Two covers of the Victorian branches of the A.N.A. recently appeared on a stamp auction site. The first had a 1d green KGV Head postmarked with a Victorian RELIEF/ NO 2 postmark and it emanated from the Port Melbourne, Branch No. 28 and was posted to St. Kilda, the date being illegible (Figure 1).
The second was a stampless cover, had a PAID AT FOOTSCRAY/ 19 AU 37/ VIC postmark, and it emanated from the Footscray Branch, No. 65. It was posted to Footscray (Figure 2).
Despite the organisation’s name, and the tendency of some members to call their meetings corroborees, the association had nothing to do with the Aborigines. This Ballarat-based friendly society in fact played a central role in the campaign for Federation, particularly in Victoria. The A.N.A. was established, with future prime minister Deakin’s support, in Melbourne in April 1871. Its membership was restricted to native-born males, and its agenda, overwhelmingly focused on promoting nationhood, was reflected in the motto, “Advance Australia”. Many prominent members shared Deakin’s commitment to humanitarianism and protection, to strengthening of Australia’s defence capability, improving social welfare and a white Australia.
The Ballarat branch was formed in 1874, the first outside Melbourne, and by the end of the 19th century it was the biggest in the land. In its first decade, it was debating such questions as whether a republic was better than a “limited monarchical form of government”, considering proposals for Federation and talking up the prospects of a new flag, one with white stars on a blue backdrop. In 1900 it had a membership of 17,000, mainly in Victoria, and mainly consisted of energetic middle-class men aged under 50 years (Figure 3).
Another priority was the promotion of an Australian identity through art and literature, a task concurrently pursued by the likes of painters Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and poet, Henry Lawson. The idea for Australia Day, to be celebrated on January 26, was first suggested in a letter from E.W. Swift of Ballarat to the 1885 ANA conference. At the association’s suggestion, the Victorian government organised with its counterparts in the other colonies for the first national celebration of the day in 1888, the centenary of European settlement in Australia.
The success of the Ballarat branch could be attributed to two factors: the offer of sickness, injury and death benefits to those working in the dangerous occupation of mining, and the promotion of national identity to those whose fathers were either part of the Eureka rebellion or were witnesses to the ruthless manner in which it was put down.
Although many in the association shared the prevailing wisdom that the Aborigines were a dying race, there was at least recognition of them in the ANA stationery, which also promoted concern for the environment. Although the ANA was concentrated in Victoria, particularly in the goldfield towns of Ballarat, Bendigo and Creswick, the movement of miners interstate helped in the forming of branches in the mining towns of Charters Towers in Queensland and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, two key centres in the federal story.
To promote Federation among those born overseas, the ANA encouraged the forming of Federation Leagues across the nation. In June 1894, Deakin became chairman of the Australasian Federation League, bringing together a wider coalition of support for the cause, including trade unions. Alfred Deakin and premier of Victoria Alexander Peacock were powerful figures in the Australian Natives Association. After Australian Federation in 1901, the ANA withdrew from political activity and continued to provide sickness, medical and funeral coverage for its members. It continued to prosper as a private health fund until 1993, when it merged with Manchester Unity of Victoria to create the company, Australian Unity.