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An insight into the Republic

Saturday, 12th November, 2011

By Jack Marx

It’s an overcast Saturday in Broken Hill, two days after St Patrick’s Day, and the annual St Pat’s Race Day, Broken Hill’s Melbourne Cup, is due to begin.

But there’s a problem: there are no horses, the jockeys having deemed the red-earth track too wet for racing. It doesn’t seem to matter to the thousands of locals who turn up to celebrate regardless, the only evidence of the equine purposes of the day being an empty track and a race caller who spends the afternoon in the Lion Nathan tent bemoaning his temporary unemployment.

Late in the day, after the various fashion and beauty parades have been walked and won, an ad hoc field of punters contests the only race of the afternoon, galloping down the straight, drinks in hands, toward the finish line, the winner - a burley bloke who’s had a few - celebrating his victory by jogging into the middle of the track and dropping his strides for the crowd, who whoop and holler like they’ve seen it all before. On Monday, the town gazette, The Barrier Daily Truth, reports police as saying the day went smoothly, the only arrests being a man who became aggressive later in town and another who, blind drunk, didn’t realise until too late that it was a police car he was urinating upon.  

This is Broken Hill, a town that doesn’t play strictly by the book, the people practiced at taking tough situations and making a fist of them. As an example of peaceful coexistence between old and new, art and commerce, black and white, good times and bad, today’s Broken Hill is as near a perfect model as Australia has got. But it’s a perfection that has been pressure cooked in over 100 years of hardship and death, the deep town history honeycombed with more heartbreak and intrigue than one would think its six square kilometres could bear. 

The modern history of Broken Hill had its origins on the battlefield of the Franco-Prussian War, where Jerome von Pereira, a descendant of German aristocracy and an officer in the Royal Saxon Army, laid siege to Paris in the deadly winter of 1870, during which thousands of besieging soldiers died of tuberculosis and disease, their ghastly wounds exposed to the bitter European cold. After Jerome saw his good friend, Emmanuel Raspe, killed on December 2, 1870, he’d had enough, fleeing from his army for the docks in Holland, taking ship to Melbourne, where he disembarked with a new identity: Charles Rasp, in morbid honour of his dead friend. 

Though educated in economics and chemistry, Rasp, perhaps fearing retribution for desertion, sought a low profile in his adopted home, accepting jobs as a fruit picker, station hand or fossicker on the plains and goldfields of Victoria and southern New South Wales. It was in 1883, while employed as a boundary rider for George McCulloch on the Mt Gipps Station in the Barrier Ranges, that Rasp stumbled upon the world’s largest silver, lead and zinc seam at the place local Aborigines had named “Willyama”, which some believe to be translated as “the broken hill”, a reference to the seam itself, which thrust up from the ground like the backbone of some deformed giant. With McCulloch and the “Syndicate of Seven”, Rasp formed the Broken Hill Propriety Company, which would not only become one of the most significant mining companies in the world, but would force the town of Broken Hill into reluctant existence.

 

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