An Unforgettable Drop

Scandals don’t travel very well geographically. Some scandals take on a global dimension, and are instantly recognizable as such wherever you live – Monica Lewinsky’s dress definitely, a duck house built at taxpayers’ expense maybe, but I doubt if anyone elsewhere will really understand the significance of a New South Wales Premier thanking a lobbyist for giving him an expensive bottle of red wine.

Last week the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell denied to the Independent Commission on Corruption that he was given a bottle of 1959 Grange 3 years ago. He said he didn’t remember receiving it and he didn’t put it on his gift register, but when confronted with his own thank you note, he resigned.

It’s not the most riveting of scandals, though the ICAC inquiry is currently revealing a lot about politics in New South Wales that reminds me of the remark attributed (or misattributed) to Otto von Bismarck that you don’t want to see how either laws or sausages are made, if you want a good night’s sleep.

Scandals don’t travel very well chronologically either. One generation’s scandal is another generation’s good joke. The Lewinsky scandal threatened Clinton’s Presidency, whereas when one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, Lady Dacre, called for help in the night because Lord Palmerston had broken into her bedroom to ‘seduce’ her, it angered the Queen – but it didn’t stop Palmerston subsequently becoming Prime Minister.

It’s Barry O’Farrell’s sad fate to rate as a good joke, because forgetting a bottle of 1959 Grange doesn’t pass the Pub Test. The man in the pub just doesn’t believe Barry could forget such a gift, given that the wine is estimated to be worth about $A3000. And this is despite the fact that, unless this wine was kept in ideal conditions, at 50 years old it was quite possibly a fairly forgettable drop.

However there is one aspect of this scandal that concerns me. Everyone, from counsel assisting the Commission onwards, keeps saying that the former NSW government was ‘the worst government since the Rum Corps’.

People have been comparing corrupt NSW administrations with the Rum Corps since the term was first invented, but this seems just a little unfair on the New South Wales Corps.

Opening of New South Wales House, London, 1972

Case in point: the picture above shows the NSW Premier Sir Robert Askin (on the right) at the opening of New South Wales House in London in 1972. Sir Robert had been knighted by the Queen earlier that day and, according to the Australian Women’s Weekly (14 June 1972) the reception included the following:

Soldiers forming a guard-of-honor for the Queen were dressed in the uniforms of the New South Wales Corps, which served from 1789-1809. (This was the “Rum Corps,” so nicknamed because of its notorious trafficking in rum.)

At his death, an audit of his estate by the Australian Tax Office was unable to establish where most of Askin’s considerable fortune came from. By comparison, the peculations of the NSW Corps seem small beer – or wine or rum or the tipple of your choice.

The Corps was formed in Britain to serve in the new colony of New South Wales in 1789. It remained there until several of its leaders terminally blotted their copybooks by overthrowing Governor William Bligh in 1808. It was then recalled to Britain and renamed the 102nd Regiment of Foot.

At the time, its reputation was neither better nor worse than most colonial regiments. Colonial regiments were certainly considered inferior – but it’s worth remembering that even Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was originally considered inferior because he came up through the Indian Army.

Garrison regiments were also out of the mainstream at a time when Britain was at war, so opportunities for promotion – or death in battle, the two go together – were few. This meant that the officers naturally looked other opportunities to promote themselves through land grants and trading networks and control of the commissariat, the government monopoly that bought and sold grain to the settlers.

What isn’t at all clear is how big an issue rum played in all of this. The economic historian Noel Butlin long ago went to the trouble of tallying up the alcohol imports into Australia in the early 19th century in search of an answer. His conclusions are published under one of my favourite ever titles for an article: ‘Yo ho ho, and how many bottles of rum?’ Butlin argues that the amount of alcohol consumed wasn’t nearly as significant as earlier historians assumed, perhaps no more than the average Australian academic might consume in the 1980s.

The phrase ‘Rum Rebellion’, used to describe the mutiny against Bligh, may date from the temperance writer William Howitt in the 1850s, though it’s also implicit in the far less temperate Daniel Deniehy’s speech to the Legislative Council in 1854. Here he mocked conservative plans to establish a local aristocracy, suggesting that, for instance, James Macarthur (son of the rebel John) would become an Earl with a coat of arms emblazoned with ‘the rum keg of a New South Wales order of chivalry’.

In the early colony coin was in short supply so people used barter instead. A bottle of alcohol was valuable, and therefore a useful item of exchange, but many other commodities were used as well. Most damaging was the use of promissory notes, where people were effectively trading in options on the future price of commodities (mostly grain). Farmers still use such commodity options as a mechanism to smooth out their harvest sales – but in a new colony, with a new and uncertain climate and no reliable way of forecasting the harvest ahead and therefore the price of wheat, such mechanisms were very risky. People with their hands on the levers of power – like the officer corps – were in a better position to make the system work for them.

People with their hands on the levers of power are still in a much better position to make the system work for them, through control over the grant of mining leases, government monopolies and trading networks. Through ICAC we are currently getting an interesting ringside seat into the process of sausage making. What I guess none of us were really expecting was that bartering bottles of alcohol would still play a role.

N.G.Butlin, ‘Yo ho ho, and how many bottles of rum?’, Working Papers in Australian Economic History, 3, 1982.
The Life and Speeches of Daniel Henry Deniehy are available on line here
Michael Duffy, Man of Honour: John Macarthur (2003) suggests Howitt as the source of the term Rum Rebellion

The Curse of the Ring

Cinderella's Wedding

Cinderella’s Wedding, Disney and Windsor versions

Warning: this is not my standard history post, but since the Royals are here, and since I’ve spent too long in doctors’ waiting rooms this week reading rubbish, and since this celebrates my 200th post since I began blogging, I’m indulging in nonsense instead.

Last year ABC Classic FM ran a competition, asking listeners to suggest a contemporary topic that could be turned into a Wagner opera.  I thought they wanted 500 words. It was only after I’d written this that I re-checked, and they wanted 50 words. So I had a parody with nowhere to go. Until now.

The Curse of the Ring

Act I: A young Nordic prince, Frederik (tenor), travels to a Great Southern Land to compete with sailors from around the world in the Games of the Rings. He sings of his quest to claim the Gold and take it back with him to Denmark.

After a hard day out on the water, he seeks some action. Disguised as a commoner, he ventures into a Sydney pub, where he encounters Mary Donaldson (mezzo soprano), real estate agent, and her girlfriends, quietly singing together: ‘Which man here has the hairiest chest?

Frederik and Mary engage in flirtatious banter in the language of the natives:

You wouldn’t believe the price of Sydney houses! Yes I would, you should see Copenhagen.

Finally Frederik reveals his true identity

I don’t need a bloody unit, I live in a Paaa-lace!

Frederik and Mary plight their troth, and agree to meet again in Copenhagen. Frederik gives Mary a ring – unbeknownst to either of them, the Ring is Cursed.

Act II: Mary Donaldson arrives in Copenhagen. She parks her car in the wrong spot and is reviled by the local peasants:

You are not one of us! You don’t speak our language!’

Mary weeps piteously, and is comforted by Frederik.

Mary seeks wise counsel from Frederik’s parents, Queen Margarethe (contralto) and Prince Henrik (bass). ‘You need to have a hobby to stay sane,’ sings Queen Margarethe. ‘I illustrate children’s books.’

And you’ll soon learn the language‘, adds Henrik in his thick French accent.

Finally Mary reappears, radiant. Transformed and photoshopped, Mary Donaldson has been reborn as Crown Princess Mary, Countess of Monpezat.

Frederik and Mary marry in the cathedral in Copenhagen. They sing about their love in a lyrical duet, but as Frederik slides the wedding ring onto Mary’s finger, it activates The Curse. In the distance, we hear a rising Chorus of Paparazzi and Women’s Mags singing:

Baby bump, baby bump! Where’s the heir? Where’s the spare?

The next few years fly by, accompanied by the Chorus, as Mary fulfils her destiny. The baby bump, the baby bump, the heir and the spare, all arrive on schedule, reaching a crescendo from the Chorus with ‘The Twins!’

Each year Mary and her family make a pilgrimage to the magic Isle of Apples, Tasmania, to be renewed before returning to the Palace in Copenhagen for another round of balls and photo opportunities, and to face once more The Curse of the Ring.

Act III: Meanwhile, in the neighbouring land of England, another Prince, William (baritone), sets out to seek his fortune. He travels north into Scotland to go to university, where he meets a commoner, Kate Middleton (soprano).

They plight their throth.
They unplight their troth.
They plight their troth.
They unplight their troth.

Eventually they plight their troth and marry, inviting wedding guests from all over the world to the festivities. Amongst the guests are Frederik and Mary. The two couples greet each other in a joyful quartet. Then Mary draws Kate aside and gives her the Ring. They sing a brief duet sharing advice about hairstyles and diets.

Twelve years have passed. A cycle has been completed, and the Ring has a new owner.

At the royal wedding, William slides a wedding ring onto Kate’s finger, so activating The Curse. Behind the swelling song of the Wedding Guests, we pick up the theme of the Chorus of Paparazzi and Women’s Mags:

Baby bump, baby bump. The Heir – and the Spare?

A Mystery Object in Moreton Bay

Last week, someone contacted me by email to ask for help to find out more about this object:

seal found under Hornibrook highway

seal found under Hornibrook Highway

He thought it might have some historical significance. I’ve no idea, but I wonder whether the hive mind of the Internet may be able to help identify it. It seems to be a seal stamp designed to impress sealing wax on the back of an envelope. But how old is it?

The object was found about 7 years ago, near the old Hornibrook Highway bridge that used to cross the Pine River and Hayes Inlet between Brisbane and the Redcliffe Peninsula. Bert found the thing in the sand at low tide, about 5 metres away from one of the bridge pilons, at the southern end in what is now the suburb of Brighton, though in the 1930s the whole area south of the Pine River was known as Sandgate.


The bridge was built by a private company, Hornibrook Highway Ltd, as a toll bridge, and named after the company director, M.R. HornibrookJohn Bradfield, the engineer who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was born in Sandgate and worked as a consultant on the Hornibrook bridge. It was an impressive engineering feat in its day, the longest bridge in the southern hemisphere. It was built during the 1930s depression.

During World War II, there was an air force base just south of the bridge, and after the war, the RAAF quarters were turned over to Eventide, a state owned aged care facility. I wrote about it here. Perhaps someone from either the RAAF or Eventide dropped the seal.

The Hornibrook bridge has since been replaced and pulled down, but for many years after it was decommissioned, it was a popular fishing spot, so it could have fallen out of a fisherman’s pocket at any time. There are cycle paths too, though it’s hard to imagine the MAMILS[Middle Ages Men in Lycra] we see around here finding room in their shorts for such a knobbly object. Perhaps we shouldn’t go there….

The real puzzle is the heraldic symbol on the seal. Do the three deer – bucks couchant – have any particular meaning? From a small and inadequate search of Google images, I have tracked down a lot of English pubs called Three Deer Heads, or similar, and found that 3 deers (standing, not sitting) is the heraldic symbol of Jesus College, Oxford.

Nothing else. The problem is that every man and his dog seems to have acquired a heraldic seal during the 19th century. By the time the Hornibrook Highway opened in 1935, sealed envelopes had long since replaced the use of sealing wax on correspondence, but people are still making and using seals to the present day, if eBay is to be believed.

Any clues?

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Centres with a significant British population, such as Calcutta, developed a new Anglo-Indian cuisine of chutneys, kedgerees and mulligatawny – and misapplied the word ‘curry’ to anything vaguely hot. The Portuguese also had amalgam foods in their colonies, such as Goan vindaloo, named for the wine vinegar with which it is made, and chicken piri piri. It’s worth remembering that chilli, now so omnipresent in Southeast Asian food, only arrived in the region with Europeans bringing it from South America.

Some people became converts to Asian food. One businessman I wrote about worked for years for Jardine, Matheson in Canton and Macao, and when he moved to New South Wales in 1848, he brought with him his Chinese cook. Others were less adaptable, complaining bitterly about the nasty foreign food.

What did my man, Walter Davidson, eat for breakfast when he lived in Macao between 1812 and 1822? Just once, he mentions in a letter how much he is looking forward to raspberries when he goes home to Scotland, but otherwise it’s impossible to know. What did  they all eat, these displaced Europeans perched uneasily on the edge of Malay, Javanese or Chinese worlds?


In a world where food is global and every city dweller can choose between MacDonalds and yum cha on a daily basis, it’s hard to think back to a time when foreign food was both unfamiliar and disconcerting. Ethnographers distinguish between those who love trying new foods, and those who don’t. Nowadays most people (or at least most of the people with Internet access who are likely to read this blog) are cosmopolitan in their tastes: hence the general enthusiasm to find the latest ‘ethnic restaurant’.

But it wasn’t always so – and it still isn’t necessarily so at breakfast time. Watch people milling around the breakfast buffet in an airport lounge or large hotel, and those differences are immediately obvious. Some people try the unfamiliar, with Westerners enthusiastically sampling congee or pho, and Asians getting stuck into bacon and eggs or lox and bagels. But others will seek out something familiar from the buffet. It’s breakfast, after all, and far too early to be adventurous. On my first visit to Singapore, I ate delicious murtaba roti from a street stall most mornings – but I still needed to retreat for a fix of coffee from the hotel café afterwards.

Nobody talks about normal meals in their letters and diaries – except when they are unexpected. Colonists in Australia, for instance, always mention the oddity of celebrating Christmas dinner in summer – and often make the point of reassuring the relatives that, despite this, they still ate a traditional hot meal with Christmas pudding. Because the other thing about choosing familiar or unfamiliar food is that it is a great signifier of cultural nationalism.

So I was intrigued to find one unusual reference to food in Travers’ diary. In 1816, Tom went back to Britain on furlough, and while there, he married Mary Leslie. They returned to Bencoolen [now Bengkulu in Sumatra] where in July 1818, Mary gave birth to her first child. Tom had spent a long time in the East, but Mary was a new arrival, so I was surprised to read that following the birth,

For twenty-one days she never put her foot to the ground, being [fed] entirely almost on kunji [congee] and giving baby as much as she could take, and she was doing as well as well can be. [97-8]

Tom complains in his journal that they had no success trying to grow potatoes in Bencoolen, so they depended on local ingredients cooked by servants who were unfamiliar with European cuisine. No doubt they adapted, while adhering to the contemporary European belief that women should be kept isolated and on a ‘low’ diet without much meat in the weeks following childbirth, when the risk of puerperal fever was high.

Congee, a rice and chicken porridge, is usually served at breakfast these days. The Chinese find it the ultimate comfort food, and the Internet is full of claims about its restorative value. It would certainly be suitable for a new mother who needs to build up her yang after childbirth, and it is even said to increase milk production. But I wonder how Irish Mary felt about living on it for 3 weeks?

John Bastin (ed), The Journal of Thomas Otho Travers 1813-1820 (Singapore, 1960)

Captured in the Museum of Brisbane

When I was in England a couple of years back, I met a woman who showed me a photo album her ancestor had collected during a sea voyage around the Pacific, from the Solomons to Fiji to Yokohama, some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. She knew the photos had an economic value – you often see old photos for sale on market stalls, or the 21st century equivalent, eBay – but she wanted my opinion as a historian. Did they have any historical value, and if so, where should they go?

I took a few photos of pages I thought would interest a colleague who works on Solomon Islands history, but the photos themselves didn’t turn me on. Most were obvious commercial pastiches, designed to sell to passing tourists like her forebear. They covered so many subjects, from Fijian villages to Japanese street scenes, that it was hard to know where they should go, and some were horribly racist. I particularly remember a picture of a Solomon Islander wearing nothing but a lap-lap painted with the Union Jack. Chortle.

I’ve just been to see an exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Brisbane, and I think I owe Sophy an apology for my dismissiveness. Captured is a sensitively curated exhibition of photos of Aboriginal people from the Moreton Bay district. Michael Aird has collected, researched and curated these photographs, and the collection is fascinating.  It’s a clever title of course, alluding to the way that images of these people were treated as commodities, but the people in the photos are subjects, not objects, and are treated as such by the curator.


The photos come from several Brisbane photographic studios of the 1850s and 1860s. A new technology like photography always attracts new commercial opportunities, and as well as photographing the European settlers, these photographers found a niche market producing cartes de visite – small photographs printed in batches of 8 at a time. This mass production made them commercially viable in a way that individual, one-off portraits of Aborigines might not have been.

I was lucky enough to go around the exhibition with a friend who knows much more about the history of the Aboriginal people of Moreton Bay. She knew some of these photographed people by name – or at least, in some cases, the name bestowed on them by European settlers. The photographers wanted to draw attention to their distinctive scarification, on both men and women, and my friend could tell me how different scar patterns distinguished different tribal groups.


Early photographers needed to keep their subjects still, and there is one ghostly image of a child who must have moved during the long exposure. Some of the photos are obviously staged – a fake fight, for instance, with a man holding a boomerang above his head in a threatening attitude – but there’s very little sign of the strain that must have been involved in keeping this pose for 2 or more minutes.

The fake fighting scene is probably the only really artificial image in the exhibition. None of them are mocking. According to Michael Aird, it was only later in the century that photos, like those I saw from the Solomon Islands, became both mocking and prurient (though a portrait of 2 bare breasted girls was too much for some Victorian sensibilities, so that one copy of this photo was cut off at the neck in the Archer family collection).

I’m not quite sure. In the exhibition there is a well-known portrait of ‘King Sandy of the Moreton Bay Tribe’ wearing a ‘king plate’. He has a strong face, and looks directly into the camera with intelligent  old eyes. He has great dignity, and he doesn’t smile. Nobody smiled in early photos because of the long exposure, but the people in these photos had little to smile about.

Lost in the Roaring Forties

So far, says the Air Commodore, the only thing the radar has turned up are whales and dolphins…. 

Like everybody else, I’ve been gripped this last week by the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines MH370 – not least, I have to confess with shame, for purely selfish reasons: I’m booked on a Malaysia Airlines plane in a few weeks time. Who would have thought that the search for a plane heading for Beijing would end up southwest of Australia, in the Great Southern Ocean?

Map of the roaring forties from 1873

Ship Navigation Chart – Southern & Pacific [sic] Oceans, Charles Wilson, 1 March 1873

The Roaring Forties are my territory, historically if not literally, though I’ve only personally ventured that far south once. A few years ago, I took a boat tour from Adventure Bay, south around the tip of Bruny Island, south-east of Hobart, to see fur seals breeding on an outcrop of rock. As we left the lee of Bruny to sail into the Great Southern Ocean itself, the sailors warned us that we would suddenly experience much rougher conditions, and sure enough we did.

When the wind reaches 40 knots, the wind lifts water droplets from the surface of the sea, so that there’s a constant haze at water level, even on a fine day. We were there in mid-summer, but the water was cold and choppy, and the sea felt very dangerous and deep indeed, and a long way from civilization. The planes that are currently searching in similar seas much further west can only fly over the search area for 2 hours at a stretch before they need to return to refuel.

The Roaring Forties are so-called from their latitude, below 40 degrees S. Unlike in the northern hemisphere, there are no continents here to interrupt the winds which blow predominantly from west to east around the globe, south of Australia, south of South America, south of Africa, and around again. Until steamships ended the reliance on wind power, starting in the 1850s, the route to East Asia and Australia from Europe was around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean in the Roaring Forties.

In the 17th century, Dutch merchantmen heading for Java and the Spice Islands took this route. You headed south around the Cape of Good Hope (stopping off to establish a Dutch settlement to supply ships) then used those fierce winds to sail eastwards. At some point, the ship had to turn northwards – but without any effective way of measuring longitude, this was always a hard call. Turn too early, and you lost the winds; too late – and you ended up as yet another shipwreck along the West Australian coast. The Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle is full of them.

The development of ships’ chronometers in the mid- to late-18th century changed all that.  Cook was testing 2 chronometers for the Admiralty during his Endeavour voyage, and by the time that convict and immigrant ships were coming to Australia, the route was relatively safe.

But only relatively so. Crewmen fell from the rigging or were swept overboard in rough conditions, and passengers must have been terrified of the gales, the high seas, the fog, and the occasional iceberg drifting north into the shipping channels in these high latitudes. Australia has a database of historic shipwrecks but this only covers ships wrecked within Australian waters. Others were just lost, without anyone ever knowing their fate. Most shipwrecks occur within sight of land – you do, after all, need something to be wrecked on. By the end of the 19th century, it was uncommon for a ship to just disappear from busy and well-mapped shipping routes, but it must have remained a nagging fear for every passenger.

The disappearance of MH370 has absorbed us all partly because we live in a connected world where we never expect a person or a plane to just disappear. Surely there’s an App for that?  Once it was a horribly common experience for people to farewell their friends and relatives and – just disappear. Just how awful such an experience is for those who are left behind has been brought home to all of us this last week.

Wardrobe Malfunctions

Audrey Tennyson was the wife of Hallam Tennyson, Governor of South Australia and later Governor General of Australia. Her letters to her mother back in England are full of tales of high life in Adelaide and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. The problems of celebrity, it seems, aren’t new. Audrey Tennyson’s clothes were frequently scrutinized in the local press, and in 1902, she complained that her gowns ‘have all been described in the newspapers in every detail, [so] they are useless & I cannot wear them’. [30 September 1902] She was constantly trying to ring the changes:

Ask Mrs Lane how I can do up my purple velvet… She might put in anything that would do for doing up gowns, & also what sleeves are worn for the evening… I want something to eke out my old evening gowns at the endless concerts & plays. The smart morning gowns are chiefly for the Races… [25 January 1900]

She was particularly worried in the months leading up to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall coming out to open Federal Parliament in 1901. (No, not Wills and Kate, but the earlier ones who later became George V and Queen Mary). The situation was complicated by the need for everyone to wear mourning following the death of Queen Victoria.

Tom Roberts, Opening Federal Parliament 1901

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903. Only the carpets and the Cardinal are red, because everyone was in mourning.

Will you tell Mrs Lane I am larger round the hips, I think, & send her new measurements & also the lengths of the skirt at the side seams, as they are always inclined to be short at the sides.  My bust & waist are smaller than they were, but that I don’t mind for I can always take them in & I may get fatter again… [17 February 1901]

Despite her requests, the following year she complained that Mrs Lane had

sent me a grey gown I never ordered & it is so tight round the hips it all gapes at the fastening & can’t be altered, so I have had to send that back… It really is a little trying, is it not? [30 September 1902]

I sympathise! Continue reading