‘Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse’ by Cassandra Pybus


2020, 336 p.

The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.

Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.

The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini,  for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.

Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land  on North Bruny Island  to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself  purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.

Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness.  In her introduction, she writes:

In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)

She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:

Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past.  I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)

And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.

But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.

I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes.  Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose,  none of which he could have undertaken without them.

By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought.  Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.

The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied.  He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.

His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had  arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.

It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.

The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.

The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.

I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent.  Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.

But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.

As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader-  you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270).  It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: Difficult to say-  commenting as a general reader, 9/10


I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020


Six degrees of separation: from How to Do Nothing to…..

odell_nothingSo, another month- another Six Degrees of Separation – see the ‘rules of the game’ here.

I haven’t read the starting book, Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing (2019). I think my son read it, but it has really passed me by. I think that the title must offend my Protestant Work Ethic background.

Johnson_cleanstrawBut the title put me in mind of George Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing (1969), the second of his David Meredith trilogy, and the sequel to My Brother Jack. Unfortunately, I read it before I started my blog, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I absolutely loved all three books of the trilogy.

wheatley_cliftSo caught up was I by the trilogy that I became fascinated by Charmian Clift, writer and journalist and, as it happens, George Johnston’s wife. Nadia Wheatley wrote a brilliant biography of her called The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2002) which, again, I read before starting this blog.


australian-women-war-reportersClift was a journalist, although more of the domestic kind, with long-running columns in the ‘women’s pages’ of the newspaper. Jeannine Baker explores the world of Australian woman war journalists in her Australian Women Reporters (2015). She traces through the various wars that Australia has been involved in, identifying women reporters who had to forge their own roles in a journalistic genre that lionized male war reporters.

Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill.jpg

And one of the biggest male reporters of them all is Ernest Hemingway, who is just one of the journalists that Amanda Vaill deals with in Hotel Florida (2014). During the Spanish Civil War, international journalists were based at the Hotel Florida in Madrid, and she traces through the interleaved lives of press journalists Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and press officers/censors/propagandists Arturo Barea and Isla Kulscar.

mccamishMentioned in passing is the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, who was also in Spain during the Civil War. Thornton McCamish wrote a fine biography of Moorehead in his Our Man Elsewhere (2016). This book dealt with Moorhead’s experiences as a war correspondent, then his plunge into popular history with, for example, his book Coopers Creek about Burke and Wills.

murgatroyd_digMoorhead wasn’t the only historian to write about Burke and Wills. English writer Sarah Murgatroyd wrote an eminently readable history in her book The Dig Tree (2002), which again, I read before I started this blog. It was quite tragic to learn that she died of cancer just a few weeks after it was published. It has been republished as one of the Text Classics, which is impressive for a book published so recently.

My, I’ve been non-fiction-ny this month.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 July 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. In her History and Politics Q&A of July 7, she spends quite a bit of time on the electoral college, and reasons that the system is broken. She comments on the letter about cancelling culture published in Harper’s magazine, which rather amazing triggers a cascade of trolling in her comments feed while she’s talking! She also discusses whether Trump will accept defeat, and reminds us that Biden is only the presumptive candidate, and that other Democrat candidates are still in the race in order to influence policy.

In the History of the Republican party broadcast Episode 5, she takes us from the 1870s to the end of the nineteenth century.  The Republican party has cemented itself as the party of big business, it ‘steals’ two elections where the candidate has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (each time this has happened, it has been a Republican who comes out on top), and it all sounds pretty corrupt. She attributes (rather questionably, I reckon) the 1890s depression to Republican panic-mongering when the Democrats win both the Presidency and Congress (surely this was a worldwide depression- can American politics have that much influence?) – using the trope that the Democrats (read here in Australia- ALP) can’t handle money. This was all pretty detailed stuff.

The Jungle Prince (New York Times)My son recommended this three-part podcast. What an intriguing story- a family squatting on a Lucknow railway station platform for ten years, claiming to be the Royal Family of Oudh; a crumbling 14th century palace in the jungles surrounding New Delhi; a Miss Haversham-like existence inside the palace and a house in Bradford England with a garden full of garden gnomes. Really worth listening to. I listened to The Jungle Prince via Stitcher.

Rear Vision (ABC)  The U.S. election is drawing closer- coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, ‘law and order’ – it’s like watching a movie. The Religious Right- politics and God in the USA argues that Reagan and Trump both won their victories through a disguised racism (less so in Trump’s case) that dressed itself in concern about abortion.


‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge’ by Clare Wright


2014, 256 p.

My parents were teetotalers, and even though I’m not  a teetotaler by any stretch of the imagination (cue laughter from my husband), I was certainly influenced by my parents’ distaste for the dull roar and acrid smell of beer that emanated from the corner pubs of my childhood. Growing up in the time of the ‘six o’clock swill’, and with the quaintly lettered ‘Ladies Lounge’ etched into the stained glass of pub windows, the pub seemed a threateningly male place. But as Clare Wright reminds us in this book, this was not always the case. Female publicans have a long history, right back to the earliest days of white settlement, and at the end of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, over half of Melbourne’s hotels had a female licensee.

This book, republished by Text Publishing in 2014 has had a longer life than you might think. The original 2003 book was originally drawn from Clare Wright’s PhD thesis from 2002, which itself grew out of her honours thesis which utilized oral histories with female publicans and their descendants. These academic antecedents are still here in this 2014 version of the book, but Wright’s lively writing style, even more pronounced in her later books The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka  and You Daughters of Freedom, ensures that the academic analysis enhances, rather than suffocates, the text.

She starts her book with an evocative pub crawl around Melbourne in 1889, from one hotel to another, where the publican is a woman. Right from the earliest days of convict settlement, the authorities were prepared to condone hotel-keeping by young single women.  During the gold rush, when liquor was ostensibly banned from the diggings, the sly-grog tents that flourished were often owned by women. Some women made sufficient money from sly-grogging to build hotels on the roads to the diggings where they became legitimate, respectable traders.

The legal framework regulating the liquor trade in Victoria was distinctly favourable to women because they were seen to ‘keep orderly houses’, reflected in the language that spoke of the licensee as ‘he or she’.  Most importantly, the requirement for pubs to offer accommodation (something that was not the case in Britain) meant that women were involved in creating a domestic, as well as drinking establishment. Nonetheless, with time, this came under threat.  The 1876 legislation, which aimed at cleaning up the trade after the gold rush, changed the language to ‘he’ and favoured male licensees, and in 1884 there was a courtcase that ruled that married women were prohibited from holding a publican’s licence.  This verdict threw the hotel industry into turmoil, but an Amending Act the next year preserved married women’s rights to renew their licences. Support for married women as licencees came from two unexpected quarters: the Licensed Victuallers Association who were ambivalent at first,  but were swayed by wanting to demonstrate the ‘respectability’ of their profession; and more importantly, the brewing companies who owned a number of hotels outright under the ‘tied house’ system, often using female licensees. In the midst of the temperance campaign around WWI, even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned vociferously against barmaids, was largely silent about female publicans with whom they probably had more in common than they wanted to admit.

‘Respectability’ was used by women publicans as both an attribute to make themselves valuable as licensees, and as a way of embedding themselves and their hotel as integral parts of the community. It was used as a way of controlling behaviour, too, by insisting that men not swear in front of them, and by not drinking with the men (as male publicans were wont to do) in order to maintain a respectable distance.

Because of the requirement for the publican to live on the premises, the pub was a home as well as a business. In the chapter ‘Mapping Elizabeth Wright’, she looks to the inquest records of the aforenamed Elizabeth Wright, who was murdered in her own hotel’s dining room by her business partner. Through these records, Wright (the author, not the victim!) is able to map out the Frankston Hotel spatially, and the dual and ambiguous family/business uses of many of the spaces. Female publicans, bringing up their families within this shared zone, did not have a separate work life but instead their children saw how they operated with authority and efficiency, as oral history testimonies demonstrate. In the final chapters of the book, she brings the female publican into the 21st century, with examples of female publicans in inner-city hotels (e.g. the Curry Family Inn in Collingwood) and  gastropubs (e.g. the Grace Darling, also in Collingwood).

I enjoyed this book. It is written with the same warmth and wit of Wright’s later work on Eureka and suffrage, which tie far more into the bigger historical themes of Australian history. It is not just a paean of praise to female publicans, because it has academic ‘grunt’ as well, although some readers may find this off-putting. There are enough personal vignettes for you to remember that you are reading about real people as well, and the sheer number of examples of female publicans drawn from right across Victoria reinforces that she is writing about a widespread, if overlooked, phenomenon.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book


‘Helen Keller: A Life’ by Dorothy Herrmann


1998, 425 P

This is the biography that I should have read first, before embarking on Kim E. Nielsen’s The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. It is a much longer book, dealing with her whole life, right from birth until death, and it is not overtly written from a particular theoretical perspective. It draws heavily on the  many works that Keller herself wrote, previous biographies, and correspondence between Keller and many correspondents, and between that network of correspondents themselves. Herrmann points out that a fire in 1946 destroyed much of Keller’s correspondence, which is of course unavailable to later biographers.

Although the focus is on Keller, this biography also examines her relationship with the two women who were the most important in tethering Keller to the sighted/hearing world: Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson, and to a lesser degree Nella Braddy Henney, who herself wrote a biography of Anne Sullivan. While these relationships are without question fundamental to understanding Keller, Herrmann at times is distracted by telling their stories at some length, to the extent that you wonder as a reader quite where she is going with this.

She casts a critical eye on Anne Sullivan in particular, suggesting that this complex, suffocating relationship brought limitations to both of them. Neither woman would have attained the fame she did without the other. There was one occasion in particular where I wondered how much evidence Herrmann was operating on when she offered a number of rather startling, left-field suggestions for a ‘secret’ alluded to by Helen Keller.

I like how ’rounded’ this biography is. She explores Keller’s sexuality, her politics, her financial situation and her spirituality. She follows through the full length of Keller’s long life, which demonstrated to me Keller’s resilience once she emerged from her grief at the death of Anne Sullivan, and later Polly Thompson. It is clear that Keller had her own politics and her own religion, quite distinct from the opinions of her companions. Perhaps because I’m getting older myself, I’m increasingly interested in the way that people embrace aging, and Keller certainly was active until she was quite old, and I’m glad that Herrmann has stayed with her to the end.

There’s a video interview with Dorothy Herrman here that demonstrates the richness of this biography.

Sourced from: borrowed from the Internet Archive. At a time of lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get this here.

My rating: 8/10


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 July 2020

History Chicks  I’m on a bit of a Helen Keller binge at the moment, so I downloaded the History Chicks episode on Helen Adams Keller– one of their earliest from 2011. I suspect that they have read Dorothy Hermann’s biography because it’s staying fairly close to that. But I like that they spend considerable time on her radical activities, although they don’t mention her spirituality.

Historical Figures also had a podcast on Helen Keller, but it focussed more on her childhood. They do mention her political activities, but most of the podcast repeats the water-pump story.

Heather Cox Richard’s History of the Republican Party Episode 4 looks at the rivalry between Ulysses Grant (ex-military rather than a career politician ) and Charles Sumner (the guy who got bashed up on the Senate floor in 1854) who felt as if he should have been President.   Heather Cox Richardson pushes back against the idea of Grant being corrupt. We see the rise of ‘liberal’ Republicans, as well as the rise of the KKK and the creation of the Dept of Justice. The party splits, and turns to big business, who switch their loyalty to the Republicans. We also get the fear of ‘communism’ and wealth distribution through coloured voters (something we still have today)

‘The Radical Lives of Helen Keller’ by Kim E. Nielsen


2004, 194 p.

I’m plunging into some reading about Helen Keller, in preparation for a talk that I’m giving this week at my UU Fellowship. I remember reading the story of Helen Keller standing by the water pump in one of my school readers in primary school, and of course, I saw Patty Duke in ‘The Miracle Worker’. But I hadn’t realized that Helen Keller had such a rich intellectual, political and spiritual life after water flowed over her hands prompting her ‘aha!’ moment and once she became an adult woman- and that’s what I’m exploring at the moment.

I hadn’t realized just how much had been written about Helen Keller. Children’s books, in particular, abound. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller is a relatively recent book, published in 2004, and I’m a little sorry that I hadn’t read Dorothy Herrman’s more conventional biography Helen Keller: A Life prior to reading Nielsen’s book, which is more overtly rooted in a theoretical stance than a ‘straight’ narrative biography.

Nielsen’s book comes from a Disability Studies perspective, which challenges the idea of disability as something to be ‘overcome’ and instead focuses on the social, political, economic and cultural factors that define ‘disability’. As she says, this perspective

”  reveals to historians, such as myself, the depth to which those definitions of disability and normality are ever-changing, are historically bound, and have immense consequence. Using disability as a tool of analysis necessitates a profound rethinking of power and the dynamics which create social power.” (p.13)

While not at all discounting the effects of blindness and deafness on Helen Keller, Nielsen argues that:

As the world’s most famous person with an acknowledged disability in the twentieth century, whatever Keller wrote, spoke or did mattered. The policies and attitudes she espoused regarding people with disabilities had political, legal, medical, financial, cultural and educational consequences.  Her public persona was held up as a standard for other people with disabilities and shaped their personal and political options, whether or not she or they desired it. She understood the political implications of class She also actively involved herself in advocating for people with disabilities. But she rarely explored the political implications of disability. For most of the her life, the disability politics she adopted were frequently conservative, consistently patronizing, and occasionally repugnant.” (p. 9)

It is because of this reframing of Keller’s life through a Disability Studies lens that I wish I had been more familiar with the entirety of her story, before critiquing it through this very late 20th-early21st century lens. Taking a contemporary intellectual stance and revisiting a well-trodden story is valuable and enlightening, but I am a little uncomfortable with the suggestion of blame that sometimes attaches to the project –  “why didn’t she act in a certain way?”

In particular, Nielsen is critical of Keller’s deliberate distancing from other people with disabilities throughout most of her life, most particularly the Deaf community. Keller’s education was recommended by Alexander Graham Bell, an oralist who was fiercely opposed to the use of American Sign Language. Possibly without being aware of it, she was aligned with one side of the cultural and political debates about signing and orality that still run through the Deaf community today. Moreover, she appears to have had little contact with other networks of blind professionals, intellectuals or activists of her own generation. She became a mythologized individual rather than part of an oppressed minority.

Nonetheless, Nielsen admits:

Given the limited practical or theoretical options perceptible to her, her isolation from other people with disabilities, and her inability to politicize disability, her career can be explained as a pragmatic choice. Few viable alternative choices existed. (p.12)

Nielsen explains why she titled her book in the plural:

This political biography is not simply entitled The Radical Lives of Helen Keller because of Keller’s interest in radical politics. She also lived radically different lives at different points in her life. Internal and hard wrought personal decisions effected these changes. External factors…also prompted these changes. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller seeks to recognize the various political lives Keller lived and the reasons for those political and personal revolutions. (p.14)

The book is divided into four chronological chapters, and a concluding chapter. The first chapter ‘I Do Not Like This World As It Is’ covers 1900-1924, thus starting with Keller’s entry to Radcliffe College, rather than the more common opening scene of the pump in the garden. It describes her spiritual conversion to Swedenborgianism and her involvement in socialist politics, something that was encouraged by John Macy, who was originally engaged as an editor/secretary, and ended up marrying Annie Sullivan

Chapter 2 ‘The Call of the Sightless’ covers the years 1924-1937 when she and Annie (now separated from her husband John Macy) focussed on the fundraising activities of the American Foundation for the Blind, a position which required Keller to suppress her socialist activities so as not to spoil ‘the brand’. At the end of this period, Annie Sullivan died, leaving Keller bereft.

Chapter 3 ‘Manna in my Desert Places’ 1937-1948 covers her first visit to Japan, a deathbed promise to Annie Sullivan, and her increasing concern over the rise of Hitler in Germany. She increasingly came under the purview of the FBI, especially for her support of the American Rescue Ship Mission, which planned to take European refugees to Latin America, but the project was scuppered because it attracted communist support. She became friends with the sculptor Jo Davidson who introduced her to many progressive, engaged people.  She returned to Japan in 1948 as part of a tour that planned to visit Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Middle East, but it was cut short because of the illness of her travelling companion Polly Thomson. She did, however, visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was appalled by the dropping of the bomb.

Chapter 4 ‘I will not allow Polly to Climb a Pyramid’ takes the last 20 years of her life (1948-1968) and her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, representing the United States “as a courageous, interesting, vibrant but quirky country that could accomplish virtually anything.”

The political  implications of her actions were implicit, her political opinions left private. Her message was inherently political but her image was of a living miracle. This seemingly placed her above the squalor of international and partisan politics” (p. 106)

The final chapter ‘One of the Least Free People on Earth: The Making and Remaking of Helen Keller’ examines the project to curate the Helen Keller image, both at the time, and since. It was a project that depended on her exceptionality, and it demanded the suppression of political solidarity with both disability activists, and with the progressive politics that might offend donors to the American Foundation  for the Blind.

I enjoyed this book, even though I recognize that I should have read it later, rather than sooner. I am now reading Hermman’s biography, and find myself reading the two books against each other. And I find myself astounded by Keller’s preternatural intelligence, her political involvement and deep spirituality.  Nielsen is right-

Keller is a complicated icon, just as she was a complicated individual, who lived a complicated life. She thrived, however, on complication, on debate, on excitement and on constant movement. She liked Scotch, not tea (p. 131)

Sourced from:  ebook through State Library of Victoria

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 July 2020

Heather Cox Richardson continues with Episode 3 of her History of the Republican Party. In this episode, she deals with Reconstruction. No wonder Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives- after Lincoln was assassinated he took over, and in a few months stitched up arrangements so that the South (which had lost the war) was largely excused, and he passed the Black Codes to limit the rights of afro-Americans.  As H.C.R. says, in these years you can see the origin of many of the issues tearing America apart today.

Her Politics and History talk of 30 June was a bit more present-focussed than usual. She starts off with the history of treason, pointing out that until John Brown was executed (as in the John Brown’s Body song) in 1859, no-one really knew what actually constituted ‘treason’ and how it should be punished. The 1949 definition, passed in the Cold War, assumed that the enemy country had declared war- so how does that work with terrorism? Another question was: What happens if Trump retires? She wouldn’t be surprised if he did, on the basis of his prior behaviour where he breaks things then leaves. Next question: Why didn’t Obama do something about Russian interference? Her suggestion: it would have given the Republicans real ammunition to say that the Russians thought America so weak that they could interfere with impunity. And finally: why do so many sports teams reference Native Americans? Her answer: because in the 1890s and early 20th century, when most of this naming occurred, there was anxiety about white men becoming effeminate, and so the names referenced a physically strong imagery.

Earshot (ABC) Life After Hate is a two-part series that follows a young British-Canadian Tony McAleer who was a white supremacist. He was imprisoned for crimes committed while he was involved with the far right, and on his release he decided to leave it all behind. He became involved with a charismatic life-coach and public speaker, and is now on the public-speaking circuit, building his shtick from his far-right past. Is this just another form of self-aggrandisement?

99% Invisible A few months back, I mentioned a 99% Invisible program about a statue of the Spanish conquisador Juan de Oñate. Activists had hacked the foot off the statue, replicating Oñate’s own action when he cut the foot from indigenous men to punish them. Well, with all the statues toppling all over the world, Oñate’s statues (the old fashioned man on a horse and a more recent one) came in for attention. Return of Oñate’s Foot reprises the original one, and catches up with recent events.

Talking Politics: History of Ideas – Mary Wollstonecraft David Runicman is obviously trying to draw connections between Episode 1 (Hobbes’ Leviathan) and Wollstonecraft’s work but it’s a strained connection at times. Writing during the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft wrote two books in response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution: first Vindication of the Rights of Man and then Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He points out that although it’s rather cold in tone, it is surprisingly graphic when describing sexual practices. He finishes talking about Jane Austen, who probably read Wollstonecraft’s book, and her novelistic expression of Wollstonecraft’s arguments in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

‘Oil Under Troubled Water’ by Bernard Collaery


466 p. 2020

This blog post is actually an amalgam of two blog posts. The first one explained why I didn’t finish reading this book. This second post is written after I gritted my teeth and did finish it after all.

I’ve become more interested in international politics over the last twenty years. This interest was spurred by my outrage at the oleaginous Alexander Downer’s airy dismissal of concerns about Australia’s behaviour over East Timorese oil resources, waving off the whole question as a merely a matter for foreign aid, rather than principled policy. I decided then that I needed to know more about the world around me.

I still feel that way, particularly about East Timor and West Papua. I watched a Readings ZOOM session where former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks launched this book and decided that I should read it. Bracks describes it in a blurb on the front cover as “Essential, if difficult, reading for all Australians”. I assumed that it was difficult from a moral/political point of view (which it is), but for me it is difficult because of the way it is written. It is very detailed : nearly 400 pages of very dense foreign policy with different departments and diplomats and acronyms. It’s a lawyer writing, not a historian, and fact after fact is rammed through, lest nothing be left out. This is a real insider’s book, for someone who already knows the lie of the land and the big picture. That reader is not me.

Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. He makes no secret of his admiration for and allegiance to Xanana Gusmao, the first President and fourth Prime Minister of the newly-independent East Timor. The black and white photographs sprinkled through the book, often including the author, show that he is not just a commentator but a participant in the events. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil.

This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s. However, as a historian, I learned much: about the way that England’s treaty with Portugal affected how England wanted to hide behind Australia in taking action in Timor during WW2; the strategic importance of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic for British defence and hence its concerns about getting Portugal offside over Timor; about the Whitlam and later Fraser government assumptions that Indonesia would take over East Timor, in preference to independence. In Collaery’s telling, Australia’s foreign policy reached its high point with H.V. Evatt, and from then on has been underhand and coercive, and largely and inexplicably beholden to the petroleum industry (although, as he points out, Alexander Downer’s almost immediate employment by Woodside Petroleum is telling).

Australia does not come well out of this. The Australian government was quick to act when the new nation of Timor Leste was just finding its feet; it has played hard ball with questionable geological and cartographic ‘facts’ , and yet ineptly managed to lose the benefits of the ‘inert’ helium commodity not only for Timor Leste but for Australia itself.

I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary.  It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 June

Heather Cox Richardson.  I really am enjoying her ‘chats’ (which are an hour long- she has a lot to say!) In her History of the Republican Party Part II  she talks about the relationship between Lincoln’s view of equality and the economics of the Civil War. In order to provide what the people wanted (as distinct from what the oligarchs deemed to give them), income tax was introduced to provide a source of income when many of the eastern seaboard ports were confederate controlled. In a way, this was a bit of a repetition of her history of income tax in last week’s History and Politics Chat.

In the History and Politics Chat of June 23rd she talks about the history of policing. She points out that in the north, policing had its roots in maintaining public order while in the south it was based on slave patrols.  Police forces became corrupted by their ownership by the city municipal bodies; eventually they broke through to become professionalized, then went to the other extreme by taking on ‘scientific techniques’ which saw a lot of people jailed incorrectly.  Then she went on to talk about newspapers. At first newspapers, in their four pages, provided ‘what an educated man needed to know’;  but from the 1840s onwards became increasingly partisan. The Fairness Doctrine of the 1920s, which insisted on the presentation of both sides of an argument, was repealed under Reagan in the 1980s, leading us to our current phenomenon of Fox ‘news’ (which is entertainment, not news). She finishes with a question about women in the political sphere, pointing out that under 2nd wave feminism in the 1970s there were women in politics and as journalists. Her most recent book How the South won the Civil War ends with the hope that women, by voting differently to men, will rescue America from Trump.

The Music Show. Does the world really need a three volume opus on the Beatles? Mark Lewisohn’s ‘The Beatles: All These Years – Volume 1 – Tune In’ is a 1000 page book, with two others yet to go. I think that this program The Beatles- the early years was recorded a few years back, but it’s well worth a listen. Lewisohn is a historian as well as a fan, and so he has written a fascinating social history of 1950s Liverpool, which includes a consideration of the 1944 Education Act (which made a grammar school education available to bright children) and the abolition of national service (which freed the Beatles to go to Germany as 18 year olds) as influences on the Beatles. They play some really unusual tracks during the program too.