Category Archives: Australian history

Putting a price on dispossession

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Today the High Court of Australia will begin hearing a case that will consider the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. This article in The Conversation explains it well.  According to the article, it’s an appeal case following two earlier decisions made by the Federal Court on the first compensation claim since the passing of the Native Title Act.  In the first of these decisions (the first Timber Creek decision) Federal Court Justice John Mansfield developed a methodology for working out how much money should be awarded as compensation for loss of native title rights. It had three steps:

  1. The value of land rights in plain economic terms, discounted by 20% because native title often brings constraints on how the land can be used economically
  2. How to compensate for the loss of  non-economic aspects of the land’s value e.g. spiritual and cultural harm (What a question! Where would you start?)
  3. Interest to award the passage of time (in this case back to the 1980s when the Northern Territory government granted land and undertook public works near Timber Creek)

The decision was appealed and the amount of compensation reduced, but the methodology for working out compensation was not challenged. But will the High Court follow the same methodology? It’s an interesting article- well worth a read, with good links.

Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on by Anna Clark

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-great-australian-silence-50-years-on-100737

An excellent essay in The Conversation by historian Anna Clark reflecting on WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures where he coined the term ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe the occlusion of indigenous people from narratives of Australian history. Her essay comes fifty years after those essays, but also in the contemporary context of the political response to the Uluru statement and  Lyndall Ryan and others’ work on the massacre map.

I encourage you to read it.

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

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I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

Website: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

There has been a recent updating of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities’ website Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

Take the time to read the Introduction to the website. Here the researchers explain that their criteria of a ‘massacre’ arises” from the indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people”.  Six people, they explain, from a hearth group of twenty leaves those remaining vulnerable to attack, with a diminished ability to hunt, reproduce or carry out ceremonial obligations.

It is still a work in progress, with information from Western Australia and after 1930 yet to be added.

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard

bollard

2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.

 

Listening to the pollies

One of the funniest clips I’ve seen this year was Bob Katter talking about marriage equality and crocodiles. In the same sentence.

Quite apart from the absurdity of what Katter is saying, I was struck by the broadness of his Australian accent, particularly once he started on crocodiles.

I was fascinated by this blog-post from the Museum of Australian Democracy, which provides sound clips of early Prime Ministers.

https://www.moadoph.gov.au/blog/what-did-our-early-prime-ministers-sound-like/

[I had to use Chrome to get all the sound files to work]

I was surprised that although some of the Prime Ministers featured had quite humble backgrounds, they used Received Pronunciation here. I wonder if they were ‘bunging it on’ for the microphone?

‘The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia’ by Anna Clark

clark_thecatch

2017, NLA Publishing, 145 p.

In a beautifully presented book, the “story” (but really, the “history”) of Australian fishing is told by historian and fellow fishing enthusiast, Anna Clark. This shared love of fishing permeates the text of this  book, not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter. Here, for example, is the start to the chapter ‘Early Industry’ that takes us right into the boat with a single fisherman in his small boat:

The boat glides out of Albany and sails across the sheltered waters of Princess Royal Harbour. A breeze skims across the bay and fills the sails- just enough to push the little boat along into the incoming tide to set the nets.  There’s plenty to catch here, and the fisherman fills his woven baskets with herring, whiting and bream, with a few skipjack and pike thrown in for good measure.  But there’s not much point chasing the big hauls, since the fish go putrid after a day or two ashore- and anything left over has to be buried. (p 49)

Or here we are on a modern commercial fleet ship:

The engine’s running and its gentle throb can be felt through the humming deck. Filleting knives are neatly lined up by the cutting boards near the ship’s bow, someone’s hosing off the blood from this morning’s catch and there’s a constant and slightly unpleasant smell of fish.  In the centre of the deck is a little hatch with a lid. Inside, a steel ladder drops down to the icy hold below. It’s dark and filled to the brim with neatly stacked ten-kilogram boxes of fish fillets, snap frozen by the boat’s powerful compressor. They sit waiting to be unloaded and taken away by refrigerated truck to the city’s markets. (p.97)

As well as capturing the tone of the narrative, these two opening paragraphs encapsulate many of the themes of the book: the joy of fishing, the deceptive abundance of fish, the problem of wastage and storage and the effects of technological change.

Published by the National Library of Australia, this lavishly illustrated book shares the high production values of its other volumes, and draws generously on the holdings of the library in photographs, maps and diagrams.

The book starts with indigenous fishing, which was described at length by Cook and Banks to illustrate the abundance of the eastern coast, and which was captured in many of the early drawings and paintings of New South Wales.  The amputation of the pinky finger on Eora fishergirls made it easier to use a line for fishing. It attracted the attention of these early commentators and was clearly shown in convict artist Thomas Watling’s drawing of Dirr-a-goa in the 1790s, while the term for the amputation, “Mal-gun”, was noted in William Dawes’ notebook of translations of Eora words.   However, as Clark notes:

While early colonial sketches and paintings give wonderful snapshots of Indigenous fishers, they do so from a distinctly European perspective.  Written accounts are similarly revealing – and we should be grateful for the faithful record of fishing practices and winning catches they’ve produced- but we can’t forget that these early settlers viewed Indigenous society through a distinctly colonial lens. (p. 17)

Indigenous perspectives on fishing come through the presence of scar trees where bark has been excised to build canoes, the remnant fish traps in rivers, shell middens and through indigenous carvings and paintings of fish.  This indigenous perspective is not relegated to the obligatory opening chapter, but instead continues through the book, with the continuation of fishing at riverside and coastal Aboriginal missions and Traditional Owners claims on traditional fisheries.  As she points out, fishing participation rates among in the Indigenous population sit as high as 92% in some communities, and it is an integral part of connection to country and cultural knowledge. (p. 132)

The abundance of fishing was reported by Captain Cook, and the First Fleet was well equipped to take advantage of it. However, Governor Phillip was less effusive, reporting that some days the fish were there- other days not. The photographs in the book – taken specifically to celebrate the size  of the catch – highlight abundance, but the text tells another story as fishing grounds are fished out and one species of fish collapses after another.

Another theme is the ongoing contest between competing interests. Colonial gentlemen craved the manly sport of fly-fishing and introduced European species into Australians waters with sometimes catastrophic results. (I knew about the European carp, but to be honest, I didn’t realize that the trout was an introduced fish- shows how little I know!) The government supported the establishment of commercial fisheries and the storage and infrastructure requirements to transport fish to lucrative markets, but in response to political pressure, it has more recently championed recreational fishing and set aside no-go zones to increase stock numbers. The emergence of Senators representing recreational fishing interests is likely to keep this political contest alive.

I did find myself wondering who this book is aimed at.  Its appearance just prior to Christmas is, I’m sure, well-planned. Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday.  Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.

Sourced from: Review copy from Quikmark Media and N.L.A.

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I’ve included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.