The Sydney Wars 1788-1817: bringing together the sources


Emma Dortins reviews Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars: conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, Sydney, NSW, NewSouth Publishing 2018.

The Sydney Wars, as its title suggests, brings under a single conceptual umbrella the conflicts between Aboriginal peoples of the Cumberland Plain and the British colonists. It spans  thirty years from the arrival of the First Fleet. Both the lens of war, and the geographical unit of the Cumberland Plain, yield a distinctive new view of this history as Eora, Dharug, Gandangarra, Dharawal and Darkinjung groups made complex patterns of movement both into and away from settlements the British pushed out across the region. Gapps writes as a historian with a particular interest in, and understanding of, military history. He pays attention to the integral role of military thinking in the British approach to the NSW colony, the evolving strategies of the Aboriginal groups he terms collectively ‘the Sydney people’, and a close attention to the detail of war-on-foot.

In his epilogue, Gapps wonders why it has taken so long for someone to write this history. He places part of the blame on other historians, who have become embroiled in histories of cross-cultural encounters, and entangled with the concept of inevitability. He implies that had more historians been attuned to military history, a more direct connection could have been made between the resistance histories of the 1970s and 1980s and a thoroughgoing history of the Sydney wars. As a somewhat entangled ‘cultural historian’ myself, my understanding is that historians of the past 30 or 40 years have at least partly wanted to question the powerful narrative that the setting of Phillip’s foot on shore here would lead to the British domination of the entire continent. In order to do so, historians have undertaken to re-assess Sydney entirely as an experiment that might have had different results, and thereby to reinstate a sense of historical contingency in the story of the founding of Australia’s first colony. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003) was perhaps the high point in asking the question:  ‘If we assume nothing and start again, could we imagine that a different history might have stemmed from Sydney Cove?’ One of the costs of this approach has  been an inclination to imagine the period as a kind of neutral zone, in which British domination had not yet gained a foothold, and each ‘encounter’ between Aboriginal people and the colonists could be reappraised, in an extended first encounter.

Gapps’ undertaking shows that this is to miss a quadrant of the landscape – though I do believe that his kind of military history would not have been possible without re-establishing a sense of contingency;  indeed it illustrates another face of that very contingency. The Sydney Wars is no resistance history. Rather, it is a squarely empirical, closely descriptive chronological account of the period, drawn predominantly from first-hand accounts. One of its achievements is to reassert the ‘Sydney wars’ as a conflict over presence, land, resources (involving and exacerbated by sexual violence towards women), rather than a ‘cultural collision’.

As Gapps shows, the British presence was a military presence from the outset. The units and their officers had experience in a range of wars from India, Africa and the Americas, and he emphasises that they were not unfamiliar with guerrilla warfare or unwilling to adopt guerrilla tactics at times. The colony at Sydney Cove was set up with defence in mind (from the French, from insurrection and from the native population). Gapps’ close narrative of the period shows that if we presume a militarised setting, many aspects of the colony carry a different inflection. Historians have had their ears trained to the varied ‘encounters’ between colonists and Sydney’s Aboriginal people, especially over the first twelve-to-eighteen months after the First Fleet’s arrival, often trying to gauge how friendly or hostile they might have been. In Gapps’ history all these encounters become edgy, cordial, unexpected episodes within a militarised context. Gapps draws the reader into an understanding of the importance of these meetings, movements and displays as military performance – formations, handling of weaponry and demonstrations of power on both sides. The British arrived with their red coats and muskets. The Sydney people too were experienced in war and were ready to show their power to the colonists. At the same time, the Sydney people began to pick off unarmed individuals venturing out from the colony, instilling fear, making the hinterland dangerous and displaying mastery of their Country.

The Sydney Wars very effectively illustrates how understandings of military conduct penetrated, and bound together, colonial society. The Marines, then the NSW Corps shared aspects of military knowledge with decommissioned privates who were settling in the colonyand with the many convicts and settlers who had some military experience. Gapps also demonstrates how their efforts were bound together by the instructions of the Governors, who  used both military and paramilitary resources to keep watch, carry arms and at times undertake aggressive manoeuvres. As other reviewers have observed, one of the most interesting lights this history casts is on the distinctions usually drawn between the military proper in the colony, and everyone else – in Gapps’ history even ‘misconduct’ by settlers or convicts bearing arms is integrated into the military framework, understood by colonial government to be a necessary part of the wars.

Gapps is keen to pursue a military history throughout, though at times he acknowledges there was tension between military imperatives and economic logic, for example in the establishment of colonists along the Hawkesbury. Although the narrative strains under this pursuit at times, his determined focus highlights the ways in which the placement of colonists in outlying areas and their land clearing activities, were closely linked with the military effort as well as food growing. Much more importantly, it foregrounds the actions of the Sydney people in raiding or destroying crops and dispersing stock around the main settlements as well as isolated outposts, across the period. ‘Economic sabotage’, Gapp’s argues, was a central and highly successful part of the Sydney people’s war, as it has been in guerrilla warfare before and since.

The Sydney Wars throws a different light on the on-again off-again nature of the conflicts, conceiving them as episodes in a regional war. Darkinjung and Dharug people moving in and out of the Hawkesbury settlements, for example, while Hunter issued oscillating instructions to colonists about whether it would be ‘misconduct’ to engage in hostile action, or not to engage, become in this history not questions about the nature of British intentions, or consistency in Aboriginal policy, but a flip-flopping of strategies based on circumstances. The question of whether to exercise hostility or civility in this framework was perhaps not unlike the awkward question of whether Britain was at war or under truce with France if one happened on a ship when no instructions had been received recently. One of The Sydney Wars’ most powerful observations is that the Sydney people were in a situation of both surviving and supporting guerrilla warfare for three decades. Living ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the settlements, notwithstanding mutually beneficial relations with some of the colonists, men, women and children lived with the strain of war. Gapps’ history, in having brought together these Sydney wars, which have until now been understood as a series of isolated or recurring ‘conflicts’, may provide a key to more fully understanding what this was like.

As Penny Russell (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 2018) and Ben Silverstein (Dictionary of Sydney, 25 July 2018) note the impact of Gapps’ history on historians’ and the public and popular view of early years of the NSW colony will take time to unfold. Gapps does not take us down this road himself. He concentrates on re-appraising the sources and providing an – often distinctive – account of the action. This approach prevents overdetermination of the meaning of events that have been so intensively examined over the past few decades for their moral tone – good/bad, strong/weak, noble/corrupt – but also leaves us to work out what happens next, because, like it or not, there are moral implications to how we understand this history.

Gapps’ himself closes in a commemorative mode, offering a roll of honour for casualties on both sides of the Sydney wars so that they can be contemplated, and remembered.


Stephen Gapps will be speaking at the PHA’s Marking Time conference on Friday 31 August. He is on a panel called,Entangled histories: indigenous wars, military and shared spaces.

Image: Looking for a station site: a picture of an Aboriginal person pointing the way to a mounted man, Samuel Thomas Gill, Courtesy: Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales


Reflections on writing an ocean history


by Dr Joy McCann, Visiting Fellow, School of History, Australian National University… 

The central theme explored at the recent annual conference of the Australian Historical Association was ‘The Scale of History’. The organisers asked participants to consider how questions of scale—temporal, geographical, social, archival—influence their research. The theme resonated strongly with me, having recently grappled with the vast geographical, temporal and spatial scales of ocean history while writing Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean (NewSouth, 2018).

Environmental historians are inclined to venture into subject areas that require them to embrace vast scales of time and place, and this is particularly so in the case of ocean history. In geographical terms, the world’s five major ocean basins—the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern Oceans—form part of an interconnected planetary ocean covering three-quarters of Earth’s surface and containing 97% of all its water. Added to that is the fact that oceans are three-dimensional environments, stretching from the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean or, as the North American historian Eric L Mills described it, the ‘two great masses of fluid on the surface of the earth’.[1] The temporal dimensions of ocean environments are equally vast, evolving as a result of the physical transformation of the planet in deep geological time.

The Southern Ocean occupies the southernmost region of this vast three-dimensional environment. It had its origins in the long, slow movements of Earth’s crust as it shifted and compressed and fractured over 3.5 million years. Around 40 to 20 million years ago a rift opened between Australia and Antarctica. Ocean water flooded in from the west marking the end of a continental bond that had lasted for millions of years. Thus was formed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows entirely around Antarctica south of Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. It is the least known and least visited of the world’s oceans. Apart from a series of about 20 tiny, mostly volcanic subantarctic island groups that dot the surface of this circumpolar ocean, there seems to be nothing but water, wind, atmosphere, ice, and the myriad of creatures that call this tempestuous region home.

An ecologist recently asked why I had written a history of the Southern Ocean. As he put it, how could an ocean have a history when ‘no-one lives there’?  Historians do favour terrestrial environments, and I found this to be equally true of the high southern latitudes where the Antarctic continent—rather than the ocean that surrounds it—has taken centre stage in polar histories. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in writing ocean history amongst environmental historians, particularly given the emerging sense of an environmental crisis in the world’s oceans and the imperative to understand the history of human-ocean relationships. As the American ocean historian, Helen Rozwadowski has argued we need to historicise the ocean itself because ‘even those are as intertwined with human history as the far corners of the terrestrial world’.[2]

My first impulse was to view the Southern Ocean as a place, to explore it as a three-dimensional environment rather than to just focus on its surfaces and edges. From my work as a public historian I was used to grounding my writing in a sense of place. Therein lay my first challenge. The Southern Ocean is characterised by currents and gyres and eddies representing the restless movements of water on a massive scale. How could I distill a sense of place in such a complex, fluid, dynamic environment? I decided to experiment with a different approach, putting the ocean at the centre of the narrative and writing from the midst of those winds and currents and fog and ice for which the Southern Ocean is notorious. The idea of shifting the historical gaze from land to sea is not new. In 1995 the French historian, Fernand Braudel, employed a similar idea in his long durée history of the Mediterranean Sea in the age of Philip II. Unlike the more conventional event-based histories, he was able to discern slow and subtle changes in the relationships between people and the Mediterranean environment over time, revealing how the Mediterranean was not a single place with a single history but rather a complex environment with multiple histories.[3]

From my vantage point in the midst of the Southern Ocean’s circumpolar storm track, I found it invigorating to navigate between the ocean’s natural and cultural histories, traversing back and forth across vast scales of time and space. Importantly, I could explore the history of the ocean both above and below its surface, catching glimpses of a vessel on a perilous voyage, of an individual sailor seeing his first ice berg, of a polar explorer’s encounter with an emperor penguin colony, of an oceanographer discovering the tooth of a prehistoric shark alongside the remains of coal from a steamer, or of a scientist puzzling over the long-distance migration of a floating island of giant kelp. I also found that the Southern Ocean was inhabited, not only by water and wind and marine creatures, but also by stories and legends that reflected different historical and cultural relationships with the ocean.

With the ocean at the centre of the narrative, I found that its winds, currents, ice, islands and depths offered a natural framework for the chapters. It also offered unexpected insights. Almost from the start, my perspective challenged the conventional north-south orientation of Western sources and histories of exploration and colonisation in the southern hemisphere. My story assumed a west-east orientation because it was impossible to examine the environmental history of the Southern Ocean without being caught up in its powerful westerly winds and circumpolar current as told through diaries and logbooks, images and stories. This brought into sharp focus local places and societies and relationships with the ocean, producing a distinctively Southern Hemisphere perspective and a heightened sensibility towards its human and non-human inhabitants.

There are, of course, many histories of the world’s oceans, although they tend to privilege narratives that focus on the ocean surface as a highway for maritime communication, trade and war and as a resource for exploitation. It struck me that, by putting the Southern Ocean at the heart of the narrative and attending to its natural history as well as its human history, I was giving it a sense of agency. So my story weaves back and forth between people and place, between human encounters and the seasonal heartbeat of the sea ice that surrounds Antarctica, between scientific expeditions to understand the deep ocean and the distinctive characteristics of species like kelp and krill, between Indigenous peoples and their ancestral relationships with the sea.

This interweaving of natural and cultural histories enabled me to move more easily between global and local scales of storytelling as well as between deep geological time and recent human history. In order to deal with these extremes of scale, I chose a particular species or person or event that offered a portal into a larger story. I tell a story, for example, about the Wandering Albatross which has the longest wingspan of any bird. GPS tracking has shown that they can fly up to 15,000 km across the Southern Ocean in these ‘albatross latitudes’. By focusing on the albatross I could examine cultural perceptions of the winds known as the Roaring Forties, the history of interactions between albatross and science in the high southern latitudes, the Western legend of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Indigenous cultural relationships with the albatross, as well as illuminating the bird’s own natural history and current threats to its survival as a species. In this way, I was able to explore different forms of environmental knowledge and different ways of knowing the Southern Ocean. I was also able to trace the emergence of an environmental awareness of the ocean’s vulnerability to human actions, from the theatres of slaughter that devastated fur seal populations on remote subantarctic islands in the nineteenth century, to the exploitation of whales and Antarctic krill in the twentieth century and the more recent recognition that the Southern Ocean is changing in response to global warming. Indeed, for Southern Ocean scientists it has become a barometer of global warming.

I discovered a great paradox in the Southern Ocean. It is renowned for being stormy and remote and inaccessible but, in reality, everything is interconnected in this ocean—currents, winds, ice, creatures, plants, islands, continents and people, past and present, nature and culture. I have come to think of this awareness as a kind of ‘ocean consciousness’ which was apparent in earlier books and reports about oceans, before air travel replaced long distance sea travel. In the 1950s, for example, scientists like the US marine biologist Rachel Carson and oceanographer Hank Stommel were writing about oceans and their natural and cultural histories in a lyrical and engaging way, attracting wide publicity and enthusiastic lay readers. I think that perhaps we lost that ocean consciousness somewhere in the postwar era, in the Southern Ocean at least, at a time when scientific specialisations began to portray the region as a kind of international field laboratory.

In the process we also lost its stories. So my project has really been about recovering some of those stories, revealing the three-dimensional ocean environment as a place of entangled histories—both natural and human—engaging people emotionally and through the senses, through the interweaving of cultural beliefs, scientific ideas, ocean conservation politics, and the more conventional themes of maritime exploration and exploitation. In this way, I have sought to locate the Southern Ocean within a spatial and temporal context to create a deep history, as well as to reveal encounters between humans and species that draw us into a more nuanced understanding of this extreme, opaque yet vulnerable more-than-human world.


Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean will be launched at the 2018 Canberra Writers’ Festival  by Caroline Le Couteur, MLA.

When: Saturday 25 August 2018, 4.30 pm to 5.30 pm

Where: Members’ Dining Room 3 (MDR3), Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House

The event is FREE but an RSVP to will be appreciated.


[1] Eric L Mills, ‘Creating a global ocean conveyor: George Deacon and the hydrology of the Southern Ocean’, in Keith R Benson and Helen M Rozwadowski, eds, Extremes: Oceanography’s Adventures at the Poles, Science History Publications, Mass., 2007, p. 107.

[2] Helen M Rozwadowski, ‘Oceans: Fusing the history of science and technology with environmental history’, in Douglas Cazaux Sackman, ed, A Companion to American Environmental History, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, West Sussex, 2010, p. 442.

[3] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.


Dr William Ingram, medical officer and biologist with two British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (1929-31) holding a young albatross captured at Crozet Island, circa 1930. Photo: Frank Hurley. Source: National Library of Australia.

Naturalist reading deep-sea thermometers during the scientific voyage of the HMS Challenger (1872-6), 1880. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Social media and ‘saving’ specialist heritage


by Peter Hobbins  …

I was a reluctant adopter of social media, and have in fact given presentations entitled ‘the sceptic’s guide to Twitter’. Since sending my first tweet in 2014 (, however, I’ve come to appreciate the platform’s value in sharing information, building networks and serendipitously encountering all manner of unexpected content.

Over the past week, however, I have also experienced Twitter’s extraordinary power in mobilising a worldwide community around at-risk heritage. Just a week ago I received an email from the Australian Society for the History of Engineering and Technology (ASHET). It shared the sad fate of the Australian Computer Museum Society, a small group comprised primarily of former programmers and engineers who have gathered a wealth of computing artefacts. These range from late 1950s storage media to 1960s and 1970s mainframe ‘minicomputers’, through to punched cards, desktop consoles and the revolutionary ‘personal computers’ of the early 1980s such as the Microbee and Commodore 64. Along with the devices, circuits and peripherals, they also collected documentation, manuals and trade magazines, all with the aim of creating a computing museum that has never come to fruition.

The ASHET email outlined the society’s dilemma: the storage facility in which the collection resided would be bulldozed in two weeks and they had nowhere else to go. For the coming fortnight, the society’s Treasurer announced, their Villawood warehouse would be “open for anyone who cares to come and take anything away and help preserve our computing heritage”. In short, they would rather give it away than see it destroyed, even though it meant dispersing the (uncatalogued) collection forever.

I visited Villawood the next day and found several poorly lit rooms crammed high with ageing equipment and tired but friendly volunteers. Station wagons and vans were coming and going as enthusiasts and collectors stopped by to admire, fossick and depart with whatever took their fancy. Computing history isn’t my speciality so I relied on the volunteers to explain the function and value of various items, including a substantial 1960s minicomputer that had once held an important place in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. Despite my enthusiasm and willingness to urgently document its role and significance, it sadly didn’t fit my own institution’s collecting policy.

What I did do, though, was photograph a selection of items and some wider vistas of the collection and posted them on Twitter that Saturday afternoon. Since then the response has been phenomenal. One tweet in particular has already attracted 88 likes, 24 replies and 193 retweets. Within a day I was being contacted by a programming guru in California and the Computer History Museum in the same state. I’ve since had direct messages and emails from curators, collectors, enthusiasts and IT folks from Britain, Sweden and around Australia. Several have tens of thousands of Twitter followers or hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. There have been offers to set up a GoFundMe rescue fund to pay for emergency storage, while many locals have offered garage, warehouse and shipping container space. I’ve put all of them in touch with the volunteers, and also dropped a line to local archives and libraries in case they wanted to rescue any technology to enhance their own digital preservation setup. Even finding a useable 5ÂŒ inch floppy disk drive is hard work these days!

I’m sad to see the collection being picked over and dispersed; it will clearly never form the basis for a museum. However, I’ve also been heartened by some of the stories, particularly an 18-year-old enthusiast and his 20-year-old boss from Kiama, who drove up in a truck and saved a suite of rare minicomputers which they hope to restore to working order. It may mean that some of these devices – and their rapidly dying programming languages – will survive a little longer. While not an ideal outcome, the transformation of a simple tweet into practical action has been truly inspiring.

A green Public History Prize winner: Debbie Waddell


… This year’s Public History Prize winner, Debbie Waddell talks about what history means to her.

What are your plans after university? Are you pursuing a career in the history sector?

After completing my BA later this year, I hope to undertake Honours, collaborating with a local environmental volunteer organisation to assist them to produce an oral history that both documents and celebrates their successes. However, beyond that, with all my fingers and toes crossed, I absolutely hope to be pursuing a career in the environmental history sector.

Why did you choose to write about the topic of your prize-winning essay?

In 2017, when many NSW councils merged, the Save Tuggerah Lakes (STL) political party ran for election in the newly formed Central Coast Council. Now, I hate to admit to being one of those voters who shows up on polling day with absolutely no inkling of which party to vote for, but sadly, I usually am. However, when I first saw a campaign banner for the STL in the lead up to this election, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Intrigued, I wondered, were the STL’s policies after my own heart? Were they going to help save the Tuggerah Lakes in the manner I believe they deserve to be saved? That is, for humans and non-humans equally. Thus, armed with this question as motivation for my essay, I set about investigating if a permanent channel at The Entrance (one of the STL’s policies) could actually help save the Tuggerah Lakes.

Why is history important today?

For me, I think we often find ourselves, individually and collectively, somewhere, anywhere at a moment in time, making decisions about our future and mistakenly doing so based on the assumption that what we see before us, is just as it always has been. We often fail to recognise that ourselves, our landscape and our society are all a product of countless years of nature and nurture; that is, they are a product of history. However, if we do acknowledge this and arm ourselves with history, I believe we can definitely make better decisions for our future.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

Gosh, narrow it down to one? That seems almost impossible! As someone who tends to focus on local history, I love the book Blue Gum Flat to Budgewoi: the story of Wyong Shire’s wonderful valleys, lakes and beaches.[1] It is my starting point for all things Wyong and surrounds. However, as I’ve gone through university, for absolute convenience, I just can’t imagine what I would have done without the Trove website. From tracking down which library or archive has a particular source I’m after, to spending countless hours (some productive and others…well…sidetracked) trawling through old newspaper articles, Trove definitely takes the cake.

If you had a time machine, where would you go, and why?

In my suburban front yard I have a magnificent gum tree, one that my grown family of four can barely join hands around and which must be hundreds of years old. The history enthusiast in me often ponders what this tree has experienced, what it has witnessed. Whilst the greenie in me wonders how to care for it. Did koalas once munch on its leaves? Or kangaroos graze beneath it? What other native vegetation grew nearby it? Did it provide a source of food, industry and/or entertainment for its traditional Aboriginal custodians? Did colonial settlers shade under its majestic canopy when they first explored the region? What elements has it thrived on? or, perhaps, even in spite of? Thus, as the current custodian of the tree, if I had a time machine, I would go back to when it was a fledgling sapling and whizzing through time, the historian in me would simply soak up its history, so the greenie in me could learn to provide for its future.

[1] Swancott, Charles. Blue Gum Flat To Budgewoi: The story of Wyong Shire’s wonderful valleys, lakes and beaches. Gosford: Berkelouw Bookdealers, 1963.


Public History Prize winners announced


…by Francesca Beddie

The PHA NSW & ACT established the Public History Prize to encourage the application of historical practice to real-world issues. This year the essays we received were diverse: one considered the heritage significance of graffiti, several looked at gender in the war and interwar years, another discussed Ernest Titterton and two were about environmental matters.

The prize is open to undergraduate, graduate diploma and master students in NSW and the ACT. Not all those students will go on to become professional historians. Their history training will, however, stand them in good stead. Proficiency in understanding complexity, communicating effectively, doing thorough research, thinking broadly and asking good questions can open all sorts of doors. The judges were looking for these attributes as well as a demonstration of how history can help our communities make better decisions.

The winning entry ticked all these boxes. Debbie Waddell from the University of Newcastle began with a question: To flush or not to flush?: Can an artificial channel help save the Tuggerah Lakes?. Her well-written essay used evidence from environmental history to build her case. Debbie showed a tolerance for the fact that the past is different, with different attitudinal benchmarks, so needs to be handed sensitively when being used to inform contemporary public policy. Despite the caricature of dithering public servants, decision makers like to receive soundly based and clear advice. Debbie’s essay delivered this in her conclusion:

The Tuggerah Lakes coastal lagoons are burdened by almost two centuries of anthropocentric sediments and nutrients, in a swirling mass of organic ooze; and it is up to us whether or not they remain this way
in addressing the question, to flush or not to flush? the answer is no, an artificial channel cannot help save the Tuggerah Lakes

We are living in a world of multi-media. While the historian’s main tool may often still be the written word, increasingly this is being supplemented by the visual and the interactive. Digital histories have the power to make the sources of history much more accessible, especially if they are accompanied by guidance on how to use such archives. This was the premise Chloe Haywood-Anderson’s project, Erko Archives, which the judges highly commended.

Chloe has created a digital timeline, stored in Google Drive and generated through the open source tool TimeLineJS. The timeline, which starts from the establishment of the school in 1881, organises materials collected in the Erskineville Public School Archive. It is accompanied by a report that will guide future contributors on how to access and maintain the digital archive. Chloe undertook this project as part of Macquarie’s Professional and Community Engagement program in public history.

Tyler Oration: capturing the LGBTQI voice through oral history


… by Francesca Beddie

Dr Shirleene Robinson, Associate Professor, Macquarie University, delivered the 2018 Peter Tyler oration, named in memory of an indefatigable member of the PHA. Dr Robinson paid tribute to Dr Tyler, saying he embedded the best of the profession, with his dedication to doing rigorous history that could engage the wider public.

Dr Robinson’s oration was a compelling argument for the importance of intimate history as a strand in the national story, and for capturing the voices of the marginalised using oral history. Dr Robinson’s research interests include the life of lesbian and gay Australians over the past sixty years, HIV/AIDS histories, the history of childhood and broader LGBTIQ oral histories.

How lesbian and gays find relevance in national history is the underlying question in two Australian Research Council projects Dr Robinson is working on. The first looks at volunteers working during the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the second at gays and lesbians in the military since 1945. In both areas, gay men and lesbians made significant contributions, in spite of conditions in which their sexual preference was stigmatised if not outright criminalised.

Her approach to uncovering these stories is through a collaboration with the actors in these stories. Dr Robinson offers them shared authority through the dialogue created by the oral history interview. She shares drafts with her interviewees and consults them on the way exhibitions are mounted. The oral history interviews reveal more than what is actually said: the repetition of certain words, pauses in the conversation and tone can point to unarticulated preoccupations and emotion. Putting all this together makes it clear that for gay men in particular, the AIDS epidemic was, in the words of one interviewee, ‘our WWI’. From the first death in Australia in 1983 to September 1996, approximately 16,000 people were diagnosed with HIV, 7000 were diagnosed with AIDS and 5100 people died from AIDS-related causes.

As well as sound bi-partisan policy, volunteers from the stigmatised groups were essential to Australia’s success in responding to HIV/AIDs in the 1980s. Recording the history of that volunteer effort makes clear it also offers lessons for the broader volunteer movement, for example the importance of curbing people’s enthusiasm to help so that they do not burn out.

It was not until 1992 that lesbians, gays and bisexual people were able openly to serve in the military. For transgender people it was 2010. Nevertheless, since WWII many served secretly. That service is now being documented using oral history which in turn leads to other sources, for example photographs. Dr Robinson showed a number of photographs of lesbians serving, including a photograph of a women’s softball team, which is undistinguished from other photos from this time until its meaning is explained. Joining sporting teams was one way in which women in the military were able to meet other lesbians.

Inviting people to speak out now reveals the depth of prejudice LGBTIQ people have faced in Australia and is documenting the quiet revolution in attitudes over the last forty years. It reveals the wealth of talent that was lost during the years of prejudice but also shows the restorative potential of history.

Here are some of those sources:

Australian lesbian and gay life stories oral history project, National Library of Australia

The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives is the biggest repository of historical materials about LGBTIQ experience in Australia. The Archives was established in 1978. It is a volunteer, community-based organisation.

Sydney Pride History Group


Image courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Creating a wartime record


… Ian Willis reports on the First World War Studies 2018 Conference

Deakin University in Melbourne was the venue for a conference that examined the ‘Recording, Narrating and Archiving the First World War’ for the International Society for First World War Studies. This was the first time this interdisciplinary conference has been held outside the northern hemisphere. It brought together historians, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, curators, sociologists, artists, film makers, linguists, philosophers, military specialists, school teachers and those interested in cultural studies.

Around 100 delegates from across the globe listened to and presented a range of papers across three parallel sessions. These ranged from Rowan Light’s analysis of ‘Maori television and the reshaping of New Zealand war memory’ to the ‘gift to the nation’ from the Australian Red Cross and the records recently lodged at the State Library of New South Wales. Invoking the mythology of the ‘ancient Athenian citizen-soldiers’ Sarah Midford re-interpreted the stories of the Dardanelles campaign at Gallipoli, providing a fresh look at an old topic. Julia Riberio discussed French poetry and Alexander Nordlund examined British soldiers’ letters, while Sebastian Willert talked about his inquiries into the archival material of the Deutsch-TĂŒrkishe Denkmalschutz-Kommando in 1916.

The transnational character of the memory of the Great War was illustrated by Maria InĂ©s Tato in her work on the social and cultural history of the First World War in Latin America and Argentina in particular. The role of the USA and the memory of the war was dealt with by a number of papers including Kathelene McCarty Smith’s paper on ‘Mobilizing Citizen Archivists’ in North Carolina, while Diane North examined California and the war.

First World War studies show no sign of letting up on yielding new material, new interpretations and new analysis. As one of the seminal events of world history in the 20th century the legacy of war is all around us, in ways we do not always notice. WWI is a living force that still provides a host of challenges for many. Collectively, the papers were a testament to how research in this field continues to give up its dark secrets.

The ever-present legacy of Charles Bean cast a shadow over the papers of the Australian delegates. His Official History of Australia in the War on 1914-1918 is still contested ground and its influence is still felt strongly by those interested in operational military history and the war more generally. Bean has had a key position in the nation-building narrative of the Gallipoli campaign and the development of the Anzac mythology.

The First World War is presented to us today in ways that shape our cultural memory of the past. Storytelling through shared memories and experiences suggests that the wartime narratives of the First World War are an evolving feast. Commemoration and its re-interpretation in the national narrative were analysed by Emma Wensing in her paper on the ‘unauthorised’ Anzac Centenary commemoration. She showed that many Australians remember the First World War in ways that are outside the authorised versions of the war. Vernacular tributes by textile artists, quilters, embroiderers and cake decorators show how they have used their agency in the context of craft to remember a spectrum of emotions. Our understanding of national heritage and collective memory are sometimes challenged by the authenticity of ordinary Australians, who want to validate their own responses to war using alternative commemorative practices.

Similarly, Joanna Leahy’s analysis of wartime knitting demonstrated that while socks were items of material culture, their functionality was only one part of their story. Knitting was part of a ‘larger network of meanings’ which ‘provide a richer view of women’s experiences of war’. Crafts were practised during wartime in a wider cultural context and reflected ‘some of the broader themes of Australian history’. Wartime knitting represented not only women’s patriotic participation in war but ‘also ways in which women mourned and remembered’. It is important to consider the impact today of how these cultural objects are presented by ‘museums, libraries and archives’.

Newspapers from small rural communities provided a different story of the war. Ian Willis explained that the intimate nature of small closed communities produced local newspapers that were riven with parochialism. Across the English-speaking world, local newspapers transformed private intimate knowledge into public information.

The Melbourne Conference of the International Society for First World War Studies provided many challenges and food for thought for researchers and those interested in the continually evolving story of the war.


Dangerous Oral Histories


…by Minna Muhlen Schulte

What are the ethical ramifications of interviewing a former paramilitary or a victim of violence? Can the work of historians contribute to truth and reconciliation or a transitional peace process? What is the role of a historian in documenting trauma and should you share this testimony? What are the personal risks to the historian in listening to traumatic testimonies? These were some of the tough issues tackled by the Dangerous Oral Histories Conference on 28 and 29 June 2018.

Held in Belfast at a time when there are more ‘peace walls’ dividing Protestant and Catholic communities than before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a lot of sessions covered how the memory of sectarian violence continues to ricochet through Northern Ireland today. There was a strong focus on voices drowned out in this conflict: often Nationalist or Unionist paramilitaries have been interviewed at the expense of testimony of women and children who bore the brunt of violence and are absent from many accounts.

The Conference did not shy away from taboo subjects in survivor testimony. It brought attention to the pride and excitement many people felt in participating in conflict at a formative time in their youth; to the ‘hierarchies’ of suffering in Holocaust survivors such as children or members of the Kindertransport rescue who felt they ‘were lesser’ and had to defer to adult survivors of concentration camps when it came to discussions of what defines a holocaust survivor; to the ways in which paramilitary violence was brought into the home and inflicted on their own families; and to how overzealous university ethics committees can in fact prevent interviews with minority groups silencing their voice in research.

Forgotten stories was also a key theme picked up by PHA members such as Anisa Puri who highlighted the crucial contribution that volunteers played in the response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s in Australia. Anisa investigated the ethics and challenges of recording oral history interviews that prompt the retelling of traumatic experiences and risk re-traumatisation. PHA Vic members Professor Alistair Thomson and Nikki Henningham looked respectively at testimonies of family and sexual violence in Australia and the shifting representations of these narratives in recent decades.

The way in which oral history can be used to help understand our urban fabric and what we push to the fringe of our city was poignantly explored by Leyla Vural. She talked about the history of Hart Island in New York. The island has an eerie past used variously as a tuberculosis sanatorium, a Union Civil War Camp, a women’s insane asylum, and a boys’ reformatory. Today it is a potter’s field with over one million people, mostly homeless buried in mass, unmarked graves by inmates held in the city’s largest gaol. Leyla presented interviews with the inmates, homeless people and activists for the homeless who have fought for access to the island to mourn their friends. For Leyla the island represents a heterotopia, a space separate from society but one which acts as a mirror revealing how a city treats its disenfranchised, dead and poor citizens. Or as one inmate succinctly described a space– ‘where nobodies bury nobodies’.

The Dangerous Oral Histories conference was hosted by the Oral History Society more information and links to journal articles can be found on the website.


Image: Women banging out the news of the death of one of the Hunger Strikers, Thomas McElwee, with bin lids in a Nationalist neighbourhood of Belfast, c.1981 (Source: Unifax-UPI as reproduced by the Ulster Museum).

PHA NSW/ACT at the Australian Historical Association Conference

Historians from all over Australia and beyond are in Canberra this week for the annual Australian Historical Association conference. Hosted by the Australian National University, the theme of this year’s conference is ‘the scale of history’.

This year organisers had to close conference registrations nearly two weeks before the start of the conference. With over 350 presenters and up to 15 concurrent sessions, this conference is an intense festival of history. You can download the conference program and abstracts from the conference website.

This will be the 7th year that the conference will be tweeted. This is an enjoyable way to get involved in the conference from wherever you may be in the world. Just follow the conference hashtag, #OzHA2018 on Twitter. Look out for the blog posts of conference participants too.

Professional Historians contribute to the conference each year. We have found nine members of PHA NSW in the program who are presenting papers:

Tuesday 11:00 – 12:30

  • Carol Liston is a co-presenter of a paper titled, ‘Colonial surgeon Patrick Hill (1794-1852): Unsung pioneer of Australian mental health care’. Arndt Tutorial Room 4

Tuesday 3:30 – 5:00

  • Adele Nye, ‘Teaching history in Australian universities: Multiple dimensions of a rich discipline’. Arndt Tutorial Room 1
  • Ian Willis, ‘A local cultural icon challenges the forces of neo-liberalism on Sydney’s fringe’. CBE Tutorial Room 6
  • Terry Kass, ‘False testimony: R H Mathews, surveyor and ethnographer’. CBE Tutorial Room 3

Wednesday 11:00 – 12:30

  • Joy McCann, ‘Writing the life story of the Southern Ocean’. CBE Tutorial Room 6
  • Laila Ellmoos, ‘Interesting, humorous, thrilling’: The Great Strike of 1917 on film’. CBE Tutorial Room 3

Wednesday 1:30 – 3:00

  • Catherine Bishop, ‘Local business, global phenomenon: Putting Sydney’s businesswomen in an international context’. CBE Lecture Theatre 2

Thursday 3:30 – 5:00

  • Robin McLachlan, ‘Australasian miners response to Klondike Goldfield regulations, bureaucracy and corruption, 1897-99’. Arndt Tutorial Room 2

Friday 11 – 12:30

  • Kate Bagnall, ‘Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation’. CBE Lecture Theatre 2

It is difficult in such a big conference to hear all the papers you want, but if you have a chance, drop in and hear what your fellow professional historians are doing, or follow the conference on Twitter at #OzHA2018.

Army, empire, natural history and a forgotten couple


by Brian Walsh …

I would like to reflect on some of the challenges I faced while writing my recently published book, William and Elizabeth Paterson – the Edge of Empire. The book is a dual biography of a couple largely forgotten in Australian history. Its scope includes William’s natural history excursions in southern Africa in the 1770s, his service in the British army, fighting the French and local rulers in India in the 1780s before marrying Elizabeth and arriving in Australia in 1791 as a captain in the newly formed NSW Corps. From this point the book spans the history of the colony for nearly two decades, ending in 1810 when the NSW Corps, by then rebadged as the 102nd Regiment with Paterson as its colonel, was recalled after Governor Macquarie took office.

The Commissariat Store in Sydney. It was commenced under Paterson in 1809 and completed by Macquarie in 1812. It stood for well over a century as a mark of Paterson’s rebel government before being demolished in the 1930s to make way for the Maritime Services Board building, now the Museum of Contemporary Art, at Circular Quay (State Archives and Records NSW).

The book features a Paterson-centric account of well-known events, including the rum trade, the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion, the deposition of Governor Bligh in 1808 by one of Paterson’s officers, and Paterson’s performance as governor during two interregnums. Equally important, the book attempts to get to know William and Elizabeth as real people, to come face to face with their personalities, strengths and shortcomings. In all of this, Paterson’s patron and colleague, Sir Joseph Banks, along with the Royal Society and the pursuit of natural history, loom large in the narrative. William botanised whenever official duties and his health would allow, and in the process became Australia’s first Fellow of the Royal Society.

While the Paterson history felt like an unploughed field, the events encasing the couple were much tilled. This represented one of my challenges ­– how to best handle the plethora of writing, both scholarly and popular, on the so-called ‘rum corps’ and ‘rum rebellion’ without them weighing me down like Coleridge’s albatross hanging round the neck of the Ancient Mariner. I was determined not to be swayed by populist, but arguably flawed, views of key events, especially those involving Bligh. My approach was to rely heavily on primary sources and make up my own mind while acknowledging previous scholarship and noting divergent views. This allowed me to reappraise the demonised ‘rum corps’, re-evaluate officer trading and the performance of the army governors during the two interregnums.

An associated challenge was the degree to which I should include the underlying historiography – the wealth of scholarly material on, for example, the Enlightenment, natural history and Empire – all relevant to the Paterson narrative. I agonised over this for some time before deciding I was not writing a PhD thesis nor a journal article. To balance scholarship with wider readability, I only occasionally used the scholarly vocabulary of imperialism or wrote of concepts such as ‘colonial eyes’. I chose instead to make extensive use of endnotes to provide points of engagement for those seeking more than the narrative. Hopefully, though, my understanding of key concepts informed my writing without cloying it. That’s for others to judge.

Another challenge was to allow Elizabeth Paterson to emerge from William’s shadow, to give her a voice and presence in the narrative in her own right. With the weight of archival material favouring William, the search for records about Elizabeth became critical. Precious scraps of evidence had to be gleaned from diverse sources. Fortunately, there is just enough surviving correspondence to provide some idea of her personality and to see her in three dimensions. Elizabeth’s role in the establishment and management of the Sydney Female Orphan School also helped to raise her profile.

The more I discovered about the Patersons the more I came to like them, and so a final hurdle  was to avoid writing a hagiography. Had I become too close to my subjects and was my credibility at stake as a result? As I wrote I found myself disputing the darker conclusions of previous works, such as the wickedness of the ‘rum corps’, officer trading, government during the interregnum and Paterson’s drinking habits. Conscious of the danger, I was careful not to sanitise the narrative but to include shortcomings, particularly Paterson’s weakness as an administrator and his lack of political savvy. I strove to support my conclusions with credible, primary-source evidence. Again, others will judge if I succeeded.

One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed writing the book was the discovery of personal accounts of major events in the colony’s early European history. During the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion, Paterson’s job was to oversee Sydney’s defence in case the ‘croppies’ overran the Parramatta garrison. He sent Major George Johnston in pursuit of the rebels. Only  in 2002 did  the NSW State Library purchase Johnston’s letter book. In it Johnston tells friends how he quashed the rebellion, beginning with ‘I have been five nights without pulling my clothes off …‘ and so on.

In another personal account, Elizabeth Paterson, who had a razor-sharp wit and a wicked sense of humour, recorded Bligh’s return to Sydney in January 1810 after Macquarie had taken office. In an unguarded letter to a friend she wrote: ‘…up comes the scruffy Commodore, and lands on the Queens Birth Day, just as we were going to Dinner at Government House … [he] was so angry at the Governor asking the Rebels to his Table, that he knew no bounds to his malice and vexation‘. Discovering these and other frank accounts was one of the rewards for working on the book.

The book is available through Paterson Historical Society.