Category Archives: History

“Reading Mr Robinson” by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)

“Reading Mr Robinson: Companion Essays to Friendly Mission”, Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)


2008, 188p. + notes.

N. J. B. Plomley’s Friendly Mission was published in 1966, with a reprint in 1971.  It’s a big book, close on 1000 pages and it has been out of print for over thirty years.  It has been recently re-released, and this companion book of essays has been published to accompany the new edition.

Friendly Mission is a transcription of the journals of the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, with a lengthy introduction by Plomley.  Plomley’s work made the Van Diemen’s Land journals of George Augustus Robinson available and accessible- because  Robinson’s handwriting was truly wretched- for the first time to a wider audience.  This book of essays celebrates Plomley’s work and they testify to the importance of Friendly Mission as a contested and influential text that over 40 years ago encapsulated many of the debates still pertinent today about Aboriginal and Australian settler history.

There are three themes that run through the essays.  The first is consideration of Friendly Mission in is own right, as a text.   It is obviously a book that has deeply impressed the people who have read it, or chosen not to do so.  Lyndall Ryan speaks in her essay of  purchasing the book in its blue covers from the top shelf in a bookshop and reading it transfixed on public transport on the way home, and the encouragement she received from Manning Clark and Rhys Jones to explore it further.  A counterpoint to this enthusiasm is the response of three Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal ) contributors who write short reflections on their response to the book.  Some choose not to read it at all: others feel negated and angered by the perceived inevitability of ‘extinction’ and the self-aggrandisement and nonchalance of Robinson in the face of such tragedy.

N.J. B. or Norman James Brian Plomley- although known as Brian-  was a scientist and curator who wrote widely on a variety of natural history, medical, dentistry and museum studies issues.  His long introduction to Robinson’s diaries reflects the historiography of his times: he did not even consider the use of oral histories with living Tasmanian Aborigines- if, indeed he even considered them that at all- and his views on hybridity and purity of bloodline reflect attitudes towards aboriginality and identity that are not accepted today.  Rebe Taylor’s essay points out that there are oral history sources available, through the Westlake Papers collected by the geologist  Ernest Westlake (1855-1922) which among other things included interviews with the descendents of  the Bass Strait sealers and their Aboriginal women from 1908-10.   Plomley himself edited a collection of these interviews in 1991.

A second strand of these essays deals with the diarist George Augustus Robinson himself, the Great Conciliator with the Van Diemen’s Land tribes, and then Chief Protector in the Port Phillip Protectorate during the 1840s.   Alan Lester’s essay ‘George Augustus Robinson and Imperial Networks’ highlights Robinson’s religious and humanitarian motivation, and places him within the context of evangelical approaches being implemented by British and American missionaries across the Cape Colony, the West Indies, and American and Canadian frontiers.  Elizabeth Elbourne’s contribution ‘Between Van Diemen’s Land the the Cape Colony’ compares these two colonies, particularly in relation to the coercion of women and children, and links these to the small, but influential anti-Slavery lobby in the Colonial Office and the Aborigines Protection Society which itself was distancing itself from Robinson’s approach by the early 1840s.

Henry Reynolds in ‘George Augustus Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land: Race, Status and Religion’ embraces Robinson as a conscientious missionary, outraged by the injustices he witnessed.  The name-giving ceremonies, Reynolds claims, were an attempt to replace the derogatory names conferred by hostile settlers with more others with more dignity.  Robinson’s Christian belief in the brotherhood and equality of all men contrasted with the polygenetic views that were coming into currency whereby different branches of humanity were distinguished and ranked – with the British ascendant of course.  This is not to say that Robinson was unaffected by the early Victorian emphasis on status and respectability: his career was an perpetual struggle to maintain and boost his own standing both in the colonies and with the Colonial Office, and the seating arrangements in the church services he organized reflected an acute consciousness of gradations of status.

Cassandra Pybus’ essay ‘A Self Made Man’ is less complimentary, portraying Robinson as a vain-glorious, manipulative man who carefully massaged his own image.  She introduces as a counter-point Gilbert Robertson, the capital-strapped chief constable at Richmond in Tasmania, who claimed to have been the originator of the concept of a “Protector” and who put himself forward as an applicant.  As she says, it is an unedifying spectacle to see

these two colonial misfits scapping over the paltry financial benefit and dubious social advantage to be got in taking credit for the almost complete destruction of a whole people (p. 109)

The final theme involves the use of the Robinson diaries through Plomley’s publication by other historians over time.  Ian McFarlane in ‘N J B Plomley’s Contribution to North-West Tasmanian Regional History’  places Robinson’s account of the Cape Grim massacre against Curr’s rather self-serving account found in the Van Diemen’s Land Company papers, and finds that Robinson’s estimate of 40 deaths (rather than Curr’s admission to 3) is likely to be correct.   Patrick Brantlinger’s paper ‘King Billy’s Bones: Colonial Knowledge Production in Nineteenth-Century Tasmania’  compares Robinson’s account with James Bonwick’s history The Last of the Tasmanians written in 1870 and  overlaid by later-Victorian ideas of racial superiority, craniotomy and scientific measurement.  John Connor in ‘Recording the Human Face of War: Robinson and Frontier Conflict’ uses Robinson’s observations on warrior behaviour and weaponry to conceptualise Aboriginal resistance as ‘war’.   Rebe Taylor’s paper ‘Reliable Mr Robinson and the Controversial Dr Jones’ examines the archaeologist Rhys Jones’ development of the regression theory that Aborigines lost the ability to fish and light fires- a suggestion repeated more recently by Jared Diamond and Keith Windschuttle- a shadowy, rejected commentator whose influence (and notoriety) pervades the book.

I’m wary of celebratory and clear-cut history with simple “goodies” and “baddies”.  I’m glad that the Robinson diaries are ambiguous and contradictory, and that he himself is a flawed man who, even at the time, did not fit comfortably into his society. And I’m pleased too, that the discussion continues about what we as historians and Australians do with such a tragic, conflicted story.  Plomley’s Friendly Mission and the diaries it makes available are an ur-text that is mined again and again by authors- Richard Flanagan in Wanting, Robert Drewe in The Savage Crow, Mudrooroo in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Matthew Kneale in English Passengers; Nicholas Shakespeare In Tasmania; Cassandra Pybus in Community  of Thieves, among others.  It’s like a scab that we need to keep picking; an itch that we need to scratch; a wound that has not yet healed.

‘Whigs and Hunters’ by E. P. Thompson


1975, 269 p.

Whigs and Hunters is one of those books that appears again and again on the bibliographies of other books and articles I’ve been reading about the law in 19th century colonial societies.   I read Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class many, many years ago, and have since heard it referred to many times as a seminal history text by historians I admire.

The full title of the book is Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act.  I knew that the Black Act referred to the death penalty applied to crimes like poaching and the cutting of trees. One of the first surprises of this book is that the Black Act was not so called,  as I assumed,  as a description of its severity.  Instead, the “Black” refers to the practice of blacking faces to disguise the perpetrators undertaking the depredations under cover of night.

But the Act was certainly   “black”   in terms of its subversion of legal process.  It was enacted in four weeks in May 1723, with little parliamentary debate.  The first category of offenders was persons ‘armed with swords, fire-arms or other offensive weapons, and having his or their faces blacked’ who appeared in any forest, chase, park or enclosed ground where deer had been, or shall usually be kept, or on any high road, heath, common or down.  Offences included hunting, wounding, stealing red or fallow deer, poaching of hares, conies or fish; breaking down the head of a fishpond;  maliciously killing or maiming cattle; cutting down trees; setting fire to any house, barn, haystack; or forcibly rescuing any one from custody accused of any of these crimes.  If any person was accused of any of these offences on information sworn by credible witnesses,  he would become a ‘proclaimed man’.  If he failed to surrender himself after a proclamation was read in two market towns on two market days and affixed on some public place, he could be deemed guilty and sentenced to death without further trial. Moreover, if any person was found to  ‘conceal, aid, abet or succour’ anyone accused in this way who had not surrendered within forty days, then he too would be guilty of felony and sentenced to death.

It was, Thompson claims ” a bad law, drawn by bad legislators, and enlarged by the interpretations of bad judges” (p. 267).   There were fifty distinct offences for which capital punishment was provided, but under the different categories (e.g. principles in first or second degree; accessories etc), it gave rise to a total of 200 and 250 capital offences (p. 23).   Originally passed only for three years, it was extended and enlarged over the next hundred years until its repeal in the 1820s and 30s.  Its  definitions  became broader:  the carrying of a stick and cropped unpowdered hair and the absence of a wig  could be classed as “armed and disguised”.   The cases were removed from the vagaries of local juries by moving the trial to the Court of the Kings Bench.

In this regard, I found myself thinking of the Anti-Terrorist legislation enacted in Western countries that otherwise pride themselves on their adherence to the “rule of law”.    Our 21st century “black” acts were likewise developed in haste, with little parliamentary scrutiny, ostensibly for a prescribed period of time.  They, too, removed proceedings from the conventional legal system and could be extended to people who were thought to have knowledge of the acts, or contact with the perpetrators,  without actually committing them themselves.   I read with disgust in October 2008  that England used anti-terrorist legislation to seize Icelandic assets in the face of Iceland’s failure to guarantee British savings.   This legislation, like the Black Act, is loosely-drafted and can be used for multiple purposes beyond those stated.

Thompson writes in the preface that the book arose from his contribution of a single chapter on the Black Act  to Albion’s Fatal Tree.  As such, it was based in the 50 years prior to his own area of  expertise (social history post 1750).   He writes:

Most historians do not put themselves at risk in this kind of situation, and they are wise not to do so.  One normally reads very widely into a ‘period’, before or alongside one’s researches, accepting the received context offered by previous historians, even if at the conclusion to one’s work one is able to offer modifications to this context.  I decided to work in a different way.  I was like a parachutist coming down in unknown territory: at first knowing only a few yards of land around me, and gradually extending my explorations in each directions.  (p. 16)

He starts with deer hunters in Windsor Forest and Hampshire, then moves to forest governance through stewards and keepers, then onto the courtiers and bishops, then onto Walpole and government ministers at the highest level.  Much of his evidence is, as he admits,  scrappy and insubstantial, and much of it is drawn from the holdings of small historical societies and the archives of particular families and properties- the small minutiae of local and family history.  He moves back from this detailed study of the perpetrators into a consideration of their connection with the large politics of Walpole, the King and the Whig ministers.  He argues that the Black Act was promulgated by the supporters of the Hanoverian kings who had recently come into possession themselves of new estates, where they pulled down the old manor houses to build new Georgian buildings, surrounded not by the time-honoured forests of old, but by expansive and expensive landscaped lawns and formal gardens.   The Black Act criminalized the resistance to this takeover, not only by small farmers and workers deprived of traditional wood-gathering and hunting privileges, but also by the gentry and larger farmers who had been sidelined by the accumulation and consolidation of property by this new elite.

This shift from the details of localized crime up into the higher reaches of power is the nub of his argument, but I found this part the least convincing.  Perhaps he assumed a knowledge of Walpole and Hanoverian politics that I lack, but although he makes much of the “Whig state of mind” (p. 207),  he doesn’t make clear what this state of mind actually is and how it manifested itself.

Thompson writes well: he has a good eye for the telling episode, he is disarmingly candid about his frustration with the limitations of his sources,  and his frequent use of “we” pulls you into his argumentative undertow.  But at times, the combative historian emerges- in this case in a four-page joust with Professor Pat Rogers on his article from Historical Journal XVII, 3, 1974.

Professor Pat Rogers has recently confused these questions, in the first scholarly article to appear on the origins of the Black Act.  I do not wish to quibble about minor disagreements in our accounts of events, although certain points require correction…. (p. 192)

which, of course, Thompson then proceeds to do.

The confidence, and perhaps even the swagger, are (one feels) less those of the Blacks than those of Professor Rogers.  He is able, from slender evidence, and from evidence which is assembled by the authorities and opponents of the Blacks, to pronounce with assurance upon the objectives, motivations, organization and moral worth of these elusive men.  Although I think that I have shown some of the critical economic and social tensions aroused in the forests, I cannot share Roger’s confidence  (p. 193)….I must apologize to Professor Rogers for hanging these lengthy reflections upon the hook of his article… (p. 195)

Apology or no, the exchange echoes with the clashing of rhetorical swords in the conference arena!   He circles for another joust, but this time with other Marxist historians,  in his final chapter where he makes  an 11-page defence of the concept of the “rule of law” as an “unqualified human good” .  This chapter was written, Dorothy Thompson told Daniel H. Cole for his 2001 article, as an afterword:

While conducting research for this essay, I contacted Thompson’s widow Dorothy- an renowned historian in her own right- to enquire about possible sources for her late husband’s epiphanic conversion to the Rule of Law.  I received in reply a brief letter in which she sheds some light on the subject. E. P. Thompson returned to complete Whigs and Hunters after he finished co-editing with ‘fellow historians in the Marxist tradition’ Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, and Cal Winslow  Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England.  According to Dorothy Thompson, his collaboration on that work left him deeply pessimistic about the role of law in society.  She engaged him in a ‘very heated discussion’, during which she suggested that ‘he was leaning too far in the direction taken by some of the contributors to Albion’s Fatal Tree in dismissing the law simply as an instrument of class power.  He took time to re-think the question and added the famous afterword to W and H‘. (Cole, 2001, p 183).

And some afterword it is.  It’s a completely different chapter in focus, voice and intent- and it’s the most heavily underlined chapter in the copy I borrowed from the library.  Thomson writes:

We might be wise to end here. But since readers of this study may be provoked to some general reflections upon the law and upon British traditions, perhaps we may allow ourselves the same indulgence (p. 258).

But, he asks,  is this emphasis on British tradition merely  a form of narcissism or parochialism?

Alternative perspectives must diminish the complacency of national historical preoccupation. If we see Britain within the perspective of the expansion of European capitalism, then the contest over interior rights and laws will be dwarfed when set beside the exterior record of slave-trading, of the East India Company, of commercial and military imperialism.  Or, to take up a bright new conservative perspective, the story of a few lost common rights and of a few deer-stealers strung from the gallows is a paltry affair when set beside the accounts of mass repression of almost any day in the day-book of the twentieth century.  Did a few foresters get a rough handling from partisan laws?  What is that beside the norms of the Third Reich? Did the villagers of Winkfield lose access to the peat within Swinley Rails? What is that beside the liquidation of the kulaks? (p. 259)

His use of “we” throughout the text has invited us to sit beside him, and all of a sudden we are brought to sit alongside him.

I stand on a very narrow ledge, watching the tides come up.  Or, to be more explicit, I sit here in my study, at the age of fifty, the desk and the floor piled high with five years of notes, xeroxes, rejected drafts, the clock once again moving into the small hours, and see myself, in a lucid instant, as an anachronism.  Why have I spent these years trying to find out what could, in its essential structures, have been known without any investigation at all? (p. 260)

I’m obviously not the only one to have 2.00 a.m. crises of confidence!  But whereas I question the whole point of what I’m doing, Thompson enters the ring for another bout, this time against his erstwhile fellow-Marxists.

I am disposed to think that it does matter; I have a vested interest (in five years of labour) to think it may.  But to show this must involve evacuating received assumptions- that narrowing ledge of traditional middle ground- and moving out onto an even narrower theoretical ledge.  This would accept, as it must, some part of the Marxist-structural critique; indeed, some parts of this study have confirmed the class-bound and mystifying functions of the law.  But it would reject its ulterior reductionism and would modify its typology of superior and inferior (but determining) structures. (p. 260)

I’m not familiar enough with Marxist explanations of law and ideology to engage with his argument.  But what he does argue, and I can see why this would be so controversial, is that

there is a difference between arbitrary power and the rule of law.  We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law.  But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power’s all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. (p. 266)

… If we suppose that law is no more than a mystifying and pompous way in which class power is registered and executed, then we need not waste our labour in studying its history and forms. One Act would be much the same as another, and all, from the standpoint of the ruled, would be Black.  It is because law matters that we have bothered with this story at all. (p. 267)…Since we hold this value to be a human good, and one whose usefulness the world has not yet outgrown, the operation of this code deserves our most scrupulous attention.  It is only when we follow through the intricacies of its operation that we can show what it was worth, how it was bent, how its proclaimed values were falsified in practice…. we feel contempt for men whose practice belied the resounding rhetoric of the age.  But we feel contempt not bedause we are contemptuous of the notion of a just and equitable law but because this notion has been betrayed by its own professors. (p. 268)

I find little to argue with here- but then again, I’m no Marxist.  The rule of law, as I see it, is an unqualified human good in that it limits arbitrary power, and I can’t see that it can ever “wither away” in any complex society.  Thompson distinguishes between the concept of the rule of law, and the content of that law, and where it is bad law, it should be challenged.  Amen to that..


E. P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters,  Penguin Books, 1975

Daniel H Cole ” ‘An Unqualified Human Good’: E. P. Thompson and the Rule of Law” Journal of Law and Society, Vol 28, No 2, June 2001, pp. 177-203.

Pat Rogers “The Waltham Blacks and the Black Act” Historical Journal XVII, 3, 1974.

‘Talking Books: Novel History’

I found a terrific site called ‘Backdoor Broadcasting Company’, which contains a number of free podcasts from seminars, many of which seem to have been held in London.

The ‘Talking Books: Novel History’ seminar was held at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University College, London on 6th June 2009 and what a delight to hear something so current! What wonderful times we live in – I could barely be back here in Melbourne writing this now if I’d actually attended it!  The seminar was introduced by the historian Joanna Bourke who started with a quote from Sir Leslie Stephen that historical novels were either pure cram or pure fiction.  The question is, however, how can historical novelists and the historical profession more generally attempt to remain true to the core, brittle narratives and images emanating from a complex and perplexing past?  She introduced Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant, both of whom have recent historical fiction releases.  Hilary Mantel writes about real characters: Sarah Dunant’s characters are composites, but both approaches rely on archival research to flesh out their characters.  The best historical novelists, Bourke said,  like Mantel and Dunant can teach historians that there can be a different kind of fidelity to individuals in history, one that acknowledges the power of motives over the power of institutions, and the role of contingency as well as causality.

Hilary Mantel’s academic background is in law, not history.  Her historical fiction draws on authentic characters- her most recent book Wolf Hall centres on Thomas Cromwell; her Place of Greater Safety (which was released in  1992  but written much earlier) presents different revolutionary characters as a collage throughout the French Revolution:  Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.  She dislikes, but grudgingly accepts the term ‘historical fiction’ because it raises expectations that its practitioners will have something in common.  She sees her writing more as contemporary thinking about past events; she writes about real people who happen to be dead.  Historical fiction, she says, is a way of re-creating what has slipped from the historical record and of seeing justice done by giving a voice to the voiceless, and representing the mis-represented.  Her work emphasizes the role of chance and contingency, where historians are more often wedded to causal links.  What she writes of could be true: she excludes impossibilities and refuses to rearrange history to suit the dramatic process.

Sarah Dunant, on the other hand, was trained as an historian at Oxford University some 30 years ago, where she was discouraged from making up what we didn’t know.  She was taught the grand narrative of big events, prior to the changes of historiography beginning with Christopher Hill that raised questions about women, the poor, the other.  This more recent historiography gives rise to the potential for a new sort of historical novel.  Her characters did not actually exist: they are composites, based on deep secondary research which has delved deeply into the primary sources.  As an historian, it is the fidelity of this research that gives her confidence to develop her characters, using her sources as a pointillist painter might in representing a larger painting.

The two historical novelists were followed by John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL, author of a number of works on fiction, the fiction industry and best-sellers.  In contrast to the earlier speakers, he questioned whether fiction could recover the past, and claimed that fiction dies if you overload it with too much material (something I tend to agree with).  Good historical fiction, he says, defines our relationship with the past- it tells us about where we are.

I’ve been grappling with the perils and pleasures of historical fiction for some time- some of the posts on this blog reflect this :  the 21st sensibility and unwise (and modified)  claims to better understanding debated with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River; the right to traduce a reputation of a true-life individual while disavowing a work as ‘historical’ in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; the ‘flim-flam’ of biography in Louis Nowra’s Ice;  the hedgehogs and foxes suggested to Isaiah Berlin by Tolstoy’s War and Peace; the deceptive selectivity of Nicholas Baker’s Human Smoke;  the distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘ventriloquism’ in Rose Tremain’s Restoration.    I keep reading historical fiction because I enjoy it, but every time I’m drawn back to the questions of technique that keep arising and that I never can quite answer.

War and Peace, Hedgehogs and Foxes


So, do people ever read another novel after they’ve read War and Peace?  They must, I suppose, although having just finished it, I find myself wondering how anything else could come close to it.

This is not the first time I’ve approached the “big baggy monster” but it’s the first time I’ve completed it.  It really is not a difficult book, once you overcome the fear of losing track of the names and their variations.  And for someone who only vaguely remembers seeing Anthony Hopkins in the BBC version many, many years ago, it surprised me in many ways.

The first surprise, but one that I was prepared for, was Tolstoy’s  sheer virtuosity in assembling such a range of all-too-human characters: blustering and self-centred old patriarchs, twitty young gentlemen, loving mothers and daughters,  earnest searchers after truth, militarized young soldiers.  He  doesn’t just assemble them: he peels them bare, exposing selfishness, pride, confusion and insecurity.  He goes to the heart of the myriad petty concerns that make up our consciousness- our pride in hospitality in throwing a function just like everyone else’s;  the act of falling in love with your baby; the flush of hero-worship,  the cold stripping-down of betrayal.   If we ever needed to be reminded, this is what it is to be human.

The second surprise for me was the striding onto this stage of real historical figures.  I knew that the book was “about” Napoleon, but I didn’t expect to see him there- or Tsar Alexander, or Kutuzov.

And a third, related surprise was how much this book was about the writing of history.  Throughout the novel, again and again, Tolstoy struggles against the concept of the “great man” and causality in history- indeed this is how the book finishes, which I found unsettling.  It’s as if, after lowering his microscope down to examine the individual, he leans back in his chair and scans the heavens with a telescope.  What’s he saying here? I don’t know if even he knows:  that events don’t lie with great individuals; there is no great plan or immutable set of laws ; there is no causality.  There is just the innate goodness of simple man, with all the rest stripped away.

So, it was with interest that I picked up Isaiah Berlin’s 80-page  essay The Fox and the Hedgehog (PDF full-text).  He takes up a fragment of text from the Greek poet Archilochus: ” the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.  With some trepidation (and ignoring the dire necessity for a full stop), Berlin divides the big thinkers into hedgehogs  and foxes:

…there exists a great chasm between those,  on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of what they understand, think and feel- a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all they they are and say has significance- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.  The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes: and without insisting on a rigid classification, we many, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are all, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are all foxes.  (p. 2)

But what about Tolstoy?  Berlin hesistates.  He suggests that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog, and that the long sections where Tolstoy grapples with issues of the writing of history are where his own inner conflict between what he was and what he believed emerges.   Based on evidence of Tolstoy’s own reading during the writing of War and Peace, he draws a counterintuitive link between the reactionary, aristocratic and arch-conservative views of  Joseph de Maistre and Tolstoy’s own scepticism of intellectualism and empiricism.  Both de Maistre and Tolstoy lash out at the intellectual and political props that fail to explain how things are as they are. But while Maistre turns back to the Catholic Church and the monarchy to provide certainty, Tolstoy turns to the “immemorial wisdom” of peasants and the simple folk, who alone have the knowledge of how to live.

Although unable to express it with the same elegance as Berlin, I found myself thinking much the same thing about Tolstoy on history. He tells us that the ‘great man’ is a nationalist myth;  that our selecting one from a multiplicity of so-called causes is only confirmed by later events; that power lies not in the ‘strong’ individual but the collective acquiescence of the mass;  that the closer we are to events the more determined they seem and yet we cling vainly to the chimera of ‘free will’. He slashes at these fallacies, and then, when they all lie lopped at his feet, he steps away from them into an almost-mystical embrace of the simple peasant and the truly good life.

And how does this fit in with the intimate, rawly psychological drama of Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrei, Princess Marie that Tolstoy lays out before us?  How does the fug of domesticity fit in with the grand sweep of Napoleon, Moscow, Bordolino?  This,  Berlin writes,

is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events.  Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken.  And side by side with these public faces- these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths- side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence.  When Tolstoy contrasts this real life- the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individauls- with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. (p.19)

But, Berlin argues, Tolstoy was unable to reconcile the two, either through logic or through emotion and will, and this was his own intellectual and existential tragedy.  By nature a sharp eyed fox, he looked for a harmonious universe but found only disorder.

Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistably beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below… Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. (p.81)

Little Historians

I see that the History Teachers Association of Australia has raised questions about the primary school component of the proposed national history curriculum.  Good on them.  As a member of the Heidelberg Historical Society, I had a brief peek at the consultation draft which recommended that local history be introduced at primary school level.   I had no problem with the idea of arousing children’s curiosity about the street, suburb and town in which they live, but the “core components of historical understanding”  seem to be a trifle…um….optimistic?

How does this sound for an 8-12 year old?

“examine and critically assess the value of available primary and secondary sources, study human motivation, develop an understanding of viewpoints held by the people of the past, and recognize causal relationships between events and draw conclusions about their historical investigations”.

Have the stages of conceptual development suddenly been thrown out the window?? What happened to my good friend Piaget??  The last time I spoke to an 8-12 year old (which, admittedly, has not occurred recently), I was not particularly struck with their insight into human motivation.

And to be honest, I’m still grappling with these core components with historical understanding today.  Perhaps I need to find a 9 year old to show me how.

‘Human Smoke’ by Nicholson Baker


2008, 474 p + 53 p notes

I hadn’t heard anything about this book, or its author for that matter, until I heard an interview with Nicholson Baker on Radio National’s Book Show.  It was quite clear that he was speaking as a novelist rather than an historian, and yet he said a couple of things in the interview that resonated with my own research and narrative problems that I’m grappling with.

I wish the interview were still available or a transcript saved, but neither of these is available. From the brief notes I took during the interview, he said something like the following:

1. Find the hero in your story.  This is something that I’ve been struggling with.   I don’t consider the subject of my story- Judge Willis- to be a hero: in fact,  I don’t think I like him much at all.  So who is my hero?  Whose voice and worldview  do I trust?  Of the colourful cast of players on the Port Phillip stage in 1841-3, I’d go for  Superintendent La Trobe, I think, in spite of (or is it because of ? ) his insecurity, his anxiety, his concern not to be hasty or judgemental.

Or is the endeavour to find a hero anti-historical in itself?  In our search for a ‘hero’, are we only responding to those from the past who display elements of a 21 century sensibility that we recognize as kindred spirits.  What about the men of their time who are thoroughly imbued with attitudes of deference or unruffability that we find unacceptable today?  Or are we looking for a common humanity beyond this?   Inga Clendinnen, in her Dancing with Strangers introduces the writers of the First Fleet journals she is basing her work on, and shares with us her own emotional responses to her informants’ writing:

Jane Austen exclaimed that her naval-officer brothers ‘write so even, so clear, both in style and penmanship, so much to the point, and give so much intelligence, that it is enough to kill one’. In her novels she allowed herself to become positively girlish in her effusions of admiration for naval men like Fanny’s brother William or Anne Elliot’s Captain Wentworth, and quite lost her characteristic irony when she considered the nobility of their profession.

I confess that as I read John Hunter’s journal I felt something of the same flutter.  I liked what he said and I liked his silences too.  (p 37)

and in relation to Watkin Tench:

He is one of the handful of writers who are an unshadowed pleasure to meet on the page.  Through that familiar miracle of literacy where pothooks transform into personality, it is not so much his information as his presence which delights us.  His parents are said to have run a dancing academy, and it is tempting to think that their son’s grace on the page has something to do with a melodious, light-footed upbringing.  He has the kind of charm which reaches easily across centuries.  If he lacks Montaigne’s intellectual sophistication and unwavering moral clarity, he shares with him the even rarer quality of sunny self irony. (p. 57)

I think that a historian does adopt a stance towards her informants.  It’s not that you suspend criticism or disbelief, but there are some informants who have you rolling your eyes and inwardly groaning “Here we go again“; or conversely who make you sit up and think “Now what makes you say that?”

2. Sometimes what’s written in the papers is more true than what you’ll find in “secret” archives. Leaving aside the whole issue of “truth”, I’ve been thinking about the issue of temporal change and temporal persistence for some time.  And I’ve also been reading newspapers very, very closely, watching how a controversy builds, subsides, lingers, re-emergences- a sort of time-lapse examination that is elided when taking a purely thematic approach.  In my own research into Judge Willis, there were issues that  niggled month after month; there were personality clashes that played out in different contexts over time.  There were false rumours, there was bombast and exaggeration- and as Nicholson Baker pointed out, the actors themselves were reading (and contributing) to this media construction of events each morning too.

So what has Nicholson Baker done in this book?

I was interested to note that the book was catalogued with a 940 Dewey number in the university library, and lists its subjects heading on the edition notice page as” 1. World War, 1939-45- Causes  2. Jews- Persecutions- Europe-History.”  Yet the book starts abruptly in August 1892 and ends on New Years Eve 1941.  It is a series of snippets, many taken from the  New York Times,or diaries or memoirs arranged chronologically, each one a page or less in length,  separate and disembodied from the preceding one and  surrounded by much white space on the page.  There are no chapters, no commentary, no debate, no authorial interjection.  There is a long series of  sources at the end of the book.  And that’s all.

And yet the author is very much there.  His selection of the closing days of 1941 (immediately post-Pearl Harbour) reflects his American worldview, and there is a degree of artifice in treating newspaper articles written in real-time with memoirs written after the event.  He has found his heroes: Gandhi, pacifists, Stefan Zwieg, Victor Klemperer.   He’s found his villains too, and you can almost hear his sharpening his knife. He selects his events without a stated rationale, but with solid intent:  the anti-semitism and blood-lust of Churchill, Britain’s food blockade of Europe,  the testing of chemical weapons in the Middle East,  America’s refusal to take Jewish refugees, the insistent voices of pacifists throughout the war, the commercial entanglement of America in the war through supply of technology, planes and arms,  America’s goading of Japan to enter the war.  Even though he presents these as snippets,  there is an argument here: an argument that debunks especially Churchill but also Roosevelt; that blurs the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”;  that has a whiff of moral superiority in relation to the pacifists.  You are very much aware that it is written with a  post-9/11, post-Iraq sensibility.

Inga Clendinnen also had this to say in Dancing with Strangers:

It is a commonplace rediscovered every decade or so that individuals see what they see from their own particular perspective, and that perspectives change through time.  These disenchanted days we know that there are no I-am-a-camera  observers, and we also know that even cameras lie.  This recognition has not stopped would-be historians from piecing together snippets derived from a range of narratives, perspectives and sensibilities in chronological order, and  calling the resulting ribbon patchwork ‘objective history’. (p. 12)

Nicholson Baker has done exactly this- pieced together snippets derived from a range of narratives- and has reworked them into an almost formulaic vignette, often ending with the date “It was 15 March 2009”.  There’s a flatness of tone, a disembodiment that is unnerving and yet oddly compelling too.

Many historians and academics hated this book.   John Lukacs (who has written several books on Churchill) didn’t hold back : “This book is bad”.  Louis Menand (who wrote The Metaphysical Club) writes:

Baker is trying to eliminate the historian’s interpretive gloss in the interests of respecting the rawness of the primary experience. He seems to think that the facts speak for themselves. But facts never speak for themselves. We speak for them. The historian’s gloss matters (not to mention all the facts that are left out): it provides the reader with intellectual traction, an ability to weigh the claims being put forward to justify the selection of facts. Baker’s presentation may seem empirical—these things happened, you can look them up, no varnish has been applied—but the effect is entirely emotional, because there is no nesting argument, no narrative, to give events a context. It’s a tabloid technique: a six-word quotation or a single image is all you need to understand any issue. The pretense of no manipulation is completely manipulative.

A. C. Grayling was less critical, largely because he agrees with Baker’s intention and argument, rather than his methods.  Dominic Sandbrook likewise, approved the endeavour  but excoriated the methodology

In the end, then, its unorthodox style cannot compensate for the basic mendaciousness, even fraudulence, of this extraordinarily self-righteous book. In my student days, I was taught that a historian should aim to represent the past as fairly and honestly as possible. Of course opinions matter; there is nothing duller than a history book without an argument. But by presenting us with such skewed and partial material, Baker gives us a book that cheapens the serious moral arguments he tries to make. Whatever its merits as a work of literature, as a work of history it is virtually worthless.

So, among such exalted and vociferous opinion, what do I think?  I’m not a WWII historian, so I cannot dispute the facts as, say, Lukacs does.  This book has a broad sweep- not unlike a searchlight scanning the skies- lighting up India, Iraq, even Bob Menzies has his moment in the spotlight.   It represents a slow unfurling of events, rather than a shaped and honed argument.  I found it more compelling than I would have expected- we do, after all, know how it all ended.

But I am wary of something that purports to be “just the facts” and there is a dishonesty about the deliberate absence of the author- he’s there alright, it’s just that he’s pretending not to be.

‘Turning Points in Australian History’ ed. Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts


2009, 254 p plus notes.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for some of the concept discussions for this book, published by the University of New South Wales press.   It takes a similar format to a preceding volume by the same editors which looked at Great Mistakes of Australian history. I find myself wondering whether the editors themselves pitched the idea, or whether it sprang from a marketing initiative of UNSW Press.  For there is certainly an ambivalence about the whole endeavour as even the back cover  blurb indicates:

This exciting and stimulating book examines turning points and crucial moments in Australian history.  Rather than arguing that there have been forks on a pre-determined road, the book challenges us to think about other paths or better paths that might have led to different outcomes.  It shows that a decisive event often only becomes so only in retrospect and that what seemed like a major turning point at the time often had no real impact at all.

I’m not sure that the book is as conditional and ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ as the blurb suggests.  Instead, its chapters are structured as fairly straight narratives on a particular event with, except for two chapters (Chs. 1 and 13) , a specific month and year identified as the ‘turning point’.

1. 14000 BP. On Being Alone: The isolation of the Tasmanians by Iain Davidson and David Andrew Roberts

2. 26th January 1788: The Arrival of the First Fleet and the ‘Foundation of Australia’ by David Andrew Roberts

3. 19 June 1822: Creating ‘an Object of Real Terror’: The tabling of the first Bigge Report by Raymond Evans

4. 15 July 1851: Hargreaves Discovers Gold at Ophir: Australia’s ‘golden age’ by Keir Reeves

5. 16 August 1890: The Maritime Strike Begins: On upotia and ‘class war’ by Melissa Bellanta

6. 1 January 1901: Australia Federates, Australia Celebrates by Erin Ihde

7. 25 April 1915: Australian Troops Land at Gallipoli: Trial, trauma and the ‘birth of the nation’ by Martin Crotty

8. 10 June 1931: The Premiers’ Plan and the Great Depression: High politics and everyday life in an economic crisis by Erik Eklund

9. 27th December 1941: Prime Minister Curtin’s New Year Message: Australia ‘looks to America’ by David Day

10. 16 September 1956: ‘It’s here, at last!’ The introduction of television in Australia by Michelle Arrow

11. January 1961: The Release of the Pill: Contraceptive technology and the ‘sexual revolution’ by Frank Bongiorno

12. 27 May 1967: The 1967 Referendum: An uncertain consensus by Russell McGregor

13. 1970: When it Changed: The beginnings of women’s liberation in Australia by Susan Magarey

14. 26 January 1981 The Opening of the Australian Institute of Sport: The Government takes control of the national pastime by Brett Hutchins

15. I July 1983 Saving the Franklin River: The environment takes centre stage by Melissa Harper

16. 14 May 1986 Paul Keating’s ‘Banana Statement’ and the End of the ‘Golden Age’ by Ray Broomhill.

17. 26 August -11 September 2001: From Tampa to 9/11: Seventeen days that changed Australia by Robert Manne.

There’s some very familiar names amongst the historians here- they have been chosen well.  But in several of the chapters you sense a real ambivalence with the whole project.  The concept being written about often spills out of a chronological strait-jacket, and the selection of an arbitrary date obviously leaves several of the authors feeling quite uncomfortable.  More than one author questions whether it’s really a turning point at all, or whether the concept of a turning point is even valid or useful.   The editors themselves raise this question in the introduction, and in this radio segment about the book.

The chapters are fairly uniform in length, and while not formulaic, tend to follow a pattern of ‘what happened’ then some analysis of the aptness of the designation ‘turning point’ for the event in question.  With the exception perhaps, of Susan Magarey’s chapter, you don’t really get a sense of the distinctive writing style or methodology of the authors’ other work.  The frequent use of inverted commas (‘golden age’ ,’class war’, ‘sexual revolution’)  in many of the chapter titles reflects the rebuttal of popularly-received myths, images and understandings of the events described.

The particular selection of ‘turning points’ (or not) tells us just as much about 2009 as it does about the events under consideration.  I wonder if a similar book, written 50 years hence will feature the same events- I suspect not.  Many of the chapters discuss parallels between current events and the ‘turning point’, which of course adds to its appeal today and its quaintness tomorrow.

I find myself wondering who the intended audience is for this book- well, me for a start, I suppose.  The tenor of the book seems to have been written simultaneously to feed on, and yet resist, the ‘just stick to what happened’ continuous narrative genre that has become associated with John Howard’s attempt to rewrite the history curriculum for schools.  I enjoyed it in small grabs, a chapter here and a chapter there, much as I might read essays in a magazine.  I learnt things I didn’t know; I found myself curling a skeptical lip over the inclusion of some events at times (for example, on the Australian Institute of Sport chapter which, while making an interesting link with the Cold War, didn’t make a very convincing case for its inclusion as a ‘turning point’. ) It’s a bit like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation with informed, thinking people who have considered a phenomenon more deeply than you have, and are able to place an issue into a broader historical context.   The research is sound; the arguments are well-put but it is a book of its time, so read it now, while it’s still fresh!

‘David Collins’ by John Currey


If my postings here have been a bit erratic lately, it’s because I’ve been going back and forth between home and my little caravan on the Mornington Peninsula.  It’s daggy and unsophisticated but as the sun sets over the bay, it’s a beautiful spot- here’s my view from outside the van, just up the track a bit.

Being in such close proximity to the 1803 settlement at Sorrento has prompted me to read John Currey’s biography of David Collins– the leader of the aborted settlement of a consignment of convicts direct to Port Phillip.  By sending the fleet straight to Port Phillip from England, the Colonial Office intended to both quickly create a British presence and to alleviate the moral corruption of the constant inflow of convict blood into Sydney.  The settlement only stayed in Port Phillip for eight months until it shifted to Risdon Cove (Hobart) in two separate journeys separated by months.

The author, John Currey, describes himself in his preface as “an independent scholar without access to the services and resources normally associated with an academic environment”.  He has written and edited  a number of works of early Australian settlement.  The epigraph that commences his preface is an admonition from Andre Maurois’ Aspects of Biography (1929):

Every biographer should write on the first page of his manuscript: ‘Thou shalt not judge”.

He draws heavily on Collins’ letters to family and patrons, family papers and official correspondence, supplemented by newspaper comments and other peoples’ observations and comments on their relations with Collins.  Currey is scrupulous in his search and documentation, and almost succeeds in following Maurois’ advice.  But even he, at the end of the book raises questions that verge on the edge of judgement:

“Essentially conventional in so many ways, Collins was at the same time a complex and enigmatic man.  His written legacy, despite some tantalising revelations, offers few answers to the questions his life provokes.  How could a man so attentive to minute detail in his public duties be so negligent of his own financial affairs?  By what circuitous route did the man who aspired to ascend the pulpit come to find himself reviled as a lecherer and an adulterer?  Why did a mind so receptive and alive with curiosity become so dulled and inactive?  How could a man so blessed with so many natural charms fail to find enduring love and companionship? Did Collins himself, for all his introspection have any insight into his actions?  The exhumation of  [Collins coffin in ]1925 removed some of the mysteries surrounding Collins’s death.  It offered no explanation of the profound mysteries of his life.” (p. 308)

I find it frustrating when an author raises the very questions you want answered, but draws back from actually risking an answer to them.  Currey’s conception of his role as historian constrains him from venturing his own response, informed by his research, to these questions.  He should not be so cautious.  He has read the documentation: he has spent years with this man; he is qualified to venture a judgement.

In fact, I’d add a couple of other questions.  Why was he so unsuccessful in negotiating the patronage networks that all colonial civil servants had to manage?  How exceptional or commonplace was his relationship with the various convict women he had relationships with over his time in New South Wales?  What was the public response to these relationships?


Inga Clendinnen in her Dancing with Strangers is less squeamish about speculating and judging David Collins as one of her informants.   After reading his published journal about his time with the First Fleet she characterizes its author as ” the Master of Plod” (ouch!).  She describes him as a man “susceptible” to liaisons with convict women.  She notes that Collins is

…a perfect representative of the moral and material economy of European culture.  It was these assumptions he brought to his analysis of the convict condition, and which he initially brought to the encounter with the very different culture and economy of the nomad people of Australia…. But as the slow years pass we watch David Collins ripen into an absorbed observer of native conduct, and a man capable of recognizing, indeed of honouring, a quite different way of being.” (p. 55, 56)

In reading this book, I found myself thinking of James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land which, like Clendinnen’s book, carves out a small what-if lacuna of time where the dispossession which certainly, inevitably and inexorably occurred was not yet deepened with violence and bloodshed. I found myself wondering if Collins’ insecurity and unsteadiness in his own authority did not hold the seeds of the 1803 failure in Port Phillip, thus averting an alternative history of Port Phillip as another convict outpost of New South Wales.  Boyce’s book about Van Diemen’s Land describes a benign environment: Collins saw it as hostile.  Boyce sees plenty and food sufficiency: Collins sees starvation and abandonment.

Although Currey doesn’t say so, the  David Collins I drew from his biography was a flawed man, who failed to achieve the hopes he had for himself.  He was impotent in using patronage to his ends; his career sputtered then died out; in an environment where many others prospered financially he ended up almost penniless;  he displayed poor judgement in relation to importing cattle from Bengal at huge expense; he failed to settle an area which just over thirty years later sprang into activity; despite his cheerful exhortations and assessments to some of his correspondents, his world view was essentially pessimistic.

‘Consolation’ by Michael Redhill


2007, 469p

So what does a new historian, weary of combing 19th century newspapers about  little colonial communities read when she heads down to the beach for a few days?  Why, a NOVEL emerging from combing 19th century newspapers about a little colonial community, of course!

I’d heard Michael Redhill talking about his book ‘Consolation’ on Radio National’s The Book Show last year.  The 1850s setting in Toronto, Canada attracted me particularly because if I am going to trace my Resident Judge John Walpole Willis to his career in Canada and British Guiana by upgrading to a PhD, then these places are going to be as familiar to me as Port Phillip is now.  But is that possible?  One of my fellow students commented that she had heard that, in the end, your thesis is always about you.  I’d resisted that thought for a while, as there seems something so self-indulgent and self-aggrandising about it, but perhaps there’s more than a little truth in it, especially in my case.  After all, my first awareness of Judge Willis came from living in Heidelberg, in what was originally the Port Phillip district.  I do not have a judicial bone in my body, but I am attracted to the idea of community cohesion, and its flipside, community rejection of someone who doesn’t fit role expectations.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of small, face-to-face relationships and politics and the Big Imperial Politics of the nineteenth century Colonial Office.

Is it possible to write about a place and a culture that you have never been to?  In the furore over Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, particular criticism was directed at her efforts to absorb the atmosphere and emotional responses to a rough sea crossing, or the banks of the Thames by visiting them today and trying to imagine herself into the responses of people of the time.   Approaching the Heads of Port Jackson on a safe twentieth century boat with lifeboats, communications and a nearby coastguard could not possibly parallel the experience of a small boat with men alone facing huge seas, it was argued.

But, on the other hand, can a description of the courtroom atmosphere of the 1840s ignore a February heatwave?  Can the episode of two men serving papers on Judge Willis on his way to inspect the half-built courtroom make sense without an imagination of the straggly streets of early Melbourne?    How necessary is it to be aware of such things?   If I’m drawing on this almost environmental contextual awareness as the well-spring for my treatment of him in the Port Phillip community,  will I be able to do it for Upper Canada- where I have never been, and as  an even greater challenge, in British Guiana?   Port Phillip, Upper Canada, British Guiana- even their names have changed, to say nothing of the colonial nature of their societies.

And so, I thought I might turn to fiction as a taster.  Consolation is written as two interwoven stories.  The ‘modern’ story is set in a Toronto high-rise hotel, where the widow of a recently-deceased historian is looking down on an excavation where, perhaps, artefacts will be discovered to vindicate her husband’s claims over the shoreline and the likely existence of a shipwreck containing a box of photographic plates of 1850s Toronto.  The ‘past’ story concerns the photographers who created the plates and their adjustments to colonial Toronto and separation from family and ‘home’.

There’s always a peril in the ‘two interwoven stories’ structure that one will overshadow the other, and I think this happened here somewhat.  I really enjoyed the 1850s sections, and felt quite impatient when I was dragged back to the drawn out ‘suspense’ of a Time Team program written on paper.  Of course, my motivation for reading the book may differ from that of other readers, but I felt that he made the characters of the photographic partners  J. G. Hallam and Mrs Rowe come to life.  His descriptions of 1850s Toronto had the whiff of the newspaper article about them, but I enjoy that.

Apparently the book received muted praise in Toronto itself.  There is a slightly evangelical authorial tone that comes through in the ‘modern’ section about heritage and community identity, and perhaps I, too, bridled a bit against being lectured about something that, in reality, I do feel strongly about.

Putting my historian hat on, I could see parallels between the 1850s Toronto he describes, and the 1840s Port Phillip where I spend most of my mental time.  Even the concept of the photographic panorama was replicated here in Port Phillip at much the same time, for slightly different reasons.  And as a fiction reader, I was drawn to the characters he evoked and the little community in which they lived.

‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield


1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”