Banjo Paterson’s Early Critique – Australian Troops in the Colonial Quagmire
In this early work, a young Banjo Paterson grapples with the morality of British colonial wars through the perspective of Australian troops deployed in the Mahdist War.
Paterson immediately establishes a critical tone, questioning why these Australian soldiers have come to fight in a distant land against a people seeking freedom from colonial rule.
He sees hypocrisy in Australians being deployed to prop up a “Puppet Khedive” and serve British interests like forcing debt repayment. The rough slant rhymes and repetition of “wrong” and “strong” highlight the injustice Paterson perceives.
Paterson boldly accuses Australia of betraying its values of liberty and law to join British oppression, sacrificing principles for war. He invokes the martyred General Gordon to suggest this imperial war is doomed, predicting local resistance will prevail.
The poem’s passionate condemnation of this colonial exercise reveals Paterson’s early leaned towards independence and empathy for the colonized. He positions the Australian troops as caught in moral quagmire where their courage is wasted on an unjust cause.
While Paterson would later pen celebratory ballads about military exploits, this youthful work criticizes deployment of Australian soldiers for British imperial interests rather than national defense. The poem shows his emerging nationalist leanings.
El Mahdi To The Australian Troops
And wherefore have they come, this warlike band,
That o’er the ocean many a weary day
Have tossed; and now beside Suakim’s Bay,
With faces stern and resolute, do stand,
Waking the desert’s echoes with the drum—
Men of Australia, wherefore have ye come?
To keep the Puppet Khedive on the throne,
To strike a blow for tyranny and wrong,
To crush the weak and aid the oppressing strong!
Regardless of the hapless Fellah’s moan,
To force the payment of the Hebrew loan,
Squeezing the tax like blood from out the stone?
And fair Australia, freest of the free,
Is up in arms against the freeman’s fight;
And with her mother joined to crush the right—
Has left her threatened treasures o’er the sea,
Has left her land of liberty and law
To flesh her maiden sword in this unholy war.
Enough! God never blessed such enterprise—
England’s degenerate Generals yet shall rue
Brave Gordon sacrificed, when soon they view
The children of a thousand deserts rise
To drive them forth like sand before the gale—
God and the Prophet! Freedom will prevail.