Monthly Archives: March 2011

‘The Divided Ground’ by Alan Taylor

2006,  395 p. & 128 p notes

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but one way or another I managed to get through 12 years of schooling and three years of undergraduate university education without doing any American history.  We were supposed to do it in Form II but somehow Henry VIII seemed to stretch on forever, and we only got to those funny men in hats and Thanksgiving before the year ended. By Form V obviously the attraction of Henry had won out because I selected 19th Century British over American history.  At university in the mid-1970s we were all protesting US imperialists and the Vietnam War, so I wasn’t going to do any of that culturally imperialist history (why, no, I’d do British history instead…no cultural imperialism there!!)  I’ve  kept a record of my reading over the last ten years or so, and I’ve only read eight books about American history in that time, from popular history to rather more erudite works.  Among them there’s been more of a focus on colonial and early 19th century America with a smattering of “people’s histories”.  Hence, I continue to feel on pretty shaky ground as far as my knowledge of American history goes.

So to Divided Ground. I came to read this book through a suggestion from Andrew Smith’s blog, who cautioned that in order to understand Upper Canada, I needed to look to America as well.  Point taken.

The title mirrors Richard White’s The Middle Ground which dealt with the Algonquian people of Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in the century before the American revolution. But this book speaks instead of divided ground: divided between the land to the north still controlled by the British empire and the land south of the American states.  There was an east/west boundary as well, separating the settled states on the eastern seaboard from the Indian territory further inland.  These were the borders of land hungry settlers, patriots and politicians. Then there was a borderland as well, at least in Indian consciousness, where the Indian tribes would live as an autonomous people, between the British and Americans.  But this borderland would not survive the determination of speculators and politicians, and it was overlaid by a third type of boundary: the boundary of private property as landholdings were carved out and subdivided, turnpikes created, taverns built and forests cleared.

Taylor tethers this story in two men, Joseph Brant and Samuel Kirkland, who met at a boarding school run by Rev Eleazar Wheelock in Connecticut in 1761. Brant’s sister Molly was the Indian mistress of Sir William Johnson, the most famous and powerful colonist on the American frontier.  His patronage extended to her brother Joseph of the Mohawk tribe. Samuel Kirkland, on the other hand, was the son of an impoverished white Minister, taken on as a charity student who, as a missionary later on, became highly influential with the Oneida.  These two men appear throughout the narrative as they rise to prominence in  different Indian tribes that take different pathways.  Brant moves his tribe into Upper Canada and diffidently sides with the British while the tribe that associates with Kirkland sides with the Americans.  But neither man, nor their tribe, could ultimately withstand the appropriation and double-dealing that ran through the dealings of settlers and Indians and the broader agendas of politicians and policy makers.  There is a great deal of detail in this book- some reviews have suggested rather too much detail- but I found that having these two men as anchors helped keep a clear narrative thread throughout the book.  It’s a technique that I like, and I’m wondering if I could do something similar in my own writing.

It is often pointed out that in the settlement of Australia, treaties were not even offered to the Aborigines, beyond Batman’s rapidly over-turned attempt in Port Phillip.  I do not in any way deny the brute power and arrogance that the wholesale appropriation of Australian land displays, but having read this book I’m not sure that these treaties denote a very much higher moral ground.  Untrammelled power is at least transparent in its intentions.  The dripping hypocrisy of declarations to Indian “brothers” mouthed in honeyed language and proffering false generosity is ruthless, too.

Sills Bend 2011

It’s March so it’s Banyule Festival time again, and off to Twilight Sounds at Sills Bend for another year.  I think we’ve been lulled into winter-think because it was a much smaller crowd this year- very easy to park right next to Sills Bend and none of the long snaking lines for food.

As usual, a baby-boomer headline act. No doubt our children cringe with embarrassment at seeing their 50+ parents grooving out the front. Does it count as a mosh-pit when you’re worried about breaking your hip or people standing on your toes?  Ross Wilson this time, a little rounder than he used to be.  Somehow, singing songs about “she was just seventeen” sounded a little creepy from a man in a white suit.  But what a showman! It struck me how many Daddy Cool/Mondo Rock songs are just part of my mental soundtrack. A good night.

Red faces

I never cease to be amazed by the search terms that bring people to this blog, and I often laugh at the bemusement they must feel when they realize what’s here.  So, given that much of my readership has arrived in unusual ways, I may as well share with my diverse readership (such as it is) some beauty tips! Those of you who know me will probably snort with derision- as indeed I do myself.

This little thought bubble was generated by an earnest discussion I had with my 60+ male doctor this week as we sat down together and discussed beauty regimes at night.  Not quite- I was there for yet another prescription to treat roseacea.  I developed this about eight years ago, at a time when my health was rather precarious and changeable.  I’m not sure whether the two are linked, or whether it was just moving into middle age where one’s body seems to be following its own secret instruction sheet.  Anyway, roseacea I have, and antibiotics keep it under control, necessitating far more frequent visits to the doctor than I’ve ever had to have for anything else.

On for a bit of a chat, which my doctor often is, he said that he’d developed roseacea himself last year and decided to do his own research on it.  He found research that linked a skin mite to roseacea.

Here it is climbing across your skin.

Eeuggh! are you scratching yet?

Anyway, he had treated himself with scabies treatment but had also been looking at sunscreen- and this is where I stopped shuddering and started listening because I’ve also noticed the beneficial effects of sunscreen on roseacea.  I became severely sunburnt on the face over Christmas, even though I had a hat on and was sitting in the shade.  Then I recalled my dermatologist muttering something about the sun and remembered that the antibiotics I take have a fluorescent sticker plastered on them warning of sun damage while taking them. The next day I plastered myself liberally with sunscreen and ended up with a magnificent outbreak of roseacea a few days later.  So onto the Googly I went and found that sunscreens with zinc were beneficial, as long as they were removed carefully at night.  So, I’ve been using Ego Sunsense Daily Face (with matte tint and under $20 for 200 ml!!!) and Neutrogena Extra Gentle Cleanser (for $10.00 for 200 ml- don’t tell me that I don’t PAY for my beauty!) at night.  My doctor, meanwhile has gone the Ego QV route with good old Country Life soap at night (he obviously pays even less for his beauty!)

What has surprised me is that my skin has cleared up so well- it’s no longer dry and stinging- that I think I MAY even be able to ease off the antibiotics, which would be a VERY GOOD THING. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to sit there so often having beauty chats with my doctor.

And meanwhile, continuing the downward theme of this blog, you’ll just have to wait until next Saturday for my best household hint ever.

‘The Last Journey of William Huskisson’ by Simon Garfield

2002, 229 p


My real work has taken me away from the Resident Judge of Port Phillip, John Walpole Willis, to the Puisne Judge of the Kings Bench of Upper Canada, the same John Walpole Willis.  So here I am, wading through the Colonial Office correspondence from Upper Canada that looks and sounds so similar to the Colonial Office correspondence from New South Wales.  Because it’s dated some fifteen years earlier, it is addressed to Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Huskisson instead of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Russell, then Secretary of  State for War and the Colonies Stanley.  Huskisson, Huskisson- where do I know that name? Corn Laws? And then I remembered this book, written by Simon Garfield, that lies directly in my eyeline in the bookshelf beside the television in Mr Judge’s loungeroom. William Huskisson, as well as being  the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, was also the first victim of a railway accident in 1830.

From the title and the preface, you know that this is not going to end well:

There were a great many witnesses to the terrible accident which befell William Huskisson, but none could agree precisely what occurred.  Some said his left leg fell on the track in one way, some quite another, and some said it was his thigh.  A few observed a ‘fiery fountain’ of blook, but others saw only a trickle.  Some claimed there was shrieking, but the rest believed he was rendered mute by the shock. Yet there was one thing on which everyone agreed. They all said that the accident was the worst thing they had ever seen, and the one thing they would never forget.

The following pages recount how a day of triumph became a day of despair at the turn of a wheel.

This is only a short book, and Garfield certainly takes his time getting the accident that we all know is going to occur- 140 pages no less. On the way, he takes us on quite a journey into British parliamentary politics, the economics of railways compared with canal transport, the rivalry between competing inventors and the  entrepreneurial drive of railway promoters.  Not that it’s a boring trip- in fact, it is quite fascinating- but it does take rather a long time to get there.

The book is generously illustrated with black and white photographs and images, and it has a lively conversational tone.  The irony that this popular, if somewhat politically clumsy politician should be run over by the first train running on the railway that he had done so much to champion,  is rich and runs throughout the narrative.  Garfield has captured well the energy of industrializing Britain, the edginess of pre-Reform Bill politics and the bustling self-importance of Victorian Man.  It’s an interesting, easy ride.

‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

2010, 406 p


Is it too soon to say three little words: “Miles Franklin Prize”?  I don’t think so: I see that this book has been nominated as the Pacific region contender for the  Commonwealth Writers Prize for 2011, and it’s surely destined for the Miles Franklin shortlist at least.  And this is just as it should be.

I found myself reminded of many other works, both historical and fictional, while reading this book: Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers which echoes more than the title alone, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, and most recently Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty. But this book, taking as it does an Aboriginal – specifically Noongah- sensibility and voice could be written by an Aboriginal person alone, and this, too, is just as it should be.

That Deadman Dance is roughly chronological, although we learn early in the book that Bobby Wabalanginy , the main character, will end up a dishevelled busker-type, entertaining  tourists with a patter that combines history, pathos and showmanship.  The book opens in 1833-5 with Bobby already ensconced in among the whalers and early settlers on the Western Australian coast.  It then backtracks to 1826-30 with first contact, a spearing, accommodation and wariness, and the actions of  Dr Cross – a good man who trod carefully in this strange and old land, remembered kindly by the Noongah people who knew him, and claimed and acclaimed as a venerable ‘old pioneer’ by subsequent white settlers who did not.  Then forward again to 1836-8 in Part III, followed by 1841-44 in Part IV.  There’s an increasing sense of foreboding as the book unfolds.  The abundant whales stop coming, the ‘depredations’ intensify, and the Governor and his son Hugh impose an imperial imperative onto the narrative.

Kim Scott makes you work hard as a non-Indigenous reader.  There’s Noongah language here, untranslated, and the narrative voice is a lyrical but overwhelmingly oral one.  I found myself slowing down while reading, apprehensive of what was to come in the steadily decreasing pages, but also just to subvocalize as I read and to let the language wash over me.

I cannot help it: I am a historian, and even in my fiction reading I cannot turn this part of my brain off.  But here I found no false notes, no clashing consciousness. Indeed, I felt as if I were reading Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty being acted out in front of me:

Laws were being enforced now, thankfully.  Natives must be clothed and without spears if they were to enter town.  It was only decent, and if we are to civilise them, as Papa said is the only way, then clothing is an important precursor…to what use do they put this ownership as against what we have achieved in so short a time? Papa could sometimes explain things so well. It may have been expedient at one time, but was no longer necessary (p367)

Scott does not set out to write history, but there is an authenticity to his work, and I sense that he has not hard to work as hard at finding it as, for example, Kate Grenville admits to have done in her Searching for the Secret River.  It is a book that uses fictional names but is solidly grounded in Noongah country and landscape. But the story it tells is bigger than this and it has its echoes in Bennelong and  Charles Never.  There’s an element of magic realism as well, and a sense of ‘if only’ as well as tragedy.  Well, well worth reading.

‘Settler Sovereignty’ by Lisa Ford

Lisa Ford ‘Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia 1788-1836’

2010 , 210 p & notes (86p)

I’m starting to think that a good gauge for my response to a book is the resounding slap of the book as I close it, and the whispered “Well done!” or “You beauty!”  that accompanies it.  That’s how I finished Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors, and it was my response as I finished Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty as well.  I’m not alone: obviously the judges of the 2010 NSW Premier’s History Award felt the same way.

I was lent this book an embarrassingly long time ago, and I have been eyeballing it rather guiltily for some time.  Any of you who follow this blog chronologically may have noticed a  preponderance of reviews of books related to Aborigines in Port Phillip over recent months.  I have been writing a paper that looks at Judge Willis and the Aboriginal cases that came before his court, and I kept deferring reading Ford’s book until I’d finished because the 1836 cut-off in the book’s title was too early for the case I was examining.  How wrong I was: I would have gained so much from this book had I read it earlier.  Ah well.

In this book Ford takes Georgia (in America) and New South Wales as two exemplars of the development of what she calls “perfect settler sovereignty”. By this she means that,  in claiming the territory of the indigenous people who were there before them, white settler governments claimed sovereignty and legal jurisdiction over them as well.  There’s shades here of  Fran in the ABC series The Librarians voicing the same assertion-  “Our Country: Our Rules.”  This had not always been the case.  Both colonies, up until the 1830s, had tolerated plurality through a combination of dependence on native expertise,  uncertainty, impotence, silence  and ‘leaving them to their own business’. But in both colonies this was to change, at much the same time and based on much the same rationales.

We might raise a quizzical eyebrow at this combination of Georgia and New South Wales.  Traditionally Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been linked together as imperial triplets on the basis of their shared relationship with the Colonial Office, especially after the American Revolution sent America off onto a different trajectory.   Certainly during Willis’ time,  Australian judges were viewed as rather suspect if they referred to American law, and they took every occasion to declare their fidelity to British justice.  However, recent work has begun considering American legal conditions alongside those of Canada/Australia/New Zealand e.g. John Weaver’s The Great Land Rush, Peter Karsten’s Between Law and Custom: ‘High’ and ‘Low’ Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora and James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth.

In both Georgia and New South Wales, settlers did not seek to govern through indigenous hierarchies (as they did in India), and in both places indigenous people occupied arable or pasture land.  Farming did not proceed through the forcible co-option of indigenous labour, although it did run on imported free, indentured or slave labour.  But there were differences too: Georgia was surrounded by other powers (Spain, France, the Creek and Cherokee Indians), and Georgia used slavery.  There was a multiplicity of treaties in Georgia, and none in New South Wales beyond Batman’s quickly disowned ‘treaty’.  And yet, both Georgia and NSW passed similar declarations in 1830 and 1836 that abandoned the legal pluralism that both had exhibited previously, ruling that indigenous violence fell within the jurisdiction of settler courts.  They used the same legal arguments at the same time, and it is this historical congruence that Lisa Ford sets out to explore.  Her approach is strongly based in legal history and court cases, and this is the lens through which she views the world.

By linking two apparently dissimilar colonies like this, she runs the risk of leaving scholars of one or the other societies bemused.  It’s a testament to her writing that, even though the New South Wales cases were far more familiar to me, I feel that I understood the Georgian cases as well and the parallels she was drawing.  But was there something particularly special about Georgia and New South Wales, or could she have chosen any other American state  and drawn the same connections? I’m not in a position to say. Or, indeed was New South Wales the best Australian example? Henry Reynolds in his review of this book in the Australian Book Review in April 2010 thought that Georgia and Tasmania would have been a better pair for comparison because both societies took up expulsion as a way of solving the ‘problem’ of their indigenous populations.  But I think that Ford is looking not so much at the outcomes of legal actions, as the philosophy behind the legal interventions.

For the most part, her chapters are organised thematically- e.g. pluralism as policy (Ch.2); indigenous jurisdiction and spatial order (Ch. 3); legality and lawlessness (Ch. 4) etc.  She starts each with a general introduction,  examines Georgia, then New South Wales, then draws parallels and distinctions between the two.  This pattern is broken at Chapter 6 where the narrative splits into two separate streams, with what she has identified as a seminal case in each colony.  Chapter 6 focuses on a case in Georgia  while  Chapter 7 looks at the case of Lego’me in New South Wales, tried and found guilty for a particularly petty robbery (of a pipe, no less!)  as part of a more general clampdown on Aboriginal ‘lawbreaking’.  In chapter 8 she then returns to the pattern of  intertwined chapters to discuss the way that 1830 in Georgia and 1835 in New South Wales marked a turning point in settler sovereignty. In both colonies, the claim of settler ‘ownership’ of territory was now offered without question as the rationale for the extension of settler law over indigenous people .   In relation to New South Wales, she goes on to explore the way that this rationale fed into R v Murrell, which has long been viewed as the touchstone case on which all subsequent legal policy in Australia has been based.

She points out that this shift was not restricted to Georgia and New South Wales alone.  Instead it was part of the post-Napoleonic era trend of formalizing or eroding legal pluralism world-wide, including in Europe itself.   She recognizes that by ending with the great cases of the 1830s, she is creating “historical closure where there was none historically” (p.204)- and this is exactly the point at which my own work with Judge Willis fits in.

This is a beautifully written book.  It has a very disciplined chapter structure- an introduction, an argument (clearly bifurcated into the parallel Georgian and New South Wales scenarios) and succinct and thought provoking conclusions.  Fairly conventionally academic, perhaps, but certainly clear. She obviously enjoys language, images and words- she rolls words around, rejoicing in alliteration, repetition and nuance.  We see it where  she describes the imperial network of bureaucrats as they “moved about the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans with Vattel and Blackstone under their arms” (p.4), and the settlers as “savvy masters of the discourses and politics of settler jurisdiction…eager for its bounties and wary of its gaze” (p. 84).

I’ll leave the last part to her.  She is describing how the flexible pre-1820s plurality that had governed settler/indigenous relations began to chafe against hardening notions of sovereignty:

Again and again, troubled executives and their law officers tried to perfect settler sovereignty by bringing indigenous-settler conflict within the bounds of settler law.  Again and again, they tried at the very least to preserve order in their towns and on the roads that connected them.  Again and again, they were thwarted by indigenous people, by frontier settlers or by local magistrates…The period described here, then, is one of plurality in transition, when a new vision of perfect sovereignty emerged from long-practiced and institutionally entrenched pluralism. (p. 120)

‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder

2002, 288 p.


Every year for the last five or so years I have put Stasiland onto my list of selections for my face-to-face bookgroup (AKA ‘The Ladies who say Ooooh’). Every year for the past five years, the year elapsed and Stasiland wasn’t chosen.  Ah! But this year IT WAS!!!

I was a little tentative about subjecting The Ladies to yet another of my gloomy selections after subjecting them to The Land of Green Plums about Ceausescu’s Romania last year- what would they think of the Stasi in East Germany this year?  I need not have feared: the narrative was more straight-forward here, and having a young Australian journalist as the first person narrator introduced a familiar voice and viewpoint onto something that, fortunately, is not within the experience of most of us.

Funder, working as a journalist in Europe after reunification, was first attracted to investigating East Germany when a request for a program on the “puzzle women” was brushed aside by the television producers she worked with. There was, it seemed, an embarrassment about the East Germans, as if it would all just disappear if no-one spoke about it.  These “puzzle women”, she later discovered, were employed to reassemble the papers shredded by the Stasi as the wall was falling, a task that would take over 300 years at the current speed.  Methodical to the end, the papers had been shredded in order and shoved into a bag together, and so it was possible to piece them together and reveal the banality and the all-pervasive intrusion of the Stasi into the lives of East Germans.

In East Germany, it has been estimated, there was one informer for every six people.  Some of the surveillance was the stuff of farce, like the  ‘smell samples’ that purported to capture every individual’s smell for later reference.  Other surveillance was more insidious: the reports that were given to potential employers who later changed their mind about the offer of a job; the insistence that there was no unemployment when, as a result of such reports,  one could not get a job; the  warning that a rock group singing subversive lyrics would no longer exist, only to disappear completely from all public view and hearing.  Escapes that were thwarted, imprisonment, blackmail, and the withholding of contact for years with a sick baby on the other side of the wall- by such means the Stasi dabbled in one’s very soul.   There was physical torture as well, but she broaches this only at the very end of the book.  By this time the claustrophobia, vindictiveness and degradation of such minute surveillance seemed on a par with physical torture.

But of course, such intrusion and cruelty leaves no physical trace.  She comments on the memorialization- or more correctly, the distortion of memory regarding East Germany.  She notes the way that East Germans distanced themselves from the Nazis immediately after the war, as if Nazi ideology had flowed from the West and engulfed them, then withdrawn completely afterwards, leaving them innocent of it completely.  She comments on tourist industry that has arisen around the physical fact of the wall- the remnant sections, the tours- that co-exists with a nostalgia amongst some East Germans for the simplicity and security of a life without the bombardment of consumer ‘choice’ and capitalist pressure.  When she places an advertisement seeking ex-Stasi operatives for interview, she encounters men  holding onto the shreds of a Communist dream,  in denial of reunification, and hopeful of the re-emergence of the Stasi.  She finds men who have mounted their own museums to East German life; she speaks to others who have their own justifications for their actions which ring hollow and rather pathetic in a changed world.

The stories of the Stasi operatives and their victims are important, because the Stasi’s reach was not so much in physical things but in the more intangible  sense of safety, identity and autonomy.  There is no museum to hold such things.

I was particularly interested in this book because of the role of the narrator in it.  It is not an academic book as such, and I was surprised to find notes related to specific pages at the end as there had been no footnotes to alert me to their existence.   The narrator is front and centre in this book: we see through her eyes and filter through her consciousness.  At times you need to read against her prejudices- for example, with one man who, as perfect East German man, was moulded this way through his own father’s well-founded fears and insecurities as a dissident, and was to a large extent, a victim as well as perpetrator.  I’m aware of a trend in academic history,  to make oneself part of the story as well, and to use one’s own doubts, questions, misconceptions and false trails as part of the intellectual journey.  I can see its allure as narrative device, but I’m wary.

Funder is not, though, offering this as academic history.  She is upfront about her outsider status, and she documents rather than explains.  It is powerful, chilling reading nonetheless.  Timely, too, as we hear of the Egyptians gaining access this week to their files, many of which had been hastily shredded.  Just as the East Germans before them, they are becoming aware of the size and pervasiveness of the secret police and the complicity of family and neighbours in their midst.