Monthly Archives: March 2017

Digging up Matthew Flinders

There’s been a bit of noise about Matthew Flinders’ grave just recently. There are plans to extend the very fast train system from London to the north of England, and to do this, a lot of Euston Station and its surroundings will be dug up and redeveloped.

This includes the old graveyard of St James’ Church, where about 61,000 bodies were buried, Flinders included. Some of the graveyard was dug up during the 19th century during various expansions of the station, so many of these bodies have already disappeared. Apparently when his widow died in 1852, her sister looked for the grave but couldn’t find it. The first expansion of Euston Station was then underway.

Matthew Flinders portrait

Matthew Flinders watercolour miniature, c.1800, from State Library of New South Wales

The Victorians tended to take a brutally unsentimental attitude to such things, as the old music hall song suggests:

They’re moving grandpa’s grave to build a sewer,
They’re moving it regardless of expense.
They’re taking his remains, to put in 9-inch drains,
To irrigate some rich bloke’s residence.

In Australia, Flinders is one of the best-known naval explorers, so it’s a bit startling to find a 2014 article in the (English) Guardian announcing the erection of a statue at Australia House ‘to the most famous navigator you’ve probably never heard of’.

I don’t suppose many people these days read Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (1941), a fictionalized life of Matthew Flinders, but when it was first published it was a bestseller, and it was commonly set as a text book in Australian schools. The Esplanade at the end of my street in Sandgate was renamed Flinders Parade at about this time, and Flinders became a common place name. He shares with only James Cook, John Monash, Charles Darwin and Charles Sturt, the honour of having a university named after him.

It helps to have a cat, too.

To the memory of Trim

One of my favourite Flinders stories comes from early in his exploring career. In 1798, he and Bass sailed south to circumnavigate Tasmania. This was an important matter: if the southernmost tip of the continent was a separate island, it wasn’t covered by Cook’s original claim of possession. On their way back, they stopped somewhere along the Ninety Mile Beach, where they came across a group of Aboriginal people feasting on a beached whale.

Soon afterward a man made his appearance. He was of middle age, unarmed, except for a whaddie, or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence. We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in turn presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit. (Matthew Flinders, 7 October 1798)

I like the parallel revulsion of the two men towards each others’ gifts of food – whale blubber and ship’s biscuit – and their equal politeness in trying to spit them out discreetly.

Flinders married Ann Chappelle in 1801, intending to take her out to Australia with him on his next voyage of exploration. It was not uncommon for the captain’s wife to sail with her husband, though it was controversial. (Jane Austen covers the debate in Persuasion, set just a few years later.) In this case the Admiralty chastised Flinders for taking Ann aboard, and she was not allowed to go out with him. On his way home from New South Wales, the French Governor of Mauritius detained Flinders there, and it was 9 years before Ann saw her husband again.

By then she was 40. In 1812 she gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Anne. Flinders managed to get A voyage to Terra Australis published just before he died in 1814, but the book had less impact than he would have hoped, because the record of the Baudin expedition had already been published. (François Péron Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes (1807; English translation 1809).

Flinders’ widow and daughter lived on in genteel poverty. For years they pleaded with the British Government for a pension in acknowledgement of Flinders’ work and early death, but as the Guardian article suggests, Flinders was forgotten in his native land. It was only in 1853 that the two colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria agreed to grant an annuity of £100 per year to the Flinders family.

Ann Flinders had died the year before. That same year, at the age of 40, her daughter Anne married an engineer, William Petrie. Like her mother, she had one child, a son, born at an age – 41 – when childbirth was very dangerous for older women. She named him William after his father, and Matthew Flinders after her own father.

Anne was a scholar of sorts. In 1845, under the pseudonym Philomathes, she published a book, The Connexion between Revelation and Mythology Illustrated and Vindicated, which shows her fascination with Egyptian mythology. She also wrote essays for periodicals under the initials “X.Q.’ Her husband William Petrie was a scientist who took an early interest in electricity and magnetism, and is credited with inventing an early arc light. These two scholarly, aging parents taught their only son at home, using the colonial annuity of £100 per year to enhance his education. He was interested in science and mathematics, but also fascinated, as his parents were, by Egypt. He first went out there in 1880.

He didn’t use his first names, so few people know of the connection, but he eventually became a good deal more famous than his eminent grandfather, in Britain at least. Perhaps there’s an irony in the fact that if archaeologists dig up the graveyard in St James’s Gardens, they will do so according to scientific principles of archaeology that were first laid down by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in his ‘small but epoch-making book’, Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904).

Advertisements

Pauline Hanson and Alpacas

My sister lives outside Pomona, a small township in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. One Saturday, nearly 20 years ago, we decided to go to the agricultural show together in the neighbouring town of Cooroy.

I love agricultural shows – not the big commercial jobs like the Ekka or the Royal Easter, full of overpriced rides and rip-off show bags – but the small local affairs. These used to be a staple of every small town, with the CWA selling tea and sandwiches, reps demonstrating new harvesters and post-hole diggers, and competitions for the best cakes and fat lambs.

They are now a dying breed, like the fat lambs. Tastes have changed, from cake stalls to sausage sizzles, and farmers buy their agricultural machinery after doing their research on the web. (Or they do in South East Queensland – my sister has the NBN, whereas I’m still waiting for it here on the outskirts of Brisbane.)

In 1998, Cooroy teetered on the edge of the new economy. Since then the butter factory has reopened as an Arts Space, the timber mill has closed, but there’s a new microbrewery. The area is full of refugees from high house prices, not just in Brisbane, but from Sydney and Melbourne as well, and telecommuters in the knowledge economy are thick on the ground. People from the other, older economy have been left behind. Within an hour’s drive of Noosa are some of the poorest postcodes in Queensland.

The Cooroy Show should have rung clearer bells, though at the time I just found it curious that, amongst the cakes and cultivators, 2 groups stood out: there were several booths advertising the One Nation Party, which was just gearing up for the Queensland election, and there were alpacas wherever you looked. Both were attracting queues.

I’ve always associated Pauline Hanson with alpacas ever since: the short curly topknot, the stiff neck and square jaw, fiercely defensive of the group they are protecting, the tendency to spit…. And then there are those cute alpacas.

The people in the queues at Cooroy in the late 1990s were at the end of their tether, their way of life under threat from economic changes they could not control. Dairying was failing, the timber industry too, the market for canned pineapples and vegetables had shrunk. At the same time, big producers were taking over strawberries and tomatoes, with the capital to install hothouses and hydroponics. (James Ashby was spokesman for one of these new strawberry farms, at Beerwah, when its hydroponics system was mysteriously poisoned.)

Suri-alpaca

Suri alpacas, from Wikipedia

The salesmen with their alpacas appealed to desperate people. Australians have always had a tendency to seize on new agricultural fads in their never-ending ‘search for a staple’, the Next Big Thing, ever since John Macarthur imported merino sheep in a ship he renamed the Argo in honour of the Golden Fleece. Some of these products, like merinos, took off. Most become at best a niche market, some disappear entirely. Remember when jojoba beans were a Thing?

The first alpacas were imported into Australia in 1858. A few years earlier, the NSW Governor and the businessman Thomas Mort decided that alpacas might be the New Big Thing. They asked Charles Ledger, an Englishman who bred alpacas in Peru, to import some of the animals and he finally arrived in Sydney with a group of South American shepherds and a flock of over 200 alpacas, llamas and vicunas, after a hair-raising journey (for men and beasts alike) from Peru to Bolivia to Argentina to Chile and finally across the Pacific to NSW.

Unfortunately by the time he arrived, the Government had changed and nobody was interested in alpacas any longer. Henry Parkes took his daughter Clarinda to see some of them at the Sydney Domain.

At Cooroy the slick alpaca salesmen didn’t talk about wool or meat – or even the alpaca’s potential value as a guardian animal amongst a herd of sheep. They talked about how valuable they were as breeding animals, because after buying high, next year the farmer could sell on their offspring for equally high prices. It was all a bit like a pyramid scheme – but for desperate people the promise of breeding alpacas represented the last throw of the dice.

At the One Nation booths there were also slick salesmen. Those people filling in forms and paying their money thought they were signing up as members of the new political party – it later turned out they were just ‘supporters’, with no input into party policy, and in 2002 the party was deregistered for not having the necessary 500 members.

Like alpacas, though, the One Nation Party represented a last throw of the dice. A few years later, their neighbours in Fairfax elected a noisy, plausible businessman, Donald-Trump-lite Clive Palmer.

In The Saturday Paper [paid link] yesterday, Karen Middleton has a fascinating article about ‘One Nation’s business model’. She quotes a number of disaffected ex-PHON party members from Western Australia. ‘It’s not a political party’, said a former president of the WA branch, Lyn Vickery. ‘Most political parties under the electoral act are supposed to be incorporated associations. That’s what the electoral commission prefers. This is in fact a business. And in fact it’s a pyramid business, much like Amway.’

The trouble with pyramid schemes is that they depend on growth. Without constantly expanding, they invariably collapse. A pity most of them aren’t as cute as alpacas.