GC2018 Commonwealth Games: 150 years of princes visiting Australia

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When Prince Charles opens the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he will bookend 150 years since a British monarch – Prince Alfred in 1867-68 – first visited Australia, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THE 2018 COMMONWEALTH GAMES will be held from 4-15 April 2018 on the Gold Coast, in Queensland and will involve 70 nations, 11 days of competition and 18 sports — including the debut of beach volleyball and the para-triathlon.

On Wednesday, 4 April 2018, Prince Charles and his wife, Duchess Camilla will be welcomed at a reception at Old Government House, Brisbane before heading to the Gold Coast for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. Prince Charles will be deputising for his mother, Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Commonwealth Games.

On the eve of the royal visit, former Prime Minister Paul Keating said in the UK Sunday Times that Prince Charles has no desire to be the next King of Australia, and believes Australia should sever its ties with the monarchy of Great Britain and become a republic, charting its own independent course as a nation.

The public repudiation of former Prime Minister Abbott’s knights and dames decision showed that Australia has moved on from the old colonial way of thinking — and yet princes keeping coming to Australia. It used to be only once a generation thing. Now they seem to be coming all the time. It used to be as rare as a bunyip sighting. There’s no place for princes in Australia.

The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games is an opportunity to emphasise that an Australian republic and having our own head of state does not require a change to Commonwealth membership. There are 53 nations in the Commonwealth and 32 are republics. Not all of the member states (Mozambique and Rwanda) were former British colonies. Other than Britain, five Commonwealth nations have their own hereditary Head of State — Brunei Darussalam, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga. Although Queen Elizabeth is the Head of the Commonwealth it doesn't mean she is the head of state of every nation in it. The "Head of Commonwealth" role is not hereditary and may simply disappear when she passes on.

In February 2018, it was reported by the BBC that a “high-level group” of Commonwealth leaders met in London to review the governance of member nations and to examine who should take over as head of the Commonwealth when the Queen dies. The group is not sure they want Charles – who would then be King – as the Head of the Commonwealth — and because it’s not actually a hereditary position, the members of the Commonwealth will have a say.

The Commonwealth leaders want to have a say in who will be their next leader. This is in contrast to Australians who have no say in choosing our next head of state. Perhaps Australians should decide whether we want an Australian as our head of state and how an Australian head of state should be chosen.

The Australian Republic Movement recently invited Prince Charles to address an Australian audience about why he’d like to be Australia’s head of state, rather than an Australian.  Despite the fact that during his five-day stay, Prince Charles is likely to be attending events and making a few speeches, he recently declined the invitation to discuss the future of the Australian monarchy.

The first prince to visit the shores of Australia arrived in November 1867. The latest British royal visit is a bookend to the first royal visit, which occurred over five hot months from 1867 to 1868. This was undertaken by Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred — a Royal Navy captain on a round-the-world voyage on board the HMS Galatea. Stops were made at Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. He first landed at Glenelg, in South Australia, on 31 October 1867. As the first member of the British royal family to visit the Australian colonies, he was received with much enthusiasm. During his stay of nearly five months, Alfred visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Tasmania.

At a meeting on 20 January 1868 to elect three trustees from the subscribers to the fund for the erection of the first Grammar School in Brisbane, there was a discussion on the probability of Prince Alfred – who was about to visit the colony – to lay the foundation stone.

The Brisbane Courier on 21 January 1868 stated:

... as almost a necessary consequence, the school would be in some way connected with his Royal Highness by name. As, however, the number of institutions which either now did or promised to bear the name of Prince Alfred, or Duke of Edinburgh, in the other colonies, had become almost beyond all count, he would suggest that they had better confine themselves out here to some such name as the "Prince’s School", or "Queen’s School" … [another] said he believed according to the 'Grammar Schools Act' they were bound to call the school the "Brisbane Grammar School".

During his visit to Brisbane, Prince Alfred laid the Brisbane Grammar School Foundation Stone on 29 February 1868. However, the people of Brisbane refused to yield to the pressure around all the colonies to name all institutions after the visiting royal. Instead of naming the school after him, the event was commemorated in the school with his coat-of-arms included in the northern stained glass window of the "Great Hall". The fact that he wasn’t liked much helped the burghers of Brisbane maintain their "republican" stance.

On 12 March 1868, during his second visit to Sydney, Prince Alfred was shot in the back with a revolver by Henry James O'Farrell in an attempted assassination while picnicking on the beach in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf.

This created a wave of sectarian hatred and fanatical declarations of loyalty. In this climate, republicanism became associated with Fenianism, violence and anarchy. One result of the Irish would-be assassin O’Farrell’s shot was that Henry Parkes passed the Treason Felony Act, which made disloyal talk of any sort a crime, punishable by six month’s prison. Prince Alfred was wounded just to the right of his spine but was saved from serious injury by the rubber suspenders he was wearing to hold up his trousers. He recovered fully and continued on his world tour. O’Farrell was found guilty of attempted murder and was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 21 April 1868 — the birthday of the current British monarch.

The first royal tour included a school rejecting the use of a royal title, as well as being shot at while attending a beach barbeque. The first event has an echo in the current abolishing of knighthoods. Hopefully, though, there won’t be any incident at a Gold Coast beach birthday like at Clontarf Beach in 1868.

The British royal hatching and matching have been in all the celebrity magazines for nearly nine months. The Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton is reportedly due with her third child on 23 April. This will be followed on 19 May with the Royal Wedding between actor Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, set for St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. However, Australians appear to be unswayed by the royal engagement and support for the British monarchy hitting a record low, with 52 per cent support for a republic and only 22 per cent for a monarchy.

Perhaps it’s our fascination with modern fictional royalty that helps bolster off-line royalty these days. For us in Australia, royalty only ever visits us from somewhere else, from across the seas. It’s not something that lives with us, is part of us, except in our imaginations and creative fantasies. We feel this when we are binge-watching The Crown, or watching trilogies with Australia’s own fictional High Elven Royalty, Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett – who ironically has been a strong supporter of the Australian Republic Movement in the past) who voluntarily agreed to diminish and go into the West.

Maybe the closest we come to Australia's own home-grown king is in July each year when the Australian Crown along with his nobles and courtiers takes to the Field of St Michael's, during the Abbey Medieval Festival, at Caboolture, north of Brisbane — the largest authentic medieval re-enactment event in Australia.

Royalty comes and royalty goes, but it is never a part of us. Most Australians would have a better understanding of the family trees of the Households of Westeros than the Windsor dynasty. I’ve heard it said that the moment when King Joffrey chopped off the head of Ned Stark many Australians became republican.

History editor Dr Glenn Davies is the Australian Republican Movement's Queensland branch secretary. You can follow Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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