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Like many other words such as wisdom, inkwell, shoetree and wrath, 'exile' is an endangered species, ever more rarely heard and seen in contemporary English. It has already lost a clutch of meanings including thin, fine-spun (when used of theories); run-down, meagre or poor (as Cardinal Wolsley wrote of monasteries); and (in the case of soil) infertile. The noun is also obsolete in one of its senses (that of waste, ruin or utter impoverishment) but clings to two remaining meanings – the condition of someone forced to leave a particular place and debarred or prevented from returning, as well as the person who suffers such a fate. The verb denotes the act of imposing the former on the latter. Shakespeare's Romeo, for instance, spends a brief exile in Mantua where he is an exile whom the Prince of Verona has exiled from his native city. He bursts out:

There is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence 'banishèd' is banished from the world,
And world's exile is death. ( Romeo and Juliet : III.3.18–21)

This is the archetypal voice of the exile, who, in the interlocking myths of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is invariably unhappy. Exiles may be driven out by authority or by hostile circumstances or drawn away by the call of duty. Whatever the case they are united in their distress at being compelled to remain 'here' when their hearts are set on being 'there'.

Usually 'there' is the native land or beloved home. Exiles commonly yearn to breathe familiar air or to revisit particular scenes – the old home town, the Outback homestead, England in April. Often places are lamented because they are imbued with personal memories bound up with the exile's sense of identity. Sometimes the homeland's name is no more than an emblem for particular human beings the exile holds dear. Matthew Flinders, though addicted to 'discovery' and eager to advance his career, suffered pangs of longing during his absence from England between 1801 and 1810. He says virtually nothing in his letters to his wife about his native Lincolnshire. Instead he writes continually of his yearning for his 'dearest Ann', assuring her that he is 'in torture at thy great distance from me'.1

As the twenty-first century gets under way it is clear that a decline in the use of the word 'exile' signals no comparable diminution in the number of people in various parts of the world who are forced to leave their homes to seek asylum elsewhere. It suggests only that in English-speaking countries the experience of exile has become less common and less intense.

Connection with a homeland seems strongest when a people live in the same area for generation after generation and the land remains unaltered. Anywhere beyond the familiar horizon appears shockingly strange – as Flinders Island did to the indigenous Tasmanians exiled from their birth-place in the time of George Augustus Robinson. Robinson was ill-equipped to understand a race which had maintained a direct, harmonious relationship with the natural world for over 35,000 years, for whom the native earth was not only the direct source of everything needful to sustain life but also a mother, a friend, a repository of myth and an abode of spirits. He came from a nation in which the bonds between rural populations and the land they lived on were eroding ever more rapidly in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

As a child, growing up in a Gloucestershire village sixty years ago, I saw the tail-end of the pre-industrial way of life. Apart from men who had fought overseas, most of the older villagers had never been out of England. Many had seldom made the ten-mile journey to Bristol. If they had been transported to anywhere much more than five miles from their homes, they would, I suspect, have suffered a deep and powerful sense of exile. Yet nowadays their grandchildren might very well take holidays in Ibiza without turning a hair.

This change has come about because the village and the life led by its inhabitants have undergone a transformation. The little farms, the smithy, the school and the vicarage have all gone. The place is now an outer suburb of a large city, home mostly to commuters. The vicarage is a motel and the schoolhouse a museum – at least for the time being. Change is now, itself, a way of life.

All across the Western world the experience of exile has been modified by similar changes. For millions of those who no longer live where they were born the native land they knew no longer exists. It holds no site in which the exile can rediscover the self as part of a social and cultural continuum. That site can also be lost to those who never leave home but find themselves surrounded by strangeness.

The contemporary experience of exile has been further modified by the weakening of the shock of the new. Sixty years ago the people in my village knew very little about what the rest of the world looked like, and cities and landscapes differed much more dramatically from each other than they do today. Nowadays, increased literacy, the march of information technology and the impact of several decades of inescapable television broadcasting mean most Westerners know what the centre of New York or the Iraqi desert looks like. With every passing year, every major city looks more like others of its kind. And while the difference between the five-star suite at the top end of town and the shanty at the bottom end remains as great or greater than ever before, the deracination and exploitation endured by the world's poor also conform to all too familiar patterns.

If a rapidly changing 'there', a less alien 'here', and an increasing similarity between the two have all done something to erase or, at least, transform the Western experience of exile, the way in which 'here' and 'there' have drawn closer together has produced a still greater effect. In Flinders' time, when the voyage from Britain to the Australian colonies took about four months, the thousands of miles between the exile and the homeland could be seen unreeling daily behind the ship, impressing on the mind of every voyager how far he or she must travel to get home again. In the twenty-first century, flying across the globe could hardly be a more different experience. The new ease and speed of travel has made the absentee's separation very much more tolerable. Even if there is no flying home for Christmas, most expatriates – provided they are not banged up in a detention centre – can assuage the pangs of exile by picking up a telephone or sending an e-mail. Before the introduction of the telegraph or airmail postal services things were very different. One of the worst miseries endured by the exile lay in the slow pace at which news travelled from 'there' to 'here'. Isabella Gibson, who came from England to New South Wales under a government-assisted scheme in 1833, complained in a letter to her sister that she had heard no news from home for the past ten months. Worse still, her brother, Richard, who had intended to follow her, had not appeared. 'What has become of him,' she writes, 'I cannot ascertain. I form numberless conjectures but all in vain every day adds to my anxiety …'.2

Gibson lived at a time when Britain witnessed an unprecedented exodus of citizens. Men of the labouring class made up the rank and file of the army and navy, and left home to maintain British rule throughout the expanding Empire. Other members of the lower orders set out, often unwillingly and under atrocious conditions, to become new settlers. Thousands of Irish fled in the time of the Great Hunger. Scottish crofters were carried off to Canada, or – as in the case of the group who sailed on the typhus ship Persian – to Van Diemen's Land. The occupants of charitable institutions were regularly shipped out under emigration schemes like that which brought Isabella Gibson to New South Wales. And more than 150,000 male and female convicts were transported between 1788 and 1852 to the Australian colonies.

If the more affluent classes yielded comparatively few convicts – among others rebels such as the Young Irelanders; the poisoner, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright; or the forger, Henry Savery, who became Australia's first novelist – they produced a flock of remittance men, black sheep who left their native land under threat of scandal, familial displeasure or the debtors' prison. Alongside this raffish crew went plenty of perfectly respectable members of the well-heeled classes, leaving Britain in response to the demands of the Empire or the opportunities available in the new colonies: intending pastoralists; officers in the armed forces; men of science; 'discoverers'; clerics; doctors; architects; merchants; clerks like Dickens' Mr Micawber; educators like Matthew Arnold's brother, Thomas; and artists like the redoubtable John Glover. And with them, sometimes willingly, sometimes with reluctance, came their wives, children and, occasionally, other dependants such as unmarried sisters.

Naturally, not all these travellers can be seen as exiles. A number were prepared to make the best of things, looking forward with the eagerness of a migrant or explorer instead of turning back to the past with an exile's sorrow. Others simply got on with the job in hand. Many, including myself some 150 years later, left home as unhappy exiles obsessed with what was lost but went on to take pleasure in the discovery of a new home for the future.

Back in Britain this exodus touched millions of lives. Those who remained behind waited anxiously for news of their loved ones. At the very least virtually everyone would have known of some other person in the same street or village who had left for foreign parts. Perhaps because it is not pleasant to be deserted with equanimity or forgotten, there seems to have been a conviction in Victorian Britain that virtually all those who left were bound to suffer the pangs of exile. Exile and its grief appear to have become a national obsession. Songs, poems and phrases concerned in one way or another with yearning for home gripped the popular imagination. WH Aytoun's lines, 'The deep unutterable woe/Which none save exiles feel' come out of the period and so does the most famous of all the exile's sentimental ballads – JH Payne's 'Home, Sweet Home'. The 'deep unutterable woe' of the exile, whether real or imagined, became part of the culture's core of shared experience. Predictably, the exile became one of the most widely recognised contemporary icons, and assumed two sharply contrasted forms.

The first of these Janus faces shone with proper piety. Obedient to God's will, brimming with virtuous affection and dedicated to 'England, home and beauty', these angelic exiles were commonly female figures of the kind that appear, clad in white muslin, in popular prints like 'Letters from Home'. Ironically, it is their devotion to the motherland and her mores which has brought them 'here' when their hearts yearn to be 'there'. As patterns of filial or wifely duty they have followed fathers or husbands into strange lands; as daughters of the Empire they have become agents of her civilising influence. They are self-sacrifice personified, exemplars of all that is most admirable in Woman.

The second type of exile is entirely different – stained by sin, hellish, dark, brooding, male. He is an outcast, banished or forced to flee from his native land. He is guilty of unspeakable wickedness and knows he can never return to the scenes of his innocent boyhood. Racked by remorse or scowling in defiance he is much given to lurking among crags, wrapped in a black cloak and a swirling tempest.

It's impossible to say how many real-life exiles bore any strong resemblance to these figures. Certainly some women, in letters and journals, express the iconic paradox of longing for the homeland while remaining devoted to the duty which holds them captive in a foreign land. Margaret Menzies, from Perth in Scotland, settled in New South Wales in 1839 because of her husband's state of health and his ambitions as a land-owner. She wrote in her journal: 'I sometimes feel that we have left a great deal behind us … but while dear Rob is happy I ought to be so too & certainly the great improvement of his health more than makes up for many comforts enjoyed in Scotland which we cannot expect here'.3

Examples of the expression of sentiments proper to the black, Byronic exile are harder to find. There was no shortage of men living far from home who were guilty of heinous crimes. From some points of view, Napoleon represents the grandest and most tormented of the type. In the Australian colonies there were all too many: the poisoner Wainewright; the cannibal Alexander Pierce; or the original of the terrible grey-haired murderer in Rolf Boldrewood's 'The Mailman's Yarn'; as well as others whose actions went unpunished by authority: John Price, the sadistic commandant of Norfolk Island, or those who inflicted outrageous cruelties on the indigenous population.

Though evil-doers abounded they were not much given to concessions of guilt or inner torment. (Wainewright's death-bed admission that he murdered his mother-in-law because she had thick ankles hardly strikes the right note.) Few expressed even the basic yearning for home which is the exile's sine qua non. Anthony Fenn Kemp, one of the most rascally of colonial entrepreneurs, complained that as an uncertified bankrupt he was regarded as an outcast, yet, like others of his kind, he returned brazenly to his native land whenever he felt the trip might boost his fortunes. Utterances from various colonial death-cells and gallows steps sometimes capture the right blend of nostalgia and spiritual turmoil but spectacles like that in which Martin Higgins, hanged in Hobart in 1827, exhorts a young boy to take warning by his miserable end probably owe more to the hack journalist than to any real-life exemplum of the dark Byronic icon.

If the white angels and black, diabolic figures of exile have no very close relationship with real men and women, they have, perhaps, stronger ties with the exile's landscape or at least with the way in which it was perceived. In 1835, John Dunmore Lang wrote a sonnet describing the mountains and forests he saw while sailing up the Derwent to Hobart. While admitting to the mesmerising beauty of the scene, he concludes:

Yet all is wild and waste, save where the hand
Of man, with long-continued toil and care,
Has won a little spot of blooming land
From the vast cheerless forest here and there!
So is the mortal world – a desert drear
Where but a few green spots amid the waste appear! 4

Despite the Romantic enthusiasm for wild scenery, especially craggy mountains, Lang's ascription of virtue to the cultivated patch and sin to the unimproved wilderness replicates the iconic dichotomy between the white angels of Empire, stoically minding their green spots, and the black outcasts who haunt the unimproved deserts of the mortal world. Behind both poem and icons lies a conflation of ideas, commonly accepted at the time. 'Unimproved' Nature was, after all, analogous not only to the 'mortal' world of fallen man, but to the hell of the fallen angels and to the human soul without redemption. Showing no evidence of any knowledge of God's purposes, wilderness appeared as darkened by ignorance and given over to sinful idleness. Untilled, it bore no mark of civilising lore, yielded no proper nourishment for body or soul, and stood as a threat to the progress and order won by skilled redemptive labour.

In Van Diemen's Land, this threat seemed especially alarming. The island's wild forests and mountains were home to an array of apparently godless, idle, savage creatures, hostile to the agents of Christian civilisation: some indigenous – the Tasmanian wolf or tiger; snarling devils; dark-skinned heathens bent on resisting the white invaders of their territory – and some double-dyed outcasts, escaped convicts who had turned to bush-ranging. Fear of the unknown, of the wild and of other darker exiles often made up an important part of the experience of exile for the reformed transportee or the worthy settler. The penitent poacher from the ballad, 'Van Diemen's Land' suffers, among other things from fear of the savage beasts which he believes to be lurking beyond the light of his fire.

Usually, though, the literature of exile is less concerned with present danger than with lost happiness. It is inward looking, taken up with personal feelings of sorrow and homesickness and with memories of what has been left behind. Details of the foreign land are not observed for themselves but are described in terms of the ways in which they contrast with the beloved features of the lost home. And often, to make the contrast more striking, the appearance of the alien landscape is ignored or distorted.

In his poem, 'Transplanted Trees' (c 1838) James Knox draws an analogy between the exile who cannot live 'beneath a foreign sky' and trees from the homeland 'pining on a stranger earth/For their own native soil'. But while Knox's verse, written during his twenty-five years in Hobart, suggests that he never ceased to think of himself as an exile, all around him British settlers and British trees were putting down roots and, in many cases, thriving as well as they had ever done.

Caroline Leakey, who came to Van Diemen's Land in search of a climate that might improve her health, wrote in a similar vein. She too ignores what is in front of her, refusing to look at any flowers other than the English wild-flowers that grow in the landscape of memory, and dismissing the 'vaunting' blooms of Eastern lands (including, presumably, the exquisite little wild-flowers of Tasmania).

Writing in the explorer's mode, whether by those officially engaged in discovery or by emigrants eager to learn more of their new home, is quite unlike the literature of exile – more precise, more objective, more vigorous and characterised by much greater flexibility in the face of what is new. If Louisa Anne Meredith saw herself as an exile when she left England for the Australian colonies in 1839, most of her later work, whether poetry, prose, drawing or painting, is that of an explorer who examines and depicts every detail of her surroundings with loving exactitude. The contrast between Leakey's 'English Wild Flowers' and Meredith's description of Tasmanian rain-forest in her poem, 'Tasmanian Scenes', could hardly be more striking:

In deep, green, silent glens, - silent, except the fall
Of tinkling streams that made a monotone most musical –
The feathery fern trees dwelt, with palmy crests outspread
Close interweaved and overlapp'd in canopies o'erhead;
Upborne on mossy columns whence taper ribs upspring
And leafy traceries flow from their mazy clustering,
While round each pillar, wreaths of polish'd verdure cling
With long and shining fronds, in graceful garlands,
Adown and down, till into the spray of the tiny cascade
they're stooping.5

In prose the range and mixture of feeling and observation is much greater than in poetry but there is still a marked contrast between the more lugubrious letters and diaries of the exile and the reports of explorers like Darwin who, according to Bernard Smith, ran an eye, undimmed by nostalgia, over New South Wales and went on to 'define problems of shape, colour and light that landscape painters only began to grapple with seriously fifty years later'.6 In Tasmania the catalogue of explorers' accounts extends from the journals of Nicholas Baudin, with their meticulous recording of the appearance, customs and conduct of the Tasmanian Aborigines, to the reports of a host of less eminent men like JE Calder who, in 1841, was given the task of cutting a track through the wilderness to Macquarie Harbour so that Sir John Franklin, another famous explorer, might travel there.

All this suggests that the explorer's modes of expression are much to be preferred to those of the exile, yet, whereas the exiles are all heart, the explorers are sometimes nothing but head and eyes, and so in their own way equally limited. While the exiles offer some criticism of life, albeit of a stereotypical, prejudiced or sentimental kind, the explorers usually criticise little beyond the quality of the soil or the absence of a water supply. That may be why, when the explorer's spirit first enters Australian fiction, it produces a sort of 'guidebook quality' that marks, say, Charles Rowcroft's Tales of the Colonies. It might also be argued that the motivation of the Australian novel is, in part, the history of the reconciliation of exile and explorer, of movement towards a point at which feeling can co-exist with detachment and moral vision with vigour and adaptability so that the journey through the outer world becomes, as in Patrick White's Voss or Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, the image of other kinds of exploration.

Bernard Smith's insistence on the failure of Australia's early visual artists to see the antipodean landscape with an explorer's eye is no longer as widely accepted as it once was. There were, of course, artists like Edward Latrobe Bateman who concentrated their gaze on Lang's 'little spots of blooming land', on houses, gardens and farms carefully modeled on originals dear to the soul of the exile, and went on to use British and European techniques in creating images of reproductions of the distant homeland. But a tradition of explorers' art had already been established by men such as Joseph Banks, who sailed with Cook, or Flinders' Ferdinand Bauer, who recorded an unfamiliar flora with exquisite accuracy. Later, painters such as John Glover, Conrad Martens and Eugène von Guérard showed themselves more closely akin to the explorer than Smith – or Frederick McCubbin and Sydney Long before him – would admit.7

Glover, for instance, came to Tasmania 'to depict the novel scenery', apparently rejoicing in the challenge of discovering new ways to paint his novel subjects, all bathed in unfamiliar light. Admittedly he often painted colonial 'improvements' devised with at least half an eye on British models: colonists' houses; early Hobart with its busy harbour, barracks and cathedral; and agricultural scenes featuring cattle or crops grown from British stock. Yet 'My Harvest Home', for example, is no nostalgic replica of an exile's attempt to reproduce the end-point in the British farming year. Instead Glover points up differences between the new experience of 'harvest home' and the old, showing convicts working as farm labourers, oxen taken the place of draught horses, gum-trees – very accurately observed – growing up in place of familiar elms and oaks; and the whole scene illumined by a light quite unlike the mellow-mistiness of Keats's Autumn. The painting evinces the kind of exploratory spirit that informs Louisa Anne Meredith's 'Tasmanian Scenes' rather than the orthodox nostalgia of a Bateman or a Knox. Yet, instead of turning his back on the exile's longing for the past, Glover in 'My Harvest Home' marries it to the energy and clear-sightness of the emigrant-explorer. In doing so he contributes to the kind of composite tradition which sustains much of this country's most powerful visual art as well as its literature.

In a nation whose white citizens are all migrants or the descendants of migrants we need to come to terms with our recollections of earlier life in another place or with the ghosts that haunted our exiled forebears because only when the past is looked in the eye can we see the present in context.

Margaret Scott

1. C Retter and S Sinclair, Letters to Ann: the love story of Matthew Flinders and Ann Chappelle, Sydney, 2001, p 44.
2. P Clarke and D Spender, Life lines: Australian women's letters and diaries 1788-1840, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992, p 146.
3. Clarke and Spender, p 171.
4. V Smith and M Scott, Effects of light: the poetry of Tasmania, Hobart: Twelvetrees Publishing, 1985, p 8.
5. Smith and Scott, Effects of light, p 21.
6. B Smith, European vision and the South Pacific 1768-1850, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960, pp 240-41.
7. Smith, European vision, passim.,