Category Archives: Australian history

‘Living with the Locals’ by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins


2016, 223 p plus notes

Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins, NLA publishing, Canberra, 2016

One of the few Australian expressions to make it into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is the saying “You’ve got Buckley’s” -a little Australianism that I myself use quite frequently to mean “you’ve got no chance”.  Although its origin probably lies in a reference to the Buckleys and Nunn department store (“you’ve got Buckley’s chance or Nunn (non)”), for Melburnians it has another layer of meaning . William Buckley was a tall escaped convict who emerged from the bush, startling the early settlers of Melbourne, having lived with the  Wathaurong people for thirty-two years after escaping from the short-lived convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803.  He was not, however, the only white person to be accepted into an indigenous group, as John Maynard and Victoria Haskins show in this book. The information that these Europeans brought back into white society when they were ‘discovered’ or ‘saved’ can, read sensitively, provide a different perspective on pre-invasion or invasion-era indigenous life to counter the settler or missionary narratives which then (and to a large extent, now) largely framed knowledge of indigenous practices.

Our main focus and concern has been on trying to recapture what living with the locals was really like for these European individuals. The fact is that, in the main, they were treated with great kindness, compassion and care by their Indigenous hosts.  And therein lies a great tragedy of the Australian historical experience.  The wild white men and women were witness to the beauty and richness of Indigenous culture in this country that no other outsiders would ever see.  For us, these men and women are our eyes into another world on the cusp on an incredible upheaval. (p. 8)

The fold-out front cover of the book serves both as map and chapter outline as it plots the examples discussed in each chapter against the coastline of eastern Australia.  Early white settlements clung to the edge of the continent, with the sea the main source of communication and commerce.  The chapters of this book proceed chronologically, and the first two examples deal with Sydney and Melbourne.  All the other examples, however, are plotted from Brisbane northwards, where the Great Barrier Reef spelled the end of many ships and where the ‘frontier’ was shifting inexorably up the coast.

Of course, the authors could only deal with those Europeans who actually returned. Maynard and Haskins occasionally mention that the tribes were aware of other Europeans who were among them, or sometimes the escapee/survivors themselves report catching sight of them, but they do not break into the European historiography at all.  Maynard and Haskins only draw on the cases where there is sufficient  written documentation or oral testimony- flawed and incomplete though it may be- but there could be countless other similar scenarios that went unreported or even unknown. Continue reading

Contesting Australian History: A Festschrift for Marilyn Lake


Strictly speaking, a  ‘festschrift‘ is a book of essays written by colleagues and students that is presented to an honorable person, generally an academic, during their lifetime. Well in this case, the collection of essays may come later in the form of a special edition of History Australia, because the main event here was a two-day celebration of Marilyn Lake’s career and writing at the beautiful 1888 building at the University of Melbourne. What a line-up! Even though I’ve only read a few of Lake’s works, and she wouldn’t recognize me at all, I couldn’t resist hearing such eminent historians responding to the wide range of issues upon which Marilyn Lake has written, held over two days in my own home town!

Marilyn Lake is an Australian historian whose work has spanned the homefront response to WWI (both at the time and recently), feminism and gender, and the White Australia Policy. Her book Drawing the Global Colour Line, co-written with Henry Reynolds, is a major contribution to transnational history internationally and here in Australia. She is a fearless public intellectual, most notably after the Age published an abridged version of the public lecture ‘The Myth of ANZAC’ that she delivered in 2009.  In the bitter and highly personalized response to her book, one angry male writer asked her “What have you ever done for Australia?” Well, this festschrift was a resounding answer – even if he wasn’t there to hear it.

Different speakers took various approaches to the festschrift task.  Some spoke about Marilyn herself and their own relationship with her.  Others engaged with her main academic interests and publications. Some spoke about their own research, and Marilyn’s influence on their own work. Others paid tribute to her as public historian, course convenor, research partner and supervisor. Continue reading

‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor


375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)




I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.


Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.


‘Fractured Families’ by Tanya Evans


Tanya Evans Fractured Families: Life on the Margins of Colonial New South Wales,

2015, 252 p & notes

When I picture a ‘Benevolent Asylum’, I have a mental picture of  greyness, thick walls, lancet windows and forbidding ecclesiastical air. It came as surprise, then, when I found this image (below) from the 1840-1850s which did not appear quite as funereal as the name of the institution suggests.


Sydney Benevolent Asylum Artist disputed c. 1840-1850, State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Benevolent Asylum was Australia’s first (and oldest surviving) charity, founded in 1813, with the avowed intention NOT to operate like the Poor Laws back in England.  The Poor Laws in 1813 were still based on the old parish system, where the indigent and needy were shuttled back to their parish of origin, to be supported grudgingly by the parish. There were workhouses, but the truly punitive workhouses of our Dickens-tinged consciousness arose out of the Poor Law Reform of 1834, some twenty years after the establishment of the Sydney institution. Unlike in England, there was an acceptance that the State “was responsible for moulding the structural circumstances of the poor in early New South Wales” and without a tradition of elite obligation to the poor, it could be said that New South Wales was ‘born modern’.

Continue reading

‘Caledonia Australis’ by Don Watson


1984, republished  1997 (this review) and 2009. 255 p. & notes.

Actually, I hadn’t intended reading this Don Watson book at all.  I was reading the first chapter of his more recent, award-winning book The Bush and found myself reminded that before Watson was a Monthly correspondent, a commentator on public discourse or Paul Keating’s speechwriter, he was a historian.  His book Caledonia Australis was already on my bookshelves, and having recently had the experience of reading two books from the edges of a historian’s career as I did with Michael McKernan (see here and here), I decided to put the more recent book aside in order to return to Watson’s earlier book.  After all, I reasoned, it would do a disservice to the earlier book to read it after the larger, more mature work, honed by over thirty years of writing.  My assumptions were unfounded. I haven’t yet returned to The Bush but Watson’s Caledonia Australis,  a more consciously historical work, stands proudly on its own two feet.  Watson was a damned good writer in 1984, just as he’s a damned good writer in 2016.

We see in this 1984 book the subtlety that Watson would later display in his exploration of Paul Keating in his Portrait of a Bleeding Heart.  It does not have the trappings of an academic text: it does not have footnotes or an index and its reference list is only loosely tied to the chapters.  It does, however, make a strong historical argument which has maintained its currency- has indeed become stronger- since its initial publication in 1984 and reissue in both 1997 and again in 2009.

The first part of Watson’s book is not about Australia at all, but instead the Scottish Highlands.  I’d heard of the Highlands clearances, but I’d assumed that people were shifted directly from their Highland ancestral homes onto ships to the New World as part of a global diaspora.  But, as Watson points out, there was an in-between period where Highlanders were forced onto the coastal edges where they were forced to work in kelp-harvesting. Kelp was prized as an industrial additive for the soap, linen and glass industries and had become lucrative when imports of Spanish barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) were heavily taxed during the 1790s.   The shifting of the Highlanders to the coast and the attempted suppression of the language and culture of this ‘backward’ people was seen as an ‘improvement’ measure that, fortuitously for the large lords, freed up the land for the importation of sheep. When the duties on barilla and salt were reduced in the 1820s, the kelp market collapsed, and it was at this juncture that the ‘improvers’, especially on the isles of Skye and Mull,  looked to emigration and particularly the large, clan-based Scottish emigration schemes in Canada and Australia.

And so, by Chapter 4, we have ‘Highlanders at Large- the Kurnai at Home’. Both by an accident of timing and also as a result of clan networks, Scottish settlers explored and appropriated the lands of the Kurnai people of what we now know as Gippsland but which  Scottish explorer Angus McMillan christened ‘Caledonia Australis’.   Across the seas come the Highlanders, a clan-based culture, where the land was the basis of their identity, where history and legend were passed through song and dance, where the supernatural world co-existed with the natural one. And here in Chapter 4 they meet the Kurnai with a parallel culture, with similar qualities to their own:   clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world. There was, however, no recognition of these affinities. Charged with their Calvinistic faith, the former Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, turning over their land to sheep just as had happened to them in Scotland.

In the second half of the book Watson hones in on Angus McMillan,  who has been lionized as one of the pioneers of Gippsland in both myth and physical memorials. McMillan is, in effect, the Highlander in Caledonia Australis writ large.


Angus McMillan Wikipedia

Watson traces the rivalry between McMillan and the driven, publicity-conscious professional explorer Strzelecki in their competing claims to have ‘discovered’ Gippsland. The Highland temperament manifested itself in both exploration and frontier settlement behaviour.  Clan connections and a shared sense of righteousness drove the Scots settlers into their dogged but ultimately fruitless search for the White Woman of Gippsland. Their prickliness, pride and sense of mission had a much darker side as well.

Watson writes:

There were three types of squatters on the Australian frontier: those who thought that their right to the land was qualified by an obligation to treat the Aboriginal inhabitants with kindness; those who believed that their right was conditional only on extermination; and those who combined murder with kindness. (p. 223)

The squatters of Gippsland, Watson writes, were fickle and dangerous and McMillan exemplifies this third type of squatter. McMillan

-half steering his way, half being blown-arrived in the new province and from that moment seemed to embody every paradox the frontier could throw up: making its history and being made by it, writing its story and engineering its secrets, living through all manner of triumph and torment and leaving a legend which put his life beyond our reach, ending up a cliche, a block of stone (p. xix)

When the nephew of his patron Captain Macalister was killed by Aborigines, McMillan was most probably responsible for drawing together the ‘Highland Brigade’ of his neighbours and retainers who, bent on revenge, massacred between 60 and 150 Indigenous Australians at the Warrigal Creek massacre, and beyond.  Yet, this same man was also lauded for his “sympathetic interest” in indigenous people and became in the last years of his life the Aborigines’ protector.  Murder and kindness: a chilling combination.

In his introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Watson writes that his original intent in writing this book was

to give a more sympathetic portrait of the pioneers than any I had ever encountered.  I wanted to give them blood as well as bones; religion, motives, choices, memories, identity, ancestors, an inheritance of their own (p.xxvii)

This doesn’t sound like the aspirations of a historian whose work, through this book,  became associated with those derided by the New Right as promoting ‘black armband history’. We know, from Watson’s later work on the deadening effect of managerial language and ‘Weasel Words’ that he is impatient and dismissive of ‘political correctness’. But, he argues, “It can hardly hurt a mature society to know that its founders were capable of evil as well as good.  An immature society can only benefit”(p. xxvi)

Hence the importance of McMillan:

The harder we look at McMillan the more we see the patterns of our collective experience and the elements of our contemporary dilemma.  The harder we look at him the more signs we see of the kindness and brutality, self interest and charity, memory and amnesia, decency and hypocrisy that has characterised public and private dealings with Aboriginal Australia from the beginning to the present day.  And the harder we look at the society McMillan came from the more we see how the dispossessed everywhere tend to follow the same path to material and spiritual poverty: in the nineteenth century the Australian Aborigines were not the only ones to be first cast as dangerous and unruly savages, and then left stranded between pity and contempt- and then thrown still further adrift from humanity by Social Darwinism. (p. xxviii)

No: this process had engulfed Highlander society, which in turn subjected the Kurnai people to the same fate.  The last words of Caledonia Australis are “..the irony was lost”. Irony, at its most powerful, does not need a spotlight or announcement, but emerges quietly and insistently out of the material itself.  Just as it does in this book.

‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan


2014 (original 1980), 224 p.

No, I haven’t come over all ANZAC-y now that the Gallipoli commemorations are over.  I’ve taken over a column in the newsletter of my local Heidelberg Historical Society, which looks at Heidelberg 100 years ago, using the local newspaper. Of course, a hundred years ago in 1916, the newspaper was full of homefront war news and I found myself wondering how typical it was- hence reading this book.

This book was originally published in 1980 under the title The Australian People and the Great War.  In the preface to this new 2014 edition, McKernan, who was a doctoral researcher at the Australian War Memorial when he wrote the original book (rather than its Deputy Director as he was later to become), explains how he was distracted from his official research on Australian churches in the Great War by the newspapers and School Papers in the AWM’s collection.   It seems odd, given the deluge of ANZACery in the last few years, that he was writing in a scarcely-furrowed field. He writes that at least one publisher at the time had shown some interest in the war by publishing Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs in 1978 but that

Few others were at all interested and I was thought, by academic colleagues, to be a bit strange for working on a war topic. How times have changed! (p. v)

That’s for sure!  But given thirty-six years and the tsunami of publication that has taken place since then, this book stacks up pretty well. McKernan can see its shortcomings:

Many things are missing from this book, but such was the state of my historical understanding then. And the state of the profession, I might add. Today, most obviously, I would seek to include the story of Indigenous Australians on the homefront, as I have done for more recent books. I should also have written about Australian nurses in my chapter on Australian soldiers.  I might also have looked more closely at unemployment and the downturn in the economy that the war caused.  I apologize to those who look to find these important themes, but such were my limitations then. (p. VI)

As he goes on to say, there have been many books since devoted to what he dealt with in a chapter in this book. I think of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War on nurses (my review here); Rosalie Triolo on Our Schools and the War; Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief on war graves; Marina Larssen’s Shattered Anzacs (my review here) on injured returned soldiers, as a start.  But as a book “for the broad Australian community” this is a very good broad-brush treatment, well bolstered by identified sources.  McKernan doesn’t need to apologize too much.

In his opening chapter, ‘The War in Australia’ he points out that the war had an immediate effect on the local economy through a rapid increase in prices and a sudden increase in unemployment, with many men placed on reduced hours. He emphasizes the different experience of middle-class and working-class families at home during the war, and announces his intention to concentrate on ‘ordinary people’, drawing on School Papers, parish records, Red Cross reports of local charitable activity, letters, and local papers as a way of tapping into this class-based diversity of experience.

Chapter 3 ‘Seedplots of Empire Loyalty: The Schools at War’ noted the gendered responses expected of children: that the girls would knit and the boys would play manly sports.  Victorian schools, under the influence of Frank Tate, were particularly active in fundraising.  The practice of saluting the flag daily began in late 1917 in Victoria.  Honour boards, particularly in private schools, were a form of pressure to enlist, and he notes that the Greater Public Schools were especially strong on conscription.

In Chapter 4 he examines the role of Australian women in war, and in particular the class basis of Red Cross activity. This is something that I’m noting locally in the Heidelberg district, where the very middle-class Ivanhoe Red Cross quickly outstripped the more working and lower middle-class Heidelberg and Fairfield. Because it was voluntary, unpaid work did not affect women’s status as it did in the United Kingdom, and it ebbed away quickly without trace when the war came to an end, thus confirming rather than challenging the place of women in society.

‘Muddied Oafs’ and ‘Flannel Fools’, Chapter 5, looks at sport and war. Many sports competitions halted for the duration, although class perceptions come in here too. There was strong criticism of working class ‘slackers’ who continued to play rugby and football, but the continuation of  horse-racing, a middle-class sport, was justified on the grounds that it improved the breed of the horse (and thus assisted the war effort). However, despite the heavy use of sporting analogy in promoting enlistment, sport was not a fixation amongst working-class people, and playing footy on the weekend was not the cause of the indifference to enlistment that the middle-class complained of.

Chapter 6 seemed a little out of place in this book which has the home front as its emphasis. ‘From Hero to Criminal: the AIF in Britain 1915-19’ looks at the behaviour of Australian troops in England during the war.  England was culturally familiar as ‘home’ through a steady diet of childhood literature, and the first Anzac Day march was held in April 1916 in London (not Australia)- the only march to honour a specific body of troops held like this during the war (and a cause of some resentment among the British troops who were at Gallipoli too). The march was only just one factor in the increasing wariness between British and Australian soldiers. There were misdemeanors committed in garrison towns by Australian soldiers. Those soldiers in turn were disgusted by the class distinctions and poverty they saw in Britain and the sight of women working.

The seventh chapter ‘Manufacturing the War: ‘Enemy Subjects’ in Australia’ examines the enlargement of the term ‘enemy subject’ to encompass any Australian natural-born subject whose father or grandfather was a subject of a country at war with the King. Many people had wildly exaggerated perceptions of the direct German threat to Australia. This chapter deals particularly with anti-German feeling, and here perhaps we do see the datedness of the book because it could easily have been extended to include peace activists and unionists who also came to be seen as enemy subjects.

Chapter 8 ‘The Other Australia? War in the Country’ questions the idea that country and urban Australia had separate interests. He points out that country regions felt that they had contributed to the manliness of Australian soldiers, but this is not borne out in the figures.  There was slightly higher enlistment from rural areas, but as he points out, in a face-to-face society like a country town, the pressure to enlist would be stronger. In many ways, war unified country and town, with the realization that despite all the bluster, city workers were not ‘soft’.  The referendum on conscription coincided with the first sittings of the exemption courts which highlighted how few men could claim exemption from enlistment and the severity of conscription, which may have contributed to the defeat of the referendum.

‘The Grey Years’ looks at the initial euphoria at the end of the war, but the creeping sadness of the influenza epidemic and the return of so many wounded and damaged soldiers. The celebration of the armistice on 8th November on the basis of a rumour was premature, and they had to celebrate all over again a few days later. A public holiday was called, but there was confusion over whether it was to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, so in effect, there was little work between Friday 8th November and Thursday 14 November. Three faultlines were to break open in society: i) the returned men  ii) the so called ‘patriotic classes’ and iii) the rest.  ANZAC day had a fitful start. In 1921 the Federal Government declared 25 April a public holiday, but state governments did not follow their lead. In 1925 the Victorian government made ANZAC Day a public holiday, but insisted that all shops, hotels, racecourses and theatres be closed lest it be degraded by secular pleasures. The other states joined in by 1928 and the first dawn service was held that year.

I enjoyed this book. It is generously endowed with many black-and-white pictures that take up often 1/2 the page, and I liked the vignettes of individuals and their families that are woven through the text.  It is narrated in a gentle, accessible tone, but well-supported in the footnotes.  It thoroughly stands up to republication more than thirty years after it first appeared.



‘High Seas and High Teas’ by Roslyn Russell


High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia

213 P & notes, 2016, NLA Publishing

With the recent emphasis on ‘illegal boat arrivals’ in Australia in recent years, it has often been pointed out that, with the exception of indigenous Australians and families who arrived within the last sixty years, all Australians come from ‘boat people’ stock. Rustle the branches of most family trees and there they are: the names of ships, the point and date of departure and the point and date of arrival. Turn to page 2 of the Port Phillip newspapers during the 1840s and there’s the shipping news, identifying the first class passengers by name, numbering the second class passengers, and dispensing with the rest as an undifferentiated group of ‘bounty migrants’ or ‘steerage passengers’.

The inside blurb of this book exhorts family historians to “get a sense of your ancestors’ shipboard experience”, and the foreword by Kerry O’Brien centres on his own family lineage reflecting somewhat of a  ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ emphasis.  Family historians often have little more than the name of the ship and its departure and arrival dates of their forebears. Sometimes they are fortunate enough to have a diary or letters penned on the journey, or on occasion, a particular trip may be so notorious that it was subjected to the scrutiny of the authorities afterwards. In all these cases,though, there are broader questions in moving from the particular to the general: how typical was this one trip? Is there a commonality of experience that linked all sea journeys to Australia?

Roslyn Russell fleshes out and contextualizes the voyage between embarkation and arrival in her book High Seas & High Teas by drawing on thirty-three diaries penned by passengers and crew during the nineteenth century.  These diaries, chosen from among the 100 accounts of voyages to Australia held in the Manuscripts Collection of the National Library of Australia, are not necessarily an accurate reflection of the demographic makeup of ships’ passengers. As she points out both in her introduction and at other places in the text, most of the diaries are written by men (roughly three to one) and fourteen of the thirty-three diaries were written by first class passengers. The voices of mothers of young children, in particular, are missing. This imbalance, she suggests, may be explained by social factors, but it could also reflect the collecting interests of the enigmatic Rex Nan Kivell and Sir John Ferguson, whose collections formed the basis of the NLA holdings (p.2).

In her brief introduction, she explains that, over time, three main routes were established between Great Britain and Australia. Most early 19th journeys took the High Seas route down to the coast of South America, sometimes stopping at Rio de Janeiro, then across to Africa and down to the south of the Cape of Good Hope and on to Western Australia, Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney.  From the 1830s an alternative route opened up when passengers travelled across the Mediterranean by steamship to Cairo; by camel and cart to Suez, and by steamship again to Bombay. There they connected with sailing ships that brought them down through Torres Strait. By the 1850s a third, more dangerous route was developed when clipper ships passed far to the south of the Cape of Good Hope to pick up the Roaring Forties, the strong winds that blew between 40-50 degrees S latitude, which yielded a shorter journey but also risked storms and icebergs. Steamships were introduced to the route from the 1850s onwards, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut the length of the journey from more than 100 days in the early 19th century to 40-50 days by the 1890s.

Despite these technological and itinerary changes, there was a commonality to the experience of the sea-voyage, just as there is a basic underlying sameness about air travel today.  This commonality even extended to the convict ships which plied the oceans until the 1860s.  Russell has devoted the first chapter to ‘Sailing Under Servitude’, where the surgeon-superintendent played an ambiguous role encompassing both solicitude and discipline. Diary entries in this chapter from crew and surgeons underscore the isolation and fear of insubordination that ran as an undertone throughout the journey, but as her references to convict ships in the later thematic chapters of the book demonstrate, even convict ships  experienced the same combination of boredom, fear, discomfort and self-made amusement that marked the journeys of later passengers of all classes for the next century.

Chapters 2-12 follow the trajectory of the journey from embarkation at port and the often lengthy bureaucratic and nautical delays before actually setting sail (Ch.2); the provisioning and accommodation on board (Ch. 3-5); passing the time (Ch.6-9); misfortunes at sea (Ch. 10-11), and the final arrival at their destination (Ch.12) which could, once again, be delayed by bureaucracy and quarantine requirements.   I was surprised to learn of the emigration depots back in England which acted as a sort of on-land simulation of the steerage experience, with emigrants forced to sleep in dormitories and comply with Royal Navy regulations as a way of familiarizing them with the life that faced them for the next four or five months.  I had seen printed newspapers purporting to be written on board ship and wondered at how they were published. Russell explains that they were hand-written on board ship and, after a subscription was collected from the passengers, the funds were put towards publishing the newspaper on land, after arrival, as a memento. Like Russell, I had wondered about sanitary arrangements- a topic which, unfortunately, few diary-writers explored in much detail.

But the real heart and soul of this book is the diaries.  Each chapter commences with a potted biography and then a transcript of one person’s diary that illustrates the theme of the chapter, followed by a beautifully clear, double-paged image of that page of the diary.  As readers, we encounter the diary writers again in several places, and I came to look forward to Annie Gratton’s (1858) and Edith Gedge’s (1888) vivacious entries, and confess to a twinge of schadenfreude at the sour William Bethell’s whinges and complaints. Some diarists reappear often, while others have a fleeting presence, making highly pertinent observations, then disappearing into the throng of passengers again.

The book is lavishly illustrated with the small sketches that the diary-writers used to embellish their pages and the chapters are enhanced by artworks of the day described as ‘background features’ in the reference section at the back.  It really is a beautiful book to just dip into, with large, full colour illustrations on nearly every page.

I’m not aware that the book is part of any museum exhibition, but as a reader, I felt as if I were viewing a mounted display.  The trajectory of the journey provided a narrative spine, branching off into small sub-themes of just two pages in length, just as a museum display might do.  Overall, the book does not have a historical argument as such- except, perhaps, for the commonality of the voyage experience across time and class- but instead brings the journey to life through images and the voices of the diary-writers.

It was probably because I had become comfortable with the chatter of those voices that the ending seemed so abrupt. Mr W. Barringer, with whom she closes, moves into permanent accommodation and the book ends. I would have welcomed Russell onto the stage herself as author or researcher perhaps, or would have liked the book rounded off with a birds-eye view of the voyage experience more generally, or even just a fonder farewell to Mr Barringer.   I felt as if I were standing on the wharf, and that the passengers I’d met along the way had ridden away from me to their new lives without bidding farewell. We had, after all, been on a long journey together.

Source: Review copy courtesy National Library of Australia publishing.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.