‘Where Are Our Boys?’ by Martin Woods


Where Are our Boys: How Newsmaps Won the Great War Martin Woods

2016, 227p & notes

Now that I come to think of it,  maps don’t figure prominently in our graphic-rich environment much any more.  I’m old enough to remember wall maps strung up on a classroom wall, and I’m old-fashioned enough to still have a Melways in the car.  Our use of maps has become very functional and specific. Google Maps takes you right to where you’re looking and the  GPS in your car gives a one-dimensional snapshot of your immediate surroundings as you travel to your pre-selected destination. While there are still maps occasionally in newspapers and on television news – to pinpoint the sites of a specific event like an earthquake, tsunami or terrorist events, for example- I’m not particularly aware of maps that show a broad region and topographical features any more. Perhaps that’s why I’d be hard-pressed, I must confess, to tell you which countries border Syria- or even exactly where Syria is, even though it’s on the news every night.

However, few maps are completely neutral- or even accurate, as the ‘true size’ map makes clear.  Even that world map of my memory, with the pink Commonwealth countries, was an argument for Empire, and as the Worldmapper website shows, it is possible to revision the world according to different parameters, depending on the argument you want to make.  And as Martin Woods shows us in his book Where Are Our Boys? this was also true in the more map-oriented environment of World War I where Australian families, anxious about ‘our boys’ on the battlefields were exposed to maps in an unprecedented way.  ‘Newsmaps’, as Wood coins them, were newspaper maps that were placed in the news, often at the core of the commentary and became “the window through which most news was viewed and understood” (p. 1).  His book focuses on the production and reception of maps for an Australian readership during the years 1914-18 and thus reflects the narrative of the time  of ANZAC troops fighting within the bigger picture of a British war, and not the skewed nationalistic map of ANZAC commemoration-tourism that we hold today.

The opening chapter of the book places the WWI newsmaps into a longer cartographic tradition, springing from the late 16th century with the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s maps from c.90-179CE. and the expansion of printing techniques, particularly during the Dutch Golden Age, which enabled the production of maps to demonstrate exploration, urbanization and -especially- the bird’s eye view of battles and sieges. Maps were fundamental to military strategy, both for commanders and commentators.  However, these maps were separate artefacts to be unrolled and consulted alongside the news received either by despatch, word of mouth or, later, through the columns of newspapers.While the publication of maps as a separate product continued into the twentieth century, this book emphasizes the integration of the map into the newspaper itself as a ‘newsmap’.

As Chapter 2 ‘Remaking the Map of Europe’ shows, maps, generally imported from Britain, were popular with Australian readers.  Geography had been added to the school curriculum in the 1870s, and maps were used to track the progress of explorers across the Australian continent. Scouts and cadets learned map-reading skills, and the compulsory military training for men and boys aged 12-26 under the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1911 exposed more men to maps.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, newspaper consumption reached an all time high in Australia (p. 43). The first map produced in an Australian newspaper accompanied a report of the Crimean War in the Sydney Illustrated News published on 13 May 1854, and during the Boer War, maps were embedded into news articles or placed alongside correspondents’ reports.  This was a practice that continued with the Russo/Japanese War, the San Francisco earthquake and the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-12. In this way, Australians were exposed to a steady diet of maps to explain conflicts and risings in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Balkans had been an area of concern in Australian newspapers from 1908 onwards, but for Australian readers on the other side of the world, the rapid transition to war came as a jolt.  At this stage, the whole world was the stage and Ch. 3 ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’ demonstrates, the maps were big too, with large wall and billboard maps produced for shared consumption, like the large billboard map outside the the Argus office.  Commercial maps were produced for home use  by companies like Robur Tea, or by the newspapers as a special feature.  Many of these maps were cheaply produced and ephemeral, hence their relative scarcity today.  As attention focussed on the French/German frontier and Belgium, the maps became smaller in scale, moving from one battle front to another.  The German colonies now came into contention and war maps now often had a breakout box showing Australia’s proximity to the Pacific colonies.

With all this emphasis on Europe, France and Belgium there was initial disbelief when the ANZACs were sent to Egypt instead of the European front (Chapter 4). As 21st century Australians, we now know the layout of the Gallipoli peninsular better than Australian readers did at the time, (notwithstanding our relative cartographic ignorance).  The actual location of the soldiers was not divulged until mid-May and the Dardenelles were rarely shown on world maps at the time. It was not until September that a detailed map of the Gallipoli peninsula was issued. Shortly afterward, the ‘War Map of the Dardenelles and Bosporus’ was forwarded to schools, where it was intended that it form the basis of classroom discussion. A Robur war map was available for subscribers giving a bird’s eye view, unconstrained by detail and optimistically misleading, complete with little flags to pin onto the map to show progress. But of course, as we know, there was little progress, and little sense of orderly movement in the heavily censored letters home. Maps issued after the withdrawal were more detailed and provided the topographic detail necessary to make sense of what had happened, especially H.E.C. Robinson’s  map ‘ANZAC: Date of Landing April 1915: Date of Evacuation Dec 19-20 1915’ which was issued as a fundraiser in April 1916 in time for the first anniversary of the landing.

In Chapter 5 ‘Reading the Front’, Woods emphasizes that maps were just one part of the printed deluge that swept across Commonwealth readers. Australia was part of an Empire-wide publishing market, and there was lots of analysis, with special ‘War Issues’, technical articles, campaign diaries and maps, poetry, sheet music and novels.  Special collections of maps were marketed as gifts.  War films were shown at cinemas, and he notes in particular animated battle maps that were shown as shorts before the main feature, where using stop-motion animation, simple flag armies were shown moving across the screen (my- it was a simpler time!). The social aspect of map reading is emphasized, deepening our understanding of the homefront response to the war.

With the shift to ‘Somewhere in France’ (Chapter 6) from 1916 onwards, readers were frustrated by the lack of detail about Verdun and and readers now were aware that lack of detail generally indicated enemy gains. Although the ANZACs landed in France in March 1916, little was noted in the newspapers for two months.  When maps for public consumption began being produced again,aerial photography added a new perspective to maps. Nonetheless, maps of the Western front were in themselves a form of fantasy which did not capture the obliteration of geography caused by trench warfare.   The London-based Daily Mail syndicated its birds-eye map across the world which showed villages and farms that were no longer there. Today – and especially during this and the next two years- Australians are aware of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Passchendaele, but readers of the day saw them as part of the wider campaign and geography of ‘Flanders’.  There was genuine fear that Britain itself would be invaded, but by July 1918 the narrative had shifted. Instead of fear and gloom, there were more hyperbolic, nationalistic reports, and instead of the ebb-and-flow nature of the news, there were almost unalloyed good tidings.

By the latter half of 1918, as Ch 7 ‘Victory – In memorium’ shows, the newspapers displayed the discordancy of headlines urging victory, while the personal columns and lists of casualties revealed the ongoing sadness.  Henry B. Manderson (Melbourne) rather prematurely issued the ‘Victory Instant Reference Large Scale War Map of Western Europe and Australian Fighting Fronts’ in mid 1918, with an index of 7000 place names, and locations of Australian cemeteries.  The map came complete with British, French, Italian, Australian and American flags and instructions to

Cut the flags out, mount on pins, and from the information published in the newspapers each morning you may, by moving the flags, follow the movements of the various armies as they retreat or advance (p. 210)

Australian crowds anticipated the Armistice, with the Argus war billboard in front of the Argus building being torn down by jubilant crowds on 9th November.  Following the announcement of peace, maps were produced showing the reconfiguration of Europe, and local maps revealed Australia’s new interest in Germany’s Pacific holdings, especially Nauru. Within months the first battleground tourism maps were being produced, for Australians wealthy enough to make their own pilgrimages to visit the sites where their sons and husbands fell.

This is a clearly written,  beautifully produced book,with full colour maps on nearly every page. Its chronological approach presupposes a certain familiarity with the progress of WWI, but its emphasis is on the media depiction of the war and its homefront reception.   If I have one criticism, it is that I was not always aware that the map under discussion would be on the next page, and I would have appreciated a note in brackets, perhaps, indicating the page on which the map might be found if it was included.

I do find myself questioning, though, the subtitle “How Newsmaps Won the Great War”.  It’s a big claim, and not one that Woods addresses in detail. Certainly, as he notes:

The war of 1914-1918 was a modern, mechanised, media-fuelled global conflict, in which newsmaps were part of a campaign bolstering public confidence, punctuated by well-pitched moments of alarm… To a map- and news- literate early twentieth-century audience, the power of maps was undoubtedly more immediate and widespread than in any previous war (p. 224)

War maps did, as he claims, prove a template for reading the war as it unfolded, and military propaganda notwithstanding, “contemporary audiences were arguably better acquainted with the flow of events than most of us today, and more able to understand the context of the Great War.” (p. 227). They did, as he also claims, have an impact on the geographical imagination and educational curriculum and raised expectations of the possibilities of technology.  But newsmaps won the war? I’m not convinced. The war wasn’t won staring at the huge map on the Argus billboard, or moving the flag pins on a map on the other side of the world while Mother knitted socks- scenarios that Woods captures so well. As Woods has shown us, newsmaps did not drive actions, but instead were a commodity created for an audience  whose thoughts and prayers spanned the globe, unconstrained by geography.

Source: Review copy




‘Black Rock White City’ wins the Miles Franklin

In past years I’ve assiduously worked through the short list for the Miles Franklin, but it seems to have crept up on me this year. What was on the shortlist? Actually, I’ve read several of them without realizing it.

  • The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (my review here)
  • Hope Farm by Peggy Frew  (well, I did borrow it to read it, but didn’t get round to it)
  • Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
  • Leap by Myfanwy Jones (my review here)

and the winner

  • Black Rock, White City by A. S. Patrić (my review here).  And I’m quietly chuffed to see that I thought ‘Miles Franklin material’ right back in August 2015, when I read it.

Movie: Truman

I’ve been learning Spanish for the last year and that was the main reason that I wanted to see this film. It’s odd- I came out of the cinema smugly happy with my ability to recognize a couple of words in each interaction, but looking at this YouTube trailer- it seems so fast!! I can’t understand a word of it! (I wonder if they slowed it down for the theatre??)

Anyway, Julian is an actor with advanced cancer who is visited by his friend Tomas on a four-day fleeting visit.  It reminded me just a little of Last Cab to Darwin in its combination of gentle humour and poignancy as a man faces the task of death.  Not a lot happens in the four days, but it’s a moving depiction of friendship and priorities.

Three and a half stars leaning towards four stars because I could follow the Spanish!

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: 9-16 August

There’s been a little story bubbling along in the papers over the last week or so about a “cowardly assault” on the Rev. A. C. Thomson, the Anglican minister of St James Anglican Church.  St James was the only Anglican church in Melbourne at this stage, and it was located at that time near the corner of Collins and Williams streets. It was then a small weatherboard building, with a school building attached.

St. James Church and School

St James Church and School by William Liardet (painted 1875), State Library of Victoria, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au


The original weatherboard building was replaced by a brick building which opened in 1842 but was not completed until 1847. This second brick building was relocated to its present site in 1914 where it is now known as St James Old Cathedral.

On 3rd August, the Port Phillip Herald reported that the Rev and his friend Mr Patterson had been the victims on an assault. [Apologies for the queries- it’s difficult to read]

COWARDLY ASSAULT. Yesterday evening as the Rev Mr Thomson and Mr Patterson, son of Dr Patterson, were proceeding along the newly erected fence [?outside?] Rev Thomson’s residence, the crash [of a ?] was heard at some distance, when the gentlemen immediately hastened [?] but the depredators fled hotly pursued.  Mr Patterson first came up with the [?] a struggle ensured which continued as Mr Thomson came to his assistance.  They eventually succeeded in taking whole, three in number, prisoners and [?] them in the watchhouse. [?] Rev Thomson and Mr Patterson were [?] by the ruffians with palings, but although hurt, we are glad to say, not seriously. We shall give the full particulars in our next [PPH 3/8/41]

And so, as promised, the next issue reported that the case was brought up in the Police Court on Tuesday, the lawyer Mr Carrington was acting for the prosecution.

Mr Carrington begged of their worships to postpone a case in which he was engaged for the prosecution. It was a case of assault on the Rev Mr Thompson [sic] committed by John Hunter, Campbell Hunter and Alexander Hunter on the night of Monday last, one of the party being unwell and unable to attend. Mr Meek and Mr Gourley consenting to go security for the appearance of the parties on Friday next (this day). The application was granted. [PPH 6/8/41]

So, who were these Hunter boys?  The Australian Dictionary of Biography lists John and Alexander under the omnibus title of the ‘Hunter Brothers’ (John, Alexander, James, Andrew and William) five of the six sons of Alexander Hunter of Edinburgh.  Paul de Serville in his book Port Phillip Gentlemen has John and Alexander as brothers, with Campbell listed as their cousin, who also rather confusingly had a brother John Hunter as well (this other John Hunter was part of the firm Watson & Hunter). From the shipping lists, Elizabeth Janson has the two brothers John and Alexander arriving in Port Phillip on 13 August 1840 on the Culdee.  They were all young: in 1841 Campbell was the eldest at 22, John was 21 and Alexander was 20. Campbell was to die only five years later, but John and Alexander’s lives demonstrated the mobility of Scots settlers throughout the empire, with John dying in Buenos Aires in 1868 and Alexander settling in South Africa, returning to Port Phillip then dying at sea in 1892 on his way back from Scotland.  In Port Phillip, they were part of the influx of Scots settlers, but there was little love lost between them and the Scots leaders of Melbourne society including Lyon Campbell and Farquahar McCrae.  Paul de Serville describes them as “high-spirited”, adding in parentheses that  “(the unkind might call some of them gentlemen larrikins)” (de Serville, p. 64)

Despite their high spirits (which may or may not have been bolstered by spirits of another kind), the Hunter boys would not particularly have appreciated being hauled before the Police Court along with all the other petty thieves and drunkards.  It’s no surprise, then, that things were smoothed over:

THE ASSAULT CASE. The three Messrs Hunter, who had been summonsed to appear at the Police Office on Friday, charged with an aggravated assault upon the Rev. Mr Thomson, on the night of Monday last, have settled the matter out of Court, by making a written apology to that gentleman, and an acknowledgement of their error through the local press.  We are glad that the matter has been thus settled without being brought before a Court of Justice; for although we are firmly convinced that nothing could have been pleaded as an excuse for so wanton an outrage on public decency, it would not have added much to the respectability of our province to have matters of this kind, where the parties implicated move in the most respectable sphere, brought before the Police Office. Mr Thomson has shown himself to be a Christian in every point of view, in waiving the prosecution, and we do sincerely trust that Tom and Jerry larks, as they are fashionably termed, of this description may never again disgrace the province of Australia Felix.  What fun there can possibly be in breaking into a Clergyman’s premises, and then knocking him down, and shamefully ill-using him, we confess ourselves entirely at a loss to discover; in our humble opinion, it is the ne plus ultra  of genuine blackguardism, and as such should meet with the most severe reprehension of every honest man; for ourselves we most candidly state that a repetition of such disgraceful conduct shall meet with the strongest condemnation and most public exposure, through the columns of this journal, no matter what the rank of the parties implicated may be; we have had by far too much of these pranks already.[PPH 10/8/41]

In his book Port Phillip Gentlemen, Paul de Serville notes that the Melbourne Club, “the most important social institution in Port Phillip” (p. 63) was made up of two groups.  The senior group in age and position were the inner circle of ‘good’ society, while the other group was younger and wilder, “the gentlemen rowdies of the Waterford school” (p. 66), a reference to the Marquess of Waterford, Henry Beresford, who was said to have ‘painted the town red’.

They were mainly squatters with some town allies: Peter Snodgrass, Gilbert Kennedy, Henry Fowler, Alexander Hunter, his brothers and cousins.  After long drinking parties, they fought duels, assaulted the constables, broke windows, removed signs and sawed down verandah posts. (de Serville, p. 66)

Poor old Rev Thomson was one of their victims, but it is interesting to note the ‘tut-tut but boys will be boys’ attitude of the Port Phillip Herald.  It’s a far cry from the moral panic provoked by petty crimes committed by former convicts or recent immigrant labourers. The concern seems to be mainly with the challenge to the respectability of Port Phillip if  “parties who move in the respectable sphere” were forced to face the indignity of the Police Court.  I find myself reminded of similar gentry larrikinism in Upper Canada, where the young scions of MPs and the ‘best’ families rampaged through the offices of William Lyon Mackenzie’s newspaper, throwing his type and printing press into the lake in the Types Riot. In both cases, these young men could avail themselves of means to escape the full wrath of the law that were unavailable to less well-resourced lads.


Even though Melbourne was groaning at the seams with the sudden influx of a number of immigrant ships, I was interested by an advertisement in the Port Phillip Herald on 10 August by an Irish emigration agent, advertising his services in bringing immigrants out to Australia.  The advertisement was clearly aimed at settlers who had already made the trip themselves, and who might be contemplating encouraging other family members to join them here in Port Phillip.


REGULAR PACKETS FOR AUSTRALIA. Under the management of Messrs Carter and Bonds in conjunction with Messrs John Gore and Co, Mr Robert Brooks and other merchants of London, interested in the colony.


These Packet ships are all first class, of large tonnage, have poops and first rate accommodations for Cabin, Intermediate and Steerage Passengers.  The Captains and Officers are carefully selected for character and experience, and a skilful Surgeon is appointed to each ship.  They will sail in the following order, and never deviate (wind and weather permitting) from the fixed day of sailing, viz:


March 1

May 1

July 1

September 1

November 1


March 12

May 12

July 12

September 12

November 12

For SYDNEY April 1

June 1

August 1

October 1

December 1

April 12

June 12

August 12

October 12

December 12

Passengers from the East Coast of England and Scotland, reach London by Steam at a small expense. Cork has been selected as the final place of departure, on account of the superior advantages of its Harbour, and from its offering great convenience to Passengers than any Port in the British Channel; Passengers from the West of England and West Coast of Scotland, can join at Cork by the numerous Steamers which give cheap and rapid conveyance direct to that Port from Plymouth, Edmouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow etc.

Free passage, with Victualling and Bedding, will be granted by these Ships to a limited number of Emigrants of the following classes: viz- Agricultural Labourers, Shepherds, Carpenters, Smiths, Wheelwrights, Bricklayers, Masons and Female Domestic and Farm Servants, who are all much wanted in the colony, and will obtain high wages there.

A House has been fitted up for the reception of Bounty Emigrants, where they will be received on their arrival at Cork, and lodged free of cost; and should the Ship be prevented from sailing on the day named, by contrary winds or any other cause, they will be supported, as well as lodged.

A Matron has been appointed to attend to the comfort of the single females. The whole establishment will be under the superintendence of a respectable married couple.

Every person who may go out under the Colonial Government Bounty will be allowed (in case of need) to remain on board the Ship and be victualled for ten days after arrival in the Colony, in order to afford time for his or her engagement in service.  The undersigned has two Brothers residing in New South Wales, with whom he is in constant correspondence; he also receives the Sydney and Port Phillip papers regularly, and has made arrangement with two of the first Mercantile Houses at Sydney and Port Phillip to supply him with every information calculated to be of use to the Emigrant.

As these ships are to be dispatched under the superintendence of Mr Besnard, he pledges himself that nothing shall be left undone to secure the comforts of all parties proceeding by them, whether as Cabin, Intermediate or Steerage Passengers.

A Cow is carried in each Ship, especially for the benefit of Infants and Young Children

All particulars respecting the above ships, and the Australian Colonies, may be known on application to JOHN BESNARD, JUN. Australian Emigration Agent, Cork/.

Quite apart from the momentous nature of leaving to settle on literally the other side of the globe, this advertisement picked up on many of the anxieties attached to the prospect of the journey itself.  The Captain and staff were to be carefully selected, and although the presence of a surgeon was mandatory, their surgeon was to be ‘skillful’. Although the ship departed from Cork, Ireland  it was clearly intended to carry English and Scots, but not Irish passengers.  Bounty emigrants of limited means, selected for skills that had (until recently) been in demand in Port Phillip, did not have to fear being thrown on their own resources should the ship be delayed, and they would receive ten days’ shelter and food on board the ship on arrival after which, I assume, they had to make their own arrangements. Single women would be overseen by both a matron and a married couple, and young children had access to fresh cow’s milk!  Now that the readers of the Port Phillip Herald had arrived safely, surely it would be safe to encourage brothers and sisters, cousins, even elderly parents to come over as well!


The weather for the week was generally fine and clear, with slight rain on 14th August.  The top temperature for the week was 60F (15.5C) and the lowest temperature was 32 (0). The coldest day of the month was on the 9th.

However, the heavy rain of the previous week had led to flooding in many areas.  Even Judge Willis, a real stickler for punctuality, was delayed on his journey from Heidelberg by the impassable roads. And news from out Gisborne way indicated that it was flooded out there too.

 A settler who arrived on Sunday last from the Mount Macedon district, left his station on the Tuesday previous, and from the flooded state of the roads and creeks he had to cross, was detained three days on the journey; and then he had to swim two Creeks (Jackson’s and the Deep Creek) before he could reach Melbourne; our informant states that a considerable quantity of snow had lately fallen in that district (PPH 13/8/41)



‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer’ by Kate Summerscale


2016,  307 P & notes

Spoiler alert

When watching yet another episode of the interminable Midsomer Murders, it is our practice to time how long it takes until the murder takes place. (In fact, I was rather disconcerted that in a recent episode there was no murder as such- although there was a surfeit of dead bodies being buried in unusual places.)  The first 43 pages of this book reminded me of our Midsomer Murder countdowns until the body is found.  In this case, you know there’s going to be a murder and you know that one of two boys have done it, because the title of the book tells you so.  Set in summer 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nattie head off to watch the cricket at Lords,  visit the theatre,  inveigle an older family friend to come and stay with them and tell lies in order to get ready cash. All the while, their mother’s bedroom door remains shut.  You know what’s behind that door.

It’s testimony to Kate Summerscale’s skill as a writer that she is able to hold you for so long across this extended introduction, and to keep you reading once the murder is actually disclosed.  Like her earlier book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher which I reviewed here, this is a really accomplished work of non-fiction writing that roams across courtroom reporting, social history, ‘penny dreadful’ juvenile fiction and the history of asylums. Her use of dialogue is drawn from the court transcripts, and if she sometimes follows rabbits down some rather strange and sometimes tangential rabbit holes, it’s because her fidelity to her sources forces her to draw on contextual material to flesh them out and do them justice.  The book does not show footnotes but it is strongly tethered in institutional sources – court documents, asylum records, army documentation- and heavily supported by secondary sources.

The lengthy epilogue marks quite a break as she, as author, comes out on stage.  She has followed the murderer to Australia, documented him at Gallipoli and followed him archivally back to Australia again, then abruptly she breaks into present-day history. All of a sudden she encounters people who knew him and who are deeply troubled by what she has found out. Now she is cognizant of present-day pain that her writing could cause, and the story takes her in a different direction that, as a story-teller, enables her to bring it to a close in a narratively and morally satisfying way.

This is skillful non-fiction writing that has similarities with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher in its choice of subject matter and approach. There is a risk, I suppose, that she’s becoming rather formulaic in her choice of Victorian subjects. But this book, despite its parallels with Whicher, has taken her to Broadmoor Asylum, where she has had to rethink her preconceptions of asylum life, and to the Australian concept of Gallipoli which was largely unknown to her. She has followed the facts and brought her researcher’s eye to material and a country that is new to her. She’s very good.

Movie: Mustang

Set in Turkey, five orphaned adolescent sisters find their freedom increasingly circumscribed when the neighbours complain about the girls’ rambunctious behaviour with boys. Prompted by the girls’ uncle, their grandmother insists on them wearing shapeless, all-covering clothes outside, their schooling is discontinued and the wheels are in motion for the girls to be married off in traditional arranged marriages.

Although viewers are clearly intended to identify with the girls’ resistance to this familial and cultural oppression, I must confess that some  (just some) of my sympathies rested with the grandmother who was bullied by her son into bringing them into line, and who, in the final analysis, had to find some way to get these five (five!) sisters off her hands. They are all very close in age, all rather voyeuristically tactile with each others, and yes- they are out of control.  I found the contrast between their freedom inside the cloistered house incompatible with their restrictions outside it, and the sudden imposition of traditional values within a cosmopolitan city seemed forced and implausible.

So, three-and-a half stars from me.

‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor


375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)




I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.


Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.