‘Decentring Australia’ in the History of Convict Transportation

Head and shoulders

Keynote speaker, Professor Clare Anderson of the University of Leicester.

When considering the history of the transportation of convicts we should ‘de-centre’ Australia and consider Empire-wide transportation argued Professor Clare Anderson in her keynote talk yesterday morning. Anderson moved from the story of the Bussa Uprising in Barbados in 1816 to Sierra Leone and then to British Guiana deftly working in the story of convict transportation throughout the Empire. Her talk demonstrated the complex use of scale to weave a compelling and coherent account of convict transportation which captivated her audience.

For so long the Australian colonies have dominated historical analysis of the transportation of convicts but Professor Anderson pointed out that the British colony of the Andaman islands received more convicts than any one of the Australian colonies. In an article that she has written in Australian Historical Studies she argues:

…the conceptual myopia that separates the Australian colonies from the Indian Ocean is unsustainable when for the first time the numerical scale and geographical extent of pan-imperial Asian convict flows is brought together, to reveal a transnational imperial history of transportation within the British Empire.

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Some Incomplete Thoughts on the Scale of History – Part 1

‘The Scale of History’ is the theme of this year’s Australian Historical Association conference which is taking place this week in Canberra. It was the theme of the conference which enticed me to take time off work to come to chilly Canberra. Half-way through the conference it is time to take time to consider what I have heard about the ‘scale of history’ this week.

I have deliberately titled this post ‘some incomplete thoughts’ as what follows is merely a glimpse of a couple of keynote presentations. In this post I have selected a very small portion of the ideas presented and added my own personal reflections. Thus what follows cannot be said to be a report of the presentations as it does not present the fully formed and meticulously argued views of the presenters.

All good conference themes can be explored in myriad ways. ‘Scale’ in history does not just refer to time. President of the Australian Historical Association, Lynette Russell started the conference by raising a variety of questions regarding scale, such as the interdisciplinary reach of historians and the diversity of historians practising in Australia today. On both counts, she pointed to the need for improvement by the profession. You can read a more in-depth overview of her talk in an earlier post I wrote about the conference.

‘The Right Scale for Our Times’ was the keynote panel the next morning. The chair of the panel, ANU’s Professor Ann McGrath framed the topic.

“To address living in the Anthropocene and to ensure the discipline’s future relevance various historians have called for a history that is grand in scale – whether this be wide, big or deep.”

Yet it is not that simple. McGrath asked how we are going to ensure that gender, culture and individuals will not be smothered by a broad brush stroke form of history. “Can micro and macro ever join hands?”, she asked.

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War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story

 

We did it! I was part of an international research project that has led to the publication of this book. No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith (May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, 2017).

Stanley Smith was an Australian businessman, WWII operative in China and expert horticulturalist. His life took him from a comfortable Brisbane upbringing to the danger of war and finally to a life half-way across the world. His Chinese-born wife, May Wong, grew up during the civil war in China and the fighting against Japanese occupation. May and Stanley met through their work for British propaganda and intelligence in the Chinese wartime capital of the city then known as Chungking (Chongqing).

Together the lives of Stanley and May Smith make a gripping read in the newly published book, No Substitute for Kindness. Commissioned by one of the philanthropic funds established by the couple, a team of researchers and writers from the United States, England and Australia have pieced together a fascinating biography.

I was one of the historians who worked on the book. My principal task was to research the early years of Stanley Smith’s life. He was born in Brisbane in 1907 and was a student at Eagle Junction State School. Stanley then won a state scholarship to the Church of England Grammar School or ‘Churchie’ as it is commonly known. Continue reading

It’s About Time

Unfilled double page spread from a 1918 diary

History is about time. I have been using old calendars like this to help me construct a WWI timeline. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

In my last post I wrote about Sue Castrique’s conception of history as drama and how it helped me with how I tackle the writing of my book. I am writing about how Australian soldiers reconciled their experience of World War I with their beliefs, whether they be agnostic, adherents to one of the large Christian denominations or held more unorthodox beliefs for the time. Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a major review of my writing task with the goal of producing a book that you will find is a riveting read.

While I am writing about the inner lives of the soldiers, the context which led to their reflective thoughts is critical. I am mindful of the advice given by the historian of war the historian of war and gender, Karen Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war”, she said. The war intruded into every aspect of the soldier’s lives. I cannot ignore the horrific events that punctuated the tedium and discomfort of the lives of soldiers on active service. Some events, such as battles were significant for many soldiers and nations, other events were important only to the soldier writing his diary or letters. Both types of events are important for my book. Continue reading

The Professional Sceptic

mess-of-books-c2This blog post introduces something new to Stumbling Through the Past. I want to help authors at the start of their book-writing careers but I can’t possibly review every debut history or biography that is published. So I hope to post the occasional post written by an Australian or New Zealander author who has just published their first history or biography to help them connect with potential readers. I hope that readers of this blog will enjoy reading interesting posts about histories that they might not otherwise have known about.

If your first history or biography has been published recently and you are interested in submitting a post, check out my guidelines and make me a pitch. I encourage women, indigenous people and those who are from a culturally diverse background to take me up on this.

The first post in this occasional series is from Avan Judd Stallard whose book, Antipodes: In search of the southern continent was published by Monash University Publishing In November 2016.

Enjoy!

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Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? Continue reading

Researching Across Borders

Holder of library cards

Not all archives issue readers tickets but I have ended up accumulating a wad of library cards and readers tickets from my travels.

In the first three months of this year I have been researching in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. As readers of this blog will have noticed I often travel to research in the archives and libraries of other cities. I have lived in all four eastern states from Hobart in the south to Atherton in Far North Queensland. From a very young age I have moved around and consequently noticed the cultural differences between various places in Australia.This made me effective in public relations. It also informs the history that I research and write.

Because I have lived in so many places with so many histories I am sceptical of the term ‘Australian history’. Which Australia and whose Australia are we talking about? The history of Sydney does not equate to the history of Australia.There are many substantial differences in the histories of the various states of Australia.

The genesis for my honours thesis on Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum came when we were living in Atherton near Cairns in Far North Queensland. By the time I had the opportunity to explore it we were living in Sydney and I had found that South Australia and Victoria had each conducted a referendum on the same issue but New South Wales had not. The issue had played out differently in New South Wales. Some Queensland newspapers might be in Sydney, some may be online but the records of key people and organisations are kept in the state in which they were created. The only way to properly explore a Queensland referendum is in Queensland. So I took myself to Brisbane. In the same year I visited Melbourne, Geelong and Armidale (northern NSW) for the Teaching Reading in Australia project. Each collection I visited had particular strengths, especially in records relating to their local area. Continue reading