Italy, otherwise although all the journals reported briefly on the Prussian Landtag, the German national assembly and developments in Poland, Switzerland, and Denmark, it was the prospect of riots and risings that attracted attention. The common view was that constitutions were a desirable objective possible for the "strongholds of temperate freedom" like Prussia, but not deserving of detailed consider ation. A consolidation of the federation in Germany was seen as inevitable but unproblematic.

The colonial explanation for the revolutions was heavily colored by Australian pre-occupation with emigration. This was "the antidote to Revolution." It was population pressure which led to the blood stained streets of Paris. The starving masses needed the space available in the colonies. The colonies, on the other hand, predictably wanted only respectable skilled migrants. There was fear and resentment at the prospect of independent French colonization in the Pacific.

Most early accounts were optimistic, accepting the London Times's assertion the "Europe has undergone no mighty change, no astounding revolution." The downfall of Metternich and his "system" was taken to be a good thing by even the most conservative, tempered only by fears of danger to property. Image makers sought to persuade the public that the gradual growth of free democracy in parts of Italy and Germany, while frau ght with problems, was desirable. Later in the year, pessimism with "the bloody career of revolution" set in, and the presentation was angled to discourage local emulation of workers uprisings. Leaders argued that while the objectives of 1789 were at least intelligible and possible, the programme of the socialists was impossible. The laws of neo-classical economics were as immutable as the laws of nature or science and showed that socialism would aggravate the workers conditions. "The higher orders of M echanics in England of Scotland would not have been misled by Blanc" as the ignorant French had been. Overall, a country which fell victim to revolution did so because its people were shiftless, restless, unreliable, impractical, ungovernable, and with no perseverance, unlike the true Australian battler.

Sybil M. Jack

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Holly Johnston revised this file ( on March 12, 1997.

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© 1997 James Chastain.