Monthly Archives: February 2011

Carnival: a moveable feast

Next Saturday, a small group of apparently rational men and women will gather in Sydney to pray for rain.  After the deluges of the last few months, most of the rest of eastern Australia will hope very much that God ignores them.

Next Saturday is Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, and the small gathering of Evangelical Christians praying that God will rain on the parade has become a traditional part of this celebration, just as much as the enthusiastic advertisements from tourist operators, all targeting the pink dollar.

The following Tuesday we come up to one of the Christian world’s most interesting festivals, variously known as Carnival, Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday.  This marks the last day before the beginning of the 40-day Lenten fast that continues up to Easter.   During this time, meat and dairy products were forbidden.  The word Carnival comes from either carne vale, meaning ‘farewell to meat’, or carnelevale, meaning ‘to leave/lift off meat’.  Mardi Gras – ‘fat Tuesday’ – reflected that this was the day to pig out on all the things that would be forbidden during Lent.

Like Christmas, the celebrations that mark the beginning of the Lenten fast have transmogrified into many and varied forms, and travelled far beyond Christian Europe.  Unlike Christmas, which is always on 25 December, Carnival is a moveable feast, because it is linked to the cycle of feasts and fasts associated with Easter.

Both Carnival and Mardi Gras reflect the reality of the northern agricultural year: this was a time to kill and eat the last of the livestock that had survived the long winter.  Yet another name, Pancake Tuesday, alerted housewives to use up remaining supplies of butter and eggs.  In reality, food supplies were growing so short by the end of February, for man and beast alike, that a 40-day fast was probably inevitable anyway.  The dairy cows were dry, the poultry had stopped laying, and people made do with fish and vegetables.

Before this time of privation began, however, came Carnival.  There is a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder entitled The Battle of Carnival and Lent (1559).

Breugel depicts all the celebrations, and the transgressions, that go with the carnival celebrations.  People are dancing, playing ball games, playing music, cooking and eating.  At the centre a duel is taking place between Carnival, fat, sanguine, straddling a keg of beer and wielding a spitted pig as a lance, and Lent, emaciated, melancholic, carrying a baker’s shovel in the joust.  You wouldn’t think that Lent could win – but he does, every time.

With the beginning of Lent, flesh was forbidden – and this might include flesh in its sexual meaning as well.  So the day before was the last day to pig out sexually as well: marriages could not take place during Lent, and transgressive sexual behaviour was very much a part of the Carnival spirit.  So was political satire, and the idea of ‘the world turned upside down’.

The term Shrove Tuesday reflects the other side of the Carnival spirit. The verb ‘to shrive’, or to be forgiven, has disappeared from our language except for the phrase ‘giving short shrift’, which refers to giving criminals only a limited time to make confession before execution. Shrovetide was a time when people went to confession, to be ‘shriven’ of their sins.

With the coming of the Reformation, the idea of Carnival gradually declined in northern Protestant Europe, but it flourished in the Catholic south.  The festival also spread geographically.  Today, Carnival is very widely celebrated, but perhaps the 4 most famous festivals occur on 4 continents: in Venice, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney.  The last 2 are in the southern hemisphere, so have moved from spring to autumn, and perhaps share some of the autumnal aspects of Halloween.  Sydney’s Mardi Gras is the only one that is overtly homosexual in tone, but transgressive sexuality in its wider sense is a feature of all Carnivals.

As for the purse-lipped disapproval of the Sydney prayer group, they also have a history.  From the time of the Grand Tour in the 18th century, northern Protestants looked on in startled amazement at what Italians and others got up to during Carnival:

Thanks to God, the Carnival is ended; I say, Thanks to God, because it was to me very tiresome, tho’ it lasted here … but a Week.  During all that time…all the Streets were full of Masquers, some on Foot, and some in open Chaises: The former say a thousand silly Things, and the latter throw Meslin [a grain – like throwing rice at weddings] in one another’s Eyes by Handfuls… [Baron de Pollnitz, Rome, 1731]

The end of the Carnival is frantic, bacchanalian; all the morn one makes parties in masque to the shops and coffee-houses, and all the evening to the operas and balls.  [Horace Walpole, Florence, 1740]

It sounds remarkably like Sydney next Saturday night.  Meanwhile, in Italy as in Sydney, the locals got on with their fun – and milked the tourists for whatever they could get.

Quotes are from Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999)

Their ghosts may be heard: the rise and fall of the Australian Labor Party

Labor has just produced a report on the state of the Australian Labor Party and the 2010 election.  These reports usually amount to a statement of the bleeding obvious, but one issue reflects a global trend, true for other countries, and other political parties: people just aren’t joining things these days. Why?

An American sociologist, Robert D. Putnam, studied this trend in America in Bowling Alone. He described how Americans were dropping out of all sorts of organisations – including bowling leagues, which is where the title comes from. He looked for various reasons for this, but although he tried very hard not to, a lot of his explanation came down to the changing roles of women: as women join the workforce, they drop out of voluntary organisations, and a household with two workers has to share the burden of childcare, so men are less likely to join community organisations outside the home.

But there are other reasons, too.  One is the physical size of cities.  Earlier this week, I spent 7 hours on a computer, 2½ hours sitting in congested traffic, and when I finally got home we ate takeaway (hamburgers and a bottle of red).  And I’m retired!  There is no way, in these circumstances, that I would follow this up by going out to sit in a public hall somewhere, on a stackable chair, listening to somebody reading the minutes of the last meeting, and buying tickets in a chook raffle.  And I wouldn’t risk the breathalyser, either.  So those who are prepared to turn up for these things can find the plums of office fall into their laps – whether as treasurer of the Parrot Appreciation Society, or as preselected candidate for public office.  Parrots or pollies, there’s a similarity there.

Political organisations seem to play a different social role these days, too.  John and Janette Howard met through the Young Liberals, which was once considered a good place for young people from the right side of the tracks to meet suitable partners.  No doubt the same is true of political couples on the other side of politics (but the same side of the tracks).  But the days when women were content with auxiliary roles, handing out how-to-vote cards, is long gone.  We say today, of someone who is incompetent, that s/he couldn’t even run a chook raffle – but how easy is it? How many do it these days? And if these days there is nobody to take around the meat tray at the RSL, then how does an organisation raise funds for stationery and the hire of the hall and all those small but necessary functions?

Next week, I’m one of a few historians from the University of Queensland who will be giving talks to high school students in Toowoomba, 100 kilometres from here.  The theme this year is ‘Conflict’.  Australia is a bit lacking when it comes to conflict.  My colleagues will talk about sexy topics like Nazis and Cathar heretics (doubly sexy thanks to Dan Brown), but the options in Australian history are less obvious.  Years ago, I had a student who told me he wasn’t going on with Australian history because ‘there wasn’t enough blood in it’.  I hope he was happy with Russian history instead.

In fact there is plenty of blood in Australian history, but it is too often anonymous blood.  We know the names of the men hanged for the Myall Creek Massacre in 1838, but not the names or life stories of the Aboriginal men, women and children they slaughtered as they slept in their camp by the creek.  Often we know nothing about the people on either side in the race wars of the 19th century.

Hence my decision, for pedagogic rather than political reasons, to talk about another sort of conflict, the class war of the Shearers Strikes of the 1890s, one of the key moments in the labour movement, and part of the foundation myth of the Australian Labor Party, a conflict with identifiable heroes and villains.  The trouble is, it’s mostly mythology.

The story of the strikes is fairly straightforward.  There was a long economic boom in the 1880s.  Shearers haggled for improved wages and conditions, and threatened to walk off if the graziers brought in non-union labour, or employed any Chinese workers.  Then in the 1890s conditions changed.  There was drought, falling wool prices, and tighter organisation amongst employers.  The Australian Workers Union confronted the United Graziers Association in a series of strikes – and lost.

There was violence on both sides.  Unionists were accused of destroying Chinese market gardens, burning woolsheds, and of several unproven murders of ‘scab’ labour.  There was even a threat of environmental terrorism, 19th century style, with rumours that someone planned to import 100 pairs of rabbits into western Queensland, where there were as yet no rabbits.

On the other side, the Queensland government supported the graziers and sent soldiers with machine guns to defend their non-union workers.  By the end of 1894, the ringleaders were in gaol, some of the most radical agitators had left Australia to form a workers paradise in Paraguay, and the remaining moderates turned away from industrial action to politics.  One of those moderates, T.J. (Tommy) Ryan, later became Premier of Queensland.  And Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda.

Thus – according to the legend – the ALP was born, under a ghost gum known as the Tree of Knowledge in the western town of Barcaldine where the unionists met.  The reality is much more chaotic and complicated – it always is – but it makes a good story.  Today the ALP seems to retain only the ghost of that old passionate class war – and a good thing too, I would argue.  The old ALP was racist, sexist and violent, and contained its fair share of villains along with the heroes.  But something has been lost, too.

The ALP has always thrived on myths.  But how will Toowoomba schoolkids respond today?  Union membership is in freefall, and the idea of Class War seems as archaic to them as the Cold War.  Joining organisations – whether unions, political parties or an orchid society – seem just too hard, especially for teenagers who are juggling study with casual jobs and surging hormones.

Meanwhile the story of the Tree of Knowledge ends with a moment of drama.  In 2006 somebody killed the tree, boring holes in it and filling them with a herbicide.  For someone, at least, the birth of the Australian Labor Party still arouses passion.  It takes real passion to take out your hatred on a tree.

Update: Shearing the Rams

I should add something about the illustration, another example of myth-making at work.  Tom Roberts painted Shearing the Rams at Brocklesby Station, near Corowa on the Murray River, in 1890.  Mechanised shearing machines had reached the shearing shed by 1885, but Roberts shows the men shearing by hand, because he thought this made a more heroic image of labour.  At that time only the rams were hand shorn.  They were more valuable, and the slower hand shears meant the men could take more care around the dangly bits.  So Roberts chose a title that adjusted the reality of the shearing shed to match his painting.

He adjusted reality in another way too.  The young boy on the extreme left, holding a shorn fleece, was originally a girl, the daughter of Brocklesby Station’s owner.  Roberts may had hoped to sell him the painting, and his daughter’s presence would help sell it.  But that didn’t happen, so he repainted the figure as a youth.  If you look closely, you can just make out the edge of her long skirt to the right hand side of his legs.

So there you have it.  This is one of the most famous Australian images – and everyone in it, even the sheep, are male.

Elizabeth Huf, ‘Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891′ in Queensland Historical Atlas

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

Stuart Svensen, The Shearers’ War: the story of the 1891 shearers’ strike (1989)

A Golden Goose Egg: mining the resources boom

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has called our resources boom ‘the equivalent of the gold rushes’.  So – is it?  And is her comparison a good argument for putting profits of the current boom into national infrastructure, just like in the 1850s?

Cards on the table: personally, I’m all in favour of the super profits tax – especially when both BHP-Billiton and Rio Tinto announced last week just how super their profits are at the moment.  (And despite the fact that my superannuation probably gains from those profits, too)

But I want to look at Julia Gillard’s comparison between the 1850s and now.  How valid is it?  What differences are there between the 2 periods?  And does this have any bearing whatsoever on what political decisions are made today?

There is one obvious difference.  Today we have a federal system, and tax rates decided in Canberra apply across Australia (though state mining royalties are another matter).  In the 1850s, the states were independent colonies, dealing directly with Britain rather than each other, and the different governments raised money in different ways.

Gold was first discovered in Bathurst, NSW, in 1851, by Edward Hargraves, who had just returned from the Californian goldfields.  Or that’s the official story.  In fact, there were a number of earlier discoveries.  In 1844, an amateur geologist, the Rev. William Clarke, showed a gold sample to Governor Gipps, who is said to have replied: ‘Put it away, Mr. Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.’

Gold and convicts were not a good mix, and even after transportation ended, gold was not seen as an unalloyed good. (no pun intended)   So to begin with, the authorities expected a resources boom to lead to disorder or worse.

But Hargraves deliberately publicised his find.  On 2 May the Sydney Morning Herald gave his announcement second billing, after a story about the Van Diemen’s Land Electoral Bill, but by the following Monday, it was big news.  Soon much larger gold fields were discovered in Victoria, and the authorities had to find some way of handling it – and making some money from it.

Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, put it best:

‘The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing.’

That’s not easy, and no easier 160 years ago.  Most people worked for cash.  They had no idea of their annual income, and were not literate enough to fill in an income tax form.  (I’m still not)  So income tax was out.  Most firms were private partnerships, so company tax was out.  That left import duties, charges on government procedures such as stamp duties on land or share trading, excise tax on a few drugs (tobacco, alcohol, opium), and the occasional populist levy, such as a £10 head tax on Chinese diggers.  Virtually all these taxes were regressive, disproportionately hitting the poor.

It was the imposition of one more such capricious levy – a miner’s licence, set at 30 shillings a month – that triggered rebellion on the Ballarat gold fields, the Eureka Stockade.

(There were other causes, including claims of corruption in the Victorian police force – some things never change.)  Eventually, after nearly 30 deaths of rebels and police, the government compromised, and replaced the unpopular licence on individual miners with a lower tax, named by the spin doctors a ‘miner’s right’ because it gave them the right to vote, and by a tax on gold exports – essentially a super profits tax on gold production.

It is not surprising that Julia Gillard, who lives in Melbourne, should draw a link with the gold rushes, because the impact of gold was greatest there.  Anyone walking around Melbourne or Ballarat can see that impact, in the high Victorian architecture, the railway network, and public philanthropic projects such as the University of Melbourne and the State Library.

It was a very good resources boom for Victoria, and to a lesser extent for New South Wales.  But like our current one, it was uneven: Western Australia, South Australia and particularly Tasmania, lost population – and therefore income – to Victoria.  Then, as now, resources created a 2-speed economy, but with separate colonies, there was no thought of wealth redistribution.  Instead there was a mad competitive scramble between the colonies for ‘men, money, markets’.

Julia Gillard is right: the gold rush was a resources boom.  In its wake, it brought stock market speculation, inflated house prices, class conflict, racial tension over immigration, and Australia’s most successful tax revolt – as well as a lot of McMansions, and a useful, if flawed, National Railway Network.

So far, this time around, nobody has been killed.

Geoffrey Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (1964 and later editions) – desperately out of date but a classic and readable text


Milk is the ultimate motherhood statement

Australia is in the middle of a milk war.  Our 2 major supermarket chains have dropped the price of milk to a dollar a litre – less than the price of a litre of bottled water or petrol.  We consumers are faced with a dilemma: reaping the benefit of cheap prices, but with a nagging fear that, in the long run, this can’t last, and can’t be good for dairy farmers, let alone for dairy cows.

In Australia, milk is a staple, but humans (and domestic dogs and cats) are the only mammals to drink milk into adulthood, and not everyone in the world consumes dairy products.  Milk contains lactose, a sugar, and most of the world is lactose intolerant.

Rates of intolerance are lowest in Western Europe (and in societies of European immigrants such as Australia and the Americas), moderate in Africa, and highest in Asia.  (Interestingly, adult Asian cats are also lactose intolerant, but European cats are not.)  Lactose intolerant people can often eat yogurt, which is a common product in the Middle East and Southern Europe, where levels of lactose intolerance are higher.

It makes sense in a nomadic society to milk your animals – cows, sheep, goats, camels or horses – because they can feed you without being killed!  Bleeding animals, as the Masai do – and Scottish crofters did – is another more dramatic way of benefitting from your livestock while keeping them alive.  The key is not to be greedy, not to bleed the animals to the point where they are too weakened to survive.

Which brings us back rather nicely to the big supermarket chains and their relationship with dairy farmers.

Dairy farming has always been hard work.  In peasant Europe, milking the cows (or goats or sheep) was traditionally women’s work, and if the products – butter, cheeses, cream – were sold at the local market, the women benefited.  (The pigs benefited too, from the whey.)  Since women brought the only money into a subsistence household, they decided how that money was spent.

But only the hardest cheeses can travel any distance without deteriorating.  In the 18th century, a small herd of cows in Green Park supplied milk to wealthy Londoners, but commercial dairying, especially bulk milk supplies, had to wait for the development of longer, faster transport routes to reach the larger markets.  Normandy was already sending butter and cheeses to Paris along the Seine by the early 19th century, but usually it took canals and railways for specialised dairying areas to develop.  As dairying became commercial, men took over its management, if not the workload.

Dairying is not just hard; the hours are implacable.  Cows without calves must be milked, twice a day, or they will go dry.  We expect milk on the table every day of the year, but nature has seasons that only the cheese makers remember: milk has most butterfat in the spring, when there are new born calves to feed.

In Australia, raising livestock was easier than in Europe, because the climate is warm enough for the animals to live in the fields all year around.  But dairying remained a hard job.  In 1915, the government published a booklet encouraging British immigrants to the dairy industry.  It noted euphemistically that

‘The farmer with children old enough to assist him is at a great advantage, and some of the most successful dairy farms in the Commonwealth are worked mainly by the owners and their families.  But where the herd is too large, or the family too small, the milking machine… has been pressed into use, with satisfactory results.’

The reality was that dairy farmers could only make a living by using their children as cheap labour – and the larger the family, the better.

Milking cows is a very intimate affair, and not surprisingly, diseases cross in both directions.  In the 1790s, Edward Jenner noticed that dairymaids were noted for their beauty.  No doubt this was partly because they were relatively well fed, with all that milk around, but they were also free of smallpox scars because cowpox had given them immunity to the more dangerous disease.

In the 1950s, the Australian government (and no doubt others) tested all school children for tuberculosis.  Many of my friends from dairying areas tested positive, because they had been infected with brucellosis, the bovine equivalent.  They may also have had Q-fever, a disease that concentrates in the placentas of old cows, and was common amongst abattoir workers.

Mechanisation has changed dairying enormously, though nothing can change the tyranny of the milking timetable.   And milk is now safe, with pasteurisation and tuberculosis testing.  In one of her cookbooks, Elizabeth David recalled how dangerous raw milk seemed, even in the 1930s.  Today, the greater danger is not to consumers, but to producers.  And to the calves, of course.

Australia: The Dairy Country (1915)

Lactose Intolerance, in The Cambridge World History of Food

Matthias Schulz, ‘How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe‘ in Der Spiegel, 15 October 2010, for an interesting but contentious new theory on lactose intolerance in the neolithic era.

Whalers in the Pacific

Maritime archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a whaling ship on a reef near the French Frigate Shoals, nearly 600 miles northwest of Honolulu.  And not just any ship either.

The captain of the Two Brothers was George Pollard Jr, the Nantucket captain who had lost his previous ship, the Essex, in dramatic circumstances, when it sank after it was rammed by a sperm whale, while most of the crew were in small whaleboats, away from the mother ship.  Pollard and the cabin boy were eventually rescued, but by then they had resorted to cannibalism.

The Sydney Gazette reported the details:

‘They had been 90 days at sea before they were fallen in with [by the Hope, which rescued them], and had experienced the most dreadful of all human vicissitudes; from the extremity of hunger they had been reduced to the painful necessity of killing and devouring each other, in order to sustain a wretched life, that was hourly expected to be terminated.  Eight times had lots been drawn, and eight human beings had been sacrificed to afford sustenance to those that remained; and, on the day the ship encountered them, the Captain and the boy had also drawn lots, and it had been thus determined that the poor boy should die!  Providentially, a ship hove in sight and took them in, and they were restored to existence.’

Cannibalism in these extreme circumstances was known as ‘the custom of the sea’.  Not surprisingly, it aroused fascination (it still does!), but was hedged about by certain conventions. Whatever the hierarchy within the crew, everyone, from captain to cabin boy, went in the draw. Drawing lots was morally important; it wasn’t done to pick on the weakest member of the crew.

Surprisingly, given this background, George Pollard went back to sea in another whaler, Two Brothers, the ship that has just been discovered where it was wrecked, 3 years later, in 1823.

Colonial Australia was a maritime nation, and our first contacts with America were based on common seafaring enterprises, in particular the whaling industry.  In America, the industry was based in a few New England ports, especially Nantucket.  These whalers were often reluctant revolutionaries, since they lost their markets, and their contacts with the big British whaling firms.  A few, such as the famous Ebor Bunker, even relocated to the new British colony of New South Wales.

Herman Melville recognised the Australian connection, when he wrote in Moby Dick in 1851:

‘That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman.  After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale ship touched there.  The whale ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony.’

As Melville knew, American ships rounding the Horn into the Pacific in pursuit of whales often stopped off in the ports of Sydney and Hobart. In June 1805, for instance, The Brothers from Nantucket arrived in Sydney, heading for the southern fishery.  They sailed south to fish during the short summer months, and were back in Sydney by April 1806.  (Was The Brothers related in some way to Two Brothers?  I don’t know – I’ve also found other American ships named Three Brothers and The Sisters visiting Sydney during these decades.)

The whalers were away from their home ports for years on end, so they often sailed into the Pacific with a skeleton crew, picking up replacements in Sydney and Hobart (including convicts, which could get them into trouble with the authorities).  And American sailors deserted in these ports too.

Like all hunters, the whalers followed the migration patterns of their prey. There are northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks and right whales, which rarely overlap.  They spend the summer months near the north or south poles where they fatten on krill, then travel south or north towards the equator to breeding grounds to calve and mate.   This is when they are at their most vulnerable – but also when their stores of blubber have been depleted.  The trick for the whalers was to find the breeding grounds just as the whales arrived, still plump from their summer feed.  One such place is north of Hawaii, where Two Brothers was wrecked.

Alternatively they could try their luck for the greater prize, the sperm whale.  Whale oil from the baleen whales (filter feeders) was used for general purposes, such as street lighting – but was too smelly to be burnt indoors.  Baleen, the sheets of cartilage they use to filter food, was also valuable – it is the ‘whalebone’ of corsets, for instance, and was used where we would use plastics today.

Spermaceti oil, from sperm whales, was much more valuable.  It made the best quality candles (one candle watt equals the light of one spermaceti candle), and it lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution.  Jet engines were still using spermaceti oil in the 1950s.  Sperm whales are carnivores, more intelligent, and much more dangerous, to whalers or giant squid alike.

Moby Dick was a sperm whale.  The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s novel, as well as a recent non-fiction best seller, In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The Sydney Gazette reported on that fierce tussle between whale and whalers:

And so on.  These days, for most of us, our sympathies lie with the whale, not the whaler.  But it was a cruel trade for both.


BBC News report

Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade: the saga of south seas whaling (1999) – great title, great book!

Sydney Gazette, 9 June 1821 extracts from the National Library of Australia’s site Trove: Digitised newspapers and more

Kookaburras: the sounds of Australia

The kookaburras woke me again this morning before 3:30.  The numbers seem to be on the rise at the moment, maybe after the floods brought more food.  A new group has moved in across the road, and their braying laugh is usually a happy sound.  But at 3am?

According to a friend of mine who is a Catholic priest, the Aborigines say that kookaburras take away the souls of the dead.  Chris has attended many deathbeds, and he says kookaburras give him the creeps because they cry out, just as the person dies.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence of timing, for many people die in the hours before dawn.

Early settlers in Australia found the sound of kookaburras equally arresting, though they gradually grew fond of the birds they called ‘laughing jackasses’.

Gogaga is [the Aboriginal] name of the bird we call the Laughing Jackass,’ wrote a letter writer in the Sydney Monitor in 1829, ‘and Gogaga repeated quick is part of the chuckling notes, which distinguish that ludicrous forester.’

The distribution of birds and other wildlife in Australia has changed a lot in the last two hundred years, and not just because European settlement endangered so many species.  There were beneficiaries too, like the kookaburra.  The birds hunt for lizards and snakes in open country, so as the settlers moved inland, the kookaburra followed, benefitting from the land clearing that threatened other wildlife.

In a typically lush passage in the first chapter of The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes paints a vision of Sydney Harbour, with sulphur crested cockatoos flying overhead.  Critics later quibbled with this, pointing out that the distribution of cockatoos has changed with the conversion of grass lands to grain, and the birds probably didn’t live in Sydney in 1788.  But who knows?  An absence from the records doesn’t constitute proof.  In any case, wherever the colonists first encountered them, their harsh cry must have added to the strangeness of the new landscape.

The strange sounds haunted them. In this antipodean world, swans were black not white, and trees shed their bark rather than their leaves. The naturalist George Caley named the Southern Boobook owl a night cuckoo, because its call was similar, and because to him it made perfect sense to find here a nocturnal cuckoo, the exact opposite of its counterpart in the northern hemisphere.

Early settlers reacted to this new landscape by trying to impose familiarity on the unfamiliar through naming strategies – native bear (koala), duck mole (platypus), laughing jackass – most of which have since disappeared. Today the sound of the kookaburra is much more familiar than the sound of a braying donkey, so the analogy has been lost.

A more fateful attempt to impose the familiar on the unfamiliar came with the importation of European wildlife.  Rabbits are our most famous imports, but foxes, deer, carp and trout were all brought in for ‘sport’, and from the 1860s, the process because officially sanctioned with the establishment of acclimatization societies.

These societies set out to bring in animals and plants from other parts of the world and to ‘acclimatize’ them to Australian conditions.  Nobody knew about genetics at the time; the assumption was that animals and plants would gradually adapt to a new environment.  The societies were most interested in finding commercial products, such as sugar and cotton and alpacas (I kid you not!).

As well, though, especially in Victoria, the richest colony, there were importations that served no commercial purpose, and were brought in for purely sentimental reasons.  In particular, colonists missed the songbirds of their homelands.  Hundreds, probably thousands, of sparrows, thrushes, starlings and others came out.  Most died during the long voyage out, but those that survived were released into a land without their natural predators, and the populations exploded.

(Mind you, Australia got its own back with the budgerigar, which is now the world’s most popular pet bird.)

Environmentalists are naturally critical of the acclimatization movement, which brought so many feral birds to Australia.  And yet.  We know how long it took settlers to adapt to the Australian landscape, and how they shaped the landscape to conform to European aesthetics.  But the desire for a familiar soundscape must have been every bit as understandable, though comprehending that longing takes a greater leap of imagination on our part.

Only later, as Australian sounds became familiar, did we begin to appreciate our own songbirds, and our own dawn chorus.  Though not at 3am.

Birds in Backyards: Top 40 bird songs

White collar work: doing the laundry

The northern Italian city of Genoa has announced a plan to ban hanging washing out of the windows of the streets of the old town.  How daft is this?  To me, those strings of washing hanging across the narrow streets are one of the most iconic images of Italy, a  delight to paint – and an environmentally sensible way of drying clothing.  La Stampa is equally outraged:

Of course dirty laundry should be washed inside. But clean and fresh smelling laundry hanging on the balcony or in the windows should at least be accepted as part of the Italian landscape, if not even as immaterial world heritage. The historical city centres are being dissolved, real estate speculation has turned them into luxury residencies, pied-à-terres, offices, studios and ateliers. The poorer segments of the population have been driven out. And all they can worry about is the washing? The air is more polluted than ever, bronchitis, asthma, allergies being the least of the consequences, and traffic is on the rampage. But the mayor is worrying about underwear flapping in the wind and about bikes leaning against the facades of the houses.

It’s time to think seriously about the laundry, to stop hiding our dirty linen, and to let it all hang out.  Washing clothes and household linen is one of the most basic activities, yet because it is almost invariably women’s work, it is seldom recognized for the hard work it is (or at least was) and for its importance, not just to our comfort, but to our health.  Because it usually occurs within the household, it is not counted in national statistics, yet the history of washing says a great deal about the development of class and status: without white collars, there would be no white collar workers.

Throughout human history, most washing has been done on the riverbank, preferably somewhere where the clothes can be beaten against rocks.  Agitation is enough to clean most clothing, even in cold river water, but soap helps.  Anyone who has gone camping knows the basic recipe: throw ashes from the cooking fire into the greasy pan and the combination of potash and fat produces a primitive soap.  Add sand for abrasion.  When I was a child, our elderly neighbour still made her own soap from lamb fat and caustic soda, a cheap option in 1960s Australia, when many people lived on a steady diet of grilled lamb chops.

With the development of cities, the old idea of the river washing place underwent innovations.  At Cefalù in northern Sicily, there is a washing place – il lavatoio – of stunning beauty that possibly dates from Arabic times.  Just off a medieval street is an enclosed area where stone steps go down to the original stream, beside which are basins cut into the stone where the women must have knelt, each with an angled stone in front of her on which to scrub the clothes.

In Cefalù – or Genoa – wet clothes dried in the sunshine.  In northern Europe, drying the washing during the winter months was much harder.  In early 20th century France, according to my friend’s mother-in-law, the women would pack away dirty clothing in a large hamper, sprinkling ash between each layer, before it was brought out for an enormous spring clean when the weather grew warm enough for washing.  It must have been a hamper like this, much bigger than our idea of a laundry basket, in which Falstaff hid in The Merry Wives of Windsor, before being thrown into the Thames with the dirty washing.

Hand washing clothes is pretty basic, and hasn’t changed much over time.  As the novelist Terry Pratchett says, washing was ‘women’s work, and therefore monotonous, backbreaking and social.’ But as society became more complex, the work was outsourced by those who could afford to do so, to domestic servants, to professional washerwomen or, in the cities, to commercial laundries.

Because the work is basic, and needs little communication between worker and client, laundries have become a refuge, or a prison, for vulnerable workers without language skills or industrial muscle. In early Australia, convict women did the washing, either working for individuals and families, or as residents of the various ‘female factories’ in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where many women lived between assignments.  Chinese laundries were common after the gold rush, both in the United States and Australia.  Convents ran laundries too, such as the Holy Cross Laundry in Brisbane, which the Sisters of Mercy started in 1888 to provide work for girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock.

Although commercial laundries were an expensive option for many people, without adequate space, water or heating, many had no choice but to pay a significant part of their income to get their clothes washed.  I’ve paid an arm and a leg myself occasionally because what else can you do when travelling, if you only have a few clothes with you, they don’t dry overnight, and you need to look good for some important event?

So it was, by the mid-19th century, for a governess or a clerk, people hanging on to middle class status by their fingertips, with few clothes, but a desperate need to look respectable.  Clean clothes, especially white shirts and blouses, had become a marker of status.  It is at about this time that the white wedding dress, the ultimate in pointless conspicuous consumption, began to make its appearance.

Meanwhile for the poor, the breakthrough came with the arrival of cheap cotton cloth during the industrial revolution.  Until the 19th century, the rich wore linen underwear, but linen is expensive.  For the poor, the choice was between coarse wool and nothing at all beneath their outer garments.  Woollen underwear provided warmth, but it was hard to wash and dry, and it harboured a lot of insect life.  Cotton could be washed more easily, and gradually the idea of wearing, and washing, clean undergarments took hold.  Skins became less itchy, people scratched less, and got fewer infections as a result.

The extent of this new cleanliness shouldn’t be exaggerated. Immigrants to Australia in the mid-19th century were told to bring enough clothing to provide for a change of clothes once a week.  I feel scratchy just thinking of it.  But even so, the impact of cotton underclothes had begun.  Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness – many saints have been quite conspicuously filthy – but within the last century, it has become an expectation in our lives.  And why shouldn’t underpants swing proudly free in the breezes of Genoa?  I’m sure Berlusconi would approve.

Old and interesting – history of laundry –

Female Factory Research Group

The Age of Anecdotage

During the last month I have been clearing out my office at work, the detritus of a working life.  I have lived and worked and occasionally slept in that office for the best part of a decade, and when I moved into it, I brought with me notes and books from previous offices (some were still taped in the boxes when I finally threw them out this week).

Tidying out an office is a bit like an archaeological dig, as you work your way down to bedrock through the strata of occupation.  A tin of sardines from my low-carb diet in, I think, 2003, the water bowl under the bookcase from when I used to bring my puppy in with me at the weekends (2004), the kitchen timer from my early experiments with the Pomodoro technique.

But the really interesting story is about how technology has transformed the processes of reading, writing and research since I began work in – gasp – 1970.  I have finally jettisoned most of the research notes from my PhD and books, and seeing these notes brought back the whole process of research as it once existed.

I can remember sitting at a microfilm reader in a darkened room with a portable typewriter balanced on my lap, reading the Sydney Morning Herald, jotting down brief summaries.  I was one of the fortunate, then almost entirely female minority, in the academic world who could touch type, a skill then taught only to the ‘commercial stream’ at school who left before matriculation to work in an office.  This unusual skill meant I avoided the worst of the headaches that were a normal part of the microfilm experience, caused by constantly shifting one’s gaze from the screen to the page and back again.  Very occasionally, because it was expensive, I would print out a page, which then had to dry before I cut it into columns, stuck it to a sheet of paper, and filed it.

Nowadays, of course, a researcher searches the appropriate database, and saves the data in searchable pdf files, perhaps linked to Endnote or a similar research management software package.  Card files exist only in virtual form; so does carbon paper (cc:); ‘scrolling’ through a document; ‘folders’ (which used to be manila) and ‘clip and paste’ (which I did with scissors and sticky tape).

Microfilm itself was an innovation of profound importance for someone like me, working in the 1970s.  Until the Second World War, the only way a historian could do research was to visit the necessary archives.  Travel was slow and expensive, and the Public Record Office in London was a 5 weeks’ sea voyage away, beyond the reach of most scholars of Australian colonial history, except for the blessed few who had tenure, and the luxury of a year’s sabbatical leave.  (These were, almost without exception, ageing males with non-working wives who could pack up and go too.)

Other scholars relied on several collections of published materials, the Historical Records of New South Wales (1901 onwards), and the Historical Records of Australia (1925 onwards), an initiative that ended with the depression, by which stages the HRA had reached the 1840s.  These collections, thoroughly indexed and annotated, and beautifully published, are still a wonderful, sadly underutilized resource, but they are based on government sources and reflect the biases of their time.  Here you have ‘the view from the government house verandah’.

After World War II, a consortium of libraries began a new initiative, the Australian Joint Copying Project, to microfilm material in the UK relating to Australia.  More government sources were copied, but the great innovation was finding and copying of papers in private hands.  For many years the former Mitchell librarian, Phyllis Mander-Jones was attached to Australia House, supervising this task.  In 1988, the Australian Historical Records Register began as a bicentenary project, to find and copy materials in private hands within Australia.

Manuscripts in private hands are vulnerable.  People die and their heirs don’t care.  Storage isn’t adequate, particularly when people are on the move.  Just this week, I heard that the papers of the Chermside Historical Society, a local society in a nearby suburb, were destroyed in the recent Brisbane floods.  So digitisation is a wonderful thing, making material accessible, searchable and safe from physical damage.

But I wonder what has been lost in this process.  In the late 1970s, when I sat in my dark broom cupboard in front of a microfilm reader, I don’t doubt that I missed a lot as I scrolled through the newspapers that a word search would find.  But I picked up a lot, too.  I was constantly distracted by other things – shipping reports, advertisements for servants or missing stock, theatre reviews.  I learned when the latest Dickens novel was serialised, and read the truly awful poetry of Henry Parkes.

You can still browse, but it’s no longer a requirement, as it was when I had to use my own eyes to search for the necessary character string (then known as a word).

There is another issue, too.  Not everything is digitised yet – nor perhaps ever will be.  Given the choice, researchers will read the most accessible sources.   But what about the other newspapers and manuscripts?  When the Brisbane Courier and the Boomerang were only available in hard copy, you chose the paper that best suited your topic, or read both.  Now, the Courier is searchable, but the Boomerang is not – and a vast store of material is ignored as a result.

Image courtesy of the incredibly addictive Wordle

Many Australian newspapers have been digitised and are available through the National Library of Australia

New Zealand newspapers are digitised at Papers Past

Chinese New Year – and the Cantonese speaking bushranger

Happy New Year!

Australia and China have had their ups and downs, but Australia’s relations with China go back a long way, to the beginning of white settlement.

The first ships to bring convicts to Botany Bay dropped their living cargoes in New South Wales, then headed north to Canton [Guangzhou] to buy tea.  Sydney became a port for both British and American ships in the China trade, and a trickle of Chinese began to settle here from the 1830s.  But the first big immigration came in the 1850s, during the gold rush.

One of my favourite pieces of trivial information is that one member of the Kelly Gang, Joe Byrne, spoke Cantonese.  Joe Byrne was born in 1857 at Woolshed, near Beechworth, in an area, the Ovens Goldfields, with a large population of Chinese gold diggers.  As a little boy, Joe must have played on the diggings, and with the ease of small children, he picked up the local Cantonese from his neighbours.

We don’t know how well he spoke the language.  Joe is usually seen as the intellectual of the gang, since he went to primary school up to grade 5, and acted as amanuensis for Ned Kelly, who was barely literate.  It is most unlikely that Joe could write any Chinese, for the diggers who taught him the language were mainly illiterate themselves.  Most came out indentured to labour recruiters back in China, and in the indenture contracts they signed, most sign with a cross or a ‘chop’.

There was a lot of hostility towards the Chinese on the Victorian goldfields, especially by the 1860s, when the gold was running out.  Other diggers resented their hard work, their success in reworking discarded tailings, and the fact that they sent their profits back to China (initially to pay off their recruiters), and because they were single men who left their families at home – and who might, therefore, be guilty of nameless sexual crimes.

The Kelly gang shared that resentment.  One of the first crimes they committed was to beat up a ‘Chinaman’ – and it says something about community standards that, of all the crimes they later committed, this is the one the police did not take very seriously.

Yet we still come back to that odd, evocative fact, that Joe Byrne spoke Cantonese.  To know a language is to know at least something of its culture.  And children, with their easy ability to pick up new languages, can often become a bridge between cultures.  (It was often children, like the young Tom Petrie, who first learned Aboriginal languages).

I think of those lonely men from Canton, cut off from friends and family, in debt to headmen at home, and slugged with a head tax to the Victorian government, reaching out (almost certainly innocently) to a little boy with a flair for languages, a symptom of normality in an alien and hostile environment.

And then the peer group pressure that saw Joe Byrne team up with those other Australian-born sons of Irishmen with a chip on their shoulder, to beat up Chinese and kill Irish-born policemen.

Despite its many travails, the Chinese community in Beechworth has survived, and is now a centre of scholarship on Chinese in Australia.

Not so Joe Byrne.  At the Kelly Gang’s last stand at Glenrowan, Joe was hit by a stray bullet which severed his femoral artery, and he bled to death.  He was 23.

Happy New Year – and long life!


John McQuilton, The Kelly Outbreak (1979)

Picture Australia, The Chinese-Australian experience

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

‘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 are, and how unlikely academics are to rise in open rebellion against these quasi-feudal institutions.  Pitchforks in the Senior Common Room?  I don’t think so.

So rather than look at Egypt, I want to look at the man who, more than any other scholar of the 20th century, defined the way we think about revolutions.

Crane Brinton was born in Connecticut in 1898.  He went to Harvard, then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, before returning to Harvard where he worked until his death in 1968.  He was an expert on the French Revolution, publishing works on the Jacobins and Tallyrand during the 1930s.

In 1938, he published his most famous work, The Anatomy of Revolution, in which he attempted to trace a general pattern that revolutions follow. Continue reading