Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Point and counter-point in history

Recently, Janine Rizzeti has had two rather nice book reviews:‘Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853′ by Marie Hansen Fels and then, a little earlier, ‘A distant field of murder’ by Jan Critchett.

Both reviews were very well written. Both drew out some of the complexities involved in interpreting black-white relations on the moving frontier.

In her review of Jan Critchett's book, Janine paid me a rather nice compliment when she wrote:

There is much to be gained from a close-grained analysis of Aboriginal/White interaction based on a particular geographic region-  I know that Jim Belshaw has adopted this approach.

It would be fairer to say that I try to adopt this type of approach. I make this qualification because in presently writing a general history, I am trying to work with secondary sources as much as possible. To really do cross-grained analysis, you gave to go back to the original records.

A good example of this is James Knight's PhD thesis on Tindale tribes. He took the work of the anthropologist Norman Tindale in mapping Australia's Aboriginal groups and subjected it to detailed forensic analysis for one area of South Australia using the original records. The work provided a powerful rebuttal of certain elements in Tindale's thinking. Since Tindale's work is built into some current aspects of public policy towards the Aborigines, Knight's work is of current, not just historical, interest.

To be really effective, close-grained has to be combined with broader studies. To often, we just have the broader studies. Less often, we have close-grained studies written in isolation or that sit there in isolation.

To my mind, the best history comes from point and counter-point between local or regional close-grained historical analysis and broader analysis. Both deliver ideas, tentative broader conclusions, that can then be tested.

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