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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A new history year dawns in New England - Port Arthur, Isabel McBryde and the importance and difficulties of multidisciplinary studies

And so we come to the start of a new historical year, or should that be historiographic year since I am talking about writing history?  

To mark the start of the year, UNE scholars Richard Turfin and Martin Gibbs had an interesting piece in the ConversationWhy archaeology is so much more than just digging,. With their team, they are currently over a year into a research project, Landscapes of Production and Punishment, that uses evidence of the built and natural landscape to understand the experience of convict labour on the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania between 1830 and 1877.

At its peak, nearly 4,000 convicts and free people lived on the penal peninsula. Their day-to-day activities left traces in today’s landscape that the teams looks to locate and analyse using historical research, remote sensing and archaeological field survey.

I am interested in their work in part because New England had two penal colonies, one at Newcastle, the other Port Maquarie.
Joseph Backler (1813-1895). Port Macquarie c1840. The penal settlement was established in 1821 and finally closed in 1830. 
Several things struck me reading the piece. One was simply the advances in technology over the years.

I became involved with Isabel McBryde's work in Australian archaeology as a first year student at the University of New England in (gulp) 1963. In 1967, I was a member of her first archaeology honours class, the first such class in Australia.

Isabel sought to use the latest science and technology, but it was just so limited. Radio carbon dating was in its infancy, while none of the passive ground sensing technology that we know today existing although simple metal detectors were already being used by some prospectors and treasure hunters. Aerial photography was the most advanced technology available to Isabel and that was quite expensive.

Like the current UNE team, Isabel attempted to combine survey work with historical and ethnographic records and later Aboriginal memory. She also involved other disciplines including botanists, zoologists, geologists and geographers to aid her in her work.  
UNE archaeological survey c 1963-64. Mick Moore left, Jim Belshaw right. Photo Isabel McBryde. 
Today, of course, we know so much more and have so much more more depth available to us. That's good, of course, but there was a certain enjoyment in our then innocence, the rush of the new.

At UNE I was involved in what we now call multidisciplinary studies. In fact, for most of my working life I have been involved in working with other fields, other disciplines, aided by broad based studies. In doing so, I became very aware of the way in which professional silos blind us, limit the questions we ask, limit our ability to develop new ideas.

This may be a prejudice, but I think that this problem has become worse as education has become more narrowly vocation, specialisation deeper. But if this is a prejudice,  I know with a much higher degree of certainty just how much of a challenge the spread of knowledge has become.

I am a general historian. Yes, I have a strong focus on a particular area, but within that area I try to understand and write on as many aspects of human life over 30,000 years as I can.. I am constantly reminded how little I know, aware of the possible things I don't know that I don't know!

It's not all bad, of course. The work I do is is a constant broad education. Mind you, I sometimes wonder just how I might have gone if I had put as much time and thought into my university studies?!    

Which brings me to my final point. Over this year I hope to continue to bring you new things, new ideas, new slants on New England history that may interest or at least inform broader thought.  


Johnb said...

A toast to your ambition Jim, long May it continue.
The principle character of our convict settlement was its Australian context. I have often wondered if a comparirive study has ever been done
with convict settlements established elsewhere,most often to a similar purpose.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks. John. :) That's an interesting question. I don't know. In fact, was the Australian settlement unique? I have a feeling that it may have been, but I don't know!

Johnb said...

My u derstanding Jim is that the Australian experience was one of the last iterations of a long Policy history concerning all kinds of prisoners.
Having visited Durham Cathedral I knew in general of the several thousand Scottish Prisoners and their disposition, mainly to the American colonies though some were dispatched to Barbados and other Caribbean Islands.
has a long and interesting piece though genealogy is its principle concern.
Wiki can provide a general overview.
Wiki of course refers to the loss of the American Colonies as the precipitator for the use of a penal colony system for Australia, I think that such a claim barely begins to describe the forces at work both internally within the UK and externally from the building of Empire. The American Revolutionary War wasn’t lost until 3 Sep 1783 and the First Fleet setting sail On May 13, 1787 was both a continuation of policy and a consequence to Cooks Pacific voyages. I would argue that the sheer scale and development of slavery and the three cornered trade was of considerable importance re the loss of interest by the American Colonists. Several individual colonies sought to pass laws preventing the sending of prisoners to that colony but were overruled by the British Crown though they had no objection to the continuance of slavery within their borders. The developing Industrial Revolution and the near exponential growth in the population in England also influenced the development of Penal Colonies in Australia.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi John. Interesting links. They refreshed my memory on some points, also some new information. Al Jazeera had a good doco that dealt in part new prisoners sent to new Caledonia. I hadn't known of that before, but have since seen some other stuff in the book I'm reading on Australia's early spies.

I think the distinctive thing about the convict settlement of Australia in the period up to 1820 was the way that the convicts dominated in what was really a large scale experiment in penal reform. They had more opportunities.

The distinction between people sent out under indenture and convicts is an interesting one. I just don't know enough. That US material on the Scots was an interesting one. Couldn't help notice the number killed by the Indians! I need to do more research just to set a better context.

I absolutely agree that the settlement in NSW was founded for a variety of reasons including trade with the colony elements being there from the beginning.