Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Historians Conference

I've been away, as you dear reader, may have guessed. Away from my little shack overlooking the harbour and away from A WineDark Sea. But I return with stories to tell! The photographs from the last few posts were from Launceston, where the historians of the world (okay, Australia and a few random adventurers) gathered for the annual conference.

Apart from the constant guilt about the ratio of written work to scholarship cash, the falling away of my social circle, the feeling that I am talking into air when someone says "So what is your thesis about?" and the long hours spent inside my head's interior cities (the pleasant bit), another job of mine as a PhD candidate is to attend conferences and present my latest research. I'm beginning to understand that the reasons for this is so that everyone else in the same discipline knows what you are up to: overlaps get sorted pretty quickly, connections are made and resources shared - or deliberately not shared. Is this a scary concept to a young blood? Fuck yes.

Two posts down, I commented that I was surrounded by rock stars. In the conference rooms at one morning tea time (the only sessions that Stormboy always made sure he was present for) I saw an old man walking towards me. He was really heading for the chocolate crackles. John Mulvaney. The man who excavated a Tasmanian tiger on the Nullabor during the seventies or eighties. He'd found the earliest trace of dingoes too and come up with the theory that the arrival of dingoes saw out the end of mainland tygers. I wrote some fiction about him once, it is here.

Mulvaney edited a beautiful book of  Captain Barker's journals called Commandant of Solitude, the story of European beginnings in my home town (He complained to me that MUP had remaindered them). He also wrote Prehistory of Australia. I turned around to see Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan getting stuck into coffee and carrot cake. Far out. More of them. I've been reading their stuff for ten years and here they all are.

It was quite a surreal experience. Like the rest of us amateurs, the rock stars were presenting papers on their own latest findings. Ryan's paper was on the success of the Black Line. For anyone who doesn't know about Tasmania's Black Line, it was a systematic attempt to round up the Pallawah people, using a 'net' of soldiers and civilians spanning the island of Tasmania. It was paid for by the British Government and is considered one of Australia's most expensive military exercises before the Japanese invasion of World War 2. It was also seen as a colonial-style economic stimulus package, where cash was injected into a struggling community to buy meat, boots and guns. The official result of the Black Line was the capture of one old man and a boy. But Lyndall Ryan argued the Line's success in that, within twelve months, many of the northern and eastern tribes had disappeared from Tasmania.

That the conference was situated in Tassie this year (they take place in a different city each year) meant a lot of the academics were locals, including Reynolds and Ryan. As I've written before, Tasmania's history is bloody and close. Many of the younger academics were focused on Black Line history.

What I found striking was that despite the research, the talk and the ideas flying around the campus during this conference, Tasmania as a state seems content to smother its other history with a kind of Disneyfied colonial aesthetic. Contemporary Tasmania is a palimpsest: pretty paddocks and buildings pasted over a rather nasty past. The academic world whirls with stories and theories of What Happened, while a hotel in Launceston is named after the two leaders of the Black Line - those men regaled with songs, flowers and food as they rode out on their mission.


  1. Thanks for the update. I was really eager to hear how you went. I still don't know! But this was interesting.
    So how did you go presenting? Did you like it? I think it might be addictive, I really loved it.

  2. It was great! I'll post about it. :)

  3. Sounds great, S. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

  4. Fascinating and stimulating. It's hard for me to judge but isn't it kind of exciting being a historian at this point in Australia's cultural evolution? I get the feeling there's just enough time between those early events and now to be able to talk about them in the context of modern times.

    Palimpsest, is often the way when what was done was not talked about, or was discouraged as a source of conversation. A lot of old Australian's were probably consumed by the difficulty of survival and only interested in their powers of endurance, eschewing all those nasty incidents in favour of dour adherence to Victorian codes of conduct. Understandably, as the generations passed each one had more of an eye on the future, 'where we're going,' rather than where they'd come from.

    I found an article on William Dunn of Woodburn 'Porongarups, on the occasion of his 90th birthday ( I think), it was published in 'The West Australian' in 1923 (I think, maybe '32 - I'm on the hop here). He is the older brother of your John Dunn of Cocanarup. All he could talk of was his disdain for Perth, the heroics of his father and the earliest settlers at King George Sound and how the arrival of radio had made life less than what it used to be. It was all about hardship and sacrifice, how long it used to take to ride the dray into Albany, how often the mail came.. etc. Stuff, no doubt, that bored their children silly..

    My feeling is that the time is probably right now for people to be sufficiently interested in what really happened back then. I think you have to be careful not to sensationalise events but if you can uncover those stories, keep them in context and tell them as they most likely occurred, you are probably going to find a receptive audience..

  5. Mmm Ciaran, sounds like you are getting a thesis together there! Keep on truckin'. As always, the discipline of history is cliche'd with tweedy sorts and actually contains some pretty juicy concepts. It's fun, hey?

  6. Almost everything you post here gives me pause to think. I had to look up palimpsest just to make sure I understood what it meant. It is so true of Australia (from my distant perspective anyway), that the present is an entirely different thing to what was. Immigration, no doubt, plays a huge role in that, and the quest to live that healthy wealthy lifestyle of the Margartet River brigade. I'm into the past at the moment, big time. And I'm getting there too, doing what I wanted in that regard. Figuring out how it all came together down there...