Monthly Archives: August 2020

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 July 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. In her Tuesday History & Politics Chat of 14 July, she discusses campaign funding- its introduction through the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 which actually established a civil service (as distinct from one that depended on direct political patronage and hence changed with each president), the establishment of a Federal Electoral Commission after Watergate ( and which Trump is trying to strangle by not making appointments) and the effects of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which allows unions – and more importantly – corporations to contribute to campaigns.  She then goes on to talk about the history of abortion as a political issue. Did you know that in 1972 the Southern Baptist Convention actually voted that abortion was a matter between a woman and her doctor, and for abortion to proceed for specified reasons (e.g. foetal abnormalities, the welfare of the mother, rape etc)??

In her History chat of 16 July, she talks about the switch in the Republican party where the progressives wrested control of the party and the idea of ‘liberalism’ changed from individualism to protecting the little man against big business.

The Thread This podcast series advertises itself as various strands.. woven together to create a historic figure, a big idea or an unthinkable tragedy. ” In recognition of Black Lives Matter, they are replaying a series about violent and non-violent protest. In Episode 1 The Pride and the Power, they look at the Montgomery Bus Protest and the early political life of Martin Luther King, who knew that non-violence had to attract media attention, or else it would be useless. He also relied on armed guards until he was convinced about non-violence by an older Quaker activist, Bayard Rustin, who is the focus of Episode 2 An Angelic Troublemaker. Barak Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, because he stayed very much on the sidelines during the 1960s because he was gay.

BBC The Documentary  Embankment Baby. In wartime London in 1942, a baby was found abandoned on the Embankment. Named ‘Victor Banks’ because he was found on Victoria Embankment, he was adopted and renamed Tony May. Now in his 70s, he has decided to look into the circumstances that led to his abandonment. He enlists the help of a DNA detective genealogist , who uses Ancestry and other genetic testing databanks to track down his parent.

Let’s Talk About Sects. This first episode looks at The Family, the Melbourne-based sect headed by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who at that stage was still alive (she died in June 2019). What a far-reaching sect that was, with psychologists and doctors embroiled with it.

‘Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse’ by Cassandra Pybus

pybus_truganini

2020, 336 p.

The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.

Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.

The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini,  for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.

Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land  on North Bruny Island  to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself  purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.

Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness.  In her introduction, she writes:

In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)

She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:

Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past.  I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)

And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.

But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.

I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes.  Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose,  none of which he could have undertaken without them.

By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought.  Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.

The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied.  He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.

His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had  arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.

It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.

The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.

The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.

I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent.  Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.

But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.

As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader-  you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270).  It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: Difficult to say-  commenting as a general reader, 9/10

aww2020

I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

 

Six degrees of separation: from How to Do Nothing to…..

odell_nothingSo, another month- another Six Degrees of Separation – see the ‘rules of the game’ here.

I haven’t read the starting book, Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing (2019). I think my son read it, but it has really passed me by. I think that the title must offend my Protestant Work Ethic background.

Johnson_cleanstrawBut the title put me in mind of George Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing (1969), the second of his David Meredith trilogy, and the sequel to My Brother Jack. Unfortunately, I read it before I started my blog, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I absolutely loved all three books of the trilogy.

wheatley_cliftSo caught up was I by the trilogy that I became fascinated by Charmian Clift, writer and journalist and, as it happens, George Johnston’s wife. Nadia Wheatley wrote a brilliant biography of her called The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2002) which, again, I read before starting this blog.

 

australian-women-war-reportersClift was a journalist, although more of the domestic kind, with long-running columns in the ‘women’s pages’ of the newspaper. Jeannine Baker explores the world of Australian woman war journalists in her Australian Women Reporters (2015). She traces through the various wars that Australia has been involved in, identifying women reporters who had to forge their own roles in a journalistic genre that lionized male war reporters.

Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill.jpg

And one of the biggest male reporters of them all is Ernest Hemingway, who is just one of the journalists that Amanda Vaill deals with in Hotel Florida (2014). During the Spanish Civil War, international journalists were based at the Hotel Florida in Madrid, and she traces through the interleaved lives of press journalists Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and press officers/censors/propagandists Arturo Barea and Isla Kulscar.

mccamishMentioned in passing is the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, who was also in Spain during the Civil War. Thornton McCamish wrote a fine biography of Moorehead in his Our Man Elsewhere (2016). This book dealt with Moorhead’s experiences as a war correspondent, then his plunge into popular history with, for example, his book Coopers Creek about Burke and Wills.

murgatroyd_digMoorhead wasn’t the only historian to write about Burke and Wills. English writer Sarah Murgatroyd wrote an eminently readable history in her book The Dig Tree (2002), which again, I read before I started this blog. It was quite tragic to learn that she died of cancer just a few weeks after it was published. It has been republished as one of the Text Classics, which is impressive for a book published so recently.

My, I’ve been non-fiction-ny this month.