Landscape with Swagman (also known as The swagman’s camp by a billabong), painting by Gordon Coutts, oil on canvas, 35.6 x 45.7 cm stretcher; 55.0 x 65.2 x 7.7 cm frame : 0 – Whole; 35 x 45 cm Art Gallery of NSW


Sometimes said to be the world’s most recorded song, the origins of Australia’s accidental anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, has troubled historians and folklorists for a century or so. Just when was it first composed. In what circumstances, where and by whom?

Any number of competing and conflicting theories have been put forward in what seems to be a never-ending flow of books on the subject. Now, W Benjamin Lindner has come up with the most definitive answer to date. Applying the forensic skills of a criminal barrister and a rigorous historical approach to a decidedly ‘two pipe problem’, as Sherlock Holmes might have put it, Lindner’s detective work has convincingly solved the case. It’s all in his Waltzing Matilda: Australia’s Accidental Anthem. A Forensic History (Boolarong Press, 2019).

Not wanting to spoil the story, I won’t give away his conclusion, so you’ll need to check out the book to find the answer. Despite its deep engagement with archival records and the other dry-as-dust stuff that historians like to engage with, it is a good read. While it sets out to prove a particular and important chronological point about the composition of the song, it necessarily tells the human stories of the people most closely involved with it, at the time, and later.

These are, of course, the two main characters, A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Christina Macpherson. Paterson thought so little of his dashed-off lyric that he sold the rights to his publisher for five pounds and hardly ever talked about it again. Repurposing a catchy Scots tune, often said to be one of the most recorded songs of all time, Christina Macpherson, mostly got lost in the condescension of posterity.  But now she is confirmed in her proper place as the composer of our national song.

And there is a supporting cast of often-colourful other characters who were in on the original events behind the song, as well as later writers who put their efforts towards working out exactly what happened when and where. These include Sydney May, the first person to take an interest, starting seriously in the 1940s. He was misled by some of the accounts he collected but gets the credit for setting the Matilda hunt waltzing.

Then there was the no-nonsense bushman, Richard Magoffin, raised near the legendary site of composition, Dagworth Station. With a commendable disdain for academic historians and the complex copyright issues surrounding the song, he doggedly pursued Matilda through Queensland, across Australia and, ultimately, to the USA. Magoffin made a number of important contributions to the song’s history, though as Lindner shows, like most Matilda researchers, he got one or two things wrong as well. Nevertheless, his work has also been the basis of the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton, dedicated to preserving and representing the history of the song.

Folkies will be familiar with another important figure in the debate. The late and much missed Dennis O’Keeffe advanced the story by investigating family traditions about the song and linking it closely with violent events of the 1890s shearers’ strike in his Waltzing Matilda: The Secret History of Australia’s Favourite Song (2012). Lindner’s own findings mean he isn’t convinced by that argument but acknowledges the value of O’Keeffe’s contribution to the scholarship of the song.

Many others have also had a crack at solving the mystery, putting forward various theories and speculations. But Lindner aims to avoid supposition and myth in favour of cold, hard facts.  Not too much escapes his steely eye. He combs old train timetables, ships’ passenger lists, letters, diaries and even considers a skull in the Queensland Police Museum to build his case. From all this evidence, he establishes a chronology for the creation and early diffusion of the lyrically sparse and – let’s be honest – pretty silly ditty about a swaggie knocking off a sheep and throwing himself in the billabong when the squatter and the cops turn up.

The rudimentary lyric of our great song is one of its many intriguing characteristics. I once had a literary colleague who studied the words of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and concluded that it was nearly empty of semantic content. It was such a minimal story, told in so few words, that it was – almost – meaningless. We can take this either to mean that it’s one of the slightest pieces of literature ever scribbled, or that Paterson was a genius of narrative compression. Whatever, in my view, this is the secret of the song’s lyrical success. It is such an empty vessel that, like a cliché, it can be filled with just about any meaning we care to pour in – or out, as many have.

But that’s just my take on the song’s curious appeal. Lindner has nobbled the facts on behalf of us all. Apart from those invested in the tourism appeal of ‘Matilda country’ and a handful of researchers, not many people will give a flying jumbuck about his findings, alas. But anyone with even the faintest interest in the intriguing history of this amazingly durable ditty should ‘grab one with glee’ from any good bookshop or from the publisher.

Even after his research and writing epic, Lindner is still interested in the song, noting that ‘the history of the origins of Waltzing Matilda remains incomplete’, and is keen to hear from anyone with something to contribute to its ever-expanding mythology. He can be contacted at .You can also follow developments on Facebook at W.Benjamin Lindner, Author .





Moral Ecologies and Crimes Against Nature – just out

sketch-of-stringybark-creek-ambushSydney Mail, November 16, 1878.

Moral whats?

A term coined by American historian Karl Jacoby in his influential Crimes Against Nature. Jacoby used the term to indicate the usually unwritten attitudes and assumptions held by local people about their environment and how it should be managed and ‘that against elite, top-down conservation schemes that sought to criminalise customary and often sustainable practices such as the taking of wood and game, those already dwelling on the land resisted by continuing to live their lives as before.’ As described in the Introduction:

‘This book offers the first systematic study of how elite conservation schemes and policies define once customary and vernacular forms of managing common resources as banditry—and how the ‘bandits’ fight back. Drawing inspiration from Karl Jacoby’s seminal Crimes against Nature, this book takes Jacoby’s moral ecology and extends the concept beyond the founding of American national parks. From eighteenth-century Europe, through settler colonialism in Africa, Australia and the Americas, to postcolonial Asia and Australia, Moral Ecologies takes a global stance and a deep temporal perspective, examining how the language and practices of conservation often dispossess Indigenous peoples and settlers, and how those groups resist in everyday ways. Drawing together archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers and historians, this is a methodologically diverse and conceptually innovative study that will appeal to anyone interested in the politics of conservation, protest and environmental history.’

My chapter is on the relationship between the constituencies of northeastern Victoria before, during and after the Ned Kelly bushranging outbreak of the late 1870s, and their attitudes towards their environment, an embryonic form of moral ecology. Here is the full chapter list:

Moral Ecologies: Histories of Conservation, Dispossession and Resistance

Carl J. Griffin, Roy Jones, Iain J. M. Robertson

Pages 1-34

Conservation as Dispossession

Front Matter

Pages 35-35


Politics of Conservation, Moral Ecology and Resistance by the Sonaha Indigenous Minorities of Nepal

Sudeep Jana Thing

Pages 37-58

Global Ecologies and Local Moralities: Conservation and Contention on Western Australia’s Gascoyne Coast

Roy Jones, Joseph Christensen, Tod Jones

Pages 59-82

From Activists to Illegally Occupying Land: Aboriginal Resistance as Moral Ecology in Perth, Western Australia

Shaphan Cox, Christina Birdsall-Jones

Pages 83-97

Ghosts in the Forest: The Moral Ecology of Environmental Governance Toward Poor Farmers in the Brazilian and US Atlantic Forests

Scott William Hoefle

Pages 99-125

Conservation as Occupation

Front Matter

Pages 127-127


Crimes against Cultures: How Local Practices of Regulation Shape Archaeological Landscapes in Trowulan, East Java

Tod Jones, Adrian Perkasa

Pages 129-158

Of Necessary Work: The Longue Durée of the Moral Ecology of the Hebridean Gàidhealtachd

Iain J. M. Robertson, Mary MacLeod Rivett

Pages 159-187

Demographic Fluidity and Moral Ecology: Queenstown (Tasmania) and a Lesson in Precarious Process

Pete Hay

Pages 189-215

‘Fearless, Free and Bold’: The Moral Ecology of Kelly Country

Graham Seal

Pages 217-234

Squatting as Moral Ecology: Encroachment and ‘Abuse’ in the New Forest, England

Carl J. Griffin

Pages 235-263

A “Moral Ecology” of Afrikaner Settlement in German East Africa, 1902–1914

Thaddeus Sunseri

Pages 265-288

Afterword: On Moral Ecologies and Archival Absences

Karl Jacoby

Pages 289-297

Available from


mascot copy

Mascot of Canadian troops


We like to think the modern era is a rational one in which superstition, or folk belief, has been relegated to the distant past. A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith in the First World War(Oxford University Press, 2018), a new book by Owen Davies shows that magic thinking was alive and well during, and after, World War 1. As anyone who takes the time to inquire into these matters will know, it still is.

Can there possibly be anything new to say about the history of the bloody madness that engulfed much of Europe and elsewhere from 1914 to 1918? It seems so.

Owen Davies leaves no form of delusion and deception unexamined in his new book on magic, divination and faith in the First World War. A great number and variety of practices professed to offer supernatural insights into life and death. They included almanacs, charms, divination, fortune-telling in all its nuances, ghosts, luck, mascots, prophecy, spiritualism, talismans, visions, witchcraft and ‘zepp charms’, crafted from the aluminum skeleton of a downed German airship. These are only some of the topics excavated and investigated in this enlightening study of a little-researched aspect of the Great War.

Davies casts his glamour widely. His extensive research takes in not only British and Empire beliefs but also those of many European countries, including Germany, as well as the United States of America. While the broad contours of supernatural belief were much the same everywhere, there were national emphases. Visions of angels were largely a British preoccupation, and not only in relation to the well-known sightings associated with the Battle of Mons.  Marian visions were rare in Britain but, not surprisingly, frequent in Catholic countries, yet also experienced in Germany.

Another strength of the book is Davies’ dissection of the various intellectual approaches to the supernatural. He discusses psychology, sociology, folklore and anthropology and psychical research as well as history. While folklorists in Europe and, to some extent in the USA viewed the war as an ideal event through which to investigate supernatural beliefs and practices, their British counterparts were mostly missing in action. Only one individual appears to have bothered to conduct even casual fieldwork among acquaintances and the odd soldier he encountered. Consequently, we know much less about British folk belief on the ground at this time than in many other countries. Fortunately, Davies’ extensive archival research goes a long way to plugging this gap, allowing him to provide a convincing overall picture of faith in the war, both at home and at the front.

And faith, of one kind or another, is at the centre of this inquiry. Davies early on addresses the tricky definitional and conceptual issues associated with work of this kind. What term should be used to describe the subject of study? ‘Superstition’, the popular description – also still used by psychologists – is misleading. One person’s superstition may be another’s deeply-held belief, and who is to say which belief is valid and which is not? The word has been used as a bludgeon in the struggles between Catholics and Protestants (and, in another context, in the colonisation of indigenous peoples). Davies refuses to refer to his topic as ‘superstition’ and only uses the term between inverted commas. Following that wise observation, he further declares that: ‘I do not hold the view that the beliefs and practices explored in this book are in any way symptomatic of backwardness or credulity.’ (13)

While agreeing with this view, the numbers of those who succumbed to what seem to be blatant scams, does suggest a strong level of credulity, inflamed of course by the dreadful circumstances of loss and uncertainty that was the lot of almost everyone involved in those dreadful years of conflict. Nevertheless, people needed to find whatever consolations and hopes they could, regardless of their source. It is the willingness of some to take pecuniary advantage of those needs that is reprehensible, rather than the propensity of many to believe.

As a good historian should, Davies loses no opportunity to dissolve myths. In this area of research, there are many. A popular legend of the trenches among all the combatants was ‘the White Comrade’, a spectral figure seen tending to the dead and dying. The origins and identity of this folkloric phantasm were vague, even for legends, but the comrade was soon said by many to be Jesus Christ. Citing David Clarke’s earlier research on this topic, Davies provides an account of the origin of the belief in a short story published in early 1915 and spreading via republication in parish magazines and a variety of other print forms, as well as oral transmission: ‘Once again, fiction became fact…’ (68).

Through seven (lucky?) close-packed chapters on prophecy, spirits, fortune telling, soldiers’ folk beliefs and religious faith in the trenches, A Supernatural Warprovides a nuanced and learned exposition of the profound roles of belief in the supernatural during the Great War. Davies deals with various forms of ‘new thought’, including Christian Science and Pelmanism, the moral memory system that was a favourite butt of trench humour. He also looks at the role of the supernatural in some non-Christian faiths. Such a broad approach suggests that this book is likely to remain the definitive work for a long time to come.

A final chapter provides an overview of supernatural beliefs and practices since the First World War, into the second, and beyond. Witches, real and fictional; folk magic; spiritualism; psychic research; Theosophy; astrology; prophecy; lucky chain letters; mascots, amulets, bibles and the like all continued to appeal. Some practices thrived. Commercialised horoscopes, in particular, became a still-familiar staple of newspapers and magazines. There is also a brief mention of some fascinating uses of the supernatural as propaganda in the Second World War. A future research topic, perhaps?

While this book focusses on the First World War, the beliefs and practices it illuminates are as prevalent today as they were then. The supernatural was, and is, no different to other human activities: ‘Beliefs and practices constantly ebbed and flowed, disappeared and emerged, in response to broader trends in social, cultural and economic life.’ Owen Davies concludes his excellent book with the considered observation that, despite the long history of ‘superstition’, that ‘the First World War and its legacy confirmed that the supernatural was profoundly modern.’ (232)

Graham Seal (This review appears in a slightly different form as ‘Shamans at War’, in Literary Review, February 2019).



 Here’s the cover and Prologue from my just-released new book, Great Convict Stories:
I saw a man walk across the yard with the blood that had run from his lacerated flesh squashing out of his shoes at every step he took. A dog was licking the blood off the triangles, and the ants were carrying away great pieces of human flesh that the lash had scattered about the ground. The scourger’s foot had worn a deep hole in the ground by the violence with which he whirled himself round on it to strike the quivering and wealed back, out of which stuck the sinews, white, ragged, and swollen.
The infliction was 100 lashes, at about half-minute time, so as to extend the punishment through nearly an hour. The day was hot enough to overcome a man merely standing that length of time in the sun, and this was going on in the full blaze of it. However, they had a pair of scourgers who gave each other spell and spell about, and they were bespattered with blood like a couple of butchers.’