Australia’s early links with the United States are often forgotten. Descriptions of colonial Australian society as “British” tend to disguise much of the ethnic and cultural diversity of pre-Federation Australia. As journalist and historian Terry Smyth reminds us, Americans were among the convicts transported on the First Fleet, they played a vital role in the sealing and whaling industries, and they were among the thousands of hopeful migrants who rushed to Australia during the 1850s gold rushes. By the 1860s, “there were more than 3000 Americans living in Victoria alone”. Even Australia’s “indissoluble” Commonwealth of 1901 was driven partly by a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes of the American Civil War.
Australian Confederates tells the story of 42 Australians who “secretly enlisted in the Confederate States Navy when the notorious rebel raider Shenandoah visited Melbourne in 1865”. Smyth knows how to write history in an engaging and lively style. Always keen to flesh out the full context of his story, he explains the parallels between the slave economy of the American south and Queensland’s in the 19th century, where South Pacific Islanders, many of them kidnapped and later “branded” by their owners, worked as virtual slaves in the colony’s cotton and sugar plantations.
When the Shenandoah, captained by James Waddell, arrived in Melbourne, it was welcomed enthusiastically. Thousands flocked to catch a glimpse of the ship and its crew, while Ballarat even staged an elaborate welcome ball for the bemused visitors. Ostensibly coming in for repairs, Waddell’s true purpose was recruitment. But the presence of a Confederate ship soon divided opinion. Some thought them little more than pirates. Waddell quickly became concerned that agents of the US consul William Blanchard would blow up his ship. His fears were confirmed when an unsuccessful attempt was made shortly before his departure from Victoria in a hail of controversy in February 1865.
Smyth follows the ship’s journey through to the bitter end, describing how its crew “fired the last shot of the American Civil War… destroyed 32 Yankee merchant ships…[and sailed] their ship 60,000 miles around the world to make history as the last rebels to surrender”. Popular history at its best, the story races along in a rollicking, FitzSimons-like style with just the occasional dose of over-egged prose for dramatic effect. WW
Ebury, 384pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Terry Smyth, Australian Confederates". Subscribe here.