Category Archives: history

Dirk Hartog’s plate and the Christ Church Grammar centenary: myth-making and official “history”

The Dodgy Perth team loves a good conspiracy. So we were delighted to find one about the upcoming 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s trip to Western Australia, and the famous Hartog Plate which wil…

Source: Is the Hartog Plate a hoax? – Dodgy Perth

Today marks 400 years since the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog was meant to have left a plate behind on an island off the coast of Western Australia. I was intrigued to read Dodgy Perth’s post a while back asking questions about the truth of the event – questions I did not hear asked on the radio coverage today as WA puts on a celebration.

Of course, outside the academy, anniversaries are an exercise in myth-making, not a chance to critically consider the original event. This is the irony of the state and institutional use of “history”.

Gallipoli is an obvious example, but on a much smaller scale, I’m reminded of Christ Church Grammar School in South Yarra, Melbourne. Katharine Susannah Prichard taught there in 1906 or 1907. An intriguing appendix to Colin Holden’s history, Crossing Divides, discusses the confusion around the foundation year of the school. The historical record clearly shows it was 1898, and yet in 1957:

A parish paper states that Christ Church Grammar School originated in an earlier school that functioned between 1859 and 1872, but gives no details and does not identify any historical source to back this claim. Then in 1976 the school treated that year as its centenary. Once again, no historical source was indicated to back up this identification.

I have this rather funny image of hundreds of schoolkids in 1976 dutifully engaging in “historical” busywork and ceremonies to celebrate the centenary, when it seems to have been completely made up. The past needs celebrating (or commiserating) and anniversaries should be marked, but all of it should be based on good history.

(And, by the way, if anyone connected to Christ Church is reading this, no-one’s answered the two emails I’ve sent to your school about Katharine Susannah Prichard. You should be excited to be connected to such a major writer!)

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Quote on the task of the historian

Much of this past has vanished from the landscape, and from memory. For Bottoms, one of the chief tasks of the historian is to re-create the texture of lost experience, or, as his great professional exemplar Robert Darnton writes, to “uncover the human condition as it was experienced by our predecessors.”

Nicholas Rothwell, reviewing Cairns by Timothy Bottoms in the Weekend Australian Review, 6 February 2016, 16.


Australia Day reflections: the 1888 centenary

Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived with her family in Melbourne as a small child in 1888 or 1889 – I’m yet to pinpoint the date. I do hope it was 1888, as it is a symbolic year – the centenary of white settlement. I’ve been reading about the centenary celebrations this week, and they reveal much about Australian sense of identity at that point. Australia was wrestling with its still recent (in some places) convict past; ignoring the white displacement of Aborigines, and still very excited about gold.

It had been Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations the previous year, and that had exhausted much of the money that might have gone into celebrating the centenary in New South Wales. The richer and newer “little sister” to the south – Melbourne – offered to take the lead, putting on a great exhibition that ran from August 1888 to March 1889, with two million people passing through. If the Prichards had reached Melbourne by then, they were surely among that number. In Social Sketches of Australia, Humphrey McQueen notes “Melbourne’s leading role in the centenary celebrations confirmed that it was recent wealth and not early beginnings which was being reviewed, though not scrutinised.” (2) Richard Waterhouse notes that “when those commemorating 1788 referred to the colony’s founder it was Captain Cook the discoverer of New South Wales who was valorised, not Arthur Phillip the founder of a convict colony.” (“Commemoration, Celebration, and ‘the Crossing'”). This suggests the long confused association of James Cook with 26 January 1788 is not simply a recent mistake of the ignorant.

The references to Aborigines in 1888 in the two contemporary sources I’ve read both call attention to their failure to “use the land” productively, a convenient myth which is still being corrected today. One of these sources is “A Centenary Review”, which appeared in The Argus at the opening of the exhibition. It’s a little tedious when it’s not being outrageous by today’s understandings, but in between it is also quite fascinating, offering a history of the nation as it was perceived in 1888.

The article looks toward the hope of federation, and Katharine Susannah Prichard was truly to be a writer of the new nation which would formally begin a few weeks after her seventeenth birthday. Growing up in Melbourne and Launceston, living for fifty years in Perth with a stint in Sydney and regular visits to Canberra, she cared about the whole nation and depicted so many phases of its life – from miners to station workers to Aboriginals and even to the comfortable suburbanites most of us have become.


The other Thomas Prichard: letting go of co-incidences

I find a startling revelation about someone with my subject’s name. It’s the right time, it’s the right place, and it’s in line with certain things I know about the subject, but it’s shocking enough to entirely change the story of that person.

There are only two possibilities. This discovery is full of meaning. Or it has no meaning at all, because it’s not the right person. But if it’s not the right person, and it has no meaning at all, it feels like it should.

*

I’ve been researching Kattie’s father, Thomas Henry Prichard (1845-1907). He’s a fascinating figure, viewed next to his daughter – so very conservative, strongly opposed, for example, to a minimum wage, and a writer of modest talent compared to Kattie. He set out to make his fortune in Fiji around 1870, which was eventually where Kattie was born.

I was looking for something else about him when a “Thomas Prichard” suddenly came up in a brief discussion of the Daphne case in one book – he was the co-owner of an Australian ship which kidnapped one hundred islanders for the plantations of Fiji in 1869. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but led to new legislation specifically outlawing the practice. Was this how Prichard spent his youth? Was this one of the stories he avoided telling his daughter? It would make such a sensational story!

If it was true, which it wasn’t. The book in question led me back through so some dubious sources, the chain going back to a Pacific Island enthusiast’s website. All the best sources I could find, including contemporary newspaper reports, started it was William D. Pritchard, not a Thomas H. Prichard, who had been co-owner of that boat. Tom had nothing to do with it. It isn’t even particularly a co-incidence, although it is a sloppy mistake by the scholar.

But it still feels like it should have meaning. If it was a novel, finding out there was another character with the same name in such close proximity would mean much. Either a long lost relative in the 19th century, or a novel driven by the very randomness of the occurrence in the 1990s.

Perhaps one could write a new kind of history composed of co-incidences, near misses, and associations, a tangle of footnotes. I’m not sure what the point would be. It would really be a writer insisting, “this co-incidence is too amazing for me to have to admit it means nothing. I’m making it mean something by writing about it.”

I use this example, but it’s happening all the time, these plot developments that belong to a different story, a character not actually in my book, even if their namesake is. I have to let them go, all the co-incidences and near misses of history.


Tragically eluded: a quote on the fear of the biographer

What you encounter at last, after your metaphorical quest across regions of ice, might be not so much a visage as a sensation, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, of having been somehow tragically eluded; a feeling that includes the immense sadness with which the contemplation of an imperfectly glimpsed past suffuses the soul…

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, 296.

This is the great question that historians and biographers must face: is the past recoverable? Can we get past the fragments it has left behind to some sense of what it was?

I think of how differently people remember the same person who they all knew. Say, for example, rather innocuously, you get to talking about a former work colleague. To some, he could be a hero of sorts, a fine worker and a great contributor; to others, a man with a streak of nastiness. Who is right? I suppose both are right, but some might be more perceptive than others. How perceptive can we be about people we will never meet? And yet, the whole endeavour of writing and reading insists that we can, in some sense, know a person through the words they have left behind.


Australia’s greatest temperance novelist: Matilda Jane Evans, aka Maud Jeanne Franc

matilda-evans

Matilda Evans caught my attention when I was reading a history of Baptists in Australia. A brief profile talked of her significance as the first woman to have a novel published in South Australia (1859). In all, she published fourteen novels. She was a deaconness and married to a Baptist minister. I discovered a full-length biography of her had been published in 1994 – Our Own Matilda by Barbara Wall (Wakefield Press).

Alas, Matilda is a difficult biographical subject. Despite extensive research, Wall was only able to uncover a few letters written by her, and just one photograph. If she kept a diary, we do not have it. But even if she had kept one, I doubt Matilda could ever become a compelling biographical subject: Wall does her best to redeem her and the conventionality by which she lived and wrote, but can only do so much. A number of Matilda’s novels were temperance novels; all of them were favourites for Sunday School prizes, safe novels which inspired piety and respectable living. Of course, I’m missing Wall’s main point here: she takes to task the generations of male critics who have ignored or trivialised Matilda’s writing for these reasons. Wall insists – rightly – that the novels are fascinating social documents, providing insight into South Australian colonial life and the attitudes of her time. Yet from her own argument, Matilda’s writing will be of more interest to the historian than the literary critic.

The book is of interest to me for its insights into biographical method. What is the biographer to do when the subject does not reveal themselves? Wall attempts to fill the gaps by speculating on the basis of Matilda’s novels, drawing parallels to places and incidents to reconstruct Matilda’s likely experiences, fleshing out the bare facts provided by education records, obituaries and newspaper ads. It is a dangerous method, likely to be dismissed as invalid by some critics, but it seems fruitful and her suggestions reasonable.

Yet somehow, the analysis never quite brings Matilda and her world alive. As an example – and I probably place too much weight on death scenes – but for me they should usually be one of the stronger moments of the biography; there should be a way to convey some of the significance of a person’s life in their death, or at least to show how their death fitted their life. The death in this biography only shows the ordinariness of Matilda’s life and the lack of information about her:

She died on Friday, 22 October 1886, of peritonitis, and was buried on the following Sunday…

I’m sure the historical record can yield no more than this, so what more can I ask of the biographer? I’m not sure. But perhaps it could be juxtaposed with an analysis of how Matilda saw death in her novels. Perhaps something of the place of death in Victorian-era Australia. Perhaps some background on death by peritonitis at that time. Perhaps even some more speculation about the circumstances of her death, drawing on social histories of death. Perhaps none of this would work; I’m only trying to anticipate method when I come to write a biography of my own.

Matilda Evans is perhaps not so neglected as Wall fears – there is another book looking at her literature; a thesis written on her and two other S.A. women writers, and an entry for her in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Abebooks reveals that her books (which remained in print right up until the 1930s) are worth hundreds of dollars. Our Matilda itself is an excellent piece of research, and a good analysis of her life and literature, aware of the shortcomings of Matilda’s writings while open to their significance.