Imagining History #2: Remittance Man

Remittance Man


In a three-quarter coat and on a borrowed horse,
With face cleanly shaven, he arrived at the station,
Already looking bored.
"I'm the new book-keeper, 
 Is the boss about?"
He sat straight enough in the saddle and the tremor was only slight,
But I wish I'd had a quid on him, now I know that I was right.
When we buried the old book-keeper,
(Beside the road on a rise,
 Where the sand was soft
 And he could see the pub),
The flies were bad and he'd started to stink.
He might have been a Douglas, or a Campbell of Argyll.
All we really know is
He'd been Out Here a while.

[This is a conventional representation of the trope of colonial remittance man. What is derived from a lifetime of reading Henry Lawson's short stories, and what is from elsewhere, I can no longer discern. However it is enough to know that this trope is invariably related in droll terms, and is therefore ultimately dismissive of its subject.]

The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, 1985

"...usually the black sheep of the family, sent out to the colonies from England so that he would no longer be an embarrassment at home. He was usually sustained by regular remittances from the family in England. Often an inebriate or isolate, the remittance man was recognised by his faded aristocratic air and his inability to cope with the rough and ready colonial life. Well known portraits of the type in Henry Lawson's 'The Story of "Gentleman-Once"' in Children of the Bush (1902)...and Judith Wright's poem 'Remittance Man' in The Moving Image (1946). References to Remittance Man, usually in derogatory terms, are widespread in writing of the late nineteenth century..."

[They were called 'inebriate' because they were often alcoholics; binge-drinkers (a 'spree' or 'bender') and daily drunks (imbibing the 'morning nobbler'). They were called 'isolate' because not only did they withdraw from others, but others withdrew from them (often for fear of being drawn down into the same self-destructive spiral).]

William Adeney, Letters, State Library of Victoria, MS 9111, MSB 453, 18 October 1848 (Squatter on Choclyn writing to his younger brother in London)

"My dear brother Henry...
You wish to come to Australia...
We do not want adventurers here but hard workers...
If adventurers come here they often turn out scoundrels...
Sometimes low careless middling characters...
Your being young, 
That is so young you wo'd be as no earthly use here...
Nor is colonial life so different to that at home...
As to want a long apprenticeship.
I now advise you strongly...
To gain a knowledge of surveying...
(of great utility to any young man who goes to unsettled countries)
And practical farming operations...
Such as actual ploughing, not the theory...
If you gain these acquirements you can shift for yourself...
But all depends on the probable capital you can bring...
Yr affct broth William"

[It was early established in colonial life that those regarded as well educated at Home were, in practical terms, useless in the Bush. Particularly despised were 'men of letters', those with 'degrees in fine Arts', and those with 'refined sensibilities'. Such young men were considered to be 'undercapitalised' in money and utility (i.e. 'usefulness').] 

Niel Black, Diaries, State Library of Victoria, MS 8996, MSB 99/1, 18 January, 1st February, 8th April, 1840

"Jany 18th...
I know that in every other respect I have been as free or more free than any other passenger from that intense enervating anxiety which so effectually over-powers the mind and enervates and fevers the frame...
 Feby 1st...
Another suicide was committed in the Lamb Inn by a Dr Smith from Edn.
It was the most deliberate act of the kind I ever heard of.
He wrote his will and a long justification of himself,
Showing that existence had become intolerable to him;
That as a member of society he was totally useless, 
Consequently a loss to no-one;
That it was not by volition or the impulse of his own will he had come into existence,
Therefore he had a right to put an end to what had been forced upon him, 
Without his consent.
He put an end to his existence by swallowing a doze of prusic acid.
Two others died at the barr of said inn.
 April 8th...
Dr Wilson is often very unwell and not likely to live long
Owing to his dissipated habits."

[Instances of suicide were an uncomfortable reminder to others in proximity of their own mental fragility. It was therefore condemned as evidence of moral weakness, unchristian beliefs, and unrestrained self-indulgence. The frequency of suicides (whether the quick variety vis. Dr Smith or the slow death vis. Dr Wilson) is likely, however, to have also frightened even the most determined and psychologically resilient of colonists.]

Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Brown), 1884, Old Melbourne Memories, Geo Robertson & Co, Melbourne, 47
Annie Baxter, Diaries, State Library of Victoria, MS 7648, MSM 35, 20 Oct/Nov 1845

"Mr Robert Craufurd, younger brother to Lord Airdmillan,
 like other cadets of good family,
 had somewhat swiftly got rid of the capital which he imported,
 and, for lack of other occupation, 
 accepted the berth of manager at Eumeralla East for Mr Boyd,
 and a very good manager he was."
'Next came a black with a note from Mr Craufurd,.
(why does he put a diphthong to his name?),
asking us to show the light of our countenance at Umeralla tomorrow.
We visited at 2.30 in the afternoon,
but found our host in a state of unpreparedness, with shirt unclean and face unshaven,
as if he had just been roused from his bed,
(why does he let himself go so to his shame?)'

[In most instances of a record being made of a Remittance Man, it is the case that he is being reported by someone else, neither himself or another of the same ilk. In this case, Robert Craufurd is being observed by two of his squatter-neighbours, the novelist Rolf Boldrewood on Squattlesea Mere, and the diarist Annie Baxter on Yambuck. While apparently their friend, they cannot resist a 'tone' in their reference to him. The reader's encounter with Remittance Man is consequently a much mediated one.]


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