Tag Archives: history

Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Whatever else it may be, a desert is a historical document preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, geomorphic processes and cultural systems. I like to think of these landscapes as a palimpsest of different deserts. Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each has its own climate, physical landscapes and environment; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common: wind and water shape landforms; the basin and range topography provides the formwork of the landscape. No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts – a fact that makes archaeology possible. This monograph – the first book-length archaeological study of Australia’s deserts – is an attempt to map out these histories.

That’s the opening paragraph of Mike Smith’s preface to The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, and it’s a fair account of his project. The book is written with archaeological scholars and students in mind, and general readers are likely to find it hard going. At least I did. But, with judicious skipping and a willingness to read on even while suspecting I might sometimes be missing the point, I found it fascinating.

Tom Griffiths wrote in The Art of Time Travel, ‘Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened and how we know what we think happened.’ In this book, both stories are wonderful, and neither can be honestly told without the other.

As this is a survey of a vast field of exploration, the story of ‘how we know what we think happened’ really is about ‘we’ the profession rather than ‘I’ the author. Again and again, someone is cited as proposing a version of what happened 20, 30 or 50 thousand years ago, only to have that explanation deemed unconvincing in the light of more recent evidence and replaced by a new theory, which is discarded in its turn. There are many sentence like this:

The prevailing view that higher rainfall, and active rivers and lakes, had marked the late glacial climate [that is, the last stages of the last ice age, a little more than 13 000 years ago] changed so abruptly in the mid-1960s that by 1975, little trace of it remained.

One imagines whole lifetimes of study and theorising falling in ruins in less than a decade, and at the same time one is warned that the chapters that follow may some day meet a similar fate.

This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.

A second aspect of the ‘how’, as important as the first but here less captivating, is technological advance, particularly in dating techniques. Some of the new technologies are explained in a glossary, but I mostly skipped the discussions of the different dates arrived at using different  processes – I’ll just trust the scientists to know their ABOX 14C from their TIM U/Th. In this case I’m interested in the findings rather than the nano nuts and bolts.

Then there’s the other story, the provisional narrative created from the archaeological evidence. There were people in the Australian deserts (and Smith does say ‘people’, which reads as if ‘like us’ is implied) more than 50 000 years ago, when they shared the place with diprotodons and giant emu-like birds. Those people’s descendants found ways to survive the most intense period of the last ice age 19 to 26 and a half thousand years ago (the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ or LGM, ‘26.5–19 ka’ in scientific language). As the bitter aridity of that age passed, there is evidence that the population in the deserts increased, and different kinds of trade flourished over great distances. There were changes in technology, culture (Smith’s discussion of cave art is fascinating) and language (who knew that palaeolinguistics was a thing?). The detail is hard for the inexpert reader to follow at times, but what emerges is a rich, complex narrative that is challenging to widely held assumptions on many levels.

Let me give two examples that came up while I was still reading the book.

First, in the splendid exhibition The history of the world in 100 objects currently showing at the  National Museum of Australia, one of the wall notes reads in part:

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming – and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature – to take control.

Well, not all humans. People in Australia did it differently. Even the term ‘ice age’ doesn’t describe what was happening in this part of the world: rather than great sheets of ice, people here had to cope with great dust bowls. Smith discusses at some length the probable different strategies adopted. And as the climate warmed up and the human population grew, even in the desert areas, people in Australia continued to live as part of the ecosystem. Once, this would have been seen as a failure to progress, but now it begins to look much more like something the rest of the world can learn from.

The second example is something Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong man, said at Jonathan Jones’s profound installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Pascoe reminded us that long before settlement (he said that in Victoria he’s not allowed to say ‘invasion’) the old people had worked out something rare if not unique in the history of the planet: how to live without wars over land.

Before reading Mike Smith’s book, I would probably have heard this as somehow meaning that the Aboriginal culture and politics had been been unchanging in since an imagined meeting of elders that happened millennia ago. But not now. The archaeological record is very limited in what it can tell us about what happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it does indicate that as circumstances changed (as sea levels fell and rose by more than a hundred metres, for example) so did people’s behaviour. Cultures developed and changed, as did social organisation and people’s relationship to country (archaeologists talk of ‘territoriality’ and ‘land tenure’). Bruce Pascoe’s observation is a powerful counter to the colonialist notion that there is a single template for progress in human affairs, and that Europeans are much ‘further along’ than Aboriginal peoples. No, he says, Aboriginal people chose a different path, a different kind of complexity. Listening to him with Mike Smith’s book fresh in my mind, I’m struck by the startlingly obvious idea that those ‘old people’ were not some imaginary super-beings, but historical humans who grappled with the problems of existence at least as creatively as anyone else on the planet, and in some respect made wiser decisions.

I read this book because of Tom Griffiths’s chapter on Mike Smith in The Art of Time Travel. It was every bit as daunting as I expected, but worth it: like the difference between a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself.

Lesley & Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White

Lesley and Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter (UQP 2015)

njb&w.jpgThis is a superb memoir. If the title sounds a bit preachy, don’t be misled. It’s a page turner, a romance, a tale of multi-faceted heroism with plenty of grief, rage and laughing out loud, and some totally – I do mean totally! – unexpected plot twists.

The two authors are mother and daughter. Lesley Williams was born in the mid 1940s and grew up in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland, 170 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, where the Aboriginal people were referred to as ‘inmates’ and every aspect of their lives was regulated by the authorities. Hers is the last generation to have grown up ‘under the Act’ – that is The Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 and its successors: people couldn’t travel or marry without formal permission, and any money they earned was held ‘in safe keeping’ by the government. When she was fifteen, Lesley was assigned to work as a domestic servant in distant homes; she wasn’t informed of the conditions of her employment and received only ‘pocket money’ directly. A timid girl who lives in fear of any white authorities, she grows up, with help from Aboriginal and white friends and allies, to spearhead a campaign  for justice for Aboriginal workers that eventually led to payment of a compensation package of $55.4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, she had three children whom she was determined would have better lives than hers. Tammy, the youngest, started out ghost writing this book, but became its second authorial voice when they realised how their lives were intertwined. Tammy’s story doesn’t have quite the same extraordinary journey from one era to another, but it’s full of surprises of its own. Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson plays a significant role and José Ayala Lasso, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a walk-on part.

Both women are great story-tellers. The success of the campaign to recover the stolen wages is almost an afterthought to these two wonderful yarns.

I was about a third of the way into this book when ABC’s 4 Corners aired those heart-stopping scenes of the mistreatment of Aboriginal boys in custody in the Northern Territory. And you know, grim though those scenes were, the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland into the 1960s, which Lesley Williams recounts with extraordinary calm and clarity, was just as violent and demeaning in its own way. As with current events in Nauru and Manus, there was no shocking footage, and for most Australians out of sight was out of mind. This book, and other like it, make a huge contribution to our understanding of Australia’s history

AWW2016Not Just Black and White is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It won the 2014 David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writing. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get more gongs now that it’s published.

The Book Group and John Hirst’s Australian History in 7 Questions

John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc 2014)

9781863956703Before the Book group meeting: ‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable,’ John Hirst starts his introduction to this book. Invited to lecture on this potentially deadly topic at a branch of the University of the Third Age, he had the thought that if he framed the lectures as puzzling over genuine questions, they would cease to be predictable. I don’t know about the lectures, but this book is lively and has quite a few surprises.

Hirst’s seven questions, and severely truncated version of his answers, are:

  1. Why did Aborigines not become farmers? The real question is why did other hunter-gatherer peoples ever make the transition to farming, when it’s advantages are far from obvious? (He relies on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel a fair bit. It’s not part of his story that Aboriginal people did become farmers, but were ruthlessly driven off their land by the colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – as in Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy.)
  2. How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? This question is based on a misapprehension: New South Wales was never a penal colony. It began as a colony of convicts: from the beginning the work of the colony was overseen by other convicts, and convicts had substantial rights. The penal reform movement in England led to a failed attempt to turn it into a penal colony in the 1820s and 1830s.
  3. Why was Australia so prosperous so early? The most interesting aspect of Hirst’s answer is that the colony was run by government employees. That is, the people in charge weren’t there to make profit for themselves or their company, but were public servants, and had the resources of the British government behind them.
  4. Why did the Australian colonies federate? This chapter is mainly a rebuttal of two common replies: that Federation happened because of business interests or because of racism. Business in fact opposed Federation until the eleventh hour, and while racism was big and ugly it wasn’t the motivator. You have to ignore the vast amount of bad poetry being published in late 19th century Australia not to realise that the move to Federation was driven by a deep yearning for independence, a powerful nationalistic sentiment.
  5. What effect did convict origins have on national character? Relying on a 1969 essay by Henry Reynolds, Hirst rebuts Russell Ward’s well-established story that our convict origins made us an irreverent lot, free-spirited and suspicious of authority. On the contrary, the ‘convict stain’ meant Australians felt the need to prove themselves among nations by, for example, sending off lots of young men to die in England’s wars. The need to transcend the ‘impure origins’ of the nation may have lain behind the racism of the White Australia policy – Australia would be ‘racially pure’.
  6. Why was the postwar migration program a success? Hirst points to the way the colonies dealt with cultural differences well before the 1950s. The conflicts that were left behind in Britain and Ireland were savage, and though prejudice and mutual unpleasantness continued, there was a general consensus that the old conflicts should not be imported into the new country.
  7. Why is Australia not a republic? The Australian colonies were too far away from England to feel safe if they cut ties, and much more recently John Howard played on people’s distrust of politicians to secure a defeat in the 1999 referendum.

That gives some idea of the book’s arguments. Of course, the story you tell depends on what questions you start from. Ask any Australian historian to come up with 7 questions, and you’ll get a different book. It’s hard to imagine an Aboriginal historian such as Vicki Grieves choosing Hirst’s first, even without the questionable term ‘Aborigines’, or James Boyce, author of Van Diemen’s Land, being so focussed on Sydney and Melbourne. I don’t remember any mention of the Chinese on the goldfields, or of the substantial non-Anglo immigrant communities that flourished before the Second World War – Germans in South Australia, and Southern Europeans in north Queensland, say.

I’m not a historian myself, but I enjoy reading history, and plan to keep my ears open for the discussion this book generates. Hirst has stuck a number of spanners in the well-oiled works of received versions of Australian history, and that can’t be bad.

The meeting: This was our last meeting for the year and was even more convivial than usual. The business of the evening began with ceremonial distribution of  books each of us had chosen from our shelves and wrapped in bright paper. I scored The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays by Andrew O’Hagan.

The book turned out to be a fabulous choice for the group. There was a lot of interesting discussion, which included quite a bit of holding personal histories up against Hirst’s generalisations. We are all white, almost all of Anglo heritage, but quite a few of us had our own experiences or those of people we’re close to that resonated with Hirst’s notion of conflicts being left in their place of origin, not dwelt on here. One guy started out saying that he didn’t care for the book much because the writing is pedestrian, giving information but no pleasure – but by the end of the evening, he said he had been converted. We laughed a lot, but I don’t remember what about.

Russell McGregor’s Indifferent Inclusion

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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On a recent edition of the ABC’s Q&A, Senator Nova Peris was discussing the proposed acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. ‘As Aboriginal Australians,’ she said, ‘we are excluded. For such a long time we were regarded as flora and fauna. It’s about making a wrong right.’

Paradoxically, the 1967 removal of the Constitution’s two mentions of Aboriginal people (and, by implication, Torres Strait Islanders) was a significant step towards inclusion.

According to Russell McGregor, those two references resulted from indifference. He argues that the first, which prevented the federal government from making laws with respect to ‘the aboriginal race’, dates from the 1891 draft where it was inserted in order to protect the rights of Maori if, as then expected, New Zealand joined the new nation; when New Zealand withdrew, nobody cared enough to take the clause out. The other mention – ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal [sic] natives shall not be counted’ – rested on the assumption, he argues, that Aboriginal people counted for little. ‘Neither section,’ he continues, ‘formally excluded [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] from the legal rights and entitlements of Australian citizenship, but both implied that Aboriginal people were outside the community of the Australian nation.’

Indifferent Inclusion charts the decades of debate and changing attitudes among settler Australians, and activism and argument on the part of Indigenous Australians, that led up to the 1967 Referendum, in which an unprecedented 90 per cent of the electorate voted for change. It hardly needs saying that the Referendum was not the end of exclusion. Four years later, in what might have provided an epigraph for this book, a FCAATSI report described racism in Australia as mainly ‘cold, callous indifference to Aborigines, rather than intemperate hatred’. Punctuated by momentary expressions of good will such as the Walk Across the Bridge, the Sea of Hands and the Apology for the Stolen Generations, that indifference has persisted and non-Indigenous Australians have been largely silent in response to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Northern Territory Intervention, and straws in the wind such as our Prime Minister’s recent description of the continent as ‘unsettled or, um, scarcely settled’ before 1788.

All the same, the story told here is one of progress. On one hand the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists gain progressively more effective platforms, and the narrative introduces any number of passionate and eloquent individuals who ought to be household names: William Cooper, Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson, Stan Davey (author of a pamphlet on assimilation titled Genesis or Genocide?), Faith Bandler and more. On the other, settler Australia’s self image grows and develops, and with it the image it projects onto Indigenous Australians.

McGregor begins with the policy of ‘absorption’ which, though never official government policy, dominated the thinking of government departments charged with Aboriginal affairs in the 1930s, underpinned by what now looks like a bizarrely irrational emphasis on the importance of white skin to the Australian identity. This policy was a cold-blooded plan to control the relationships of people of part-Aboriginal heritage so that they had children only with white partners. This was called ‘breeding out the colour’: within a few generations, Australians would all have white complexions, and the treasured myth of ethnic homogeneity would prevail. ‘Full-blooded’ Aboriginal people would either die out or be kept cordoned off in the Western Desert, on tracts of lands to which the only non-Aboriginal people with access would be scientists. Most alarmingly, the dominant public opposition came from people who objected that the plan would corrupt the purity of the white race.

However, the self image of settler Australians did change, ‘blood’ (aka skin colour) giving way to ‘way of life’ as the main defining factor (as the White Australia Policy came to feel more anachronistic). In a number of ways, non-Indigenous people began to appreciate something of Indigenous culture: the Jindyworobaks had their doomed idea of finding a true Australian national identity by appropriating Aboriginal culture, but even kitsch tea-towels and wallpaper with ‘Aboriginal’ motifs reflected this growing appreciation. The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists began to be more widely heard – the 1938 Day of Mourning was a landmark event; men served in World War 2 (though their enlisting had been resisted by conservatives who feared rightly that if they fought for Australia their claim to inclusion in the national community would be strengthened); Albert Namatjira and others demonstrated that artistic creativity wasn’t the sole preserve of non-Indigenous people; perhaps more influentially, Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and others demonstrated that Aboriginal people could excel in sport.

‘Assimilation’ became the key policy word, which, although it has a bad odour these days, was supported in the 1940s and 50s by leading Aboriginal activists. According to McGregor, the assimilationist policies didn’t always, or even most of the time, entail the loss of Aboriginal identity and community: the distinction which came later, between assimilation and integration, was really an attempt to differentiate between two tendencies within the assimilationist movement. On the one side, for example, Paul Hasluck, who was Commonwealth Minister for Territories from 1951, proposed a version of assimilation in which

the Aboriginal cultural heritage would not disappear, but rather would dissipate into folkloric remnants, and Aboriginal identity would not be erased but privatised, contracting to little more than an individual’s sense of personal ancestry.

On the other side, anthropologist A P Elkin wrote:

The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group, or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

Elkin’s language was to change, but when he wrote this, he was using the language of assimilation. By 1961, most supporters of assimilation policies were towards Elkin’s end of the spectrum. It was generally understood that assimilation (or integration) did not mean the end to distinctive Aboriginal identity, culture and language. It was a question whether something was being done to Indigenous people, or with and by them.

I had vaguely supposed before this eminently readable book put me right that the 1967 Referendum gave Indigenous Australians the vote. But it turns out that the reading of the Constitution that led to their disenfranchisement had been successfully challenged before then. In spite of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign – ‘Right Wrongs, Vote YES for Aborigines on May 27’ – the Referendum didn’t change very much at all, and the federal government of the day under Harold Holt chose not to use their new powers, not to rock the boat. In the domain, its as if every change, seen to be huge as it approaches, turns out to be tiny.

These pages are full of odd and admirable characters, and any number of curious incidents. One truly odd moment was a piece of legislation ushered in by Paul Hasluck, the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance 1953, subtitled An ordinance to provide for the care and assistance of certain persons. The striking thing about this legislation was that, while its concern was entirely with Aboriginal people, it never once used any version of the term ‘Aboriginal’, because Hasluck believed that no distinction should be made on the basis of race in legislation: it was easy enough to work out what distinct group was being declared wards of the state, of course, but somehow not using the name was meant to make it less discriminatory.

Many of the debates and attitudes covered here feel weirdly alien now but, as Nova Peris’s choice of language illustrates, the issue hasn’t gone away, and it’s sobering to reflect that what was once believed and spoken out loud is still lurking somewhere in our minds, unacknowledged even to ourselves. One one hand, The past is another country. They do things differently there. On the other: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills from CSIRO

Ian D. Clark & Fred Cahir (editors), The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives (CSIRO Publishing 2013)

0643108084History, as Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. As someone else has surely said, it’s also passed on by word of mouth among the conquered, and – if we’re lucky – revised by the descendants of both. Although only one of the essays in this collection is written by an Aboriginal author, the book is a happy example of that kind of revisionism.

Every schoolchild of my generation and earlier knew the Burke and Wills story: the successful crossing of Australia from south to north, the terrible coincidence of arriving at the Cooper’s Creek depot hours after their supply party had given up waiting for them, the Beckettishly symbolic ‘Dig Tree’, the wretched death of most of the party in the ‘wilderness’, the survival of King among an Aboriginal community, the retrieval of the bodies. As one of the essays in this book comments, the story is a key example of ‘the mythology of victimhood that, ironically, secures a settler claim to cultural legitimacy by marginalising the actual victims of colonisation – namely, Aboriginal people’ (Leigh Boucher, ‘Alfred Howitt and the Erasure of Aboriginal History’, p 255).

The myth-making impulse was so strong that no official account of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860–61, to give it its full title, was attempted at the time, and it wasn’t until 2011, when CSIRO published Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, that the expedition’s scientific achievements were explored in any systematic way.

The Aboriginal Story, edited by two Bathurst University academics, explores the other major area that has been largely neglected by the scores of journalists, novelists, filmmakers, painters, poets, sculptors and yarners who have dealt with the expedition, namely ‘the interaction between Indigenous people and the expeditioners and their potential and actual contribution to the expedition’ (p. v).

Not everything here is news. As a postgraduate student 40 years ago, I read the selections from Wills’s diary and letters published by his father, and was left in no doubt that Burke’s arrogant dismissal of Aboriginal hospitality and ABoriginal knowledge played a major part in his disastrous end. My abiding memory from that reading is the image of the bearded Irish policeman, close to death from starvation, knocking to the ground an armful of freshly caught fish being offered to him by a group of Aboriginal men.

That perception and that image occur in a number of the essays here, but there is much more. The book opens with an introduction by Aaron Paterson, a Yandruwandha man, descendant of the community in whose land Burke and Wills died, the people who cared for John King, the expedition’s only survivor. His lyrical description of his country demolishes in a couple of pages the whole edifice underpinning the tragic explorer myth: Burke and Wills weren’t crossing an implacable wilderness, but stumbling ineptly through other people’s home.

And it goes on from there. This is a collection of scholarly essays, each meant to stand alone if need be, with the result that there is a lot of repetition: the reader is introduced to characters such as the expedition artist Ludwig Becker many times over, and there is no single account of the expedition. I skipped a little, but only a little: most of it is fascinating reading – we learn about the languages of the people encountered by the expedition; there are Becker’s wonderful drawings of landscape and people, including the images on the cover; encounters with Aboriginal people quoted from the journals of members of the expedition and the follow-up expeditions; portraits of a number of the minor figures in the expeditions, including the Aboriginal men who worked as guides at various times; some scuttlebuck about Burke’s death and the daughter King may have fathered with an Aboriginal woman; an essay on Aboriginal people as messengers on the Australian frontier (a role which, unlike their role as trackers and as ‘native police’, has generally faded from the collective memory).

For me the most surprising essay was Peta Jeffries’ ‘The influence of Aboriginal country on artist and naturalist Ludwig Becker of the Victorian Exploring Expedition: Mootwingee, 1860–61’ (and yes, the essay titles generally aren’t too snappy), in which she explores one of Becker’s paintings, arguing that it prefigured an understanding of Aboriginal connection to country, that in it ‘the narrative of colonial occupation has subsided’. The most telling essay was the one by Leigh Boucher that I quoted from above, which demonstrates that Howitt’s early writing acknowledged the important role Aboriginal people played in the success of his expedition, but as time passed they disappeared from the story, their knowledge and help being replaced by Howitt’s own bushcraft. Genocide comes in many forms, and one of them is forgetting.

The ‘narrative of colonial occupation’ has dominated accounts of the Burke and Wills expedition and much else from Australian history until now. This book is a mostly very readable corrective. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t present a single ‘Aboriginal story’, as its title suggests, but many stories: there was a wide range of Aboriginal responses to the original expedition and to the follow-up expeditions, from active participation in a number of capacities, through benign oversight to outright hostility. As I read it, I could feel unexamined assumptions being dragged out from under rocks in my head, and the over-arching narrative of my early education being delivered another blow of the wrecker’s hammer.

Gitta Sereny’s German Trauma

Gitta Sereny, The German Trauma (Allen Lane 2000)

1gtGitta Sereny (1921–2012) was one of the great non-fiction writers of the 20th century. Holocaust denier David Irving described her as a shrivelled Nazi hunter, but though she may well have worn the insult as a badge of honour it wasn’t accurate. She said of herself: ‘I am interested above all in how individual human beings succumb to, or resist, evil.’ In Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995), and Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998) she digs with empathy and rigour into the minds of one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and a child murderer respectively, and sheds light on very dark places.

This book, retitled optimistically for the US market as The Healing Wound, was her last. It’s a collection of essays and newspaper pieces spanning 30 years, revised and with new interstitial pieces so that something of a coherent narrative emerges, beginning with the Austrian-born Sereny’s childhood and adolescent experience of Nazism (she accidentally attended a Nuremberg rally as an 11 year old schoolgirl and was enraptured; at 15 she shouted at an SS officer who was humiliating some Jews in Vienna soon after the Anschluss), and tracing her engagement with the meaning and legacies of that time up to the turn of the century.

It’s not pretty. She takes us with her just after World War Two on the extraordinarily distressing task of tracking down East European children stolen from their parents years before, and abetting their being torn from home for a second time – she was in the employ of the UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where she might have rubbed shoulders with Edith Campbell Berry if the latter hadn’t been a figment of Frank Moorhouse’s imagination. We encounter Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp (I haven’t read Sereny’s 1974 book, Into That Darkness, which expanded the Daily Telegraph article included here, though I may one day have the stomach for it) and Albert Speer (in an essay that doesn’t add a lot to her magnificent book, but is well worth reading). We are introduced to children of Nazis who find strength in each other to face the horrors perpetrated by their parents. We follow Sereny’s dealings with a number of odd individuals who are dedicated collectors of Nazi documents and memorabilia. We gain some understanding of the US’s dubious dealings over decades with the question of justice for Nazi criminals. We meet an elderly woman who was one of Hitler’s secretaries, to whom he was always kind and thoughtful.

And through it all Gitta Sereny’s gaze doesn’t flinch. The book is saved from being a catalogue of horrors by the pervasive sense that she is driven by a need to understand. Perhaps the most impressive moment in the book is her response to David Irving’s book claiming that Hitler knew nothing of the ‘final solution’: rather than dismissing it out of hand as incompatible with her own understanding, she was intrigued, and began her fact-checking exercise, which was to turn into a devastatibg debunking, almost hoping Irving was right.

I learned a lot from this book. The Jewish Holocaust was a towering piece of evil, a calculated attempt to kill a whole people that succeeded in killing a full third of them – something way beyond genocide. But the Nazi murderousness wasn’t restricted to Jews. They killed something like 15 million people – homosexual men and women, political opponents, Romany people, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities – not as war crimes but as murders committed under the shadow of war, some with industrial efficiency in the extermination camps, some a bullet in the back of one head at a time, some with hideous callousness and mind-boggling disrespect for the dead. The US’s ‘denazification’ barely scratched the surface, leaving the German courts to prosecute Nazi crimes for at least 30 more years. While most Germans tried to forget and move on with their lives, Sereny says, a small elite made up of writers, artists and lawyers pursued the incredibly difficult task of coming to terms with what was generally known as ‘the recent past’ until well into the 1980s. Next time I hear an Australian shock jock or rabid columnist condemning ‘inner city elites’ or a combatant in our renewing history wars use. Dismissive phrase such as ‘black armband history’, I’ll remember Sereny and gird my loins for battle.

David Denholm’s Colonial Australians and 14 rhyming lines

David Denholm, The Colonial Australians (Penguin Books 1979)

ImageDavid Denholm (1924–1997) wrote fiction as David Forrest. One of the ‘living Australian authors’ profiled in John Hetherington’s 1962 collection, Forty-Two Faces, he is remembered mostly for two novels and a number of short stories. Under his own name, he had a second career as a historian, which, though productive in other ways, produced just this one book and a pamphlet on land use in New South Wales.

It’s a strange book, not – as the title might suggest – a survey of the population of the Australian colonies, but a series of enquiries into what Denholm describes as ‘odd trifles’ to see what general light they might shed on the those people. Many of the trifling questions are conveniently summarised in the Introduction:

How long would it have taken to reload a musket? What on earth possessed surveyors to divide up much of Australia with little regard for the shape of the land and its resources? Why does this brick wall not look like that brick wall? In a land of cheap horses, why did not everybody ride a horse? Why do some Presbyterian churches have steeples? Why is the Monaro in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ballads not the real Monaro? Why did some people stack their plates while others had them taken away one at a time?

He does indeed go on in great detail about how to load a musket, about three different bricklaying patterns, and about surveying practices, in each case using them as evidence for persuasive argument against received versions of our history. He also paints an idiosyncratic version of the kind of religion (ie, of Christianity) that dominated the first century and a half of settlement, what he calls determinism as opposed to free-will based orthodoxy – it’s idiosyncratic but rings true and has quite a bit of explanatory power when applied to the Pell and Jensen phenomena. He turns a bit of a blowtorch on romantic versions of ‘the bush’ and writes interestingly about what happened to the idea of a gentry – ‘an historically based manner in which power was projected upon society’ by a class of people possessed of wealth, education and leisure (hint: it was destroyed but lives on).

The chapter ‘Men Bearing Arms’ – about the ‘mutual impotence’ of Aboriginal Australians and their invaders, whose slow loading muskets were  far from making them invulnerable – is a revelation, especially in its discussion of the extent of ‘fraternisation and appeasement’ between the two populations, so that all too often brutal murders and massacres had an element of personal betrayal.

But it’s November, so I have to lapse into rhyme:

Sonnet 3: On reading David Denholm’s The Colonial Australians
How can we know what really happened
a week ago, two hundred years?
Vile things are misnamed on the map, and
victors’ tales besiege our ears.
Historians must play detective,
sniff ash trays, challenge the selective
versions, shift perspectives, ask
what hid behind the public mask.
We want to honour our ancestors:
with courage, ingenuity and toil
they named the land and turned the soil.
But there’s another truth that festers:
a brutal war of conquest here,
sword and musket, club and spear.

To the Desert with Sturt

Daniel George Brock, To the Desert with Sturt (edited by Kenneth Peake-Jones, Royal Geographical Society of Australia, SA Branch 1975)

1dwsAfter reading Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing, I realised that Charles Sturt had been through the novel’s main location at about the time of the main characters’ arrival. I wouldn’t be surprised if Noel Beddoe had drawn on Sturt’s journal of that expedition for one or two scenes.

I wasn’t impelled to re-read Sturt’s Journal. I read both of his published narratives four decades ago, and from memory he’s a fairly dry writer. But I was reluctant to leave pre-gold-rush Australia, and I remembered that this book, the journal kept by Daniel George Brock, a minor member of a later expedition, and not published until 1975, was somewhere on my bookshelves. I’d bought it hot off the press, but been put off reading it by a review that described Brock as a self-righteous whinger. This time, I decided to give it a go.

Let me say right off that the review was right: Brock has plenty of self-righteous, self-pitying moments. He records petty slights and grievances, and constantly finds Sturt and the rest of the leadership lacking, all the while keeping to the high moral ground, insisting that he doesn’t join in the general grumbling. He’s a snob and s prig and when things get desperate he’s a bit of a holy Joe, writing pages of Methodist piety. But he’s much more than that – he’s resourceful, has a romantic steak, and can spin a comic yarn. The book is fabulous. Where Sturt wrote for public consumption, Brock wrote for his mother: on his return to Adelaide, he bundled up the pages of his journal and posted them off home to England. And what you write to impress your mum and gain her sympathy is of course very different from what you write to convey your importance to the public, potential employers and posterity.

The most interesting thing about the journal, apart from the revelation that intrepid explorers can be as mean-spirited, disorganised, cliqueish and grasping as anyone else, is its string of encounters with Aboriginal people. There’s a sequence early on that unfolds like a scripted narrative: the party hear that ‘natives’ have attacked a travelling party somewhere to their north, and as a result they are in fear of being attacked themselves, but as they come closer to the place where the attack is said to have happened they learn that the factual basis for the rumour was a brutal, infanticidal attack on an Aboriginal family by members of Mitchell’s party of explorers. Brock isn’t writing with a possible courtroom and judge in mind, so he can describe this horror unguardedly.

No doubt he glosses over unsavoury aspects of his own encounters, but they do come across as genuine encounters. He notices, for example, when one man in a group of three has different scarring and deduces he is from a different place; one old man is excited to see Sturt and manages to communicate that they have met years earlier and many miles distant, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. On more than one occasion sexual favours are offered and rejected. I can’t tell if Brock’s sense of European superiority was modified by any of these encounters, but he has a lively interest in cultural difference. Since I’m fairly sure you won’t be reading this book (whoever you are), I hope you’ll allow me a long quote. Brock and ‘the Doctor’ (John Harris Brown) are away from the main party and unexpectedly come across ‘numerous bodies of waterfowl’ on a waterhole. The Doctor shoots into the middle of the birds:

The report not only frightened the ducks, but also two native women, which were encamped in a bend of the creek, unaware of our approach. One of the women began to scream and bellow, the other crawled under a skin dragging a child with her. Being afraid to run, they made a virtue of necessity.

The Doctor was of course rather surprised at the scream, but having made himself familar (sic), and sitting down at their fire, the women became less afraid, and began to talk. No one can tell the pleasure I felt in again looking upon a strange human face, it being so long since any but our own party having come under my notice. …

We encamped, and Flood having shot a bird, I speedily secured it, saving the fat for the natives, with which they grease themselves. As the day was closing in, two men with more women and children joined us, and we all together were quite at home. The ducks, and other birds which we had, we gave them; this with the roots they had brought would be a first rate meal for them.

Sitting down as we were all together, the various parts of our dress came under notice. Among other parts, our boots were very wonderful, the mysterious lace – one chap was turning over my foot when I drew up my trowsers and shewed him my leg, and the effect of my thus exposing the color of my unexposed limb, which was tolerably fair, upon one of the females was really laughable – every lineament of her face was marked with horror.

Shewing them how the lace was unfastened, the fellow who was dandling my foot as if it was a little baby, at once began and drew the lace from every hole. I then made signs to him how it could be pulled off, which with my assistance he did; then came another poser – the sock – did it belong to my veritable body? On pulling it off, my foot being almost white, this  set the woman (who had been eagerly watching every transition, from boot to sock, from sock to foot) to a most fearful scratching of her head, and at the same time crying a lament over me, for it is possible the color which takes place in any of their dead, is not dissimilar to the color which was now presented. The man too for a moment in deep wonder, and as he looked he too scratched his poll, and gave two very decent grunts, he then began to pull the sock on again, but could not manage it.

It getting dark, and being no doubt anxious to get their evening meal, for they were pointing to their birds and at the same time patting their bellies, they were presented with a blanket and knife of which they were highly pleased; not but what they had first rate skins, some of the best I have ever seen, so large and so well prepared.

We retired from their fire, and soon were coded in our blankets, where we had not been long before four of the ladies came and sat themselves down at the Doctor’s and Captain’s feet. Their visit was obvious, and on being sent away they were sorely displeased.

One small unexpected pleasure was the word ‘mumchancing’ meaning ‘remaining silent’, which is new to me. This time, Brock is out collecting bird specimens with one of the men, Sullivan:

The heat was very great, not a bird was to be seen, and Sullivan and I were glad to coil under a gum tree in the creek for shelter; while thus, Lewis, being out looking for seeds, came to water, but he took up his rest under another tree, for Sullivan and him having words before we left the camp, it was a case of sulks with them, Lewis had nothing but a little bread with him, and a bit of sugar, gathering mint when he wanted a pot of tea (which by the way we did alternate meals). We having some bacon, on his passing us to get a pot of water I had just frizzled some and asked him if he would share; he took part in his hand and passed up to his own fire. I could not help smiling to see him, seated on his haunches, regularly mumchancing it, he at one fire, we at another. I endeavored to reconcile them, but it was a case of no go.

I like that use of ‘coil’ too, which he uses a lot, and note in passing that his spelling follows what would now be seen as North American usage.

The Book Group, Paul Ham and Hiroshima Nagasaki

Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki (HaperCollins 2011)

1hnBefore the Group meeting: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book at Gleebooks early last year. He described it as narrative history, aiming to tell the story of what happened in the lead-up to dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the aftermath, paying attention to what the various players knew and understood as events unfolded, as opposed to their later accounts. He focused on the phrase ‘the least abhorrent alternative’ used by the US leadership after the fact. It encapsulates the official version of events that is not borne out by the records: in fact, he said, no other alternative was ever seriously considered. And, he said at that Gleebooks event, the record puts the lie to received wisdom that the atomic bombs saved as many as a million lives by bringing about an immediate Japanese surrender: the Japanese leadership in fact barely discussed the bombs at all, but were despertely alarmed by Russia’s entry into the Pacific War. Yet Ham dissociated himself from ‘revisionist’ histories that saw the US use of the bombs as knowingly unnecessary. I bought a copy of the book and was looking forward to reading it, so I was very glad that someone proposed it for the book group.

I finished it with days to spare before the meeting, but other demands on my time meant I didn’t get to write anything. I found it completely gripping – one night in bed, reading accounts of Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped, I gasped involuntarily at least three times, interrupting the Art Student’s beauty sleep.

The meeting: There were nine of us, including one of the Founding Fathers who had been away for more than a year while finishing a degree, and the other Founding Father who has more or less moved to Darwin, but managed to be in town that night. The book generated a lot of discussion over soup, salad and sausages, with a backyard pond full of frogs as background music. I think it made a deep impression on each of us: it confronted us with our ignorance /amnesia about the Allies’ ‘terror bombing’ of Hamburg and Dresden, and of 60 Japanese cities including Tokyo; one guy who always wants us, as an all-male group, to talk about masculinity, found plenty of grist for that mill; there was rumination on the ‘anything can happen’ theme. Basically, we reminded each other of what was in the book rather than getting into controversy. One of us confessed to having bashed people’s ears about it over Christmas meals. Another said that a friend who hadn’t read the book dismissed it as being akin to the sloppy macho war histories produced by a Household Name (unnamed here because I haven’t read any of his work) – but none of us felt it matched that description. We did discuss briefly the absence of any exploration of the US’s insulting treatment of Japan in the decades leading up to Pearl Harbor, and wondered if we would have responded any differently from the Japanese people who were in thrall to the propaganda urging mass honorable suicide, or from the US people who cheered with no misgivings the mass killing wrought in their name. Someone said that he enjoyed books that were beautifully written; I felt that this is such a book, but he meant something different.

It was one of the best nights we’ve had in the group.

After the meeting: Geoffrey McSkimming, creator of the much-loved Cairo Jim–Jocelyn Osgood books for young people, once told me he has a rule that there need to be three good gags a page (Geoffrey, if you read this, please correct me if I misremember). Hiroshima Nagasaki keeps this rule, except it does it with interesting/devastating details or revelatory flashes rather than gags.

When I mentioned the three-gag rule at the meeting, someone mistook me to mean I loved the accumulation of facts and statistics, which he said (and I agreed) did sometimes become onerous. I was thinking rather of the kind of moment that strikes a spark of emotion or insight, or sets you googling to find out more about someone or something mentioned in passing. I decided to do a little test. I chose a page at random by tossing coins: 2 heads, 6 heads, 3 heads – page 263.

263

This is a key point in the narrative. The Allies have issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ruin and destruction. The Japanese leadership consider it, but the hawkish, ‘samurai’ side carries the day, and the Prime Minister reluctantly issues a statement saying they ignore the declaration as beneath consideration – the Japanese concept is mokusatsu. This is interpreted in the West as a rejection of the ultimatum, and plans to drop the new bomb are greenlighted. All that is interesting in itself: the page is a good example of how the book’s narrative drive. But how about he three-gag rule? I think it holds up.

One: It may be idiosyncratic of me, but I find that parenthesis at the top of the page riveting. Arguably the most important meeting of the Japanese leadership and one of the two men arguing against suicidal defiance just happened to be absent. Can history really turn on such tiny hinges?

Two: Though the linguistic/cultural titbit about mokusatsu has been introduced on the previous page (along with the equally interesting haragei or ‘stomach art’), here the ‘gag’ is the tragic lost-in-translation effect of those US headlines hot on the heels of t he various literal versions of Suzuki’s words.

Three: The aphoristic punch of ‘The Japanese resolve to continue fighting was a depressing example of the triumph of hope over experience.’

It may not be up there with the page that tells us what the Hiroshima bombing crew did on their return to base, but it fits the rule.

It’s a solid book, with a hideous subject, based on original research and painstaking trawling through archives, and managing at the same time to be a lively, at times appalling read. It sits happily on my mental book shelf with Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the global Colour Line, which gives some perspective on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; Robin Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine, about Australian occupying forces stationed near Hiroshima after the war; and The Boneman of Kokoda, an example of an extraordinary individual’s way of living honorably with his part in Japan’s war history..

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #9)

Ross Gibson, 26 Views of the Starburst World (UWAP 2012)

My formal education left me with a lingering sense that Australian history was boring: a drab procession of convicts, explorers, squatters, gold miners, politicians arguing about free trade and train gauges, soldiers, shearers, horsemen – and somewhere on the sidelines an undifferentiated, disappearing mass labelled ‘Aborigines’.

I began to see things differently in the theatre in the early 70s, with the irreverence and vigour of plays like The Legend of King O’Malley (Ellis and Boddy 1970), The Duke of Edinburgh Assassinated (Ellis and Hall 1972) and Flash Jim Vaux (Blair, Clark and Colman 1972), and exhumed splendours like Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass (from the 1840s, published by Currency Press in 1976) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Brumby Innes (written 1927, first professional production at the Pram Factory in 1972). Skipping forward a couple of decades, Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Dancing with Strangers (the link is to Will Owen’s review), by taking a probing scalpel to journal accounts of the first years of the settlement at Port Jackson, made me realise what an extraordinary moment that was, whose meaning is still a long way from being fully understood.

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World is even more of a revelation, and has an even tighter focus than Dancing with Strangers. It looks at two notebooks, ninety pages in all, in which William Dawes recorded his notes on the ‘language of N. S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney (Native and English)’ in the late 18th century.

William Dawes was a marine lieutenant and astronomer who lived in Sydney from 1788 to 1791, years in which the world of the Eora changed catastrophically and in which that of the British invader–settlers likewise was transformed. These two notebooks were rediscovered in London in 1972. In compiling them, Dawes drew on his relationships with a small group of Eora, including most memorably a young woman named Patyegarang, who visited him at his tiny observatory on the edge of the settlement. They record snippets of conversation, and give sometimes enigmatic glimpses of tiny interactions.

Gibson describes the notebooks as ‘fragmented, unfinished, heuristic’, with ‘a prismatic quality’. And his book might be described in similar terms: it quotes, questions, analyses, peers closely at faint marks, speculates, extrapolates. It comes at the notebooks from, well, at least 26 angles: there’s biography, linguistics , psychology, anthropology, the history of colonisation, the history of science (1788 was a time of a high romantic approach to scientific enquiry in England), communication theory, the politics of Rugby League in 21st century Sydney. Apart from Dawes’ contemporaries Watkin Tench, David Collins and Arthur Phillip, it quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, Walden, Mallarmé, James Agee, Kenneth Slessor, the 2oth century haiku master Seichi, Robert Gray, Barry Hill – all of them pertinently … And sometimes it lets the notebooks speak for themselves. Gibson describes his approach as ’roundabout, relational, a tad restless and unruly’, and in a slightly less alliterative moment as ‘a little like history, a little like poetry, a little maddeningly like a séance’.

Possibly my favourite moment in the book is the facsimile of page 37 of Notebook A, on which there are just four words:

Yánga
________Present
––––________I
___________thou

Gibson gives us a caption – and bear in mind that everywhere else he refrains from speculation about any sexual dimension to the relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang:

‘Yanga’ – a verb that Dawes records but does not translate. Other colonial word lists, not compiled by Dawes, suggest ‘yanga’ means ‘to copulate’.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (London) has put the complete notebooks are online, with transcriptions of their contents, at http://www.williamdawes.org/.

But I’m falling behind on my quota of November sonnets, so here goes:

Sonnet 9: William Dawes and Patyegarang
He lived apart to study stars
and drew dark students to his table –
students and ambassadors
who drank his tea so he was able
to write their words down, turn their breath
to marks on paper. War and death
were soon to dominate this story
but then there was a kind of glory:
‘Paouwagadyımíŋa,’
she said, ‘You shade me from the sun.’
She said, ‘We’re angry, fear the gun –
Gulara, tyérun gu̇nın.’
The future loomed with genocide:
these marks show some opposed that tide.