Monthly Archives: April 2021

With subtitles in English: Guarani

SBS’ Latin American film festival finishes tonight, and I just finished watching Guarani.

Lots of images of slow water flowing past with trains, boats, cars etc. moving from one side of the screen to the other. The plot, such as it is, is that a young girl has been left with her grandfather and aunts in Paraguay while she moves to Buenos Aires. The young girl accompanies her taciturn grandfather fishing along the Paraná River, while grieving the absence of her mother. The grandfather refuses to speak Spanish, proud of his indigenous Guarani heritage and determined to pass it on. When the mother writes to say that she is pregnant with a baby boy, the grandfather decides that he wants to go to Buenos Aires to bring his daughter home, so that his grandson will be born in Paraguay and can be inculcated into the river-based culture of his family. He and his granddaughter take off for distant Buenos Aires, walking much of it, working on a tobacco farm to earn the money to catch a train, and finally arrive at Buenos Aires. In the end…well, I have no idea what the end meant.

That’s an hour and a half that I have lost forever. Beautiful scenery though.

My rating: 6/10

With subtitles in English: Javier’s Passion

This film will be on SBS On Demand until the end of April. It’s based on the life of the Peruvian poet Javier Heraud who died, aged 21, in Bolivia when leading a group of Cuban-inspired revolutionaries who were returning to Peru to foment revolution there too. He was obviously a brilliant student, who dropped out of law to take up literature, travelled to Russia and Paris, then to Cuba on a scholarship to study Film. It’s beautifully filmed, with subtitles in English (and fairly easy-to-follow Spanish).

Spanish Film Festival 2021: Rosa’s Wedding

I enjoyed this SO much: it’s a light, feel-good movie that leaves you feeling such affection for all the characters. Rosa is turning 45 and is feeling – and dammit, she IS – put upon by her father, daughter and especially her siblings who all find themselves too busy to consider her. She finally decides to do something for herself. It’s Spanish and the Spanish was much too fast for me to follow. A certain suspension of disbelief is required, but it’s a really happy film.

My rating: 9/10 !!

‘Defiant Voices: How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority’ by Babette Smith

2021, 253p.

The response to a convict in the family has changed markedly over recent years. Once a source of shame and embarrassment, now it is brandished as a badge of pride (including by our own Prime Minister). One feels almost chagrined that despite rattling the family closet, there are ‘only’ later emigrants.

Family historians with a convict in the family have an advantage when it comes to sources. Across modern history there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between the severity of an institutional regime and the complexity and volume of their records and bureaucracy (thinking, for example, of Eastern European communist countries or Nazi Germany). In the case of Australia’s convicts, the transportation system generated a range of documents. Because they fell into a bureaucracy, we know so much about these individuals than we would have otherwise – their height, appearance, the circumstances of their crime- and yet, particularly for women convicts, their voices are rarely heard. This book seeks to recover those voices.

As Babette Smith observes, the characterization of the convict system generally, and women convicts in particular tends to fall into two extremes. The first (and I would put Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore into this category) sees Australia as a place of barbarity, oppression and cruelty; the second (and here I am thinking of John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies) sees it as a place where the overwhelming concern was that convicts not return to Britain once their sentence had expired. As a result, there was encouragement to marry, establish a livelihood and in effect, start over again- as long as it was as far from Britain as possible. In relation to women, some sources were particularly hostile, depicting them as debauched and incorrigible. Other sources, Smith claims, have been interpreted by feminist historians as characterizing convict women as passive victims of the patriarchy (p.9). In this book, Smith muddies the distinction. She detects elements of both but most of all emphasizes the agency of women convicts, whether it be by choosing to marry and thus disappear from the record, or by repeatedly challenging authority through their ‘defiant voices’.

The book is arranged in a loosely chronological structure, starting off in Chapter 1 ‘The Crown v. the People’ describing the female convicts’ interactions with the legal system back in Britain. She discusses social changes and the criminalization of poverty. She points out that most female convicts sent to Australia were convicted of theft, particularly from lodging houses, shops, and trickery. Women were also involved in counterfeiting and ‘receiving’ stolen goods. She draws from the criminal records, court reports and newspaper articles, and observes that few women cried when sentenced, because tears and outbursts would certainly have been noted in the newspaper reports. Although male prisoners were sent immediately to the hulks, women were often held in jail until there were enough of them to fill a ship (p. 32).

Chapter 2 ‘All at Sea’ describes the sea voyage to Australia. Because convict ships also carried officials and clergy, many of the most critical descriptions came from relatively wealthy fellow-passengers appalled at their proximity to their unadulterated working class. These are the documents that have largely fueled the ‘strumpet’ characterization of convict women. Many of these descriptions were observations only, as the two groups were physically close but with little or no actual interaction.

Chapter 3 ‘Camping’ concentrates on the arrival of the early female convict transport ships and the immediate experience on disembarking. She points out the shortages of food and fabrics, the variety of physical relationships with men, and the paucity of knowledge that we have about the relationship between convict and indigenous women. Chapter 4 ‘Expansion and Consolidation’ widens the geographical lens to look at the other convict settlements at Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land. In the section ‘Turning Respectable’ she describes the changes that Governor Macquarie brought both to the colony and penal theory. He represented the rising religious morality of the middle classes, and constructed the Female Factory at Parramatta, which introduced more regulation into women’s experience. Chapter 5 ‘Women at Work’ argues that because of the shortage of female domestic labour, women found themselves at an advantage – often for the first time in their lives- and resistant to the ‘niggling’ of their mistresses and employers. Absconding was often part of this battle of wills, although as Smith points out, with an absconding rate of 25%, the majority of women stayed put.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the Female Factory at Parramatta, the design and administration of which was strongly influenced by the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. From 1823 it was divided into three sections: the first for women waiting to be reassigned (the source of the ‘marriage bureau’ trope), the second for pregnant and nursing mothers and the third for punishment. Most of our ideas about the Female Factory are shaped by the appalling child mortality figures from the second section, and the defiance and insubordination of the third section. Here Smith develops her argument about women’s voices. The third section was noisy. Cheering, jeering, yelling, quarrelling were punished by hair cutting and confinement to cells. As she did in Chapter 4, Smith again widens her analysis in Chapter 7 ‘Secondary Punishment Settlements’ to take in the places of secondary punishment (i.e. sentences passed within NSW and VDL rather than back in Britain) in Newcastle, Macquarie Harbour, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Chapter 8 ‘Female Factories in Van Diemen’s Land’ looks at the factories at the Cascades, Hobart in George Town (Launceston) in the north, and later in Ross. As with the Parramatta factory, these factories were divided into sections, and all were overcrowded. Here, too, the women talked (p. 193), much to the chagrin of the superintendent of Cascades. They rioted, they sang, they danced, they jeered, they ridiculed – just as they did in Parramatta. Policies came and went, with ‘probation’ introduced in 1845 to inculcate discipline and submissiveness, but it was abolished nine years later.

Chapter 9 ‘Love and Loss’ looked at the role of marriage as a stepping-stone to morality in many cases, and further violence in others. Here she describes the conditions and death toll at the Cascades nursery in particular, and the role of orphanages. In a nice bit of symmetry, Smith closes the book in the final chapter titled ‘The People v. The Crown’, a neat inversion of the opening chapter. She emphasizes that the outcome for convict women ranged from ‘triumph to tragedy’. (p. 242). She points out that while the Crown always won back in Britain, in the colonies the tables were turned. The gentry needed the co-operation of the prisoners. Starting with the ship journey to the colony, there was a change in the power balance. The health care received on ship was better than many women had ever experienced before. Undoubtedly there were women who had sex with the crew,the officers, and possibly male passengers, but this may well have been their choice. On shore, women convicts were involved in every kind of sexual relationship, of which rape and coercion was just a part, but always a threat. However, as the century and the former penal colonies progressed, women changed, sometimes crossing class barriers in their relationships.

They were not silent. Smith notes:

Some historians have advocated a shift in historical imagination from ‘seeing’ to ‘hearing’ the past. And they are right. But it has been predominantly the sounds of a male world to which they have listened. Distracted by our feminist preconceptions about sexuality and gender power imbalance, we missed how loudly the voices of women convicts ring out from history’s page. Moving past the sites of exploitation suggested by the gentry, such as the voyages and relationships, we can hear more clearly what the women were saying, the force with which they spoke and recognize its impact on others. Their use of shouting, wailing, singing and ridicule as weapons in a war of attrition against authority is now fully exposed, with the range and depth of it much greater than we realized.

p. 251

There were many things that I liked about this book. It is generously and lavishly illustrated throughout the text with images and artefacts from the convict era, although I wished that some of the text-based artefacts were reproduced in a larger size so that they could be read instead of merely observed as an object. The text is interspersed with little biographical break-outs, which tell the story of individual women convicts across their whole life span, reflecting the work of family historians. I liked the way that she recognized the changing nature of the convict system over time, as the idealism of the early plans had to yield to shortages and unforeseen situations, the influence of Macquarie, and the regimentation of later convict policy.

And yet those frequent potted biographical break-outs exemplify the tension in her argument. They also highlight the importance of the choice of name for a book – something that I know is often driven more by the publisher than the historian, although in this case Smith thanks her Twitter friends, who overwhelmingly favoured ‘Defiant Voices’ as the final title. As Smith points out many times, the transportation scheme opened up pathways that would probably not have been available to women had they stayed in Britain. Particularly during the earlier years of transportation, when women and domestic servants were scarce, women found themselves in the box-seat, probably for the first time in their lives. Smith rightly emphasizes the women’s agency, and for many women, this involved making domestic choices that took them out of the convict system entirely. Again and again, her break-out boxes feature women who married or settled into some other sort of domestic relationship, and went on to have many children. Some became wealthy, others ended up being buried in impressive vaults, others became pillars of the church. I wonder how many of their friends (and indeed children?) knew about their convict origins? These details are drawn from genealogical records, rather than prison records.

Meanwhile, the more voluminous prison records deal with those ‘noisy’ women denoted by the title. Making noise is another form of agency – of resisting, calling attention, of refusing to conform – but the women’s loudness and the weight of documentation generated by their intransigence tends to overshadow that other domestic, quieter agency of summing up the options, and choosing the best.

It is rather misleading because in the body of the text, Babette Smith has resisted being dragged into an either/or, strumpet/victim dichotomy. The book is far more nuanced than the title and back-page blurb suggests. It is instructive to hear those voices of defiance, but it is important to recognize those other, more domestic choices as well – as Smith does well, despite the title.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Review copy from NLA Publishing through Quikmark Media.

I have included this review on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

With subtitles in English: Rey (2017)

SBS has had a ‘festival’ of Latin American movies on their On-Demand service since 1 February 2021 and of course, I’m only watching them now that they are due to expire at the end of April. Obviously my ‘last minute’ film excursions apply just as much to movies on television as they do at the cinema.

On one level ‘Rey’ is the story Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a French lawyer who went to South America, claiming in 1860 that the Mapuche natives had elected him ruler of Araucanía and Patagonia. He was arrested by the Chilean authorities, declared insane and sent back to France. He actually made several trips, trying to claim his kingdom, but each time he was sent back to France, where he died penniless. Check out the Wikipedia entry – what an incredible story!

This movie is really strange, and obviously the film-maker had a great time making it. It uses recovered, damaged film – bearing a close resemblance to Australia’s Ned Kelly movie- interspersed with fevered, dreamlike, hallucinogenic sequences. I found it quite unsettling, and almost scary in its sheer weirdness. It reminded me a bit of the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, or for an utterly banal pop reference, Julieta Venegas’ film clip for ‘Limon y Sal’.

You can read a review of the film by someone who knows what they were looking at here. It’s saying something about history, memory and colonialism but I’m not really sure quite what.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-15 April

The History Hour (BBC) This program focuses on historical events, mostly in living memory and it seems to be presented by journalists rather than historians (I may be wrong on this). The Black Jesus episode looks at the Rev Albert Cleage who re-named his Detroit Church in 1967 as ‘The Shrine of the Black Madonna’, replacing a stained glass window of Mary with a large painting of a black Mary and black baby Jesus. He did not agree with Martin Luther King’s inclusion of white activists in his protests, and he argued that if man was made in God’s image, then it was likely that he was black as most of the world’s population is non-white. There’s also a segment about Margaret Thatcher being interviewed by Soviet journalists on television in 1987, a discussion of the effect of Karen Carpenter’s death on the discussion of anorexia, and the story of two Englishmen who were kidnapped by FARC guerillas in Columbia while they were hunting for orchids.

Heather Cox Richardson talked on 12 March, answering one of the questions she is most commonly asked: When did the Republicans (progressive) and Democrats (conservative) swap? She starts off by reminding us that when the Constitution was written, there weren’t parties at all. She pins the swap mainly to the 1960s when Barry Goldwater ran. This is a good, stand-along episode to explain something which previously seemed quite baffling.

Fifteen Minute History is almost never 15 minutes, but it is still short. It´s produced at the University of Texas at Austin, where PhD candidates interview historians about their recent publications. In Episode 130: Black Reconstruction in Indian Territory, Alaina Roberts discusses her new book I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land. An African-American herself, she has always been aware that her family owned land in Oklahoma, and she wondered how that came about. She found herself exploring the connections between previously-enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans. Some were themselves enslaved by Native Americans, while others moved into Native Land as part of Reconstruction. I had to listen to this twice to make sense of the distinctions because this history is new to me.

Big Ideas (ABC) I have recently read Anne Applebaum’s book The Twilight of Democracy, and so I was interested to hear this interview with Applebaum Democracy Under Threat recorded at the Adelaide Writers Festival in March 2021, where she is interviewed by Sally Warhaft. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy the interview.

‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’ by Anne Applebaum

2020, 189 p.

I was aware of Anne Applebaum’s work on the Soviet gulags, and I think that I have read several of her essays and pieces in various journals and newspapers, but I confess that it didn’t really occur to me to wonder about her own political affiliations. That’s just as well, because I probably wouldn’t have read this book otherwise, closed as I am in my own little leftish-leaning progressive bubble. In this book, which is a mixture of memoir and political argument, Applebaum talks about her falling out with her friends, most of whom would fit into that American Enterprise Institute, Thatcheritish, conservative-leaning (but not Trumpian) Republican world of intellectuals and diplomats.

In this extended essay/memoir, she starts off with a New Years Eve party that she threw in 1999 – the dawn of a new millenium- attended by journalist friends from London and Moscow, junior diplomats based in Warsaw, a few friends from New York and their Polish friends, cousins and a handful of youngish Polish journalists. Her husband was then foreign minister in a centre-right Polish government. She herself had worked at The Spectator between 1992 and 1996.

You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right- the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcher-ites. Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union (EU), a Poland that was an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.

p. 2

That was twenty years ago. Twenty years on, she says, she would now cross the street to avoid some of those people, who, in turn would refuse to enter her house. They have found themselves on different sides of a political divide that runs through the Polish right, the Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British right and the American right. (p. 4)

Although she says that this is a political difference, it has bled into the personal as well. Ania Bielecka, a close friend and the godmother of one of her children, is now close to the leader of the Polish Law and Justice party, and no longer responds to her texts. Another friend has become a full-time internet troll, several are conspiracy theorists. As she points out, these friends have been educated at the best universities, often speak foreign languages, live in big cities. They form part of the group she calls ‘clercs’, a term used by the French essayist Julien Benda to describe the authoritarian elite of the 1920s-30s, the writers, journalists and essayists, who morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists who goaded whole civilizations into acts of violence. (p.18) She goes on to talk about current-day clercs who have brought their academic and media reputations to give cover to far-right figures and their agendas.

She distinguishes between two types of nostalgia, drawing on the work of Russian essayist Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia. ‘Reflective’ nostalgia is an appeal to the past and its yellowed pages and memory, without actually wanting to bring it back. ‘Restorative nostalgia’ want to “rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps”, as Boym expressed it. It often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories and ‘medium-sized’ lies.

She dates the cultural despair which has driven some British Tories into the arms of UKIP to the end of Thatcherism and the end of the Cold War, sometime between the 1990s and the 2010s. She suggests that the ‘grassroots’ conservatism of Trump’s America or Brexit is a reaction against complexity, often driven by major demographic change, inequality and wage decline and disappointment with meritocracy. It is amplified by the “contentious, cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself” (p. 109)

She draws on examples from across the Northern hemisphere, but concentrates on Brexit in the UK, Trump’s America, Hungary, Poland and Spain. In all these countries, far-right parties have been supported by ‘intellectuals’. Why? she asks. They operate from a variety of motives, she suggests. It is not a charitable list:

The people described range from nativist ideologues to high-minded political essayists; some of them write sophisticated books, others launch viral conspiracy theories. Some are genuinely motivated by the same fears, the same anger, and the same deep desire for unity that motivates their readers and followers. some have been radicalized by angry encounters with the cultural left, or repulsed by the weakness of the liberal centre. Some are cynical and instrumental, adopting radical or authoritarian language because it will bring them power or fame. Some are apocalyptic, convinced that their societies have failed and need to be reconstructed, whatever the result. Some are deeply religious. Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order. All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.


I found myself thinking of historians and commentators who I have watched embed themselves with the far right. Is it only because I dislike their stance that I find myself ascribing one or another of these motives to them?

She closes her book with another party, held in Poland again, in August 2019. Once-luxurious goods like portable sound systems and basalmic vinegar had become common-place; some of the guests had also attended their 1999 shindig. Some of them weren’t even in 2019. She felt that the division between ‘somewheres’ (i.e. people rooted to a particular place) and ‘anywheres’ (i.e. people who travel) was not visible.

But by March 2020 the world had changed again with the abrupt closure of borders because of COVID. She ends by being unsure which future faces us: perhaps we are living through the twilight of democracy and heading towards anarchy or tyranny; or perhaps the coronavirus will inspire a new sense of global solidarity. (I think that vaccine nationalism has put an end to that optimistic hope). She reminds us that liberal democracies have always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort and struggle (p. 189). And they always acknowledged the possibility of failure.

We always knew, or should have known, that history could once again reach into our private lives and rearrange them. We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of nations would try to draw us in. But maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them.

p. 189

An interesting aside: in America this book was titled Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I’m racking my brains to work out the motives for the different title.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 April 2021

Rear Vision (ABC) There has been a great deal of attention on the Australian Parliament recently. In The Political Swamp: Poisonous for Women, the history of female representation in Parliament is addressed. Women may have achieved the vote and the right to stand for Parliament but it took 40 years until someone actually did. The program looks at New Zealand and Scandinavian countries to show that it can be done much, much better.

Heather Cox Richardson. Well, she really did finish her series on Reconstruction on 26 February when she said she would. So what now? Well, on 5 March, she discussed the concept of ‘the shining city on the hill’. The origin of the term was actually back in Puritan days, when the Puritan leaders were worried that if the new community failed, then the rest of the world would mock their endeavour. What John Winthrop meant was that “we’re sticking out like a sore thumb, so we’d better behave”. A bit different to the triumphalist use of the term ‘shining city on the hill’ by Robert Reagan and most recently by Mike Pompeo to mean “we are perfect, so other countries had better behave”. She goes on to talk at the end about Trump’s 1776 Commission, which aimed to teach a ‘patriotic’ American history, and the countering 1619 project.

History Workshop Even though it won the An Post Irish National Book of the Year and the Foyle’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year, perhaps I should NOT read Doireann ní Ghríofa’s book A Ghost in the Throat. She is an Irish poet, and her book is a mixture of biography and autofiction as she interweaves her own relationship with pregnancy and motherhood, and the life of eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The author is not a historian, and not part of academia and she in effect found her own way through this biography, albeit drawing on the work of many other scholars. This interview Writing Women’s Lives & Histories is with an academic historian Christopher Kissane, who points out that as an amateur historian, she faced the same dilemmas and roadblocks as academic historians do. He is obviously more comfortable with the insertion of autofiction than I am. On the other hand, it is very cheap as an ebook ($8.46).

The Law Report (ABC). Thomas Embling Hospital is relatively close to my house, on the site of the old Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. Inside Thomas Embling Hospital, a Forensic health facility is the first radio broadcast from inside this health facility for patients who have committed a serious crime, but were either found not-guilty or judged unable to stand trial because of mental illness.

Then this omnibus episode looks at Christian Porter and has an advertisement for a new ABC Listen Podcast on ‘good’ divorces, but more interesting to me was a discussion of the Kathleen Folbigg case. Just as the legal system via the NSW Court of Appeal ruled that she stay behind bars, the Australian Academy of Science, along with 90 eminent scientists argued that medical discoveries over inherited conditions had moved on since her sentencing, and that she should be pardoned.

Big Ideas (ABC) Historian Leigh Straw, whose books on WWI soldiers and Dulcie Markham I have reviewed previously, gives the Geoffrey Bolton 2020 lecture History of Women and Crime. In this lecture, she talks about women she has discovered in the archives who fell foul of the ‘disorderly conduct’ provisions of the law during the early 20th century, from crime madams like Kate Leigh through to sex workers with traumatic histories. Following Leigh’s talk, there is a 20 minute interview with the journalist and writer Juliet Wills who has been working for years on the still unsolved case of Shirley Finn 45 years ago – it would seem that there are powerful people who do not want this case solved.

Let’s Talk about Sects The Zion Full Salvation Ministry was based in Sydney from the 1970s to the 1990s. Violet Pryor, aged in her 50s and very charismatic, claimed that she had the best stigmata ever, and recovered the most quickly ever from a car accident – are you hearing shades of Donald Trump? The person interviewed in this podcast is David Ayliffe, who was her right-hand man for over 20 years. He sounds such a grounded, sensible person that you realize just how powerful cult figures must be.

Outlook (BBC) Before the big ship got stuck in the Suez, the Outlook program broadcast Abandoned at sea for three years about Indian marine engineer Vikash Mishra who, along with the rest of the crew on the Tamin Aldar were left abandoned 20 kms from Dubai, with dwindling supplies, when the ship owners went broke. The company bought off the other workers by offering a small percentage of the wages they owed them, but Vikash knew that as long as he held off, he was in the more powerful situation. This is his story.

‘Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens’ by James Boyce

2020, 195p.

“That’s strange…” I thought. The James Boyce the Historian that I am familiar with is a Tasmanian historian, who has written two excellent histories of Van Diemens Land and the 1835 settlement of Victoria, as well as books about the gambling industry in Tasmania and the concept of original sin. But writing about the Fens in England? What’s he doing over there?

Before reading the book, I decided to read the Acknowledgments first because I needed to know why he had jumped from Tasmanian to British history. Forewords, Postscripts and Acknowledgments are an interesting addition to the text. I often don’t read the foreword, even though the writer (or their publisher) has consciously placed it before the text, because I frequently find that it’s more interesting and useful to read it after I have read the book. I’m often perplexed as to why a foreword or introduction or a foreshadowing of the arguments is at the front, when it would be more meaningful at the end of the book. However, even though I have often criticized the insertion of the historian as an actor into his/her text, I do like to know where the historian is coming from. It seems to me that this is the information that is best placed in an introduction, rather than at the end of the text.

And so, flipping to the back of the book, I find that Boyce explains that

A more direct source for this book was my research on the Australian frontier…When I began to read histories of the Fens, I was struck by some largely unacknowledged similarities with the colonial frontier. Here too was a multi-faceted defence of country, a transformation of the land, the introduction of foreign settlers and a confrontation between two worlds. While researching Australian history, I began to wonder, did the fact that the Fens was part of England justify such a radically different approach to writing its past?


So this is the approach that he takes: that even though the Fens are physically located in England, they were colonized just as lands across the globe had been. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. His maps at the start of the book show locations in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. (I must confess that these names mean little to me, as other than a trip to Cambridge, I have never been there). More interestingly, he adopts his own name for the people who live there by creating the term “Fennish”. He points out that even though they may not have seen themselves as a discrete people, their sense of unity was strengthened once the process of dispossession began.

Resisting imperialism helped create a shared identity for diverse groups of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians as it did for the people of the Fens.

p. xviii

He also identifies them a ‘indigenous’ people: a term we generally associate with over-the-seas colonialism. They were people intimately knowledgeable about the liminal relationship between water and land.

All cultures undergo times of upheaval as well as long periods of evolution. What characterises an indigenous culture is neither its uniformity nor immutability, but that it remains rooted in country as it experiences continuity and change.

p. xix

So he traces the unique, watery, changeable geography of the marshes of the Fens from 4000 years ago. The Romans were experienced drainers, and they constructed canals and dams which became integrated into a local creation myth about a race of giants. After the Roman withdrawal, the Fens were portrayed by the Church as an inhospitable and unpopulated land. It was this reputation for unhealthiness and a combination of direct resistance, accommodation, adaptation and deal-making that meant that the Fennish survived Roman, Saxon and Viking conquests. (p. 15) Most of the Fens remained common land after the Norman conquest, although many new religious houses were established, extending their presence through priories, hermitages and shrines. This monastic expansion provided economic opportunities through an abundance of fish, waterfowl shellfish, eels and most importantly, grass. There was a high proportion of small farmers, and the size and abundance of the commons ensured that the Fennish could make a communal living.

‘The Commons’ were fundamental to Fennish life, but they were always under threat, first from monasteries, then from the social and religious flux associated with the Reformation. Under the Stuarts there were grand plans for draining the marshes, particularly drawing on Dutch expertise. Oliver Cromwell at first championed the rights of the Fennish, only to himself become a champion of enclosure and drainage once he became Protector. The passing of the Enclosure Bill in 1767 led to the clearing out of ‘squatters’ backed by the power of the state, as with the Highland Clearances in Scotland, facilitated by the legal ‘fix’ described in E.P, Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters.

What seemed to spell the end for the Fens was not political power alone, but also technological change. The Industrial Revolution spawned new technologies, but the relative isolation of the Fens ensured that Fennish culture survived through ongoing resistance, deployment of the courts, and fightback. Drainage and enclosure of the Fens took hundreds of years because of the success of this resistance. It was World War II and its food shortages and the devastating floods in 1947 and 1953 that accelerated government-funded projects to drain the fens. Big, capital-intensive engineering schemes were prompted by heavily subsidized farm prices after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. Indeed, “The landscape was as comprehensively transformed between 1950 and 2000 as at any corresponding period in history” (p.180)

That might seem to be the end of the story, except that the land has had its own silent, inexorable regeneration. Climate change and subsidence means that the land is again being inundated, and restoration projects are under way.

In his postscript Boyce points out that just because the Fennish were English did not shield them from a process of colonization on British soil, as distinct from American or Australian soil.

The Fennish story is an integral part of the troubled history of the imperial age. As elsewhere in the empire, an indigenous people fought the land grab through every means available to them, including force, until the subversive power of the modern state and the technological power of the Industrial Revolution achieved what seemed to be a final victory


It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. In his acknowledgments Boyce refers to Graham Swift’s Waterland, and for me, this fictional book helped me to fill in the imaginative gaps. Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 26-31 March 2021

The History Listen (ABC). How could they have a program on The Lost Boys of Daylesford, and only mention my friend Kim Torney and her book Babes in the Bush in passing? I kept expecting her voice to come bursting out of my earbuds but, no. This episode The Lost Boys of Daylesford focuses on three little boys- and they were little with the eldest just six- who disappeared around Daylesford in 1867. Certainly the local tourism industry there is making that sure they are no longer forgotten.

Fifteen Minute History. The episodes of Fifteen Minute History often go a bit longer, as happened with The History of the US-Mexico Border Region where C.J. Alvarez discusses his book Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide (2019). Even though most of us are aware of ‘The Wall’, he examines three other large construction projects in the borderlands, which are less well known. The first involves remote army patrol roads, built in 1910s in the midst of the Mexican Revolution (deployment of troops peaked in 1917- eight times as many as are there today); the second is the project to straighten the Rio Grande in the Rio Grande Rectification Project; the third is Amistad Dam completed in 1969 built as a joint project by Mexica and America. He doesn’t speak of THE border, but the border region. ‘The Wall’ was started in the 1990s and ramped up in 2006, but it accompanied by an equally large project to built infrastructure to support the movement of goods under the Free Trade agreement. He points out that in terms of projects to prevent border crossings, the projects to prevent animals from crossing were always more locally oriented (to work out where the animals were getting through) compared to projects to prevent people from crossing which were often national projects and ignorant of local geography.

Rear Vision (ABC) During the COVID lockdown, my suburb lost its local paper. It has not returned. Talk about “don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”. Sure, it was full of advertising and soft news, but at least it was local, and at least it was ours. It has really hobbled our ability at the local Historical Society to document current events, so that we can locate them again in the future. How the death of local news is destroying democracy looks at the effect of the loss of a local paper, not only socially but politically. It worries me that local council is no longer reported on, and that ‘news’ is now just ‘publicity.’

Latin American History After just escaping Tenochitlan with the remnants of his troops, Cortez lay low for a while, working out how to retake the city. In Episode 44 The Conquest of Mexico Part 8 he could let smallpox do its work in Tenochitlan, while besieging the city for three months to weaken the Aztecs further. He then could return to Tenochitlan and take the city, which the Spaniards maintained until the War of Independence in the 19th century. Although certainly Tenochitlan was the jewel of the Aztec empire, he only actually controlled a sliver of territory at this stage.

Kerning Cultures This is a Middle Eastern podcast from UAE- in English of course! The episode Flagged and Stamped looks at two markers of national identity: the flag and postage stamps. First it tells the story of the Iraqi flag- did you know that the ‘God is Great’ lettering on the flag during Saddam Hussein’s time was written in his own handwriting? Sure enough, the Americans weren’t too happy with that, so the font was changed and eventually the three stars that signified the aspiration that Egypt, Syria and Iraq would form a united block were removed too. The second part of the podcast looks at stamps in the UAE (formerly known as the trucial states because of a truce with UK). An American stamp entrepreneur (who knew there was such a thing) called Finbar Kenny contracted with the northern trucial states to issue thematic stamps for collectors. They were virtually worthless because there were so many of them- they are called ‘Dunes’. Once the emirates became independent, Kenny moved his business on to the Cook Islands instead.