On a sunny day in March 1868 at Clontarf on the north shore of Sydney Harbour, a bullet fired from the pistol of one Henry James O’Farrell struck Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria. Although the twenty-three year old prince was only slightly injured, and soon made a full recovery, the wounds inflicted on Australian society ran deep.
This first royal tour to Australia is only one of the many examined in the new ABC’s two-part documentary The Crown and Us: The story of the Royals in Australia, which examines our relationship with the Royals through the prism of these royal visits.
The Crown and Us features three of the Department of History’s academics – Cindy McCreery, James Curran and Mark McKenna – who help contextualise the complicated history of our relationship with the British Royals.
The assassination attempt was met with shock and horror by Colonists loyal not only to Queen Victoria, but to the royal family the Empire it represented. But as Cindy McCreery points out in the first episode, the assassination attempt was used by the Colonial Premier Henry Parkes (later famous as the ‘Father’ of Australian Federation) ‘as the pretext for a witch-hunt against Irish people in New South Wales’.
Parkes declared O’Farrell part of a wider Fenian (Irish nationalist) terror network determined to bring down the British Empire. He introduced the punitive Treason Felony Act which not only suspended civil rights, but enflamed sectarian divisions between Protestants and Catholics – divisions that would last beyond the second world war.
Despite the assassination attempt, the documentary’s superbly curated interviews and extraordinary footage – with royal letters read by actor Richard Roxburgh – demonstrate that Alfred’s pioneering visit in 1867-8 started a trend, with increasing numbers of royal tourists visiting Australia.
These tours culminated in the momentous 1954 visit by Queen Elizabeth II, where an estimated 75% of the Australian population saw ‘our’ Queen in person. However, Mark McKenna’s insights into the context of this extraordinary show of loyalty give the visit a rather different hue:
At the very time our loyalty to the Crown – the ’54, royal tour – is at its peak, we’re also going through extraordinary period of the fear of Communism.
According to McKenna, this made it unlikely the Australian people would question; their loyalty to the Crown, and to Great Britain, at a time when many people are fearing Australia might enter a third World War'.
By 1989 the Berlin wall had fallen, along with the threat of Communism, and by 90s the gloss of the Monarchy had worn off, with Charles and Diana’s failing marriage forming a backdrop to an emerging republican sentiment.
But as James Curran explains in Episode 2, then Prime Minister Paul Keating misjudged the Australian people. ‘Paul Keating tried to engineer a kind of anti-British myth of Australian nationalism – it didn’t work… it lost the republican movement round early on’.
And when Keating called an election in 1996, the republican was replaced by staunch monarchist John Howard, whose election as PM as Curran goes on to point out, ‘saw a lot of emphasis on the ANZAC legend, and its connection with fighting alongside Britain in both World Wars’. Howard would go on to orchestrate the defeat of a republic with his referendum.
In 2019 Australian society is far more diverse and globally integrated than in 1868. Britain is no longer a hegemonic ethnic or cultural force in Australian society, while the sun set on the British Empire long ago.
The Australia Day anniversary of British colonial arrival is now a source of considerable controversy rather than unquestioning pride, and there are increasing calls for another referendum on making Australia a republic. But as Mark McKenna points out in the closing moments of the series, the transition to a republic has its own historical legacy to contend with:
Mckenna asks 'If we take away the sovereignty of the Crown and become a republic, then what is left when that word "Crown" is no longer there?'
What has the word ‘Crown’ disguised? Well, if you ask indigenous people, they would surely tell you one of the big things it has disguised is that this land is theirs.
The Crown and Us: The Story of The Royals in Australia is available on demand at ABC iView.