Monthly Archives: April 2011


In July 1845, the Geelong Advertiser announced the ‘WONDERFUL DISCOVERY OF A NEW ANIMAL’.  Colonists had been hearing about bunyips from the Aborigines for nearly 30 years – the first account of a water monster seems to date from 1819, when the explorer Hamilton Hume found some bones at Lake Bathurst, but the Geelong discovery was the first to appear in print:

‘On the bone being shown to an intelligent black, he at once recognised it as belonging to the “Bunyip,” which he declared he had seen.  On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation.  … One declared that he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated that his mother was killed by one of them, at the Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon, at South Geelong.  The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal…

They say that the reason why no white man has ever yet seen it, is because it is amphibious, and does not come on land except on extremely hot days when it basks on the bank; but on the slightest noise or whisper they roll gently over into the water, scarcely creating a ripple…

The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and an alligator.  It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges, like the bone of a stingray.  Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator.  The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength.  The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death.  When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height…’

News spread quickly, with papers in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart all copying the story.  A year later, in 1846, the Australian Museum in Sydney displayed a skull found on the Murrumbidgee.  Eventually scientists decided that it was part of a deformed foal foetus, but for days people queued to see the ‘bunyip’ skull.

'So-called bunyip skull', The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, January 1847

In Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fossilised bones of unknown animals often turned up when canals were being dug, and later during railway construction. The puzzle was how to explain them.  Clearly animals no longer existed.  Whether they had evolved into new species, or been drowned in the Flood, was a matter of opinion, but most 19th century thinkers were less preoccupied with Biblical literalism than creationists are today.

There was a general feeling that anything was possible zoologically in Australia.  Joseph Banks marvelled at kangaroos, and the platypus caused a sensation when stuffed ones arrived in England.  In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Australia on the Beagle, and heard about a collection of fossils that had been discovered at the Wellington Caves by the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1831.  Mitchell took the bones back to London, where Richard Owen examined them at the Natural History Museum.  Using comparative anatomy, he described them as giant versions of the kangaroo (Thylacoleo) and wombat (Diprotodon).  Not surprisingly, Darwin was interested in the gradual evolution of the megafauna into their modern counterparts.

But where did the bunyip fit in?  Was it, too, an example of the megafauna of earlier times, or something else entirely?  There was no obvious reason to dismiss the bunyip as fantasy, when much of the country still remained unknown, and an ‘intelligent black’ had described them in such detail.

New reports of bunyips kept coming in.  In January 1847, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Aborigines reported ‘THE BUNYIP, or KINE PRATIE’ on the Hunter and the Murrumbidgee, still with a head like an emu, but now with a ‘long and flowing mane – feeding on crayfish… and occasionally on a stray blackfellow’, and another bunyip was seen in the Logan River near Brisbane in 1850.

Australia Post stamp, 1994

Meanwhile, bunyips entered popular culture.  ‘Bunyip’ was the name of a racehorse, then a newspaper, and eventually a town in Victoria.  No real bunyips turned up, alas, but by the early 1850s, the word was applied generally to describe something monstrous.

This was a time of rapid change.  The gold rushes brought in new wealth and new immigrants.  At the same time, the British government decided it was time for the colonies to govern themselves.  New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia already had Legislative Councils with some elected members.  Now they were to draw up constitutions, which would be ratified by the Parliament in Westminster.

The NSW Legislative Council was dominated by (relatively) old money, generally the sons of early settlers who had done well from early land grants.  They drafted a constitution modelled on the Westminster Parliament, with an upper house, like the House of Lords, based on a hereditary peerage.  And guess who these new colonial lords would be?

The public and press erupted.  On the gold fields, the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal described the rule of  ‘my Lord Buckjumper or the Marquis of Bunyip’ and the radical journalist Dan Deniehy gave a speech deriding the idea of a ‘bunyip aristocracy’ as something absurd and monstrous, and ridiculing the pretensions of the men who put up the idea.  James Macarthur, he suggested, would become the Earl of Camden, with a coat of arms emblazoned with a rum keg, while William Wentworth, like William the Conqueror, was really William the Bastard.

The idea of a hereditary peerage died of mockery, but the term stuck.  It was one of PM Paul Keating’s (many) terms of abuse, and in Keating: the Musical, he describes the opposition leader John Hewson as ‘Mr Mediocrity for the bunyip aristocracy’.

Bunyip sightings continued into the 20th century.  There have been various theories – a seal or a prehistoric turtle – or, perhaps, an Aboriginal joke on the settlers. The Aboriginal artist Lin Onus painted bunyips, and said:

‘It is not possible to grow up in any Koori community without knowing about Bunyips. I tend not to see them as the evil menacing creature that some non-Aboriginal literature suggests, but rather as slightly timid—preferring to keep out of humans’ way. Whilst generally rather shy, they are not averse to a good feed of human once in a while (I understand the ears are a particular delicacy) if someone is so foolish as to go swimming in dark or murky water or in the turbulent river holes where you may be dragged under and trapped.’ (5 March 1987) 

Definitely an Aboriginal joke, I think, as well as a useful way of keeping children from playing in dangerous waterholes.  Perhaps we should bring them back.

Bunyips Exhibition, National Library of Australia

The Chocolate Conscience

Last Wednesday I listened to a talk on the radio, urging people to buy only Fairtrade chocolates this Easter.  Given that Easter eggs have been littering my local supermarket since about a week after Christmas, it’s really too late to influence consumers at this stage, but it wouldn’t be Easter without a news story about Fairtrade chocolate – or, for that matter, the rise and rise of the Easter Bilby as a replacement for the Easter Bunny.

Most cocoa today is grown in West Africa, about 50 percent in the Ivory Coast, also in the news at present for all the wrong reasons.  Much of it is grown using child labour, often children who have been bought and sold as slaves.  It puts a new perspective on eating chocolate as part of an Easter celebration.

It is ironic, and very sad, that some chocolate today is produced using slave labour, because the rise of some of the great chocolate companies in the 19th century was closely linked to the anti-slavery movement.

Theobroma cacao (literally ‘food of the gods’) comes from Central America, where it played an important part in Aztec ritual.  Cacao beans were used as currency, a form of money that really did grow on the trees.  Making chocolate was hard work, and time consuming – and women’s work.  The beans had to be crushed, fermented, and eventually converted into a bitter brown liquid with a much-prized froth on top.  The Jesuit missionary, José de Acosta, described it:

‘Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that “chili”; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.’

Flavoured with flowers and herbs, and often stained red with annatto, the drink represented blood.  When the Spaniards arrived, they had their own stimulant and social lubricant, alcohol, which in the form of the red wine of the Eucharist also represented blood.  These two ritual drinks collided in odd ways.

The Catholic Church had problems with chocolate at first.  Because it was used in pagan ceremonies, should it be banned?  And as it became too popular to be banned, should it be treated as a feast food (like meat) and avoided during Lent and other fasting periods?  This is the link that led, eventually, to our connection between Easter and chocolate – though few now fast during the previous 40 days.

Three bitter brown drinks, tea, coffee, and chocolate, arrived in Europe at much the same time, in the early 17th century.  They were all too bitter for contemporary European tastes, so they were mixed with sugar.  Demand for sugar rose along with the taste for hot drinks, and this led to the growth of sugar plantations, first in the Atlantic, then in the West Indies, worked by African slaves.

Like cocoa production today, the sugar plantations were a long way from their consumers, so few people – then as now – thought very hard about the conditions in which their sugar was grown.  By the late 18th century though, an anti-slavery movement began.  In England a group of Quakers presented a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade in 1783.

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society 1795. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Which is where chocolate comes in.

Sugar cane is a grass, grown as an annual.  Planting and cutting the cane is hard work.  Then the cane is crushed, and the liquid boiled to syrup.  During the crushing season, the vats must be fed and tended 24 hours a day – and the workers who fed them were treated as part of this industrial process.

Cacao, on the other hand, is a perennial crop.  The trees are planted and tended; the beans are then picked and fermented, a complex process requiring brain rather than brawn.  In the West Indies, freed slaves produced most of the cocoa, working in family groups to produce a cash crop while also involved in subsistence agriculture.

Chocolate therefore seemed a better, more morally acceptable item of trade, and a number of Quaker families shifted away from sugar into chocolate production.  Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree are still important names in chocolates, and all of them were originally Quaker family firms.  Some were also connected to the temperance movement, and cocoa was seen as a particularly healthy and virtuous alternative to alcohol.  Ideally, this cocoa would been sweetened with non-slave sugar, the 19th century equivalent of Fairtrade, though frankly, this was not always the case.

Eventually most cocoa production moved from the West Indies to West Africa. Trees take 5 years or more to produce their first crop, so new plantings need capital.  The old system of freed slaves and their descendants planting a few trees to supplement their income gave way to commercial production methods, with all their problems.

Britain ended participation in the African slave trade in 1807, though it was only in 1833 that all slaves in British colonies were freed (with very generous compensation to the West Indian slave owners).  But slavery is a hard beast to kill.  In the early 20th century, Cadburys sourced most of its cacao beans from the Portuguese colony of São Tomé, where the beans were grown by slaves.

The debate that followed this discovery was very similar to the one today – is it better to boycott producers who use slaves, or to trade, in the hope that better economic conditions will help the workers?  One problem is that chocolate is, for most of us, a discretionary purchase.  Profits for the producers are low, and very erratic.  Speculators trade in cocoa futures – but the future of the people who grow the crop is less certain.

But  José de Acosta was right: chocolate is good for catarrh.  I’ve got a chronic cough, and a piece of dark chocolate works wonders.  The active ingredient, theobromine, is better than codeine a stopping a cough – and much more pleasant.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008)

Gillian Wagner, The Chocolate Conscience (1987)

World Vision: Demand Ethical Chocolate

Corsets and Centrefolds: 150 years of women’s magazines

ABC television has just been showing a drama, Paper Giants, about the birth of Cleo in 1972, in which a younger Ita Buttrose and a slimmer Kerry Packer develop a new, modern woman’s magazine with a – gasp! – naked male centrefold.  The moment, if you like, when women’s magazines began to go feral, and changed from publishing articles about 100 things to do with a pound of mince, and turned instead to test driving the best value in vibrators and an endless stream of celebrity gossip.  Ah, progress.

But before Kerry Packer, there was his father, Sir Frank Packer, and his woman’s magazine, the Australian Women’s Weekly, for many years the publication with the highest circulation in Australia, and the most profitable item in the Packer empire, Australian Consolidated Press.  The Australian Women’s Weekly has just been digitized by the National Library of Australia here, from 1933 to 1984, so it is now possible to search or browse through 50 years of women’s experiences in Australia.

In its day, the Weekly was a breakthrough too, just as much as Cleo.  Browsing the early years, it’s striking how much it dealt with.  The cover of the first issue, on 10 June 1933, has items on ‘What Smart Sydney Women are Wearing’ and ‘Unique New Jumpers’ – but also ‘Equal Social Rights for SEXES’, reporting on a recent women’s conference that dealt with issues such as equal pay, legal equality, and access for women to jobs in the Public Service.

Even in the 1950s, the Weekly was more than just a woman’s magazine.  In 1955, it serialized the novel, Marjorie Morningstar, written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk.  I vaguely remember both my parents swapping copies of the magazine with friends so they could read the novel.

But what is a woman’s magazine anyway, and when did the idea arise that newspapers and magazines should appeal to only one sex?  In Jane Austen’s day, men and women read the same novels, and the Prince Regent didn’t dismiss Pride and Prejudice as chick lit.  Despite its name, both men and women read the Gentleman’s Magazine.  The same was true of Dickens’ novels, or Household Words, his monthly journal.  Both were written for the whole family.

Gradually, however, as new magazines entered a crowded market, publishers looked to niche marketing – and one such niche was the woman’s magazine.

Railways played an important role in this growth.  I’m guessing, never having been in one, but it must be very hard to read in a horse-drawn carriage.  People complained regularly of ‘sea’-sickness because of the jostling movement over bad roads, and I’ve read letters written in a carriage (by a doctor, who wrote up his case notes on the way home after visits to his patients) and they are virtually illegible.

But trains were a much smoother ride.  Passenger trains took off in Britain from the 1840s, and with them came a new opportunity for reading.  The newsagent and bookseller, W. H. Smith and Son, opened their first news stand at Euston Station in 1848, and soon expanded to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, along the route of the railway line.

By the 1850s, then, more people were travelling, and some must have wanted to fill their time with light reading.  There had been earlier women’s magazines, beginning with the short-lived Ladies Mercury in 1693, but now women’s magazines really took off.

One of the most interesting was the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, started by Samuel Beeton and his wife Isabella.  It covered most of the areas we think of as traditional: sewing and fashion, including dressmaking and knitting patterns, recipes, advice on servants and so on – but also more serious material, such as a serialized history of England, written from a woman’s perspective.  (Did you know that Anglo-Saxon women could vote?  No, neither did I.)

This pattern of a husband and wife team producing a woman’s magazine together was repeated in America, where the Ladies’ Home Journal began in 1883, as a supplement to the Tribune and Farmer, edited by Cyrus Curtis.  He and his wife, Louisa Knapp, produced the Ladies’ Home Journal together.

Other magazines were produced by independent women, such as the Victoria Magazine, later the English Woman’s Review, which was edited by a remarkable woman called Emily Faithfull.  Emily was a ‘strong-minded woman’, as the term of the day had it, a feminist before that word existed.  She ran the Victoria Press, training women to work as printers, and an all-female workforce produced the Victoria Magazine.  The name came from the Queen, who patronized her work.  In Australia, Louisa Lawson (mother of Henry) published a similarly radical women’s magazine, The Dawn.

Who bought these magazines?  In the 1850s, only middle class women could afford to buy the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, a monthly journal with hand-etched pictures printed on good quality paper.  But production costs for magazines generally fell in the late 19th century, with cheaper newsprint (using wood pulp instead of rags), and new printing technologies that made illustrations easier to produce.  At the same time, more women began to buy magazines (as well as the things they advertised, another revenue stream for the owners).   Literacy rates amongst working class women were rising, especially with compulsory education from the 1870s in England and the Australian colonies.  Even children got their own magazines – usually with ‘Girls’ Own’ and ‘Boys’ Own’ versions.

It’s all a long way from Cleo and its nude male foldout.  But even the most classic Victorian magazine could occasionally get into trouble.  Isabella Beeton died of puerperal fever in 1865, aged 29 (something to think about next time you imagine a plump, middle-aged ‘Mrs Beeton’).  Sam struggled on without her.  A lot of the magazine was devoted to correspondents’ letters, questions, discussions, on topics great and small.  Some of these dealt with topics, such as domestic violence and adultery, that challenge our notions of Victorian repression, and in 1867 he published a series of letters about tight-corsetting that were picked up and republished in pornographic books.  It was a terrible embarrassment for Beeton – but perhaps a foretaste of the way things would go with Cleo.

Oh Shenandoah! Australians in the American Civil War

Confederate Navy Jack, courtesy of Wikipedia

Americans this week are marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour on 11 April 1861.  As a result, American historians and journalists have been looking at the long term effects of that war on any number of issues – race relations, naturally, but also other fault lines that, to an outsider, still seem remarkably raw, 150 years on.

The impact of that war on Australia was marginal – Queenslanders started growing cotton as the world price rose, the newspapers covered the story, there was a minor diversion of immigrants from America to Australia – but in general, it was all a long way off.  But a few dozen Australians played a tiny but embarrassing part in the war, and eventually cost Great Britain a fortune.

In January 1865, the Confederate steam ship Shenandoah sailed into Port Phillip Bay in need of repairs and fresh crew.  By then, the land war was going badly for the Confederates.  Britain – and therefore her colonies – were neutral in the war, so although the American Consul in Melbourne objected, Melbourne turned out in force to meet and greet the captain and crew.

Sydney had a long history of welcoming visiting naval ships, not just British, but French, German, Russian or American – just so long as they weren’t at war with Britain at the time.  Their officers were usually presentable young men in uniform who enhanced a ballroom; their crews brought good money for the pubs and brothels of The Rocks.  Melbourne, less than 30 years old, had less experience of dealing with foreign naval ships, so the arrival of CSS Shenandoah caused great excitement.

…now comes an American representative to testify the reality of that fierce fratricidal contest which interests us all so much,’ wrote the Melbourne Argus on 26 January.  ‘Melbourne yesterday was startled by the telegraphic announcement that a Confederate war steamer had entered the Heads, and report was confirmed by a large steamer, with something of a warlike aspect, casting anchor, a little before sundown, at an easy distance from the Sandridge Pier.

What was Shenandoah doing in the Pacific, anyway?  While the Civil War dragged on up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the Pacific American seamen continued to hunt for whales.  Most whalers were New Englanders, so closely linked to the Union cause.  The CSS Shenandoah set out to destroy these whalers, and other merchant ships, as a way of attacking the Union’s economic base.  This was, after all, a war in which civilians were targeted by both sides.

When Shenandoah arrived in Victoria, she had already sunk a number of ships, with an unknown loss of life, and the people of Melbourne knew it.  As the Argus wrote,

The Shenandoah has not been unsuccessful in her mission of destroying the enemy’s shipping, having altogether taken eleven or twelve sail of all kinds, and some nine chronometers on board are trophies of large vessels captured between this and the Cape of Good Hope….

Perhaps it says something about conditions aboard the ship that a number of crew deserted in Melbourne, while some prisoners, including two women, were also released.  Captain Waddell badly needed to recruit new crew, and American ships had been signing up Australian crew since convict times, often in the teeth of official opposition.   He had no trouble finding about 40 local men, who joined the Shenandoah on the day she left Melbourne, 18 February.

Shenandoah then resumed her attacks on American shipping.  Back home in America, the war drew to a close – General Lee’s troops negotiated a surrender on 11 April, on 14 April Lincoln was assassinated, Jefferson Davis was captured on 10 May.  But in the North Pacific, Captain Waddell continued the war.  These were the peak months for the whaling industry around the Arctic Circle, and on 28 June he captured and destroyed 10 whalers in a single day. Waddell heard about Lee’s surrender at the end of June, but it was only at the beginning of August that he finally accepted that the war was truly over, and sailed to Liverpool to surrender.

In all, Shenandoah destroyed 25 ships in the months after leaving Melbourne, most of them after the war ended.  Which meant that most of those attacks were not acts of war, but of piracy, and amongst her crew were a number of British subjects who shouldn’t have been there anyway.  In 1871, Britain paid the re-United States £820,000 damages, for the actions of her subjects, as well as for providing repairs for the ship at Williamstown.

Why did those Victorian men join up? Most were probably out for adventure, rather than any ideological commitment to the Confederate cause.  But Australian colonists were sympathetic to separatist causes in general – both Victoria and Queensland had only recently separated from New South Wales.  Besides, by 1865 the gold rush was over, and many ex-diggers were unemployed.

And they shared the racist attitudes of the Old South.  As Exhibit A, here is the flag that was brandished by rioters who destroyed Chinese diggings at Lambing Flats in 1861, the year that the Civil War began.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that it seems to have been modelled on the Confederate flag – which was known, ironically, as the Southern Cross.

Communications in Revolution; Revolutions in Communication

In July 1793, an unknown 24-year-old woman called Charlotte Corday arrived in Paris from Caen, in Normandy.  She found herself lodgings, bought a bread knife, and went to the National Assembly in search of Jean-Paul Marat, a journalist, and one of the extremists within the Jacobin party.  He wasn’t there, so she wrote him a letter, asking if she could visit him.  She was turned away from his home in the morning, but later in the day he agreed to a meeting, and she turned up – with a knife.

Charlotte Corday was well educated in a convent in Caen where she was exposed to the new ideas of the enlightenment, but she was appalled by the violence of the revolution, the execution of Louis XVI, and the possibility of civil war.  Today she is best known for a painting in which she doesn’t even appear, except for her signature on a piece of paper.

The Death of Marat is now one of the most famous images of the French Revolution, though it was not always so.  It is an amazing painting, not least because the bizarre setting, with Marat sitting in his bath to receive a woman visitor.  The other point that, to me, makes the story remarkable, is the letter.  For a start, it still exists, complete with bloodstains, in a collection of French Revolutionary memorabilia owned by a Scottish aristocrat.

Even more remarkably, it shows that Paris, in the middle of the most violent phase of a violent revolution, still had a functioning postal system.  We often forget the ordinary, in the midst of extraordinary events.  But the post must get through.

Communication plays an important part in any revolution, and the gradual changes in communications technology have played an important role in changing the way revolutions occur – just as they have changed lives in general.

Recently, there has been a lot of chatter about the impact of new media – the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – on events across the Middle East and North Africa.  There seems no doubt that they have been important, just as Al Jazeera provides a new source of information, delivered in an established way, TV.

Communication is essential in any rebellion, to rally the troops (literally or metaphorically) and to maintain the flow of information.  In 1986, a ‘peoples’ power’ revolution in the Philippines overthrew President Marcos.  During the days of popular demonstrations in Manila, people used mobile (cell) phones for the first time to direct crowds from place to place.  And that successful revolution was in many ways a model for the successful revolutions in Eastern Europe during 1989.

Sometimes communications fail, and in the absence of reliable information, rumours fester.  During the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the rebels seized the General Post Office (where else?) north of the river, but the British forces held the bridges across the Liffey, as well as Trinity College, in central Dublin.  I had an Irish friend whose family lived south of the river.  His mother remembered how isolated they felt and how little they knew of what was going on across the river.

Between them, the rebels and government forces disabled the post, telegrams and phones in Dublin, but a city is too large and complex an organism to survive for long without effective communication.  And nowadays we are all so dependent on the Internet that we can’t do without it.  Stop Twitter, Facebook and the rest – as some Middle Eastern governments have tried to do – and you also stop credit card transactions and synchronised traffic lights.

So the show must go on.  My husband happened to be travelling in Greece in 1974, when the military junta was overthrown and the monarchy abolished.  When he went to a Post Office to send off postcards, the stamps he bought were old ones, printed by the overthrown regime, but each stamp was carefully defaced, the King’s head smeared with a blob of ink.  A little ideological modification – but the post gets through.

New media played a role in the Protestant Reformation too.  In 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and an academic at the local university, nailed 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, criticising various practices of the Catholic Church.  The ‘theses’ were academic debating points, and Luther anticipated an academic debate.  He wasn’t the first scholar to criticize the Church, but what made things different from earlier reformers was Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type.  (Or rather, reinvention; the Chinese got there independently much earlier.)

Faster communication was key.  Once Luther’s original words were printed and distributed, the criticisms of the established order spread faster than ever before possible: within a week they were all over Germany, within a month all over Europe.  Once out there, these ideas generated other ideas, which multiplied and fragmented and took on new and different forms – and generated equally proliferating reactions as well.

In 16th century terms, printing allowed ideas to spread faster than ever – across Europe in a month!  In the 18th century, the ideas of the French Revolution crossed Europe within days, along established postal routes or by carrier pigeon.  Today ideas can spread as fast as your local broadband connection can manage.

But we still face the same problem of separating ideas from rumours, and dealing with the proliferation and fragmentation of ideas.  We can certainly communicate faster than ever before.  But I suspect we still process that information at much the same speed as we did 500 years ago.  And too often, the simplest solution to dealing with the speed of change is to buy a breadknife.

Highly recommended: ‘Live-Tweeting the 1986 People Power Revolution’

Sandgate, in a good pair of boots

I don’t do marathons.  Pheidippides dropped dead at the end of the first ever marathon in 490 BCE, and I’ve no intention of following in his footsteps.  However recently asked its approximately half million bloggers to participate in a 5k. run or walk during the week leading up to 10 April.  And as I’m very grateful to any organization with a business plan that includes a free blog space, I’ve done as instructed. Yesterday morning I went for a 5k walk around my home suburb of Sandgate.

The historian Manning Clark famously said that a historian needs a good pair of boots.  And it’s true.  Ideally, to get a sense of the history of a place, you need to get around its geography.  I used to live in Brisbane’s western suburbs, a featureless sprawl of postwar chamferboard and tile, where it was very difficult to get a sense of the pre-settlement landscape.  Once the natural watercourses are funneled into culverts, and the hills and valleys are tamed into real estate, it is hard to get a sense of place, or of a prior Aboriginal presence.

Sandgate is different.  In Sandgate, the past is still visible; the bones are close to the surface. Lagoons, escarpments and the sea shape the land, and the natural cycles of the seasons are visible too: the coral spawns in summer and brings in fish; sting rays dig into the sand on the full tide;  wading birds migrate from the northern hemisphere in summer.  It’s easy to get a sense of what this place looked like, a century, or two centuries, ago.

Heading out the front gate, I’m at the bottom of the cliff after which my street, Cliff St., is named.  At the top of this cliff, in December 1859, a man on horseback waited for the new Governor, Sir George Bowen, to sail into Moreton Bay.  As soon as the ship rounded Moreton Island, he set out to ride the 12 miles into Brisbane, to alert the local dignitaries.  Bowen brought with him the Letters Patent that proclaimed the new colony of Queensland.

Turning left, it’s a couple of hundred metres walk along Cliff St to the corner, to reach the shores of Moreton Bay.  To the right I can see the Sandgate pier, but I’m heading northwards, to the left, along Flinders Parade.  This part of southeast Queensland once had the largest Aboriginal population of anywhere in Australia, because of its abundant food resources – fish, water birds, turtle and eel – in the salt water of the bay, and the fresh water lagoons.  Now the mangroves and sea grasses have gone, and a sea wall, built as a depression project during the 1930s, has been topped with another layer on concrete blocks – against a rising sea level?

On the corner of Cliff St and Flinders Parade is the Baptist Church, built in the 1880s.  It was built in a style known as ‘carpenter Gothic’, as an ecumenical space for all Protestant denominations.  My grandfather worshipped there as a young man, and I’ve been to weddings and funerals there, but it’s secular now, a children’s crèche.

Sandgate was proclaimed a town in 1880.  When the railway came through in 1882, it became a popular holiday destination, full of boarding houses for naughty weekends or respectable honeymoons, as well as a wealthy town in its own right.  Walking along Flinders Parade, I pass a number of old houses from this period, all with their own names: Cremorne, Torquay, Seaview…

Torquay is currently for sale, and I visited for a peep during an ‘open for inspection’ day a few weeks back.  Wide timber floors and walls, complete with stenciled paneling, high ceilings and generous spaces, broad cool verandahs, a classic Queenslander.  Beside the kitchen, there is a room with a separate entrance that must have been the maid’s bedroom.  It is also the only house I’ve ever seen with its own bomb shelter, built during World War II, when people with houses on the waterfront were frightened of attack from Japanese midget submarines.

The cross streets, very boringly, are numbered rather than named.  I walked past First and Second Avenue to Third Avenue, which is low, and floods in heavy rain, such as the January floods.  Old maps show that there was once an occasional waterway linking the First Lagoon – Einbumkin Lagoon – to the sea at this point, a route for migrating eels that is now cut off by the sea wall and concrete walls around the lagoon.  But those walls have contained the lagoon since the 1960s, and the eels are still there, so are they making their way overland in wet weather, or travelling underground through the storm water drains?

I walked on, past a couple of restaurants and an ice cream outlet, to Seventh Avenue.  On the corner is Cremorne.  The house was owned by a theatrical family, and named after the Cremorne vaudeville theatre in South Brisbane, which opened in 1911.  The actor John McCallam grew up there.  Now there’s a new Cremorne Theatre at South Bank, and the old Cremorne at Sandgate is due for renovation.

I turned up Seventh Avenue, away from the water, but before leaving, it’s worth a last glance out to sea. I’ve been walking in a gentle crescent along the esplanade, so the view is broader than from my own street.  To the left are the Glasshouse Mountains, straight ahead is Moreton Island, and to the right is Sandgate pier, with the cranes of the port of Brisbane now clearly outlined behind it.  This northerly part of Moreton Bay is called Bramble Bay, after HMS Bramble, which mapped the coastline in 1851.

Behind the avenues, parallel with the waterfront, the land has been rising gently, and Seventh Avenue ends at another cliff face, with a pathway up to the main road above.  Somewhere here, below the escarpment, was a native police encampment during the 1850s and 60s.  The Native Police were a quasi-military force of Aborigines, recruited out of their own tribal areas, under the control of European officers, whose job was to police the frontier.  And Sandgate was the frontier, in the 1850s.  The first land sales took place in 1853.

It’s an easy walk up the pathway to Brighton Rd, then across the road to the right of the Catholic church, and take the pathway down to the Second Lagoon, Dowse Lagoon, named after an early settler, Tom Dowse.  In 1858 Aborigines attacked him near the lagoon, triggering the arrival of the Native Police.  ‘Lieut. Wheeler, of the Native Police, cleared out the aboriginals, who never again troubled Sandgate,’ reported E.V. Stevens ominously.

Dowse Lagoon is brimming with fresh water at the moment, though 3 years ago it was almost empty, with scrubby weeds growing across most of the surface.  Spoonbills and black swans used to breed here.  I haven’t seen them back since the drought, though a lot of effort has gone into making this area more bird (and people) friendly, with bird hides, nesting boxes and toilets.

I followed the pathway around the lagoon, then up the small rise, barely high enough to call a hill, that separates the two lagoons.  Here on the rise are the various symbols of authority: Catholic and Anglican churches at either end, and between them, the state school, the RSL, the bowling club, and the magistrates court.  One oddity is the British Australian Club, established 1958, dating from the era of the Ten Pound Pom, when new British immigrants came here to live because it was cheap, its grand homes broken up into flats and boarding houses after the war.

I walked down the hill to the shopping centre on Brighton Rd, its centre of gravity being pulled inexorably towards the new supermarket at one end; the rest of the shopping strip now looks rather like a row of teeth, where every loose tooth destabilizes its neighbours.

Ahead, enclosed now in a one-way traffic system, is the old war memorial, with a garden and a small rotunda.  Then across the road to the Town Hall, built in 1909 in a rather splendid art deco style. Sandgate’s town hall is one of a number of similar town halls that date from before Brisbane’s suburban councils were amalgamated in 1925.  All of them, these days, lack real purpose, except to house the public library and host an occasional concert.

Then I’m back in Cliff St., heading for home.  I’ve probably walked 5k, though I can’t be sure since I didn’t take a pedometer with me.  It doesn’t matter really.  The exercise proves once again that Sandgate is rich in history – its bones are close to the surface.  I just wish mine were.

To Err is Human; to pick up errors is human too

We’ve just bought something online with a credit card, or made a comment on a news story, or gone to vote on whether public transport in Brisbane is getting better or worse (answer: better but more expensive) – and up pop a few badly shaped letters and numbers to retype, because the last stage in this computer transaction consists of proving we are human beings.

At the dawn of the computer age – 1950 – the British mathematician Alan Turing looked at the possibility of artificial intelligence.  Can computers think?  And how do we know whether we are talking to a computer, or to a human being?  He devised various ways to test this, known today as a ‘Turing test’.  The Turing test we most commonly encounter today is the CAPTCHA – an acronym for ‘completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart’.

So far, humans are holding the line.  We are better at face recognition – though I confess I find it fascinating and occasionally rather scary when my iMac crunches through a newly imported set of photos and ‘recognizes’ people in them, even when some of these photos are of painted portraits!

Humans are better at reading poor quality printed text, too, and are certainly better at dealing with handwriting.  Yet there’s no doubt that computers are transforming the way we research history these days.  Searchable digital sources mean that it’s possible to go to original newspapers to find the most unlikely references, and we have access to huge databases of material as a result of digitization.

This has led to an interesting collaboration between artificial and human intelligence, through Captcha, described in some detail in a recent article in the New York Times.

‘Digitization is normally a three-stage process: create a photographic image of the text, also known as a bitmap; encode the text in a compact, easily handled and searchable form using optical character recognition software, commonly called O.C.R.; and, finally, correct the mistakes.’

Only human beings can identify and correct mistakes.  There are several ways of doing this.  You can pay for proofreaders, or recruit volunteers to do it, but Google is now mainly using the co-opted labour of individuals like us, each reading and typing out a few swirly letters on the screen.  There are about 200 million such transactions each day.  In this way, we are all helping to make printed works accessible and searchable.  And we didn’t even know it!


The National Library of Australia, on the other hand, has relied very successfully on volunteers to correct its digitized newspaper collection.

The collection is freely available to everyone.  However anyone can set up a username and password, and login as a recognized reader.  Once logged in, I can correct the text, using my superior human intelligence to read the digitized image in ways that the computer, as yet (thank God!) can’t.  It’s a weirdly addictive process, and thousands of volunteers are at work, gradually improving the text.  Like a Wiki, it’s a cooperative project, where people give their time freely, without any reward other than the satisfaction of working for the general good.

However the future probably lies with the software approach.  Re-Captcha was designed at Carnegie Mellon University by a team led by Luis von Ahn.  It doesn’t work for everything.  According to Dr von Ahn, ‘nobody reads handwriting anymore’.

Sigh.  Reading handwriting is an essential skill for any historian, and no, it’s not easy, especially as we move further and further back into the past.  But reading handwriting brings one so much closer to the thought processes of the original writer.  I’ve read letters by the same person, through the decades, moving from quill to steel nib, their writing eventually getting shaky with age.  It adds a richness of texture that is missing in the digitized version, grateful though I am for that easily accessible version.

But it will be a while before computers can cope with crossed letters like this one: