AHA Conference 2022 Day 2

Geelong Waterfront 2011, Dtfman, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geelong_Waterfront.jpg

I started off the day early (8.30 a.m.) with a session on Jimmy Blacksmith/Jimmy Governor. Grace Brooks started off with a paper on Indigenous Labour History on Film which focused on Schepisi’s ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’ (1978) and Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ (2017). This is part of her PhD research into depictions of labour relations more generally in Australian film. She argues that while not expecting film as a genre to be strictly historically correct, both films were successful in depicting indigenous labour history, rupturing the myth of Australian egalitarianism promulgated by blokey films like ‘Sunday Too Far Away’ or ‘Waterfront’. She notes that ‘Jimmy Blacksmith’ challenged the myth of indigenous indolence, and she suggested that the schoolteacher McCready acted as a mouthpiece for Schepisi’s own political views. She sees Thornton’s film, set in 1929 Northern Territory as a subversive form of the western, but without a musical score until the final credits. It utilizes non-linear storytelling, reflecting a First Nations approach and historically, it captures well the pastoralist and domestic service settings of Indigenous employment. Interestingly, both Schepesi and Thornton’s film depicted featured fence-building as the labour undertaken by their protagonists- a particularly resonant task given the appropriation of indigenous land. She suggests that Thornton’s film is more nuanced- that we are all angels and bastards. It seemed to me that Brooks was largely unaware of Keneally’s book (as distinct from the film) and his present-day discomfort with its telling of the story of Jimmie Blacksmith from the black perspective.

The second paper by Richard Evans was titled Jimmy Governor: Revisiting a Story of Murder and Consequences. As a criminologist and historian, he looked at Jimmy Governor as a historical/legal case, and focussed on Jimmy Governor rather than the fictionalized Jimmy Blacksmith. Like the earlier speaker, he does not expect film to live up to historical accuracy either, but he noted that Jimmy Blacksmith (both in film and book) did not feature the murder of the heavily pregnant Elizabeth O’Brien and her son, and the fairly credible allegations of rape that were not tested in court. He suggested that the victims of Governor’s crime tend to be pushed to the background, and that there is perhaps a degree of “what-about-ism” that arises when you are talking about violence within a colonial-violence environment. He noted the particular grudges that Governor held, and suggested that the shootings fit into the American “spree shooting” phenomenon that we speak of today. Rather refreshingly, he commented that he had hoped to mount an academic study of Governor but then found that it had already been done by Laurie Moore and Stephen Wilkins in their The True Story of Jimmy Governor (2001) some twenty years ago. At this point, I remembered that I have read this book (which is quite difficult to find today although can be print-on-demand) so I headed back to my own Reading Journal from 2003 to see what I thought of it.

I read this more for its connections with Keneally’s Jimmy Blacksmith than anything else. Written by a family descendent who lived in Jimmy Governor’s neighbourhood- in fact, a family ancestor actually arrested him- I think that this in some way compromises the authors. They are certainly restricted to white documentary sources but they are, to their credit, aware of this.

Main differences in the accounts of Jimmy Blacksmith vs. Jimmy Governor:

1. There is no spiritual dimension in the Governor story at all- no mission, no Rev. Neville, no ‘womb’, no initiation

2. The relationship with Governor’s wife Edith was far sounder than Keneally suggests, and the child was his son

3. There was no school teacher, kidnapping etc. as depicted in the Blacksmith story- was this just a vehicle for Keneally to give a potted white/black history?

4. The murders were, if anything, worse- and there was a rape.

I found the lack of footnotes disconcerting, but it was a readable and interesting account in its own right, with good maps, and the book acknowledged the lack of indigenous input

My reading Journal March 2003.

Evans remarked on this latter point too, but noted that (white) researchers have encountered a real and understandable reluctance by indigenous groups to engage in the question of Jimmy Governor/Jimmy Blacksmith- and this, he suggests, is perhaps a research area for another person at another time.

I was able to follow this early-morning session with the next session titled ‘Pandemics and Vaccines’. Gabrielle Wolf started with a paper ‘From Black Death to COVID-19: Infectious Diseases and Legal Challenges‘. She noted that neither epidemiologists or legal historians were surprised by COVID and the legal responses it spurred, as we had seen this story before. The Black Death in the 1350s saw the legally-enforced introduction of trentina, and then quarantina (30 days and 40 days respectively) of isolation. In the wake of the labour shortages caused by so much death, the Statute of Labourers was introduced in 1351 which limited wages and worker mobility, fixed prices and created the crime of vagrancy. During the smallpox epidemics of the 18th century, vaccine mandates were introduced, leading to anti-vaccination resistance. [At this point my new washing machine arrived, and so I missed the part on legislative responses to the 1918-9 Influenza epidemic.] During the HIV epidemic, stigmatization led to anti-discrimination laws on the one hand, and the criminalization of behaviour likely to spread HIV on the other. In 1951 the United Nations introduced International Sanitary Regulations, renamed the International Health Regulations in 1969, a revised edition of which operates today. Pandemics and epidemics are seen at the time as seismic events with which the law must wrestle, but the laws produced are often challenged because of their effects on individual rights, social cohesion and scapegoating.

Chi Chi Huang gave the next presentation ‘Preventing Smallpox in Australia’s North: the politics of who to vaccinate’. Smallpox was seen as a disease that came from ‘over-seas’, and as a result there was concentrated surveillance of coastal areas with interaction with shipping, fishing and pearling. The various states of Australia had differing smallpox vaccination programs, but these programs were all largely ineffective and ended by the early 1920s. There was a state-based reluctance to implement mandates, and they may not have been necessary anyway as NSW had a similar rate of vaccination to the other states, even though it was not compulsory there. Two compulsory smallpox vaccination programs in the early 20th century took place in the Northern Territory, where the Federal Government did not have to engage with state politics (shades of 2020). The first was conducted by John Elkington in the Torres Strait Islands in 1912, where he vaccinated the Thursday Islanders on the mission. The second was on Bathurst Island and in Darwin in 1933 where Dr Cecil Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines and Quarantine Officer for North Australia, and Dr. J. H. L Cumpston, the Director-General of the Department of Health vaccinated 212 Aboriginal people out of concern that smallpox would be passed on by ‘alien’ pearl shell workers- but they did not vaccinate the pearl fishers themselves, largely through a lack of jurisdiction.

The third paper was titled Bacterial Vaccines during the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic and it was given by David Roth. I was interested in this, because while writing my ‘Hundred Years Ago’ column for the Heidelberg Historical Society newsletter, I had noticed a council-administered vaccine program during 1919, and I wondered what was in the vaccine. Everything that I had read (written both at the time and later) had suggested that the vaccines were largely ineffective, but this appraisal is challenged by David Roth who argues that the doctors of the time recognized the role of secondary infection and that there were vaccines that reduced morality significantly. Using the studies at the time, Roth argues that these vaccines had an efficacy/efficiency rate of about 30%, which is similar to the influenza vaccines sometimes administered today against particular strains of influenza.

And by this time, we had connected up the new washing machine and I wanted to see how it worked! Besides, another grandchild had arrived and we spent the afternoon playing in the box that the washing machine had arrived in. So that was the end of my Day 2.

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