Vale A.G.L. Shaw

I see in today’s newspaper that A.G.L. Shaw has died, aged 96.  His full name was Alan George Lewers Shaw, but I only ever heard him referred to as ‘Agl’ (pronounced ‘aggle’).  He was Professor of History at Monash University between 1964 and 1981, and took a leadership role in the Friends of the La Trobe Library, the Royal Historical Society and the C.J. L Trobe Society.

I first encountered him as the author of one of the textbooks we used in HSC Australian History in 1972- I can’t remember if it was The Story of Australia or The Economic Development of Australia– and with the callowness of youth, I always assumed that anyone who was old enough to write a textbook would surely be dead and buried by then.

However, I encountered him again once I commenced my work on Judge Willis some 27 years later only to find that he was not only not dead and buried, but still working hard.  I often find myself reaching for Shaw’s A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, a book published in 1996 and remarkably, the first general history of the Port Phillip District written since Henry Giles Turner’s History of the Colony of Victoria in 1904.  Although there were books on particular subjects, and although such books usually had an introductory chapter on the period before 1851, he could find no general survey history.  So he decided to write one.  His introduction gives a hint of the flavour of the history that was to follow:

It is old-fashioned narrative history, and though I fully realise its statements can not be proved philosophically ‘true’ and that my judgements are my own, and therefore influenced by subjective bias and prejudice, in writing it I have been searching for the truth and trying to produce a narrative of unique events.  These are clearly not subject to general laws, which is not to say they are ‘uncaused’, but rather that they are the result of human agency, largely dependent on human motivation.

In one sense this seems a success story and therefore can be denigrated as ‘Whig’ history, but this depends on the meaning ascribed to success.  Everyone achieves something, whether it be good or bad, great or small, and I have tried to write about the bad as well as the good.  Such a mixture is, to my mind, inevitable given the mixture of qualities belonging to the members of any community- weak and strong, heroes and villains, intelligent and stupid, far-seeing and short-sighted, strong-minded and weak-willed, pushing and subservient, arrogant and humble.  From the interplay of these comes the community development, beneficial or harmful, and it is the story of that development in the Port Phillip District before the discovery of gold that I have tried to tell- though my prejudices will inevitably have influenced my telling of it.  (p. xv)

It is the interplay of personalities that is most clearly on show in my favourite of his works, and one that migrates frequently between my bookshelf and my desk: the Gipps-LaTrobe Correspondence,  written in 1989.

This is an edited collection of the ‘back-channel’ personal correspondence between Governor Gipps in Sydney, and Charles La Trobe, the first superintendent appointed to the nascent settlement of Port Phillip.  La Trobe was, perhaps, an unusual candidate for appointment.  Unlike many of the colonial appointees, he did not have a military or judicial background- indeed, he had spent quite a bit of time ‘rambling’ in Switzerland, then camping with Washington Irving in North America.  He had, however, worked on three reports on the emancipation of West Indian slaves in the mid-late 1830s, and it was this work that brought him to the attention of the evangelically-inclined Secretary of State, Lord Glenelg at a time when the Colonial Office was particularly attuned to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements). La Trobe brought with him his Moravian background, but he had had no experience at all in administration, and he was appointed as subordinate to Governor Gipps, an older and much more experienced officer of military background in Sydney.  La Trobe stayed briefly with Gipps en route to Melbourne, and the warmth of the relationship they established there is reflected in these personal letters.  It is a largely one-sided collection of correspondence, with relatively few letters remaining from La Trobe to Gipps, but as with such archives, it is possible to detect the tenor of the missing correspondence.  A.G.L. Shaw’s contribution to this collection is his extensive and minutely-detailed footnotes to the letters, providing not only context, but also small details of who, where, when. He is so sensitive to the reader’s needs that almost as soon as the question about something you have read forms in your mind,  the footnote number pops up to show you that Agl has thought about it before you.  And so, from a rather over-awed distance, thank you Agl Shaw.

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