Fund managers aren’t really my kind of people

Five years ago, I was invited to Newcastle, north of Sydney, to give a presentation on the history of coal mining in Australia to a group of fund managers. This is not my normal type of gig, but I once wrote a chapter on the topic as part of an interdisciplinary study of the coal industry in Australia. Australia’s coal industry first began in Newcastle, and it still depends on mining.

Early Newcastle coal mine

Robert Westmacott, Newcastle, the coal mines of N.S.W. (1832), from National Library of Australia

It was a brief insight into how the other half (or, more likely, the top 10 percent) live. These fund managers were mainly American, and they had just come through the global financial crisis.

These men had been badly burnt – but only metaphorically. Thumbs permanently attached to their Blackberries and groggy with jet lag, they were there to be schmoozed within an inch of their lives. Over the course of a long weekend, they moved from business breakfasts to a visit to port facilities to more presentations and a visit to a mine, interspersed with dinners at the ritziest restaurants Newcastle has to offer. It was all washed down with the best Hunter wines.

At a waterfront seafood restaurant, I ordered salt and pepper squid from the 3 entrees on our special custom menu. This dish can often taste like greasy rubber bands, but here I expected it to be absolutely delicious, and it was. This was some compensation for a boring night, since none of the men (they were virtually all men) around me felt the least need to talk to me. In their normal lives, they probably outsourced small talk to their wives anyway.

Through either luck or good management (your call will depend on your political allegiance) Australia came through the global financial crisis of 2007-9 relatively unscathed, which is why, not doubt, we cheerfully abbreviate it to the GFC. We did much better than America, so these fund managers were surprised by the strength of the Australian economy, the low unemployment, and the fact that Newcastle’s coal industry was touting for their business, promising profits well above what they could make at home. Two countries, on different phases of the investment cycle.

I flew home next day, so I don’t know what happened to these optimistic plans. Five years later, the American economy is recovering but in Australia, coal and iron ore prices are cactus. Green shoots are very thin on the ground – especially in Newcastle, where the boom turned out to have a rotten core of political corruption too, and the uncontrolled growth of coalmines has killed much of the greenery anyway.

Business cycles, by their nature, go up and down, and money managers have a poor reputation for dodgy predictions and self-serving boosterism, if not necessarily for corruption. Sitting opposite me that night in Newcastle was a fund manager from Goldman Sachs. Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone had only recently, memorably, described Goldman Sachs thus:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The image of the vampire squid went viral, and I confess that it was a comfort to me to think of this as I sat there ignored, out of place surrounded by young men in suits twiddling under the table with their Blackberries.

I was ignored until my meal arrived. I had been surprised by how few people ordered the salt and pepper squid. Clearly, when they saw my dish, some of my neighbours regretted not doing so – but it was ‘Mr Goldman Sachs’ who said, with amazement: ‘But it’s calamari!’ It turns out he didn’t even know what squid was. Two nations, divided by a single language.

The Invisible History of the Human Race

I picked up Christine Kenneally’s book because it was on the short list for the Stella Prize – and because my sister recommended it. Once I’d picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. The book is The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (2014). As the over-long title perhaps hints, this is a hard book to categorise. It is part history, part science, with large and important chunks dealing with the contemporary issues thrown up by the new technologies of DNA analysis.

KenneallyChristine-584x893

Some of the issues are controversial. Kenneally deals cautiously and well with the inevitable issues of race and eugenics, but other controversies hadn’t occurred to me before: What are the implications of so much data (either genetic or genealogical) being held by private companies like Ancestry.com or 23andMe? What happens to that data when a company is sold? This happened to Kenneally, who had her genes tested by 23andMe, in the interests of research, in 2010. The company gave certain commitments about the privacy of her record – but it has since changed hands, and the status of that information is now unclear.

One of the issues the book covers is the history and meaning of family history. Genealogists are often dismissed as cranks by academic historians – and I know how infuriating it can be to sit in front of a microfilm reader, next to someone who keeps tapping me on the shoulder to tell me she (it’s mostly she) has just found Uncle Freddy – but Kenneally endorses both the validity of this research for the individual and the wider value of such projects, when they converge into large-scale studies, such as the Founders and Survivors project.

Kenneally is good at finding just the right anecdote to illustrate her wider arguments. The story of Thomas Jefferson and Sarah Hemings is widely known: for 2 centuries, Jefferson was a famous Founding Father with an unblemished private life. He and his wife Martha Wayles had 6 children. But an oral tradition also passed down that suggested that after Martha’s death, Jefferson subsequently had another family with one of the house slaves at Monticello, Sarah (Sally) Hemings.

The historical record can only go so far, but DNA testing eventually shows what historians could not prove: that Sarah Hemings’ male descendants carried the Jefferson Y-chromosome. Despite some rearguard action trying to finger another Jefferson – uncle or nephew – the dates of conception make it pretty clear that Thomas fathered Sally’s children. This story is not just of prurient interest. It also tells us a lot about the lived experience of men and women in 18th century Virginia, and how it diverges from the written record.

So far, so well known. But Kenneally looks at another angle: as well as 6 children raised at Monticello, there was another, older boy, Thomas Woodson, who was sent to live at another estate at the age of 12, where he took the name of his new master, a common practice. The Woodson descendents also believed they were descended from Thomas Jefferson – but repeated DNA analysis has failed to make the link. Sometimes knowledge is power – but sometimes it is a shattering disappointment too.

For me, it was yet another angle on this story that intrigued me. Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles were half-sisters. They shared the same father, for clearly droit de seigneur operated in the generation before Jefferson too. While the Hemings-Jefferson inter-racial liaison has shocked some Americans, and delighted many more, I’ve never seen any concern expressed that Jefferson was sleeping with his deceased wife’s sister, a relationship that was legally equivalent to incest at this time in English law.

Kenneally ranges widely across time and place. One study illuminates the Dark Ages: a map of the modern genetics of the British population shows that people still reproduce within old cultural boundaries, so that the kingdoms of Dalriada, Rheged, Elmet and Dumnonia emerge from the genetic data.

In Ireland the same Y-chromosome appears widely – in the northwest an extraordinary 17 percent of men carry it – and this is attributed to the influence of Niall of the Nine Hostages and the men of the Niall clan, who clearly practiced droit de seigneur on an industrial scale. Polygamy and easy divorce, even into the Christian period, must have helped. More generally, when a new population displaces the old, the marks of the invasion are more frequently present on the Y chromosome – as it true for Aboriginal Australians.

Kenneally looks at Tasmania, where the late 19th century saw a great forgetting, when the population chose to keep silent about its convict origins. Now of course everyone wants a convict ancestor, and Kenneally shows how her own research on her family origins led to a convict – and made her, for a moment, ‘a convict princess’.

This is a rich and rewarding book, clearly written and entertaining, but with a good deal of meat on its bones. To my unqualified eyes, it seems about as up-to-date as one can expect in such a fast-moving field. I can’t recommend it too highly.

NB: This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

Anzac Memories

There has just been a brief flurry in the Twittersphere about an advertising campaign by Woolworths, featuring a photo of an Australian soldier, overlaid with the words ‘Fresh in our Memories’ and the Woolworths logo. Woolworths promote themselves as ‘the Fresh Food people’, so this was seen as more than usually blatant commercialism.

I confess that when I first saw the posters, in my local supermarket, my reaction was less: ‘How dare this grocery giant take in vain the sacred Anzac name for commercial purposes?’ and more ‘Oh God, not another haunting sepia image, just like all the others we’ve been seeing everywhere lately!’

Woolworths Anzac advertisement

Within hours of the advertisements appearing (or so they say, although at my store they were up days earlier) the Minister for Veterans Affairs had released a press statement and Woolworths pulled the campaign.

Since the media that ran with the story is the same media that has featured haunting sepia images for months, it all seemed a little hypocritical. The truth of it is, I think, that I’ve reached Peak Gallipoli. I’m not the only one. A major TV series on Gallipoli scored disappointingly low ratings, even though it was excellent – or so they say. I didn’t watch it either.

This year is the Centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, and of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 at the beginning of a long and disastrous campaign that killed a great many men on both sides. Turkey’s involvement with the Axis Powers was minimal, but there was a long history of commercial rivalry between Britain and Germany, both of whom bribed the Sultan’s court shamelessly for concessions to build railways. (Some of the more decorative bribes are now on display at the Topkapi Palace.)

topkapi palace jewel

Behind the veneer of patriotism, oil was important too. In the 19th century, steamships burned coal, but loading lumps of coal was messy and labour-intensive. Pumping liquid oil was cleaner and quicker, and the British Navy completed its conversion to oil at the beginning of 1914. Coal is very widely available, but oil is found in fewer locations. The main supplies in 1914, like today, lay in the Middle East, so the role of companies like Anglo-Persian Oil were important.

The landing at Gallipoli opened a new front in the Great War, but it achieved very little for the invaders. Its main impact was to further destabilise the Ottoman Empire, triggering various nationalisms within a multinational empire that had previously been reasonably stable. Ethnic cleansing followed, starting with the Armenians, but later spreading to the Pontic Greeks as well.

The Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 confirmed the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, which was carved up and parcelled out amongst the victorious allies. One book about Versailles has the memorable title A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (by David Fromkin, 1989).

While the media and the Twittersphere were busy baying for Woolworths’ blood, elsewhere a contingent of 330 soldiers quietly left Brisbane for a ‘training mission’ in Iraq. The ironies abound. A joint Australian-New Zealand force [check], is being sent to the crumbling carcass of the Ottoman Empire [check] at the request of a great and powerful friend [check]. And nobody talks about oil [check].

What do I do with the Egyptian mummy?

I’ve been going gangbusters writing my book lately. This is why my blog posts have tapered off recently – sorry – but there are some important advantages in staying in the Zone, without any interruptions.

When I have a concentrated spell of writing, rather than fitting it in around other obligations, which is the natural condition of most university teachers (and most women, for that matter), I find that I make connections that I might have missed if I was working my way more slowly from chapter to chapter.

As usual, I’m wrestling with the agony of what to leave out. I’ve always felt that the clearest difference between an antiquarian and a good historian lies in their ability to stick to the wider perspective without getting sidetracked by fascinating trivia.

Biography gives the writer a little more leeway: odd facts can illuminate a personality, and they add colour and movement to a life. But odd facts can be a distraction, a sequence of one-damn-thing-after-another anecdotes, and they have the potential to distort the narrative if it relies entirely on the accident of what documentary evidence remains. Trivial facts need to be odd, as in occasional, not just odd.

So what do I do about the Egyptian mummy? Sadly, I think it belongs in the Kill Your Darlings file – but I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

In 1820, Walter Stevenson Davidson (the subject of my biography, if you are coming late to the party) went home to Britain on leave from his business selling opium in China. He took the ‘overland route’, the fast route favoured by travellers without the patience to sail from India right around the Cape of Good Hope. They took one ship to the Red Sea, then travelled overland, usually to Alexandria, where they took a second ship for the rest of the journey.

The overland route was a well-organized and well-beaten track, and groups of travellers usually went overland in convoy, with plenty of local servants to deal with their voluminous luggage. This route brought a lot of English and Scots into contact with Egypt for the first time – generating a demand for souvenirs on a grand scale.

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy

In A.B.Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies (1825)

Walter Davidson travelled with a friend, Thomas Coats, and in February 1820 they visited Thebes, where they each bought a mummy – as you do.

He purchased a mummy from the excavations near Thebes, at Gournon, in February, 1820, selected out of a dozen which he opened, as the best preserved. It proved to be that of a male. It was quite dry; the hair and teeth were most perfect, the former being very long, in great profusion, and smoothly combed down. The body contained only a large quantity of gum, and there was no flesh, or very little of it, on the bones. Every part was brittle. It was enveloped in cotton bandages to a great extent, and was contained within two cases. [Granville, pp.24-5]

Now, what on earth do I do with this story? It is in no way central to Walter’s life, and would interrupt my account of the events that brought him back to Scotland just then to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death. It would probably give a modern reader the wrong idea anyway: what is he doing wasting time sightseeing in Thebes when he should be hurrying back to look after the family?

Time is a relative concept, of course, but it would take a long exegesis to explain that in 1820, even travellers in a hurry had lots of time on their hands, hanging around waiting for porters or resting their animals – camels? mules? Both human and animal beasts of burden were important, because these travellers did not travel light. I understand why they couldn’t fit everything into a 20kg. suitcase, but how on earth do you get a couple of mummies home?

Thomas Coats later married Walter’s sister – I’ve mentioned this here – and gave his mummy to the Literary Society of his home town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. I’ve no idea what happened to Walter’s mummy. It is hard to imagine it gracing his living room, but who knows?

I’d love to include the story of Walter’s Egyptian mummy in my book, but I’ve no idea where to slot it in. It has no wider significance – unless I can, perhaps, use it to illustrate the commodification of human beings that was part of the 19th century imperial project. That’s a bit tortuous really – but it is a great story.

Note: Thanks to Simon Peers for first alerting me to the story of WSD’s mummy.
A.B. Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies; with Observations on the Art of Embalming among the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1825), is available on Google Books here.
Granville is another of my Dead Darlings – I’ve written about him here.

Alfred Elliott: The View from Here

It’s a long time ago now, but when I was a very little girl my grandmother had a big box of magic lantern slides. She also had a set of stereoscopic photographs, together with their viewer. You could slide the twin photos, showing not quite the same scene, into their holder, then by looking through a pair of lenses, the photos merged into a single image that produced a 3D effect – as well as a headache and a weird feeling that the photo was dragging your eyes out of alignment.

Image of 1890 flood in Brisbane

Stereoscopic image of Mary Street, Brisbane, during the 1890 flood, from Queensland State Library collection

I hasten to say that they were old even then, probably dating from before the First World War – though it’s also true that I haven’t been a little girl for quite some time. Some of them showed unknown people, no doubt forgotten family members, while others were landscapes and cityscapes from around Brisbane and Moreton Bay. My grandmother’s aunt, Ada Driver, was one of the first women photographers in Brisbane, so I guess a lot of them were her work. Sadly, most of those photographs have since disappeared, though I know I gave one box of glass slides to the State Library of Queensland many years ago.

The Museum of Brisbane currently has an exhibition, The View from Herefeaturing the photographs of a talented amateur Brisbane photographer, Alfred Elliott. Alfred’s photographs seem to have gone through some of the same stages of loss and forgetting as great-aunt Ada’s, but with a happier ending.

In 1983, a number of cedar cigar cases were discovered under a house in Red Hill, Brisbane. They held nearly 300 glass plate negatives dating from 1890 to 1921, as well as the tailboard camera that produced them. They went into the Brisbane City Council collection, but they were apparently only partially catalogued, because when preparations were underway for this exhibition, the curator, Phil Manning, found a further secret stash in one of the boxes. These were photographs and negatives that Alfred Elliott had made using film, rather than the old glass slides. These photos take Elliott’s record of Brisbane up to 1940.

Alfred Elliott, glass negative

Alfred Elliott, Day-trippers at Seventeen Miles Rocks, from The View from Here

The photos are lovely – and very evocative. Elliott was 26 when he began photographing in 1890, and by then the glass plate negative technique was well developed. It was possible – if still hard work – to carry around the equipment he needed on train and ferry trips around Moreton Bay and beyond, to Tweed Heads, Bribie Island and the Glasshouse Mountains.

Glass negatives are made by spreading silver bromide in gelatin on a thin glass plate. Most people made their own, and the skill of the operator lay in spreading the goo in a thin, smooth layer, so that the exposure was even. By the 1890s, short exposures made informal photos possible, so he has shots of people moving, chatting, playing – not just sitting formally. One fascinating photograph shows a large number of people milling outside the South Brisbane polling booth in September 1899, waiting to vote on the federal referendum. Only men could vote, but the photograph shows that everyone – men, women and children – turned up to participate in this public event, and that they marked the seriousness of the occasion by dressing smartly, the men almost all wearing suits and hats.

Unlike digital photographs, which break up into a blur of pixels when blown up too far, these glass negatives can be magnified to an extraordinary extent. The exhibition shows examples of tiny details – in a family shot of Alfred Elliott’s future wife and in-laws, the year before his marriage, intense magnification shows that Ellen Elizabeth was already wearing his engagement ring.

In 1895, Alfred Elliott took his equipment to the top of the convict-built windmill on Wickham Terrace, otherwise known as the Observatory, and took a series of 11 photographs from this high point. In the exhibition this set of photos have been grafted together to form a sweeping vista of Brisbane.

In 1926 Alfred and his wife bought a car, and with his new film camera, he headed further afield, recording landscapes, beaches – and some seriously terrible roads. He also recorded Brisbane as it grew in the interwar years, until sadly the photos stop in 1940 – just before Brisbane became a garrison town for the Australian and American armies during the Second World War.

Did he die then? Or become too old to pursue his hobby? There is frustratingly little information available about him, although it’s clear that the curator has hunted out what little is available. There are just a few hints: there are photographs of him with his wife, son and daughter, outside his house in Stanley Terrace, Taringa – and I like that he called his house ‘Tibrogargan’ after one of the Glass House Mountains, a favourite bushwalking area. Unfortunately, inoffensive and law-abiding citizens tend to leave very little record.

At least his photographs have survived, even if they were lost for over 40 years. The exhibition is free, and continues until 30 August 2015. It is well worth a visit.

The Hangman’s Rope

Here in Australia, we are a bit preoccupied with capital punishment at the moment. Two Australian drug traffickers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are facing imminent death by firing squad in Indonesia. There has been a good deal of moral outrage about their fate, which is understandable since it is nearly 50 years since the last execution took place in Australia.

In February 1967 Ronald Ryan was hanged in Melbourne after he was found guilty of killing a prison officer during a botched escape attempt. This was the first hanging in Victoria since 1951, and it was controversial. There were some doubts about whether Ryan had fired the fatal shot, and Premier Henry Bolte seemed much too eager to make political capital out of the affair. Bolts made much of his resolute stand against ‘do-gooders’, a coalition of opponents of the death penalty that included The Age newspaper, the churches, academics and students and most of the legal profession.

Vigil for Ronald Ryan

Unionists at a vigil for Ronald Ryan

There are some intriguing similarities between Henry Bolte and the Indonesian President Joko Widodo, both of whom decided to revive the use of capital punishment after a long period when it was in abeyance. Law and order always plays well to the local electorate, and Bolte surfed a populist wave by hanging tough. He did well at the next election, and no doubt the Indonesian President also hopes for a similar bounce in the polls by executing foreigners who have been on death row for a decade under his ‘softer’ predecessors.

Victorians in the 1960s were divided over capital punishment, and there were many, perhaps a majority, who liked Bolte’s obduracy on the issue. Scratch many voters today and things probably haven’t changed all that much since Ryan died. We seem to have reached a point where the public doesn’t like judicial killings, especially when foreigners kill Australians, but some at least of that same public are ready to form an extra-judicial lynch mob, especially when egged on by a feral media against the most loathed categories of offenders, such as pedophiles.

Once, though, capital punishment was almost universally accepted in Australia. When British colonists arrived in 1788, they brought with them a ferociously bloody rule of law – the Bloody Code – that used the death penalty to punish a wide range of offences, including such arcane crimes as setting fire to haystacks and destroying fish ponds (both acts of rural rebellion against the gentry) as well as for theft of goods worth more than a shilling. Many of the convicts who arrived in the early days had received death sentences that were commuted to transportation.

In the early days of the convict colony, men and women were hanged for murder, but also for stealing food – whereas the colony’s first pedophile, Henry Wright, was treated much more leniently – I wrote about him here. Food was in short supply in 1789, so the authorities thought the only way to stop people stealing was to put the fear of death into them. Death was the ultimate deterrent in a society without a police force or strong locks on the doors. Whereas David Collins, the deputy judge advocate who dealt with Wright decided there was no need to execute a man who raped little girls, because he didn’t think this was a crime that would recur, and so there was no need to use punishment as a deterrent.

Punishment as a deterrent is often the last refuge of a judicial system where the chance of being caught is very low. In 18th century England the chance of catching any individual criminal was low – so authorities ramped up the punishment accordingly in the hope that ‘salutary terror’ would do what a non-existent police force failed to do. Maybe the Indonesians feel that way about drug smuggling, just as the Australian government uses cruelty as a deterrent against people smuggling, in the absence of any other way of stamping it out.

The Bloody Code was gradually modified in Britain and in Australia, often in parallel with improved policing. With the end of transportation, corporal punishment and hangings ceased to be public events, and were conducted more discreetly behind prison walls – though as late as 1855, the Aboriginal warrior Dundalli was publicly hanged in Queen St., Brisbane, because the authorities thought only a public execution would act as a deterrent to the non-literate Aboriginal population, who gathered to watch his death.

cartoon of the end of the death penalty in Queensland

Queensland abolishes the death penalty. From The Worker, 27 July 1922. Premier Theodore (ALP) ended capital punishment against the wishes of conservative forces, such as the businessman and socially conservative woman we see there. 

Generally, there was little public opposition to the idea of the death penalty in colonial Australia, and well into the 20th century. Queensland was the first state to get rid of capital punishment, in 1922, but most other states continued with it into the post-World War II era, like Victoria only wheeling it out occasionally for political purposes. Only very gradually have people come to see capital punishment as morally repugnant – and some call for its reintroduction, even now.

So let me introduce a forgotten campaigner against the death penalty. Joseph Phelps Robinson died of scarlet fever in 1848, aged 33, so it is not surprising that he has been forgotten, but in his day he fought a solitary battle to end capital punishment in New South Wales.

Robinson arrived in New South Wales in 1842, the partner of the much more flamboyant Benjamin Boyd in the Royal Bank of Australia. Robinson was a Quaker, one of very few resident in New South Wales at the time, and the Quakers were early and admirable opponents of the death penalty.

Robinson bought squatting runs across New South Wales, include Beaudesert Station southwest of Brisbane. In 1844 he was elected to the Legislative Council as a member for Port Phillip. In the Council he fought for his Quaker principles: he wanted each session to be opened with prayer, he supported a non-sectarian education system, and he supported various philanthropic causes, such as the Sydney Bethel Union and the Mechanics Institute.

Every year, when the budget for police and gaols was brought before the Legislative Council, Robinson moved a motion: ‘that the disgusting item for two executioners, and the equally disgusting charge for coffins, rope, &c, be struck out’ of the estimates.

Most years, he never found a seconder for his motion.

Note: Details on Joseph Phelps Robinson come from my book, Ben Boyd of Boydtown (1988, 1995).

Keep the red (and black and gold) flag flying

There’s a cat and mouse game going on in my suburb of Sandgate, and until recently, I didn’t even realize it.

Across the street from my house is a strip of bush land rising in front of a cliff face. The area is too narrow, and too low lying, to ever be built on, so it’s a refuge for wildlife. There are a few tall gum trees, scruffy undergrowth and a large clump of bamboo that may hint at a Chinese market garden once upon a time. It hosts our street parties, until the mosquitoes drive us home. Once a week a group of women do tai chi there in the mornings; a few years back, there was a regular game of boules on Sunday afternoon.

I’ve lived here for more than a decade, and ever since I moved here, I’ve occasionally seen an Aboriginal flag painted along this strip. Unlike graffiti that defaces buildings and screams ‘Look at me!’, these flags are always unobtrusive, painted on natural features such as trees or rocks. Just a gentle reminder, I feel, to me and you and the tai chi ladies, that people have lived in this place for a very long time. Continue reading