Category Archives: world history

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.

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. Continue reading

George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading

Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

In Australia, Halloween has recently become popular, at least amongst children – what’s not to like about an occasion that gives kids a socially sanctioned reason to be out at night, wear silly costumes and put pressure on their parents to eat lots of sugar?

The shops love it too. Most Australians, I think, are pretty cynical about this imported commercial event – yet another example of creeping Americanisation.  My favourite example of the way the marketeers have pushed it into our consciousness was the pumpkin I saw in Woolworths a couple of years ago, printed with dotted lines to show kids how to carve it.

Yet festivals morph and merge.  Before there was Halloween (31 October), there was Guy Fawkes Night (5 November). I remember bonfires and fireworks from my childhood, long, long ago.  I wonder if the rise of Halloween in Australia has occurred because nature abhors a vacuum? Continue reading

Two Pioneers of Aviation and the accidents of history

Powered flight has transformed our lives during the last century.  Like many technological breakthroughs, the history of flight is usually written in terms of great men, the heroes of invention like Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were the first men to build and fly an aeroplane successfully at Kitty Hawk.  But heroic individuals explain only so much.  Context, circumstances, contingency, all play a role as well.

Which brings me to the story of Igor and Vladimir, and the curious connection between my suburb of Sandgate, on the shores of Moreton Bay, and the helicopter.

Around the early years of the 20th century, many people were experimenting with the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine. In France and Germany, England and America, amateur aviators tinkered with kites, gliders and balloons. Even in Australia, on the remote edge of the British Empire, Lawrence Hargrave played a part with his experiments with box kites.

Russia had its enthusiasts too.  Continue reading

Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum

A special exhibition at the Queensland Museum makes me realise, not for the first time, how much better the Queensland Art Gallery does these things. QAG has just closed Quilts 1700-1945.  I went at the end of June, and wrote about it here.

The Queensland Museum has just opened Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul.  A few of these items were on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City when I was there in 2010.  Although they belong in Afghanistan, and will eventually return to its National Museum, at present they are touring the world.  They have already been to Melbourne and will go on from Brisbane (until 27 January) to Sydney and Perth during 2014.

Treasures of Afghanistan

Hair pendant in gold and turquoise from Tillya Tepe

The treasures themselves are wonderful.  Continue reading

We Warn the Tsar!

The situation in Syria is tragic, and it’s not surprising that people who see these tragedies on their television (or more likely, these days, YouTube) want to Do Something.  Maybe there’s a point to American, or British, or French, or Russian, or Iranian, or Israeli breast-beating over what is going on. I’m not so sure.  I was in Belgrade a few weeks ago and saw the site of the NATO bombing in 1993.  Did it really change anything on the ground?

Here in Australia, though, there’s no point.  We have no strategic interest in Syria, and even if we did, for good or bad we can have no impact on what is going on. Australia is a modest country, with much to be modest about – and thank goodness for that. I doubt if there are many Australians who want to join the Great Powers, especially on yet another expedition of gunboat diplomacy to the Middle East.

Unfortunately, one of them is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  In the middle of an election campaign he is highly likely to lose, the ex-diplomat, ex-foreign minister, takes time out from cooking or campaigning to speak in sober, measured and above all pompous terms about his consultations with Barack Obama and David Cameron and – who knows? Ban Ki-moon?

The excuse for this self-importance is that Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council and this weekend takes over the rotating presidency.  The real reason is that Rudd loves this sort of stuff.

It all feels to me a bit like ‘We warn the Tsar!’ Continue reading

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

learnearnandreturn:

More than 2 years ago, I wrote this post on the historian Crane Brinton and his theory of revolutions. The Arab Spring was just beginning.
In Egypt today, that first phase of revolution is well and truly past now, but Brinton’s idea of phases seems worth revisiting, now that the army is once more engaged in the political process (did it ever go away?) Napoleon Bonaparte notoriously said that it only took ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ to silence popular protests in the streets of Paris. Is the next step the emergence of the Man on Horseback? If so, who? Brinton’s ideas were simplistic and reductive, but influential, and perhaps they still are in driving outside perceptions.

Originally posted on Historians are Past Caring:

‘Alligators and revolutions both eat their children’, wrote one letter writer to The Australian yesterday, one of many commenting on events in Egypt at present.  I suspect this may be a slander against alligators, but it does sum up what many people feel, consciously or unconsciously about the idea of revolution: all revolutions have a lot in common, and it is very easy for the process to go pear-shaped very quickly.

I know just enough about Egyptian history to understand all those cartoons with Hosni Mubarak being fitted for a sarcophagus, and to know that a lot has happened since the last pyramid was built, which tends to be ignored, at least by cartoonists.  (Pyramids are very easy to draw)

But Revolutions are another thing.  Academics in the humanities love revolutions, in art and literature as well as history.  Which is odd, really, when you consider how anti-democratic most universities…

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Drawing Lines on a Map

In 886, having defeated the Danish leader Guthrum at the Battle of Eddington (878), King Alfred of Wessex and his advisors drew a line across England, roughly north-west to south-east.  North and east of this line was the Danelaw, the area inhabited by descendants of the Viking raiders, speaking Danish and ruled by Danish law; to the west and south was Anglo-Saxon territory, Christian like Alfred himself, ruled by English law, and speaking an Anglo-Saxon language in the process of becoming Old English.

Or so the story goes. Continue reading

…neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned…

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor who won a US Senate seat in Massachusetts, is an expert on bankruptcy.  Responding to Governor Romney’s statement that ‘Corporations are people’, she replied:

No…corporations are not people.  People have hearts.  They have kids.  They get jobs.  They get sick.  They thrive.  They dance.  They live.  They love.  And they die.  And that matters… because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.

The quote is everywhere; it even made it into a Doonesbury cartoon here.

Doonesbury cartoon, 7 November 2012

Meanwhile the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, worked as a derivatives trader for corporations – Elf Aquitaine and Enterprise Oil – before he changed course and decided to join the ministry in 1989.  His dissertation at theological college was on the topic ‘Can companies sin?’ – to which he answered Yes.  He recently told the Guardian:

Continue reading