Vale John Hirst


Australian historian John Hirst died on 5th February.

I remember seeing his name on his door in the history department when I first did undergraduate history at La Trobe in the 1970s, but I sailed through a B. A. without encountering him.  It was to Dr Hirst that I had to make application, forty years later, when I decided to return to university after a prolonged period of ill-health, determined to do something that I really wanted to do instead of working in a cut-down capacity in my present job. I had addressed my email of inquiry to “Dear Dr Hirst”, and as he opened the door to his office he exclaimed “I knew you’d be a mature-aged student! None of this ‘Dear John’ stuff!”  Dear John was, however, rather stringent in admitting me to the post-grad program at La Trobe, with his eagle-eye detecting the single ‘C’ mark in second-year history back in 1974 (given to me, ironically enough, by the lecturer I ended up working for as a research assistant some years later!) in amongst a CV that included good results in many other post-grad courses.  He enrolled me in an honours course, just to see how I went, and had the grace to quickly waive the requirement after the first assessment task.  By that time, however, I no longer wanted to leave the honours class. I had enrolled in a readings course with John, and I ‘grew up’ as a historian in the six months I sat in his tutorial room.

We read one Australian history book a week, starting with colonial history through to a range of ‘shist’ (Short History) compilations.  I learned to read for the overarching argument as well as detail, to uncover assumptions, to weigh evidence, to notice structure.  Some of my fellow students flagged a bit at one book per week, but I loved it.

I went on to tutor for John in his final presentation of first year Colonial History before retiring from lecturing- a subject he had taught for many years and had honed well.  Each lecture was a tightly woven argument, with none of this trailing-off half finished because time had got away.  You came out, not necessarily agreeing with him (in fact, I often did not agree with him), but having witnessed a historical argument being constructed, and supported, in front of your eyes. At the end of semester, I mentioned to the students how fortunate they had been to have had him, and I sat at the back of the room, proud of these 19 and 20 year-olds who spontaneously gave him a standing ovation at the end of the last lecture.

John wanted me- he wanted all his postgrad students, to write big history, and I’m afraid that I probably disappointed him in that regard.  John had a long-standing interest in the Australian character, republicanism and the democracy of manners.  In recent years as ‘John Hirst’, rather than ‘J. B. Hirst’, he moved out of academe into the public sphere, where he published a number of books under the Black Inc impress.  Several of these were compilations or reworkings of articles he had written in academic journals over the years, and were marked by his trademark punchiness in both language and logic.  He argued with his brain, without rancour or oneupmanship.

I did a search of this blog under ‘Hirst’ to see how many of his books I had reviewed. There was only one, Convict Society and its Enemies, but many, many posts came up where I had referred to him by name.  His own work in Australian colonial history was big history, even though the canvas he worked on may have seemed to be small.  He influenced me deeply as a historian, even though I found his politics frustratingly difficult to pigeon-hole.  He was a man of the mind and  generous in his attention.  Vale, John.

‘The Eighties’ by Frank Bongiorno


The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia

2015, 368 p.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write this review earlier- or if I did, I can’t find it. I must confess to a sense of deja vu with every sentence I write, so perhaps my computer has eaten it. I read this book some weeks ago and have since returned it to the library, so I’m having to write from memory. I suppose if my review lacks detail, it does at least sketch out the lasting impressions I gained from the book.

It’s rather challenging to read a ‘history’ of a time that you remember well, especially when it’s written by someone who is younger than you.  I suppose that people older than I encounter this phenomenon all the time.  Bongiorno is playful enough to put his own photograph of himself in 1983 on the inside rear dustjacket- a free-faced young lad, aged perhaps 14.  I was in my thirties during the ’80s, caught up in the whirl of parenthood with young babies, living in suburban Bundoora, on parental leave from teaching but inching back to work on a casual basis in TAFE.  I was not as politically aware then as I am now- no doubt a reflection of the person I was then, and the stage of life that I was at. But without the deluge of information, opinion and so-called news on the internet, perhaps we were all less politically fevered then.

When a historian is writing a chronology, there is always the issue of periodization: when do you start and when do you finish?  It has become acceptable to fiddle with the boundaries of decades and centuries (the long 18th century; the long 19th century), and indeed part of the intellectual challenge in a narrative chronology is to identify the themes that give a period or phenomenon its unity beyond the mere elapse of time.  Bongiorno starts his 1980s in 1983, with the Ash Wednesday fires swirling around Victoria and South Australia, while in Sydney Bob Hawke was giving an address at the Sydney Opera House as Opposition Leader and basking in the adulation and anticipation of an election victory just weeks away.  He finishes his 1980s in 1991 when Paul Keating replaced Hawke as Prime Minister.

The most memorable impression that the book conveys is the sheer brashness, crassness, and odiousness of the politics of the decade with a seemingly-neverending succession of shysters and spivs.  Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Brian Burke, WA Inc, the white shoe brigade- all larger than life and breathtaking in their audacity and shamelessness. Bongiorno’s perspective is largely Political (with a capital P) and economic as he examines the Accord and the disruption of what Paul Kelly calls ‘The Australian Settlement’ that followed in its wake. There’s the excess in consumption, the excess in nationalist mawkishness (think Hawkie and the Americas Cup celebrations) and the excess of pain in exorbitant interest rates and the ‘recession we had to have’.

It is also a very male-dominated book. It comes as a surprise to realize that Susan Ryan was only the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and not Minister for Women in her own right. (Wikipedia has an interesting table showing the shifts in title for this role over the past 40 years- who would have thought that Judy Moylan would be the first Minister for the Status of Women, appointed by Howard? or that Turnbull appointed the first Minister for Women outright with no mention of ‘issues’ or ‘status’?)  Bongiorno paints on a broad canvas, examining both high and low culture, although I found myself remembering events and thinking ‘Ah, so that’s what that was about!’, rather than recognizing my own suburban experience in the narrative he provides.

In his final chapter, he becomes more personal as he steps out from the wings in what has seemed, until now, something like a television documentary.  He is more reflective and analytic in this chapter, admitting to his own reservations about the decade and the overall value of the changes it wrought.  But perhaps it’s too soon to do this? When the overwhelming response is embarrassment- as in this book- at the music, the clothes (Princess Di’s wedding dress, for instance), the behaviour, the Multi-Function Polis, the sheer bizarreness, perhaps there’s not enough distance to judge yet.  It’s often been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and I feel as if, despite the footnotes and the access to cabinet documents, that this book teeters on the cusp between the two.   Nonetheless, it’s an engaging read, told briskly and with humour.

Movie: Spotlight

Set in Boston in 2001, this film explores the exposure by the Boston Globe of the widescale abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and the part of Cardinal Law in covering it up.

I enjoyed this much more than ‘Truth‘, which was a similar movie.  At the end of the film there are two screens of cities where similar cover-ups occurred, and there was palpable curiosity to see whether Melbourne would be included (it was).  I came out feeling proud that I still subscribe to two hard-copy newspapers and one digital one.

A good solid 4.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: February 1-7, 1841


You’ll remember that while he was collecting the survivors from the wreck of the Clonmel the observant Captain Lewis noticed navigable access to what he hoped would be an inland sea. [link] This ongoing fantasy- the inland sea- reminds us that although there were established routes etched onto the Port Phillip District, there were still vast expanses ‘unexplored’- at least by white settlers.  They weren’t wasting any time: by the 3rd February the barque Singapore was heading back to investigate further, bearingDr Steward, Messrs Kinghorne, Orr, Rankin, Brodribb, McLeod, Kirsopp and McFarlane

A number of enterprising colonists are about to proceed by the barque Singapore ,to country discovered by Count Streslecki on his land route from Sydney and designated by him Gippsland. Captain Lewis has discovered an excellent approach by sea, and the Singapore will proceed to either this entrance or Corner Inlet.

Port Phillip Herald, 5 February 1841.


Meanwhile, those left at home could amuse themselves at the Caledonian Hotel, as part of the audience for the Amateur Concert. The Caledonian Hotel was located on the southwest corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets. Originally built by Rev. Clow it was quite large with 13 rooms, dormer windows, French doors, outhouses. The licence holder was Mr Robert Omond. See   It was later a Temperance Hotel owned by the improbably named Mr Tankard in 1845.

But on 3rd February, the place was rocking:

On Wednesday evening the Amateur Concert came off at the Caledonian Hotel with great éclat. There were above 150 ladies and gentlemen present, composed of the wealth and fashion of Melbourne and its vicinity, amongst whom we noticed His Honor and lady, whose entrance was greeted by the orchestra striking up the national anthem. The room was well lighted, and the platform so elevated as to afford the audience, even at the furthest extremity, a full view of the performers. Madame and Monsieur Guatrot lent the aid of their brilliant talents to add additional effect to the pleasures excited by the Amateur band. The ladies and gentlemen were in ‘full dress’ and the tout ensemble presented an animated scene both “rich and rare”…although the performance was rather protracted, every soul seemed to enjoy the whole to the last with those enlivening and hallowed emotions which it is the special province of music to inspire… At eleven o clock the party rose simultaneously with buoyant and loyal hearts to respect by the echo of their feelings to Britain’s national air “God save the Queen!” This of course closed the evening’s enjoyments and the gay assemblage dispersed with reluctant hearts, but with fond hopes that the generous and gallant band of Amateurs would soon again repeat the attractions which had drawn them together, and which had so charmed their souls and so effectually secured their gratitude.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841.

You’ll note the presence here of Superintendent La Trobe and Mrs La Trobe, ensuring that the concert was a respectable one.  The practice to sing the national anthem at the end of the performance might seem strange to those of us who can remember standing up for the national anthem at the cinema before the pictures started. However, this practice started in Drury Lane in 1745.The anthem was also played when royalty entered the theatre, but I don’t think that the designation ‘royalty’ quite stretched to Superintendent La Trobe at this stage.


When a low-level government position needed filling, it was not uncommon for the governor to look to the convict population. Although the ability to dispense patronage in the form of a job was an important aspect of power, it saved money if a convict could be found who had the skills, especially in the trades. And so:

Assignees of convicts in this District are required to furnish me with as little delay as possible the Names of any Men in their employ, who are either Compositors, Printers, Pressmen or Bookbinders, the Government requiring their services. Men will be assigned in lieu of those returned to the Government. James Simpson Police Magistrate 4th Feb.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841

The substitution of one convict for another reminds us that even though Port Phillip was not, ostensibly, a penal colony, the assignment of ‘servants’ was still a bureaucratized system.


The boggy state of Elizabeth Street was often remarked upon by the newspapers.  As I’ve written about before, Williams Creek runs under Elizabeth Street, and in times of downpour it became very muddy. But the Port Phillip Herald was pleased to see that a gang (most probably of convict workers) were on the job:

We were glad to perceive on Wednesday that the Police Magistrate had placed a gang of twelve men to convert Williams River into a street to be called Elizabeth-street.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841

The good people of Melbourne needed to be chided to keep their dogs – and other animals- off the streets:

Caution to Owners of Dogs &c. The Magistrates have given instructions to the Police to destroy all dogs found about the town without collars. This is as it should be, and if a similar order was extended towards unclaimed pigs it would be of infinite service to the public as the devastation committed by the animals is great, and the soon their destructive pursuits are got rid of the better

Port Phillip Herald 2 February 1841


According to the Government Gazette, it was “fine open weather, with fresh and strong winds, frequently clouded by Cumuli”. The maximum temperature for the period was 92 degrees (33 celsius) and the lowest minimum was 56 degrees (13).  There was no rain.





‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan


2002, (released in translation 2015),498 P.  Translator: Annie Tucker

Publisher’s site:

Well, the opening sentence gives you a pretty good sense of how this book is going to go:

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rolse from her grave after being dead for twenty one years.

I have not been the only reader to recognize the resonances with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude,  and just as when I read that book for the first of what turned out to be many, many times, I just didn’t want to leave this magical world.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved it.

Dewi Aya was descended from Dutch Indonesian stock. That side of her heritage was not particularly important to her, and when the colonists left after WWII, she stayed on working as a prostitute, by choice this time, after being forced into prostitution by the occupying Japanese soldiers. She gave birth to four daughters, all with different and unknown fathers: Alamanda, Adinda, Maya Dewi and Beauty.  The first three daughters were beautiful, but their beauty entangled them into strained and strange relationships with powerful men.  When Dewi Aya fell pregnant for the final time, she wished for an ugly child, and her wish was fulfilled.  This, then, is the story of these four daughters and the men who love them, within the small fictional village of Halimunda. At the same time, it is a bawdy and funny satirical critique of colonialism and repression.

There is a fairy tale quality to this book, where women marry dogs, men can meditate themselves into atoms, and the dead live on as both ghosts and physical presences.  One story unfolds into another, and there is an Arabian Nights quality that runs throughout.  In interviews the author, Eka Kurniawan has noted the influence of Indonesian puppet-play and folk tales, and it’s detectable in its ‘once upon a time’ quality,  and the picaresque good-and-evil dilemmas and retributions that play through the lives of the main characters.

At the same time, there’s a very clear historical narrative that underpins the story as the Dutch, Japanese, Communists and anti-Communists pass through. The massacre of the communists drenches the middle part of the book, and there is mention of the Indonesian military involvement in East Timor.  There are few dates, and I’m certain that the historical commentary and allusions to actual characters would be far more meaningful to someone with a good understanding of Indonesian history (and to my shame, that’s not me).  In fact, that was one of the strongest feelings that I came away with: my embarrassment that I had never read an Indonesian book before, or known of an Indonesian author in this huge, populous country to our north. Apparently the translator received a PEN grant for the translation, and it highlighted for me that translation is so important in stretching our literary imaginations.  It’s a good translation too, with a light lyricism and humour that seemed part of the work itself.

I had to quell my uneasiness that I was missing the metaphors and allusions that would be woven into this book for its Indonesian audience. Even in my ignorance, I was drawn into the stories of each of the daughters, delighted in the unpredictability of a magical world, and felt satisfied by the the ending which came full circle and drew it all together.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library


Podcast: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies

I wish I could just pop over to The Jewish Museum of London to see their current exhibition ‘Blood’, which is open until 28 February 2016. Being on the other side of the world, there’s little chance of that happening, but it looks fascinating.

The next best option is to listen to Professor Roger Luckhurst, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birbeck, University of London. He  gave a presentation there on 26 November 2015 which riffed on the topic of blood, called ‘Blood Fractions: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies’.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slave trade, colonial administration and racial science developed a whole structure and language for calculating the precise mixture of blood in the offspring of white Europeans and their subject populations. The official line was that mixing was impossible, but the improvised language of ‘half-bloods’, ‘quadroons’, ‘octoroons’, and other terms suggested otherwise. This was the vast mixed population that existed ‘beyond the pale.’ In Victorian culture, the octoroon (a person with one-eighth black blood) was a kind of vanishing point, a focus of anxiety about detecting the taint of ‘bad’ blood. While in the twentieth century, the Nazis sought to protect ‘pure’ German blood from becoming tainted by the blood of Jews. In this talk Professor Luckhurst explores literary and cultural representations of mixed bloods.

You can hear it at Backdoor Broadcasting at

After warning that much of his talk would be offensive and placed in air quotes, he starts with a digression on Dracula before moving on to the gradations of colour described in the literature of slave owners.  Calculations down to 1/512th ‘negro’ heritage were reflected in some of the sensation literature of the day, but were revisited in the research justifying the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  Lest we think that such concepts are firmly cemented in the past, he closes by looking at the blood quantum laws that define membership in some Native American nations today.

A wide-ranging and interesting podcast.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: January 24-31


Of course, to us today this week is dominated by Australia Day on January 26th.  As I’ve written about before, Australia Day as a national day is of relatively recent origin (1946, and on the day itself 1994) and until then was known as Anniversary Day. In Port Phillip in January 1841, where the Separation Movement was stirring and beginning to agitate for Port Phillip as a separate colony from New South Wales,there was some resentment at celebrating “their” Anniversary:

We have received too much injustice already from head quarters to make it at all palpable to the Port Phillipians to celebrate the foundation of their colony, with which we want nothing to do.

The Port Phillip Gazette and Port Phillip Herald offered two other dates for celebration that would be more acceptable for the colonists of Port Phillip:

We would, however, suggest that instead of taking the foundation of Port Phillip from the 29th August 1835 as the Patriot recommends, that we should say the 1st June 1836, the day on which the first sale of Port Phillip lands were held, and which gave the Port Phillipians the first legal title to property in our fine country.

Interestingly, the good burghers of our present-day Melbourne have lighted on 30 August as ‘Melbourne Day’, commemorating the day that those on board the Enterprize disembarked onto land.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s dispossession.


During late 1840 and early 1841 landowners were pressuring the government to increase its intake of emigrants as a way of alleviating the shortage of farm and domestic labourers, thereby reducing what appeared to employers to be exorbitant wages.   A bounty scheme was established whereby the NSW government would pay for the emigrants’ passage, either through a government scheme, or by a privatized scheme. Under the private scheme, agents in Britain would select eligible applicants and provide their passage and on their arrival, the £19 fare would be refunded by the government.  The bounty scheme was being funded largely through the sale of land in the Port Phillip District.

The table below was drawn up by the Port Phillip Herald on 8th January to support the argument that bounty migrants (i.e. those that the NSW government paid to come here) should be directed to Port Phillip, rather than sent up to Sydney.  Wages were higher in Melbourne, they argued, because of the labour shortage.

As the Herald itself admits, the methodology is questionable: the Sydney wage rates were affirmed on oath before Magistrates, Commissioners of Requests, Chairmen of Quarter Sessions and Judges or from the lips of workmen. In Melbourne, the rates were not attested on oath but had been “obtained from some of the most respectable masters in Port Phillip” and may have even understated the wages given.  (‘per diem= per day’, There were 12 pence [d] to the shilling; and twenty shillings to the pound)

Brickmakers 10/- to 15/- per diem. Piecework 10/- to 16/- per diem None employed by the day. Piecework 20/- to 25/- per diem
Bricklayers 8/- to 10/- per diem 13/ 6 ½ per diem
Blacksmiths 35/- to £3 per week £3/12s to £4/4s per week
Compositors 8/- per diem 12/- per diem
Cabinet makers and upholsterers 6/- to 8/- per diem 14/- per diem
Farriers 30/- to 50/- per week £3/12 to £4/4 per week
Fencers 3d to 4d per rod 4/6d per rod
Field Labourers 2/9d to 5/- per diem independent of lodgings, vegetables, firing water etc. 7/- per diem without board
Glaziers 8/- to 9/- per diem 10/- per diem
Harness makers 5/6d to 6/- per diem 8/- to [?] per diem
Joiners 8/- to 10/- per diem 12/- to 14/- per diem
Plasterers 7/- to 9/- per diem 12/- per diem
Ploughmen £30 to £40 per year with rations and lodging £52- £60 per year with boarding and lodging
Quarrymen 6/- to 8/- per diem 10/- per diem
Sawyers 8/4d. to 11/- per 100 feet 17/- to 21/- per 100 feet
Shoemakers Shoes 5/6d Boots 15/- Shoes 7/6, Boots 21/-
Shepherds £20 to £35 per year with rations £40 to £50 per year with rations
Wheelwrights £25 to £50 per year with rations £3/15s to £5 per week without rations.


So, if this is what people earned, then what did things cost?  The Port Phillip Herald of 29 January 1841 listed the following prices for local goods:


Imported goods (as you might expect) were more expensive again


Speaking of buying and selling, there was a meeting at the Police Court on Friday 29 January 1841 to discuss a new location for the market. There had been a site set aside for a market in- you guessed it- Market Street, but the market wasn’t yet formally established at this time, and people weren’t happy with the proposed location. They didn’t actually get round to deciding where the market should be at this meeting, just that another spot other than the present market reserve should be found.


The 19th January was the hottest day, with a maximum of 91 degrees (33 celsuis) but the rest of the week was pretty mild.


The Government Gazette reports that the week had “dry weather, generally clear of clouds, but very hazy; strong winds from the south continuing.”