Mateship: A literary invention before it was a sacred marker of our national character

Australians like to cite ‘mateship’ as a fundamental feature of our national character. Former prime minister John Howard was so keen on the idea that mateship was a uniquely Australian trait that he wanted the term included in a preamble to the Constitution. This flies in the face of reason (do other societies and cultures not exhibit a similar trait?), but nonetheless the trope endures.

The genesis of mateship as eulogised by John Howard can in large part be attributed to literary developments in the 1890s. In particular, Henry Lawson is associated with the creation of ‘mateship’ as a national theme. An interesting comparison may be made between Lawson’s use of mateship mythology, and the work of Barbara Baynton, a female  writer of the same era. Baynton can be regarded as an ‘anti-Lawson’, treating his mateship ethic as more legend than real. Both authors’ concern was with mateship as a bush ideal, rather than a product of an urban context.

Moore notes that mateship “was expounded by Lawson as a national faith” and Manning Clark that “Lawson almost canonised the word “mate””. Both of these views suggest that Lawson imbued mateship with an almost metaphysical dimension. However, God in Lawson is quite absent – his mateship is a secular enterprise, not a religious expression. Lawson saw mateship as something far greater than mere friendship, and for something raised to the level of “national faith”, the female half of the nation need not apply: “The man who hasn’t a male mate is a lonely man indeed, or a strange man, though he have wife and family. If the mate isn’t here, he is somewhere else in the world, or perhaps he may be dead.” Several aspects may thus be noted regarding Lawson’s understanding of mateship: it is between men only, it is a one-on-one rather than group relationship, it is separate from the man’s family life, and it transcends death (such that if a mate dies, he remains a mate).

Lawson’s short story ‘That There Dog of Mine’ is illustrative of the height to which he raised mateship as an apex ethic. An injured shearer, Macquarie, arrives at a hospital for treatment, but when he is told his dog cannot stay on the grounds, he makes to refuse treatment and leave, out of loyalty to the dog. Here, Lawson uses a low creature (a dog) as a ‘mate’ character and a life-threatening situation to stress the centrality of mateship to the shearer’s life.

That there dog,” said Macquarie to the hospital staff in general, “is a better dog than I’m a man — or you too, it seems — and a better Christian. He’s been a better mate to me than I ever was to any man — or any man to me. He’s watched over me; kep’ me from getting robbed many a time; fought for me; saved my life and took drunken kicks and curses for thanks — and forgave me. He’s been a true, straight, honest, and faithful mate to me — and I ain’t going to desert him now.” 

The above quote illustrates the central tenet of Lawson’s conception of mateship – the unshakeable loyalty that binds mate to mate. Macquarie depicts the dog in Christ-like language and describes it as a “better Christian” – an ironic foil to the dominant morality of the day. In the hierarchy of mateship, Macquarie regards the dog on a higher plane than himself. Lawson has Macquarie demonstrate an idealism so pure that out of respect for it, the formerly officious doctor throws out the rulebook and sets the dog’s broken leg.

An extension of Lawson’s mateship as a systematic bush ethic is its application to strangers. This is well illustrated in ‘Shearers’:

No church-bell rings them from the Track,

No pulpit lights their blindness –

‘Tis hardship, drought and homelessness

That teach those Bushmen kindness:

The mateship born, in barren lands,

Of toil and thirst and danger –

The camp-fare for the wanderer set,

The first place to the stranger.”

Here, bush hospitality is depicted by Lawson as “a widening of the relationship between two mates in the bush to a generous inclusiveness of all men as partners against the hazards of the bush environment”.

Like the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, whether a writer is a literary ‘romantic’ or ‘realist’ can depend on the standpoint from which they are viewed. Whilst Lawson is closely identified within the Bulletin realist tradition, on the subject of mateship he appears a romantic next to Barbara Baynton. Lawson and Baynton’s natural ingredients are the same – the bush as a place of isolation, adversity and strangeness to its white settlers – but the behaviour of those settlers is wholly different. Baynton’s ‘bush’ is an alternate universe, where, rather than mateship bonding man to man against the natural environment, men abandon their families to dangerous isolation, other men prey upon women to bash, rape and murder, and no neighbour comes to their rescue.

This assessment requires nuance. The two women in Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ are both isolated and threatened by “travellers”. In Lawson’s tale the swagman is opportunistic rather than malevolent, but clearly Lawson’s bush society is not always bonded by the code of mateship against a shared (natural) adversity. Similarly, Baynton’s isolated woman meets her fate (murder) not because of Hennessy’s indifference but because of his fear and superstition. The option is there to conclude that had he correctly identified her cries, he would have come to her aid – as bush mateship would have him do.

It should be recognised that Lawson himself was not always fully enamoured of mateship, as noted above with ‘The Drover’s Wife’, but also in ‘The Union Buries its Dead’, where its treatment is thoroughly ironic.

An even more jaundiced view of mateship is revealed in ‘Squeaker’s Mate’, a Baynton story that turns the traditional view of mateship on its head. Here, Mary is everything Lawson would want in a mate:

“”Squeaker’s mate”, the men called her, and these agreed that she was the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats.”

Note, however, the qualifier in the description – Mary is a good mate…. for a woman. Nonetheless, Mary does the heavy lifting in the relationship – both literally (she carries all the heavy equipment) and figuratively (she keeps the pair focussed on task). Indeed, it is hard to see why Mary would stick to a mateship with such a lazy and stupid individual as Squeaker – but self-sacrifice and loyalty in spite of everything are core qualities of ‘traditional’ mateship.

Squeaker, on the other hand, is the antithesis of a ‘mate’: after Mary’s accident, he proves himself disloyal, selfish and a thief. When he resolves to bring in his “new mate”, he will not even carry Mary to the hut he has prepared for her, despite the act being in his own self interest.

Notably, however, after Mary’s accident, none of the three main humans in the story – not Squeaker, not Mary, not Squeaker’s unnamed new mate – abide by a ‘Lawsonian’ bush mateship ethic, although with the reader’s sympathy favouring the crippled Mary, this is not immediately obvious in her case. The denouement is the final betrayal of that mateship ethic: Squeaker’s beating of Mary, the new mate’s abandonment of the camp, and Mary’s failure to call her dog off Squeaker.

Recalling ‘That There Dog of Mine’, there is in fact ‘Lawsonian’ mateship to be found in Baynton’s writing – but ironically it is only in the character of Mary’s dog – the dog that “would not leave her”. Baynton’s depiction of such mateship is not a deep loyalty between two men, but between a dog and a woman. Baynton demonstrates that depth in one strange metaphor, by anthropomorphising the trees that Squeaker is felling:

and the flash that passed between this back-broken woman and her dog might have been the spirit of these slain tree folk, it was so wondrously ghostly.”

Readings:

Baynton, Barbara (1999), ‘Squeaker’s Mate’, in Lee, C. (ed.) ‘Turning the Century: Writing of the 1890s’, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia

Lawson, Henry (1913), ‘Triangles of Life’, and Other Stories, Lothian Book Publishing Co, Melbourne

Lawson, Henry (1896), ‘That There Dog of Mine’, in ‘While the Billy Boils’, Angas & Robertson, Sydney. 

Lawson, Henry (1956), ‘Poetical Works’, Angas & Robertson, Sydney.

Lawson, Henry (1943), ‘Mateship, His Mistake and Strangers’ Friend’, The Lothian Publishing Company Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

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