A Right Whale in the Wrong Place

Last week a boat strike killed a southern right whale – maybe two – in Moreton Bay. One mangled carcass of a young female finally drifted ashore on Peel Island, where rangers from Parks and Wildlife dragged it above the tide line ‘as high as possible…to allow its natural decomposition to continue.’ Another whale was seen still alive, but with propeller injuries along the length of its body. The calf travelling with the pair has not been seen since Friday, but will surely die as well.

corpse of a right whale

Photograph by Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation

The death of this whale is particularly sad because although the number of humpback whales is rising, and they are now a common sight – even in Sydney Harbour – the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) continues to struggle and the species remains on the endangered list.

The reason for this lies in the evidence of that floating carcass. Unlike other whales, a dead right whale floats when dead because of its thick blubber, so to whalers, they were the right whales to catch. Not only did they yield more oil, but after harpooning, they could be tethered alongside a vessel, and processed at the whalers’ convenience. So right whales were hunted more than any other baleen whale, and their numbers dropped accordingly.

Whaling off the coast of Australia began virtually from the arrival of the first British colonists. Ships would dump their ‘cargo’ of convicts in Sydney, then head off into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales. Sperm whales were the most valuable, because of their spermaceti oil, but like all toothed whales they were dangerous too.

Slow moving baleen whales like the humpback and right whale were much easier prey. Humpbacks breed in tropical water off the Queensland coast, but right whales seem to prefer cooler waters. In Australia, that means in calm inlets in South Australia and along the Victorian coast.

So what were these right whales doing in the warmer waters of Moreton Bay?

There are no 19th century records of right whales migrating this far north. Lack of evidence, of course, doesn’t constitute evidence of a lack of whales, but given the colonists’ enthusiasm for harvesting any marine creatures they could profitably kill, including dugong, turtle and other whales, I think someone would have mentioned it. But in the last decade or so, small family groups of right whales have begun to appear off Stradbroke Island and now – disastrously – in Moreton Bay itself.

Mike Noad, an expert on whales at the University of Queensland, has a theory that they are following an old migration route, one that pre-dates the European settlement of southeast Queensland. Early colonial whalers targeted right whales so devastatingly that the southern right whale population had already collapsed by the time the Moreton Bay settlement was founded in 1824. There were no right whales left to follow this minor breeding route northwards.

It seems plausible, though there’s probably no way we will ever know for sure. At present the whales are heading south to the Antarctic, where they will feed on krill during the southern summer. They are slow moving because they can only swim at the speed of their young calves, which were born in the last month or so. For that reason, they need to rest regularly in sheltered bays like Moreton Bay.

But Moreton Bay is no longer a reliable shelter. The bay is a busy place these days. Ferries crisscross the waters, and hydrofoils and water taxis can’t stop quickly. Perhaps they should just slow down.

Boat strikes happen too often, to turtles and dugong as well as whales. What also worries me – as a historian of whaling – is the significance of that name. How many humpbacks and other whale species have been killed by boat strikes in Moreton Bay, but because they were not ‘the right’ whales, their bodies sank to the seabed unrecorded.

See Andrew Darby, ‘Slow down, whales crossing’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 2014.

The end of the United Kingdom?

In 1698 a group of Scottish businessmen established a colony in Central America, on the Isthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien Project’, named after its location on the Gulf of Darien, turned out to be a disaster – fatally so, for most of the men and women who went out there between 1698 and 1700, but a financial disaster back in Scotland as well.

A bit like the South Sea Bubble, which caused such embarrassment for investors in England a few years later, the Darien scheme had involved a lot of lowland merchants and members of the political class, and with the collapse of their investment, they faced ruin. The term ‘sovereign debt’ hadn’t been invented, but effectively, so did the Scottish nation itself.

Since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England with the death of his cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the same Protestant branch of the Stuart/Stewart dynasty had ruled both Kingdoms, but they did not yet form a United Kingdom.

England was richer and bigger, but its taxpayers weren’t enthusiastic about baling out the Scots. In the end, they did so, but on fairly harsh terms. Scotland’s disastrous imperial adventure was paid off, the Scottish currency was stabilized (at the humiliating exchange rate of one English shilling to the Scottish pound) and in 1707 the Act of Union created a United Kingdom – and a Union Jack, based on the combined flags of St George and St Andrew. But Scotland lost its Parliament, and it would be over a century before another monarch visited – George IV in 1822.

Wilkie, George IV

There’s a saying that kilts are worn by Scots abroad, and by Americans in Scotland. This gruesome image demonstrates that this is not strictly true. David Wilkie, George IV in a kilt, 1829

Instead of expanding their own empire, the Scots got access to the English – now British – Empire instead. Many of them went out to work for the East India Company and to the North American colonies, and in due course to Australia as well.

A lot of Scots came to New South Wales in the early years, including several early Governors (Hunter, Macquarie, Brisbane), some of the most senior NSW Corps officers (William Paterson, George Johnston), and the first free trader (Robert Campbell).

Thanks to Scotland’s different legal system, though, there were relatively few Scottish convicts. The standard of proof in criminal trials was higher, with a possible verdict of ‘Not Proven’, as well as ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’. There was no law of trespass in Scotland either. So a Scotsman was transported for a great crime, an Englishman for a minor crime, and an Irishman for no crime at all – or so it was said, almost certainly by a disgruntled Irishman.

During the 19th century, Scottish immigrants were influential in many areas. Many became pastoralists, and I’ve always wondered how much their background understanding of Scottish land law affected their attitudes towards Aborigines. Scotland had no law of trespass, which may have made them more tolerant of traditional hunting routes across their land.

Other immigrants included doctors and engineers trained in the Scottish university system. One of Queensland’s early Premiers, Sir Thomas McIlwraith,  studied engineering at Glasgow University under William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, and became a mining engineer before entering politics – a rather more impressive educational record than most Queensland Premiers.

All this does rather suggest that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on the back foot when he recently told The Times in London that ‘Scottish independence would be a victory for the enemies of freedom and justice’, causing offence in Scotland, and howls of derision at home.

Personally, I have no strong feelings one way or another about Scottish independence, but I certainly don’t think the breakup of the United Kingdom would herald the end of civilization as we know it, and I do wonder why Tony Abbott bothered to insert himself so ham-fistedly into other people’s business.

In general, while Scotland has had a significant influence on Australia, Australia has had absolutely none on Scotland (though I believe there is a colony of wallabies on an island in Loch Lomond, introduced in the 1920s).

Apart from Tony Abbott, there’s one other embarrassing exception. In 1995, Mel Gibson* produced the film Braveheart, and won multiple Oscars for his portrayal of a woad-dappled warrior almost completely unlike the original freedom-loving William Wallace. The film was hugely successful at the time, and has had a weird post-production role in a variety of independence movements. I’ve written about it here.

The yearning for Scottish independence predates Braveheart, of course. On my one and only visit to the Orkneys, way back in 1975, I was body searched at Kirkwall airport by security staff who thought (God knows why!) that I might be associated with the Tartan Army**, who were at that time setting off bombs in Scottish postboxes because they carried the letters QEII (the Queen is Elizabeth the First of Scotland).

I have no idea what will happen in the referendum in a couple of weeks time, but I’m sure that Tony Abbott’s intervention has done the Independence movement no end of good. William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in London, by the English. Abbott might be advised to give Edinburgh a wide berth for a year or so, or risk being disemboweled.

* Mel Gibson was born in New York and moved with his family to Australia at the age of 12. Australians tend to claim him as their own when he’s doing good things, like winning Oscars. When he’s shouting anti-Semitic diatribes, not so much.
**Not the football supporters, the other ones.

Giles Whittell, ‘Scots Independence a Bad Idea, says Australian PM’, The Times, 16 August 2014 – behind paywall.

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway.

As I’ve said many times, I love libraries and librarians. There’s something universally welcoming about a library, a familiarity in the layout, the catalogues, the reading matter, regardless of time and place. Of course there are superficial differences. A friend has just posted some pictures on Facebook of the library he is using in India at the moment: paper catalogues and an outside loo. When I first worked in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had to swear the following:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

Fires were a problem in libraries based on papyrus, vellum or paper, but the clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal survived because they were burnt, and baked hard as a result. The wax tablets didn’t do so well.

Libraries let the past talk to the present, and free access to libraries is precious, at risk now that so many databases are accessible only by costly subscription – though digitization is costly, so what is the solution?

There are advantages, though, in a system where books and journal articles are increasingly available online, because although not everyone may be able to walk in off the street to find material, as they once did in the days before usernames and passwords, at least for university students, it’s a level playing field.

It hasn’t always been so. I studied history at the University of Queensland in the late 1960s. Several years ahead of me was another honours student who stole books and journal articles from the library. In those days, of course, nothing was online. Books took months to order from overseas, there was no electronic security, and photocopying was primitive and expensive.

This student took out books hidden in her portable typewriter case, and cut out journal articles from the bound volumes. It took the library years to track down what had gone missing – though we students, travelling in her wake, soon learned through bitter experience to avoid any topic that she had worked on in previous years. I discovered this, to my cost, when I wrote an essay on the historiography of Marxism, only to find the key articles in my bibliography had been removed with a razor blade.

Why did she do it? Sometimes people steal from libraries because of the intrinsic value of the material, as I have discussed here, but this wasn’t true in this case. Part of the reason must surely have been the extreme competitiveness of the honours year. In those days, examiners awarded degrees according to a normal distribution – the notorious ‘bell-shaped curve’ – which meant (or so we all believed) that only a certain number of first class degrees would be awarded each year, regardless of the merit of the student cohort. In a zero sum game, depriving others of essential reading matter improved her chances.

Another factor was that there was no mechanism for copying material other than copying it out by hand – or typing it, for we few, mainly female students, who knew how to type. So the temptation to cut out and steal was always there.

My late colleague, Denis Murphy, came across another example at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was reading newspapers for his PhD on T.J.Ryan, who was Queensland Premier during World War I. He found a lot of columns that had been clipped out sometime earlier – and found there was a pattern. They related to constitutional matters, and many of the missing columns were quoted at length in H.V.Evatt, The King and His Dominion Governors (1936).

Was Evatt responsible for these thefts? Did a research assistant do the dirty deed – in which case, why did Evatt never question the source of the clippings? There may be some innocent explanation, but it’s a curious pattern, all the same.

It’s also something of a political scandal, because at the time he was writing The King and His Dominion Governors, Evatt was a High Court Judge. He was later the Federal Attorney General in the Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments, before becoming Minister for External Affairs and the (very poor) Opposition Leader. Libraries, from Athens to the present, should be all about sharing and equal access, so it’s rather shocking when somebody breaches that trust, especially when it’s such an eminent person as Australia’s chief law officer.

Just the other day, I was told of a similar case involving a Cabinet Minister in our present Federal Government. It’s gossip, it’s hearsay, and it’s not my story to tell anyway. But I hope it’s not true. At least with the rise of the internet, students have equal access to the journals they need for their studies. They don’t even have to present themselves in the Agora between the first and the sixth hour.

Political Climate Change

Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.

Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier.

Perhaps we should blame Dorothea MackellarMy Country was first published in 1908, and has been anthologized in countless schoolbooks ever since. It is surely one of Australia’s favourite poems, celebrating a wide brown land full of droughts and flooding rains, her beauty and terror – her unpredictability.

Dorothea Mackellar My Country MS

First published in The Spectator, 5 September 1908, from Wikipedia

And so it was for early European settlers arriving in Australia who had no idea how to read the weather or anticipate the seasons. The Aborigines had their own seasons and methods of prediction. ‘When the blowflies come [in November], there are no more whales,’ the Yuin people told Oswald Brierly, a whaling station manager on the far south coast of New South Wales in the 1840s. Unfortunately most settlers didn’t ask, or didn’t listen as respectfully as Brierly, and as a result they struggled.

We now know that Australia’s climate is less unpredictable than people once believed – and the great pendulum that governs the climate of Eastern Australia is the vortex in the Pacific Ocean that swings Australia, and all the continents bordering the Pacific, between El Niño and La Niña effects.

The strength of these swings can be measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), but it was a part of Peruvian folklore long before. El Niño – the boy child – came about Christmas, and marked the start of a particularly good year’s fishing, as warm water welling up to the surface brought millions of anchovies and the larger fish that fed on them. La Niña – the girl – brings the opposite conditions: bad fishing in South America, but good rains in Australia.

Most historians now think that when James Cook and Joseph Banks described the east coast of Australia in 1770, they saw it in the middle of a La Niña event. Eighteen years later, the First Fleet arrived just before an El Niño event (1790-92), and the settlers found the country dry and difficult to cultivate.

These early events depend on a retrospective evaluation of meteorological measurements so their dates are a bit fuzzy, but according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology there have been 12 ‘canonical’ strong El Niño events since 1900: 1905, 1914, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1965, 1972, 1977, 1982, 1991, 1994, 1997, with no strong El Niño since 1997/8.

Looking at this list as a historian, I find some of these dates rather curious. Since federation in 1901, Australians have overwhelmingly elected conservative governments, and tend to stick with a government through two or more elections. Since just before World War I, when the party system began to stabilize, there have only been 12 changes of the party in government. Labor Governments were elected only 6 times: in 1914, 1929, 1941, 1972, 1983, 2007. Four of those elections, if we include the Hawke election on 5 March 1983, coincide with El Niño events.

I don’t for a moment suggest a deterministic relationship. Obviously other factors are important, particularly depression (Scullin in 1929), war (Fisher in 1914; Curtin in 1941) and internal division (Whitlam in 1972). But I wonder.

Long before Australians knew about El Niño, or cared about climate change, they worried about the weather. Dorothea Mackellar’s celebration of a sunburnt country is all very well, but farmers prefer predictability, and until recently, Australia’s economy depended on farmers. People get tetchy when the weather turns against them. Perhaps they prefer the security of a welfare state when times are hard and the future is uncertain.

The missing date is 2007, the last occasion on while a Labor Government was elected in Australia. One of the key issues in this election was anxiety about drought, the degradation of the Murray-Darling basin and – yes – climate change. Then the girl-child arrived and it rained. Water from the Queensland floods poured into the Murray River, and the political landscape changed.

People are fickle. But perhaps, like the Australian climate, they are not as unpredictable as they appear. We may be overdue for another El Niño, and we may be heading for a particularly intense one. It will be interesting to see what happens when it arrives, as it certainly will some time soon. The pendulum swings. Tick, tock.

Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –
  1. I’m not a Head of Department, but I was told that the Heads of History meeting was pretty dispiriting. People are tired of battling for funding, tired of shifting goalposts, tired of the economic straighteners in political life. This is true across higher education, of course, but it’s particularly true for the humanities, and historians are even worse hit because –
  1. It is so easy to politicize history, because history, more than most disciplines, is a part of the public conversation. This is both a good and a bad thing. Professor David Armitage from Harvard, whose paper yesterday was a rallying call for greater public engagement by historians, made the point that in Australia, unlike America, history has a place in public discourse. This is great. But it also risks making historical research a hostage to politicians who want to tweak the school curriculum or cherry-pick research projects in their own image.
  1. The overarching theme of the conference was Conflict. Large conferences always choose a big and baggy theme like this, so inclusive that it is almost meaningless. The irony of Conflict, though, is that it bifurcated the conference between aspects of Aboriginal/settler frontier conflict (beloved of the left) and aspects of World Wars (beloved of the right). So that’s all right then. In sheer bloody-mindedness, when confronted with a Theme, I tend to go looking for something entirely different – medieval Irish cooking, say, or the political activities of Caroline Chisholm.
  1. I loved both these papers, and they each had wider things to say about Irish and Australian history. Some papers, though, show the tendency Armitage raised in his paper, ‘to know more and more about less and less’. Many primary sources are now digitized and available (even though many are only accessible through a pay wall) but it’s increasingly hard to get your head around all the secondary sources published on any subject. So PhD theses become ever more specialized in an attempt to cope. Fernand Braudel drafted most of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II while in a German prison during World War II, with only access to a small local library. Without wishing to make years of imprisonment compulsory, there’s something to be said for blocking out the world and its masses of Big Data occasionally.

It was good to see old friends and acquaintances, and to meet in the flesh people I only know through social media. I’ve come away with a list of books I must read, and new ideas I need to think about. Some of them will no doubt find their way to my blog in the future.

It is different going to a conference in your hometown. It’s cheaper to stay at home – but there’s more commuting and less total immersion in the conference experience. There are still husbands and dogs to be fed. In times past, I got to know people best in shared accommodation, or over shared college breakfasts, and I went to all the evening sessions because there was nothing else to do in a strange city. I do miss the conviviality of those days – but I don’t regret the shared bathrooms or the freezing student rooms in mid-winter Melbourne.

Live by the gun; Die by the gun

While I’m sorry, of course, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, there’s a little bit of me that feels he had it coming to him. I speak not on behalf of Serbian nationalism, but on behalf of Antipodean wildlife.

Last year when I was in Vienna I visited the Natural History Museum. There are some wonderful items in this rather fusty old museum, including the Venus of Willendorf and other archaeological treasures, but also far too many dead animals and birds, which don’t really do it for me. Franz Ferdinand shot an amazing number of these animals during a world tour on the Imperial battle cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth in 1893, accompanied by his own personal taxidermist and a zoologist from the Imperial Natural History Museum. Continue reading

Family Business

Most people I know ignore the business pages of a newspaper – but for those in the know, there is as much vanity, violence and family tragedy in the business pages as anywhere else in the paper – and that’s just Gina Rinehart and family. For sheer vanity and potential for future mishaps, Rupert Murdoch’s succession plans compare favourably with those of King Lear.

Go back 200 years, and things were probably rather similar. Early 19th century Sydney merchants fought with their families (Walter S Davidson), cheated their partners (Robert Campbell), committed suicide (Edward Riley), went bankrupt (Richard Jones). Some even went into politics (Stuart Alexander Donaldson).

Janette Holcomb Early Merchant Families of Sydney

All this turmoil generated plenty of paperwork. In her new book, Early Merchant Families of Sydney, Janette Holcomb takes us in a series of forensic biographical chapters through the early history of Sydney’s mercantile elite, from Robert Campbell from the house of Campbell, Clark & Co, who arrived from Calcutta with a cargo of spirits in 1798, to Ben Boyd of the Royal Bank of Australia, who arrived from England with a cargo of credit in 1842. Continue reading