Category Archives: environmental history

Dingo Dreaming

aurukun camp dog at GOMA

When my father was a young boy, he spent a lot of time on his uncle’s farm, where he had a pet dingo.  One day, he was walking in town with his pet beside him when someone shot it dead.  It still upset him when he told me the story 30 or 40 years later.  Dad was born in 1921, so this must have been about 1930, around the same time that the Queensland Government declared open season on koalas.

There was no comeback.  Anyone could shoot a dingo – even in the main street of Caboolture.  Dingoes were vermin.

Last week, the fourth coronial inquiry into the death of Azaria Chamberlain decided that – just as Lindy Chamberlain claimed 32 years ago – a dingo did, after all, take her baby.

Continue reading

A Black Swan Event in Moreton Bay

The language of business can be surprisingly vigorous.  I love the bestiality of its bulls and bears and dead cat bounces.

A postage stamp of Australia issued 1954 -West...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve only just discovered a new phrase, this one with a tangential Australian connection.  A Black Swan Event, according to a newish book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and can’t be predicted but which in retrospect, could have been expected.

What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Taleb, in New York Times, 22 April 2007, quoted in Wikipedia

Now who am I to question someone whose book was on the NYT bestseller list for 36 weeks, but this sounds to me basically what we historians call contingent events, and which Dick Cheney more succinctly described as ‘shit happens’. Continue reading

William Paterson and the Battered Wife

It’s disconcerting to come across someone you know in an unfamiliar context.  You discover that your colleague in the bank is a part-time football hooligan (it happened to my sister’s friend), or the nice tenants in your rental property turn out to be members of Ananda Marga (it happened to me, at a time when the sect was allegedly responsible for various acts of political terrorism).

This happens with historical figures too.  One of the endless fascinations of biography is the way that people keep breaking out of the boxes we put them in.

Cover of "Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve just been reading Wendy Moore’s biography of the Countess of Strathmore.  In the way of many books today, the long title – Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met his Match (2007) – gives you most of the plot.  Continue reading

Teredo – worms shall devour them

Places matter to people.  In my suburb, one of our best-loved places is the Shorncliffe pier.  Throughout the day, it is a place for tai chi and joggers, crab pots and fishing.  In the early evening, it is full of friendly walkers, with or without dogs.  People sprinkle the ashes of those they love from its railings, or use it as a backdrop for wedding photos.  It was recently used in a UK television ad available on YouTube here.

They used to say that Sandgate is 12 miles from Brisbane – or 13 at low tide.  It is a long way out to deep water, so early settlers could not get their goods – or themselves – from ship to shore without wading.  As the community grew, in 1865 they made plans ‘for the construction of a PIER or LANDING STAGE at Sandgate’.  This pier opened to the public in 1882.

From the start, the pier had a dual purpose, as a commercial landing stage, but also as a popular promenade.  Piers were a part of the tradition of beach ‘watering places’, growing popular amongst all classes by the mid-19th century.  They were destinations for city day-trippers who came by railway to enjoy a day at the beach, perhaps swimming, but probably just strolling along the waterfront, and enjoying the concerts, food outlets, Punch and Judy shows and other commercial activities that took place on and around a pier.

Shorncliffe pier

Our pier followed the social model of British piers such as the West Pier at Brighton (1866) and the Cleveden Pier on the Severn (1869), both built at much the same time.  People came by coach, and then by rail (1882) to enjoy a day at the beach.  But while the British piers were mainly built of iron, wood was much cheaper in Brisbane, so our pier is wooden.

A few weeks ago, council inspectors found marine borers in its timber pilings and the pier has been closed until further notice.  Since then there have been petitions and a rally, a local newspaper campaign and a lot of promises.  A local election next Saturday has raised the temperature. Continue reading

The Titanic’s Menus and what they can tell us

Last luncheon menu TitanicA menu from the first class service on the last luncheon of the Titanic’s maiden voyage has just been sold at auction for £76,000 [$A117,000].  This menu’s high value lies in its link to the Titanic, of course, especially in this centenary year.  But menus in any case make great collectors’ items.  They have an intrinsic fascination – I challenge anyone to read one without choosing which dishes they would order! – and they can tell us a lot about the time and place they come from. Continue reading

Dining with Wombats

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Death of a Wombat

The painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a pet wombat – though sadly, not for very long.  The poor creature died after a few months, in November 1867, and he marked its passing in verse:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

Apparently Rossetti included Top, the wombat, in his dinner parties, and there is some suggestion that he was the model for the dormouse in the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland – although the difference in size makes this unlikely.  Rossetti kept a whole menagerie of exotic pets at his home in Chelsea, including peacocks, owls, various dogs and rabbits, and more exotic creatures such as armadillos, a raccoon, a woodchuck and a small Brahmin bull.  He drew the line at a young elephant, not because of lack of room, but because of the high price – £400. Continue reading

An axe, a rifle and a box of matches

Queensland votes next Saturday in an election that looks like a rout for the current Labor government.  Pundits say that the key issues are state ones, rather than federal, though the fact that federal Labor is on the nose as well can’t help.

Win, lose or draw, the next Queensland government won’t be significantly different from governments elsewhere in Australia.  The main fight will take place in the south east corner, which is a carbon copy of south east Australia generally, not least because so many of its inhabitants are recent immigrants from interstate.

Nobody is asking today, as they invariably did 20 or 30 years ago when politics was discussed: Is Queensland different?  Or, having answered ‘yes’ to that question, Why is Queensland different?  On the whole, it seems, people and pundits no longer believe that the state of Queensland is a weird aberration from the Australian norm.  We even won the Sheffield Shield last weekend, and nobody found this remarkable.

But in many ways, geographically, demographically and politically, a remnant of Queensland weirdness remains – and some of it is exemplified in the person of Bob Katter, former Country Party, National Party, Independent and now leader of Katter’s Australia Party. Continue reading

Talking about the weather

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight;
Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.

No, I’ve no real idea what this means either – though I presume that it told generations of English shepherds whether to leave the sheep in the fields or bring them in to shelter.  Weather lore is a bit like that: a useful mnemonic for specific local purposes that doesn’t translate satisfactorily once you move to another place.

So what do you do when you do move to another place?

We’ve been having a lot of weather in Australia lately.  Towns from Roma to Forbes have been flooded, the rivers are running, and the 19th century myth of an inland sea sounds more plausible than usual.

We all now know that the reason for the wet weather is La Niña, El Niño’s soggy sister, but it is only in the last few decades that scientists have began to explain what Chilean fishermen have recognised in outline for hundreds of years.

The Southern Oscillation describes a pattern where the Pacific Ocean alternates between periods of warm and cool surface temperatures, which in turn affects air pressure and wind patterns across the Pacific – and perhaps well beyond.  During El Niño events it is dry in eastern Australia and wet on the American Pacific coast; the reverse occurs with La Niña.  Here in Australia we are currently being drowned by La Niña.

When European settlers arrived in Australia, they knew they had to learn about the local weather.  The governors were naval or military men, so they were used to keeping a meteorological record.  Over time, the new arrivals expected that this record of temperature, wind direction and rain, would give them a basis for predicting the weather – though weather forecasting in the late 18th century was still at the ‘red sky at night’ level of accuracy.

William Dawes journal

The meteorological journal of William Dawes, 1788

But they had no idea that they were dealing with a climate system that swings so dramatically, and so slowly, between wet and dry seasons.  Wikipedia suggests an oscillation of 5 years; the Australian Bureau of Meteorology suggests 3 to 8 years.  The truth is there is a great deal we still don’t know about the Southern Oscillation, but we do know it is highly variable.  It doesn’t tick regularly like a clock – or a pendulum.

The key figure in turning weather forecasting from an art to a science was Charles Darwin’s companion from the voyage of the Beagle, Captain (later Sir) Robert FitzRoy.  He did excellent survey work on the Beagle, received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.  He was Governor of New Zealand from 1843-5, but was recalled for supporting the Maori against the settlers in their disputes over land.

Robert FitzRoy barometer

In 1854, FitzRoy was appointed head of the newly established meteorological department in the Board of Trade.  Using the weather logs he persuaded ships’ captains and colonial observers to send him, he gathered together information on the weather, and collated this enormous pile of information into charts of winds and currents.  He came up with the idea – and the name – of ‘synoptic charts’.  Acting on his hunch that falling air pressure predicted stormy weather, he distributed barometers to ports around Britain.  They became standard in Australia, too.  He wrote The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology (1863), available on Google Books here.

FitzRoy was probably always a depressive.  He invited Charles Darwin to join him on the Beagle because he recognized the need for a companion to talk to during the voyage – and how fortunate was that for the development of science.  Despite his successes, the problem didn’t go away, and in April 1865, FitzRoy killed himself by cutting his throat with a razor.

FitzRoy introduced the idea of forecasting to meteorology, but he always recognized the limitations of forecasts:

Prophecies or predictions they are not: the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of a scientific combination and calculation, liable to be occasionally, though rarely, marred by [various unexpected events] not yet sufficiently indicated to our extremely limited sight and feeling.  We shall know more and more by degrees. (The Weather Book, p. 171)

Thanks to FitzRoy, ships’ captains and port authorities began to collect data on air pressure and sea temperature, as well as the established categories of rainfall, wind and air temperature.  Thanks to FitzRoy, that data is now being used to study the Southern Oscillation – and we shall know more and more by degrees.

Anita McConnell, ‘FitzRoy , Robert (1805–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 8 March 2012]
SEARCH: South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History

On Shifting Sands

The British Library recently called for volunteers to help ‘georeference’ over 700 historic maps of London, England and Wales.  They digitized the maps but needed the assistance of real live human beings to read the maps, and link them to equivalent maps on Google Earth, in place, size and projection.

It’s yet another fascinating experiment in crowd sourcing – but I’m afraid you can’t join in, because they got so many volunteers that the work was completed within a week!  They now plan to load another 1000 digital maps.  If you want to get involved you can register and they will notify you when they are ready to roll.

According to the accompanying video, the technology of linking past and present geographical features seems fairly straightforward: they use the Tower of London as an example, and it’s been in the same place for nearly a thousand years.

Tower of London 1597

Other geographical features on a landscape are trickier.  Where is the Fleet River these days?  Rivers are particularly vulnerable – they are constantly being diverted by urban development, or silt up because of agricultural development upstream.

Coastlines change too.  Continue reading

Sunlit Plains Extended

I’ve now been 3 times to the Eugene von Guérard exhibition, Nature Revealed, at the Queensland Art Gallery, partly because it’s free, I admit, but mostly because it’s so compelling.  It finishes on 5 March, so if you live in Brisbane, hurry.  And, if you’re my age, bring your reading glasses.

Everyone brought up in Australia knows a few von Guérard paintings, even if they don’t know that they know them.  He is widely represented in the National Gallery of Victoria, where he was curator from 1870, and the National Gallery of Australia, and in other galleries, particularly in Victoria where he did most of his work.

He painted landscapes: flat plains, the strange mountain formations of the volcanic Western District, or the dark and claustrophobic forests of the Dandenong Ranges.  The action often takes place in a shadowy foreground, while the background glows in the sunshine.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges 

I already knew many of his paintings from books, but I have seldom experienced before so sharply the need to see the original rather than rely on reproductions, because no matter how large the canvas, or the subject matter, von Guérard seems to have approached his painting with the eye – and the brush – of a miniaturist.  Continue reading