Tag Archives: Australia Day

John Gladstone Steele (1935-2016)

A friend has let me know that John Steele has just died. The funeral will be held next Monday, 1 February, at 10am in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane.

John Gladstone Steele was a physicist and antiquarian (his word!) who worked for many years in the physics department at the University of Queensland. I know absolutely nothing about his scholarship as a physicist, but John worked across two disciplines, physics and history. That was unusual even thirty years ago. In our more specialist age it is practically unheard of.

I never knew John Steele particularly well, but I used to run into him occasionally when our research rummaging overlapped in UQ’s specialist Fryer Library. He gave me a copy of his family history, The Petersons and the Uhrs: An Australian Family since 1825, when he had it privately published in 2003. This book sits firmly on my desk as I write my book, because John’s Australian connections begin with the merchant Richard Jones, who arrived in Sydney in 1809, and was for many years my Walter Davidson’s business partner.

But on this Australia / Invasion Day, it seems appropriate to talk about John Steele’s most significant book, Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River (1984). In his younger days, John was an enthusiastic bushwalker, and this book was based on an earlier gestetnered and stapled pamphlet he produced for the University of Queensland Bushwalking Society. He wrote about Aboriginal pathways in the first instance so that his group of bushwalkers could follow them, but in doing so, he became increasingly curious about the people who had made them.

J.G.Steele Aboriginal Pathways

I once asked him where he got his information – and he said he just asked the local Aboriginal people he met while out walking. In the 1970s and 1980s, very few people did. About the same time he published Aboriginal legends of Stradbroke Island (1984).

Bushwalking gave John a sensibility to the Australian landscape that many of us lack. In Conrad Martens in Queensland: the frontier travels of a colonial artist (1978), John looked at the sketchbooks and paintings of Conrad Martens, who travelled to the Moreton Bay settlement (not yet Queensland) during 1851 and 1852, to drum up painting commissions amongst the squatters of the Darling Downs. John had the eye to identify the locations of many of Martens’ sketches, which now represent an important visual record of Aboriginal occupation. Because of John’s identification of the location of an Aboriginal camp in one of Martens’ drawings, for instance, the botanist Rod Fensham was able to show that this place marked the northern limit of the yam daisy, a native plant with a tuberous root that was an important food source for the Aborigines – and soon to be wiped out by hungry sheep.

John’s work dates from before Mabo, before Native Title, before current sensitivities about the European occupation of Australia. His books are resources for later researchers, rather than historical works in their own right, and he was surprisingly humble about his abilities as a historian. He once urged me to write a biography of his ancestor, Richard Jones. Jones certainly deserves a biography, and in many ways John Stone had much in common with his ancestor. Both were politically conservative high Anglicans, and thoughtful scholarly men. I told John that he should write the biography himself – but he demurred. As he admitted himself, he was an antiquarian, not a historian.

I have just looked at the UQ library catalogue to find that 8 – eight – copies of Aboriginal Pathways are held in the library, of which 2 are held in the specialist Fryer Library, and of the others, 4 are currently out on loan, including one that is overdue. Not bad for a book more than 30 years old.

John’s twin disciplines of physics and history seldom overlapped – but I do like his explanation, in Explorers of Moreton Bay (1972), of why Cook’s and Flinders’ charts of Moreton Bay diverge – John thinks (and at least to my uneducated eye proves) that the magnetic pole must have moved in the 30 years between their voyages. Not many historians could have figured that out.

May Contain Nuts

Sometimes I think the whole world has gone nuts.

On the eve of the Australia Day long weekend, Pauline Hanson, political has-been and serial political candidate, who once wrapped herself literally in an Australian flag and has continued to do so metaphorically, has announced that she will no longer eat Vegemite.

How to eat vegemite

Now it’s true that Vegemite is no longer Australian. It was gobbled up – metaphorically – by multinational Kraft many years ago. But only Australians actually eat the stuff. Vegemite is conveniently marketed these days in a plastic tube so that elderly Australians can take it with them when they travel overseas. I have a friend who has lived in France for over 30 years to whom I bring Vegemite so she can spread it on her breakfast baguette. Vegemite is as Australian as drop bears and sharks.

Pauline Hanson has given it up because, according to its website, it is certified Halal by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Continue reading

Twelfth Night

Not that you’ve probably noticed, but tonight is Twelfth Night – the evening before the Feast of the Epiphany that marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Traditionally this was the day that the Three Kings (aka Three Wise Men) visited the baby Jesus.

Twelfth Night celebrations

Celebrating Twelfth Night in style. January, from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc du Berry, in Wikipedia

Here in Australia we have two ways of dealing with holidays. There are those that self-evidently must be celebrated on the date itself: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Anzac Day – and those that get shuffled off to extend the nearest weekend with an additional Monday: Labor Day, Queen’s Birthday. Good Friday and Easter meet both criteria, having the good grace (pun intended) to constitute a long weekend anyway.

Australia Day, on 26 January, has recently been upgraded from ‘nearest Monday when we can all veg out at the beach’ to ‘the day itself, and it’s about time you replaced those reindeer antlers on the car with Australian flags.’ But the traditional day for taking down the Christmas decorations was Twelfth Night. Continue reading

One Year On

I began this blog a year ago today.

26 January is a significant date in Australian history.  According to your perspective, it is Australia Day, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay, or Invasion Day, the date that began the dispossession of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

I didn’t choose 26 January for either of these reasons.  26 January is also the anniversary of the 1974 Australia Day flood, when Brisbane was flooded.  After that, we built a new dam and people said ‘it could never happen again’ – until last January, when it did.

I planned to start writing a blog when I retired, but last year’s flood provoked me into writing my first post – about the Brisbane floods of 1869, 1890, 1893, and 1931.

People forget.  I decided last January that my theme would be telling stories to entertain people who enjoy history, but also to remind people that – usually – things have happened in the past, and are likely to happen again. Possibly quite soon. Continue reading