Category Archives: Australian history

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard

bollard

2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.

 

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Listening to the pollies

One of the funniest clips I’ve seen this year was Bob Katter talking about marriage equality and crocodiles. In the same sentence.

Quite apart from the absurdity of what Katter is saying, I was struck by the broadness of his Australian accent, particularly once he started on crocodiles.

I was fascinated by this blog-post from the Museum of Australian Democracy, which provides sound clips of early Prime Ministers.

https://www.moadoph.gov.au/blog/what-did-our-early-prime-ministers-sound-like/

[I had to use Chrome to get all the sound files to work]

I was surprised that although some of the Prime Ministers featured had quite humble backgrounds, they used Received Pronunciation here. I wonder if they were ‘bunging it on’ for the microphone?

‘The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia’ by Anna Clark

clark_thecatch

2017, NLA Publishing, 145 p.

In a beautifully presented book, the “story” (but really, the “history”) of Australian fishing is told by historian and fellow fishing enthusiast, Anna Clark. This shared love of fishing permeates the text of this  book, not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter. Here, for example, is the start to the chapter ‘Early Industry’ that takes us right into the boat with a single fisherman in his small boat:

The boat glides out of Albany and sails across the sheltered waters of Princess Royal Harbour. A breeze skims across the bay and fills the sails- just enough to push the little boat along into the incoming tide to set the nets.  There’s plenty to catch here, and the fisherman fills his woven baskets with herring, whiting and bream, with a few skipjack and pike thrown in for good measure.  But there’s not much point chasing the big hauls, since the fish go putrid after a day or two ashore- and anything left over has to be buried. (p 49)

Or here we are on a modern commercial fleet ship:

The engine’s running and its gentle throb can be felt through the humming deck. Filleting knives are neatly lined up by the cutting boards near the ship’s bow, someone’s hosing off the blood from this morning’s catch and there’s a constant and slightly unpleasant smell of fish.  In the centre of the deck is a little hatch with a lid. Inside, a steel ladder drops down to the icy hold below. It’s dark and filled to the brim with neatly stacked ten-kilogram boxes of fish fillets, snap frozen by the boat’s powerful compressor. They sit waiting to be unloaded and taken away by refrigerated truck to the city’s markets. (p.97)

As well as capturing the tone of the narrative, these two opening paragraphs encapsulate many of the themes of the book: the joy of fishing, the deceptive abundance of fish, the problem of wastage and storage and the effects of technological change.

Published by the National Library of Australia, this lavishly illustrated book shares the high production values of its other volumes, and draws generously on the holdings of the library in photographs, maps and diagrams.

The book starts with indigenous fishing, which was described at length by Cook and Banks to illustrate the abundance of the eastern coast, and which was captured in many of the early drawings and paintings of New South Wales.  The amputation of the pinky finger on Eora fishergirls made it easier to use a line for fishing. It attracted the attention of these early commentators and was clearly shown in convict artist Thomas Watling’s drawing of Dirr-a-goa in the 1790s, while the term for the amputation, “Mal-gun”, was noted in William Dawes’ notebook of translations of Eora words.   However, as Clark notes:

While early colonial sketches and paintings give wonderful snapshots of Indigenous fishers, they do so from a distinctly European perspective.  Written accounts are similarly revealing – and we should be grateful for the faithful record of fishing practices and winning catches they’ve produced- but we can’t forget that these early settlers viewed Indigenous society through a distinctly colonial lens. (p. 17)

Indigenous perspectives on fishing come through the presence of scar trees where bark has been excised to build canoes, the remnant fish traps in rivers, shell middens and through indigenous carvings and paintings of fish.  This indigenous perspective is not relegated to the obligatory opening chapter, but instead continues through the book, with the continuation of fishing at riverside and coastal Aboriginal missions and Traditional Owners claims on traditional fisheries.  As she points out, fishing participation rates among in the Indigenous population sit as high as 92% in some communities, and it is an integral part of connection to country and cultural knowledge. (p. 132)

The abundance of fishing was reported by Captain Cook, and the First Fleet was well equipped to take advantage of it. However, Governor Phillip was less effusive, reporting that some days the fish were there- other days not. The photographs in the book – taken specifically to celebrate the size  of the catch – highlight abundance, but the text tells another story as fishing grounds are fished out and one species of fish collapses after another.

Another theme is the ongoing contest between competing interests. Colonial gentlemen craved the manly sport of fly-fishing and introduced European species into Australians waters with sometimes catastrophic results. (I knew about the European carp, but to be honest, I didn’t realize that the trout was an introduced fish- shows how little I know!) The government supported the establishment of commercial fisheries and the storage and infrastructure requirements to transport fish to lucrative markets, but in response to political pressure, it has more recently championed recreational fishing and set aside no-go zones to increase stock numbers. The emergence of Senators representing recreational fishing interests is likely to keep this political contest alive.

I did find myself wondering who this book is aimed at.  Its appearance just prior to Christmas is, I’m sure, well-planned. Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday.  Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.

Sourced from: Review copy from Quikmark Media and N.L.A.

aww2017-badge

I’ve included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘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

Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872

The University of Newcastle has a fantastic new site showing colonial massacres on the frontier in Eastern Australia. You can access it at

https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/

The map shows the approximate location of massacres of both indigenous people and settlers in the eastern states. As the creators explain in the introduction, their criteria for a massacre is six people.  Why six? To lose six people (or 20%) from a  ‘hearth’ group of twenty people renders that group vulnerable to further attack and diminishes their ability to hunt for food, reproduce and carry out their ceremonial obligations. The data is drawn from a range of sources including newspapers, parliamentary reports, the memoirs and correspondence of settlers, missionaries and Protectors, and oral and visual Aboriginal accounts.  The reliability of the source is rated with a star system.

The site makes quite clear that it is a work in progress, and subject to change through ongoing research.  Fascinating, and sobering.

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

maynardhaskins

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

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