Monthly Archives: July 2010

‘Upper Canada: The Formative Years’ by Gerald M Craig

My research has moved onto another stage: Judge Willis’ Adventures in Upper Canada.  My Australian readers will no doubt agree with me that Canadian history does not figure highly in the Australian history curriculum and that I probably shouldn’t feel as embarrassed as I do by my ignorance about all things Canadian.

This book was suggested to me on a Canadian history blog as a good, if somewhat dated, starting point in researching Upper Canada.  Where’s Upper Canada? you may ask.  (I certainly did).  As one of my first surprises, it’s not particularly “Upper” at all- it’s the area of Southern Ontario, north of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. To my antipodean eye “Lower Canada” was actually closer to the north pole (and hence, upper)  than “Upper Canada” was.   It only officially existed until 1841, when Upper and Lower Canada were merged.

This, for me, was Revelation No 1- the river/lake eye view.  In his book, The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey emphasizes the importance of the lack of long inland waterways in Australia.  When you look at a map of Australia, there are none of those meandering rivers that weave , branching and converging across a continent.  Instead, apart from the Murray-Darling system,  there are stubby little twigs that start and break off, seemingly without reason.  No wonder explorers dragged their canoes with them into the Australian desert: their experience in other continents would have reassured them that there would be a river system somewhere, waiting to be discovered.  It also explains why early British settlement in Australia hugged the coast so tightly, and why they were keen to annex strategic harbours rather than the continent as a whole. (p. 122-3).  With a Canadian river-eye view, “Upper” refers to the reaches of the river, not the lines on a map, and “development” involves canals and river engineering works.

Revelation No 2 was the importance of borders, and here I remembered echoes of John Hirst’s first year Australian History subject where he emphasized the importance of Australia not having to share a border with any other colonial power.  I hadn’t considered before the significance in the time of the Napoleonic Wars of having French-Canadian neighbours, or the implications of “loyalists” coming across the border after the War of Independence, and the uneasiness that would evoke.  The book was a salutary reminder.

Revelation No 3 was the familiarity of policies across the empire. I was prepared for this, but it was still an “aha!” moment for me to see migration, land and church policies that I had thought of as “Australian” being applied in another context.  Our “national” history is not as unique as we might want to think it is- much of  it was part of what we would now deride as “one size fits all” empire-wide approach.  Policies that seem puzzling, like the insistence on restricting settlement around the Sydney area, make more sense in the face of Upper Canada’s experience when settlement was allowed to become too dispersed, a phenomenon exacerbated by the policy of reserving large tracts of land for clergy and Crown needs at a later date.  Of course “one size” didn’t fit all, and policies were subverted and ignored, but it’s interesting to observe the empire’s “corporate learning”, even if it only existed on paper.

Revelation No 4 was not strictly a revelation either: more a confirmation of the mobility of colonial careers.  For here we see George Arthur popping up as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, having completed an earlier stint in Van Diemen’s Land- and there’s Charles Buller– I thought he was supposed to be “our” man in Whitehall!

The book was clearly written, with a strong chronological structure.  I found myself raising a sceptical eyebrow at the comment that unlike the United States, Upper Canada was never an “angry” Indian frontier- is that true?  The emphasis on the book was on politics and economics rather than social history, and I don’t think that there was a single woman in the whole book.  That’s fine: I’ve just started reading and plenty of time to rectify that.  There’s an almost laconic view of causality running through the narrative of this book: rebellions and ructions, when they occurred,  are portrayed as almost unnecessary, as structures would have collapsed under their own weight and events would have unspooled anyway.

The book, published in 1963,  was the first cab off the rank in the Canadian Centenary Series.  It concentrates on a defined geographical area within a clearly designated timespan.   The book ends optimistically, looking to the future and further progress.  The concept and premise of “Upper Canada” seems to be a phase in Canada’s history, and I sense that it has been left behind without regret or nostalgia in the march towards other things.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #4

Not from an historian this time, but from Bertolt Brecht in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. I’m still thinking about this one.

Historicization (p. 140)

Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods.  The conduct of the persons involved in them is not fixed or ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view.  The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

and then on p. 90

In other words we must drop our habit of taking the different social structures of past periods, then stripping them of everything that makes them different; so that they all look more or less like our own, which then acquires from this process a certain air of having been there all along, in other words of permanence pure and simple.  Instead we must leave them their distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence always before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too.

Robert Dowling, Tasmanian Son of Empire.

If you put your skates on, you’ll catch the Robert Dowling, Tasmanian Son of Empire exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery. But be quick- it finishes on 11 July.  There’s a beautiful NGA site about the exhibition here–  go have a look, it’s a stunning site and almost as good as being there.

Robert Dowling was born in 1827 in Colchester in England, the son of a Baptist preacher.  In 1834 he arrived in Tasmania with his parents, who followed their older sons who had emigrated to the colonies some time earlier.  This Evangelical background is important because it influenced the subjects he painted  for the rest of his life.  He was apprenticed as a saddle-maker but did not follow his trade. Instead he set himself up as a painter of commissioned portraits.  He travelled between Hobart and Launceston painting portraits of many prominent figures and personal friends, including John West the Congregationalist minister and other leading Evangelicals.  In 1854 he shifted across to Port Phillip in the hope of capitalizing on the post-Gold Rush prosperity.  However he found it difficult to gain patronage in Melbourne, so he shifted down to Geelong closer to his extended family, and where he was commissioned to paint portraits by the wealthy Western District pastoralists.

In every exhibition, there’s usually one painting that you linger in front of, and often return to in order to scrutinize it more closely.  For me, it was this painting: Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station

The catalogue described this as a ‘mourning painting’.  The exhibition catalogue (a beautifully presented book by John Jones) tells me that  Adlophus Sceales died in 1855, leaving a young widow Jane and two young daughters.  Mrs Sceales commissioned the work, and how I wish that I could eavesdrop on the conversation between subject and artist when the painting was being planned!  The riderless horses remind me of the military funeral tradition, but I assume that they were portrayed because he must have loved riding, perhaps with the two dogs shown.  I wonder whose decision it was to include Jimmie, and what his clothes and stance indicate about his role on the station- it looks very formal attire, befitting a manservant for an Englishman.  The emptiness of the picture is striking: the house is not shown, only the stables and it looks rather bleak, empty and cold. The daughters are completely absent.

This was one of several paintings that show Aboriginal people in the Western Districts, sometimes in family groupings, and at other times in close proximity to the settler families with whom they lived.

These are the children of his brother-in-law’s family and I’m struck by the easy pose of the little girl draped innocently ( but not entirely appropriately to our eyes today) over the young  aboriginal man.  What does it say about his role in the family? He’s obviously much older than the children- does he have a carer role?

In 1857 Dowling travelled to London to study art, sponsored by the good citizens of Tasmania. He stayed there for nearly thirty years, improving his technique to be sure, and acting almost as a conduit of empire.   He made copies of British paintings for an antipodean audience- a portrait of Queen Victoria, for example was sent back to the colonies as an  important official painting. He sent images of empire home, and he brought images of the colony to the metropole. On the other side of the world, he worked up the paintings of Van Diemen’s Land aborigines painted by the ex-convict artist Thomas Bock, who had possibly instructed Dowling in painting many years earlier.  Bock had died by this time, and Dowling copied Bock’s paintings and inserted them into a range of landscape settings in grand History Paintings.  He made multiple copies, with the same central figures in different groupings and with different backgrounds.

Click on the NGV website about the Dowling exhibition for a zoomable close-up and explanation of the painting.

And, true to form, I can find six degrees of separation (even fewer!) from Judge Willis and this painting.  The smiling figure on the right hand side is Tunnerminnerwait, also known as Cape Grim Jack, who was one of the Van Diemen’s Land blacks who accompanied Protector Robinson across Bass  Strait. He was sentenced to death by Judge Willis and executed in January 1842.  If you have access to academic journals at all, there’s an excellent essay by Leonie Stevens in the June 2010 Victorian Historical Journal called “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” ( a rather phenomenally cool title for the article, too!)

In a world where a few snatched bars of “Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree” can lead to a lawsuit, we might raise our eyebrows at Dowling’s appropriation of Bock’s images in this way. Here’s Bock’s version of Tunnerminnerwait on the left, and Woureddy on the right. You’ll be able to easily locate them in Dowling’s picture above.

Dowling’s re-presentations of Bock’s images found their way to the Ethnological Society of Britain and the Royal Academy where they fed the interest in anthropology and primitive societies.  Although these paintings were created in London, using sketches from Bock’s originals, they eventually found their way back to Australia as part of the swirl of cultural artefacts throughout the Empire.

Dowling returned to Australia in 1884 and set up a studio in Melbourne.  He returned to England two years later with the intention of packing up and moving permanently back to the colonies, but died suddenly.  As Jones points out, it’s interesting to speculate how he would have responded artistically to the Australian Impressionists and their take on Australian landscapes.


Jones, John.  Robert Dowling, Tasmanian son of Empire, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia c 2010

Stevens, Leonie  “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 8, No 1 June 2010 pp.18-40.

‘Writing Lives: Principia Biographica’ by Leon Edel

1984, 272 p

When I first started on my research on Judge Willis, my intention was to examine his dismissal from Port Phillip in 1843.  I had a bifocal vision: looking at the Port Phillip context and the local trajectory of events that led to his removal, while at the same time evaluating Willis’ own personality and behaviour.  I was often at pains to distance what I was doing from biography.

But now that I’ve upgraded to a Ph D,  I’m looking at his career as a whole, in Upper Canada then in British Guiana, as well as in the interludes ‘back home’ and his eventual retirement as a Worcestershire gentleman.  My emphasis has shifted from a localized event into an analysis of a whole career, and now I find myself more closely drawn into writing a biography.

I don’t know why I find myself squeamish about saying that I’m writing a biography.  After all, I enjoy reading biography , and I have always been attracted to human agency in history whether it be individuals operating within the structure of an institution, or “history from below” that takes the lived experience of humans as its touchstone.  From a methodological point of view, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Richard Holmes’ work here and here, and now I’ve read Leon Edel’s book which Holmes quoted often.   Both Holmes and Edel are literary biographers – i.e. they write biographies about other writers- so they find themselves working both with text and life.  Nonetheless, much of what they say applies to biography more generally.

Edel commences his book with an “Introduction in the form of a manifesto” which over four or five pages encapsulates his principles of biography- a document that will yield up many “Uplifting Quotes for an Uninspired Historian”. He has several biographical heroes, whom he mentions often. There’s Boswell (of course!) who, although denying “melting down” Johnson’s conversations did in fact manipulate his subject by setting up situations where Johnson would display himself.   He quotes Lytton Strachey, Andre Maurois, Van Wych Brooks, and spends a long time on Virginia Woolf, herself the daughter of the Big Daddy of Biographers, Leslie Stephen. In particular he counterpoints her fictional work Orlando, which jibes at biography and mocks chronology, against her ‘straight’ biography of Roger Fry where, like all biographers she bemoaned:

how can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailor’s bills, love letters and old picture postcards?”

Edel speaks often of the “new biography” (which doesn’t seem so new anymore) which experiments with form, and draws on art and fictional techniques in creating its narrative while remaining true to the sources.  He is open to psychoanalytic techniques and finding “the figure under the carpet”, while acknowledging that of course the biographer and her subject cannot be equated at all to therapist and patient.  Nonetheless, drawing on psychotherapeutical approaches,  he is attuned to the life-myth that drives human action, and the mask that individuals adopt to confound it.

We must consider two kinds of myth: the myth we perceive with our eyes and sense of observation; and the covert myth, which is a part of the hidden dreams of our biographical subjects, and which even they would have difficulty to describe because these are lodged in the unconscious, in the psyche.  The covert myth has to be deduced from the public myth, and from the stray bits of psychological evidence offered us by our subjects, the little hints, the casual remarks, or the poetry or prose set down out of themselves…

….  In an archive, we wade simply and securely through paper and photocopies and related concrete material. But in our quest for the life-myth we tread on dangerous speculative and inferential ground ground that requires all of our attention, all of our accumulated resources.  For we must read certain psychological signs that enable us to understand what people are really saying behind the faces they put on, behind the utterances they allow themselves to make before the world. (p. 161, 162)

Many people have warned me off “psychological history”.  I haven’t read much of it at all- in fact, probably only Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. I’m not particularly comfortable with the language and theory of Freudianism and Lacanism and other “isms” in general- I find them smothering.  But much of what Edel is stretching for in the dilemma of the biographer’s art does ring true in my own research, just in Port Phillip, and I’m excited to see if it is a way of drawing together my story of this colonial servant in three different colonies where there are so many commonalities.  I think that I really do need to swallow hard and admit that, yes, I’m writing a biography.

‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton

2005, 314 p.

What’s not to like about a book that reassures you that your malevolent feelings are basically unfounded and then goes on to give you a string of ways to get over it?  At a very boiled-down level, this is what Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton does.

The book is divided into two halves: causes and solutions.  What a sane, philosophical way of looking at the world!  We feel anxious, belittled, despondent and envious of others because the snobbery and superiority of others undercuts our self-image and sense of being loved.   Comparing ourselves with those around us will only make us unhappy,  our expectations are closely related to our level of happiness, and our insecurity is tied up with our dependence on an impersonal economy.  So why on earth do we buy into it, and how do we break free?

There wasn’t really much here that I hadn’t heard before- it’s all become rather ho-hum and in my mind becomes mixed in with Clive Hamilton, Affluenza, Bhutan, Gross National Happiness etc. as explored by weekend magazine articles.

The stronger part of this book is the second section: solutions.  He gives us five to choose from: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia.  The Philosophy chapter reminds us that  we can, through reason, choose to acquiesce in status anxiety and it dusts off all the old philosophers- Aristotle, Epictetus- to reassure us that the power rests with us.  We can even cultivate a Schopenhauerian misanthropy and shrug that most people are stupid and ignorant, and their good opinion isn’t worth having anyway.  In fact, that’s what my mother always told me.

I enjoyed his Art chapter, liberally interspersed with landscapes, ruins and towering masonry. The Christianity chapter reminds us of Jesus’ softer teachings while choosing to overlook that the Church has been just as, if not more strenuous in ensuring its own wealth (and hence status) than family dynasties and entrepreneurs have been.  The Politics chapter points out that the  criteria by which status is judged alter over time, can be contested and overthrown.  The Bohemia chapter was interesting, but I suspect that many of his poets, artists and bright young things could only choose to reject wealth, work and responsibility because in the background there was a family who would save them in extremis if they would let them.

The book is lavishly interleaved with art work throughout and presented as a mindset that you can choose to adopt or reject.  It is written in a beguiling, reassuring conversational tone far removed from the aggressive, egotistical point-scoring that struts as ‘philosophical discussion’.