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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

On writing a history of New England

Over on the New England New State Movement Facebook page, I promised to write a post outlining the history of New England that I am presently trying to write. While I have discussed the project from time to time, I thought it time now to provide a full overview.

Geographic Coverage

I focus on the Northern or New England Tablelands and the river valleys that run from the Northern or New England Tablelands to the north, west, south and east. This is the area that the Nicholas Commission concluded was suitable for statehood, and has had a sometimes riven historical identity to the present time.

This held even in Aboriginal times, although New England's Aboriginal peoples would not have seen it in this way, for geography is central to New England's history. In Aboriginal times, you had the inland riverine Aboriginal peoples, the Tablelands' peoples and those on the coast, interacting in a variety of ways. As today, New England's Aboriginal peoples also interacted with those around them.

The creation of Queensland created a political boundary that cut across Aboriginal territories, placing the same peoples in different legal jurisdictions. Up to the creation of Queensland, my history extends into what is now Queensland. With the creation of Queensland, my history retreats to the new boundary, although part deals with issues and interactions created by the boundaries.  

Naming Conventions

The Aborigines had no name for the area I am talking about since, from their perspective, it didn't exist. From the time of European settlement, it came to be called the Northern Districts, the Northern Provinces or just the North, defined in relation to Sydney as centre. Initially these terms extended into what is now Queensland. With the creation of Queensland, the North shrank to the border. Those parts of the New England North incorporated into Queensland effectively became the new south defined in relation to Brisbane. 

The name New England was initially limited to the New England Tablelands, Following its adoption by the new state movement as the name for the whole area, its broader usage spread, then contracted again after the loss of the 1967 new state plebiscite. Outside the Tablelands, the term New England was always political, used by those who supported statehood, rejected by those opposed who classified themselves in terms of NSW or their own locality or immediate region.

Faced with naming choices, I use the term New England in the broad sense in the first part of the book. Following European settlement, I generally talk of the North since this was common parlance. Once the name New England was adopted, I use that or, sometimes, the North where sense dictates.

Historical Scope

The book is broken into four parts:

  1. An introduction setting the scene, painting an overview picture of the area's geography and history.
  2. Aboriginal New England up to 1788. While traditional Aboriginal life continued for decades after the arrival of the First Fleet, I chose 1788 as a cut off to avoid becoming entangled in later debates. It is a story of peoples living in the sun light. We know that clouds are coming, but we can look at what was without the entanglements of what was to be.
  3. Colonial New England, the period from first European settlement to Federation.
  4. New England in the Twentieth Century. I needed an end point, so I chose the end of the century.

Historical Focus

I am trying to tell a deeply textured story of the life of the peoples who have called New England home. This is not so easy because of the breadth. Each area of New England has its own history. However, I am not writing a series of local or regional histories. My focus is on broader commonalities and links and on the interaction with the rest of the world. I am also concerned with differences and the way these played out. Here I run into problems of balance.

Problems of Balance

To illustrate my problems with balance, look at my reading this week.

I have been looking at Annabella Boswell's journal and especially the account of the early days at Port Macquarie. This is a rather wonderful, almost Jane Austin, picture of domestic life among a particular group at a particular place at a particular point in time. It led to this post, Belshaw’s World – memories of a Port Macquarie far past. How do I balance in writing? I have to reduce Annabella to just a few paras when she deserves more. 

Then for my Express History Revisited column I continued my story of the foundation of Armidale's two colleges, first ATC and then UNE. This is a very Northern story, one of people, politics and power that delivered the North results. Here I am working with two main books, Drummond's A University is Born and Mathew Jordon's history of UNE. 

I have also been looking at two very specific histories of UNE departments, Agricultural Economics and Psychology. These are relevant to the history of UNE, but I am also reading them because of what they say about the history of New England thought and people and the impact that this has had elsewhere.

Now I have a problem. It's not just that I know the people or their children or my fellow students, but I also have current views on the issues raised, that are working themselves out today. So how do I balance this? 

I don't think that I can. It is probably better just to admit my partisan positions and let readers correct me.

Will I ever Finish?

I wonder about this. I want to be correct, to be balanced as best I can, and then I am always finding new things that I didn't know. My friends and colleagues take a different view. Just get the bloody thing out, they say! You can always revise in new editions.

I think that they are right,

No comments: