Monthly Archives: July 2009

‘An Algonquin Maiden’ by G. Mercer Adam and A. Ethelwyn Wetherald


1887,  240 p.

If I am to trace my Resident Judge, John Walpole Willis across the full length of his career, rather than just focussing on Port Phillip, then I am destined to turn northward and head towards Upper Canada.  My ignorance of Canadian history knows no bounds- where on earth to start?   Perhaps Canadian literature might give me a gentle entree to a whole area that is largely unfamiliar to me.

I was attracted to the title of this book: “An Algonquin Maiden: A Romance of the Early Days of Upper Canada”.   I borrowed it on interlibrary loan from the CARM centre (my very own Cemetery of Dead Books), but had I been a little more diligent I could have found it in a million manifestations as an e-book on the Internet.

As soon as I started reading it, I realized that it was set exactly in the time and politics of Judge Willis’ time in Upper Canada:  dancing through the pages came references to Wm. Lyon Mackenzie,  Sir Peregrine Maitland, Captain Matthews and the Family Compact- people and concepts that I know will become very important to me should my quest for Willis take me along this path.  Although the book is firmly written within the romance genre replete with many heaving breasts and impassioned glances, the authors close one of the chapters with an odd little note:

Those who have followed, it may be with interest, this veracious piece of history, and are curious to learn the fate of the honorable member for Middlesex, will find the story graphically told in Mr Dent’s “Canadian Rebellion” Vol I, chap 6

and they then proceed to add a lengthy paragraph from Dent’s history (which, actually, I have dipped into).

So who are these authors?  Graham Mercer Adam was a Scottish-born writer, publisher and author. He was involved mainly in the publication of periodical literature, but also wrote a number of historical works including The Canadian North-West: Its Histories and Troubles (which is advertised at the back of my 1973 facsimile edition of the book),  An Outline History of Canadian Literature, and An Abridged History of Canada. His collaboration in writing this book  with A. Ethelwyn Wetherald, a Quaker poet,  seems to have been a one-off.   The Dictionary of Literary Biography notes the critical reception of Wetherald’s contemporaries to the  “embarrassing qualities” of An Algonquin Maiden, and perhaps this is why she specifically requested that the book not be mentioned in John W. Garvin’s introduction to her collection Lyrics and Sonnets published in 1931.   Adam, however, noted that the jointly-authored book was issued not only in Montreal but also in New York and London.   If its ubiquity on the internet is any guide, then it’s the main legacy of both their work.

It’s a rather florid romance set in York, with two beautiful young women pursued by two handsome young men.  One of the couples is thwarted by the Tory father’s opposition to young radical Allan Dunlop’s politics; the other couple is blocked by pride and the young man’s attraction to Wanda, an Indian “maiden”.

I was interested by the depiction of the “Algonquin Maiden” which portrayed her as far more innocent and alluring than Australian literature depicts aboriginal women.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Coonardoo, which is off the top of my head the most striking and controversial depiction of love (as distinct from lust) between a white man and indigenous woman in Australian literature.   Certainly An Algonquin Maiden reflected the distaste and repugnance for the “squaw” shown by white family and friends when the young man declares his love for her, but I’m hard pressed to think of an Australian book, other than Pritchard’s  that even acknowledges an Aboriginal woman as anything other than “a bit on the side”.   Can you?

There’s really quite a bit about landscape and the emotional response to it, an emergence sense of “Canadian-ness” and the  social and political intricacies of Upper Canadian settlement.  I kept expecting Judge John Walpole Willis to fling himself through the door at any minute- and there, one and a half pages before the end of the book- THERE HE IS!! (Well, sort of…). In a letter to his love,  the aspiring young politician wins the girl in the end and writes to her:

I have no news to give you of social matters in York, save of Lady Mary Willis’s Fancy Ball, which is to come off at the close of the year…

and then a fleeting mention of the happy marriage ceremony:

The wedding breakfast, it was also a matter of current talk, was to be at the homestead of a distinguished member of the local judiciary…

So, our Judge is lurking here in this book, just out of sight. Just move out a little further, onto centre stage, will you Your Honor?

Mr Robinson reports

I’ve been reading the Port Phillip journals of George Augustus Robinson.  Note that these are the Port Phillip ones, not those that he wrote in Van Diemen’s Land which were edited by N.J.B.  Plomley.  Actually,  Plomley’s work has had a bit of renaissance lately, with the republishing of his Friendly Mission and the release of Reading Robinson,  a set of essays by various authors which extends Robinson’s work into a broader imperial context.   I have this book of essays on hold, and shall report anon.

Robinson himself seems to be undergoing a reconsideration.  Until recently, his main biography has been Black Robinson by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, a vehement portrayal that depicts him as an incompetent and dishonourable liar and cheat.   Rae-Ellis’ book had a troubled publication history and  received much critical comment on its publication (Pybus, 2003).   Keith Windschuttle in his Fabrication of Aboriginal History interprets this as an attack on Rae-Ellis for her negative depiction of Robinson, who has been treated more benignly by Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and other historians that he himself attacked for their depiction of Aboriginal history.  Perhaps it’s a matter of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” because Windschuttle certainly did not extend the same level of scrutiny to Rae-Ellis as he did to Reynolds and Ryan.

Robinson’s Tasmanian journals have received most of the attention, but the ones I’ve been reading are his Port Phillip journals, written after he had spent several years on the blighted Flinders Island with his dwindling band of natives.   He took with him to Port Phillip  several Aborigines from Flinders Island, including Truganini and Wooredy.   He arrived in Melbourne in February 1839, prior to La Trobe.  His instructions were vague.  Glenelg at the Colonial Office in London sent a copy of the report of the 1837  parliamentary  Select Committee  to Gipps, with recommendations to protect, educate, provide religious education for and ‘civilize’ the aborigines.   Glenelg told Gipps to fill in the details, but Gipps was loathe to do so.  He argued that Robinson had been appointed Chief Protector on the strength of his “acquired experience superior to that which is possessed by any other individual in the Colony”, and he was left largely to define the role himself.  It seems that La Trobe was keen for Robinson to move around the District: he sent him on his trips to the Western District and was reluctant to appoint Robinson as a town magistrate lest it “seem to form the idea that his Duties lie in Melbourne instead of in the Bush” (Gipps to La Trobe 11 Feb 1843).  But his role did, indeed, involve both administration in Melbourne- in fact, he was appointed an office in Willis’  “old” Supreme Court building once the “new” courthouse was opened- and field work both supervising the Assistant Protectors and recording the language, names and habits of Aborigines throughout the District both as a form of ethnographic study and census.

This dual focus of  acting both as administrator and protector is reflected in his journals.  Inga Clendinnen tells us in her memoir Tiger’s Eye that she  drew on Robinson’s diary of his Western District  journey between 20 March and 15 August 1841 as her first step back into the academic waters after a long period of illness.  Her essay ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ focusses on Robinson’s  journey, but the George Augustus Robinson we see in the saddle, riding from tribe to tribe and outstation to outstation is not the same fussy, petty man that we see around the streets of Melbourne.  His role was not just to observe and count: he was also a minor bureaucrat puffed up with self-importance but ultimately impotent and compromised when the pointy end of the law intersected with the humanitarian aspects of his task.

Clendinnen admits “I have become very fond of Mr Robinson”.  I’m not quite as fulsome.  The ‘town’ Mr Robinson is rather wearing; in management-speak he is unable  ‘upwardly manage’ his relationship with his superiors (if indeed, he even perceives them as such), and he undermines and backstabs the assistant protectors under his supervision- although admittedly some of them were a rum lot too.  His attitude towards the Aborigines he brought over with him from Flinders Island is puzzling: he distances himself emotionally from the execution of  “Bob” and “Jack” for murder in January 1842, fulminating about process but oblivious to the tragedy; he goes into organiser-mode for the return of the women to Flinders Island without expressing any regret. The death of Peter Brune, who did not return to Flinders Island but remained with him as his native right-hand man, is brusque and matter-of-fact.

He doesn’t really seem to “get” Aboriginal communication, despite his compiling of long lists of words.  The whole idea of bringing the Van Diemen’s land natives over to smooth his path with the mainlain Aborigines highlights his lack of awareness of the distinctiveness of the Tasmanian tribes.   His interaction is often completely utilitarian on his own terms: he is dismissive of the context of communication wanting only the content:

When the natives appear I brake through all Aboriginal ceremony [sic] (which to observe would be a waste of time) and go forth and meet them  (10 May 1841)

There are several occasions of riding into a location incognito, and pumping people for information about “Robinson”- a curious way of gaining feedback, if that’s what he was doing.

Although, having said all this, there are times when the humanitarian breaks through, and I think that this side of him is what Clendinnen is responding to.  He is genuinely filled with admiration when he sees the construction of eel-traps, and acknowledges the ingenuity, strength and dedication of the men who created them, quite irrespective of race.  He is sceptical of the numbers of deaths reported by the settlers; he decries the preference for emancipated convicts as workers who, unlike new emigrants were not frightened of the natives.  He hears, and understands, the aboriginal claims on the land:

I should remark that, when Tung.bor.roong spoke of Borembeep and other localities of his own nativity he always added ‘that’s my country belonging to me!! That’s my country belonging to me!!” This language language is [plain] but not the less forcible on that account.  Some people have observed, in reference to the natives occupying their country, what could they do with it?  The answer is plain- they could live upon it and enjoy the pleasures of the chase as do the rich of our own nation (17 July 1841)

He is dismissive of the stories of cannibalism relayed to him by the settlers- “Fudge!”. And when he comes across a settler who freely admits murdering five natives,  he is chilled and repulsed by the man.  He is determined not to partake of the lonely man’s desperate hospitality:

Francis pressed me to sleep in his hut and it was evident the bed had been prepared, clean sheets and pillow case.  He entreated and said he would play me a tune on the fiddle and I was to make myself at home, &c.  I however had made up my mind to sleep in the van and got away.  I could not sleep in the place; I was disgusted and my heart sickened when I thought of the awful sacrifice of life done by this individual.  He acknowledged to five, the natives say seven.  (30 July 1841)

On leaving the man as quickly as he can, he passes a skull planted nearby- shades of Kurtz.  Robinson knows the message it is sending- and no doubt the local tribes do too

I cannot conceive why this skull was permitted to remain exposed in such a situation; it is doubtless best known to Francis. (30 July 1841)

With my almost endless ability to be diverted from actually writing my thesis (as distinct from wool-gathering about it), I’m looking forward to reading the new Robinson essays.  I’ve also borrowed a book of Sievwright, the assistant protector who was the cause of much scandal and criticism from all sides.  More on him anon too.


Ian D. Clark  The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Two: 1 October 1840-31 August 1841 Melbourne, Heritage Matters, 1998.

Ian D. Clark (Ed) The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Three: 1 September 1841- 31 December 1843Melbourne, Heritage Matters, 1998

Inga Clendinnen Tigers Eye 2001 (includes the essay ‘Reading Mr Robinson’)

Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds). Reading Robinson 2008

N.J.B. Plomley Friendly Mission 1966

Cassandra Pybus ‘Robinson and Robertson’   in R. Manne (ed) Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc, 2203

Vivienne Rae-Ellis Black Robinson: Protector of Aborigines 1988

A.G. L. Shaw  A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before Separation 1996

A.G.L. Shaw Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence

Keith Windshuttle  The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 2002

‘Whigs and Hunters’ by E. P. Thompson


1975, 269 p.

Whigs and Hunters is one of those books that appears again and again on the bibliographies of other books and articles I’ve been reading about the law in 19th century colonial societies.   I read Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class many, many years ago, and have since heard it referred to many times as a seminal history text by historians I admire.

The full title of the book is Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act.  I knew that the Black Act referred to the death penalty applied to crimes like poaching and the cutting of trees. One of the first surprises of this book is that the Black Act was not so called,  as I assumed,  as a description of its severity.  Instead, the “Black” refers to the practice of blacking faces to disguise the perpetrators undertaking the depredations under cover of night.

But the Act was certainly   “black”   in terms of its subversion of legal process.  It was enacted in four weeks in May 1723, with little parliamentary debate.  The first category of offenders was persons ‘armed with swords, fire-arms or other offensive weapons, and having his or their faces blacked’ who appeared in any forest, chase, park or enclosed ground where deer had been, or shall usually be kept, or on any high road, heath, common or down.  Offences included hunting, wounding, stealing red or fallow deer, poaching of hares, conies or fish; breaking down the head of a fishpond;  maliciously killing or maiming cattle; cutting down trees; setting fire to any house, barn, haystack; or forcibly rescuing any one from custody accused of any of these crimes.  If any person was accused of any of these offences on information sworn by credible witnesses,  he would become a ‘proclaimed man’.  If he failed to surrender himself after a proclamation was read in two market towns on two market days and affixed on some public place, he could be deemed guilty and sentenced to death without further trial. Moreover, if any person was found to  ‘conceal, aid, abet or succour’ anyone accused in this way who had not surrendered within forty days, then he too would be guilty of felony and sentenced to death.

It was, Thompson claims ” a bad law, drawn by bad legislators, and enlarged by the interpretations of bad judges” (p. 267).   There were fifty distinct offences for which capital punishment was provided, but under the different categories (e.g. principles in first or second degree; accessories etc), it gave rise to a total of 200 and 250 capital offences (p. 23).   Originally passed only for three years, it was extended and enlarged over the next hundred years until its repeal in the 1820s and 30s.  Its  definitions  became broader:  the carrying of a stick and cropped unpowdered hair and the absence of a wig  could be classed as “armed and disguised”.   The cases were removed from the vagaries of local juries by moving the trial to the Court of the Kings Bench.

In this regard, I found myself thinking of the Anti-Terrorist legislation enacted in Western countries that otherwise pride themselves on their adherence to the “rule of law”.    Our 21st century “black” acts were likewise developed in haste, with little parliamentary scrutiny, ostensibly for a prescribed period of time.  They, too, removed proceedings from the conventional legal system and could be extended to people who were thought to have knowledge of the acts, or contact with the perpetrators,  without actually committing them themselves.   I read with disgust in October 2008  that England used anti-terrorist legislation to seize Icelandic assets in the face of Iceland’s failure to guarantee British savings.   This legislation, like the Black Act, is loosely-drafted and can be used for multiple purposes beyond those stated.

Thompson writes in the preface that the book arose from his contribution of a single chapter on the Black Act  to Albion’s Fatal Tree.  As such, it was based in the 50 years prior to his own area of  expertise (social history post 1750).   He writes:

Most historians do not put themselves at risk in this kind of situation, and they are wise not to do so.  One normally reads very widely into a ‘period’, before or alongside one’s researches, accepting the received context offered by previous historians, even if at the conclusion to one’s work one is able to offer modifications to this context.  I decided to work in a different way.  I was like a parachutist coming down in unknown territory: at first knowing only a few yards of land around me, and gradually extending my explorations in each directions.  (p. 16)

He starts with deer hunters in Windsor Forest and Hampshire, then moves to forest governance through stewards and keepers, then onto the courtiers and bishops, then onto Walpole and government ministers at the highest level.  Much of his evidence is, as he admits,  scrappy and insubstantial, and much of it is drawn from the holdings of small historical societies and the archives of particular families and properties- the small minutiae of local and family history.  He moves back from this detailed study of the perpetrators into a consideration of their connection with the large politics of Walpole, the King and the Whig ministers.  He argues that the Black Act was promulgated by the supporters of the Hanoverian kings who had recently come into possession themselves of new estates, where they pulled down the old manor houses to build new Georgian buildings, surrounded not by the time-honoured forests of old, but by expansive and expensive landscaped lawns and formal gardens.   The Black Act criminalized the resistance to this takeover, not only by small farmers and workers deprived of traditional wood-gathering and hunting privileges, but also by the gentry and larger farmers who had been sidelined by the accumulation and consolidation of property by this new elite.

This shift from the details of localized crime up into the higher reaches of power is the nub of his argument, but I found this part the least convincing.  Perhaps he assumed a knowledge of Walpole and Hanoverian politics that I lack, but although he makes much of the “Whig state of mind” (p. 207),  he doesn’t make clear what this state of mind actually is and how it manifested itself.

Thompson writes well: he has a good eye for the telling episode, he is disarmingly candid about his frustration with the limitations of his sources,  and his frequent use of “we” pulls you into his argumentative undertow.  But at times, the combative historian emerges- in this case in a four-page joust with Professor Pat Rogers on his article from Historical Journal XVII, 3, 1974.

Professor Pat Rogers has recently confused these questions, in the first scholarly article to appear on the origins of the Black Act.  I do not wish to quibble about minor disagreements in our accounts of events, although certain points require correction…. (p. 192)

which, of course, Thompson then proceeds to do.

The confidence, and perhaps even the swagger, are (one feels) less those of the Blacks than those of Professor Rogers.  He is able, from slender evidence, and from evidence which is assembled by the authorities and opponents of the Blacks, to pronounce with assurance upon the objectives, motivations, organization and moral worth of these elusive men.  Although I think that I have shown some of the critical economic and social tensions aroused in the forests, I cannot share Roger’s confidence  (p. 193)….I must apologize to Professor Rogers for hanging these lengthy reflections upon the hook of his article… (p. 195)

Apology or no, the exchange echoes with the clashing of rhetorical swords in the conference arena!   He circles for another joust, but this time with other Marxist historians,  in his final chapter where he makes  an 11-page defence of the concept of the “rule of law” as an “unqualified human good” .  This chapter was written, Dorothy Thompson told Daniel H. Cole for his 2001 article, as an afterword:

While conducting research for this essay, I contacted Thompson’s widow Dorothy- an renowned historian in her own right- to enquire about possible sources for her late husband’s epiphanic conversion to the Rule of Law.  I received in reply a brief letter in which she sheds some light on the subject. E. P. Thompson returned to complete Whigs and Hunters after he finished co-editing with ‘fellow historians in the Marxist tradition’ Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, and Cal Winslow  Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England.  According to Dorothy Thompson, his collaboration on that work left him deeply pessimistic about the role of law in society.  She engaged him in a ‘very heated discussion’, during which she suggested that ‘he was leaning too far in the direction taken by some of the contributors to Albion’s Fatal Tree in dismissing the law simply as an instrument of class power.  He took time to re-think the question and added the famous afterword to W and H‘. (Cole, 2001, p 183).

And some afterword it is.  It’s a completely different chapter in focus, voice and intent- and it’s the most heavily underlined chapter in the copy I borrowed from the library.  Thomson writes:

We might be wise to end here. But since readers of this study may be provoked to some general reflections upon the law and upon British traditions, perhaps we may allow ourselves the same indulgence (p. 258).

But, he asks,  is this emphasis on British tradition merely  a form of narcissism or parochialism?

Alternative perspectives must diminish the complacency of national historical preoccupation. If we see Britain within the perspective of the expansion of European capitalism, then the contest over interior rights and laws will be dwarfed when set beside the exterior record of slave-trading, of the East India Company, of commercial and military imperialism.  Or, to take up a bright new conservative perspective, the story of a few lost common rights and of a few deer-stealers strung from the gallows is a paltry affair when set beside the accounts of mass repression of almost any day in the day-book of the twentieth century.  Did a few foresters get a rough handling from partisan laws?  What is that beside the norms of the Third Reich? Did the villagers of Winkfield lose access to the peat within Swinley Rails? What is that beside the liquidation of the kulaks? (p. 259)

His use of “we” throughout the text has invited us to sit beside him, and all of a sudden we are brought to sit alongside him.

I stand on a very narrow ledge, watching the tides come up.  Or, to be more explicit, I sit here in my study, at the age of fifty, the desk and the floor piled high with five years of notes, xeroxes, rejected drafts, the clock once again moving into the small hours, and see myself, in a lucid instant, as an anachronism.  Why have I spent these years trying to find out what could, in its essential structures, have been known without any investigation at all? (p. 260)

I’m obviously not the only one to have 2.00 a.m. crises of confidence!  But whereas I question the whole point of what I’m doing, Thompson enters the ring for another bout, this time against his erstwhile fellow-Marxists.

I am disposed to think that it does matter; I have a vested interest (in five years of labour) to think it may.  But to show this must involve evacuating received assumptions- that narrowing ledge of traditional middle ground- and moving out onto an even narrower theoretical ledge.  This would accept, as it must, some part of the Marxist-structural critique; indeed, some parts of this study have confirmed the class-bound and mystifying functions of the law.  But it would reject its ulterior reductionism and would modify its typology of superior and inferior (but determining) structures. (p. 260)

I’m not familiar enough with Marxist explanations of law and ideology to engage with his argument.  But what he does argue, and I can see why this would be so controversial, is that

there is a difference between arbitrary power and the rule of law.  We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law.  But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power’s all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. (p. 266)

… If we suppose that law is no more than a mystifying and pompous way in which class power is registered and executed, then we need not waste our labour in studying its history and forms. One Act would be much the same as another, and all, from the standpoint of the ruled, would be Black.  It is because law matters that we have bothered with this story at all. (p. 267)…Since we hold this value to be a human good, and one whose usefulness the world has not yet outgrown, the operation of this code deserves our most scrupulous attention.  It is only when we follow through the intricacies of its operation that we can show what it was worth, how it was bent, how its proclaimed values were falsified in practice…. we feel contempt for men whose practice belied the resounding rhetoric of the age.  But we feel contempt not bedause we are contemptuous of the notion of a just and equitable law but because this notion has been betrayed by its own professors. (p. 268)

I find little to argue with here- but then again, I’m no Marxist.  The rule of law, as I see it, is an unqualified human good in that it limits arbitrary power, and I can’t see that it can ever “wither away” in any complex society.  Thompson distinguishes between the concept of the rule of law, and the content of that law, and where it is bad law, it should be challenged.  Amen to that..


E. P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters,  Penguin Books, 1975

Daniel H Cole ” ‘An Unqualified Human Good’: E. P. Thompson and the Rule of Law” Journal of Law and Society, Vol 28, No 2, June 2001, pp. 177-203.

Pat Rogers “The Waltham Blacks and the Black Act” Historical Journal XVII, 3, 1974.

The lost history of library books

I’ve recently finished reading a 1970s, much-cited history book that I borrowed from my university library.  It was on the shelf for borrowing, rather than being superannuated off into the CARM centre, a “repository for low-use and last copy research publications and artefacts” that is located somewhere at La Trobe.  I don’t know exactly where on campus it is located: the librarian I asked came over all shy and evasive- it’s all a bit mysterious and reminiscent of the Cemetery of Lost Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s  Shadow of the Wind.

But this particular book was sitting there on the shelf, still optimistically expecting to be borrowed. When I turned to the back of it, I was delighted to see it still had the date stamp pages from its many, many borrowings- in fact, it had eight sheets of them!


The book was first borrowed in September 1976, when it must have been relatively hot-off-the-press, as its publication date in England was 1975.   It was borrowed at least once every year between 1976 and 1996, with particularly heavy borrowing in 1981 and 1982 when it was put onto the reserve desk for three-hour loan.  But alas, the trail grows cold after 2001 when the library decided to no longer date stamp books but to issue a receipt instead.

I’m nosy enough to always scrutinize the receipts I find in the books I’m borrowed, to check out what other books other anonymous patrons have borrowed along with this one.  It’s an ephemeral pleasure though, because the receipt I found in this book, from July 2007 had faded so much that it’s barely legible.

But this book yielded another little treasure- a Call Reserve slip.  I haven’t seen one for years (although this one hasn’t been filled in correctly).


Reserve fines 60 cents per hour eh? They’re now $2.50 for any part of the the first hour, then $1.00 an hour after that.

The $10.00 accrual limit still stands. I have reached it -ahem- once or twice.

I always loved the paraphenalia of the library borrowing process.  My library card was a treasured item- in fact, my local library FORCED me to finally change to one of their swipe cards just recently, but I still kept the original card.  I used to love being on lunchtime library duty in primary school, and being a library monitor who covered the books and got to paint the call number on the spine after the beautifully coloured dustjacket had been taken off  (why, oh why?) and stored in the map drawer.  I didn’t possess all that many books of my own- probably only one shelf- but they were all in alphabetical order by author, adorned with a call number, with a catalogue card in a little tin file.  All my dolls had a library card and were issued with loans, with the due date stamped onto a page glued onto the back just like the book I borrowed this week,  and they were all duly fined when they failed to return them on time (no doubt because they were such party animals).

When it came to choosing a career, there was no question of going to university unless I received a studentship, which suited me fine as I couldn’t decide between teacher/librarian or classroom teacher. But I had to designate one or the other on the application form, and so I did- then changed my mind, took the form back and altered it to the other- changed my mind again- and- again.  Eventually the form was sent off and my fate was sealed- classroom teacher.

I love being able to search catalogues on-line, and databases are things of wonder (and hours of lost time).  It’s great being able to renew your own books over the internet, and to put a hold on books you notice while browsing the catalogue- an activity you’d be unlikely to undertake with the old card catalogues.  But sometimes I miss the knowledge that the book I hold in my hand has been held by nameless others, and that I’m just one in a long line of borrowers.

‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ by Orhan Pamuk


2005, 333p.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time.  It sounded interesting when it was first released, and then I heard it mentioned more recently in terms of a discussion of nostalgia.  Certainly the book is steeped in nostalgia, but Pamuk himself characterises this emotion as ‘huzun’ (the word needs little dotty things over the ‘u’s but I don’t know how to do them).

Pamuk distinguishes his use of the term huzun from other usages.  It is not, as the Koran uses it, a feeling of deep spiritual loss; not is it in the Sufi mystic tradition, a spiritual anguish because we cannot be close enough to Allah.  Instead, he uses it as

not the melacholy of a solitary person, but the black mood shared by millions of people together.  What I am trying to explain is the huzun of an entire city, of Istanbul.  (p. 83)

As such it is similar to, but not the same as, the melancholy felt in other cultures because it is deeply steeped in the specific landscape of Instanbul, and deeply imbued with the lost historical power of the Ottoman empire.  In a long riff that extends over several pages, he evokes the concrete and sensory manifestations of this mixture of pride and loss

I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the street lamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags.  Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, when sleepy sailors scrub the decks, a pail in their hand and one eye on the black-and-white television in the distance; of the old booksellers who lurch from one financial crisis to the next and then wait shivering all day for a customer to appear…

on and on it goes, over five pages- these snapshots and slivers of life, all beautifully and evocatively captured.

There’s a sense of the ‘other’ alternative history that Istanbul could have had, had the Ottomon Empire survived, and had it not been overlaid by a homogenizing,  deadening Westernization. This sense of the ‘other’ is the second thread that runs through this memoir: the little boy who could have been other than he was.  His family originally lived in a multi-storey apartment block inhabited entirely by different branches of the extended family, overseen by a bed-ridden grandmother matriarch.  The young Orhan was free to move from storey to storey with different aunts and uncles, but the richness of this family atmosphere was stripped away when, after the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, he was despatched to live alone with his mother’s sister’s family.  On the wall they had a picture of a nameless young boy who looked similar enough for them to nod at him and say “That’s you” and yet for him to know, most certainly, that it wasn’t him.  The childhood story is interwoven through the text, as we follow his combative relationship with his brother and the sad spiralling story of  his first love, a strange relationship cut short when her parents dispatched her to Europe in order to separate them.

Finally, there are the black-and-white photographs of Istanbul that appear throughout the book. They are not corralled in a glossy section, separate from the text, but are instead spread throughout, and their graininess and monochrome reflect the huzun he is working to evoke.  He speaks much of the outsider’s eye and its perception of Istanbul- through the writings of  Flaubert, Burton, Nerval, Gautier and Gide; and the paintings of the Bosphorus and the winding streets that Orhan himself imitated, over and over.   The photographs, Pamuk tells us in an endpiece, are largely from an archive of photographs by Ara Guler and Selahittin Giz.  In this regard, the book reminded me very much of Terence Davies Of Time and the City that I saw a few months back.  It wasn’t just the black and white photographs, but also the yearning, time-weary tone of both this book and the Davies documentary.  But there’s a bitterness about Davies’ work that is not found here- instead Pamuk’s writing is a long, wistful love song.

It comes as a surprise, then, to remember that Pamuk himself was born in 1952, and was too young to remember many of the scenes depicted in the photographs.  As almost a contemporary of myself, he grew into consciousness in the 1960s and 70s, as the pace of Westernization increased, and he is mourning a death that already underway during his own lifetime.  I can’t work out how this conservatism- or is it even ‘conservative’ if an imagined time never did exist?- works out at a political level.

Structurally, the emphasis on the visual and the sense of the other come together at the end of the book.  We have followed the adolescent Pamuk as he explores the streets of Istanbul with the painter’s eye, but in the final paragraph of the book we leave behind this intensely visual appreciation with his declaration to his mother “I don’t want to be an artist.  I’m going to be a writer”.  And as I closed the book, I realized that yes, this is what he has been all along.

Blog searches

One of the little benefits of being the author of a blog, as distinct from being a reader, is that you can see how many people have looked at your blog and the search words that brought them to your page.  Reader, you are one of a very select group, let me reassure you.

I was amused to see that one of the searches yesterday was “horny mothers in Melbourne”. What induced them to come to me for THAT?????  Much to my amusement, they were directed to my posting on taking my cracked and horny heels for a pedicure as a Mother’s Day present- yep, horny, Mothers, Melbourne- that would do it!

The naming of names

If you watch almost any documentary on Aboriginal Australia, it is usually prefaced by a warning that the program will depict the names and images of people who have passed away.  The sensitivity about naming people who have died was also highlighted in Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man, which traces the events that followed the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island.  His name is no longer used in media and court reports: instead he is now referred to as Mulrunji, at his family’s request. This sensitivity is completely at odds with a Western view, where we yearn to have our name live on, even though we may have died.

I’ve been particularly aware of the naming of people while reading George Augustus Robinson‘s Journal as he travelled around the Western District of Victoria in the early 1840s.  The volume I am reading is part of a series edited by Ian D. Clark,  a true labour of love when you consider Robinson’s handwriting seen here.   I have commenced at Volume 2, as this covers the time that Judge Willis was in Victoria and so I have missed the specific details of  Robinson’s commission in the Port Phillip District but he, at least, interpreted it as among other things, a linguistic and ethnographic investigative task.  As he wrote on 10 May 1841:

My Aboriginal attendants, assured of my anxiety for information respecting themselves and the names of localities and animals, vegetables, insects, were at times extremely annoying in making this communication.

But he not only collects names of localities and animals, but also investigates and confers names on the natives he encounters as well.


It’s interesting to look at the names that he records.  On 11 October 1840 he records the original and conferred names of the Goulburn blacks under arrest at the time.

  1. Yar.mer.der.rook  – Long Bill
  2. You.ur.but.kalk, otherwise Pon.der.min – Lankey
  3. Yabbe – Billy Hamilton
  4. Kor.ram.mer.bil – Fuckumall
  5. – the same appellation
  6. Pin.gin.quor, otherwise My. tit – the same
  7.  Jackey Jackey
  8. Nan. – John
  9. -Charley
  10., otherwise Gine Gine – Mr Clarke
  11., otherwise – William (I’ll skip a few here)
  12. Pee.beep – Mr Maclane
  13. Tare.rin.galk – Mr Langhorne
  14. –  Tom
  15.  – Billy
  16. Won.gon.bul – Mr Clarke
  17. – Mr White
  18. No name conferred by settlers
  19. – Fuckemall
  20. Nili.gurn –  Mr. Murray

These were the names conferred by other settlers, prior to Robinson’s contact with the natives.  In April 1841 Robinson travelled down to Port Fairy where he came across

the wildest natives I have seen, that is, as their entire absence of all and everything connected with white people: they had not a word of English nor any of the manners or customs or the usual salutation of shaking hands.  …they had not any names from the English; all were pure, original  (28 April 1841)

He describes the process by which he gave them names:

I then took down their names &c. …I had some difficulty in inventing names for them.  They were not satisfied unless they had one; they wanted to be served all alike. (26 April 1841)

He then lists some of the names he bestowed:

  1. Tal.line.malk,    Mr Robinson
  2.,  Bonenepart
  3.,  Mungo Park
  4.,  Franklin
  5.,  Truggernonner
  6.,  Jupiter
  7.,  Neptune
  8. Mee.pal,  Woorradedy  (28 April 1841)

In his book Aboriginal Victorians, Richard Broome discusses the significance of the name-giving ceremony.   Citing Jan Penney, he notes that “names possessed power and indicated relationships, which in turn carried obligatory rights and duties”.  He notes:

Before long new names were bestowed on the Aborigines.  This pleased Europeans, who were unable to master Aboriginal names and their tricky pronunciations, with soft ‘ng’ sounds and all syllables emphasized.  The bestowal of names also suited Aboriginal people for it established an attachment and avoided the use of traditional names that were hedged with protocols and strictures. (Broome, Aboriginal Victorians p. 57)

It’s interesting to note the names that were conferred by white settlers.  One of the most striking, and disturbing things about the list of names bestowed on the Goulburn River Blacks- widely feared for their ferocity- was the prevalence of the name “Fuckemall”.  Robinson decried it:

The names given to the natives by the stockeeepers [sic] and others is a proof of the depraved state of the community of those parts.  This boy mentioned a woman named ‘cunt’ and ‘arsehole”, and another ‘white cunt’.  Faithful [a settler]  said Mr Docker asked a black woman her name before him and she replied ‘white cunt’. I asked same woman and she gave me same answer. Her husband told me the same.  I gave her a fresh name.  (15 Feb 1841)

The names that Robinson himself conferred are interesting.  Perhaps as a response to young, well formed men, he seems to have often named a young man “Mr Robinson”, and on several occasions he named ‘Mungo Park‘ (the explorer of the African continent) and Napoleon.  Here we have Franklin (Benjamin? Sir John?), Jupiter and Neptune.  He also confers aboriginal names himself, even though they already have aboriginal names.  The aboriginal names are those of Van Diemens Land aborigines he knew- or is he just lacking imagination?-  Wooreddy (as in the fascinating fictional account of early VDL clashes Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World) and Truggernonner, (Truganini) considered to be the last Aboriginal “full-blood” and who was brought over by Robinson himself from Flinders Island.

It’s interesting to note that several are given the names of white settlers, but in Robinson’s notation are given the designation “Mr”.  This does not always seem to be the case.  Broome tells the story of Charley, the aboriginal boy who wanted to become a gentleman, and managed to equip himself with all the accessories, including top hat and cane :

Charley realized that Europeans had two names and that gentlemen had formal ones, so he renamed himself Charles Never. (The other youths wanted two names as well, and with the help of the Edgars, became James White, Jacky Warren, Thomas Gurrenbook, and Kitty, Harry and Tommy Bungaleenee.) (Broome, p. 51)


As Broome points out, the conferring of a name did not necessarily have to denote ownership, but could be an act of affiliation that worked to Aboriginal advantage as well, either by a claim on the settler or as a way of deflecting white intrusion into private beliefs. It’s striking that prominent people in the Koorie community today often share surnames with 1840s settlers as well-  there are several prominent Koorie ‘Firebrace’ s for example,  probably named by Major William Firebrace, a prominent Port Phillip personality.  Likewise Pettits and Atkinsons – common Koorie surnames.  I had always assumed that this suggested that white men had consorted with Aboriginal women: it had not occurred to me that perhaps there was Aboriginal agency in adopting these names.

The naming went both ways.  Aboriginal people also named white people- for example, Robinson rather proudly announces that:

They conferred on me a new name namely, which in their language is great or big chief  (12 August 1841)

Robinson also reports on Glendinnon, a white man much respected by the natives he deals with.   Robinson arrived at Mt Emu

where the far famed among the Aborigines, Jaggy Jaggy, resides.  He is a white man and a lowland Scotchman named Glendinnon and whom the Aborigines have designated as Jaggy jaggy min min. (5 August 1841)

After Robinson’s description of many callous, brutal white settlers, Glendinnon stands out for his calm demeanour and humanity.  I don’t know what Jaggy jaggy min min meant, but I’m sure that it denoted more dignity, for both the namer and the named,  than ‘Fuckemall’.


Richard Broome Aboriginal Victorians, 2005

Ian D. Clark The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Two: 1 October 1840-31 August 1841.