Monthly Archives: November 2011

The great Great Melbourne Telescope

When I hear the term ‘GMT’, I automatically think of Greenwich Mean Time.  Those of an astronomical bent, apparently, think of the Giant Magellan Telescope, four times more powerful than existing telescopes, and scheduled for completion in 2018.   But there’s another GMT too- The Great Melbourne Telescope, which I heard about at a lecture at La Trobe last week given by Richard Gillespie, the author of a recently-released book of the same title.  And a great little story it is too.

John Herschel, the son of the inventor William Herschel, first turned the telescope to the southern skies at the Cape of Good Hope in 1834-8, and in 1849 the British Association for the Advancement of Science called for a large reflecting telescope to be erected in the southern hemisphere.  Four years later they teamed with the Royal Society to create the Southern Telescope Committee to assess designs and seek funding.   The Cape of Good Hope, Sydney and Tasmania were considered as possible sites, but thanks to effective lobbying by William Parkinson Wilson of the University of Melbourne and support from the Victorian Government flush with post-Gold Rush wealth, the telescope was placed in Melbourne.  It was not the largest telescope in the world- that honour went to Lord Rosse’s ‘Leviathan of Parsontown’ in Ireland until 1917 but it was the second largest telescope at the time, and more importantly it was the largest steerable equatorial telescope, scanning not just up and down but across the skies as well.

It was the pride of Melbourne- and why shouldn’t it be.  The Irish-built telescope opened in a purpose built house in the grounds adjacent to the Botanic Gardens in June 1869. Its close proximity to Government House meant that the governor and visiting dignitaries and their ladies could pop in for a squizz (literally).  A brilliant image of the moon captured by the camera attached to the telescope in the 1870s was distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes  throughout Victoria.  The “Great Melbourne” referred not only to the telescope, but to the self-image of Melbourne itself at the time as a centre of learning and civilization in an international context.

But technology and invention does not stand still, and other telescopes were devised with superior design and capacities surpassed the GMT.  Its lens became tarnished and by the 1940s the telescope was dismantled and moved to Mt Stromlo Observatory where it formed the skeleton of a new improved telescope, overlaid with new technology and materials.  This updating was an ongoing process and more than half of the original telescope was harvested in 1984 by Museum Victoria as a historical artefact.  The GMT was barely recognizable, visually at least, as the technology that had evoked such pride seventy years earlier.

In 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was destroyed by fire, including the cannabalized remnants of the GMT. But,- and here there’s a flush of parochial pride- the fire stripped away all the plastic and modern metal, leaving the original cast iron skeleton of the telescope. Alongside the parts that had been harvested earlier, 90% of the original telescope still exists in one form or another.

The original telescope house still exists on the grounds of the former Observatory side, now part of  the Botanic Gardens.  There are plans to restore the house and the telescope and make it available again to the public which involves a balancing act between restoration and the re-creation of a :century telescope.  They won’t, for example, be using a speculum lens again that caused so much grief and expense in the original telescope.  They’re trying to raise a million dollars- which seems chicken-feed in these corporation days- hence the publication of this book (which I assume will be available at Museum Victoria even though it doesn’t seem to be in the bookshop yet).

Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South

What a fantastic video! A horse-drawn Melbourne c.1910; verandah-ed shops; a stuffed-full museum; Federal Government house; a footy match; cable cars; ships in the Yarra.  I’ve seen snippets of it before, but never the whole thing.

There are certainly worse ways to waste 14 minutes of your life.

Marvellous Melbourne

‘The River’ at Bundoora Homestead

A wet, humid day and nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon so up we went to Bundoora Homestead to see their current exhibition ‘The River’. I’ve written about Bundoora Homestead previously.  It’s a beautiful Federation-era house, well worth seeing in its own right.

Chandelier in dining room, Bundoora Homestead

Another homestead that was once a gallery, Banyule Homestead, is very much in my thoughts at the moment.  More than ever I realize that if you value a gallery or a library or a museum,  then you need to visit it- you need to walk right through that door and go in.  In the case of Bundoora Homestead, it’s free and it literally costs you nothing: the gain is all yours.

Stained glass skylight, Bundoora Homestead

The current exhibition is called ‘The River’ and it centres on Melbourne rivers (well, creeks) the Merri  and the Darebin Creeks. In recent years of drought these creeks have dwindled to small puddles connected by a fitful ribbon of water.   One of the joys of the recent rains this year has been to look down from a train into the city, as you cross over the creek, and to see the water gushing and tumbling along waterways that had seemed so dismal just a few years ago.

The exhibition contains well-known works, most particularly Burtt’s depiction of the purported signing of the Batman treaty and several Heidelberg school paintings of river scenes around Melbourne, as well as 19th century photographs and engravings.  These are juxtaposed against more recent works on the Merri and Darebin Creeks, including reflections on the ‘treaty’ painting and more surreal and threatening depictions of these urban places.  There will be a lecture panel this coming Thursday 24th November at 2.00 discussing Burtt’s painting.

This is a terrific exhibition. I’ve seen reproductions of the Batman painting before, but not the original, and I was delighted to see Sarah Susannah Bunbury’s painting of her house on the Darebin Creek in 1841.  I liked the sense of fun in many of the modern depictions, and it was lovely to see it in a beautiful suburban gallery, close by to the two rivers featured in the exhibition itself.


Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #12: Hazel Rowley

I was saddened to read that Hazel Rowley died in March this year. It’s timely that I should write this post aware that the French department of the University of Adelaide is hosting a day-long tribute to her this coming Saturday 19th November. One of the  conundrums of the internet is the status of a website of a person who has died. Should it be left as it was? Does updating it somehow detract from its integrity, or does it honour the person’s ongoing relevance? Hazel Rowley’s website has been taken down this route by her sister.

I enjoyed reading Rowley’s 2007 LaTrobe University/Australian Book Review lecture “The Ups The Downs: My Life as a Biographer”, which is available on the ABR archives page (you’ll need to scroll down almost to the bottom of the page).  Once again, I haven’t actually read any of the biographies she has written, but this comment about the art of writing biography struck a chord with me:

Biographers carry a big responsibility.  They have someone’s life in their hands.  What’s unjust is that, if you read a dull biography, you come away thinking that person’s life was dull.  In reality it’s almost never the life that’s the problem; it’s the narration.  No wonder people are wary of biographers.  It’s hard enough to die; we don’t want some dullard turning our lives into insipid gruel.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #11: Ged Martin again

p. 31 It is difficult to imagine that any historian would claim total survival of evidence for any episode of the past.  Indeed some might wearily conclude that far too much evidence has survived, especially if it consists of archival mounds that they must quarry to ensure that their own research is comprehensive, even though the documents were never designed to help their enquiries in the first place.  Some are tempted to defend their own specialized research by insisting that enough of the materials needed to form an explanation have survived.  This assertion, which is often the only basis on which the scholar can go to work, ultimately rests on the internally contradictory premise that we can identify the materials needed for an explanation even though we cannot be sure that we know everything about the problem we seek to explain.

Ged Martin Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History, 2004 p. 31

I was flipping through my notes looking for something this morning, and I noticed this quote from Ged Martin- a historian whom I keep encountering because of his work in Canadian, Australian and empire contexts.  I’ve already cited some of his wisdom previously, but I am particularly aware of him at the moment because I recently read an article of his that was exactly on the topic I needed at exactly the right time.  It was about empire federalism -surely a topic to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, yes? It was a fairly old article from the 1970s, located through Google Scholar, but it was exactly the sort of article that you would have fallen upon as if it were a gold nugget in the pre-computer days because it has exhaustive footnotes.  In particular, he had located evidence (by his own admission, sometimes small and oblique) of the stance of various politicians between 1820 and 1870 on the issue of the colonies being represented in the British Parliament.  As I gazed at these long footnotes, ranging across letters, speeches to Parliament and newspaper articles, I shook my head in awe at how long it must have taken and how much reading must have gone into that one footnote.

Then I thought about the opening line of Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary. This is an unusual book, with a lyrical narrative in the first half, supported by ‘Notes and Reflections’, heavy-duty historical footnotes and nuts-and-bolts in the second half. And I do mean ‘half’- in terms of length and rigour, the two parts are equally balanced.  The opening line of the first half of the book is:

He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.

Donna Merwick came out to speak to us during my honours year, and she talked about that first line, and the sheer amount of research that went into making such a definitive statement.  Would I ever feel confident enough to make such a statement?, I wonder.  So often I am paralysed by the fear that there is another source, another archive, that sits just on the other side of the line in the sand that I have drawn when I tell myself “Stop. You have enough. Just write.”

Sometimes I wonder if the sheer availability of texts now through the internet is drowning us, but then I look at Martin’s footnote,  and the Notes and Reflections in Merwick’s book. I consider the paper-based  research tools available in the 1970s, and try to imagine researching with a typewriter and a pile of catalogue cards and my complaint about the deluge of material seems rather lily-livered. I am humbled by the hard work and sheer doggedness such research reveals.

‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell’ by W.P. Morrell

First edition 1930; reprinted 1966, 554 p.

When you change the government, you change the country” Paul Keating once said.  You mightn’t detect it from the title, but this book is not only about colonial policy but also about the ramifications of a change of government on an issue of such importance to 19th British politics and imperial identity.

You’ve got to hand it to the historians of the 1930s when they chose their titles- there’s no tricksy double-barrelled postmodern titles with colons and parentheses here.  What you’re promised is what you get- British colonial policy under the conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1841-1846) , and then under the Whig Prime Minister Lord John Russell (1846-1852).  There is some slight blurring of the lines though because the cabinet responsibility for the colonies rested with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, rather than the Prime Minister .  Although the Secretary of State  position was a bit of a revolving door during the 1830s with Secretaries coming and going in quick succession,it was more stable under the Peel and Russell administrations.  Lord Stanley acted as Secretary of State for nearly all of Peel’s time as Prime Minister, and Earl Grey was Russell’s Secretary of State for nearly the whole Russell government as well.  So the title could just as easily have been ‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Stanley and Grey’, although of course the Prime Ministers held the ultimate authority.  Then of course, there was the Under-Secretary of State in the Colonial Office, Sir James Stephen, the civil servant who worked behind the scenes during both administrations.  Perhaps the title could expand to encompass Peel, Russell, Stanley, Grey and Stephen- but try fitting that onto the spine of the book!

Morrell identifies two main lobby groups who also exerted pressure on colonial policy. The humanitarians are well known because of  their influence on indigenous policy, and their anti-slavery and later anti-transportation activities. But the second lobby group, the Wakefieldians or the ‘Colonial Reformers’,  is less visible, and probably less appealing to 21st century activists.  Their systematic colonization cause is tied up with land policy, immigration and labour supply, and their intermixing of commercial and altruistic motivations is problematic for us today.  Their figurehead, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was controversial and enigmatic then and now.  He had particular influence over a string of British politicians, including Earl Grey, Goderich, Molesworth, Gladstone and Lord Stanley, and because of their positions at the heart of the colonial debate in both conservative and Whig governments, his ideas were promulgated throughout the empire and especially in South Australia and New Zealand.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parts: Peel and Russell.  Within each part  there are chapters  devoted to a single colony- New Zealand, Australia, North America, South Africa, the Sugar Colonies, interspersed with more general chapters dealing with economic policy and transportation. Reflecting the author’s admiration for Earl Grey, the book closes with one chapter on his relationship with the Colonial Reformers and another on Grey’s place in imperial history.

Both Peel’s and Russell’s  administrations were united by a bipartisan acceptance of free trade economic policy, and this thread runs throughout the book.  It was a striking feature of the Peel administration, and it continued during Russell’s time as well.  So was Paul Keating right about a change of government changing the country? Yes, in that Peel’s administration strongly resisted self-government for the colonies and generally took the side of the plantation owners in the sugar colonies, and the Loyalists in Upper Canada.  Russell’s administration, on the other hand, was receptive to Wakefieldian ideas and amenable to discussions of representative and then responsible government,  even though Wakefield and the Colonial Reformers later turned against Earl Grey who had been their great hope as a fellow Colonial Reformer.  The analysis of colonial policy under the two administrations is a nuanced one that recognizes continuity but also detects difference, even if it is a matter of degree rather than stark contrast.

William Parker Morrell was a New Zealand historian, and he died in 1986. I sometimes wish that it was possible to take a book written many decades earlier- (and remember that this book was written in the 1930s) – and using the same structure and question, revisit it again in the light of more recent scholarship and interests.  Not rewrite the original, mind you, but just to look again from a different perspective, to see what has changed and what parts have taken on even more significance.

‘Tartar City Woman’ by Trevor Hay

1990, 178 p

I must admit that my heart sank a little when we received our November book for The-Ladies-Who-Say-Oooh bookgroup this month. Yet another book about a Chinese woman growing up in Communist China, I thought.  I’m over all these three-part family saga with grandmother, mother and daughter full of co-mingled admiration and resentment, alternately solved and exacerbated by the magical escape to the Wonderful West.  Well, there were elements of this here, but because this is a memoir of a woman, related by a man (rather than an autobiography), it thankfully lacked some of the emotional tantrum of such books.

Wang Hsin-Ping  grew up among the old gentry class in pre-Communist Peking.  Her father had emigrated to Australia and rather unaccountably disappears from the story completely, and after her mother died, she was brought up by her grandmother.  Members of the family seemed to be able to leave for the West fairly easily, and it was these family connections overseas that compromised her reputation during the various twistings and turnings of  Communist Party ideology as she grew up.  She was a forthright, intelligent young woman, thwarted in her career aspirations by her ambivalent attitude and suspect family allegiances.  Although she lived in a community of suspicion and fear- and I am not under-estimating the effect of this- she was not denounced; not sent out into the country; not beaten or starved or any of the litany of outrages that we often read of in totalitarian societies.  In fact, she testifies to a low-key subversion of authority, albeit over minor details. The peasant village sent her exiled 70 year old grandmother  back to the city because she was useless with her bound feet, and students sent to work in villages simply  returned to the city, in spite of the fact that without their ration books they would be dependent on others for food.

The book opens Trevor Hay’s own reflections on his attitude to China, particularly in the 1970s as he travelled there with an enthusiastic wide-eyed, left-leaning tour group, completely oblivious to Hsin-Ping’s journey in the other direction as she emigrates, seemingly easily, to Australia.  He meets Hsin Ping working in a Melbourne restaurant, and I can only assume that the book is the product of her reminscences and their conversations.  It is not co-written as such, at least in the authorship.

Yet there is a real distance between the teller and the recorder of the narrative. It is a rather cold, bloodless tale, with emotional relationships dispensed with in mere sentences.  Perhaps this is Hsin-Ping’s choice, but Hay does not problematize this in any way.  There is much detail about pedagogy and curriculum, and this ‘teacher’s eye’ view of the world perhaps mirrors the shared professional bond between Hsin-Ping  as an erstwhile classroom teacher and Hay’s own profession as academic in the education faculty at the University of Melbourne.  The book was useful in explaining the U-turns and contradictions in Chinese government policy.

Overall, I found this rather disappointing. It was not the family saga I expected, and for that I suppose I should be grateful, but it felt a rather stilted and incomplete picture of growing up in Communist China.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: it was the November for my face-to-face bookgroup AKA ‘The Ladies who say Oooohh’

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

‘The Roving Party’ by Rohan Wilson

282 p. 2011

As a historian, there’s often a jolt when you encounter in fiction a character that you know from your own research.  This is the case with John Batman, one of the main characters of Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party. Alongside the mirth that his name evokes he has become an emblematic figure, in the same vein as Captain Cook and Ned Kelly. His is a name attached to a picture-book depiction, freighted with a cargo of abstractions: discovery, dispossession, duplicity.  Bain Attwood’s recent book Possession:Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History looks at the man and the mythology around him in more detail, and Melburnians continue to travel along Batman Ave, and pass Batman Park etc. etc.  For myself, I encountered John Batman in Judge Willis’ Melbourne- or more correctly, I encountered the legal proceedings involving his wife and children in Willis’ courtroom after Batman died with syphilis, insolvent and leaving seven children who were taken into the care of their guardian, Rev Thomson, the Church of England minister.

But the Batman of Wilson’s book is a younger man, employed in Tasmania as the leader of a roving party, funded by the government to capture and remove Aboriginal people from the settled districts as a means of conciliation between the settlers and the dispossessed tribes.  Batman himself offered his services  to Governor Arthur, citing his own familiarity with the countryside and his contact with Aboriginal people who would help him in his task.  These are the men and the situation we encounter in this book: Batman, four convicts, two black trackers from Sydney, a bumbling farmhand and Black Bill, a Panninher man brought up from childhood as a white man, battling the sodden and chilled Tasmanian bush in June 1829, charged with finding and bringing in the remnants of the Plindermairhemener people.

Black Bill is the central character in the book. He has thrown in his lot with John Batman, but, Manalargena the head warrior and Taralta the law-man of the Plindermairhemener have called him, asking him to join them.  They tell him-

…You listen my story.  Three wallaby near the river you see.  Not two and one but three.  Them brother lost, you understand.  They see plenty wallaby.  But no see brother.  Three wallaby near river eat the grass and drink the water but they forget.  Who is brother.  Who is hunter.  They forget this thing.  Now three wallaby.  No one sing.  Them all lost.  All same you see. (p.8)

Who is brother, who is hunter?  Other books sprang to my mind while reading this.  One is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses with the relentless drive of pursuit/escape, and the need to keep going day after day through a hostile and unforgiving environment.  The other is, rather curiously Moby Dick which, although as different in setting as it is almost possible to be, is driven by the same sense of obsession and fear. For having rejected  overtures to join the Plindermairhemener, Black Bill takes the pursuit and capture of Manalargena as his own personal quest and object, irrespective of the  official intent of the expedition.

All three books- McCarthy, Melville and now Wilson- are steeped in blood. In fact, I found it hard to pick up the book again each time, with each chapter opening with another dank Tasmanian winter morning, the cold, the bone-weariness and the hunger.  The violence is always present like mist, even though this is ostensibly a ‘reconciliation’ party.

Much is strange to us as 21st century white readers.  As with Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, we encounter Aboriginal language that is presented without translation, and at the end of the book we are brought face-to-face with the essential aboriginality of Bill’s wife “Katherine”, despite her English name.  In fact, there is an unknowingness between us as readers and all these characters.  Wilson does not attempt at all to get into their heads, to explain, to exonerate, to complicate as Kate Grenville tried to do in The Secret River.

Of course, this is Tasmanian Aboriginal history.  After Keith Windschuttle’s intervention, it is probably the most heavily politicized,  contested and trepidacious history there is.  Batman’s leadership of his roving party is part of the official record and Wilson has woven his story out of this ambiguous and shadowy byline in Batman’s larger life-story.  He makes no claims to truth beyond this and does not ask us to identify or judge.  The book’s relentlessness, violence and moral coldness has a nightmarish quality, and the writing is sure and powerful.  No wonder it has received such acclaim.

My rating: 9/10

Read because: my interest in early 19th century Australian history

Sourced from: La Trobe University library.