Monthly Archives: June 2011

Mistaken Lords

I am currently reading a new book on political prisoners in early Australia, Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals transported to Australia, 1788-1868 (2010).

It’s a big book, full of rollicking stories about those convicts who were transported to Australia for political crimes.  They were only a small proportion of the total number of convicts, a couple of thousand at most out of 160,000 over 80 years, but their stories are interesting, the writing is engaging, and there is a new generation of readers for whom these stories will be new.

Hogarth, The Judges

William Hogarth, The Judges (1758), from Wikimedia Commons

But one thing has bothered me, which is perhaps why my promised book review is late.  Moore begins the book with the story of a group of Edinburgh radicals who became known as the ‘Scottish martyrs’.  The French Revolution had begun in 1789, and by the early 1790s, everyone was edgy.  Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.  In this heightened atmosphere, the group were tried for sedition.  The judge who sentenced them to transportation was a man whom Moore calls ‘Lord Henry Dundas’.  In fact, the name of the judge was Henry Dundas, Lord Melville.

As it happens, I’ve worked a bit in late 18th century Scottish history, so I’m one of the very few historians of Australia who would either know or care that there was no Lord Henry Dundas.  It’s an utterly trivial mistake, especially as Death or Liberty is about Australia, not Scotland.  In fact I’m a bit worried about why I am worried.  Getting preoccupied by it feels a bit like entering Gulliver’s Travels, where a Lilliputian war broke out between the big-endians and the little-endians over which way to crack open their boiled eggs.

Perhaps it’s because Lord Monckton, ‘climate change sceptic’, is in the country at the moment, that I’m preoccupied by titles.  Lord Monckton has been his usual controversial self, and the media has lapped it up, with serious articles about whether he is a ‘real’ Lord (yes), whether he sits in the House of Lords (no), if not, why not (see below), and how he should be addressed (not Lord Christopher Monckton, see below).

Given that we Australians rejected the idea of a hereditary nobility more than a century and a half ago [see my post on Bunyips], why on earth are these arcane issues being canvassed in the serious press at present?  And why should someone who can trace his ancestry back through umpteen generations have any greater cachet to talk about climate change, pro or con, than the rest of us?

It’s contradictory then for me to worry about Moore’s misnaming of the first Lord Melville.  Except that in this case, I think it does matter.

As Jane Austen implicitly knew, Lord or Lady Firstname indicates the son or daughter of a Duke, the highest rung of the British aristocracy.  So Lady Catherine de Burgh and her sister, the late Lady Anne Darcy, were the daughters of a Duke, with the pretensions to match.

Lord Henry Dundas implies someone with a whole canteen of silver cutlery in his mouth, whereas Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, was a rat-cunning Scottish lawyer who clawed his way up the greasy pole of Scottish politics in the late 18th century.  He came from the minor aristocracy, but as the fourth son, he relied on his wits and political instincts to get ahead.  By the 1790s he controlled the political patronage network in Scotland for the Tory Party, and was rewarded with a hereditary title and a seat in the House of Lords – a bit like a safe place on the Senate ticket in return for services to the Party.

The British aristocracy has always needed to renew itself as old families died out and new-made Lords replaced them, sometimes for political services, sometimes by outright bribery.  In the 19th century, so many brewers bought themselves a peerage they were known collectively as the Beerage.  The puzzle is why they even bothered.  Jane Austen knew that money was more important than a title.  Nevertheless, as Gilbert and Sullivan said:

The House of Peers,
Throughout the years,
Did nothing in particular
And did it very well.

Today the House of Lords is trying to make itself relevant, by thinning out the number of hereditary lords, and by recruiting life peers from the intelligentsia – so the novelist P.D.James and the BBC presenter Melvyn Bragg become Baroness James of Holland Park and Baron Bragg of Wigton – but their children won’t inherit these titles.

The hereditary principle came under attack long ago.  In 1776, at the time of the American War of Independence, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, including a chapter Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession:

hereditary succession…claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.

When the conservative intellectual Edmund Burke later deplored the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution, Paine skewered his position in a famous quote: ‘He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.’

We all love the plumage – just think about how many people watched the royal wedding on television – but the monarchy, and its attendant hereditary nobility, seem very nearly dead ducks, at least in Australia.

So why does anyone pay attention to Lord Monckton?  Why should his title lend him greater authority than other voices in this debate?  The problem is that most of us don’t have the scientific knowledge to discuss climate change in scientific terms.  Either we place our trust in the scientists who aren’t very media savvy, or we look for mistakes, and extrapolate from them to condemn the whole intellectual enterprise.  This seems to be the position of many climate sceptics, and as a rhetorical device, it’s pretty effective.  But it’s a lazy form of argument.

No Understanding - from Powerhouse, Brisbane

Tony Moore got Lord Melville’s name wrong, and for me this diminishes his authority as an expert.  But we all get things wrong occasionally.  In one of my books, I typed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ railway (across the Nullarbor) when I meant the ‘Union Pacific’ railroad (across America).  The mistake got through, and to my chagrin all the reviewers mentioned it, although it was only a slip of the fingers on the keyboard.

It looks as if I’ll have to read the whole of Liberty or Death and make the effort to understand the whole argument – not write my review based on the first 17 pages.

And rat-cunning is not an inherited characteristic; you can find it wherever you choose to look.

Contested Places

Last year I marked the end of my years of teaching European history by taking a cruise along the Elbe River from Prague to Magdeburg, then by bus on to Berlin.  The trip was wonderful – and my timing was great, because if I’d gone back to teaching afterwards I would have had to rewrite most of my lecture notes.

It is easier to travel by water than any other way, which is why river cruises are booming at present, especially amongst the chronologically challenged.  The end of the Cold War has helped, too.   Many European rivers – Danube, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Volga – flow roughly east/west, while the Iron Curtain split Europe roughly north/south, so these rivers and their towns and valleys were once out of bounds to us in the west.

My journey took me through contested territories, starting in Prague, the old capital of Bohemia, where the Habsburg Emperors retreated at the end of the 16th century, after their capital of Vienna came under threat from the Ottoman Empire.  Prague lies on the Vltava River, a tributary that was once more widely known by its German name, the Moldau.

The Vltava joins the Labe at Melnik, and flows through lands that once formed part of the old Sudetenland, the German speaking areas of interwar Czechoslovakia that were handed over to Germany under the Munich Agreement in 1938.  A year later the war began anyway.  Nobody, it seems, speaks German there anymore, least of all at Terezin (German: Theresienstadt), the Nazi concentration camp.  This began life as a fortress built in the 1780s on the orders of Emperor Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Maria Theresa.  It was a prison long before the Nazis made it notorious.

Railway on Czech-German border

The border where armies have marched to and fro for hundreds of years is marked today only by a changing sequence of numbers on the railway line that runs beside the river.  The line starts again at 0 as we enter Germany.  But the porous boundary line between Slav and Germanic languages is a deep one.   The languages are very different.  I don’t speak German, but can often make sense of speech and signage, whereas in the Czech lands, I haven’t a clue.

Marking the language shift, the Labe now has a German name, the Elbe.  Locks tame the river, but the scenery is wild, with rocky outcrops, ruined castles and sudden gorges down to the river.  Saxony was once a European centre of mining, coal mining in the 19th century, but before that silver, crystals and cobalt.  Cobalt provides the blue pigment that colours the Virgin’s robes – and the blue of Meissen porcelain.  When elemental cobalt was isolated in the 19th century, it was named after the kobald, a goblin who lives in the mines, and poisons unwary miners.  Cobalt was a monopoly of the Dukes of Saxony, and illegal traders in cobalt were hanged.

Then to Dresden, best known today for the notorious air raids and consequent firestorm of February 1945.  Dresden was an important industrial city, and exports travelled down the Elbe to the port of Hamburg at its mouth.  Our over-enthusiastic guide lists the many products of Saxon industrial ingenuity – toothpaste is one of the few I remember.  Like the more famous Frauenkirche, the palace of the Electors of Saxony has been lovingly restored, and in the Green Vault, where the Ducal treasures are kept, I get an inkling of why Saxons might have warmed to the redistributive aspects of Communism.  The Vault is an enormous treasure house of stuff, a coffee service in enamelled gold, carved ivory and coral objects d’art, musical toys and jewels galore.

Frederick the Wise, the Duke who protected Martin Luther in the early 16th century, was a collector too – he collected saints’ relics, and didn’t stop, even after the Protestant Reformation.  Thank goodness none of them discovered eBay.

After Dresden we float on towards Meissen, where they’ve been making porcelain since the beginning of the 18th century.  We tour the factory and see the labour-intensive work that – perhaps – justifies its high price.  But I suspect these days they make more from tour groups than from the stuff they sell.  We all pay for an overpriced coffee, just for the experience of drinking from a Meissen cup.

Meissen porcelain

Meissen porcelain

Further west, at Torgau, we see the monument marking the point where the Russian and American armies met in 1945 – and also see horrifying photographs of terrified refugees scrambling across the river, along the twisted remnants of the railway bridge that crossed the Elbe at this point, trying to get away from the Russian troops.

Just downstream we reach Wittenberg, where we are in the heartland of a much earlier conflict, when one of Wittenberg University’s academics, Martin Luther, precipitated the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  Abandoning his vow of celibacy, the former Augustinian monk married a former nun, the redoubtable Katharina von Bora.  They had 6 children. Margot Honecker, the wife of the last Chairman of East Germany, was a direct descendant – and she apparently helped to keep Wittenberg’s heritage intact through the impoverished days of the GDR.

Mrs Martin Luther

Katharina von Bora

Luther’s first sermon beyond the confines of Saxony was at Magdeburg, further downstream, and the town paid heavily for the presumption of inviting him there, and for its general reputation for being bolshie.  It was besieged during the religious wars in 1551, then sacked in 1631 during the Thirty Years War – and only Dresden suffered more from firebombing in World War II.  Downstream lies Hamburg, and with only rudimentary navigational aids, bombers followed the river upstream to these industrial towns.

We leave the river at Magdeburg and drive north to Potsdam, where the Prussian kings built their palaces in gardens modelled on Versailles.  Margot Honecker helped keep these going during Communist times, too.  At Potsdam we cross the Havel River at the Glienicke Bridge, which once marked the boundary between East and West.  This is where spies were swapped, walking across the bridge into the waiting arms of their controllers.  In the middle of the bridge, there is a line in the road where the maintenance crews changed, for each sector was responsible for its own paving.

Another contested place, marked by the colour of the bitumen.   And I’m not even getting started on Berlin.  Other people’s contested ideologies always seem trivial in retrospect, and no doubt our own foibles will seem just as silly one day.

Meanwhile, a story both happy and sad.  Salmon used to breed in the up-waters of the Elbe, particularly in its small streams and tributaries, but industrial pollution, dams and locks eventually destroyed their breeding streams and their migration patterns, and the last salmon was caught in the Elbe in 1954.  After reunification, the German government began to clean up the river, and in 1994/5 the first salmon fingerlings were released.  By 2001, the first breeding adults arrived back, and since then, the population has risen to the point where line fishermen are allowed to catch salmon for private consumption only.  Salmon are now reaching the Czech Labe, above the lochs. The river is clean.

But it is clean because industry has gone elsewhere.  We passed a ruined factory just near a salmon stream.  It used to employ 700 people building furniture packs for Ikea, but costs got too high, and the factory moved to Romania.  But at least the salmon are back.

Rules of Engagement

There’s a story, no doubt apocryphal, about a man who bought a rural property in upstate New York.  He soon discovered there were fireflies in the garden, which fascinated him, so he tracked down an entomologist at a nearby university who was a specialist in fireflies, and made an appointment to visit him.  The scientist spent a good hour or more with the man, answering his questions.  As he left, weighed down with photos and printouts, the man thanked his informant profusely for his generosity.  ‘That’s okay,’ said the academic.  ‘I’ve been working on fireflies for 30 years, and nobody has ever wanted to talk to me about them before.’

archaeological dig in forum, Rome, 2008

'Tourist Information 5 Euro! Knowledge is expensive.' My photo of an archaeological dig in the Forum, Rome, 2008

Maybe it’s the Internet.  Maybe it’s the relative charms of insects and history, but this has not been my experience.  Every few weeks or so, I get an email out of the blue from somebody I don’t know, asking for help with some historical question.  Most academics get these sorts of queries, and most of us are generous with our time (if we have any), mostly because we love what we do.

With most of the emails I get, the enquirer is researching family history, like an undergraduate recently, who wanted help with an odd ancestor-by-marriage whose marriage certificate said ‘born at sea’.  An English woman wanted advice on books to read to find out more about the historical background of her convict ancestor.  And then there was the following email, which arrived last Tuesday:

Dear Marion
I am trying to locate some information about convicts in Sydney before 1830.  Is there anyone in your University who is expert on this subject?
Thanking you in anticipation.
John Smith [not his real name]

Who is John Smith?  No idea – and the email address gives no hint, except that it’s a yahoo address in the UK.

I’ve received many emails like this over the years, and the rule of thumb is: the shorter they are, the longer they take to deal with.  First, there is the irritating decision as to whether to bother answering something so peremptory in the first place – but emails can give the wrong impression, and sometimes there is a perfectly pleasant person hiding behind the brusqueness, who genuinely wants help, but doesn’t know how to go about asking for it.

So here are my rules of engagement.  I’d be very interested to get other people’s thoughts on asking for information, both givers and receivers (and most of us are both at different times) and I’ll add whatever other suggestions come in, for a general page.  For convenience, the rest of this post is addressed to a putative John Smith.

1. Who are you?  It’s a basic courtesy to introduce yourself to someone you are approaching for the first time, but it’s also a matter of self-interest, because I’m much more likely to respond to your request if I know who you are.  I’m trying to get a handle on you, so that I know how to pitch my reply, and I need to know where you’re coming from.

2. Where are you?  There’s no point in my suggesting you visit the NSW Archives if it turns out you live in Massachusetts or Manchester.

3. Do you have a link to an institution like a university?  This isn’t (just) academic snobbery; if you are attached to a university, I can recommend various databases that you can access with your student username and password.

[It’s a sad fact that while academics may give advice freely, a lot of information these days is only available by subscription, either individually or by institution.)

4. What is your research for?  Is this for a school project, a family history, or a PhD?  Do you want background information about convicts, or a way of tracing the name of one particular convict?  These are all different sorts of research, and I’ll answer them in different ways.

5. How much research have you done already?  Where does this question fit within your broader research work?  There are basic sources I would suggest to anyone starting out in 19th century Australian history (e.g. the National Library of Australia’s site, Trove), but I’d be wasting my time suggesting basic sources to someone who has already trawled the obvious ones.

6. Call me Marion by all means, but My American students used to call me ‘Professor’ or ‘Ma’am’, which made me feel old, but Australians are much more informal.  If you want to be treated seriously, though, a more formal approach is only sensible.  That means you introduce yourself, and you explain how you tracked me down – From my blog? The University of Queensland website? My one 30-second-starring role on Who Do You Think You Are, 6 years ago?  This is because it fills out my sense of who you are, and what you want.  (It’s also a good way of filtering out high school students who have sent identical emails to every academic in the discipline, in the hope that one of them will write their history assignment for them.)

7. Which brings me to the final point.  I’m very happy to point you in the right direction – but I’m not going to do your work for you.  To be fair, you haven’t asked me to, and most people don’t.  They thoroughly enjoy doing the research themselves, and just want a nudge in the right direction.  But if you don’t want to do the research yourself, there are people who make a living doing research for others.  Some of them have been my students, and I’m not about to take away their livelihood.  The Professional Historians Association (Queensland) keeps a register.

Sorry to be so grumpy, John Smith.  And yes, I’m probably the person at UQ who knows most about convicts in Sydney before 1830.  So what exactly do you want to know about them?


Abattoir Fever

The Australian government has just suspended live cattle exports to Indonesia because of the outcry following a television program on slaughterhouses there, and the awful conditions in which the cattle are killed.

We’ve been raising beef cattle across northern Australia for more than a century, but until quite recently, animals were slaughtered in Australia, and the meat frozen for export. Chilled beef and mutton exports first took off in the 1880s.  The pioneer here was the businessman Thomas Mort, who first experimented with refrigeration during the 1870s.  After his death, his company eventually became part of the agricultural conglomerate Elders Smith Goldsborough Mort.

The main market for frozen meat was Britain, and later China and Japan, but in the last two decades, far more animals have been exported alive.  This is particularly true for exports to Muslim countries, where the animals are killed on arrival, either because of a preference for freshly killed meat, or to meet Halal practices, or both.

This shift has now come unstuck, at least temporarily.  So the cattle industry is faced with a problem: how to process animals here, when many of the smaller abattoirs in northern Australia have disappeared.

Beef shorthorn

Brisbane once had a number of abattoirs, one run by the Meat Board, which killed animals for the local market; and private ones run by Borthwicks and Swifts, processing meat for export.  Seventy years ago, this led to an epidemiological mystery.

One evening in 1934, three doctors met for a drink at the Johnsonian Club in central Brisbane.  Amongst more general gossip, one of them mentioned that he was treating two men for similar fevers.  Not only were the fevers very similar, but coincidentally both worked in the same abattoir in Brisbane, run by the Meat Board at Cannon Hill.

Also at the Johnsonian Club that night was the Director General of Health, Dr. Raphael Cilento.  The coincidence tweaked his interest, and a bit of investigation showed that the fever was endemic amongst meat workers, with at least 20 cases of the disease at the abattoir between 1933 and 1935. It was so common that the men looked on it almost as a rite of passage, because one episode of fever seemed to give them immunity from further outbreaks.  Most men recovered quite quickly, but it sometimes led to complications, such as endocarditis, which can kill.  This disease is now known as Q-fever.

The Queensland government had just set up a laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology within the Department of Health, and Cilento asked Dr Ted Derrick, the newly appointed director, to investigate.

Derrick investigated the disease clinically, and eventually identified the pathogen causing the disease, a single celled organism named Coxiella burnetii.  The name recognizes his co-contributors to the research, Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, and Herald Cox, who found the same pathogen in deer in Montana.

Once it was identified and described, Q-fever turned out to be quite common, associated with people working with animals, particularly dead animals.  It was known as ‘swineherd’s fever’ in Europe.  Towards the end of the Second World War, as American soldiers fought their way north through Italy, sleeping in barns and farmyards, many city boys who had never been exposed to farm animals suffered from what they called ‘the Balkan grippe’, not deadly, but debilitating in an war situation.

Derrick also looked at the epidemiology of Q-fever.  There was a puzzle: in the 1930s the fever occurred regularly amongst workers at the Meat Board’s abattoir, which killed animals of all quality for the local market, but not at Borthwick’s private meatworks opposite, which killed only top quality beasts for the export trade.

The Brisbane government abattoir was a new innovation, centralizing meat processing in a single large facility, whereas before the 1930s, most meat was killed locally.  No doubt many farmers and butchers had suffered from fevers before, but only when a lot of abattoir workers were gathered together, did the coincidence of ‘abattoir fever’ become obvious.

And the puzzle of the two abattoirs?  Coxiella burnetii is most prevalent in pregnant animals, concentrating in the placenta.  In the 1930s, ‘export quality’ beef was superior to the meat eaten locally.  Borthwick’s beasts were all young bullocks, and uninfected, whereas meat for the locals included ‘crackers’ – old dairy cows sent to slaughter after a lifetime of calving.  They were a much greater source of disease.

Minced beef

In other words, in the 1930s, ‘export quality’ meant the best quality, whereas the cattle now caught up in the halted production line for export to Indonesia are grass fed and bred light, and won’t easily find a new market in Australia.  Except as mincemeat – which is what the current Meat and Livestock Association and the Minister for Agriculture may very well be too.

E.H.Derrick, ‘A Mystery Fever invades Brisbane’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 3, 1971, pp. 39-51.

Our Sedentary Ways

Julia Gillard has been in Central Australia to talk to Aboriginal leaders.  No doubt most of these meetings took place in air conditioning, but she promised to visit several town camps as well.  So we can expect to see images of the Prime Minister and her advisors, looking awkward and uncomfortable, sitting in the dust with some selected long grassers.

Tony Abbott went to Alice Springs in April, and the photos show him, awkward and uncomfortable, hunkered down on the floor of a humpy, engaged in painful small talk.

Politicians are on a hiding to nothing really.  They always look awkward and uncomfortable in these places, because they are – and not just because no government of either complexion has ever satisfactorily healed the gaping wound which is the relationship between Aborigines and the rest of Australia.

They are also awkward and uncomfortable because they are.  Unlike their hosts, comfortably sitting cross-legged on the ground, most of us, including politicians, haven’t sat that way since we left kindergarten – though all that cycling probably means that Tony Abbott’s pelvic floor is in better condition than most.

There are various ways of categorising human beings, not all invidious.  One that we don’t often consider, but which is surprisingly potent, is the great divide between those societies where people sit on the ground / tapa cloth / tatami mat / Persian carpet and those who sit in chairs.

These patterns of behaviour are learned in early childhood.  I went to kindergarten in Amsterdam in the 1950s.  In a cold climate, we spent most of our time indoors, sitting on small chairs at small tables, playing in fairly sedentary ways, with paper and scissors and glue.  We sat at a table to eat our sandwiches, cut in tiny squares, with a fork.

Then I came back to Australia, where children my age had spent years at kindy, cross legged on the ground, eating their sandwiches with their fingers.  At 5 years old my fate was already sealed.  Forget the lotus position; I couldn’t even sit cross-legged like the other kids.  I don’t remember, but I’m guessing that they wriggled more than I did, as they gradually adjusted to life in a chair, at a desk, after years sitting on the ground.

No doubt everywhere, but particularly perhaps in Central Australia, there are people who move comfortably between chairs and the ground, but for most of us, it is hard to adjust.  So Gillard and Abbott will wriggle uncomfortably on the ground – and perhaps Aboriginal children will wriggle more at their school desks than their peers.

This divide goes back a long way.  The Egyptian elite used chairs; in the Fertile Crescent most people did not. In his excavations in Ur, Leonard Woolley studied the burial of an elite woman, Queen Shub-Ad.  From the skeleton, Woolley thought she had spent most of her time in a kneeling position, perhaps a similar style to the Japanese seiza.  China was using chairs by the 12th century, but in Japan the change from kneeling on the ground, or (for men only) sitting cross-legged, is only now taking place.  Sometimes the change goes with new technology.  Traditionally, tailors sat cross-legged to sew by hand, but when sewing machines arrived, they moved on to chairs.  No doubt computers have had the same effect.

For the Greeks and Romans, a chair indicated high status, just as it did in medieval Europe: kings sat on thrones while their courtiers stood; bishops sat on the cathedras that gave their name to cathedrals.  But you don’t need a chair-based culture to show high status.  In the Middle East, everyone sits on the ground to eat, but the most important person will certainly be served the best food at the meal.

When people from each side of the sitting divide meet, the result can be strange.  I’ve seen this interface at work, waiting for a plane at Dubai airport.  Courtesy of Emirates airlines, the wealthy of two separate worlds cross paths here, some waiting in family groups, sitting on the ground, some on the seats – all equally jetlagged.  The airport offers 2 sets of toilets too, recognizing that sitting in chairs has given us westerners shortened Achilles tendons that make squatting for long periods difficult!

Politicians struggle when they are confronted with the sitting divide.  They want images that show themselves in a position of command or camaraderie, but neither is easy, when your lower back is killing you, whether you are on the ground of a shanty town, or seated in a kindy chair, as John Howard was when – briefly – spooked by Mark Latham in 2003.

Anonymous: Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511
There is a wonderful image of such a meeting across the sitting divide from 1511, when a Venetian artist painted ‘The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus’.  There is no doubt who is receiving whom.  The Venetians are led by a man in red with a black cap, while behind him huddle a bevy of black-coated ministerial aides.  In front of them sits the Mamluk viceroy of the Ottoman Empire, in a magnificent headdress, with two white clothed underlings behind him.  All three are seated cross-legged on a raised dais, which has been covered with a fine carpet.

Reception of the Ambassadors, detail

Anonymous, Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, detail. From Wikimedia Commons

Padded seating such as this eventually became the item of furniture we call an ottoman.  Checking in the Oxford English Dictionary that I’ve got this definition right, I find an illustrative quote: ‘Draw up the ottoman; so long as you have a spine, rely upon it.’  In their dealings with Aborigines, I hope one day our politicians find the spine to sit down comfortably with them and cross the divide.

Coins in Early Australia

Macquarie's holey dollar

I’ve just published a post on the new archaeology website, Then Dig:

Value at a Distance: Coins in Early Australia

What I didn’t say in the post, since I didn’t think a largely American audience would be interested, is that Macquarie Bank – the ‘millionaires’ factory’ – has as its logo Governor Macquarie’s holey dollar.  Such chutzpah, for a bank to associate itself with a coin with an empty centre!

The Lamington goes to War

It’s hard to imagine anything more innocuous than a lamington.  Sweet and sticky, an iconic national sugar hit, they remind me of Girl Guide lamington drives of my youth.  Today, the pool of mothers prepared to devote a day to dipping squares of sponge cake into chocolate gloop, then rolling them in desiccated coconut, has mysteriously dried up – I wonder why? – and as a fundraiser, the lamington drive has been replaced by the sausage sizzle.

Lamingtons are named after the second Lord Lamington, who was Governor of Queensland from 1895 to 1901.  According to the entry in Wikipedia – and yes, even the lamington has a Wikipedia entry – Lord Lamington has a French cook, Armand Gallad, whose wife came from Tahiti, and hence his inspiration to roll a chocolate-coated petit four in coconut.   There is a minority theory about the cake coming from the town of Lamington, in Scotland, but the lamington can’t have been invented much earlier, because the key ingredient, desiccated coconut, didn’t exist until the late 1880s.

Coconuts, of course, have been grown across the tropics for thousands of years – for so long, in fact, that their original place of origin is uncertain.  The tree is immensely valuable: the oil is used in cooking, and was once burnt for light; the meat is eaten directly, or mixed with water to make milk or cream for cooking; the husks are an efficient fuel; and the shells are used as bowls and utensils.  The fronds are woven, and the tree itself will eventually be cut down for timber.

Sailors carried coconuts with them as an emergency source of food and liquid, and coconut water is given to babies with diarrhoea.  Until the nut is opened, the liquid is sterile, so can be used as an emergency glucose supply, or even replace plasma in blood transfusions.  So a grove of coconut trees benefits the whole community in many ways.

Illustrated Sydney News, 18 May 1878

Coconut Grove, Fiji, from Illustrated Sydney News, 18 May 1878

But most of these benefits are based on access to your local neighbourhood trees.  In the late 19th century, European colonists in the Pacific began to grow coconuts in plantations, on an industrial scale.  It was a major investment, for it takes about 7 years before a tree begins to bear fruit, but when they did, the nuts were harvested, split, and dried in the sun.  The resulting oily coconut meat is copra.

Copra was pressed to produce coconut oil, an important raw material in various industrial products such as soaps and cosmetics.  But it was also used for explosives for engineering and military purposes.

I’m probably being tracked by the CIA at the moment, as I’ve been searching the web for early recipes for nitro-glycerine.  Not surprisingly, these are hard to find (though I did find a rather scary site from the Philippines with a recipe for a coconut bomb).  Until petroleum jelly became readily available and cheap, coconut oil was used as a natural source of glycerine.  This was used in the production of nitro-glycerine, which in turn was used in dynamite (patented 1867 by Alfred Nobel), and later other explosives such as cordite and gelignite.

Coconut oil accounts for about 70% of copra, leaving about 30% fibre, which was made into animal feed, until, in the late 1880s and early 1890s, several separate companies began to experiment with making desiccated coconut for human consumption.  In August 1891, The Queenslander reported that the Pacific Desiccating Company had begun to produce desiccated coconut in Suva, Fiji, and was exporting it to Australia.  ‘The indigestibility associated with the kernel of the cocoa-nut is completely eliminated in the process of manufacture,’ the article reported – though some might disagree, even today.


Photo by Monica Shaw, in Wikimedia Commons

So the invention of the lamington must have occurred at about this time, and it may well be that it happened at Government House, Brisbane.  The timing is interesting.  In the 1890s, as Europe moved inexorably towards World War I, coconut plantations in the Pacific colonies were gearing up the export of copra: from Samoa and New Guinea to Germany, from Tahiti and New Caledonia to France, from Fiji and the Solomon Islands to Britain.  And desiccated coconut, which was essentially a by-product of the arms race, was turned into cakes and confectionary.

Twenty years later, Australian mothers invented a new delicacy, when they pulled out their supplies of flour, rolled oats, golden syrup and desiccated coconut, and baked Anzac biscuits to send to their sons at Gallipoli.

China wakes

I first visited China in late December 1994 when a colleague invited me to join him at a history conference in Guangzhou.  The language of the conference was Cantonese, so I was pretty marginal to the event, but even through the language barrier, I found it a fascinating experience.

Apart from the papers themselves, some of them very good even in translation, more general images stick:

The crowds everywhere, but particularly at the railway station, where hundreds of people were bedded down on mats on the floor.  It was a horrifying sight, as I assumed – quite wrongly – that they were homeless.  Later I realised they were travellers, heading for home villages to celebrate the summer solstice.

A visit to the Huangpu Military Academy, where Sun Yat-sent began his revolutionary movement to unite China – and my belated realisation that Huangpu was ‘Whampoa’, the island in the Pearl River where the tea clippers anchored in the early 19th century.

A handbag factory that was little more than a hut in a field, full of people working at heavy-duty sewing machines.

What I mainly took away from my visit was the evidence everywhere of venture capitalism on the rise.  Amongst the middle class, speculation was rife.  On one trip, we stopped at another university to have tea and snacks in the history department tearoom.  Some of the teachers were there, all sitting around a television in the corner showing (I assume) the local stock market prices.

While most of the visitors were heading back to Hong Kong after the conference, I went on to Macao, the Portuguese enclave at the eastern tip of the Pearl River, and I made the last part of my trip to the frontier by taxi.  We swept along vast highways, masterpieces of civil engineering, but with almost no traffic.  Beside the roads were brand new houses, Chinese McMansions large enough for servants quarters and, no doubt, more children than the statutory single child.

‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will astonish the world’.

So said Napoleon, two centuries ago.  Well, we all know now that China has woken – and the evidence was there in the early 1990s.  Just last week, China and Pakistan announced that China plans to build a new port in Baluchistan, part of a ‘necklace of pearls’, a series of ports to funnel goods into western China without the need to go through the choke points of South East Asia.

I was involved, however marginally, with the conference in Guangzhou because I’m interested in Australian trade with China – not the recent, vast trade in raw materials, but the early trade, which began during the first years of the 19th century.

In Napoleon’s day, China’s main export was tea.  In early Australia, tea and sugar usually formed part of a convict’s rations – the discretionary part that could be given for good behaviour, or taken away as a punishment – so anyone who employed convicts wanted access to tea, which was the main form of bribery for good work.

The whole tea trade took place through Canton [now Guangzhou] in the south, on the Pearl River.  It was a tightly controlled trade.  The foreign merchants had to live in ‘factories’.  They couldn’t bring their wives and children into Canton, couldn’t move outside these compounds and had to leave after the trading season was over.  Outside these summer months, they and their families lived in Macao.

European Factories, Canton
William Daniell, The European Factories, Canton, in Wikimedia Commons

The problem for the traders – British, American, French, Dutch and others – was that China didn’t need any of the trade goods they had to offer.  In 1792 the Emperor Ch’ien Lungtold George III complacently:

our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

Then the traders discovered opium.  Like all addictive drugs (including tea?) opium was an ideal trading product.  Demand is constantly renewed because people use it up and want more.  The Chinese tried to control the trade, but British and American traders continued to bring it in illegally.  Within a generation the balance of trade – and power – had shifted.

In 1838 the Emperor sent Commissionar Lin Zexu to Canton to put a stop to the opium trade once and for all.  He seized the foreigners’ stocks of opium and burnt this ‘foreign mud’ publically.  Outraged, the traders – with the backing of the British navy – imposed a blockade on Canton.  The First Opium War followed, and China was forced to concede the island of Hong Kong on a 150-year lease, as well as opening up 5 new ‘treaty ports’ to foreign traders.

So where did Australian traders fit in all this?  Colonial merchants sent ships every year from Sydney and Hobart for tea.  They never carried opium, because the sources of opium (India and Turkey) were not on their route.  Instead, the Australian tea ships sailed north, gathering exotic Pacific products en route – tortoiseshell, pearl shell, sandalwood, sharks fin – that found a ready market in Canton.

advertisement for sharks fin

Advertisement for Shark's fin, Sydney Gazette, 5 February 1804

So when the standoff between Lin and the British merchants began, the Australian traders were out on a limb.  They might be British by birth and sympathy, but they wanted to go on with their lucrative – and perfectly legal – trade with China.  When the boycott began, one of the Sydney traders, Robert Towns, sailed his ship right through the naval blockade against the orders of the British navy.

As far as I know, this is the first recorded occasion in which Australian foreign and economic interests have diverged from those of whatever ‘great and powerful friend’ happens to be in the ascendant.  In 1839, that ‘friend’ was Britain.  Today, it is still – just – the United States.

But today, as then, Australia’s balance of trade with China is both healthy and legitimate, while that of our American ally is not.  One day soon, I fear we may have to make a choice between a profitable trading relationship, and our position within a declining American empire.  One day, perhaps, Robert Towns might be viewed as an exemplar of independence from foreign control – just as Commissioner Lim is in China today.