The federal government has had two major cultural
initiatives in recent months. The first is to sort out history teaching, so
that every Australian child knows that Don
Bradman landed in Botany Bay in 1915 to open
up the Kokoda trail – thus putting young Ahmed, Thuy and Oodgeroo back in touch
with their heritage. The second is Philip Ruddock’s attempt to tighten the
screws on literature that glorifies terrorism.

They’re about to come into conflict with Henry Parkes, the father of Australian federation and the first man to build
a radio telescope (this will be on the exam).

Parkes was a pretty extraordinary man and – leaving
aside his appalling racism, typical of the era – someone to be proud of.
Arriving as a farmers labourer in 1839, he was five times NSW premier, and a
newspaper editor and much more along the way. He was also a keen supporter of
terrorism.

His enthusiasm for the propaganda of the deed is
expressed in one of his many poems, subtly entitled “The Beauteous Terrorist”.

The work, in thirty or so verses, was a hymn to
Sophia Pervoskaia, a young schoolteacher who was hanged for assassinating Tsar
Alexander II in 1881. As Parkes notes: “this woman, with such a sweet and affectionate
disposition was one of the most dreaded members of the Terrorist party”. He
then begins:

Soft as the morning’s pearly light
Where yet may rise the thunder-cloud
Her gentle face was ever bright
With noble thought and purpose proud

And on, and on, he goes,
like treacle. But you’d have to be Piers Akerman to not be moved by the ending,
as Sophie mounts the scaffold:

But souls like hers survive the fate
Which tyrants in their
might decree
And ever live to animate
The nations struggling to
be free
Purged of the dross of
earth, the fire
Of one great spirit’s
holocaust
Will thousands wake to
patriot ire-
Will raise to life a
patriot host!

As the word “patriot”
suggests, the sentiment behind the poem was of a piece with Parkes’s urge to
Federation. It was all the same struggle. Which is a problem for the
Warney-riding-skippy view of history because these Nihilists (as they were
known) didn’t muck around. In the various attempts on various Tsars, civilians
usually got killed – up to 30 in one single attack – and the mission that
Sophie was part of was actually a suicide bombing.

It must be annoying for
the government. Parkes, Simpson, last Anzac Alec Campbell – you want to
celebrate the founders of the nation of the fair go and it turns out they’re
all radicals. What are the odds?

You can download the full lyric here.
Better be quick.

Peter Fray

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