November 11: the other Australia Day

Opinion by Clare Wright

Australia’s national story is littered with significant occasions that have fallen on November 11 and two years ago, for me, was no different.

Poppies credit Tony OldroydIt was the morning of November 11, 2011 and I was working away at my computer, blissfully unaware of the powers of the universe about to bear down upon me.

For no particular reason, I glanced over at my desk phone’s digital display of the date and time. The LED read 11:11 11/11/11.

If science has an answer for why I happened to dart a look at a phone that was not ringing at exactly 11 minutes past 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the millennium, I don’t know what it is.

Instead, I blame history. Australian history, to be precise, and its curious habit of scheduling noteworthy historical events for November 11.

The event that springs most readily to mind – partly because we stop to remember it each year – is Armistice Day. At 11am on November 11, 1918 the German army surrendered to the allied forces and four years of warfare finally ground to a weary halt.

Remembrance Day (as it became known after the second world war) is honoured in all parts of the Commonwealth, but it was an Australian, with the delectable name of Edward Honey, who devised the particular tradition of observing a minute’s silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Australia’s role in international militarism has always been contentious, but few begrudge the quiet moment to pay respects to those who have lost their lives in battle.

Rebels and resistance

On the other side of the imperialist coin is Ned Kelly, who never had much truck with fighting for King and country. For his many sins, Ned was hanged on November 11, 1880.

His mother, Ellen Kelly, who was also incarcerated at the Old Melbourne Gaol, reportedly said to her son on the night before his execution, ‘Mind you die like a Kelly son.’ She had in mind a tradition of Irish resistance to copping it sweet.

In 1975, another man of legendary status is lead to the gallows on November 11. This time, the executioner is a dapper fellow who looks more like a jockey than then-Governor-general John Kerr’s private secretary.

But the minion, David Smith, reads the verdict and it is Australia’s then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who has been hung out to dry by the Australian Constitution.

‘God Save the Queen’, concluded Smith. Whitlam used his last moments as a popularly elected PM to predict the demise of the monarch’s henchman, uttering those famous words: ‘Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-general.’

From the steps of Old Parliament House to another stage for civic turmoil, Bakery Hill. November 11, 1854. The mining community of Ballarat gathers to vent its grievances against taxation without representation.

Loyal to the Queen, they would not ‘respect her men servants, her man servants, her oxen or her asses’.

On blue parchment, The Ballarat Reform League writes its demands: a manifesto of democratic rights and freedoms. It was the last lawful stage in a mass protest movement that would eventually turn into the Eureka Stockade, the historic rebellion of miners against British authority.

Some historians consider the Ballarat Reform League Charter to be Australia’s own Declaration of Independence.

It may not hold the same pride of place in Australians' hearts as that illustrious document, but the four pages of urgent scrawl are of global significance.

The Charter is inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

A shameful anniversary

Another founding document in Australia’s democratic heritage was also produced on November 11, but this one didn’t proclaim the entitlement to liberty.

The Aboriginal Protection Act, enacted on November 11, 1869, deprived indigenous Australians of self-determination. The newly empowered Board for the Protection of Aborigines controlled where indigenous people could live and work and with whom they could associate and marry.

Activist Richard Frankland has written: ‘Our ready forgetting of this anniversary is symptomatic of our failure as a nation to come to terms with our shared history’.

No-one today remembers Elizabeth Scott. But it was on November 11, 1863, that the 23-year old publican became the first woman in Victoria – and only the second in Australia – to go to the gallows.

She was hanged for the murder of her violent drunkard of a husband, whom she had been forced to marry when she was thirteen. Five pregnancies (and three dead babies) later, Scott showed her own version of resistance to her miserable oppression.

But wait, there’s more. On November 11, 1845, explorer Charles Sturt abandoned his search for the inland sea, leaving his boat on the edge of an infinite desert.

And on November 11, 1861, the Royal Society of Victoria made the decision to send natural scientist Alfred Howitt to Cooper Creek in South Australia to recover the remains of explorers Burke and Wills.

The search for meaning

According to the website (which I accessed on November 11, 2011 at 12.37pm), noticing events on November 11 or that the time is 11:11am is the work of ‘fun-loving’ angels getting our attention. The playful celestial beings want to alert us to a ‘new age of spiritual uplift’.

Mathematicians, on the other hand, remind us that 11 x 11 = 121 and that 111111 x 111111 = 12345654321.

Rather than searching for impish angels or sexy equations, it’s the thematic commonalities of those events themselves that have something to say about Australia’s homegrown narrative.

Those themes include power, proclaimed and forsaken. Freedom, hard-won and tragically lost. Dreams, heroically large and stupidly ambitious. Rebels, glorified or forgotten. Death, sometimes through duty but often by folly.

And yes, random chance. For many Australians, November 11 was simply the day their number was up.

First published on The Conversation on 11 November 2013. 

Dr Clare Wright is a historian and author. She is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Image credit: Tony Oldroyd