Looking back at a historian looking forward

I had reason today to winkle out a reference drawing parallels between convictism and slavery.  It wasn’t difficult: several historians have written on the topic, and one of them was K. M. Dallas.

The name sounded familiar.  Then I remembered that  in The Tyranny of Distance Geoffrey Blainey had cited a lecture given to “a small, sceptical audience in Hobart in 1952”  by K. M. Dallas that “brilliantly probed” the mystery of why England decided to send convicts to the other side of the world. Dallas argued that Botany Bay had been intended as a maritime base for four promising trades: tea from China  via the Cape of Good Hope (thereby avoiding the pirate-infested straits near Sumatra); otter pelts from north-west America; whaling in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, and a bit of quiet dabbling in smuggling and privateering in the Spanish trade that linked the Phillipines, Mexico and South America.  A fifth potential prize might have been the disruption of the Dutch monopoly of trade in the East Indies.   It’s an argument that appeals to me in its scope, and certainly Geoffrey Blainey took it up in his widely-published book.

So, having remembered who K. M. Dallas was,  I looked more closely at the article I downloaded today “Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines” from 1968.  It, too, is a wide-ranging article that explores different aspects of forced labour across the British Empire: the hulks moored in the Thames and sent to Bermuda to provide labour for naval improvements; pauper emigration to Canada, Newfoundland and New South Wales, and the forced labour of Aboriginal women by sealers (a view challenged recently by Lynette Russell- my review here) and Aboriginal men under a scheme of pastoral employment bounty.  It struck me that this is transnational history, decades before its time.

So who was K. M. Dallas?  His ADB entry tells me that his name was Kenneth McKenzie Dallas, and that he was born in Tasmania in 1902.  He became a teacher and taught in one-teacher schools while studying a commerce degree. He became a tutor for the Workers Educational Association, which was at that time associated with the University of Tasmania.  His ADB entry notes that

Dallas embodied the ideal WEA type: while of an intellectual cast, he focused on the action of social and economic forces. His discourse was always positive and informed, often enthralling, sometimes overbearing.

Always leftish in his politics, he moved further left with the burgeoning of fascism. His historical prescience deserted him in 1937 when he conducted the opening meeting at the New Norfolk Workers Educational Association.   There’s an article titled ‘Is War Coming? Not Inevitable says K. M. Dallas‘ in the Hobart Mercury of 23 June 1937

Mr. Dallas said that he was not sufficiently pessimistic to feel that another world war was inevitable. Imperialism had undergone a great change in the past 50 years. He felt that the Imperialistic spirit was passing, and that war would pass with it.

Among the forces making for war at present was the assumption that war was inevitable. There were also the war objectives of the Fascist Powers, which were backed by official announcements. Against the forces of war were the development of an organised will to peace, and the building up of peace as a political policy. People would enter the next war with their eyes open. He believed that, even assuming that the German and Italian Governments provoked war, they were not in a position to go to war at present. From the material point of view, those nations likely to provoke war were least equipped for that purpose, and in the circumstances he felt that a world war was most unlikely.

How tragically wrong he was.  He joined the Royal Australian Navy, saw action in the Mediterranean and took part in the first wave at Normandy.  On his return to Australia, he resumed his academic career as a lecturer in economics, encouraging and forming friendships with socially conscious undergraduates including Polish migrants and Asian students.   He was a member of the Australasian Book Society, and he enjoyed European films (surely a rarified taste in 1950s & 60s Tasmania?). He supported the Labor club at the university and the Australian Peace Council, but despite an adverse ASIO assessment  that refused him a passport (quickly overturned by Menzies), he was not a member of the Communist Party.

However, this did not prevent an exchange of letters in July-August 1950  in the Tasmanian Mercury where, after a funeral,  he was publicly challenged by a ‘Lesley Murdoch’ to declare whether he was a communist or not.  The resultant kerfuffle (here , here , here  and here) was prodded along by Dallas’ rather provocatively timed letter to the editor about the Korean War.  The interchange carried out in the columns of the Tasmanian Mercury reminds us of the perils of politically contentious views in a small community, even in the days of a less ubiquitous social media.

Unlike many other academics, he did not support Sydney Sparkes Orr, the professor of philosophy, when he was dismissed from the University of Tasmania.  This stance isolated him from many of his colleagues, but perhaps time has vindicated him in this too, with the publication of Cassandra Pybus’ Gross Moral Turpitude in 1999

I’m a bit put off by the description of him as “overbearing”, but I think that he wouldn’t be out of place at a history conference today.  Transnationalism, networks, environmentalism (he wrote a book on water)- he’d have plenty to say. Certainly, his ideas are interesting, and must have come (literally) from left field fifty years ago.

References:

[You may need to login to  a State or university library to access the articles]

Dallas, K. M. The first settlement in Australia considered in relation to sea-power in world politics [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association No. 3, 1952: 4-12.

Dallas, K. M. Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association , Vol. 16, No. 2, Sept 1968: 61-76.

Dallas, K. M. The Origins of White Australia The Australian Quarterly  Vol 27, No 1 (March 1955) 43-55

Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance  Sydney, Macmillan, 2001 p. 23-4

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2 responses to “Looking back at a historian looking forward

  1. Seems like he is hard person to define and could perhaps be judged as apolitical. Impressive person, indeed.

  2. Thanks for this – I’ve always wondered about him.

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