Sunday, March 23, 2014

Good men and bad men in small boats

Recently I've been consolidating all of my word doc files to see what the exegesis segment of my thesis will look like. The exegesis is basically a dissertation; a theoretical exploration of the creative section - in my case a work of historical fiction about the sealers and Aboriginal women who travelled from Bass Strait to Breaksea Island on the eve of the colonisation of the west of the continent. Because this is a creative PhD and the thesis must 'contribute to knowledge', I was becoming quite uncertain and freaked out that what I'd written was contributing to anything at all, let alone knowledge.

Any readers of A WineDark Sea over the past few years would have heard my moaning:
"It's nothing new. Someone else has already done this."
"I don't want these pedo/rapist/feral bastards camping inside my head for another week."
"I can't do this thing."
"This shit is fucked up. I wanna go back to selling gemstone necklaces at the markets."

What I've learned over the last week is that a) part of my exegesis actually is contributing to knowledge and that no one else has achieved this yet. b) after four years of the worst of the worst kind of folk camping inside my head, I exorcised them with the essay Predator Dreams (here), took control of the narrative and gave them all the raised middle finger. And c) I can use these essays in my exegesis as a bridging chapter between the theory and the fiction without the whole thing being negatively critted as too 'solipsistic'. (Thanks for that word Michelle.)

The beautiful thing about these realisations is that the exegesis is mere months away from finishing. Most of the chapters are done and only need cleaning. The fiction is not completed but I'm shaping up the story for the conclusion. The end is in sight.
This is so exciting for me.

Sorry if this bit next is boring ... but I'm going to post a section on working with men in small boats which is still rough and may or may not contribute to the bridging chapter between the exegesis and the fiction.

1. People
1.1 Good men and bad men in small boats

On the south coast of West Australia I have worked with (mainly) men in small commercial fishing camps, netting the estuaries and inshore waters for fish and crabs. The irony that I was also writing about men of much the same ilk, albeit a century dead, did not escape me. These modern day commercial fishers are certainly no duplication in sentiment or actions of the 19th century sealers: they are usually happily married, own land and pay large amounts of money to maintain their fishing licences. However they tend to be clannish outsiders with slightly anarchic tendencies towards the government arms of law and order, only complying for utilitarian reasons. They are comfortable living in bush camps and shacks for weeks or months at a time. They understand the cycles of nature – the winds, swell, the natural predators and the seasons - intimately through their work. Their income derives from a trade plied from small boats, another primary industry of the sea. In these ways contemporary commercial fishermen are similar to yesteryear sealers.

One of the fishermen I worked with was proud to relate that he was a fourth generation fisherman and that one of his ancestors, a sealer, was accidently shot through the neck and killed while working the beaches east of Albany. Working for this fisherman was an ‘embedded’ process of research for me while I spent long hours on the coast, learning how to handle boats, nets and prey such as stingrays and small sharks. He had a keen sense of family and natural history and this information constantly inspired my writing about the sealers.

Obviously the modern day fishers differ from 19th century sealers in that they don’t tend to kidnap women and imprison them on islands or shoot Aboriginal men and each other (though there are a few historic yarns of guns being brandished over access to fishing spots). However I do wonder what kind of men the fishermen would have been if they were placed in the same situation as the Hunter and Governor Brisbane crews: abandoned thousands of nautical miles from the nearest point of white population and law for two years. Phrases like ‘the thin veneer of civilisation’ and ‘men of their time and circumstance’ go through my mind. They are also common responses given to my wonderings out loud. There is really no way to answer this question, other than to judge each individual by evidence of their actions, either today or 160 years ago.

I would like to think that there is no such excuse as the ‘man of his time’ one. I would like to think that there are good people and bad people, that there are good men and bad men in any era. That the ‘men of their time’ argument is a simplistic furphy, a way out of explaining the history of good and ill deeds, of opportunities taken at the expense of a less powerful people.

Some of the historical characters whom I depict in Exiles do appear from the journals to be people who were compelled by justice and the wellbeing of others. Certainly the white men who wrote the journals represented themselves as virtuous and astute, (which is not to say that these representations were mistruths) intent on preserving their legacy upon the page. In a land without access to European law I believe Lockyer and d’Urville both knew the imperative of quickly assessing the characters of the sealers who rowed to their ships’ sides and asked for assistance, and that they were not naive or generous in their first impressions.

There is also the language and actions of the potential coloniser. Within days of the Amity weighing anchor in King George Sound, Lockyer knew that he must assuage the turbulence created within the Menang population by the sealers. He ‘managed’ the situation by staging the rescue of the four men from Michaelmas Island, the rescue of Samuel Bailey’s captives and the arrest and handcuffing of Samuel Bailey in front of the Menang population, consulting with them throughout the process. Major Lockyer was probably motivated not by humanitarian concerns but utilitarian – his was a career colonisers’ post and he understood that for the settlement to succeed among a people who, though extraordinarily generous in their hospitality, heavily outnumbered the occupants of the Amity. He had to establish a relationship of trust and distinguish his own white charges from the sealers.

Still Lockyer and d’Urville granted men such as Hamilton (d’Urville) and William Hook (Lockyer and d’Urville) some humanity in their journals. D’Urville also expressed a grudging admiration for the abandoned Breaksea Island community of sealers who survived for so long in isolation with only whaleboats, guns and the women to aid them.

Generally though, their depictions of the sealers and the women were disparaging, distrustful, full of loathing or exasperation at the mob of ‘ferals, sea wolves and pirates’ cruising the Southern and Indian Ocean islands. Then of course, came the evidence: the dead man on Green Island and the state of the woman rescued from Eclipse Island.

The sealers who lived in King George Sound did not record their own thoughts for posterity but their attitude towards authority comes through in the journals and despatches. D’Urville notes their recalcitrance and their aloof manner when he asked if any of the men wanted a working berth to Port Jackson. Despite them having been marooned, he was amazed that they rebuffed his offer and, no doubt chagrined by their cool manner, he withdrew the offer. Whether this snub was a result of the sealers and the Frenchmen distrusting one another as left over sentiments from the Napoleonic war, a breakdown in communication or simply that the sealers preferred to stay in West Australia to await the arrival of an Englishman, is uncertain.

In observing the interactions between contemporary commercial fishers and the law, I noticed that the relationships were often the same as the ones depicted in the 1820s journals. It seems to be a point of masculine pride, both parties being distinguished by their positions, that they never ‘cross over’ to the other side. Commercial fishers do not defer to authorities such as fisheries officers. Information is gleaned in a roundabout, conversational manner where both parties go away thinking they’ve gained more than the other.


  1. Think yourself lucky you didn't write 'Against Nature'. Huysmans had Bluebeard camping in his head the whole way through, and Bluebeard could not look at white, puffy clouds in the sky without seeing the buttocks of his child victims floating around all day.

    1. P.S. - It was the only book I had to put down through sheer horror at being dragged into the psyche of a despotic murderer.

  2. Done Bluebeard, Tom ... Bluebeard was my nemesis. Have a look at Predator Dreams.
    But I'll take that into account and read Huysmans to do myself in just a little bit more :~)

    1. Brace yerself, Sheila - you're in for a rough ride. Huysmans uses the old story-teller, who uses his elderly wife as a warning to the more sensitive readers about what's coming, by waiting for her to retire to bed before cracking open a bottle of the hard stuff and getting down to the descriptions of the unspeakable activities of old Bluebeard.

      I'll have to read your Bluebeard description - in the Huysmans version, Bluebeard began life as the aristocratic best mate of Joan of Arc, before their lives took turns in opposing directions. I don't know how much is true.

      I never made it to the end, and you may see why when you read it yourself.

  3. I never knew that connection between Bluebeard and Joan of Arc.
    Bracing now ...

    1. BRACE! BRACE! as they may or may not have said on MH 370.

    2. Oops! The Huysmans book about Bluebeard you want is called 'Down There'. 'Against Nature' is quite funny, though.

  4. This is very interesting Sarah. It certainly links up the past with the present, puts your experiences into context and prevents it from being solely based on your own desire to go fishing! Is this the basis of your 'original contribution to knowledge' then? As you would know, this is the defining and critical difference between a Masters and a PhD. And I sympathise - I went through similar self-doubt about the worth of my research to academia, so I was absolutely rapt when both my examiners commented that my 'original theory' was a significant contribution - for me it was probably the most important aspect of the entire study.

  5. Hi Michelle, no this piece is not my 'original contribution' but rather part of a bridging chapter between historical theory and the fiction. I'm able to uses pieces such as these based on personal experience (ie Predator Dreams and Breaksea Island visits) to explain certain decisions I have made in the fiction component.
    The original stuff is based on narrative theory, individual biographies of the Breaksea Island sealing community and some island theory - something else I'm pretty excited about. It's all slotting in real nice!
    I won't be posting any original contribution pieces here, for obvious reasons :~)

    1. Yes, I was pretty cagey about my original idea too!

  6. Think yourself lucky you didn't write 'Against Nature'. Huysmans had Bluebeard camping in his head the whole way through

    I might have this arse-about, but wasn't ”La-Bas” (The Damned (or however it's translated)) the one about Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard)?

    I would like to think that there is no such excuse as the ‘man of his time’ one. I would like to think that there are good people and bad people, that there are good men and bad men in any era. That the ‘men of their time’ argument is a simplistic furphy, a way out of explaining the history of good and ill deeds, of opportunities taken at the expense of a less powerful people.

    Funnily, I tend to hold almost the exact opposite view. I don't think there's such a thing as an intrinsic, incontrovertible “good and evil”. We are thinking animals, but animals none the less. Morality is learned, and a cat is not choosing to be evil when it tortures a mouse (or possibly rabbit). Certainly, I have my own sense of right-and-wrong/good-and-evil that I use to evaluate people and their actions, but it's relative to my own time and place and experiences, and I don't think it's really relevant for asking questions in an historic context like I think you're doing.

    Obviously, I don't know anywhere near as much about these specific incidents as you do, so I can only speak in general terms; but basically, I tend to think that if you want to go down that road, you either have to look at evidence for whether or not the perpetrators had any sense of wrongdoing and chose to do wrong anyway, or at the very least, the social context in which the actions were taken.

    I'm aware this rambling explanation is becoming something of a mess, so I'll attempt to give some simplistic examples. I'd label a bloke like Ariel Castro evil, because it seems obvious to me that he was fully aware of how monstrous his actions were but chose to do them anyway. On the other hand, a bloke in Afghanistan who forces marriage on a thirteen year old and keeps her locked up and beats her and rapes her because that's what he's seen men do to women his whole life and he has no sense that there's anything wrong with it, I don't judge in exactly the same way. In accordance with my own morality, I call the behaviour evil and the social structures that produce that behaviour evil, but I can't condemn that man in the same way – because, I suppose – I see him as man of his time and circumstance.

    Am I wrong?

  7. Not wrong, just interesting and challenging ...
    I guess I'm evaluating people's actions in perspective with others of their era, their peers, Alex. Some seemed to possess a moral compass and an idea of what was right and wrong, even given the historical context. Others didn't.

    Being naturally lairy of 'good and evil' tropes is my thing but then you get the Andre Breiviks of this world who plead sanity and political causes while on trial for mass killings.

    Apologies but in my view your Afghan argument is wrong because of the power structures involved. Economic, cultural or historical imperatives may influence somebody's behaviour, but whichever party occupies the position of power - and in this example it is the Afghan man - can exercise choice in how they behave and the violences they inflict on others. The 13 year old female has no such agency, autonomy or choice, the sphere where the ability to make 'morality' decisions is based.

  8. Certainly no need for apologies.

    Yes, it's true that the Afghan man has the power of choice, but it's his learned morality that shapes the way he wields that power. If you'd told people a hundred years ago that it was wrong to beat children, they'd have thought you looney.

    And to try to make a crude example from the other vantage point of time: There's a small fringe group of animal rights activists (I forget the name) who believe that many animals, especially large mammals, should be given similar rights and protections as human beings. I consider that pretty nutty, but if that way of thinking becomes dominant in developed countries in two or three hundred years time, those people are going to look back on meat-eaters like myself as inhuman monsters.

    By comparison, the notion of racial and sexual equality (not to mention that of sexual orientation), in a lot of places, was a similarly nutty, fringe idea until relatively recently; and yes, in some places still is. Even the notion of human decency changes with time and place.

    As for the Breiviks of the world – people who commit atrocities out of devotion to an ideal or because they perceive themselves to be fighting some sort of threat – I guess I spread them out in the space between. Along with the people who make up governments and militaries and corporations that commit atrocities by such a means that no individual ever feels responsible for them.

    1. It's a good argument, learned morality. I still go back to the history books and see that people responded in different ways, despite their circumstances.
      I'm reminded of Bolivia's president who argued for the rights of nature too. His culture may have been motivated by survival ... not sure. I haven't looked into it that much. I just remember being surprised by his proclamation!

  9. Just to throw something a little left field in here. I was helping my daughter with her George Washington/American War of Independence homework tonight and was reminded that it was King George the 3rd who the American's sought independence from. This being the 1770's but relevant in that it was the French who helped secure victory for Washington at Yorktown in 1881 by preventing British troop ships from landing reinforcements at Virginia. The French doing so as they were still smarting from losses sustained during the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) against the British begun in the 1750's in America but which spread into an extended international conflict eventually concluding with the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800’s.

    King George the 3rd's Sound in 1826 was just a little distance on in time, place and historical context from that but it is interesting to note that Lockyer arrived there to defend or disrupt the French presence, a response still residual to those earlier conflicts. To be complete about it I suppose the French Revolution and general cultural swing in that country away from colonial conquest to missions of cultural/educational/philanthropic importance ought to be considered because it seems the idea of planting a flag anywhere in the South Seas at that time was not on the minds of the ship's captains at all (d'Urville's anyway..), but it looks to be that W.A. was first settled because they were around.

    If I can keep this together, and I'm trying, it's the fur trade tie-in with the French and English back in America that I’m trying to cite. This is because that trade, bereft of beavers/otters, was turning to sea otters, or fur seals. The ‘Trade’ was long profitable with an French/American heart and was turning pelagic at a time when the Patriot/Puritan whaling fleet at Massachusetts (itself beginning to fill with labour provided by emancipated slaves) was beginning to gain serious numbers. The trade rounded Cape Horn and swept north and west leading those marauding vessels to the so-called Southern Fishery at the same time as their previous military overseers, the British, were patrolling the waters in order to ward off the (non-existent) French threat at Albany.

    This is your speciality Sarah but I think it was the 1790’s when the Americans first started appearing at New Zealand and Bass Straight in their small boats, joined simultaneously by British transports contracted to deliver to New South Wales but with plans to whale and/or seal in order to fill the holds and make a profit on return. As the fur seal numbers around Bass Straight were great the industry exploded in size resulting in the mixing of those already raggle-taggle ‘commercial’ crews with all manner of abandoned men to form new, even more motley, ones upon the islands off Southern Australia. One of those abandoned men (self abandoned) being the evil type you mention.

    The point in all of this, I suppose, being that when I finished my daughter’s homework and I went to bed to read a bit, I found myself here at A WineDarkSea with enough information to complete a curious historical insight and at about the only place in the whole wide world worth saying anything about it.

    1. Thanks Ciaran. What a circular and quite lovely narrative ... as is this history. I love how both blow out to a global scale and then withdraws to a single man sitting on an island alone, somewhere on the southern ocean.

    2. I was away in Barcelona this weekend just gone on a father and son rugby tour. Had a lot of fun, saw the Sagrada Familia, watched rugby, ate cheap food and drank quite a lot of beer. One of the guys on tour I kept a healthy distance from because I had locked horns with him on the last tour, curiously also in Spain but in the Basque country. Ray, not his real name, is a ferocious character. A man with fire in his eyes, in his veins and in his intellect. A small town working class boy with no inclinations toward the finer way of things. Jaegeurmeister in plastic cups on the bus after a dozen or more pints reciting epic biblical parodies in difficult rhyme. A man who'd no sooner cut you down than stand you back up again, legless, and laugh. A man with a work ethic so ingrained he left his wife and family to live in Saudi going down tunnels to lay explosives, climbing crane towers unharnessed, shouting obscenities at anyone or anything to prevent him, sending the big money cheques home by the week with messages to the sons that they best play hard at the weekend for if he gets word they didn't he'd be home soon enough to change it. There's a furnace burning inside him fuelled by I don't know what because the fire stays hot and fierce no matter the time of day, or night. When he opens his eyes its like opening the door to that furnace, you can see the heat. Courting friendship doesn't appeal to him, social graces are not his style, and on a tour weekend no-one escapes him. He's a man, if ever he found himself in a small boat during times 200 years past, wh'd be the steerer. No finer man headsman either, take the tiller from him at your peril. In those days, under those circumstances, would he lead a raid on an aboriginal camp to kidnap women? Yes, I believe he would. Would he reduce the dangers set against him by marooning their husbands and brothers on a distant island? Yes I believe he would. Would he fire his musket and kill a man in defence? I have no doubt. Would he murder a man if that man posed a threat to his leadership? Yes, I believe he would. Would he take an eight year old girl by the wrist and lead her to his lair in order that he might satiate his lust? If his lust was as ferocious as the fire inside him and there was no other girl to quench it, then yes, I think he might even have done that.