One of the things that I do when I’m not reading, practising my Spanish or listening to podcasts about Rome, is work at my local Heidelberg Historical Society. Our newsletter, which is published every two months, has a feature called ‘A Hundred Years Ago’ which draws together items of local interest from the ‘Heidelberg News’ and, to a lesser extent, the major Melbourne newspapers through Trove. I’ve been writing this feature since 2015 so I’ve gone through the war, through the ‘Spanish’ flu, the commemoration of fallen soldiers and now I’m up to the 1920s. I’d like to know more. A local paper, by its nature, is full of quotidian events with a heavy emphasis on the civic and the worthy. Leaving aside the Bowling Club results and church socials, I’m finding myself interested in the emotional tenor of the times. With a title like ‘The Confident Years’, I was hoping that Robert Murray might unpack the mindset of the 1920s, but I found myself disappointed.
The book, reissued by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2020 (no doubt with this centenary in mind), was originally published in 1978. This new edition is, as the author admits in his preface
varies little from the original, published in 1978, but has been slightly abridged or amended
There are the occasional mentions of Gough Whitlam or Donald Trump as points of comparison, but I suspect that much of the text and certainly the bibliography is unchanged, with not a single book or article published after 1978.
It started well. In the opening chapter, Murray writes:
The 1920s, the decade that followed the war, have gone down in legend as gay and glittering. Relative to the years that preceded and followed them, this was certainly so. From the perspective of the 1970s, Australia’s 1920s were straitlaced, drab, and crushed in a narrowness of vision and stridency of statement. Yet for all the smothering smugness, it was also a time when the spaciousness and order of the nineteenth century merged almost felicitously into the freedom and affluence of the twentieth.
They were above all confident years, when reasonable people could believe- with from the late-century perspective, a quaint dogmatism of certainty- in nation and leaders, in socialism or free enterprise capitalism, religion or atheism. A world war had been won; during it the socialist revolution had won Russia, but had later been overthrown by counter-revolution elsewhere in Europe. This was just enough experience of what the young century had to offer to drive the imagination. The long years had yet to come when the world would live for more than two decades with the shadow or reality of depression and more world war, when not only capitalism and socialism but the very millenia-tried bastion of the Christian belief itself would eventually crumble almost discredited before new generations to whom disillusion seemed merely the way of things.
This is what I was looking for in this book, but I found that most of the book involved politics with a capital P and the machinations of political operatives on all sides. After an introductory chapter ‘Fit for Heroes’, there follow four chapters dealing with the Nationalist, Labor and Country parties (Ch. 2 The Political World of Billy Hughes; Ch.3 Post-War Labor; Ch. 4 The Big Fella and Chapter 6 Bruce-Page Australia). Chapter 5 inserts an analysis of the Big Boys of the press (Ch. 5 Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co – how depressing that they are still household names a hundred years later) and Ch. 8 After the Bulletin looks at literature and theatre both on stage and screen. Chapter 9 Workers and Bosses looks at the strike activity particularly in the last years of the decade, and Chapter 10 Countdown to Catastrophe ushers in the Depression of the 1930s.
In these chapters, Murray is careful to pay attention to State politics as well as Federal politics, and he introduces male politicians of all stripes with potted biographies. There is a lot of politics squashed in here, as events and crises unfold and pass by.
My favourite chapter was Chapter 7 The Golden Years, which came closest to what I was looking for in the book. There are more women in this chapter although it, too, reads a little like an almanac even to the point of finishing with ‘A Miscellany of Australia’s Twenties’ containing observations that didn’t fit anywhere else. In his preface, Murray mentioned that he interviewed people who were alive during the 1920s, and this chapter- although I enjoyed it most of the whole book- had a bit of the ‘oral-histories’ about it.
This is the only book that I have found that focusses on the 1920s in Australia beyond those ‘So You Were Born in 1925’ type books in newsagents. In terms of capturing a mindset, I gained much more from Deirdre O’Connor’s Harlem Nights, and perhaps I am going to have to look at individual chapters in books about other themes that are less tied to a chronological period (e.g. Janet McCalman’s Journeyings; or Kirsten Otto’s Capital, both of which I have read previously) or fiction -especially newspaper fiction- of the time. I found myself wondering about my own time, a hundred years later, and whether a book about our 21st century ‘Twenties’ that focussed on Australian politics, technology and culture would capture what it is to live now. It would have to include those things of course, but they would not be sufficient. Perhaps I need to send Hugh Mackay back in a time machine to 1920 to measure the emotional climate for me.
Sourced from: State Library of Victoria as an e-book.
It’s fitting that this book should start with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, written out in full. I wonder if in decades to come, this statement will be as well known to Australians as the Gettysburg Address or John of Gaunt’s ‘This Sceptred Isle’ speech. I’d like to think that it will be.
In his foreword, Reynolds notes that there was not universal Indigenous support for the statement, but that it was undoubtedly the most widely canvassed document addressed to the wider community by First Nations representatives, drawn from over 1000 participants, meeting at 12 locations around the country.
It was also a masterpiece of forensic advocacy – succinct, with scarcely a wasted word, utilitarian where necessary, elegant, even poetic in places. It is a document that will endure. But its lasting political impact is yet to be determined.
He points out that most of the political discussion so far has been about the Voice to Parliament, which reflects the strategic choice of the Referendum Council to go for Voice- Treaty – Truth. The response by the Australian government was quick and dismissive. (I wonder how Malcolm Turnbull feels about that now?) In this book, however, Reynolds concentrates on the starting premise of the Statement: the issue of sovereignty.
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs… This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain unattached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years? With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, reprinted p. viii and ix
Now, I admit that sovereignty is not exactly the most gripping topic. It is mired in the 17th and 18th century international jurisprudence that was triggered by Spanish, Portuguese and British colonization in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Even the names are offputting: Grotius, von Pufendorf, Heineccius, de Vattel. This international law formed the basis of American court cases in the 1820s and ’30s when settlers were moving across the American continent. It’s a pretty specialized area, and doesn’t lend itself easily to the much-vaunted and Americanized ‘water cooler conversation’. But in essence, Reynolds argues here that Britain stuffed up colonization in Australia from the very start, acting in ways that were inconsistent with received international law at the time. Despite some hand-wringing from the Colonial Office as a result of humanitarian pressure-politics, the error was perpetuated and entrenched when the Australian colonies achieved self-government. It is was inconsistent then, and it is inconsistent now with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007 and ratified by Australia in 2009. If blame has to be apportioned, it can be directed at the British government up until 1856 but from then on, it lies at Australia’s feet.
In the introduction Reynolds explains his own ignorance of the fraught relations between White Australians and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people until he went to teach at James Cook University in Townsville, where his students were living this history. From there, the book is divided into 2 parts.
Part 1 ‘The First Sovereign Nations’ explores different aspects of sovereignty. Chapter 1 ‘Taking Possession’ looks at Captain Cook’s ceremony on Possession Island off the NW coast of Cape York in August 1770 where he took possession of the country in His Majesty’s name, together with all the bays, harbours, rivers and islands situated on the coast. Right here we have a glitch: according to his secret instructions of 30 July 1768 he was instructed to ‘with the consent of the natives take possession of convenient situations’ or if he found it uninhabited, ‘take possession by setting up proper marks and inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors’. He did not find it uninhabited, nor did he seek or gain consent. When the First Fleet landed in 1788, Arthur Phillip’s commissions on 12 October 1786 and 2 April 1787 made no mention of consent. Immediately on arrival, Phillip wrote back that there were far more Aboriginal people than Sir Joseph Banks and James Matra, who had advised the Colonial Office, had suggested. Nor was inland Australia uninhabited.
Chapter 2 ‘This Ancient Sovereignty’ explores the dawning realization that Aboriginal people lived in tribal groups, in specific districts with known boundaries, and that there were no ‘unpeopled’ lands. Each First Nation contested the encroachment on their traditional lands, and fought for their own country and nowhere else. By the time Ralph Darling was appointed as governor to NSW in 1825, his instructions were to treat Aboriginal nations no longer as British subjects but ‘as if they proceeded from subjects of any accredited State’.(p. 41) This stance was reversed in 1837 when they were again ‘considered as Subjects of the Queen’ (p. 72).
Chapter 3 ‘Whose Land?’ looks at the concept of terra nullius and the acceptance within Australia that, even if this was a mistaken characterization, it was an understandable and even appropriate decision on the part of the British government as a consequence of the failure of Aboriginal society to reach a designated level of ‘civilization’. However, this flew in the face of late 18th and early 19th century international law and the recognition of Native American property rights elsewhere in the Empire, especially in the American Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall between 1801 and 1835 and in New Zealand courts in 1847. By the mid 1830s, humanitarian reformers, previously involved in the slave trade, turned their attention to the fate of Indigenous peoples in British colonies, especially through James Stephen, the permanent under-secretary. Aboriginal protectors, governors (particularly George Arthur in Tasmania, to whom Reynolds gives credit) and eventually the Secretary of State argued that pastoral leases should not allow the driving off of the ‘Natives’ who “have every right to the protection of the law from such aggressions”. (p. 68) Once the colonies gained self-government, this stance was largely ignored.
Chapter 4 ‘Effective control?’ highlights the concern that the Australian government had over the ’empty’ north. The question of ‘effective control’ was important in international law and applied by the British government elsewhere in the world. Britain refused a Portuguese claim to territory in central Africa between Angola and Mozambique because there was no sign of Portuguese jurisdiction or authority and no real occupation. The same issue arose in Nicuargua, when claims of being a successor state to the Spanish Empire were rejected. If the standards of international law as they were understood at the time of Australian federation were applied, neither the states nor the federal government exercised effective control over large areas of Australia.
Ch. 5 ‘Australia and the Law of Nations’ returns to international law. There is, Reynolds claims “clearly more support in international law for the Uluru Statement than many Australians likely imagine.” (p. 90) He turns to the Australian cases of R. v Murrell in 1836 (and I’m surprised that Reynolds did not reference ‘my’ Justice John Walpole Willis here at all) and Cooper v Stuart (1889), both of which cast long legal shadows. He then jumps ahead to the Mabo case of 1992.
Ch. 6 ‘Treaty yeh, Treaty now’ looks at George Augustus Robinson’s ‘peace treaty in all but name’ that brought the Black Wars in Tasmania to an end. Reynolds is dismissive of John Batman’s attempt at a treaty in Port Phillip, pointing out that treaties can only be negotiated by the Crown. The British government, however, abandoned the policy of treaty-making in Australia, even though it ratified treaties in North America, thus condemning hundreds to violent deaths (p. 122). This did not mean that there were not informal ‘treaties’.
There seems to have been some common characteristics of successful negotiations, including understandings about access to water, and about hunting parties avoiding sheep and cattle. In exchange, animals were regularly slaughtered and given to the local band in return for a promise not to spear them out on the range…But an even more significant factor was the provision of young men, who quickly acquired the new skills that, when added to traditional bushcraft, made them valuable additions to any station’s workforce. Young women were provided to be trained in domestic work and to provide sexual comfort. It was often done with reluctance but with an understanding that if not mutually arranged the women would be taken by force. But a frequent underlying consideration was that with a negotiated settlement the station in question became a relatively secure haven away from ambient violence. The ‘white boss’ became a defender of ‘his’ blacks, even able at times to protect them from violent neighbours and marauding police patrols.
But if we are to move beyond the informal, ad-hoc and contingent, as the Uluru Statement urges us to do, a treaty is needed. To a certain extent, some state governments are picking up the baton after Bob Hawke promised to negotiate a treaty at Barunga in the NT thirty years ago. But, despite state-level treaties, there will still need to be a treaty between the national government and First Nations.
Only then will the vexed problem of how to deal with what in the Statement from the Heart was called ‘this ancient sovereignty’ be resolved
Part II of the book is titled ‘Searching for Truth-Telling’ takes the reader into the politics within which the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been launched.
Chapter 7 ‘The Truth about 26 January’ deals with the almost-annual controversy that emerges every January, and points out that the date has been problematic for some time. It was clearly on display in 1938 (150th anniversary) when the Sydney re-enactments were accompanied by a Day of Mourning in Victoria and New South Wales. Claims that 1788 brought the rule of law are inconsistent with the subversion of existing international law represented by Phillip’s instructions and later actions.
Chapter 8 ‘Settlement, Conquest or something else?’ points out that although the term ‘settlement’ suggests coming to rest, or establishing tranquility, it is a term far removed from the “gritty, turbulent and often bloody business of colonisation.” (p. 143) Although within a generation, observers in NSW and Tasmania recognized that the distinct First Nations had their own forms of law and government, a conceptual dissonance developed between the way the law was understood on the frontiers, and the way it was dissseminated in books, newspapers, speeches and sermons. This chapter describes this conceptual dissonance, which has bubbled along quietly for the past 150 years.
Chapter 9 ‘The Cost of Conquest’ highlights the widespread knowledge of the violence of the frontier, contrasted against the ‘great forgetting’ described by WEH Stanner in the 1960s and 1970s. Here he returns to his own ignorance of the violence, and his attempts to enumerate the deaths on the frontier. His first attempt was in a Meanjin article in December 1972 (perhaps 10,000-12,000 as a guess), followed by The OtherSide of the Frontier in 1981 where he hazarded 20,000 deaths for the country as a whole, a number which remained unchallenged until the ‘history wars’ between 1996-2002. Of course, in 2002 Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History whipped up a storm of controversy.
In Chapter 10 ‘Queensland was Different’ he points out that there were two distinct phases in the conquest of Australia. The first unfolded over the first 70 years, the second played out in the second half of the 19th century as colonists pushed into the top third of the continent north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Although Queensland had been settled in the first phase, the conquest of the second phase took place as an Australian project, not a British one. The squatters of this second phase took with them the attitudes shaped by violent conquest in NSW. They rejected the idea that Aboriginal people were British subjects, and that killing an Aboriginal person left one open to a charge of murder (p.179). The most egregious departure from the rule of law was the deployment of the Native Police force from NSW, with the purpose “to kill Aboriginal people in sufficient numbers to terrorize them into submission” (p. 184). Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen have sampled the remnant records that ended up in other government documents and came up with a figure of 40,000 Aboriginal men women and children killed by the Native Police, and another 20,000 violent deaths at private hands. It is true that this is Aboriginal people killing other Aboriginal people, and Reynolds points out that the truth-telling called for in the Uluru Statement will need to deal with this as well (p. 198)
Governors and settlers had long characterized this conflict as ‘warfare’ and in Chapter 11 ‘Remembering the Dead’, Reynolds contrasts this silence about frontier violence, and unwillingness to recognize Aboriginal warriors as patriots (in the truest sense of the word) with Australia’s remembering and commemorating of Australian citizens who have died in overseas wars. This is exemplified by the expense lavished on the Australian War Memorial, and its steadfast refusal to include frontier wars under its aegis. He suggests that a formal ceremony of placing a tomb for the unknown warrior in the heart of the War Memorial next the the grave of the unknown soldier would have been an event of “immense national importance, a symbol of respect, inclusion and reconciliation”. (p.207) He acknowledges that there is little chance now that this will ever happen.
Chapter 12 ‘The Consequences of Truth-Telling’ looks at the removal and replacement of statues in South America, the southern states of the United States, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Georgetown University and in Britain. He looks at the daubing of statues in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 2017, and a new statue of Lachlan Macquarie erected in 2013 which received similar attention. This chapter includes a potted summary of the rest of the book from p. 215 – 219 which seems rather oddly placed so late in the narrative. He points out that Australians have been ready to call the early governors – Phillip, Macquarie, Brisbane, Arthur and Stirling – to account, but less likely to pay attention to Sir John Forrest (WA), Sir John Downer (SA) and Sir Samuel Griffith (Qld), who as premiers and attorney-generals in the late 19th century and early 20th century oversaw the violent suppression of Indigenous resistance. They have suburbs and universities named after them; in some cases their families are still prominent in political and legal circles.
He continues this train of thought in Chapter 13 ‘Inescapable Iconoclasm’ where he particularly looks at Sir Samuel Griffith. Reynolds has read the foreword that appears in every volume of the well-regarded Griffith Review, praising Sir Samuel Griffith as ‘one of Australia’s early great achievers” and claiming that their publication emulates Griffith’s ‘sceptical eye and a pragmatically reforming heart and a commitment to public discussion”. (p. 226) What about Griffith University? The Australian Electoral Commission removed the names of Batman and McMillan as Victorian electorates on the basis of their involvement in frontier warfare – what then about the Brisbane seat of Griffith?
[Griffith] oversaw far more bloodshed than the two frontiersmen. But is it a case of it being much easier to take symbolic action against the foot soldiers than against the high command and knights of the realm?
I think he’s right: it’s easy to attack ‘early’ perpetrators, especially when they are clothed in British imperialism, but less easy for more recent, ‘home-grown’ public figures, whose names are attached to institutions and intellectual endeavours that we value.
His final chapter ‘Conclusion: The Resurgent North’ returns to the Uluru Statement. It will always be associated, he suggests, with “its peremptory rejection by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull”, a rejection that was unexpected and “profoundly disrespectful”. (p. 237) The claim in the Statement that sovereignty had “never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown” was more than a rhetorical flourish, and “it sits there unanswered in the inboxes of the nation’s leaders in both our parliaments and our courts.” (p.245)
This is a timely book, given the insistence of the Referendum Council in pushing the Uluru Statement forward, despite the wish by many politicians to sweep it away. In many ways, the book encapsulates many of the ideas that Reynolds has been putting forward over many years in his other publications, including The Other Side of the Frontier, Why Weren’t We Told? and This Whispering in our Hearts(which I see has been recently republished). Like his other books, it is quietly and doggedly argued. Reynolds is a historian, not a legal scholar, but by necessity this book has had to deal with a great deal of legal argument in order to underscore the illegality, in international law terms, of what we have long taken for granted. It is quietly but passionately argued, from a deep conviction. It raises important questions that, if we are to tell the truth, we will need to face eventually. The questions can be forced upon us by international bodies and treaties, or we can stand up ourselves with First Nations people who, through the Uluru Statement, have invited Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. I know which I’d prefer.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 8/10 (It feels a bit odd even giving it a rating).
‘Ruling from the grave’ seems a particularly insidious form of personal power, as Caroline Kearney found out as a 31 year old widow with six children. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from England as a 17 year old, and married Edward Kearney, a Catholic Irishman who had left his family back in Ireland when he settled in Australia. After farming in South Australia and then the Wimmera in Victoria, Caroline expected that her sons would inherit the family property. It was only when her husband died in October 1865 that she learned that the inheritance, for both herself and her children, depended on her shifting to Ireland and raising the children there as a widow, under the guidance and oversight of her very Catholic -inlaws. She was English: she had never been to Ireland, and all her children had been born in Australia. A dilemma indeed.
It says much for this book that I’m not going to tell you any more. The decisions made and tactics deployed by both Caroline and the Kearney family lie at the heart of this narrative, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by telling you what happened.
Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand-born historian, who spends much of her time in Australia. She has spent much of her academic life in Canada, writing women’s and family history and her most recent book Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal won multiple awards. It was in widening her lens to look at marriage, property and inheritance in the British Empire more generally that she encountered Caroline Kearney. She found the reports of Caroline’s contest against the will in the Victorian Law Reports, and scrawled “Wow, draconian patriarch” and “controlling father too” across her copy. Fascinated by the case, and the ways in which it embodied the themes she wanted to explore, she put aside the broader book she planned, and concentrated on Caroline instead.
Although she acknowledges the assistance she received from two great-great-grandchildren of Caroline and Edward, this is not your usual family-history search narrative, freighted with family identity and identification. That is not to say that Bradbury was not emotionally invested: her loyalties clearly lie with Caroline and other women whose financial rights were circumscribed by property and inheritance law until Married Women’s Property Acts were legislated across the British Empire. But she brings to this case study her historian’s eye, conscious of context and the norm, and alert to the anomalous and unusual. Her extensive bibliography (how lucky she is to have footnotes AND index AND separate bibliography!) reveals the breadth of her sources: newspapers, genealogical information, legal documentation, secondary sources and an unpublished family history, written by one of Caroline’s sons explaining his family upbringing. These sources enable her to focus in closely on Caroline’s case, but then step back to take a wider perspective. In this way, we roam across emigration history, pastoral history, 19th century legal principles, sectarianism, social history, women’s rights, paternalism and history of the family more generally.
Bradbury is present throughout the narrative, interjecting “I” observations at various places. She is open in admitting where the sources fail her, and where she has had to turn to imagination and empathy instead. While her sympathies clearly lie with Caroline, she is not unaware of her foibles. From the perspective of more than a century later, mis-steps and wrong turns become clearer, but not more explicable. In some of the twists and turns of the story, Bradbury is incredulous – wondering whether the person named in a document really is ‘her’ person because their actions seem so discordant. I guess that it’s the difference between a life lived, with all its contradictions and compromises, and a life documented in the flat and abbreviated historical record.
Bradbury has hit the sweet spot between an engaging narrative history and insightful analysis with this book. Because the two are interwoven so seamlessly throughout the text, I was a little disappointed in the ending, which was a ‘what happened next’ follow-through with the members of the family. While I did want to know what became of the children, this section was necessarily more cursory in its treatment, and became rather too much of a genealogical run-through. There was a short, more analytic summary in the closing pages, but I would have preferred that it was longer, with a wider scope.
This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Ernest Scott History Prize, which is awarded to “the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” Its span and its strong tethering in the carefully-documented sources give it historical “chops” but it’s a very human, sensitive story as well, told with discernment and compassion.
South-western Queensland and the rural backlands of Andalusia in Spain are two landscapes and histories that rarely mentioned in the same breath. However, they are not dissimilar to look at: indeed, the image on the front cover could be of Australia’s red centre or the arid desert regions of Andalusia. I suspect by the red tones that suffuse the photograph that it is of Australia, but blood is red too, and it has soaked into the landscape of both settings. In Queensland there were the barely acknowledge massacres of indigenous Australians as settlers moved westward; in Andalusia, there were the bloody atrocities on both sides during the Spanish Civil War.
There are few other people whose knowledge spans both locations, apart from fleeting visits by most travellers. This is where Hispanist and cultural historian Luke Stegemann comes in. He travels the backroads of Queensland as a boxing referee, while he refers to Spain as his ‘second patria‘. Deeply familiar with both, he brings them together in what is described as a “literary examination” of landscape, violence and memory in the two places.
He doesn’t actually describe what a “literary examination” or a “literary meditation” is, but I assume that it is a drawing together of the visions of other writers about an event or place. Certainly, he does reference other authors, but this is no mere desktop activity. He physically visits many of the places that he writes about, mainly as an outside observer. He marries the literary and experiential into a discursive, poetic, beautifully shaped exploration of questions about the memories that a landscape can hold, and the tenacity with which those memories take hold, despite the tacit or overt agreement to deny them.
This book employs two scenarios- the mid-nineteenth century pastoral frontier of south-west Queensland, and a series of early twentieth-century civilian massacres in southern Spain – as pathways towards examining the ways history is turned over and inspected, sometimes with fascination, sometimes with disgust, and its angles then polished for specific cultural and political purposes. Both scenarios are at the centre of contemporary debates around the need to tell, and approved methods of telling, troubled – perhaps better to say infamous – aspects of national history.
The opening chapters wrestle with the ideas of memory and forgetting, memorializing through graveyards and forgetting through unnamed massacre sites. He shuttles between Australia and Spain, using the writing from one culture to illuminate the other. In places this seems like a linguistic game, with chapters titled ‘The verb that has no name’ or ‘The Language of Eden’. The passing of generations and their knowledge is described grammatically:
The past tense soon closes down the present perfect nature of that claim: people have seen becomes, forever, people saw. Descendants remain, but the last of the witnesses are gone. The final death is often unremarked for who knows who is the last of the witnesses?…Each day, each year, each decade, periods of history move further away and we are left with an imperfect detritus. Windows are closed, doors shut, voices silenced, graves sealed.
The book is mainly based on the Australian experience, with the Iberian example used as a point of both comparison and contrast. The heart of the book lies in the two long chapters ‘Threnody’ (which I confess I had to look up – it means “a wailing ode, song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person”) and ‘Iberian Hinterland’.
The ‘Threnody’ chapter, at 50 pages, has the structure of a guided tour across the landscape of south-west Queensland. At each stop, he gives us a description of the landscape and a short history of the ‘interactions’ that took place there. He intersperses this with the local and amateur histories of these places, which generally celebrate the ‘progress’ of settlement and the ‘success’ of ‘dispersal’.
We have a duty to look unsparingly at the acts committed. We can now both see and understand the absurd vanity of the acquisitive graziers, to say nothing of the wretched illegality of their land grabs; nevertheless our contemporary morality is of limited use in grappling with this history. Unavoidably, the expansion of the Europeans across south-west Queensland involved tremendous cruelty and episodes of outright violence that mark our national history, though this fact must be tempered with the knowledge of acts of tenderness and attempts at understanding on both sides, and what were often immediate and close relationships between Indigenous people and settlers.
Nonetheless, as he points out, in order to considered these acts of goodwill, “it is first necessary to climb over the bodies. The toll cannot be avoided.” P. 118 On the Massacre Map produced by the University of Newcastle, the area of South West Queensland is not studded with dots (as the coastal areas are) but when you do click on the massacres, they are of huge numbers of people. I have read of frontier violence before, but it was generalIy deployed against small groups of warriors, or family groups of women and children. I hadn’t imagined 300 people being massacred, as at Bulloo River. Imagine it. The vision is horrifying.
In the succeeding ‘Iberian Hinterland’ chapter, at 63 pages in length, he takes a similar approach, although here he overlays the bloody Civil War history with the tourist itinerary, which exists largely oblivious to what happened less than a century before. I remember reading in the guide book that I took with me to Andalusia just a few years ago, there was still sensitivity about the Civil War, and to not ask pointed questions. But unlike the anonymity and paucity of Indigenous deaths in Australia, there is “a paper trail and a line of bones” that testify to a national total of some 115,000 murdered behind nationalist lines, and 55,000 behind Republican lines (p.135). With the passing of the Law of Historic Memory in 2007 there has been a deliberate political decision that the tacit silence about this slaughter will be broken; that bodies will be exhumed; that Franco will be shifted from the Valley of the Fallen to a private family vault.
Just as there is no turning away from the brutal slaughter of Indigenous people in south-west Queensland, there is no turning away from the indiscriminate killing of tens of thousands of innocent people in the first months of Spain’s civil conflict. And it has been the slow revelation of these details, the political environment into which they have been released, and the arguments they have triggered around questions of memory, truth, justice, compensation and reconciliation, and where these might find their place in a modern democracy, that have added weight to what might otherwise have been just one more collection of twentieth-century bones- anonymous, roadside or forest-deep- abandoned to their violent quiet.
Stegemann sees a similar movement at work here in Australia too, as the Great Australian Silence (in Stanner’s words) is finally being broken down. In particular he points to the Uluru Statement (awarded the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize but still shamefully suspended in limbo four years later). But he points out that reconciliation is hard work. The passing and implementation of the Law of Historic Memory in Spain has been fraught, and is likely to become even more so with the rise of populism. In Australia, the ideological ravine scours ever deeper with social media and a shrill press.
This really is a beautifully written book. You could open any page and find a paragraph that is beautifully crafted and insightful. It has high expectations of the reader. The dual emphasis on Indigenous Australia and Andalusia particularly appealed to me because my interests align along those tracks as well, but also because it illustrates the way that our learning in one field illuminates and enriches the other fields of knowledge that we encounter.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that this publication contains names and images of deceased persons and culturally sensitive information.
I think that one of the most damning and poignant phrases in the Uluru Statement from the Heart refers to “the torment of our powerlessness”. I think about the massacres; I think about the Stolen Generations and now, after reading this book, I add the ‘certificate of exemption’ to this grim array of injustices.
The exemption legislation, introduced across Queensland (1897), Western Australia (1905), Northern Territory (1936), South Australia (1939) and New South Wales (1943) is almost breathtaking in its condescension and its nonchalance to its implications. Although the legislation differed between the states, it involved a process by which individual Aboriginal people could apply for a certificate to declare that they were exempt from the ‘Protection Acts’ on the grounds that they were more ‘assimilated’ than other Aboriginal people – lived moral lives, didn’t drink too much, had steady jobs – and didn’t participate (at least as far as the government was concerned) in Aboriginal culture or socialize with other ‘unexempt’ Aboriginal people. This exemption could be revoked at any time: likewise, it could be imposed without consent on ‘troublemakers’ to separate them from the community.
Ironically, some white Australians, wanting to challenge and negate Indigenous narratives, today deride their authors as “not real Aborigines” (yes, I’m looking at you Andrew Bolt). Yet the Australian government deliberately encouraged this conscious self-rejection of Aboriginal identity, which passed as a matter of course to their children.
This book arose from a two-day symposium called Rethinking and Researching 20th Century Aboriginal Exemption in Australia, held at La Trobe University’s Shepparton Campus in October 2018. Elders directed the planning committee and community member involvement, and there was input from the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Cultural Arts Centre for Koorie Education at GOTAFE. Separate ‘yarning circles’ were held for Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, academics and students. Of the eleven authors who contributed chapters to this collection, all but one are women, and four are Indigenous. This affects the type of book it is. A collection of papers presented as part of a conference or symposium has a different structure and tempo from a volume written by one person alone. Because they are written to reflect a timed, oral presentation, there is a fairly standard length and each one is self-contained, taking its own ‘bite’ at the question. Within each one there is a structure of introduction-evidence-conclusion, but unless there is a final, integrating chapter (and in this collection, there is not) there is often no over-arching conclusion. The La Trobe University connection between the authors comes through very clearly, with a strong representation of La Trobe academics and alumni.
Australia was not the only country to introduce exemption legislation. John Maynard, in the opening chapter, points out that historically, there were similar processes in French and Belgian colonies – not that looking to the Congo for policy is much of a recommendation (p. 14) Both Canada and America had similar policies with their Indigenous populations, starting with Canada in 1857 and in America in 1906. Rather disingenuously, the Queensland legislation of 1897 was called the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, even though only 6 of its 33 clauses related to opium, the remaining all directed towards control of Indigenous people.
So how did one get exempted? When the individual Indigenous person initiated the process, it involved writing a letter to the responsible authority, providing references, then attending an interview. It was intrusive and judgmental. All of this correspondence, and the government reports that led to either the approval or rejection of the application are part of the National Archives of Australia collection. As Katherine Ellinghaus noted in her chapter where she reviews the history of the exemption legislation, “the archives of exemption are incredible: vast, intimate and confronting”. They make judgements on intimate details of Indigenous lives: the cleanliness of their houses, whether or not they drank alcohol, who they were married to, if they were ‘troublesome’.
Those [records] that remain contain evidence of cruelty, misfortune and sadness, but also resistance, activism and survivance [sic]. Even the simplest and most everyday applications for exemption should be seen as documents of negotiation…[containing] extraordinary detail of people’s lives and families, often rendered in racist and unkind bureaucratic language
As a result, the records are on restricted access, available only to their families, which is only right. Some families have allowed historians to access them, with names redacted. Other Indigenous people have drawn on these records in telling their own stories in the form of biographies and memoirs. Other stories are in oral form only. In this book, Indigenous contributors Aunty Kella Robinson and Aunty Judi Wickes draw on their own family stories, while in other chapters families have given permission to the historian, with names changed.
From these stories, we see that people sought exemption for a number of reasons. Sometimes it was because other welfare provisions were tied up with it- that you could only get a Commonwealth old-age pension if you held a certificate of exemption. For other people, it was a way of escaping the mission and taking up work opportunities elsewhere. Even there was no specific legislation in Victoria, families sought to escape the involvement of the Aborigines Welfare Board in their lives by seeking ‘self-determined exemption’ (p.85) from the vagaries of changing government policies, as explained in Jessica Horton’s chapter. Ella Simon, a revivalist preacher associated with the evangelical United Aborigines Mission, despised the certificate of exemption she gained in 1957. As Jennifer Jones shows in her chapter, gaining exemption meant that she could undertake her travelling ministry without being exposed to segregation, but it meant that she had to officially abjure her links with the Purfleet UAM mission, which was an integral part of her identity and faith. Karen Hughes’ chapter looks at the examples of two US War Brides, whose certificate of exemption enabled their journey to the United States, where they faced new forms of discrimination. Leonie Stevens’ chapter ‘Smash the Exemption System’ examines the Northern Territory, where at the time of introduction, Indigenous people (themselves a multi-cultural group) were the majority of the population, outnumbering the non-Indigenous population 4:1(p. 167). The Half Caste Progressive Association played an integral role, first in achieving the legislation in the 1930s and then attacking it in the 1950s. The Northern Australian Workers Union, active in the Pilbara strikes, and other networks drew on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, widening the pressure for change beyond the Territory to a national and international level.
At the same time, these stories highlight the precariousness of the status awarded by a certificate of exemption. If it was rescinded, families were forced to return to the mission, where there was a strong chance that their children would be taken. As part of their powerlessness, if the policies changed, their lives changed too. Beth Marsden’s chapter ‘Destination of Pupil ‘Unknown” shows the fluidity of family relocations along the Victorian/NSW border as children were enrolled in school, often with vague information provided by the parents, and then withdrawn to escape the scrutiny of the state and the fear of removal. In NSW segregated schooling had developed when school principals requested to exclude Aboriginal children on the grounds of complaints made by white communities (p.109) Shifting back and forth across the border was a way of maintaining family networks and resisting the bureaucracies of both states, but it must have affected the childrens’ education.
I was appalled, reading these stories, one after the other. I understand completely the sensitivities and pain involved in telling family stories, where the decisions of one generation about identity and identification cascade through into succeeding generations. These stories, and the judgments and prejudices that prompted them, are for the family to tell. But the repetition of these injustices, in one family and then another and another, highlights that this was a structural, government-sanctioned process. It should be better known, and it needs to be part of the Truth Telling that must, eventually, come.
As Ellinghaus says:
The history of exemption must be fully told, not just to historians and stakeholders, but to mainstream Australia as part of the truth-telling that this nation sorely needs. There should be public recognition of the damage that has been done by these policies, perhaps in the same way that we have seen for the Stolen Generations. Not just recognition, apologies and reparations, but the inclusion of these people who have suffered through this policy in the narrative of settler colonialism in Australia.
Somehow or other I have ended up with a second-hand copy Carmen Callil’s earlier book Bad Faith on my bookshelf. When I purchased it from who-knows-where, I did not know who Callil was, but I was aware that her book had been well received. Even though Bad Faith remains unread, I now know that Carmen Callil is Australian, even though she has lived in England since 1964, and that she started Virago Press and has worked in the field of publishing and literature ever since. So I picked up her most recent book Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times when I saw it at the library.
The blurb on the back reads:
Carmen Callil explores her roots in a book that is a miracle of research and whose writing is fuelled by righteous anger…Carmen Callil not only reclaims from obscurity the lives of these ordinary men and women who were sent to Australia as convicts or domestic servants, but also draws telling parallels for our own times. Oh Happy Day is a moving story of poverty, social injustice, Empire and migration.
As I have said many times before on this blog – so many times that I’m boring myself too- I am drawn to ‘Who Do You Think You Are’-type books and programs, and I am usually disappointed. I like the history; I like the stories of largely unknown people, but I find the displays of emotion on the part of the searcher to be maudlin and somewhat self-centred. The tears are triggered more by a sense of identification – “that’s MY great-grandmother” – rather than from a sense of injustice that anyone endured such sorrow or deprivation. Probably the best family history/quest I have read is Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations, and re-reading my review here, I again find myself nodding in agreement with Davison’s reservations about the endeavour, many of which I share. Callil’s book is not unlike Davison’s in that it takes a broad view of the context, then embeds the individuals within it, rather than the other way round. And that’s the way I like it.
The three sets of family trees in the book, one at the front, two in the appendices, makes it patently obvious that this is going to be a book based on genealogy. In her introduction Callil writes that she intended to write about all her English, Irish and Lebanese emigrant ancestors, but then decided to focus on three: Sary Lacey; George Conquest, the father of one of Sary’s children, and Mary Ann Brooks, who married Sary’s son. All three ended up in Australia via different routes; all three are found on branches of Callil’s family tree; and all three are used as vehicles by which Callil tells her story of nineteenth century working class life.
I’m not going to go into the details of these individuals’ lives. As often happens with family historians, the researcher feels a familiarity (on first name basis no less) with the individuals on their family tree and the minutiae of their lives, that can become eye-glazingly tedious to outsiders. I’m more interested in the bigger themes that she draws out.
The first theme is the effect of technological change on the stocking frame workers in Leicestershire. Until now, I wasn’t particularly clear on what a stocking frame even was. The home-based stocking frame workers had a rhythm to their working week – collecting the wool, working feverishly for about four days, taking back the finished product then a few days later collecting the wool to start the whole cycle again. They rented their frames from middle-men, who took their own cut. However, the fashions changed, new machines that did not fit inside a house were invented, and the trade shifted into factories instead, with those few stocking frame workers clinging to the old ways offered less and less for a product that no one wanted.
Second, I knew about the changes to the Poor Laws in the 1830s, but I hadn’t quite realized the ‘like it or lump it’ approach it took to the destitute who sought assistance: it was the Poor House or nothing. Her telling of Sary’s life in particular illustrates the contingent and precarious nature of working class life, and the thread of relationships that could keep a family just outside the Poor House walls. The stories of Callil’s ancestors emphasize the physical proximity of family, shifting from street to street, generally staying close to other family. She hints – because she can do no more than that- at an incestuous relationship. She suggests the ruses and half-truths that enabled Sary to work the system sufficiently to survive. She notes the importance of Nonconformist religion amongst the working class and highlights the political turmoil amongst the working class at the time, even though there is no evidence that her family was involved.
Third, only one of her three ancestors is transported to Australia, but she devotes considerable space to the convict system as it changed over time, and as George Conquest experienced it. Here I feel that she faces the similar hazard as Babette Smith confronted in her Defiant Voices (my review here) where the dramatic and cruel is emphasized, but the examples in the book reveal the opposite. Callil is not a historian, but she does engage with the academic literature. Her own dispute with John Hirst’s argument that the convict system was more negotiable than, say Robert Hughes’ depiction of systematized violence and terror, is played out more in the footnotes than in the text. In a footnote she describes Hirst’s Convict Society (my review here) as “an exquisite example of Australian revisionist history, revealing much about its writer and little about the experience of convicts- and others of the time” (p. 308). Even though she spends many pages describing whippings and brutality, her ancestor George Conquest was not sent to a secondary penal settlement, and there is no evidence that he was whipped. In fact, he was almost a poster-child for the opportunities that could open up through transportation, partially through the benevolence and assistance of a magistrate-settler to whom he was assigned, and also through his own astuteness and hard work in taking advantage of the situations that presented themselves. Even though the convict system was intended to keep convicts on the other side of the world, George Conquest was even able to visit England again, returning by choice to Australia and finding himself in a position to help family members.
In her introduction Callil wrote that she had a present-day purpose in writing this book:
So I decided to tell only the story of Sary, George and Mary Ann, natives of England’s labouring poor – the paupers, asylum seeks and refugees of their day. Their story raised a question: had so little changed in Britain in the last 200 years, that generation could succeed generation, each one repeating their grim experiences?
I don’t know that she really explores this question in much depth in the book. Where she does draw parallels with the present day, it is in passing or concentrated within the closing pages of the book, almost as a polemic about refugees, Brexit, indigenous affairs, rather than engaged with as a serious question. I was disappointed, too, that she did include her Lebanese forefathers at the end of the book after all, despite her intention to concentrate on Sary, George and Mary Ann. It is such a cursory treatment that I felt it weakened the book, rather than strengthened it. Sary, George and Mary Ann are strong characters, whose lives provide much to work with, and I think that she should have stayed with them alone. Her research into the Britain they left, and the Australia to which they came is detailed and rich, especially for people who are unknown to all but family, but I’m not sure that the book meets the expectations for present-day commentary that the title and her introduction suggest.
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.
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.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m rather uncomfortable with the current trend to write history as a quest, interweaving the researcher/narrator’s perspective on the search with the actual history itself. Initially, I loved it as something brave and humanizing. But after at least a decade, it’s becoming a bit tired, and I feel that it is often resorted to as a symptom of the paucity of sources, as much as anything else. Ah, but I’ve said this again and again, and now I’m even boring myself.
But sometimes the historian genuinely is part of the history, and this is certainly the case in The Palace Letters. Jenny Hocking has written a two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam, and has been working on the Dismissal for many years. Indeed, if it were not for her persistence, and the generosity of pro-bono legal representation, historians would only have been able to work with retrospective accounts of the leadup to the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. The real-time documentation leading up to the November 11 1975 events was held at the pleasure of the Queen as ‘personal’ documents instead of the Commonwealth records that they are. After the National Archives refused Hocking access to the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and the Queen’s Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris after the statutory period had elapsed, she embarked on a ten-year battle to resolve the status and ownership of these documents as part of the historiographical record of Australia. This book is the story of that fight.
I have been following her battle for several years , especially through her recent book The Dismissal Dossier and I think I even threw some money towards her crowd-funding campaign to fund her legal expenses. After the papers were finally released, I can remember feeling somewhat disappointed that there was no ‘smoking gun’ of a Palace conspiracy, but rather the self-serving and pompous bleatings of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who did not cover himself with glory in November 1975 or in the years afterwards. But having read, The Palace Letters there is, at the personal level on the part of the Queen’s Private Secretary Charteris, a passive encouragement to Kerr, and certainly a structural effort to keep this communication hidden on the part of the National Archives, Liberal/Coalition governments over the decades and the Palace itself.
The book is written in the first person, with remarkably little self-promotion and puffery on Hocking’s behalf, even though she could have easily trumpeted her credentials for writing this book. It starts off in the archives, where all historians love to be, and her discovery that there were actually two copies of the letters: the first, the actual letters and the second, a photocopy made at night by David Smith, the Governor-General’s official secretary in order to send to Kerr to write his Journal. When both copies were placed under an embargo by the Palace on the grounds that they were personal papers, she thought that she would never see them. It was when she read Sydney barrister Tom Brennan’s blogpost ‘Australia owns its history‘ that she realized that there were legal allies with whom she could join forces.
The book then moves to the various court cases that the issue moved through, and the arguments that were made on both sides for or against the release of the letters. She was a participant, rather than a disinterested observer, and the National Archives does not come out well, in her retelling, taking advantage of tactics like unequal access to information, obfuscation and courtroom time-hogging. Headed by David Fricker, a former deputy director-general of ASIO, it becomes clear that the Archives are more than just a repository for documents but a political actor in their own right. There is even a National Archives whistle-blower who, infuriatingly, conveys important information at such a late stage that it cannot be used. The Murdoch-owned Australian is a player here too, and it is not surprising that Australian journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramson have published The Truth of the Palace Letters as a counter to Hocking’s analysis of the letters, once they had been made available.
Hocking gives a good sense of the imbalance of this fight: the National Archives are able to draw on their government-provided budget (albeit at the expense of their other activities) whereas Hocking could be held personally responsible for court costs. Although she was able to negotiate a capping of these costs, and was able to draw on the cream of Australia’s legal system for pro-bono representation, there must have been many times when she felt sick to her stomach at the implications of the losses in court. For losses there were, and it was only when it went to the High Court and received a 6:1 victory, that the long battle had been vindicated.
The final third of the book looks at the content of the letters themselves, and the aftermath of the Dismissal for Kerr himself as the Palace distanced itself from both Kerr and the decision. At one stage Sir Martin Charteris referred Kerr to a book written by conservative Canadian politician and expert on the reserve powers of the Crown in former dominions, Eugene Forsey, which enlarges the scope of the question beyond just Whitlam and Kerr into a broader historical question. However, after the dismissal, the time for book recommendations had passed, and Charteris becomes frostier, with Kerr’s actions now in the past.
While, of course, tales of the archives and courtroom stories will appeal to a particular type of reader, this book itself is very accessible. Who said that historians can’t be heroes? If you’re tempted to read it, read Hocking’s The Dismissal Dossier first (which will probably get you fired up) and then read this book, almost as a type of morality tale, to see the Mighty Fallen and the rewards for persistence and the courage to put yourself on the line – for our right to know our own history.
My rating: difficult to rate…8?
Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
What a difference a name makes. This book is the history of contact on Dyarubbin. “Where?” you might ask.
Dyarubbin is the name of the river that Europeans named the ‘Hawkesbury’ and the ‘Nepean’. Where white explorers saw two rivers, the people of the river saw just the one. Its sinuous progress through cliffs, opening up into cleared ‘reaches’ with fertile soil attracted indigenous people 50,000 years ago. And from the earliest months of British settlement, it attracted the soldiers of Sydney Cove too, led by Governor Phillip, searching desperately for farming land to grow the food to support the increasingly precarious convict settlement.
This book, which has been shortlisted for many historical and literary prizes during 2020, is a companion volume to Karsken’s earlier bookThe Colony about early Sydney and the Cumberland Plains. The argument that she makes in both books is the same: that both indigenous and settler peoples were thrust into a new relationshipwith each other, in tension over the land.
This is a long book, divided into four sections. Part I, Deep Country, starts as many books do (and indeed Karsken’s earlier book does too) with the geology of the land being discussed in the opening chapter ‘Old land, first people’. In this case, however, there are people in this landscape, shifting and adapting as conditions change. Conscious as we are of climate change, here perhaps we see a possible future with communities forced to flee to new places and lifestyles because of changes in the climate. The second chapter ‘Dyarubbin’ looks at the artefacts left by these people, sought out and collected by amateur and local collectors in a way reminiscent of Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors.
Part II Frontiers, starts with an an explanation of the intent of the Sydney Cove settlement. Chapter 3 ‘The Great Experiment’ is far more in the vein of John Hirst than Robert Hughes in emphasizing the intent that, right from the start, small-scale farming be offered to convicts who had either worked out their sentences or been pardoned, rather than the penitentiary hell-hole of post 1820s described in Hughes’ book . There was an ambivalent attempt to create a more prosperous and settled larger farmer elite through the provision of larger acreages to ex-soldiers. This inevitably brought conflict with the indigenous people of Dyarubbin whose women had dug for yams in those loamy reaches for generations. Chapter 4 ‘Contact and Crossings’ is a short chapter, describing those early contacts between Governor Phillips’ party which included indigenous Eora men who were strangers to the Dyarubbin too. She explores the role of intermediaries, who included John Wilson, who after serving his time, slipped among the Dyarubbin people where he passed himself as a returned tribesman. In return, they named him Bunboé (buna means ‘to jest or make believe’ and boé is the word for ‘dead’ so perhaps they were on to him.) Chapter 5 ‘Conflict: Given No Peace’ describes the inevitable conflict where the people of the Dyarubbin took the corn which grew on the land that had offered up yams for generations. Both sides practised communal punishment: in indigenous law ‘payback’ didn’t apply only to the guilty individual but could be and was directed to family and associates; for settlers, unable to find the perpetrators, a group of defenceless women and children were collateral damage. The fighting was most ferocious at Sackville Reach, a deeply spiritual place, where the settlers withdrew for a while, unable to cope with the relentless violence.
Part III New Old Land has four component chapters. Ch.6 Forests and clearings explains that the European settlers were moving into a manipulated environment, although they did not realize it. Those clearings and friable soil did not happen by accident. Ch 7 Farming in the bush emphasizes that in early years, farms were small shacks, with a fenced vegetable patch, surrounded by impenetrable bush. Wide-scale clearing and forestry did not happen until later. Ch.8 Floods and flood-mindedness explores the frequent flooding of Dyarubbin, which often came completely unexpectedly from rain inland that the farmers were unaware of, sometimes filling the narrow canyons and making the river flow backwards. Chapter 9, Commoners and Strangers looks at the change in policy in the 1820s that made Sydney a purely penal colony, and the encouragement of large estates to replace and control that earlier small-scale haphazard development. It looks at the accommodations and strategic friendships made between some settlers and indigenous families. When settlers found their ‘commons’ – large spaces for free grazing and pasturing – been appropriated by government policy to regularize land ownership, their anger was closer than they realized to the people of Dyarubbin who resisted being alienated from their own ‘commons’.
In Part IV of the book, there is a change of narrative direction. Titled ‘People of the River’ it shuttles back and forth between white and indigenous experience in alternating chapters. Family Fortunes (Ch. 10) looks at the interweaving of settler families through marriage, whereas Family Survival (Ch.11) examines the practice of taking children from indigenous families. The cultural lives of both groups are explored separately in People’s Pleasures in Chapter 12 (settler society) and Transforming Cultures (indigenous society) in Chapter 13. Christian spirituality in a new land is explored in Ch. 14 Sacred Landscapes while Ch. 15 Sacred Company looks at both the persistence and malleability of indigenous spirituality. These descriptions of indigenous beliefs were more detailed than I would have expected -in fact, I felt a little uncomfortable reading this section, as if I were intruding. At the end of the book, in a satisfying narrative circularity, we are brought back to the beginning of the book with the rock art and stories told on the cliffs overlooking Dyarubbin.
At 523 pages of text, this is a very long book – probably too long. In fact, I wonder if its length kept it on the ‘highly commended’ section of prizes instead of on the winner’s lists. Could Part IV, with its different narrative approach and far more focussed on individuals acting within social mores, have been a separate book in itself? It’s strange: I looked back to my review of Karsken’s The Colony, and I made a similar comment about a change of direction at the end of that book too. In both of her books, up until the last section of the book, settler and indigenous experiences had been interwoven and integrated, and the last section broke the thread by dealing with them separately.
Because what comes strongly through this book is that both groups of people – white and indigenous – had had to make accommodations and changes. Many of the white ex-convict farmers had been, until recent years, rural people back in England and Ireland, still influenced by the premodern ideas of the commons and small-scale farming. Some farmers recognized, or at least tolerated, indigenous people taking the corn from what had been their commons. Those who acted as intermediaries, on both sides, were being stretched – linguistically, socially, intellectually and spiritually- by having to move beyond the familiar into the truly unknown.
The Hawkesbury has received quite a bit of literary attention in recent years. Most famously, on the basis of her own genealogical connections Kate Grenville set her The Secret River on the Hawkesbury, and Julie Janson has reciprocated in her Benevolence, an indigenous response to settler family stories. In this book Karsken takes on the hugely popular Secret River, not so much in terms of the fiction/history debate, but more for its depiction of the Dyarubbin people as largely uncomprehending, unknowable and eventually massacred into disappearance. She takes particular issue with Grenville’s scene where William Thornhill tries to introduce himself to what she depicts as an uncomprehending Aboriginal man. Instead of just mimicking a settler naming himself, Karsken notes that the Aboriginal people of the Hawkesbury were very particular about names and gestures of friendship. The brutal Smasher Sullivan in Grenville’s book would have not survived long because his brutal treatment of his woman would have been swiftly avenged. In the closing grotesque scenes there are poisonings, massacres and the burning pile of black bodies. Karsken points out that Grenville herself admitted that she drew on the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, twenty years after the story depicted. She points out that Grenville’s book and the miniseries it inspired was also a throwback to the 1980s Aboriginal history that focussed on massacres.
However, by the time Grenville’s The Secret River appeared, historians were rethinking the portrayal of Aboriginal people only as passive victims of all-powerful whites, and recovering very different histories: the stories of resistance, and of the long war that Aboriginal people fought in defence of their Country. These new histories were more holistic too, recognizing other important aspects of cross-cultural contact- diplomacy, negotiation, conciliation, cooperation, friendship, intimate relations and the living exchange of things, words and ideas.
Karsken’s work very much falls into this ‘new history’ category. There is something almost wistful about the possibilities at early contact. There are what-ifs in her history, most particularly concerning Governor King who after meeting with a delegation of men from the Dyarubbin, stopped making land grants further down the river – a policy that was swiftly overturned by the next governor sent out by the colonial Office. She looks for womens’ stories, and finds them. She seeks individuals, and names them, and searches for continuities. At the end of the book, she describes her discovery in the archives of Rev. John McGarvies list of ‘Native names of places on the Hawkesbury’ which brought the names of country out of the silence. It now forms the basis of a collaborative project with Darug knowledge-holders, historians, linguists and archaeologists.
I am not familiar at all with the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin region, and I found myself having to consult the maps at the front repeatedly. I suspect that someone from New South Wales would appreciate the book much more than a Victorian would. In many ways, these early-contact histories right across Australia are similar in that they are all freighted with a common longing and regret for the closure of opportunities that were once open. But each one is also different, and best known to people familiar with the location, because they are so deeply embedded in ‘country’, and as a result each is particular to itself.
This is a beautifully written book, that has its broad-ranging and yet detailed research interwoven on every page. It combines archaeological, ecological, local, spiritual research that keeps its focus on individuals, in the agency they possess, and the choices they make.
I always enjoy it when I catch Philip Adams’ “mingle with Tingle” segment on Late Night Live. She always has a way of looking at things that brings a different perspective to the day’s news, and she ‘interprets’ more than she ‘reports’. I was a little disappointed in the last Quarterly Essay (Katherine Murphy’s The End of Certainty, which I reviewed here), which seemed to be just a lengthier extension of her every-day reporting in The Guardian. Tingle’s essay, on the other hand breaks new ground by drawing our attention to something almost unremarkable: the similarities and divergences between Australia’s political scene and that of our neighbour, New Zealand.
There are many times, especially since the ascension of Jacinda Ardern, that Australians look ‘across the ditch’ and wish that we could co-opt her too, (as well as the Finn Brothers and the odd New Zealand comedian or two). But I am old enough to remember an older New Zealand that was even more sheltered and Anglo-centric than Australia was. I went on an home-stay exchange visit to New Zealand in the early ’70s when I was about 16 and certainly the house was austere and rather cheerless. I recalled that old, protected New Zealand, when we visited Janet Frame’s hometown Oamaru in New Zealand, which seemed likewise cold and straitened. Even today, Australians are reminded of Australia’s relative advantage by the pricetags on purchases that show the Australian and inevitably-higher New Zealand prices, despite the lower wages in New Zealand.
Tingle identifies 1973, when Britain joined the Common Market as the seminal date when both Australia and New Zealand were forced to ‘grow up’ and reduce their reliance on agricultural exports to the ‘mother country’. From that date, Australia and New Zealand had to forge their own ways, sometimes acting in synchrony; other times striking out in their own.
But there were other important historical events before then. New Zealand was at first conceptualized as part of the colony of New South Wales (indeed, my very own Justice John Walpole Willis was slated to be New Zealand’s first Resident Judge in 1839-40. I wonder how that would have worked out.) The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 has allowed a completely different racial politics to emerge, especially in recent decades. Australia’s decision in 1901 to go with bicameral parliaments in most states and New Zealand’s go-it-alone single chamber, one state parliament, and more recently their almost accidental adoption of mixed-member proportional representation in 1996, has led to a different concentrations of political power.
As Tingle points out, the importance of each other’s economy has often been overlooked. At times, both governments had similar economic policies. I had forgotten ‘Rogernomics’, the extremely harsh free-market reforms introduced by David Lange’s Labour government during the 1980s. Although Australia’s Labour government under Hawke and Keating introduced deregulation and the Accord (something that probably only a Labour government could do in Australia) at much the same time, it was nothing like Rogernomics. And when New Zealanders put in the Nationals in 1990, instead of repudiating Rogernomics as they promised, they turned round and gave the country more of the same.
After losing the safe assurance of a British export market, both countries have been held hostage to their largest economic successes. In Australia’s case, mineral exports have dominated our economy and spawned a single-minded mineral lobby group that dominates Australia’s climate change policy and taxation arrangements. In New Zealand, flourishing under Hobbit-tourism, director Peter Jackson turned out not to be so benign when collective bargaining rights emerged under industrial relations unrest. Different players, but the same dilemma when one industry has a dominant role in a small economy.
But there are a number of other areas where Australia and New Zealand have taken different approaches, forming a type of laboratory experiment where two very similar nations, acting under similar geographical and population constraints, have adopted different policies. The most striking is the different experiences of Maori and Australian Aboriginal politics. I have often been struck by the use of the haka and Maori language by the broader New Zealand community, in a way that would be awkward and contentious in Australia. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed under the same colonial policies emanating from the Colonial Office, even though overlooked and dismissed for many years, was the springbroad for a judicial and political reckoning – something that Mabo and more recently the Uluru Statement could be if it hadn’t been dismissed out of hand.
Then there’s foreign policy, most particularly New Zealand’s firm stance on a nuclear-free Pacific, its deliberate distancing from US adventurism, and more recently in its approach to China which – let’s face it – Australia is stuffing up big time. None of these stances seem to have done New Zealand harm, as Australia always feared by throwing its lot in with the US.
Then there’s the policy continuity that a single-house, single government constitution provides. Although, as in the pre-Common Market days, this can lead to a stultifying dominance of one party, the recent mixed-member proportional representation has made coalitions of political parties the usual way of doing politics. There does not appear to be the huge culture war divide between the parties, who adopt each other’s policies (e.g. Rogernomics) to maintain a centrist government, less beholden to the extremists on both sides. I just can’t see “kindness” ever being adopted in Australian government speech despite a brief and fleeting flirtation during the recent pandemic.
Events have aligned to give Tingle a neat narrative circle. Just as UK bumbles its way out of Brexit, the final act of the economic play which began with the 1973 Common Market decision, we have Boris Johnson floundering in an ever-heightening pandemic, while Ardern calmly and decisively has given New Zealand a COVID-free community.
For me, the best Quarterly Essays are those that bring to the forefront something that is hiding in plain sight. I don’t think that I’ve read a historical or political comparison of Australia and New Zealand written in this way, and having read it, I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before.