‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

MeWRiteMyself

2017, 331 p.

It’s not often that I close up a history book with a “Well done!”, but I did with Leonie Stevens’ beautifully written Me Write Myself. Right from its quietly restrained front cover, through to its ending which rounds off and yet expands and invites further conversation, this is a exquisitely crafted book.  It works on so many levels: as narrative, as critique and as history.

Stevens mounts her argument right from the subtitle on the cover:  ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna’.  “Wybalenna?” you may ask. It’s more commonly known as Flinders Island, most often characterized as the doomed settlement off the coast of Tasmania, where the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes were shunted to be forgotten in silence by colonists and colonial officials alike, in the 1830s and 1840s.  And “free inhabitants?” Wasn’t this a form of concentration camp, on the way to what was seen to be an inevitable extinction? In Stevens’ hands, we see that  these are not victims but “free aboriginal inhabitants” and not silent, even though historians may silenced them, often while bemoaning their fate.

Flinders Island, for a place so small, has attracted the attention of historians, right from James Bonwick in 1870 through to Henry Reynolds.  The publication in 1987 of N.J.B. Plomley’s gigantic Weep in Silence,  with its 1034 pages, might have been thought to have exhausted all there is to say on Wybalenna. Not so.

Stevens starts her book in a crowded, metaphorical baggage-room where we ‘check-in’ our assumptions, narratives and language.  First there’s the question of names, often Europeanized and of slippery orthography. Then there’s scientific racism, underpinning the rationale of colonialism and assuaging guilt, and seeping through much of the historiography of Wybalenna, right up to recent writing, which sees it as a narrative of tragic and helpless death. Then there’s the question of credibility of sources and this is where Stevens steps right up. She takes historian Ann Laura Stoler’s term “the hierarchy of credibility” and turns it upside down to give priority to the VDL texts over European texts.  This is where Stevens’ approach is new.  She depicts the texts relating to Wybalenna as a pyramid.  The deluge of government reports, memoirs, newspaper reports and journals from which other historians have drawn their work form the large base of the triangle. Up from them are the texts recorded by Europeans where VDL First Nations people ‘speak’ as their words are transcribed and collected. Right at the apex are the texts written by VDL First Nations people themselves: texts that have been largely sidelined by historians and dismissed as ventriloquistic curiosities, parroting the views of white chaplains and superintendents, and of little worth in themselves. By placing them at the top of the hierarchy of credibility, “the VDL word takes on an urgency and new level of insight, revealing a more nuanced, personal, human story.”(p. xxx)  Finally, the metaphorical baggage-room is full of historians, especially white historians, who have either “made such fervent use of the extinction myth” or “fetishised frontier violence under the guise of critiquing it.” (p.xxxi). Stevens is only too aware that she is “a white 21st century mainland writer studying VDL history” and she is “mindful of her position on the metaphorical dance card” (p. xxxii)

This history, on which we now embark, is one constructed, wherever possible, from VDL sources. The mantra will be We do not need yet another European history of VDL people. It is the simplest way of keeping the baggage in check. ( p.xliii)

The organization of the book is basically chronological, but the VDL texts lend a thematic approach. The first two chapters set the scene, with the short Chapter 1 placing VDL within the 45,000+ years of pre-contact history, and briefly sketching the Black War of 1830 and its aftermath. Chapter 2 deals with the establishment of Wybalenna and its place within the wider humanitarian response across the empire. From this point on, the chapters become longer, focussing around the texts generated by the free inhabitants of Wybalenna.

Chapter 3 ‘The Promise of Wybalenna’ draws on hand-written newspaper The Flinders Island Chronicle, written between September 1836 and December 1837 by two teenaged boys, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune, who had received a brief education at the Orphan School outside Hobart, before returning to Wybalenna.  The forty-two editions and drafts of the Chronicle have only been partially published, and generally dismissed by historians as an obvious and clumsy attempt at Christian indoctrination and control. But, as Stevens shows

In fact, the Chronicle is much more than a mouthpiece for the Commandant. Those editions dominated by religious indoctrination actually contain a great deal of information, if effort is invested in peeling back the layers of meaning. (p. xxxvii)

We learn from these two boys, falling over each other to publish their own separate edition of the ‘weekly’ paper (which often appeared more often than weekly) that the Commandant was never really in ‘control’ of the settlement, most particularly the women. Wybalenna was part of archipelago of islands visited by sealers and whalers, and news and rumour swirled around amongst officials, convicts, traders and the free aboriginal inhabitants. We see the ‘Protector’ and Superintendent, George Augustus Robinson carefully painting house numbers on the doors of the cottages, in anticipation of a visit from Governor Franklin which turns out to be a fleeting affair. We see games being played, deaths being mourned, changes in relationships.

Chapter 4 draws on the school room examinations and written and spoken sermons generated as part of the Christianizing mission. In them, Stevens finds insights into language diversity, the persistence of ritual and the balancing of original and introduced spiritual beliefs. (p. xxxix).  She has to work harder here, as the texts are so heavily overlaid with the interpretations of Christianity that are being used as a form of control: keep your house clean, the insubordination of the women, the promise of God’s good country.  It is during this chapter that Stevens integrates the journey across Bass Strait to Melbourne in 1841 undertaken by George Augustus Robinson and the ‘family’ he took with him,  including the two former newspaper writers, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune. Two of the group are noted for being the first men hanged in Melbourne – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  I’ve read much about them in my own work on Port Phillip, but they always seemed (and were) men out of place, a disembodied group brought into the colony and then sent away again. Through the picture that Stevens has built up of Wybalenna, we see this ‘family’ and their importance, and why Robinson chose them, in particular, to take across to Port Phillip. They become distinct people, not just the ‘VDL Blacks’.

One of the things that I like most about Steven’s approach is that Wybalenna changes, in response to the people living there and those appointed there. It’s not a passive, inert place. Events unfold, relationships form and breakdown, alliances shift. In Chapter 5, the revolving door administration since Superintendent Robinson’s departure throws up Doctor Henry Jeanneret as new Superintendent, a ‘problematic individual’ who is dismissed, challenges his dismissal back in England, then is reappointed to Wybalenna again.

It is the dissatisfaction with Jeanneret’s reappointment, and desire to shift to a different model of living, that leads the Wyballena inhabitants – most particularly through Walter George Arthur- to write again in Chapter 6. This time they adopt the petitioning and epistolary form of colonial bureaucratese, as they write to the Governor on the Tasmanian mainland, making their complaints against Jeanneret, and asking the Queen’s intervention.  The authorship and authenticity of the letters was challenged by Jeanneret at the time, leading to the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry which itself generated its own paper trail. The way that later historians, most particularly Plomley in Weep in Silence, have dealt with these letters, reflects the ‘taking sides’ amongst the white characters that historians are wont to do.

This assessment, naturally, gives no credit whatsoever to VDL activism or agency, besides Walter Arthur. Weep in Silence is essentially a European history, about Europeans running a European settlement, with a few inconsequential VDL faces thrown in (p. 321)

Through her careful reading, Stevens embodies these “inconsequential VDL faces” into living, active, resisting people. Naming is important, and the footnotes at the bottom of the page give a small biography for each one so that Wybalenna is literally ‘peopled’. How blessed she has been as an author, too, with a publisher that respects footnotes on the page (and not squirrelled away at the back of the book), letting the historian acknowledge sources and accuracy right then and there.

This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Stevens engages and challenges other historians, but more with urgency and invitation to share, rather than oneupmanship.  The chapters are long (possibly a little too long?), but the narrative flows, capturing shift and change.  It moves, as Wybalenna moves. This is academic history written with head and heart, and with eyes and ears open.  I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for history and non-fiction prizes over the next year. Read it.

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

aww2017-badge I have linked this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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5 responses to “‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

  1. I know it’s the least important thing you wrote about, but long live footnotes!

    • Oh yes indeed. Historians and their readers are so often short-changed by publishers who insist on footnotes hidden away at the back of the book, or worse still, just generalized ‘further reading’.

  2. Wow, this sounds like a must-read…
    I’m curious, does she explain why she uses the term ‘VDL people’ i.e. a European name for the people, rather than an indigenous name? Lyndall Ryan uses Trouwunna as the name for Tasmania, which I think is beautiful. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if we renamed all our states with Indigenous names?!)

    • Yes- she does talk about names and naming right at the start, when ‘unpacking the baggage’. She notes that renaming of people and place is often the first act of taking possession. She identifies individuals by the names by which they were known at Wybalenna and by which they signed their work. These were often European names She notes that Trowunna, Pakana and Pallawah are now used in scholarly and popular texts, but they were not used in the texts from Wybalenna that she is using. The Whybelnna writers self-identified as Van Diemen’s Land black, VDLs, blackfellows, and the term she has adopted that was on the petition to the Queen ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land’.

  3. Pingback: September 2017 Round-Up: History, Memoir and Biography | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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