Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Some thoughts about men who row boats and ride bikes

Here is something I wrote recently about the sealers of the 1820s and contemporary commercial fishers and 'outlaw' motorcycle clubs.

I worked as a deckhand with men who net the estuaries and inshore waters for fish and crabs. The irony that I was writing about men who also worked these same shores in small boats, albeit more than a century ago, did not escape me. One of the fishermen I worked for was proud to relate that he was a fourth generation fisherman and that one of his ancestors, a sealer, was accidentally shot through the neck and killed while working beaches east of Albany. This fisherman had a keen sense of his ancestry and natural history, and working for him was an ‘embedded’ process of research for me. I spent long hours on the coast learning how to handle boats, nets, stingrays, small sharks, and some interesting weather.

Contemporary commercial fishers can be clannish, with slightly anarchic tendencies towards the government arms of law and order, only complying for utilitarian reasons. They are comfortable living in bush camps and shacks for weeks or months at a time. They understand the cycles of nature – the winds, the swell, the natural predators and the seasons - their work is intimately joined with nature. Their income derives from a maritime-based primary industry plied from small boats. In these ways contemporary commercial fishermen are similar to yesteryear sealers.

In other ways, modern day commercial fishers are no duplication in sentiment or actions of the 19th century sealers: they are usually happily married, own land and pay large annual fees to maintain their fishing licenses. They do not kidnap women and imprison them on islands or shoot Aboriginal men and each other (though there are a few historic yarns of weapons being brandished over access to fishing spots).

However I do wonder what kind of men the fishermen would have been if they were placed in the same situation as the Hunter and Governor Brisbane crews in 1826: abandoned thousands of nautical miles from the nearest point of white population and legal censure for months or years on end. Phrases like ‘the thin veneer of civilisation’ and ‘men of their time’ go through my mind. These phrases are also common responses given to my wonderings out loud. There is really no way to answer this question, other than to judge each individual by evidence of their actions, either today or 160 years ago.

The ‘men of their time’ argument can be a simplistic way out of explaining a history of ill deeds, and of opportunities taken by people powerful enough to exploit those less powerful. But then communities do respond to learned morals, new legislation and social mores. Societies and laws change to censure behaviour that may once have been deemed inoffensive. Some examples within the last twenty or thirty years would be giving a child a ‘belting’, smoking cigarettes while pregnant, driving under the influence of alcohol, refusing to employ a married woman or forcing her into unpaid servitude, or leaving a child in the car outside a pub. Skinning a rabbit before it is dead.

The actions of twentieth century folk compared to the nineteenth century sealers is complicated by cultural and societal mores of the era. I have yet to find more than one example of an attempted prosecution of a sealer for kidnapping and enslaving an Aboriginal woman, and this reflects the unwillingness of the Van Diemen’s Land colony to legally censure such actions.(That prosecution was aborted not for a lack of evidence but a kind of sanguine ineptitude, by the way.) [1]

Arthur Veno, in his book on Australian outlaw motorcycle clubs The Brotherhoods, explains how young men with a background of familial violence and a self-perceived or overt exile from ‘normal society’ can form groups that are insular, violent, and reliant upon an internalised structure of regulation and law. In many ways the sealers of 1826 remind me of modern day bikies and the reception with which their exile and consequent self-government is still met by the legislators and media.

These clubs are characterised as having a constitution, a rigid organisational structure, and heavy levels of commitment to ensure their survival. They exist in their own world, cut off from mainstream society through a rigid system of rules and an inherent belief system.[2]

I grew up in a town in an era when many men were forced out of maritime occupations by the closure of the whaling industry, the imposition of tuna quotas and environmental disasters such as mass death of pilchards in the Southern Ocean with its flow-on effects to the other fishing industries. They left or they adapted. Some of the more disaffected folk joined up with war veterans to create a local outlaw club who were overtly misogynistic and racist  towards people who were not of their ilk. People spoke in whispers about the drugs, gang rapes of women, and fights or attacks between the motorcycle club and local Noongar people.

In observing interactions between contemporary groups of men such as bikies or commercial fishers and the law, (and I'm sorry to conflate them both here but it is pertinent) I noticed that power relationships were often the same as the ones between the law-makers and the sealers in the 1820s. It seemed to be a point of masculine pride: both parties distinguished themselves by their positions, that they never ‘cross over’ to the other side. Commercial fishers historically do not defer to fisheries officers unless forced to by law and bikies historically will never defer to the police or the media. In both cases, when they do cross over, it is self-serving for the purposes of the group, or the individual. When it is the individual, that man risks of permanent, and perhaps deadly, exile.

Another analogy of power and 'men of their time' is the language used by journalists and police regarding outlaw motorcycle clubs. It's remarkably similar to the language used by men such as Lockyer (Amity) or d’Urville (Astrolabe). The word ‘gang’ is used as a collective noun in both instances, described in the Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary as: “1. A band of people going about or working together, esp. for some antisocial or criminal purpose.”[3] 

Veno writes that the term ‘bikie gangs’ is a huge issue with motorcycle clubs, in quoting a Hell’s Angel: 
“It’s a law enforcement term. It’s used to try to make us worse than what we are. Once a club becomes a gang, then the police can get all the support from the citizens they need.”[4]

[1] John Baker was arrested for the kidnap of Trugernina’s sister Makerleedie in 1826. Plomley, Ed., 2006, p. 1051
[2] Veno, A., The Brotherhoods: Inside the outlaw motorcycle clubs, Third Edition, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 2009, p. 33.
[3]Ludowyk, F., and Moore, B., Ed., The Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Victoria, 2003, p. 332.
[4] Veno, A., 2009, p. 56.


  1. My dad was one of those war veterans who formed an outlaw motorcycle club. After Vietnam, he left the army in disgust, having come to see it as a corrupt bureaucracy that favoured the canny political operator and shit on the common fighting man. He left the motorcycle club in disgust when he saw it becoming a glorified drug cartel. He packed us up and moved us out bush to get away from the world; but over the years, I think I've heard enough to have some understanding.

    I reckon there's probably some truth to the sentiments of "the thin veneer of civilisation" & "men of their time"; although, the last one's probably misleading in its wording. As a learned behaviour, I don't think morality's so much a reflection of a specific time period, so much as personal history and environment. It's also quite malleable. Generally, I've found people are capable of justifying and rationalising almost anything, if they want to badly enough.

    And I reckon the biggest change in social attitudes from the last thirty years, and probably in my lifetime, has been towards homosexuals — and homosexual men in particular. I can remember living in a time and place where gaoling them was a notion espoused only by bleeding-heart lefties. The debate amongst everyone else was whether it'd be better to shoot them like dogs or cut their throats like defective livestock. And after all, why not? It wasn't just an affront to God and human decency, it was a criminal act. And besides, they were a bloody menace, spreading their bloody AIDS everywhere, and such.

    I'd like to note, too, that this kind of sentiment wasn't reserved to the lighter-skinned members of my family circle. Few of those that saw themselves as struggling against white oppression had any sympathy for, or saw any parallel between their own plight and that of some filthy poofter.

  2. Thanks for your comment Alex. I appreciate it.

  3. Its not just fisherfolk and bikies Sarah. Im currently on my trip following in the tracks of my great great grandfather from the Clarence River in NSW (can be followed in the blog you helped me with -thanks again- at athemefordaydreams.blogspot.com.au) and Im having to do a lot of reflection. Despite generally having been recorded in white history as having had a positive relationship with the original owners of the land, my contacts here with the Bundjalung people have given me a revised and more negative view of some of his contacts.
    That in turn has led me to think "what would I have done in his shoes?"
    I see it a bit like our response to refugees now. Almost everyone says "poor buggers-what a terrible situation to be in" but then the group think fear, encouraged by conservative political forces means that very few of us actually do anything about it.
    I suspect most of us are just creatures of our time, place and social milieu, much as I'd like to think otherwise.

    1. Crispin, I'd just like to note that the refugee situation is also a feedback loop. The more fear that gets mongered by politicians and the media, the more media the afeared public consumes and the more they support said politicians.

      It's just like the non-existent terrorist situation that we didn't really talk about in the last post. This kind of reinforcement is what makes issues involving fear and paranoia particularly challenging.

      Have I mentioned how much I hate it that EVERY current-affairs show uses visual effects and mood music in their reports now.

    2. Thanks Crispin. I would like to put your blog on my sidebar. Is that okay? It's where I put blogs I like, so I don't lose them and I don't do the goggle groups thingy much.
      Have you read Andrew Magahan's White Earth? Great book when it comes to these curly bits.
      Bad deeds so often seems to boil down to fear, pressure and a learned racism.

      Alex, what you wrote then was just about everything I was trying to articulate in my last post.
      But anyway.
      Would your Dad say what he thinks of the Veno book? Has he read it? I read it after someone in my family joined up, fifteen years ago, just so I could get a handle on the whole thing and because I was interested in society's outsiders. The edition I've quoted is an updated version. I owned a Hunter S Thompson's Hells Angels too for a while but said family member stole it off me and I've never seen it since.

    3. Feel free to put my blog on your sidebar. I haven't read White Earth but will put it on my list of books to read. On that subject, have you seen a book called Dark Emu by I think, Bruce Pascoe. Really readable book on land husbandry of the original Australians. My new found Bundjalung cousins put me on to it and its a great book. Sort of builds on The Greatest Estate on Earth.

    4. I haven't yet but i love Bruce Pascoe's novels. I think he is a great Oz writer and we should get him to come to Albany one day.

  4. The ever-vexed dilemma - balancing individual rights with the broader population. Regardless of our brilliant intellect and eons of socialisation - humans are also basically still territorial animals. The law and social etiquette is a wobbly barrier that barely holds back the tide. As governments get poorer and there are more demands on it to manage all of the disparate groups within a larger 'society', they are losing control. Some would say that was a good thing and I might agree if human consciousness had evolved equally with it's grasp of technology. From my observations there has been a trend back towards localism and tribalism in the past decade. There are some groups who never moved away from it.

    1. Definitely the men I am writing about here are tribal and prone to making up their own systems, good or bad, most of the time to suit themselves.
      I have friends who complain about the 'nanny state', but you know, laws are what made me uncomfortable about smoking cigarettes in restaurants, not one person frowning at me about it. I may take one friend's discomfort into consideration but not a whole population.

      And re your last sentence, totally agree.


  5. Alex, what you wrote then was just about everything I was trying to articulate in my last post.

    Yeah, but with your last post, the tangents were just too tempting — evidently.

    Unfortunately, apart from a few "historical records" of the Vietnam war, I suspect my dad's never read much more than the newspaper and the odd comic. But if you had questions or specific points of interest, I could always pass them on.

    On the subject of tribalism: I don't know if it's gotten stronger in the last decade; I feel like it's been a dominant part of human culture throughout my entire life (maybe this is just my personal experience). The rise of the internet has maybe had something to do with making it more apparent and "in your face", perhaps? Or maybe, if I think about it, there's a tide that goes in and out, that I hadn't picked up on.

    And on the nanny state: I dunno about this one. I feel like the term has now reached the level of meaningless buzzword, both for people complaining about the nanny state, and people complaining about people complaining about the nanny state. As far as I can tell, pretty much all laws are supposed to be about limiting personal freedom in order to benefit society. Even the bullshit anti-terror stuff can be reduced to a nanny-state argument; the problem is, when you do that, you're losing sight of a bigger and more important picture.

    1. I like the Veno book (see my ref in the post) because it is written in layman's language and it's not the 'true crime bikie book' that I saw a lot in airport bookshops when that genre was fashionable. I tend to think it may have a bit of street cred, though club members may disagree. Dunno. Anyway, your Dad may find it resonates. ...

  6. 'When you do that, you're losing sight of a bigger and more important picture'.

    Which is, Alex?

  7. "Which is, Alex?"

    Okay, here goes. Assuming that:

    A) We're still talking about the terrorism issue. (We are, right?)
    B) We can agree that most laws sacrifice individual freedom for the sake of the public good.
    C) The nanny-state debate is about whether or not that sacrifice is appropriate and proportional.

    What we're missing if we reduce issue(A) to debate(C), is this:

    1) As I've already said, it's about us being conned. The real threat of terrorism is tiny, and being blown out of all proportion by both the government and the media. Why? Because the more frightened we are, the more news we consume and the more we support authority figures who claim to protect us.

    2) While some of this is about the state curtailing our liberty "for our own good"; a lot of it's about the state taking liberties at our expense. It's about what we let them justify with words like "terrorism" and "national security".

    *Slips into full-blown rant*

    As an example, the recent citizen revocation thingy was originally supposed to give the minister the power to revoke citizenship if he thought somebody had done something a bit terrorist-y. Not a judge, not a court, the minister. In fact, I read one article that quoted Mr Rabbit as saying that leaving such power in the hands of courts would render the legislation toothless.

    Hey, remember when the 1st Wikileaks scandal broke, and Gillard & McClelland came on telly and said they were looking for a way to revoke Julian Assange's citizenship, due to the nature of his "criminal acts"? Even though he still hasn't been charged with a crime. Remember further back, when Kevin Andrews canceled the visa of Dr Haneef; and it turned out the case against him was bullshit?

    Further back; remember after the Bali bombings, when Little John introduced "preventative detention orders", which let police hold someone without charge or explanation for 14 days? They've actually got a run in the last 12 months.

    And note how the national-security excuse was trotted out to cover up our little industrial espionage venture against East Timor AND to deal with refugee boats.

    We've even got our very own data retention program now. Just like our big brother, America. (Hey, wasn't a chatroom conversation the basis for the Haneef case? Gee, hope that doesn't portend anything.)

    See, I fear we're following the yanks (as we like to do); and they're so far gone, I don't think they're coming back. With their ludicrous surveillance; locking folks up for 13+ years without charge; the CIA torturing innocent people to death (also, ironically, without charge); and the drone program - which empowers the president to send a toy aeroplane into a country they're not at war with, to blow up a restaurant full of people, to kill a 16yo American boy with no terrorist affiliations, because of who his dad is.

    Oh and here's a quick video about what the FBI's been up to. And an article with more details.

    And the cherry on the cake: When HSBC bank actually got caught laundering money for terrorists; were there criminal prosecutions? Of course not.

    But the really important part isn't even what they're doing; it's how relaxed and open they can be about it. Because no matter how bad it gets, the public just shrugs and goes back to worrying about which celebrity posted their arse on twitter this week.

    I fear we're going down this same path, and that's what I'm afraid we're losing sight of when we reduce this issue to a simple nanny-state debate.


    Sorry about that.

    1. You are welcome. I did notice in the news today that the govt spent half a million bucks on flags in the last financial year.

  8. I might see if I can hunt up a copy of the book, Sarah. And then see if I can convince the old man to give it a look over.