An Australian'[s Epiphany

Jill Ker Conway (added by GPL)

It was startling to meet the men who ran the fabled head office of the land and finance company which sold our wool and invested in Australian land. Throughout my childhood, this company hierarchy had been represented as the ultimate in economic wisdom. Now, on meeting its members, I saw not men of financial genius but comfortable bureaucrats who throve on borrowing money at one rate in the London financial markets and then lending it to gullible colonials at a three or four percent higher rate. Australia's predictable droughts could be counted on to send many clients into bankruptcy, and thus the land and finance company had acquired its vast Australian landholdings with little risk and less economic enterprise. This was not the way the men in question saw themselves. They saw themselves as financial wizards, performing important services for the development of Australia. Certainly, the managing director could count on a knighthood after enough years of presiding over this enterprise and contributing regularly to the Tory Party.

Wandering around Westminster Abbey, through some of the churches which were regular places of worship for Guards regiments, or the smaller churches which were home to a county regiment, one could not help wondering whether the Anglican Church of Elizabeth I, a compromise I admired, had become by stages more concerned with the worship of the British Empire than with matters of salvation and damnation. Plaque after plaque commemorated bloody battles—Lucknow, Omdurman, Mafeking, the first and second Opium Wars—all occasions at which some luckless colonial people had been obliged by superior force to accept the benefits of British rule. I had known in theory that the church and the army had been the pillars of traditional European society, but it took seeing the sacramentalizing of empire embodied in the walls of Anglican churches for me to comprehend what the mystical blending of church and state meant. I stood in the dampness of the Abbey, and thought at one and the same time of the coronation of Edward the Confessor, and the perspiring Sunday congregations praying in some far-flung outpost of the Empire for the reigning British monarch. I couldn't get the two images into any harmonious relationship in my mind. I respected the unbroken monarchical tradition reaching back to the eleventh century and the British capacity for compromise which had enabled the parliamentary tradition to flourish alongside the monarchy. But I couldn't stomach the selfsatisfied exploitation of colonial peoples which was clothed in comfortable rhetoric in peacetime and exposed as cold calculation in time of war.

-- Jill Ker Conway, The Road from Coorain, New York: Vintage, 1989, 207-208.


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