Category Archives: world history

The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. By then, many parts of the world were already becoming dependent on the electric telegraph, so this solar flare caused havoc in communications – though on a much smaller scale than is possible today. It is known as the Carrington Event, after the English astronomer Richard Carrington, who was one of the first to notice what was happening.

The telegraph was already important in Australia. Not surprising, considering the size of the continent and its sparse population.

Electric Telegraph stamp

1871 Electric Telegraph stamp from New South Wales

During the 1859 solar storm, the Aurora Australis was seen in Australia as far north as Brisbane and Ipswich – far, far to the north of where it would normally be visible. Here’s part of the report from the Moreton Bay Courier, 7 September 1859:

MOST of our readers saw last week, for three nights, commencing after sunset, and lighting up the heavens with a gorgeous hue of red, the Southern Aurora. At Sydney they only appear to have had a tithe of the beauty, as the Aurora did not shine so long or so brightly as in Queensland. Friday night was the grandest in appearance here, the Aurora being visible from seven o’clock in the evening until after midnight. At times there was an appearance of rays down the whole range of light, which seemed many miles in extent, and a number of stars were distinctly visible, contrasting their pale effulgence with the red hue of the Aurora. The sight was the general object of remark on Friday night by reason of its brilliancy and the length of time it appeared.

The telegraph wires were ‘deranged’ and communications were disrupted for days. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, west of Brisbane, a resident wrote to the newspaper to report that

Last night, and on the night of Monday last, the Aurora Australis was beautifully observable in the southern sky. A neighbour of mine thought it was the first sign of the coming Judgment!

North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 6 September 1859

Let’s hope not. Meanwhile, if the coming storm is as bad as people predict, dear reader, you probably won’t be reading this until the whole thing is over. Meanwhile, I’m going out to look up at the sky tonight.

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.

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