Monthly Archives: August 2012

‘Domestic manners and social conditions of the white, coloured and negro population of the West Indies’ by Mrs. A. C. Carmichael (1833)

2 volumes, 1833 available through the Internet Archive

What a silly sausage I am! Here I was, rejoicing at the cessation of slavery in the West Indies in 1834 but I need not have worried.  Why, slaves received a weekly allowance, a home, they were fed, their clothes were washed and mended, they received free medical care and their children need not be a burden to them! They ate well from their own allotments and if they dressed in rags in the fields- well! they had plenty of rich, colourful clothes at home! They looked forward to the sugar harvesting time and the boiling-house, instead of being a satanic hell-hole was instead a scene of great merriment with young and old gathering there, singing songs, telling jokes, sitting down enjoying themselves, roasting and eating yams and plantains.  Who wouldn’t want to be a slave?

Well, that’s the way that Mrs A. C. Carmichael tells it, anyway.  This two-volume book was published in 1833, eight years before her Tales of a Grandmother that I reviewed earlier.  This is in effect the ‘grown-up’ version of her later children’s book: I find myself wondering at a world where there was a perceived need for a children’s pro-slavery tract.

So who was this Mrs Carmichael?  According to a very interesting article by Karina Williamson, published in the International Journal of Scottish Literature in 2008 (see here) she was Alison Charles Stewart who migrated to the West Indies with her two young daughters to live on the plantation owned by her husband John Wilson Carmichael, who had been assigned to St Vincent with the 53rd regiment in the 1790s.  He had married his first wife in St Vincent and became an absentee proprietor when he returned to England.  He was considerably older than Mrs Carmichael, and had two daughters from his first marriage.  Mrs Carmichael was married in Edinburgh, where she lived prior to her shift to the West Indies and on her return ‘home’, she spent the rest of her long life as an expatriate Scot in England or the Channel Islands.

Although the title of the book suggests that it will deal with the white, coloured and negro races of the West Indies, in fact it deals only with St Vincent and Trinidad, with a very heavy preponderance of attention paid to the negro races. However, she says, her observations are “applicable to many, and in a great degree to all the West India colonies” (p. 15) because the “negro character is the same” and

…the circumstances in which the white and black population are relatively placed- their respective occupations; their interests; the climate- are all so similar, that no very marked dissimilarity can exist in the character and conduct of the population of the different islands (p. 15)

Although clearly written for a ‘home’-based readership, apparently the book  came to be viewed with suspicion in the West Indies itself for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  Williamson cites an English traveller in the 1840s and 50s who tried to find a copy in the West Indies so that he could read it on the spot, as it were:

Throughout the islands that I have as yet visited, she is denounced continually by some mendacious epithet or other, and even her own relations, both in Trinidad and in St. Vincent, disclaim connection with her, asserting that she was notorious in her own family for habitually not speaking the truth. Whenever I endeavoured to borrow her book, some excuse was made to prevent my seeing it—‘It was mislaid,’ or ‘lost,’ or ‘destroyed,’ and never forthcoming.[…] At last I obtained a loan of it from a nearly white young man, who, however, did not fail to caution me that it was ‘full of lies.’[Charles William Day, Five Years’ Residence in the West Indies, 2 vols. (London: Colburn and Co., 1852), I, p. 129.]

The book was written with the clear intent to rebut the abolitionist rhetoric about slavery circulating in England, and is best regarded in that light.  Hence the heavy emphasis on the ignorance of English commentators, the great progress that had been made in ameliorating the conditions of the slaves, the unreadiness of the slaves for emancipation, and their happiness with conditions as they were.  It is very much a book of its time, written for a particular political purpose, and it comes across to a modern reader as a missive from a discombobulating  parallel universe.

Additional reference: Karina Williamson ‘Mrs Carmichael A Scotswoman in the West Indies’ International Journal of  Scottish Literature Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008.

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The GG, the Judge and the Prince

Were you, like me, transfixed by the extract in Saturday’s Age from Jenny Hocking’s upcoming second volume of the Whitlam biography? Were you reading, spoon hovering betwixt your Vita Brits and mouth, eyebrows rising higher and higher?  Or is it just me? – a sign that I’ve hanging around reading about colonial judges, self-government and the colonial judiciary for too long?

In writing this second volume, Jenny Hocking has used interviews and, according to the publisher’s website, “previously unearthed archival material” including the papers of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who was central to the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. According to the video interview with Jenny Hocking on the Age website, Sir John Kerr’s personal papers had been deposited in the National Archives some time ago, but had not been opened previously.  This might explain why  no-one had seen it before:  the now-deceased Kerr’s intrusion of himself into the archive as he set down the role – unknown until now-  played by Sir Anthony Mason, a sitting judge of the High Court of Australia and a pro-chancellor of the Australian National University.

Kerr wrote:

In the light of the enormous and vicious criticism of myself I should have dearly liked to have had the public evidence during my lifetime of what Mason had said and done during October-November 1975 [but] he would be happier…if history never came to know of his role.

I shall keep the whole matter alive in my mind till the end, and if this document is found among my archives, it will mean that my final decision is that truth must prevail, and, as he played a most significant part in my thinking at that critical time, and as he will be in the shades of history when this is read, his role should be known.

Apart from the Pauline Hanson ‘death video’ overtones of this document, the intervention of Sir John’s voice into the archive reminds us that an archive is always a constructed entity- not necessarily by the subject of the archive, but by someone scooping up, harvesting, organizing or in this case, shaping the material that appears there.   Is this the vanity of a puffed-up man, piqued that others escaped the opprobrium he attracted, and determined that his version should surface eventually? A final manipulation or final confession? A determination to share the credit or spread the blame?  Or is this a man with an eye to history, anxious that ‘the truth’ as he saw it was documented?

Whatever his approach to history, he did at least have one, unlike Sir Anthony who refused Kerr’s entreaties to make his role public.

Mason’s view, as he still maintained when pressed on these matters nearly 40 years later was, “I owe history nothing”.

What an extraordinary statement!  I still have it rattling round in my head, as I try out different permutations and explanations of it.  What on earth did he mean? Does he “owe history nothing” because he feels he was vindicated? Does he see it as a purely personal, private matter? Does he feel that he has already done enough for history?  Does he somehow see the judicial sphere completely divorced from the political arena, or does history have its own great sweep, unaffected by the actions of individual men? (in this case I use ‘men’ very deliberately). I note that even though he might owe history nothing, he now feels that he owes it to himself ( if he felt inclined to use such a quaintly 19th century Colonial Office phrase) to set the record straight in an article in the next day’s paper where he acknowledges his involvement but emphasizes that he advised Kerr ignored his advice that Whitlam should be forewarned of Kerr’s plans.

The final revelation that made me finally put down my spoon and read even more closely was the appearance of Prince Charles into the imbroglio. Sir John Kerr had met Prince Charles the year before, and engaged with him on a discussion of the possibility of Prince Charles himself being appointed Governor-General of Australia. In September 1975, some two months before the dismissal, the paths of the Governor General and the Prince crossed again in Port Moresby at a ceremony to mark the transition to an independent Papua New Guinea.

Kerr took this previous interaction to suggest a personal connection to the Prince of Wales and now, as the two met against in Port Moresby, the governor-general took the extreme step of raising with the prince the possible dismissal of the Whitlam government and his grave fears that he would himself be dismissed by Whitlam should he do so.

Apparently oblivious to constitutional expectations, Charles replied, according to Kerr’s notes of their exchange “But surely Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time, should this happen when you were considering having to dismiss the government.”

Prince Charles at this time was 27 years old, no longer the gangly schoolboy of his Timbertop days.  For a man raised from birth to become King, and who could have been discreetly tapped on the shoulder the very next moment to be told exactly that, his ignorance of the constitutional parameters of his role is astounding.  If nothing else, silence would have been an appropriate response.  It was as if 150 years of responsible government and the principle that the governor takes his advice from the popularly elected prime minister just dropped away in a private conversation.

I found it impossible to read these extracts without my historian’s hat on.  I can only imagine the heart-stopping moment for Jenny Hocking when this document reached out- “Historian- look here!”- from the archived collection of a man obviously intent on moulding his own place in history.  I found so many parallels with my own work, too, in the conjunction of big, historical events and the vanities and networks of individual men; the careful legal language that rather inadequately veils ego and ambition; the importance of the dinner party and the whispered conversation within the ostensibly transparent political structures.  Definitely the best breakfast read I’ve had in a long, long time.

‘The Galts: A Canadian Odyssey’ by H. B. Timothy

1977, 175 p.

Well, now that I’ve read a book written by John Galt about Canada, an autobiography by John Galt, and now finally this biography of him, I’ve got to admit that the biography wins hands down.  It’s set me off wondering about the relationship between autobiography and biography, especially when considering a literary figure, as John Galt is.  I can only think of two other cases where I’ve read a writer’s autobiography followed by a biography penned by another person: Janet Frames Angel at my Table trilogy  paired with Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel, and Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass paired with David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life.  In terms of feeling that I understood the character, the biography trumped the autobiography each time, no matter how beautifully or incisively the self-penned work was written.

Am I surprised by this? I don’t know. The autobiography of a writer, by its very nature, will be framed by the author’s own self-image and imbued with a literary sensibility and becomes  source material itself for the biographer, as well as a work in its own right.  The biographer can challenge, contextualize and interrogate the self that is portrayed by the autobiographer, bringing the questions, perspectives and judgments of the outsider in a way that the autobiographer cannot. The autobiography is undertaken at a particular time of a life not yet fully lived- not on the deathbed as a rule!- and the biographer can know things to which the autobiographer is oblivious or blind.

This biography of the author John Galt is written by a Canadian academic who brings with him the nationalist agenda of claiming Galt as part of a significant Canadian family dynasty, even though John Galt (1779-1839) spent only a small proportion of his life in Canada itself, and  he set relatively few of his books there.  As a result, the author privileges Galt’s experience with Canada as a lobbyist and Canada Company promoter and administrator over his identity as a literary figure.  I’m interested in Galt’s Canadian connection, too, so even though Galt in his autobiography sees Canada as just one thread of his life story,  I’m glad that H. B. Timothy has teased it out in this way.

One of the things that I have been grappling with in dealing with my own research interest (Justice John Walpole Willis) is cracking through the brittle, rather volatile early-Victorian masculinity that is displayed by both men, cloaked in obsequious language and intellectual self-possession.  While living in Upper Canada Willis and Galt became friends, for whatever reason, and they obviously recognized some commonality between themselves.  The autobiography, because it emerges from such a  brittle, rather volatile man, exemplifies this sensibility but it does not interrogate it.  The biography is able to do so somewhat more easily.

Then there is the knowledge of subsequent events and broader context that a latter-day biographer can bring as well: the ‘unknown unknowns’ if we want to get all Donald Rumsfeldian about it.  In this case, Timothy suggests that there was an element of set-up at play: that members of the Established Church back in England acted in the interests of Anglican Church interests in Upper Canada in engineering Galt’s financial downfall (is ‘conspired’ too strong a word?).  He explores the possibility that Maitland and the Family Compact elite had Galt under surveillance even before he set foot in Canada, and that his links with people active in politics to the embarrassment of the administration rendered him suspect from the start.  If so, there’s an element of rather touching, unwitting naivete  about the autobiography because of his unawareness of these larger political forces at work.  This rather tragic edge enhances the autobiography, rather than working to its detriment.

‘Tales of a Grandmother’ by Mrs A. C. Carmichael (1841)

It was Christmas Eve, and twelve-year old Maria and her 22 year old brother Frederick Manners were sitting by the blazing fire with their parents and their grandparents who were visiting from Devonshire.

“How I do wish my grandmama would tell me how many Christmases she can recollect- that would be a story worth hearing!”

“Indeed it would,” said Frederick… and instantly there was a joint petition uttered “that grandmama would tell them all she could recollect of herself, from the first Christmas she could remember, up to the present one”

Well, give me the Christmas Day Queen’s Message and the X-box anyday!  Grandmama didn’t need much encouragement to launch into this long, didactic exposition of her childhood Christmases, heavily larded with Good Christian Precepts and Useful Knowledge, prompted by earnest questions about plants, climate and geography raised by these smarmy children.  I had quite an urge to tip Grandmama and her rocking chair into the blazing fire and toss in her snotty grandchildren after her.

In spite of this, however, it was a rather engaging way to read of  nineteenth-century West Indian life, which was of course the reason for me reading the book in the first place.  Young Grandmama spent about nine years in St Vincent in the West Indies on a plantation, before returning to England impoverished as the result of the perfidy of their white plantation-owning West Indian neighbours.  The book is imbued with   a strong pro-slavery flavour: she refers to ‘our negroes’ as a cheerful, singing lot, reserving the s-(lave) word only for the avaricious plantation managers who took advantage of their financial misfortune to break up the happy menage.  Grandmama is severely critical of the irresponsible Harris family on the neighbouring plantation, who allowed their daughters to run wild with the expectation of sending them back to England to polish them off for marriage, and whose double-dealing placed Grandmama and her family at the mercy of merchants and their attorneys back ‘home’.  The book fleshed out for me the social life of the white plantation elite and the financial arrangements between the metropolitan merchants and the colonial plantation owners.  Despite the clunkiness and smarmyness of the children’s questions (“What’s a calibash, Grandmama?”) I learned probably more than I wanted to about West Indian plant life and geography, and in a relatively painless fashion.

This book lurks in the depths of the Internet Archive and is available here should you crave some worthy, educational mid-Victorian story-telling from Grandmama.

‘Past the Shallows’ by Favel Parrett

2011 251 p

This is the debut novel for Favel Parrett, who has published several short stories  and looks from her photograph to be impossibly young.  According to her bio, she is a surfer herself, and this comes through in her writing about the sea which is almost a character in its own right.  Hence, I kept sensing resonances with Tim Winton in Breath, and in his exploration of the troubled and troubling people of the  marginal coastal towns in The Turning.  I felt echoes of Sonia Hartnett as well, in that the story is told from the perspective of children powerless against the cruelties of their elders, and as with many Hartnett books, you know almost from the opening pages that this is not going to end well.

Joe, Miles and Harry are three brothers, living on the south coast of Tasmania.  Joe, the eldest, has escaped the family but the two younger brothers still live with their embittered and widowed father, an abalone fisherman.  It is an intensely masculine world, and their father is a harsh taskmaster.  He forces the middle son, Miles, to work on the boat with a small crew of hardbitten and hardliving men, and he treats his youngest son Harry with a neglect that has an edge of hatred.

Perhaps the failing is in me as a reader, but I found it hard to picture the setting of this novel.  My overwhelming impression was one of coldness, both physical and emotional, and a bleak rural poverty, but I didn’t really have a sense of landscape at all- although perhaps the evocativeness of the seascape made up for that.

The voice of the novel is unusual, and I’m not sure if it is completely successful.  The writing is expressed in very short sentences, which makes it feel like a Young Adult book.  It is told from the boys’ perspective, switching its focus between Miles and Harry, but is not a first person narrative.  I wondered if the simple voice was matched with the perspective of the younger boy, but there did not seem to be a clear distinction between the narrative voice when dealing with the older brother.  I’m not sure.

But the real bite of this book is in the relationships and its exploration of brotherhood and masculinity.  It has a sharp edge, right from the start, and a feeling of impending sadness that builds up over time.  It’s certainly an impressive debut.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.  It took such a long time for my reservation to become available that the Miles Franklin is done and dusted!  And I’ll add it to my Australian Women Writers Challenge tally as well

 

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #15

Go on reading until you can hear people talking

G. M. Taylor (cited in many places including Today and Yesterday p. 112; and Last Essays p. 9 but I must admit that I haven’t actually seen it).

‘The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love’ by Anne Summers

2009,  296 p. & notes
The front cover of this book is quite beautiful, and I found myself closing the book several times just to look at it.  A young girl, with luminous grey eyes looks over her shoulder with a half-smile that is both innocent and yet somehow knowing.  She reminds me of a close friend in long-past days.  I prefer this close-up crop to the full picture shown on the back cover, where we now see that the young girl is sitting with a rather garish copy of ‘Alice and the White Rabbit’ in her lap.  The young girl was Anne Summers’ mother Tuni as a child, and this book is about Summers’ research about the painting that was bequeathed to her after her mother’s death.  But it’s about much more than that.

There are several stories  plaited together with the picture of Tuni (or ‘Alice’ as the painting was known) at the heart of them.  There is the painter, Constance Stokes whose long career intersected with other women artists- Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston- and with other more well known (notorious, rather) artistic circles at Heide or Montsalvat.  However, she was never part of this scene: she had married into a ‘respectable’ middle class family and was enmeshed in family life; she was based in Toorak and South Yarra rather than on the banks of the Yarra, and her reputation has waxed and waned over time.

A second strand is based around the Russian emigre socialite Lydia Mortill who owned the painting by Constance Stokes. As Summers discovers, Lydia’s own background was murky, but not as murky as that of  her much-older husband William who is a complex mixture of callous avarice in relation to his own relations from an earlier marriage yet selfless and committed to Lydia’s family back in Latvia.  The painting hung at Tay Creggan, the large Queen Anne-style mansion still standing at Hawthorn (now part of Strathcona Baptist school), as did a second now-missing painting of Tuni that Summers sought.  On the eve of World War II Tay Creggan and its contents were hastily sold off as William and Lydia travelled quickly to Europe, at a time when others were fleeing.

Finally, there is the relationship between Anne Summers herself and her mother, which, always difficult, was almost shredded by Summers’ publication of her memoir Ducks on the Pond.  We learn this early in the book, and it is only at the end of the book that she turns to this more intimate, emotionally-freighted search.

It seems that I have read a number of historian-as-detective books recently, and I must admit that I am becoming a little jaded by it.  At one stage Summers trails off into the  labyrinthine delta of family history, and I was pleased that she did not spend much longer there.  I much preferred her ‘big sweep’ commentary on women artists, motherhood, the post-war art scene and its relationship with Melbourne ‘society’ and Latvian history.  The book is imbued with Melbourne-based detail, which as a Melburnian myself I very much enjoyed. It is clearly structured, but it’s a complex structure as well that coils around itself, looping on synchronicities and coincidences, while moving forward as well.

The Lost Mother succeeds at both an intellectual and an emotional level.  It is the story of a search and discovery but, tellingly, its final chapter is titled ‘loss’.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Australian Literature Online bookgroup.  I’ve also reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge