Conway’s Journey Round the World, 1883–84: Part 2

Moncure Conway also met the Honourable Peter Lalor, then speaker of the Victorian parliament. “He was a striking figure,” Conway recalled, “but his glory was the stump of an arm lost while fighting against the Victorian soldiery at the Eureka mine.” He added: “My friend Mr Jeffray, who was among the early diggers, told me that when some measure was before the legislature involving the rights of diggers, Peter Lalor, in speaking, made a gesture with the stump of his arm which elicited a wild cheer from the assembly and helped carry his case.”[79]

Conway visited Ballarat, Victoria, and went down a mine with M.P. Eustace Smith. It was about 240 metres underground. “Clutching candles,” writes Conway, “we waded through white mud-purée till we came upon men who, with a grunt or groan at each stroke, picked at the hard quartz. For nine hours’ daily toil in this Hades each obtained seven shillings.”[78]

Conway found that the Athenaeum Hall, hired for his Melbourne lectures, had a disadvantage. “Every word I uttered returned in startling echoes, and a third of the fine audience could not hear.” He did something about it:

For the next lecture I had the desk moved to a side of the hall, and was fairly heard. The first lecture, however, well reported in the admirable Argus, elicited public letters vehemently vindicating the functions of pain in nature. The ablest of these I had to answer, simply maintaining that no advantages could justify Omnipotent Love in selecting pain and wholesale torture of sensitive creatures as the method of Evolution. My argument was not answered, but I was angrily abused.[75]

In late October, Conway went to Tasmania at the invitation of Andrew Inglis Clark, then a young barrister in Hobart but later attorney-general of Tasmania and one of the founding fathers of federation.

Conway loved the views from Mount Wellington and took an interest in the plants and birds of the area. He was woken up one morning by a (native) magpie singing “Polly Put the Kettle On”. He was shown specimens of the so-called vegetable caterpillar, a fair-sized fungus, Cordyceps gunnii, that parasitises the large caterpillars of a moth. I have collected it myself in Victoria. He was unable, however, to see a Tasmanian devil, as the animal had become rare in the area. He makes no mention of the thylacine, but probably did not visit areas where it still occurred.

Conway found time to visit what he termed “the smallest conventicle in Hobart” because its denomination was given as “Campbellite”. “Alexander Campbell”, explained Conway, “was the only Virginian who ever founded a sect, a little brick chapel in our town, Fredericksburg, being by tradition the first built by Campbellism.”[81]

Conway was led to believe that the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals had perished, and he was not to know that this did not apply to Tasmanians of mixed ancestry. “In English imaginations,” he wrote, “the natives had loomed up into ferocious creatures; the phrase ‘Native Devils’ paralleled ‘Tasmanian Devils’.” He continued:

A considerable number of troops were sent out to search for natives, but could find none. At last they made a cordon across one end of Tasmania and advanced day by day across the whole island, catching in their net two aged people! Their photographs were said to be those of the native king and queen: the faces are haggard and disfigured by want and woe. The extermination of a race by no means bloodthirsty was not due to British violence, but to ignorant and puritanical missions. The earlier missionaries were self-sacrificing, but as of old it was not the worldly pagan emperors who persecuted, but the religious ones, so it was those missionaries who took their dogmas seriously who did the great mischief in Tasmania. In 1834, as Australian annals record, “a fund was raised in England for the purpose of clothing the native women.Among the subscribers were the Duchess of Kent, Lady Noel Byron, and the Hon. Mrs. Wilbraham.” It was these pious prudes who killed off the Tasmanians. It was the belief of every scientific man I met that they all were attacked by tuberculosis soon after they put on clothing.[86–87]

Conway also tells us that “I lectured in various parts of Tasmania, and had the honour of being attacked in the papers by orthodox writers. My lectures were not theological, but my account of London, my sketches of scientific men, and the fact that I was there by invitation of distinguished rationalists gave sufficient ground for this clerical imprudence, which filled my halls wherever I went.” [87]

Conway occupied himself with reading on the ship from Tasmania back to Victoria, in time for the colony’s most important festival, then, as now, the Melbourne Cup, run on 6 November in 1883. He was somewhat bemused by it:

It is odd that Melbourne, rigidly Presbyterian, should have for its Pan-Australian synod a horse-race. Melbourne has, however, made its racing week a social con-gress of the colonies. The betting is universal. Sweepstakes were arranged in the schools (by the teachers), and Cup Day is a holiday… Early in the morning I walked over the course, so to say. Byron Moore, secretary of the Racing Club, guided me, and I saw the artistic arrangements for this great event. The apartments for the governor and his company, the committee rooms, the medical rooms, the ladies’ rooms, – all were elaborately elegant. There was fine floral decoration everywhere; cosmetics in the ladies’ room, and needles threaded with every colour, ready for use. In the element of grotesquerie the English Derby has large advantages over the Cup, where respectability was carried to an extreme; there was hardly a side-show, nothing characteristic of the country, no aborigines, no boomerangs. It all impressed me as too much a Presbyterian Vanity Fair; no one could fail to be struck by the multitude of beautiful ladies and fine looking men, but they appeared so serious! It was pleasant to see so many people without any tipsiness, but there might have been some fun…[70–71]

Conway’s next journey was by train back to Sydney, observing on the way vast numbers of gum trees that had been ring-barked by farmers to kill them. The bush had “a desolate look”. Reports of Conway’s lectures in Melbourne had already appeared in the press, and, in his own words, “had given me a fame in Sydney ludicrously disproportionate to my deserts”. He added wryly: “And though probably none of my accusers reverenced the character of Jesus more than I did, I found myself a full-blown apostle of Antichrist.”[91]

His first talk was advertised for 13 November, on “Toleration of Opinion, or Pleas for Persecution”. It was in the Protestant Hall, to an audience that included the premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, “other ministers, and eminent citizens”. Conway writes:

I had taken the utmost pains to make my lecture on Toleration conciliatory… But hardly had I given the exordium [introduction] when crowds assembled at the doors and windows, shouting Salvation Army hymns. Each crowd sang a different hymn, the result being a confusion of yells which my voice could hardly surmount. When, however, these noisy saints discovered that my voice was not quite drowned, some of them repaired to a bowling alley adjoining a wall of the hall and zealously rolled the balls. Care was taken by the managers of Protestant Hall that the annoyance should not be repeated, but the balls went on rolling in the Sydney Herald, where in anonymous letters my lectures were distorted. For instance, I gave a sketch of Cardinal Newman, and of my going some distance on a terribly wintry morning at daybreak to his oratory (Birmingham), where he usually conducted mass, though hardly expecting that the aged man would arise on such a bitter morning. …His presence on that occasion, when only two or three attended, was mentioned with admiration, and every word I said was to his credit. Yet some silly – or malicious – Catholic described what I said as an attack on the cardinal! Though other statements about my twelve lectures were equally misleading, this particular one annoyed me most because it had been a sort of specialty of my ministry for thirty years to maintain that Protestantism, theologically and morally, was a relapse into the stony ages from the height to which evolution had carried Catholicism, with its merry Sunday, antiquated dogmas, exaltation of a feminine divinity, and cult of the fine arts. [92–93]

But Conway was welcomed in other quarters. The Union Club elected him an honorary member, and he was able to stay there. He was also invited to give the annual lecture to the Philosophical and Scientific Institution, and for some days was the guest of Justice William (later Sir William) Windeyer, who presided at the lecture. Conway adds: “Several ladies whom I had known in London, married in Sydney to excellent men, entertained me in their houses, arranged pretty excursions for me, and introduced me to the best people.”[93]

“As a lecturer,” Conway admitted, “I was a disappointment to the average lecture-goer; I was not a ‘spell-binder’, taking up large world-themes, with a millennial magic-lantern throwing on the popular eye visions of England, America, Australia, transfigured in the near future. My mission, if I had any, was still to individual minds. I lectured about the great literary and scientific men whom I had known in Europe and America, trying to interpret their influence and their contributions to thought and knowledge. . . . An eminent scholar said to me, ‘Nearly every thinker in Sydney agrees with you, but we do not speak publicly on such subjects. Why reason with people who do not know the meaning of reason?’”[93–94]

During his time in Australia, Conway observed that quite a few people combined interest in freethought with spiritualism. A good example in Sydney was John Bright, who combined both in Sunday evening lectures in a theatre. Conway writes:

I regretted not hearing this able man, . . . who insisted that I should take his place on my only remaining Sunday. The theatre was crowded, more than three thousand being present. This strange movement had, I was told, almost swallowed up Unitarianism. The widow of the latest Unitarian minister (Mr. Pillars) had married Charles Bright, and had been occasionally lecturing for her husband in the theatre with much effect. About the same time a female evan-gelist, Mrs. Hammond, was drawing larger crowds than any regular preacher attracted. This revivalist was preaching in Sydney while I was there, and in my fifth lecture (“Woman and Evolution”) I referred to her apostolate as showing how far society had travelled away from the Pauline doctrine against women preachers, and congratulated the city on having two eloquent ladies in the religious conflict of the time.[94]

Conway found time to visit the Sydney Museum, where he saw the first complete skull, found in 1881, of the extinct marsupial “lion”, Thylacoleo carnifex, which was a powerful carnivore capable of killing animals larger than itself, like (now extinct) giant kangaroos.

He returned to Melbourne to take another ship (early December?), and a large crowd gathered to see it off. “There were partings,” he wrote, “and I thought I observed more tears shed by those left behind than by those departing. Somehow the multitude suggested a vision of shades on either side of the Styx, some longing for Charon to ferry them over to Elysium, the Elysians longing to voyage back to upper earth.”[98]


  • Newsletter

  • @ConwayHall