Category Archives: world history

Talking to Asia in the 19th and 21st Centuries

The response to the new white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, just released by the federal government, has been underwhelming to say the least.  Which is a pity.

There’s little doubt that the 21st century belongs to Asia (however that murky geographic concept is defined), and most of the recommendations of Ken Henry’s panel seem worthy, if uncosted.  During the next century, most of the world’s middle class will be Asian, and Australia naturally wants to tap in – in trade, education, tourism and cultural exchange.

So far, so motherhood.  But one issue the report raised, and the PM emphasised in launching the report, has come in for a lot of criticism.  “All students will have continuous access to a priority Asian language – Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.”

Over the years there have other attempts to persuade our Anglophone kids to knuckle down and learn an Asian language, but apart from a few ambitious nerds (Kevin Rudd, anyone?) most high school students baulk at the difficulties, especially when their matriculation results depend on how they go in a variety of subjects.  Dean Ashenden nails the problem here - and goes on to point out that

To the extent that we do need Asian-language speakers for business or other purposes, why on earth get schools to produce them?  We’ve already got them.

According to the census, we have 330,000 Mandarin speakers, 111,000 Hindi, 56,000 Indonesian, 44,000 Japanese, 80,000 Korean, 233,000 Vietnamese and 37,000 Thai.

But if teaching the next generation Asian languages is a flawed endeavour, how did earlier generations of English-speakers deal with the problem of talking to Asia?

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Should the European Union have won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Within a day of the award being announced, I was hearing jokes about the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize going to the European Union.  Could they use the prize money to bail out Greece?  How would they stop arguing long enough to choose someone to accept the prize on their behalf?  And the killer, an acceptance speech that begins:

Firstly, I would like to thank Adolf Hitler, without which none of this would have been possible.

The Nobel Peace Prize is often contentious.  For every Aung San Suu Kyi or Desmond Tutu, there is a Henry Kissinger or Yasser Arafat.  The Committee often uses the prize to try to tweak current events, because its prestige lends clout to the recipient – Jose Ramos-Horta, for instance, became much more widely recognized as a result of winning the prize, and this probably helped the cause of East Timorese independence.  But the risk is that it’s hard to pick winners before they have done anything: Barack Obama got the prize for not being George W. Bush.

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Dutch Courage and the FV Abel Tasman

They say it’s bad luck to change the name of a ship.  The owners of the super trawler formerly known as Margiris may be pondering this old saltie’s superstition as the Australian government ramps up its efforts to prevent the ship fishing out in Australian waters.

The issues are complex and controversial.  Environmentalists are worried that this ship – larger than any fishing vessel that has operated in Australian waters before – will gobble up too many fish, and destroy too much ‘by-catch’ while doing so.

Scientists are divided, and there’s a healthy dose of nationalism in play as well, worried that ‘our’ fish will be harvested for sale overseas.  But there’s a division of power in a federal system, and as Tasmanian government has already okayed the deal it’s not clear what the federal Minister for the Environment can do, especially in a hung Parliament.  We may find out later today. [Update: Or not]

As a historian, I’m intrigued by the actions of the spin-doctors behind the Dutch company, Parlevliet & Van Der Plas, who have decided to rename the ship, which is now registered in Australian waters as the FV Abel Tasman.  It’s a clever attempt to highlight 400 years of Dutch-Australian contact, but I think they may have been too clever by half.

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Potatoes and the foods of the poor

I bought 2 kg of potatoes last weekend.  Four days later, I took out the bag to peel some for dinner, and found that every single potato in the bag had shoots on it.

I spent a minute or so muttering about supermarkets and their appalling buying policies, but then I realised that, in a funny way, I felt quite happy for those potatoes.  It’s cold at the moment (by Brisbane standards), but we passed the shortest day three weeks ago.  In their plastic bag, deep in the darkness of my pantry, those potatoes knew that spring is only a week or so away.

We ask a lot of potatoes.  There are some basic foodstuffs we expect to be on hand all year – potatoes and onions, apples and bananas, eggs and milk – yet even the humble spud is really a seasonal vegetable.

purple potato from villandry

Purple potato chips, made from purple potatoes, and served at the Chateau of Villandry in the Loire Valley,  which is noted for its vegetable gardens.

In 1949 the pioneer in World History, William H McNeill published an article on ‘The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland’ in the Journal of Modern History, based on his postgraduate work.  Now that every commodity, from cod to coffee to the colour mauve, seems to have its own historian, it’s easy to miss just how innovative McNeill’s thematic approach then was.  Exactly 50 years later, he returned to the topic with ‘How the Potato Changed the World’s History’, in Social Research: An International Quarterly (1999).  His preoccupation is understandable, for potatoes really did transform the world.

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Batman and A Clockwork Orange: films and violence

I was never going to see The Dark Knight Rising in any case.  At my age and stage, I’m not really into superheroes, and the sort of films that appeal to teenagers and young adults usually leave me cold.  And yet –

Amongst all the tragedies associated with the massacre last weekend in Aurora, Colorado, the future of the Batman franchise seems a trivial matter, but inevitably some discussion has focussed on the relationship between cinematic violence and the real, horrifying thing.

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The New Cythera and the Transit of Venus

I wonder, if Captain Cook had gone to Tahiti in 1769 to observe the Transit of Mars* instead of the Transit of Venus, he would have seen an island full of brave warriors rather than nubile maidens?

Tahitian canoes, Matavai Bay

William Hodges, Tahitian War Galleys in Matavai Bay, Tahiti

Probably not. Cook’s Tahitian visit was not the first instance of this association between the island and the goddess of love, though it is a strange coincidence that linked the planet Venus with Tahiti.

In her book, Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (2009), the anthropologist and historian Anne Salmond looks closely at what happened when an earlier explorer, the Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville, visited in April 1768.

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Lachlan Macquarie takes the Overland Route

I’m on holidays in Russia at present.  Going to new places always sends me back to things I half knew, but wasn’t interested in before.  I vaguely knew that Governor Lachlan Macquarie had travelled through Russia, but now that I’m here myself, I thought I’d have another look at his journey.  His travel diary has been transcribed, and is available here.

Before he became Governor of New South Wales in 1810, Macquarie was a soldier in the Indian army – the sharp end of the East India Company.  In 1807, he was a lieutenant colonel.  His first wife had died, and at 44, he now planned to marry a cousin, Elizabeth Campbell, to whom he had proposed while on furlough in Scotland. Continue reading

A Black Swan Event in Moreton Bay

The language of business can be surprisingly vigorous.  I love the bestiality of its bulls and bears and dead cat bounces.

A postage stamp of Australia issued 1954 -West...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve only just discovered a new phrase, this one with a tangential Australian connection.  A Black Swan Event, according to a newish book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and can’t be predicted but which in retrospect, could have been expected.

What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Taleb, in New York Times, 22 April 2007, quoted in Wikipedia

Now who am I to question someone whose book was on the NYT bestseller list for 36 weeks, but this sounds to me basically what we historians call contingent events, and which Dick Cheney more succinctly described as ‘shit happens’. Continue reading

Vidal Sassoon – and the long and short of it

Vidal Sassoon died last week.  He was a hairdresser, in the same way that Mary Quant was a dressmaker or The Avengers was just another TV series.  He introduced short, sleek, edgy hairstyles to the celebrities of the Swinging Sixties – and my brush with his hairbrush is about as close as I ever got to Carnaby Street fashion.

According to his obituaries, Sassoon made most of his money from selling hair care products and by teaching his hair-cutting skills.  When I spent 6 months in London in the late 1970s, you could get a haircut at the Vidal Sassoon School of Hairdressing for £2 as a ‘model’ – on condition that you let the student do whatever s/he wanted.  A friend of mine ended up with purple hair.  I was luckier, a silent spectator as tutor and student riffled through my hair, drew a map of my scalp showing crown and parting, and then layer cut it to a point, so that it sat neatly or swung obediently.  They were the best haircuts I’ve ever had. Continue reading

Teredo – worms shall devour them

Places matter to people.  In my suburb, one of our best-loved places is the Shorncliffe pier.  Throughout the day, it is a place for tai chi and joggers, crab pots and fishing.  In the early evening, it is full of friendly walkers, with or without dogs.  People sprinkle the ashes of those they love from its railings, or use it as a backdrop for wedding photos.  It was recently used in a UK television ad available on YouTube here.

They used to say that Sandgate is 12 miles from Brisbane – or 13 at low tide.  It is a long way out to deep water, so early settlers could not get their goods – or themselves – from ship to shore without wading.  As the community grew, in 1865 they made plans ‘for the construction of a PIER or LANDING STAGE at Sandgate’.  This pier opened to the public in 1882.

From the start, the pier had a dual purpose, as a commercial landing stage, but also as a popular promenade.  Piers were a part of the tradition of beach ‘watering places’, growing popular amongst all classes by the mid-19th century.  They were destinations for city day-trippers who came by railway to enjoy a day at the beach, perhaps swimming, but probably just strolling along the waterfront, and enjoying the concerts, food outlets, Punch and Judy shows and other commercial activities that took place on and around a pier.

Shorncliffe pier

Our pier followed the social model of British piers such as the West Pier at Brighton (1866) and the Cleveden Pier on the Severn (1869), both built at much the same time.  People came by coach, and then by rail (1882) to enjoy a day at the beach.  But while the British piers were mainly built of iron, wood was much cheaper in Brisbane, so our pier is wooden.

A few weeks ago, council inspectors found marine borers in its timber pilings and the pier has been closed until further notice.  Since then there have been petitions and a rally, a local newspaper campaign and a lot of promises.  A local election next Saturday has raised the temperature. Continue reading