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

Monday, January 31, 2011

NEA blog performance January 2011

The attached graphic shows visits (yellow) and page views (yellow plus red) on this blog for the year to end Stats Jan 20112 January. While still not a high traffic blog, I have held the higher numbers that began in the middle of 2010.
The top ten posts over January were:
Excluding search engines, the main referring sites have been:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New England & Archives Outside

I have often mentioned Archives Outside on this blog. Archives Outside is the State Records NSW blog.

On 20 January in What can we do you for?, we were asked what we would like to see on the blog over 2011.  I responded with a comment, leading to a follow-up. I decided instead of commenting further to do a full post free of the limitations imposed by the comment space.

The Comments Thread

In my first comment, I suggested:

I would like to see:
1. More information on particular records systems. For example, a description of cabinet records. I found them very fragmentary.
2. More Hunter Valley & North Coast material. That would help me in the writing I am now doing.

I would be happy to do a guest post from time to time. I have a fair collection of material, some of which would be of broader interest.

Melissa was the next to comment:

Thanks for providing us with the opportunity to comment.

I have really enjoyed the ‘Can You Date’ series both on this site and the flickr account. I would like to see heaps more photos made available and, like Jim, I would be particularly interested in photos from the Hunter Valley & North Coast of NSW.

In terms of other items, I would be really interested in a couple of posts from Archives staff describing what they do (like a ‘day in the life of …’) and the techniques they use in accessing and storing records. Perhaps even an account of how changes in technology have impacted upon archival work.

Anyway, keep up the great work!

Fiona Sullivan then responded with two comments. First:

Thanks for the feedback Jim, it is much appreciated!

1. When you ask for more information about records systems do you mean information about how different types of systems worked (e.g. top file numbering systems) or information about the records of a particular agency and why there are gaps etc. ?

We would love to have you as a guest poster, if you would like to discuss this you can either use the “contact us” form on the blog or email us directly. Most staff members at State Records can be reached using the following formula for email addresses: firstname.lastname@records.nsw.gov.au

We will definitely take on board your request for more Hunter Valley/North coast material. It is such a rich area for NSW history it would be a shame not to feature it more.

And then:

Melissa, thanks so much for taking the time to let us know what you are interested in seeing on the blog.

Making more photographs available is definitely a long term goal for State Records. With the celebrations of State Records 50th Anniversary our crack digitisation team are much in demand at the moment. The good news is that this will give us the opportunity to feature some of the gems held in collections of the members of our Regional Repository network. A number of them been embarking on digitisation programs of their own and the results are stunning.

Your request for more posts from staff about their jobs and “A Day in the life of” is a great one and mirrors some of the offline feedback we received. This is something that we have been talking about amongst ourselves as well. We are lucky to have access to a lot of expertise here, however, one of our biggest challenges has been that the people with that expertise are very busy and don’t have the time to contribute. We think we’ve come up with a fun way to get around that so stay tuned!

Bill Oates finished the comments stream with this comment:

The UNE and Regional Archives does have a couple of good collections of North Coast photographs. Whatever we have is only a fraction of the wonderful glass plate collection held by Kempsey. We will provide State Records with a choice of our material as well as responding to any specific research requests.

I know that there will be more comments, NSW has been in the holiday period, but wanted to respond now with a much more detailed response than can be accommodated in a normal comment. Because this is a personal response, I am going to add some personal material that will explain some of the axes I am grinding away at.

NSW Cabinet (and other) records

I joined the Commonwealth Public Service all those years ago as an Administrative Trainee with the Public Service Board. At the end of my training year I went to Treasury. That department had a records system stretching back to Federation.

I used the older files quite often. For example, one of the things that I was working on was farm reconstruction. Another, the Department of Primary Industry estimates. I found myself accessing files back to 1933 to gather evidence.

In the 1970s I enrolled in a PhD. My thesis was a biography of my grandfather, a leading Country Party politician, the longest serving NSW Minister for Education and a key founder of the University of New England. I submitted in 1983. The thesis examination process dissolved into a fight among the examiners. The two senior examiners liked it, the third did a hatchet job. It then went to an adjudicator who came down against me on a completely different set of arguments. It was eighteen months before I got advice that simply said rewrite, taking everybody's views into account. I finally walked away from the whole thing.

Before going on, I have finally brought the thesis minus introduction on-line. You will find it here. If you read it, remember that it was submitted some 28 years ago. I think that it still stacks-up, but it contains elements that I now know to be wrong.

In criticising my thesis, the adjudicator said first that there was a danger of David Drummond being of insufficient importance to warrant a PhD thesis. Leaving aside problems with what used to be known as big men in history, this is an odd comment about a man who was both a leading political figure and, to quote a later writer, the leading Australian education minister of the first half of the twentieth century.

The adjudicator also criticised the thesis on the grounds of my failure to adequately consult NSW records. This criticism really stung. I had spent weeks in the State Archives. It is this element that I want to address.

The Drummond family papers in the UNE Archives contain his ministerial letter books. An activist minister, Drummond kept a copy of every memo and direction he sent to his Department over the twelve years he was minister. This is a real treasure trove of a period of key change, a trove that I suspect is still little known.

When I went into the State Archives I had read all this material, all of Drummond's personal papers, as well as a range of other primary and secondary material. I also went into the Archives knowing the Commonwealth records system.

The first thing that I looked at were the Cabinet records. I focused on Cabinet as a key decision making body. I struggled because the records were so fragmentary, so unlike the Commonwealth records I knew.

I then looked at the early Child Welfare and Public Instruction/Education Department records. I could find almost nothing on the State Children's Relief Board, while Education records were dominated by individual school boxes. I sampled a hundred or so to check issues, but learned very little.

At the time there were very few finding aids. More Importantly, there was nothing about the history of records. How did Cabinet work? How were records kept?

This is basic stuff. If you don't know how records were kept, what is there, it is very hard to access. A simple list of series, of what is there, is not enough. It is very hard to make a judgement of what to look at and where. I wanted to know how record keeping systems actually worked. Then I could make a judgement as to what I might find, where to look.

I know that NSW Records have changed over the last twenty years. Now there is a new variable.

Time constrained, working from home without access to the normal academic resources, I struggle to research and write. I know that I should go into the NSW Archives, I really must do so, but time is an issue.

To help me, what I would really like is history of the individual records systems. How did NSW Cabinet work? How were Cabinet records kept? Where do I find them? And so it goes for other records series. The material may now be there, but I need to be told.

New England Focus

Those who read this blog will know that I am writing a history of the broader New State New England. They may not realise how history affects records and the presentation of those records.

The University of New England was founded to be the Sydney University of the North. When it began, it collected material from the broader New England.

In 1967, the New State plebiscite was lost and the New State Movement collapsed. This affected both the way records were kept and presented. As a simple example, UNE''s local history collection, the best regional history collection in Australia, narrowed its focus to cut out some areas, focusing especially on inland New England. From my viewpoint as an historian, this was something of a disaster. Areas such as the North Coast diminished from view.

I must emphasise that this is not a criticism of UNE archivist Bill Oates who does a remarkable job. Rather, it is a simple statement that UNE's contracting focus meant that there was nothing left to bridge the gap between the narrowly local or regional and the state level.

The North Coast suffered most in this contraction. It actually vanished from the historical radar. This may sound extreme, but I do try to monitor this stuff quite closely.

There are so many broader New England and especially North Coast stories that are now just unknown. I cannot rebuild the broader New England memory of its past on my own, although I try. The Robinson family, New England Airways, steam navigation on the coast, Nimbin and counter culture, all are being lost. They remain as fragments, isolated memories diminishing on a sea of time, footnotes in the broader Australian story.

You see why I want more Hunter and North Coast photos?

With a photo, I can link a story, something that tells New Englanders a little about their past.


I accept that I mainly write about a slice of NSW. However, I think that the points are valid ones. I would like to see Archives Outside continue to develop as a living link between our present and past.

What do you think? What would you like to see covered?      

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Round the history blogs 10 - a melange

Just over a month since my last round-up.

Mike Dash, the winner of the 2010 Cliopatria award for best history post with his "The Emperor's Electric Chair", has established a new blog, A Blast from the Past. Mike writes remarkably good well researched posts.   A Russian prince on a Wichita road gang deals with a remarkable Hollywood figure, while The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors provides interesting insights into the closed world of Shogunate Japan. Both posts are worth a read.

It is absolutely impossible to keep up with the full range of historical research and writing. I find that I can do no more than browse, noting things that interest me with the thought that some day I might check. In doing so, I find views from other countries helpful.

Much of my historical work necessarily centres on New England. Some balance to this is provided by my general writing since this often has an historical component that takes me in many directions. Even so, I find it easy to get trapped in a very Australianist position.

The US Legal History Blog continues to be a useful corrective because of the range of topics covered. I may never read the books referred too, but at least I get a feel for issues. In Nineteenth-Century International Law: Becker Lorca, Oszu, and Gozzi in the Harvard ILJ, for example, Clara Altman looks at a discussion on the evolution of international law. Did it become universal through a unilateral process of European expansion or, alternatively, did international law became universal during the nineteenth century as semi-peripheral jurists appropriated and reinterpreted international law to include non-Western sovereigns?

I do wonder, though, just what is meant by international law in this context.

There have been a couple of recent posts on Christopher Moore's History News that I wanted to mention in passing.

In Three things about Marcel Trudel (1917-2011), Christopher reports on the death of the leading historian on New France. He says in part:

Trudel responded to hagiographical history with an absolute commitment to data, to evidence-based statements. He had no elaborate theoretical or methodological technique; he just wanted to know every fact and to set them all down in endless encyclopedic detail. That is not the only way to practise history and probably not often the best, but it was almost revolutionary in its day and did lay down an enormous evidentiary foundation for the history of early Canada.

Quite a bit of my own historical writing attempts to define patterns and relationships. All this type of work has to build from and be checked by facts. The very, very, detailed analysis of the type apparently done by Marcel Trudel is actually quite critical.

Controversies real and invented provides an introduction to one current round in what appears to be the continuing North American history wars. There are Australian equivalents. Speaking personally, I just don't want to play in this sandpit. Life's too short!

Turning to Australia, I thought that The Resident Judge of Port Phillip's ‘Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History’ by Kevin C. Kearns was a pretty good review. She summarises the book this way:

If I had to think up a pithy title for this book, I think I’d call it “Angela’s Ashes: The Documentary”. It’s all here: the feckless father, the bedraggled and burdened mother, the dead babies, the supercilious priests and nuns, the sheep’s head stew and the overflowing toilet.  And the power of this book is that it’s here again, and again, and again, and again.  In his lengthy introductory chapters, the author comments that the sainted-mother-who-held-the-family-together is a stereotype, and yet when you encounter her so often, it is insensitive to dismiss her as just a sentimental trope.

At a personal level, I am not a good observer of Irish history. I am simply not sympathetic enough, too conscious of the way that Irish history plays out in the Australian present. I avoid writing on Irish history unless absolutely necessary. Still, and as often happens when you have to address facts, I have a higher degree of sympathy than I did a few years ago.

I did laugh at the Angela's Ashes reference. Some years ago, I gave the book to an aunt as a present. I had looked at it, but not read it. In response, she insisted I read it. Bottom line: worst present ever!

Narrowing the focus again, I did love this photo from Archives Outside. Man and horse drinking! Man & horse

I am looking forward to 2011 posts from this blog. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Environment and the distribution of Aboriginal languages in NSW

In a post on my personal bog, Why micro-environments are important, I discussed the importance of micro-environments. That post was triggered by my re-reading of the commentaries associated with the 1977 Atlas of New England published by the University of New England Geography Department[1]. In that post I referred to the Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) language group. This drew the following comment from David Nash from the Australian National University’s Linguistics Department:

"The large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water ..."

I don't think this follows (whether you mean large in territory or in population). Compare the size of language groups along other large rivers. Or one could equally suppose that assured water could be shared by many different groups each of whom need less territory.

David’s comment was helpful because it highlighted an area where my thinking was arguably sloppy. For that reason, I decided to take the opportunity offered by David’s comment to clarify and extend my thinking. The material that follows should be read as musings, thoughts in progress.

Introducing Geography and the Distribution of Aboriginal Languages

In their Prehistory of Australia, Mulvaney and Kamminga noted that there have been numerous attempts to map complexes of Aboriginal cultural traits throughout the continent that might help understanding of the major differences in language, social customs, mythology, artistic styles and technology.[2]. To their mind, the 1976 explanation by Nicholas Petersen was the most persuasive.

Petersen observed that major cultural areas correspond with major drainage basins. He suggested that the reason for this is that the topography and environments of drainage basins tend to be internally uniform, while their margins are relatively poor in plant, animal and water resources. This led to more social interaction between groups living within the basin; much less between groups living on either side of the marginal zones.

Petersen’s conclusions broadly fit with those that I reached in my own earlier work[3]. However, I also considered that major geographic regions were important since the close relationship between the Aborigines and their environment meant that the patterns of Aboriginal life varied with changes to that environment. By implication, areas with similar environments were more likely to have commonalities in life and culture.

To the degree that this conclusion is correct, we would expect similarities within New England’s major north-south zones, the humid coastal strip, tablelands, western slopes and western plains. Indeed, this does seem to have been the case.

So at this level, we seem to have a clear if sometimes uncertain relationship between geography and language distribution linked to river catchments, as well as other major geographic features. We can extend this analysis by looking at the distribution of Aboriginal languages across NSW as a whole.

Distribution of Aboriginal Languages

The following map shows the distribution of Aboriginal languages across NSW as defined in The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia[4]. There are a number of problems with the map in terms of names and boundaries, problems that I discussed in my 2010 paper delivered to a meeting of the Armidale & District Historical Society[5]. We can ignore these for the present because we are interested in broad patterns.

Look at the map first: my comments follow afterwards.


If you look first at the bottom of the map, you will see a heavy concentration of languages. These follow the Murray River, a rich and densely populated Aboriginal area at the time of European colonisation. Much of the land along the Murray is semi-arid. Aboriginal populations concentrated on the river, living a semi-sedentary life[6]. Here language territories effectively subdivide the riverine corridor.

On the left of the map, there are a range of languages - a patchwork quilt - occupying larger territories. These are the languages of the Darling River and western deserts. Like the Murray, the Darling was quite densely populated, although densities were far less. The Darling is simply a smaller river. As with the Murray, languages ran along the river, but the relationship between river and language distribution is more complex, less certain. The variety in the desert languages to the west of the Darling is a factor of distance and small populations; languages and dialects diverged because of distance.

To the right of the Darling, we find the two biggest language groups by area, the Wiradjuri and and the somewhat smaller Kamilaroi. They occupied the river valleys flowing to the west from the Great Diving Range. These were quite rich territories; language expansion was facilitated by geography, people could spread. Here another pattern seems to emerge.

These language groups occupy multiple river valleys. However, Michael O’Rourke’s study of the Kamilaroi[7] suggests that social and to a degree language or dialect groupings still ran along rivers; language dividing lines could cross catchments

The broad sweep of languages along the Western Slopes and Plains, the riverine languages, seem clearly related, merging into the languages of the western deserts. Dividing lines are linked to rivers and catchments. However the relationship is not an exact one.

Along the coast and adjoining ranges you have another dense distribution. On the coast, there is a clearer relationship between catchment areas and language distributions. We can think of this in both north-south and east-west terms.

North-south, most language groups are directly related to catchments. The partial exception is the Clarence, the big river. There the sheer size of the river made it the divide between two very different language groups, the Gumbaynggirr and the Bandjalung. A third Gumbaynggirr related language, Yaygirr, occupied the areas around the mouth of the Clarence.

East-west, there appear to be language shadings inland. In the Hunter Valley, for example, the traditional presentation of language distribution has a coastal language with a linked inland language. The position further north appears somewhat similar. Bainbaa, the language spoken in the headwaters of the Nymboida River (a tributary of the Clarence to the south extending into the Tablelands near Guyra) appears to be a version of Gumbaynggirr.

Tribal groups occupying the Tablelands areas between the Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri and the coastal languages were generally smaller in population because the environment was poorer. They were also squeezed. The New England Tablelands, the largest tablelands in Australia, is shown with just two language groups

If we now drill down, we can see more of the relationships between geography and the distribution of people. The nature of the evidence means that our analysis must be uncertain. Still, patterns do seem to emerge.

Geography and the Distribution of People

Traditional Aboriginal life was organised around family groups linked in a variety of ways with other family groups. Each family group occupied a particular territory or run. Groups gathered together for particular purposes, ceremonial or to take advantage of periodic food surpluses. There seems to have been a fair bit of what we would now think of as travel, longer journeys by individuals or small numbers for particular purposes including adventure or warfare. There were also traditional patterns of friendship or enmity.

Relationships within and between groups were governed by a complex web of culture and tradition. While boundaries existed, they were not defined in the way we think of them today, hard lines on a map. Rather, boundaries are better thought of as a series of overlapping patterns divided by shaded lines.

Boundaries shifted with time. Over time, the smallest unit, the extended family group, was vulnerable; warfare or changing local conditions could see their effective disappearance. We can see some of these forces in play in the stories associated with the Gunnedah Kamilaroi leader the Red Kangaroo, one of the few Aboriginal tales to have survived presenting a picture of the dynamics of Aboriginal life in New England in the pre-colonial era[8]. Here we have a picture of internal group dynamics, of concerns about survival in a sometimes hostile environment, of warfare.

By their nature, the larger language groups were more stable in geographic terms than smaller units, although here too it seems likely that boundaries shifted with time. The language groups were not political entities, rather groups that appear to speak common or at least related dialects.

Each of the larger language groups covered a number of dialects, with the number determined by a combination of geographic coverage and population size. The Anaiwan or Nganyaywana Aboriginal peoples who occupied the southern areas of the New England Tablelands appear to have been relatively homogeneous and limited in number, although even here there is debate about the number of dialects. By contrast, the Bundjalung language group occupying territory stretching from the Clarence Valley into Southern Queensland may have had as many as twenty separate dialects[9]. To the west, the Kamilaroi may have had at least five major dialects, seven if the related languages of Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaaliyaay are included[10]. Bigambul, the language group on the slopes and plains in Queensland to the north was also reported to be close to Gamilaraay[11].

My point in this discussion is that when we talk about geography and the distribution of people we are in fact talking about a complex hierarchy that moves up from the family group to the much larger language group.

The Aborigines and the Importance of Water

Australia is a very dry continent, marked by periodic droughts and floods. The inland rivers of the Murray- Darling Basin including the Murray have all stopped flowing for periods in recorded times. This affects not just water for human consumption, but also the vegetable and animal food supplies on which the Aborigines depended.

It seems that the size and distribution of Aboriginal populations were broadly related to what we might think of as the carrying capacity of the country in bad times. However, this relationship was a variable one. Among other things, the human birth rate cannot be exactly matched to changing conditions. It seems likely that populations expanded during prolonged good times, then contracted.

We have some evidence for this from the Murray River with its high population but smaller river dependent language territories. There skeletal evidence from burials shows signs of periodic malnutrition.

Elsewhere in inland NSW, Aboriginal populations concentrated near water during dry periods, expanding across land at other times to take advantage of newly available water and food resources. Here we need to distinguish between local groups and larger entities.

Looking at it from a language group perspective, as compared especially to the Murray language groups, both the Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri occupied large and varied territories running along the rivers from the Western Slopes out onto the Western Plains. This provided a variety of natural resources. During dry periods, population shifted within language group territories, although there may also gave been shifts at the margin between language groups recognising the shading of boundaries and the complexity of social relationships.

Looking at it from a small group perspective, the size of runs varied depending on the area required to support the group. Putting this another way, the population density varied greatly depending on the geography. Here O’Rourke quotes various estimated population densities for different parts of Australia ranging from 1.3 square kilometres per person on the tropical coast, north east Arnhem Land to 200 square kilometres per person in arid central Australia[12].

All these estimates are speculative. However, they illustrate the point that similar size groups required different size runs depending on geographic location. Even then, local groups were more vulnerable to extreme conditions than larger groups.

From a language group perspective, the size of language groups was a function of area covered times population density. Some had only a few hundred speakers, others more than 10,000. O’Rourke’s guestimate of 10,000 for the pre-contact Kamilaroi population is probably not unreasonable, making them a large language group. By contrast, the Aboriginal language groups on the Northern Tablelands had far smaller populations, perhaps in the hundreds or low thousands, reflecting smaller territories as well as availability of natural resources.

I have focused so far on the inland population. The coastal population including the large North Coast language groups had access to extremely rich environments combining land, riverine and the immediate estuarine and coastal strip itself. Like the Murray, some groups were semi-sedentary. My own original guestimate was that coastal population densities were perhaps twice that of the territory occupied by the Kamilaroi, although there were variations on the coast too, with lower densities in the upper river valleys as compared to the immediate coastal strip.

The Importance of Micro-environments

The close relationship between immediate local environments and Aboriginal life including the size and distribution of the Aboriginal population is the reason why an understanding of micro-environments is so important in increasing our understanding of Aboriginal life.

On the Northern Tablelands, for example, there appears to be a relationship between population distribution and soil types, for better soils provided a wider range of vegetable products as well as certain animal life. On the Liverpool Plains, ground water that fed springs probably played some role in maintaining what appears to have been a higher density population because it provided a better water supply in dry times.

I have only begun to scratch the surface here in terms of my own understanding of the relationships between such variations and Aboriginal life, including the way in which Aboriginal responses affected the environment. An example is the way in which burning appears to have maintained the Liverpool Plains as a more open environment, increasing the supply of animal and vegetable foods.

All very interesting, at least to me!

[1] David A. M. Lea, John J. J. Pigram, Lesley Greenwood (eds), An Atlas of New England, Volume 2, The Commentaries, University of New England Geography Department, Armidale, 1977

[2] John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999, p78

[3] J. Belshaw, The Economic Base of Aboriginal Life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth Century, BA (Hons) thesis, UNE, 1966; Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in northern NSW, in Isabel McBryde (ed), Records of Times Past: Ethno-historical Essays on the Culture of the New England Tribes, AITSIS, Canberra, 1978

[4] Horton, David, general editor The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, society and culture, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra : 1994.. The map itself is drawn from the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office web site accessed 6 October 2009.

[5] Jim Belshaw, An Exploration of New England’s Aboriginal Languages, Paper delivered to a meeting of the Armidale & District Historical Society, Armidale 20 July 2010. In revision for publication.

[6] Material on Aboriginal life along the Murray is drawn from Mulvaney & Kamminga, 1999, especially pp 302-309

[7] Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands,: North-Central New South Wales in the Early 19th Century, published by the author, Griffith, 1997

[8] Michael O’Rourke, “Sung for Generations” Tales of Red Kangaroo War-Leader of Gunnedah. The Ewing Manuscripts transcribed with a commentary, published by the author, Braddon, 2005.

[9] Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, Bundjalung, http://www.muurrbay.org.au/bundjalung.html, accessed on line 19 August 2009.

[10] The material on the Gamillaraay is drawn from Peter K Austin, The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research, SOAS, University of London, 2006, accessed on-line 17 December 2008.

[11] Flick Isabel & Heather Goodall, Isabel Flick: the many lives of an extraordinary woman, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004, p3.

[12] O’Rourke, 1977, pp139-141

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Apologies for disorganisation

Dear I've been disorganised so far this year. I just haven't got a run up. My apologies.

My main post today is an historical one, Discovering Aboriginal New England.

Discovering Aboriginal New England

In New England history 2010 I stated:

A second theme in my writing has been the history of Aboriginal New England. This was there before, but has become more focused. I find that there is a deep need among Aboriginal people to know more of their past. Not the generalised past so often presented, but the very specific past that relates to them. Too often, this is lost in the broader discussion.

The previous post, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 11: the Aborigines, provided something of an introduction focused especially on the second half of the twentieth century; my current focus is an analysis of general social change in this period. This post is really an aide memoir to myself on the work that I need to do this year on the Aboriginal side.

Geographic Coverage

By way of background for those unfamiliar with my major current project, a general history of New England, the territory covered by the book is the New England Tablelands plus the surrounding river valleys. This is a large but linked area, containing a variety of environments.

Integrating the Story of Aboriginal New England

The first section of the book will be called simply Aboriginal New England. Here I have decided to use 1788 as a cut-off point to avoid the earlier story being over-shadowed by later events. Discussion of European settlement and its immediate impacts then form part of the next section of the book, Colonial New England.

Beyond the moving frontier and those initial impacts, I am still unsure as to the best way of integrating the continuing Aboriginal story into my narrative in both Colonial New England and the last section of the book, New England in the Twentieth Century.

Separation between the two communities means that there are different if intersecting histories. While neither history has been written, the Aboriginal history is less developed. I cannot write both a full history and an Aboriginal history, yet I have to go some distance towards the second if I am to achieve the first.

The main thing I want to avoid is what I call the cameo effect, the almost mandatory inclusion of references to the Aboriginals too often written from a non-Aboriginal guilt perspective or, alternatively, from an Aboriginal response position. The end result, at least as I see it, is a series of stills, of cameos, of things disconnected from each other.

Regardless how I resolve the technical writing difficulties, I have set myself a simple objective. An Aboriginal reader reading the book should be able to follow the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples as a story. I won't get it right, but that will at least provide a new base for future responses. 

Past and present are inextricably entwined in the story of Aboriginal New England. It was true 300 year's ago, it is just as true today. This creates its own challenges, for anything written now plays into current debates.

Exploring New England's Aboriginal Languages              

My main research priority over the last fifteen months has been to increase my understanding of New England's Aboriginal languages. I chose languages because of the interface between language and life, history and culture.

To increase my understanding, I began preparation of a background paper on New England's Aboriginal languages. My thought was that I might be able to publish this as a stand-alone document in due course.   

The first part sets a context, looking at Australian Aboriginal languages in a broader sense. New England examples are used to illustrate broader points. This is followed by an overview discussion of the languages’ decline, linking this to history on one side, factors in language survival on the other. Here I attempt to show the linkages between social and cultural dislocation and language decline.

I then review those who recorded New England’s languages in one way or another. This interesting and polyglot lot includes explorers, settlers, missionaries and amateur ethnologists. Later came professional linguists and then, today, local Aborigines themselves trying to discover their linguistic past. The pattern of recording itself provides further insights into the history of New England’s languages in the post-colonial period.

With this background, the paper then reviews the actual physical distribution of the languages, along with some of their key features. This is quite a complex exercise. Language boundaries were linked to watersheds, but the relationship was not precise. In many cases, we simply cannot be sure.

The paper concludes with a discussion of modern language Revival Movement. Extinct and now dormant languages are once again taught. Yet despite the successes, the Movement itself is arguably locked into past mind-sets that may limit its success.

Early last year I also began work on a seminar paper on New England's Aboriginal languages to be delivered in Armidale in July to the Armidale & District Historical Society. To do this, I put aside elements of the broader paper.

My first priority this year is to revise the seminar paper for publication. I then want to update the general paper, although I don't intend to finish it at this stage.  Rather, I am going to let it evolve with input from other work.

I plan to publish a discussion draft of the seminar paper on this blog before finalising the journal article. 

Problems with Tindale tribes

I had always been aware that the use of the word "tribe" was quite misleading. However, I had not realised just how misleading it was.

In March last year I delivered a paper - Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England[1] - in the University of New  England's Classics & History Seminar series. Even then, I was still using the word "tribe", if in a restricted way.

Following that seminar I read James Knight's PhD thesis on Tindale tribes. This caused me to put a line through a fair bit of the work I had done looking at the distribution of Aboriginal languages. Just as bad, I realised that some of the material I had written on this blog was actually misleading. Woof, I thought! However, it gets worse.

Named after Normal Tindale who attempted to map "tribal" distributions across the continent, the Tindale tribe assumes that a "tribe" was a a group speaking a common language that occupied a defined territory that could be measured by a defined line on a map.

Knight shows that this very modern European concept bore no relationship to the actual structures of traditional Aboriginal life. He also shows how the idea of mapping and of Tindale tribes affected research, policy towards the Aboriginal peoples, concepts of land-rights and Aboriginal responses. He coined the phrase Tindale tribes in part to define the creation of current structures and ways of thought; a Tindale tribe is a modern construct that affects the present, but may have little connection to the Aboriginal past. Woof again!

The Tindale tribe has now moved from what we might think of as an issue in historical interpretation to something that has to be written about in its own right, a player in thinking and policy responses, especially over the second half of the twentieth century.

This is trouble territory, but one I have to address. To manage this, I need to write something on James Knight's work as a stand-alone piece. 

The Aborigines in New England Thought

One of the issues in my general history is the changing way New Englanders' thought about its Aboriginal peoples. We can think of this along two dimensions: what did they think; and to what degree were those thoughts different from those holding elsewhere in Australia?

Tindale is an example here. He forms part of a broader thread that affected New England thought. But was the impact different? In Tindale's case, probably not. However, there are elements where New England thought was different, in part because the Aborigines were a greater proportion of the New England population.

Prejudice is one issue, but not the only one. The higher proportion of Aboriginal people meant, too, that New England was often at the cutting edge of change. I have to tease this out.

I am leaving this issue aside until I have better understanding of thought in the different areas of life affecting the Aboriginal peoples.

Prehistoric New England and the ethnohistorical story

One of my all time favourite history books is Geoffrey Blainey's Black Kettle and Full Moon, a history of Australian domestic life from the first gold rush to World War I. I would dearly love to do something similar for New England's Aboriginal peoples, to bring that past life alive.

There has been no general prehistory of New England published since Isabel McBryde's 1974 Aboriginal Prehistory in New England, and then her boundaries were a little different from mine. There has been no general synthesis since - the reasons for this are part of the New England story.

By its nature, prehistory is limited to the archeological remains. Here Isabel placed great emphasis on ethnohistorical evidence as a means of interpreting the past. In some ways, this was problematic. Aboriginal society was not static, so the picture gained from ethnohistorical material is just a partial shot at a point in time. Yet, with care, this evidence allows us to flesh life out in ways not otherwise possible.           

I have a long way to go in consolidating the latest archaeological evidence, let alone the ethnohistorical material, yet already there are fascinating hints that a broader interpretation is possible. We will never know the full story, but I think that we can do a lot more than we have done to this point.

Knowledge of geography is central to this. Here I need to know a lot more. We don't even know, at least I don't, about the on-ground effects of changing sea levels. Increasing my knowledge of the historical geography of New England is one of my core aims for 2011.  

Social Structures in Aboriginal Life

Some time ago, I started writing a general paper on Aboriginal social structures.

When I first looked at this issue as part of my honours thesis, I found the emphasis by anthropologists on kinship structures mind numbingly dull! I am more interested now because kin relations were part of broader social structures. I explored a little of this in an Armidale Express column, Belshaw’s World: A closer look at Kamilaroi and language, but that was barely touching the surface.

I think that the thing that interests me most is the possibility of telling a general story from the ethnohistorical material that links kinship into other aspects of social life including warfare. But can one do this without being misleading?

I want to push ahead with my general paper, but I also want to write some specific material and especially the story of the Red Kangaroo. I gave links here in Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi material goes on on-line.


Education is one major theme in the post European settlement of Aboriginal New England. This is also a them that brings in many others. Jim Feltcher is the main resource here. I wrote of him a little in "Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales. Again there is a UNE connection.

While I have read Jim's book many times, I need to do two things; write an overall summary so that I have the broad framework fixed in place for re-use; then look at the specific New England aspects.

Aboriginal Political and Educational Movements

I know far less than I should about Aboriginal political, cultural and educational movements. I also know less than I should about Aboriginal cultural activities and the way these have interfaced with Aboriginal life in the colonial period and beyond.

I am not going to attempt to address this in any substantive way at this point. If I just do the other things that I am talking about I will start to lay a base.

Family Reconstruction

The destruction of  Aboriginal social structures makes it difficult to understand properly just what happened to Aboriginal families. The approach that I have followed on this blog is simply to record stories of people. My feeling is that this will, in combination, build a picture that I can then use in a general sense. All I am going to do in the immediate future is just add some more stories.


Because I am writing a general history, I am not going to be able to do credit to the full story. My hope is that others will follow.   

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New England history 2010

Statd Dec 10 2 The chart shows visits (yellow) plus page views (yellow plus red) on thus blog over the last thirteen months.

I think of this year as one in which the blog began to acquire a life of it's own, with some more regular readers.

New writing on New England's history

This was also a year in which other writing on aspects of New England's history emerged. Here I am thinking especially of Paul Barratt's Australian Observer and some of the writing on Archives Outside, especially that by UNE Archivist Bill Oates.

You can get a feel for Paul's writing from his Armidale, New England and TAS tags. although there is inevitable duplication among the tags. You can find Bill's posts here.

Outside the blogosphere, the various local history groups continued their work, while staff at both UNE and Newcastle continued working on specific topics. However, it remains true, I think, that there is limited work on the broader New England or North. Much work is locality or narrow region specific.

Over the year I have referred to some of the work being done. However, I have not attempted to do a full review because my focus has been on those things relevant to my immediate historical concerns. I think that's a weakness, because it means that there is still no access to New England's evolving historiography. It remains fragmented.

Note to self: please record things as you come across them so that you can do a proper end-year review!

Visitor Interests       

Turning now to visitor patterns, I don't have detailed full year stats because Google only started aromatically recording traffic details during August this year. However, since then, the most popular posts have been:

The dominance of the geography post is due to the number of international visitors interested in US New England who end up on this blog.

The importance of posts connected with the Aborigines has been a continuing theme. As I have said before, I need to update these posts in light of later work.

I also need to make some of my material more accessible, taking search engines into account. For example, the material posted on the life of David Drummond includes fully footnoted information and analysis on key periods in the history of public education in NSW. You won't actually find this easily via Google search.

All that is required to make it more accessible is a new post with the right heading linked back to the original material.

My own writing in 2010

My first post New England's History - blog objectives was posted in November 2006, just over four year's ago. Much has changed since then.

When I began, the broader New England has largely vanished from public view.

This was partially due to changes in taste that meant that area and country history outside the purely local had largely vanished, replaced by popular themes. The big wave in research and writing triggered by the establishment of the New England University College in 1938 peaked in the early 1980s, in some cases such as the Aborigines earlier, and then went into abrupt decline.  By 2006, entire slabs of Australian history and historiography had vanished from view.

There were lonely voices, UNE's John Ryan comes to mind, that kept the faith. But my statement is, I think, still true. For that reason, my first work was simply trying to lay a base, to recover.

To a degree, and I make no apologies for this, I am a historical populariser. I want people to be interested in the history that I am interested in.

In December 2008 I wrote my first column for the Armidale Express. Quite a bit of that column has been devoted to local and New England history, again something that I must pull together to make it more accessible.

Christian Knight, my editor, tells me that the column appeals most to an older demographic and especially those with local connections - Armidale has a highly mobile population.

I am sure that Christian is correct. The audiences at the history seminar papers I have delivered in Armidale are all older, one of the few audiences where I am actually younger than the average, dating from the peak period when country, New England and regional history was main stream. Yet there is, I think, a change.

One theme in my general writing this year has been the history of the attempts to gain self-government for New England. This writing has been a response to the re-emergence of interest in New England self-government. That's a change.

A second theme in my writing has been the history of Aboriginal New England. This was there before, but has become more focused. I find that there is a deep need among Aboriginal people to know more of their past. Not the generalised past so often presented, but the very specific past that relates to them. Too often, this is lost in the broader discussion.

I am not sure that I would classify this as a change - the need was there before. However, it has become more clearly focused in my mind.

The biggest change this year has been much greater feed back on my work.

When I began at the end of 2006 I wrote alone. Slowly, I began to get responses. This year it has reached the point that I no longer feel alone.

There are many people that I could mention. However, I will take just one example, Michael O'Rourke.

Back in September 2009 I spoke of Michael in Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke brings the Kamilaroi to life. Michael has been an inspiration. The depth of his work, his generosity to me, inspires me.

2010 was the year in which my writing went structured. Structure was always there, but I became more focused.

During the first part of the year I worked along two main  themes.

The first was the Aborigines, leading to the paper I delivered in Armidale in July on New England's Aboriginal languages. I hope that this will be published this year.

I am no longer worried about saying something new and interesting on Aboriginal New England. I think that you will find something new and interesting, a picture never before written. I am worried about my ability to do the topic proper justice. Here I have come to the view that it is better to present something that is interesting, if imperfect, rather than aiming for anything approaching perfection.

I need responses, for responses drive further work.

The second theme was the study itself, something that I spoke about in my March seminar paper, Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England[1]. 

From July, my focus shifted to new issues, and especially my concern with social change in New England over the second half of the twentieth century. Here, too, I want to say something new and believe I can. New England was at the cutting edge of the changes that took place, yet this is barely recognised.

I will be presenting my final results here at a another seminar paper in Armidale in April. Yet already I am impatient to move on, to start on the next building block I need for my general history. After all, I had wanted to finish a first draft of the book in April 2010. Now I am well behind schedule.

My fellow History bloggers

I do not pretend to follow all history blogs. There are just too many! But to those I do follow, you constantly deepen my knowledge. I value you.

May 2011 be a good year for all of us!