Monthly Archives: November 2010

Now that you mention it…

I was reading a fairly old book of collected essays on Upper Canada the other night.  It was the 1975 edition of Historical Essays on Upper Canada edited by J. K. Johnson.  There has been a second collection of essays  released in 1989, again edited by J. K. Johnson but  joined by Bruce Wilson this time.

It interested me that in the introduction to the 1975 book, Johnson noted that one of the themes of the essays was a preoccupation with economic affairs.  He wrote:

It is probably no accident that the preoccupation of historians of Upper Canada has often been with economic affairs- with the study of growth, of the metropolitan dominance of Toronto, of agriculture, of business firms, of lumbering or public works. It is true that Upper Canadian society showed a propensity to produce or adopt contentious public figures who have attracted the attention of historians, but the great majority of Upper Canadians were from the very beginning engaged in the more mundane business of developing the resources which the province had to offer- engaged in other words in the business of making a living, and wherever possible, in making a profit, a fact of Upper Canadian life which has been rightly stressed in historical writing.  If historians of Upper Canada can be said to have created an overall view of any kind it is of a society generally concerned with its own (mainly economic) betterment but in some dispute about the best ways of achieving that goal  (p. ix)

Now actually that he mentions it, I had noticed that much of the history I’ve read of Upper Canada has a strong economic history focus.   I don’t really think that Australian history has the same emphasis.  There’s Shann’s old Economic History of Australia written in 1948, and the Butlins whom I’ve written about here who also write economic histories.  Blainey’s work, especially The Tyranny of Distance makes an argument with strong economic strands, but it doesn’t have the tables and figures that mark so much of the Upper Canadian material I have read (which is, to be fair, often chapters and articles).  Nonetheless  I’d be hard pressed to think of a recent general book about Australian history that has a really strong economic focus.

Johnson’s justification for the emphasis on economic history among Ontarian historians would hold just as true for Port Phillip which was likewise established by people wanting to make money.  But again, I don’t think that this is the case. A.G.L. Shaw’s  A History of the Port Phillip District is a narrative history that includes a strong economic analysis, but it is just one strand among several.  Likewise the three volume Priestley/Broome/Dingle series published for Victoria’s 150th anniversary- the economic story is there, running steadily underneath, but not the main focus.

I can really only think of one academic on staff whom I would characterize as an “economic historian” and only one of my fellow postgraduates has written an overtly economic thesis.  Several of my colleagues are writing environmental histories, but they are of a different hue.

I’m aware that historical specialisations wax and wane, and that some institutions attract particular schools of historians.  But I’m wondering if there’s some cultural influence at play here too- a variation of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ perhaps?

‘A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anna Langton’

Barbara Williams (ed.) A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008

Was Anne Langton a proto-blogger? At first glance you’d have to say no: mid 30s (huh!), spinster, she traveled with her parents and aunt to live with her brother on a property in Upper Canada in the mid 1830s.  She began writing a journal to send to the brother who remained in England as the rest of the family sailed away.  She knew that she couldn’t keep up her writing on a long term basis, so she divided the year into quarters, then wrote a daily diary for the first month of each quarter; then the next year the second month of each quarter; the next year the third etc.   In this way, she eventually covered the whole year although it ended up taking her four years.

But she certainly had the blogger’s sensibility of consciously framing everyday events as a potential blog-post:

Did you ever a write a journal with the intention of sending it to anyone?  I think it would be difficult to do with simplicity.  One is tempted to act sometimes with the page in view that has to be written, and a day’s proceedings would be often diverted from their ordinary course by the recollection that they were to be recorded.  It is different in stirring scenes where events are leading you; but in the employments of everyday life, especially when information has to be collected, inferences drawn, and an average estimate to be formed from the narration, journalizing does become difficult.  (Oct 1838)

Anne Langton was born in 1804 into an aristocratic, mercantile family and spent her early years at the family home, Blythe Hall, parts of which dated back to the 12th century.  Between the age of eleven to sixteen she traveled with her family, including her maiden Aunt Alice, on an elongated Grand Tour.  The desire to escape the shame attached to the decline in their family fortunes led to their extended absence, but eventually the family business in Liverpool foundered and they had to sell Blythe Hall.  Anne’s future took a definite turn for the worse: no coming out, and greatly reduced marriage prospects.  Her brother John, unable to make money by tutoring students, emigrated to Upper Canada and in 1837 his parents, Aunt Alice and Anne joined him, leaving behind another brother William, his wife and three small daughters.  John prepared a house for them, close by his own more humble cottage, although it was not completely finished by the time they arrived and it took over a year to paper the walls so that the logs were no longer visible.

The family was just the type of emigrant that Upper Canada wanted: English,  economically self-sufficient, and genteel.  They brought with them their furniture and possessions, and joined an elite circle of friends and settlers.  They engaged in regattas, ploughing matches, church activities and ‘bees’ to help their friends erect buildings but social distinctions were always maintained.  For example, the gentry would dine and dance in the house, while the rest would hold their own celebration in the barn.  The ladies of the house undertook charitable activities, and acted as healers and midwives among the sick and needy of the parish.

The life of the 30-plus spinster living with her family was a very constrained one.  She desperately wanted to see Niagara Falls but her mother would not allow her to; she was berated for walking alone in the woods, and her mother was very nervous about her boating on the river, their main form of communication during the winter months.  She was a talented artist, but mainly painted landscapes or just occasionally portraits of family and friends- never as a form of income.  She established a small school, and started the circulating library.

She has a quick, discerning eye and a Lizzy Bennett-like humour.  She does not seem to have any close female friends or, indeed, love interests, and the journal is silent about her brother’s marriage.  This must surely have caused her some qualms: she had reconciled herself to- even welcomed- the idea of them growing old together, acting as housekeeper in their shared home.

The diary entries are interspersed with letters written not only by her, but also her mother and occasionally the men of the family.  She finally achieved her goal of covering the whole year.  The entries become sparser after a few years, which is perhaps to be expected, but I found myself missing her as she moved off into middle age and relative silence.  The book has a generous, well-written introduction and its conclusion allows you to say your farewells to her.  The introduction in particular is interspersed with Anne’s sketches and portraits.  This is not the first published version of her journals: there were two preceding versions, and Williams has recovered some of the text that had been omitted from the previous publications.

What happened then?  Her mother and aunt died of a form of malaria, and after her mother’s death she returned to England, undecided whether to work as a governess in a friend’s school or not.  As it was, her brother John and his wife Lydia back in Upper Canada asked her to return to help with the children, which she gladly did.  The family moved to Peterboro where John pursued a political career.  She spent her life as a maiden aunt; she traveled with her many nieces and nephews accompanying them on trips, and died at the ripe old age of 88.

On islands

As an Australian, I live on an island continent.  But in a land where the horizon stretches as far as the eye can see across plains and mountains, it’s hard to remember that it is actually an island.  It’s only when you see our continent suspended in all that ocean on a map that you have a sense of its ‘girtness’ by the surrounding sea.  In fact, at the risk of sounding mawkish, I often feel a throb of love when I see Australia on a world map, so complete and self-contained.

I’ve been thinking about islands a lot while up at Norfolk Island last week.  It’s only small- 36 square kilometres- and has no safe harbour.  You can easily drive from one side of the island to the other and all around you is water, stretching on forever.   I found it to be breathtakingly beautiful and I wondered if even convicts sometimes looked up to the sky, or out to the ocean on a calm day and found any beauty in it at all.

Islands have long been used as places of exile, both in the past and today: St Helena, Robben Island, Christmas Island and Norfolk Island itself.  Of course the coastline and expanse of water provides its own form of imprisonment, but I think that there’s another aspect of exile at play.  For our own Christmas Island , there has been the ugly term “excision” to describe the deliberate, surgical cutting out of the island and beaches from the nation as a body, to ensure that anyone who lands there can have no access to the courts.

I think about Norfolk Island in the Second settlement phase  and the absolute power of the Commandants who could choose to use or abuse it, and the tenuousness of the links to British Justice.  Justices Dowling and Burton visited the island as Supreme Court judges, but only for brief stints, then returned to Sydney.  That, I think, is the ultimate exile: that you can suffer and die by the whim of others; that no-one need know, and there is no brake on the cruelty of the authorities should they exert themselves in that way.

It is a paradox to be exposed to the vast, limitless expanse of sky and ocean, and yet feel claustrophobic.


‘The Harp in the South Trilogy’ by Ruth Park

1985, 1948, 1949. 684 p.

Can I just declare at the outset that I loved reading this?  I found myself looking forward to bed and being able to put aside all the ‘proper’ reading that I’m supposed to be doing and just plunging myself into the domestic lives of Mumma and Hughie, Roie and Dolour.

I had read the second book of the trilogy several decades ago (oh dear, fancy being old enough to be able to make a such a declaration!) but I came back to the book because it was a selection in my online Australian Literature bookgroup.  The scheduled read was ‘Missus’, which is chronologically first in the trilogy, but was actually written almost forty years after the second and third books.  Stylistically, ‘Missus’ is a very different book, covering a much wider time span and more in the style of ‘sweeping family saga’ with its multiple generations and incorporation of historical themes.

‘The Harp in the South’ and ‘Poor Man’s Orange’ are far more domestic and limited in scope.  They are limited in geography too, for the focus very much revolves around Coronation Street, Surry Hills and the neighbours, shopkeepers, and local personalities of a small constellation of city streets.  Had I not known that it was written in the 1940s, I would have said that it was a television tie-in, as the chapters are quite episodic in nature; perhaps its construction was influenced by radio serials as a writing genre.  For me  (partial as I am to the domestic drama), the books worked at an emotional level: these are flawed, thwarted but fundamentally good people doing the best they can.  At times there was a discordant, omniscient authorial commentary which made me uncomfortable with its patronizing tone, and I didn’t like to think of the author ‘looking down’ on these people as examples of a socio-economic ‘type’.  I much preferred it when the author allowed her love for the characters to come through.

I was impressed that in the second book, which was written first, situations were set up that allowed Park to return to them in the prequel all those decades later.  Was it planned that way?- if so, what foresight!  As it was, I am pleased that she chose to finish where she did and return to the prequel.  ‘Poor Man’s Orange’ closes with an awareness that the slum neighbourhood of Surry Hills is about to be transformed, and somehow a continuation of the book into the government housing projects of the western suburbs doesn’t have much appeal.

This is good, solid story-telling, with none of the rather precious self-consciousness of 21st century writing.  It rings true in its dialogue and in the development of character, and as a reader I was able to just relax into the hands of a confident author, sure of her craft.

‘Norfolk Island: An Outline of its History 1774-1977’ by Merval Hoare

Why am I reading a history of Norfolk Island? Because I’m here on a week’s holiday! But even if I were not, it’s a fascinating history.

Kingston, Norfolk Island

Merval Hoare, the author of this book is herself a Norfolk Island inhabitant.  I am not sure whether she herself is a Pitcairn descendant, but I note that in her acknowledgements, none of the major Pitcairn families are mentioned.  Nonetheless, having now been here, it is not hard to discern the sensitivities and allegiances that arise in portraying Norfolk Island’s history.

There are surely not many places on earth where a local history can be divided up so neatly into self-contained epochs, with virtually no strands between each era.  Norfolk Island was uninhabited until the Polynesian  diaspora around 1100 until approximately 1400.  Interestingly, Hoare’s book does not address this phase at all, beginning its narrative with Captain Cook’s discover y in 1774.  For some reason, the Polynesians left and the island again fell silent.

What is known locally as the “first settlement” commenced in 1788, just 6 weeks after the British arrival at Port Jackson, when Norfolk Island was established as a parallel settlement to forestall French occupation, provide pine spars and flax sails for shipping, and furnish an alternative food source for the struggling Port Jackson settlement.  Once Sydney (as it was by then known) had overcome its early food shortages and the Napoleonic Wars were drawing to a close (although, I note, only just!) it was no longer expedient to keep Norfolk Island as a parallel colony, and it was closed in 1814 and its settlers and convicts sent, in some cases very reluctantly,  to Van Diemen’s land.  The buildings were torched and the island left silent again, except for the barking of the dogs and the snuffling of the pigs left on the island.

The island remained uninhabited until , under the influence of new practices in prison administration, the “second settlement” began as a fully-fledged penitentiary.  It was run as a place of secondary punishment: there were no women, brutality was widespread, and the island as a whole ran as a prison.  Except for a brief respite under Alexander Maconochie, there was a succession of prison commandants of varying degrees of cruelty and despotism.  With the uneasiness over transportation from  the 1840s on, and the anxiety and repugnance over the inevitable and widespread homosexuality, the decision was made to close the second settlement in 1856.  A few men were left as caretakers, but again the island fell silent, awaiting its next tranche of inhabitants.


They arrived soon after.  They were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers who had outgrown the small Pitcairn Island that had been their home since 1790.  In the first decade, the mutineers and their Tahitian companions had fallen out with each other and after a succession of murders, there was only one original Bounty mutineer left- John Adams.  He descended into alcoholism, but one night had a vision and converted to Christianity.  He became a devout student of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and his example extended throughout the Pitcairn Islanders who were transformed into a pious, God-fearing community.  They brought their faith with them when they shifted as a group to Norfolk Island, although some returned to Pitcairn.  The community on Norfolk Island today has at its core the descendants of this “third settlement”.

St Barnabas Church, Norfolk Island

Over half of this book is devoted to the third settlement, which is after all, the longest phase of white settlement on the island.   At times I found myself wishing that the author would draw breath and move away from the narrative a little.  For example- how did Norfolk Island intersect with the passing Pacific traffic? What was the nature of the contact between Sydney and Norfolk Island in the first and second settlements?  There are obviously sensitivities that she is tip-toeing around: the eviction of the Pitcairn/Norfolk Islanders from the abandoned Crown buildings at Kingston; the reports about homosexuality that expedited the closure of the second settlement.

At one stage the author herself slips modestly onto centre stage- good heavens! I would have made much more of this!  For many years there had been debate over the content of a missing document which the Norfolk Islanders claimed had transferred ownership of the island to them.  The document had disappeared very quickly considering its putative significance, but the author herself re-discovered it amongst the papers of Bishop George Selwyn, deposited at the Auckland Institute and Museum.  What an intake of breath and internal whoop of joy that must have occasioned!!  Her relative downplaying of her find is either modesty or circumspection- I don’t know which.

I read the second edition of this book, which has an additional chapter added onto what had clearly been the conclusion.  There has since been a third edition which has no doubt added an extra chapter again.  That’s the problem with this approach- it tends to result in more farewells than Melba, or perhaps the third book of the Lord of the Rings.  Nonetheless, I feel that I’ve been given a good narrative skeleton of the history of the Island, which in its displays, tourist attractions and yes, in its very community  vibe, delivers  its own perspective on the island’s history.

‘Throwim Way Leg’ by Tim Flannery

1998, 326 p.

I’m not sure about Tim Flannery’s writing, or Tim Flannery himself for that matter.   I was astounded when he was proclaimed Australian of the Year under the Howard government.  Although I don’t know how much influence a government has over the Australian Day board, it seemed to me during the Howard years that the government’s conservative influence was pervasive across all institutions. Tim Flannery with his 2006  book The Weather Makers certainly seemed at odds with the Howard government stance on climate change at the time .  But there seem to be many contradictions – or more charitably, nuances- in Flannery’s views on a whole range of topics: whaling, nuclear energy,  restoration of ecosystems.  Is he a brilliant, wide-ranging thinker?  Or does he not think widely and carefully enough?

It’s hard to classify Throwim Way Leg.  It’s organized geographically around different locations in New Guinea and Irian Jaya where Flannery had worked over an extended period of time, going back to the 1980s.   At times it reads like an extended set of case notes, at other times it is more autobiographical and even political in places.

There is a rather juvenile and somewhat disconcerting fascination with penises-  although the sight of the penis gourd does tend to attract one’s attention somewhat.  There is a whiff of self-absorption in his cataloguing of his illnesses and discomforts, and I don’t know whether I’d find him a particularly amiable travelling companion.  In fact, he comes over rather as he does in “Two Men in a Tinnie” with John Doyle- full of information and lessons to be conveyed, but a bit wooden.

His work is steeped in blood.  He no sooner arrived in a location than he had dispatched his hunters off into the jungle to bring back bodies for him which he skinned, boiled down for their bones, and bundled up to send to an Australian museum back home.  I felt uncomfortable at the undercurrent of colonialist appropriation- all in the name of science, of course- and the sheer profligacy of killing even rare animals for specimens.  It did not seem too far removed from the Hunters and Collectors of the nineteenth century so well captured in Tom Griffiths’ book.

At the same time, there is a naiveté about his work as well.  He admits, to his credit, the assistance he received from the Ok Tedi mine but one wonders whether the company has bought his silence about their environmental and commercial practices.  Not so for the Freeport mine, however, which he speaks out strongly against.  In this regard, I can forgive him many of his other shortcomings.  I look at a map of West Papua (he calls it Irian Jaya) and I shake my head at how Indonesia could make any claim to it on either geographic   or ethnic grounds, and even the historical argument based on earlier Dutch colonialism seems rather dubious to me.  I think that Australia, along with the Western world generally , is spineless in its acquiescence  to strident Indonesian rhetoric over their claims to West Papua.  At least Flannery calls it as he sees it.

I read this book with the Ladies Who Say Oooh, several of whom really enjoyed it for its depiction of adventure and discovery occurring within the last thirty years in a world that we think of as fully mapped and known.  I, on the other hand, was frustrated by the plodding prose and the “well done those men”- type of masculine back-slapping often found in military histories.  I note that Flannery’s first degree was in English literature before embarking on a more science-based academic journey.  There’s not much of the poet here.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #7

Greg Dening yet again.

Yes, imagination is an act of solidarity in our humanness. But there is a dilemma in that.  The humanness we share with the past is at the one time the same and different.  The most unhistorical thing we can do is to imagine that the past is us in funny clothes.  Our imagination has to allow us to experience what we share with the past and see difference at the same time…

…When we empower the past by returning it to itself, we empower our imagination to see ourselves.  Our certainties are our greatest enemy when we approach the past.  Hindsight is always blinding.  We know from our living experience that our present moments- this moment- has all the possibilities of the future still in it. None of us prescribes the reality we live in.  None of us controls the consequences of our actions.  None of us can predict with absolute certainty anybody else’s reaction tot he simplest gesture, the clearest sign, the most definite word.  But we have to cope with these ambivalences, interpreting these never- ending possibilities.  Hindsight, on the other hand, reduces all possibilities in the past to one.  Hindsight leaches out not all our uncertainties, but all the past’s uncertainties.  Hindsight closes down our imagination.  In hindsight we do not see the past as it actually was, only as it would have been if all its uncertainties were taken away.  Hindsight freezes the frame of every picture of the past.  Hindsight removes all the processes of living.  Makes the past our puppet.

From Empowering Imaginations 1998

‘Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853’ by Marie Hansen Fels

1988, 227 p. plus appendices and notes

In her book, Marie Fels warns of a number of ethnocentric blindnesses and misconceptions, and I’m afraid that I’m guilty of at least three of them.  The first, she says, is to simply not see the presence of the Native Police and I’m certainly guilty of this.  I’ve been aware of them in my reading on Port Phillip, but hadn’t particularly considered what they might be doing there.  Then I noted that Jan Critchett attributed the turning point in aboriginal/settler “collisions” to their skill in pursuit and this notion fed, I suppose into my second misconception- that the Port Phillip Native Police Corps, like the Queensland Native Police Corps which was later modelled on it, was responsible for atrocities against aboriginal people.  And this, in turn, reflects my third ethnocentricity: the assumption that the act of joining the Native Police Corps was a form of treachery, undertaken only by marginal men who would be ostracized by their tribesmen because of their involvement .

Instead, Fels argues, the men who joined the Native Police Corps were leaders of clans or their heirs.  They willingly joined with Europeans in policing work: policing in its pre-Peelite manifestation as ‘keeping the peace’ rather than ‘upholding the law’, and certainly more than just tracking.

Joining the Native Police Corps is best seen as a strategy in the direction of sharing power and authority in the Port Phillip District, in the changed environment of the powerful and permanent European presence.  Besides the material things that police could see they would get, an opportunity was put before them of becoming men of standing within their transformed world.  They took it, and furthermore, they used it.  They bent it back, exploiting their acquired prestige and influence to operate within traditional group politics, to such effect that while the Corps was in existence, these men were the powerbrokers… Being a native policeman was a state of dual consciousness and divided loyalty; it appears not to have been a matter of rejecting Aboriginality, but rather of learning to live in two different worlds (p. 87)

The men of the Native Police Corps were proud of their uniforms and they kept them in immaculate condition; they craved guns but rarely used them “on the side”;  they were able to read the nuances in status between white settlers, and they operated in a number of roles including escorting,  taking messages, guarding, search and rescue and a highly visible ceremonial role within white society.

Although men of  the Warwoorong and Bunerong tribes (her spelling) from around Melbourne initially formed the heart of the unit, they were not just 20 troopers drawn solely from those tribes, as it has been described in the past.  Instead she has identified over 140 individuals drawn from various tribes across Victoria- even, though to a lesser extent, from the Gippsland tribes who were the traditional enemies of the Warwoorong/Bunerong federation.  One of her appendices gives the biographical details of five such men, and she refers to the full 114 page version of the appendix that she attached to her thesis,  available at the University of Melbourne, which covers the other men.

Good men and true?  Dana, their commandant certainly thought so, and was staunch in his defence of his men.  For there were, and are, rumours that the Native Police Corps itself was involved in the slaughter of aboriginal people- indeed the Native Police themselves bragged of it.  Here Fels, likewise, springs to their defence, drawing on statistics about ammunition and weaponry to undercut the claims of multiple shootings; querying the motives of men who made the reports to La Trobe,  issuing cautions about the reliability of any Aboriginal evidence, and challenging the ready acceptance of Aboriginal reports of ‘many’ being killed.  While this may be true, it is an argument that must be balm to Windschuttle et. al who query the statistics over white atrocities as well.  Is there an ethical responsibility in using a line of argument that could be picked up and used to make a contrary, and possibly abhorrent point?  Or is there an intellectual responsibility NOT to resile from an argument out of fear that this might occur?   The line between challenging misconceptions and inaccuracies on the one hand, and defensiveness on the other  is a narrow one, and at times I felt that she over-reached a little.  But even she admitted her uneasiness about reports of the Native Police Corps in Gippsland, the territory of their enemies far from the reach of authority, and her credibility was strengthened by her caution here.

Top of the list of her acknowledgments is Greg Dening, and the book is dedicated to him.  I can see his influence here, in the way that she walks around an episode, reading against the record, stepping away and  reminding us:

Always the first question to be asked when examining the action of the Corps is ‘What was the nature of the traditional relationship?’ (p. 157)

I feel that the typesetting of her book did her a disservice, though.  The book is a densely woven argument and more white space would have given her reader a little more oxygen.  At times she launched into examination of an episode without warning and I’d screech to a halt wondering “Hold on- do I know about this? Has she talked about this earlier?” only to read on for a couple of paragraphs to realize that I’d been dropped into an episode for some close-up scrutiny.

In her introduction she stakes her claim:

Part of the task of the historian is to recognize that the issues which kindle interest and shape enquiry do emerge from the cultural present, but the written end-product succeeds or fails according to how well the historian has understood and explained the past on its own terms. (p. 5)

This book challenges our conceptions of the role of the Native Police Corps and its meaning for its participants and those who encountered it at the time.  I’ll leave the last word with her in her own closing paragraph, because it’s a strong argument:

To recognize that they were the victims of the European takeover of their land is one thing; to write a history of the origins and growth of the contemporary sense of oppression is another; but to impose the attitudes of the present on the evidence of the past is ahistorical, producing the effect of leaving out of our histories the evidence of creative and adaptive Aboriginal strategies such as this one- becoming a native policeman. (p. 227)