Australian Historical Association Conference 11 July 2013

Day Three opened with a plenary panel ‘Rethinking Indigenous Histories’, featuring Marcia Langton (University of Melbourne), Tim Rowse (UWS) and John Maynard (University of Newcastle). Both Langton and Maynard are Indigenous scholars.  The aim of the session was to consider recent developments in the writing of Indigenous histories, although the presentations and the questions that followed ranged further than that.

Marcia Langton focussed on the proposal for a referendum for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian constitution.  She is a member of the Expert Panel that was convened to advise on moving the process forward.  In its report the panel advised against a preamble, which was one of the proposals being mooted a number of years ago, and argued for a delay in the referendum to enable further discussion and education to take place, largely for fear of the bitterness and delay that would arise from a ‘no’ vote. She  then reviewed the 1967 Referendum questions. I hadn’t realized that there was another question posed as well, relating to the numerical relationship between the House of Representatives and the Senate.  This question was rejected, but the other better-known question was passed convincingly.  She pointed out, however,  that the changes brought about by the referendum have removed any mention at all of Aboriginal people in the constitution, and that there is a constitutional right to discriminate, especially in relating to voting rights.  A summary of the Expert Panel Report and a link to the full report can be found here.  It involves the removal of some clauses, the insertion of others.

Tim Rowse’s presentation critiqued the recent  conceptual framework of Settler Colonialism which has arisen from the work of Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini and Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penny Edmonds- among others.  He asked three questions of it: 1. Can this critical historiography account for itself? 2. What about indigenous agency? 3. Is settler-colonial agency effortlessly tactical or deeply anxious?  He then addressed the  “dying native” story that dominated thinking about aboriginal people for many years  and three different ways in which it could be conceptualized. For each one he identified the policy ‘solutions’ and indigenous responses that would emerge from thinking about it as either (a) catastrophic mortality (as in the Tasmanian case), genetic dilution or (b)  as cultural loss.  I felt that it was a rather provocative presentation, both in terms of its abstraction in speaking about aboriginal people and their history, and also as a spectacle of historiographical argument.

John Maynard spoke as an Aboriginal historian and traced through the changes in historiography over recent years, starting with Stanner’s ‘cult of forgetting’, moving to Manning Clark’s recognition that he had written only from British cloth, the work of Henry Reynolds, Ann McGrath, and Peter Reid then the emergence of Aboriginal historians Wayne Atkinson, Marcia Langton, Doreen Wanganeen (and although he didn’t mention it, he himself).  There is a move, he said, to historians beginning to work collaboratively with Aboriginal people. He noted the shift to transnationalism, but said that he preferred the term ‘transoceanic’.

I could see technical-type people in the wings, busily recording so I suspect that this panel may end up online at some stage.  If so, you might well want to listen to this panel yourself.

The first concurrent session I attended was titled ‘Fame and Celebrity’ and it was a rather diverse group of presentations covering lost fame, formalized fame and infamy.  Judith Jonker commenced with an examination of two forgotten colonial sculptors, Charles Abraham and Father Jean Gourbeillon.  It has been difficult for her to research Abraham as the spelling of his name varies between Abraham/Abrahams, and there are others with the same name.  Although it has been asserted that he left the colony and died in England, she has found that he remained in NSW, spent some time in an asylum, and died here.  His work is largely forgotten, even though he produced many busts of influential colonists and corporate sculpture around Sydney.  Fr. Jean Gourbeillon is likewise overlooked, but this is largely because most of his time was spent acting as parish priest in Sydney. He did, however, find time to sculpt a number of religious figures which still stand.  It appears that he left under scandalous circumstances.  This paper is part of a larger work on the 1854 Sydney ‘Paris’ exhibition, so named because it was taken to Paris after its success in NSW.

Karen Fox then spoke about official honours in a presentation called ‘Rank and Recognition: Official Honours and Fame in Australia’.  She commenced with a brief mention of Imperial Honours, but then moved to the two principal Honours awarded today: the Order of Australia and the Australian of the Year Awards.   The Order of Australia was commenced in 1975, copied from a similar award in Canada.  It was introduced by the Whitlam government to replace the imperial honours, although state governments maintained their right to retain imperial honours until the practice was discontinued in 1992.  The Australian of the Year Award started in 1960 but for many years was a Melbourne-dominated award, and it has taken on an increasingly corporate nature since the 1980s and 1990s.  In 1987 the national tour for the Australian of the Year was commenced whereby the recipient would promote a particular cause around Australia.  Fox noted that both awards are vehicles for the production of role models, but that they differ somewhat in terms of their potential to build fame rather than recognize it.  The Australian of the Year award in particular tends to be awarded after the recipient has already gained international notice through other awards.  She noted the political visibility of “handing back” an award.

Finally, Leigh Straw gave a lively presentation about Kate Leigh (apparently of Underbelly Razor- yet another of the Underbelly phenomenon that has passed me by completely).  When Kate Leigh died in February 1964 she had over 100 police convictions and yet she presented herself, and was mourned as,” the matriarch of Surry Hills”.   Straw described her as an example of cultural criminality, whereby the culture carries the meaning of the crime.  Three factors feed into this: the type of crime, the context and the image.  Kate Leigh presented herself as a non-drinking sly-grogger (a ‘crime’ that was not viewed that way by many) rather than a brothel-owner (though not a prostitute herself)- a rather moralistic stance on both counts.  The context was the Eastern Sydney heartland of prostitution and drugs that co-existed alongside sly-grogging.  Of most interest to Straw was the issue of image-making, which Leigh mastered.  The mass media played into this as well, by running regular stories about her, sensationalized headlines and sympathetic photographs by her favourite photographer.

The second concurrent session was Environmental History.  I must admit that I missed most of the first presentation as I was being a bit environmental myself, enjoying the winter sun with a walk around Wollongong Harbour.  Hence, I missed the start of Sarah Miram’s presentation on ‘The destroying hand of the subdivider: Suburbia as a catalyst for environmentalism in 1970s Victoria’.  The abstract of her paper indicated that she examined the Save the Dandenongs League and the Rockbeare Park  Conservation Group.  While I missed the former, I did catch the latter group which has become the Darebin Parklands Association (with which I am familiar).  She noted that these 1970s suburban groups knew little at first and learned much, and many of the participants have since moved into other environmental groups and other forms of wildlife rehabilitation and rescue.

A second group of activists was considered by Caroline Ford in her paper ‘Surfing in sewage and other moments in coastal environmental history’. While the sewage was the most confronting of the environmental problems she dealt with in relation to Sydney beaches, she also addressed the problems of rubbish dropping from barges while being towed out into the ocean to be thrown overboard,  mineral sandmining, scouring of the beaches through high tides and overdevelopment.
The government only admitted potential health risks through sewage outfall in 1986 which conveniently coincided with an announcement that they were building infrastructure to discharge into much deeper water offshore, away from the beaches.  Opponents of overdevelopment loudly proclaimed that they ‘didn’t want to be like the Gold Coast’, and with a few early exceptions, there has been little high-rise development along the Sydney coast.  Developers and owners of beachfront properties found that there was little public sympathy when their houses were destroyed by large tides.

Finally, Grace Karskens gave a lively presentation on ‘People and Country in early colonial Castlereagh’.  Castlereagh, on the Nepean River floodplain, was settled very early but is today largely dominated by gravel quarries.  Karsken’s project in her study of Castlereagh is a serious attempt to integrate science and history, and she described the settlement of the area in terms of soil, floods and forests.  Unlike the thin, deceptive, sterile soil bemoaned elsewhere in Sydney, the Castlereagh soil is rich and bountiful.  She claims that the people knew this, and hence the best soils were granted first. [There was some debate over whether the ready availability of water was not a stronger reason for the takeup of land along the river- Karskens argued that it was not because poorer soil areas on the river bank, caused by unusual geological formations, were not taken up despite the availability of water].  Floods were frequent and known about, but river dwellers rebuffed Macquarie’s attempt to move onto higher land, fearful of losing their land should they abandon it and aware that no two floods were the same.  This was a culture of chance and maximizing the odds.  There was little time for her to discuss her third point- forests- but she did point out that although the government encouraged and monitored land clearing,  there was still a good proportion of bush coverage decades later.

The day finally drawing to a close, the last session was titled ‘Writing Australia’.  Sofia Eriksson’s paper ‘Loyalty in British travel writing on Australia’ addressed the question of loyalty as perceived by British visitors who travelled to Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century and wrote accounts of their travel.  She noted that in the 1870s there was an absence of discourse about loyalty, and that these British writers largely saw Australia as an outlying part of the home country.  A pair of sisters taking it upon themselves to inspect boys’ homes in Adelaide, and an architect examining Australian architecture in the 1870s all  tended to see England in what they saw in Australia.  However, Eriksson suggests, there was a change in the 1880s when there appears to have been a loss of confidence that the empire was stable, and a feeling of almost relief that Australia was still loyal.  It was a time of ‘high’ imperialism with other European colonies also flexing their colonial muscles and later wars like the Sudan and Boer Wars requiring colonial assistance. There was a sense of gratification that such events had elicited such a loyal response from Australia.

Helen Bones, on the other hand, looked at antipodean writers and the perception that in this cultural desert,  the only place for a writer was in England.  She examined New Zealand writers for her PhD and is now extending her analysis to Australia.  Her approach is largely empirical and statistical, noting the place of residence of the author, place of publication and the concentration on Australian/New Zealand content in the text. She found that the ‘expatriate’ writer was not as common as is often supposed, and that there existed a colonial writing world outside of England which allowed New Zealand authors to be published and distributed not only in the metropole but also in other British colonies.

Again, the full program of abstracts can be found by clicking the link below


7 responses to “Australian Historical Association Conference 11 July 2013

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Janine:)
    I think that expression ‘culture of chance’ is one that is very apt, and useful in different contexts.
    I hope those projects about early writing in Australia make their way into a nice lively book to read at some stage!

    • I think that Grace Karsken’s certainly will. Although most of her presentation was spoken without notes, occasionally she read sections which were very carefully and beautifully written- just as her book ‘Colony’ was.
      Sarah Mirams has already been published (I’ve forgotten the name of it- it’s about the Darebin Parklands) and it sounded as if Caroline Ford was writing a book because she spoke about the chapter she was writing. I guess that’s one advantage of the ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia at the moment- work is almost certain to bubble out somewhere.

  2. I wonder if Sofia Eriksson’s and Helen Bones’ ones would complement each other nicely in a collection of papers about this period? I suppose it depends who they want to publish for, but I don’t envisage that there would be many who want to read two whole books about these separate research projects, but edited nicely into a collection would be a different matter.
    Though then again, who’d have thought that anyone would want to read a whole book about censorship in Australia? Yet Nicole Moore’s book had me riveted, and I’ve been weaving the topic into conversation ever since I started reading it.

  3. I would like to have been at the conference, Janine, but it also shows me how out of touch I am in terms of fashion. There was almost nothing that bore upon the things I write about.

    • residentjudge

      Although that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about this conference. I usually attend the Law and History conference each year which has many things that I SHOULD attend- usually all clashing with each other. This time, there were only a few ‘should’ sessions and I could just go to things out of (rather uninformed) interest alone.

  4. Pingback: 2013 Australian Historical Association Conference – The Program | Stumbling Through the Past

  5. Pingback: AHA Rethinking Indigenous Histories podcast | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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