I’m up at Wollongong for the next few days for the Australian Historical Association Conference. Yvonne Perkins, who blogs at Stumbling Through the Past is here as well and assiduous networker that she is, encouraged me to blog the conference as she did last year (and is doing again this year). One of the frustrations of a streamed conference is that you often find yourself wishing that you could be in two places at once, so I guess that reading someone’s impressions of what they have heard is a rather distant next best thing. However, I’m very conscious that I may misrepresent what I thought I heard- so this is my best shot and apologies if I have misunderstood.
You can download the full version of the abstracts (PDF) AHA_Program_FullAbstracts28June in order to read the speakers’ intentions for their presentations.
The plenary panel that started the day was entitled ‘Mobilities and Mobilisations in History’ aptly enough, for this is the theme of the conference. There were three speakers, who each explored different facets of mobility. Frances Steel from the University of Wollongong focussed on shipping and oceanic history., most particularly the opening of the Canadian- shipping route in the early 20th century. Known as the ‘all red route’, this journey included NZ, then stopped off at Honolulu, by now annexed by America, and the British port of Suva before disembarking on the west coast of Canada. Passengers could then travel by rail across to the Pacific seaboard to continue their journey ‘home’ to England.
Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania examined the ‘travel under concern’ conducted across the fifty islands in the Bass Strait world by the two Quakers James Backhouse and George Washington Walker in 1832 . Their investigation focussed on the sealers and displaced aboriginal women who lived on these small islands that were integral to the early 19th century sealing industry, but almost totally ignored today. This was part of a nine year enquiry that Backhouse and Walker conducted in Mauritius, Van Diemens Land , the Australian colonies and the Cape Colony to investigate conditions in the empire within an anti-slavery discourse. ‘Travel under concern’ was a long-standing Quaker concept, but in this case, it was the collection of information within a politically charged environment, conducted in the field rather than in London, and in an anomalous legal space.
Finally, Cathy Coleborne from the University of Waikato discussed failed mobility, most particularly in colonial social institutions. In her work she considers immigrant homes and homes for the aged but in today’s presentation she focussed on insane immigrants and the asylums at Yarra Bend in Melbourne and in Auckland. Unsuccessful immigrants are not particularly visible in the colonial records, and she has turned to the institutional records which although sparse, do provide some pictures of ‘insane immigrants’. Even though settler societies by their nature are formed by transience, these same societies were haunted by the spectre of transience evoked by vagrancy, destitution and prostitution. Restrictive legislation was passed to stop people who might become a burden in the future but this, of course, did not solve the problem.
Tony Ballantyne (who was also the keynote speaker later in the day), responded to the three papers.
The first concurrent session I attended was titled ‘Chinese Agency 1870’s-1930. This was a terrific panel because the three papers blended together so well, with different perspectives and similarities that were drawn out in the discussion. Claire Lowrie examined Chinese ‘Houseboys’ in Hong Kong and Singapore in the inter-war era. Chinese ‘boys’ were the preferred domestic servants in the tropics because they were seen as the most loyal and efficient. However, a number of events had politicized them, including the Nationalist and Communist politics in China itself, WWI, the Russian Revolution. In both Hong Kong and Singapore, the involvement of houseboys and cooks in labour agitation, strikes and boycotts was perceived as a form of betrayal, and was met by a punitive reassertion of mastery to “put them back in their place”.
Then Sophie Loy-Wilson examined Chinese shopkeepers across the world- Canada, New Zealand, West Indies etc but focussed on Papua New Guinea. There had been riots against the Chinese in 2009, which evoked a concerted campaign on the part of the Chinese embassy to highlight the long and valued presence of Chinese as storekeepers integrated into PNG society. She discussed Prime Minister Julius Chan (of mixed Chinese and PNG heritage) and his return to his father’s birthplace in China in 2011 and its representation in Chinese media.
Finally Nadia Rooke delivered a beautifully written paper about Charles Hodges, the court interpreter and spokesman for the Chinese community in Melbourne. Hodges actually came from Gloucester and never went to China himself: he was a storekeeper at Chewton who learned to speak Chinese there. He testified at the enquiry into Chinese furniture makers, stressing that after he had cautioned Chinese carpenters about working on Sundays, they no longer did so. He challenged the commonly-held stereotypes about the Chinese living in Melbourne e.g. Sabbath-breakers, corrupters of women, and he marched with the Chinese in the Federation Parade in 1904. Underlying her analysis was an awareness of the spatial location of the Chinese in Melbourne, particularly in Little Bourke Street, and Hodge’s crossing boundaries into Chinese space in a physical as well as linguistic sense.
The second concurrent panel I attended was titled ‘Mentalities and mores in mid-19th century Australia’ although possibly it would have been better titled “Crossing Bass Strait” as both papers examined interactions between Tasmania (Van Diemens Land) and Victoria. Thomas Rogers examined the search for Gellibrand and Hesse, the two noted Hobart lawyers who went missing in the bush west of Melbourne in 1837- a disappearance that has been conceptualized as a tragedy and stumbling block in the easy settlement of the Port Phillip district. A search party led by the Rev Naylor and James Parsons, accompanied by Barry Cotter, Gellibrand’s agent, six white men and two aborigines was joined by a war party of Wathaurong men. According to the report produced by Naylor and Parsons and published in the Tasmanian press, a Colac man and his daughter were captured; the Colac man confessed and was killed by the Wathaurong. Rogers questioned the veracity of the report, the use to which it was put, and the archetypes of ‘friendly’ vs ‘hostile’ Aborigines that it evoked.
Ann Beggs-Sunter’s paper also examined the Tasmania-Victoria nexus, most particular in terms of the Vandemonians crossing the Strait during the gold rushes. Ex-convicts were particularly well suited to gold field life, but there was a perception (largely supported by family history research) that many of them were recruited to the police force on the goldfields. There was widespread anxiety in Victoria about the crossing of ex-convicts into Victoria, and the Convicts Exclusion Act was passed to try to quell the flow, but ex-convicts still continued to come across. She outlined the research she has undertaken into Vandemonians who may have been involved in the Eureka uprising, but has found few examples.
The third concurrent session was- well- me in a session entitled ‘Law and Colonialism’. Of course, the time given for your paper seems to stand still and yet rush by all at once and then it’s over. One of the questions involved Judge Willis’ stance on Bon Jon, a case over aboriginal law and sovereignty, which led well into the other paper on the panel.
Ben Silverstein (also from La Trobe) discussed the Kulin mobilisation in 1844 near Yarra Bend. This meeting aroused much anxiety in Port Phillip at the time, sited as it was just outside the Melbourne grid on the government reserve that was set aside for an asylum, on the way to Heidelberg. Although white settlers characterized it as a riot, it was actually a judicial meeting comprising the seven Kulin nations ,called to decide traditional punishment for the murder of a young boy ‘Billy Lonsdale’ in an inter se (i.e. Aborigine on Aborigine) killing. Silverstein then went on to discuss the challenge that this meeting posed to settler society by such a visible proclamation of aboriginal space so close to Melbourne.
And finally, the Keynote address by Tony Ballantyne from the University of Otago titled ‘Unsettling the Settlers’. He compared the ocean-linked empires with the earlier land-based, contiguous empires of Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Mobility in oceanic empires involved governance (moving armies, navies and governors across the empire); the economy (moving goods, capital and labour) and the curtailment of indigenous people whose mobility and nomadism was hard to control and police. He discussed the Wakefieldian influence on Otago, and the threat posed by the influx of Victorian gold miners, and the criminalisation of mobility through legislation against vagrants, tramps and Cantonese miners. One of the questions from the audience sparked a discussion about imagined futures – in particular the different futures envisaged by pastoralists, Maori, and progressive politicians. A rather exciting question, replete with its own imaginings to round off a good day.
So, Day 2 down (I missed Day 1). Will I be able to keep this up for the whole conference??
If I have misrepresented any of the presentations I attended (my email address is in the conference handbook), please let me know and I’ll make any changes required.