On Australia Day 2018 | Reflections

Much Writing, Many Opinions, Not a lot of History. Bark of the Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus sclerophylla), Blue Mountains, New South Wales.  Image Mohamed Mokak

I have been reading and watching and hearing the debate/conflict around Australia Day over the past few weeks, and past few years.  There are many views and opinions, so instead of writing history with footnotes this post is just another opinion, another view, to add to the – I’d like to say conversation, but that seems too genteel a word for much of what I observe.  I choose opinion rather than history because, while ‘history’ is claimed by many, few seem able to distinguish history from polemic.  After recently reading that Irish people fleeing the potato famine resisted being transported to Sydney in 1788 on the First Fleet … I gave up in despair.

First, disaggregate

My first point is to disaggregate the date (26th January) and the celebration (Australia Day), and have a look at each in turn.

26th January is the anniversary of a distinct historical event, the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove.  This was an event that has had huge and continuing consequences for the continent, and the peoples who chose to live here, and the societies around us in the South Pacific and South East Asia.  These consequences don’t begin and end at the high-water mark.  They are not contained by 21st century borders.  26th January was commemorated before 1808 as the Day of Landing, recalling journeys rather than boundaries.

The consequences for the Indigenous countries and peoples of this continent cannot be ignored or obscured.  Invasion, colonisation, dispossession.  These are traumas that last for generations, and affect both the colonised and the colonisers, and all their descendants.  I am not Indigenous, and can’t presume to speak for Indigenous peoples.  But, I think we non-Indigenous people deny ourselves the chance to come to terms with our inheritances if we continue to deny, or choose not to hear, the stories being told by Indigenous peoples about what this date means for them.  What is it that we really want to bequeath to coming generations?

I do think the 26th January should continue to be observed as a significant date – but to name it and celebrate it as we do now cannot be sustained.

Sydney Cove, where the First Fleet landed in 1788. This nationally significant historic landscape shows, for those who want to see, the true balance between inheritance and mammon.  Image mrbbaskerville

Australia Day is a celebration that has had several names and been held on several other dates.  I remember it, before the late-80s, as just another long-weekend that heralded the return to school and work after summer holidays.  Fireworks, flag-waving, parades, angst –these things were not especially apparent.  The coincidence of the date and the name dates from 1935.  The sanctification the date and the celebration dates from 1994.

It is instructive to note the contexts for this evolution.  The name ‘Australia Day’ arose when preparing for the 1938 sesquicentenary of Australia as part of the Empire.  It is an imperial name.  The awarding of honours on 26th January dates from the early 1970s and the invention of the Order of Australia.  It came as part of the ‘new nationalism’ of that period in the wake of the British government’s abandonment of the Commonwealth in favour of Europe.  Until then, New Year’s Day had been perfectly fine for announcing honours.  The specific sanctifying of Australia Day by making it a holiday on the precise calendar date of 26th January conflates it with the 1990s republic campaign.  We lost a long-weekend (except for calendrical serendipity) in another wave of nationalism.

Honours: Centenary of Federation Medal and the ‘crimson thread of kinship’. Image mrbbaskerville

These decisions were all made ‘inside the bubble’ of the political classes, not by us.  As this genealogy shows, ‘Australia Day’ is really a relatively recent phenomenon, an accumulation of events and decisions, driven by imperialism, then abandonment, then nationalism.  With each new political imperative an attempt was made to anchor it to a definitive ‘historical’ date, to add some lustre of ‘authenticity’, to put it beyond questioning and present ‘Australia Day’ as an old and enduring thing.  Each change was driven by a crumbling of previous political and ideological frameworks, and the current questioning can be understood as simply the next chapter in what is the actual ‘old story’.

Is disagreement really a problem anyway?

An argument often advanced is that Australia Day is for partying and having a jolly time without any whingers ‘spoiling things’.  ‘Be happy’, we’re exhorted (with the implication ‘and don’t be traitorous’).  But is there really a problem with debating (as distinct from crudely celebrating) the meaning of Australia Day on 26th January?  The argument does raise consciousness of the impacts of 1788, especially for non-Aboriginal people.  I wonder if that actually makes it more meaningful in some perverse way, just as republicans invariably rise to their soap boxes on the Queen’s Birthday holiday.  No other public holidays seem to attract any debate or discussion, and tend to pass quietly over a somnolent long-weekend.  Perhaps these are the two events that have truly deep resonances for Australians and their multiple identities, while all the others are just days-off?

Some suggestions have been made to change the date of Australia Day to that on which Australia becomes a republic (rarely ‘if’, always confidently ‘when’ in this rhetoric), or to replace the Queen’s Birthday holiday with this ‘national’ holiday.  Rarely is a voice raised that this is treason-talk, or that it should be silenced.  Advocates say that either change will be uncontentious and will be unifying.  Frankly, I think this is self-delusional.  Not contentious?  To quote a well-known fictional character, “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’”.  But, being able to have that discussion is healthy and tends to confirm rather than diminish the royal holiday’s significance – because we actually talk about it rather than slumber.

To build something new from the ruins of the old means talking with each other, exploring the shades of grey. Ruins of Maley’s Mill, Greenough, Western Australia after the fire of 2013. Image LBaskerville.

Marking the seasons

Why do we have public holidays anyway?  I’m guessing they originate in rituals to mark the passing or turning of the seasons, for reasons both pragmatic and spiritual.

We already have some of these.  Perhaps the most relevant is Melbourne Cup Day, which informally marks the beginning of the summer holiday season.  26th January has been its bookend, marking the end of summer, whatever called.  A holiday at the end of summer has a pragmatic purpose as a marker, and a ritual purpose as a farewell to the holidays and returning to work.  The political overlaying of Australia Day since the 1930s has tended to obscure this informal seasonal purpose.

Another seasonal date, sometimes a holiday, is 1st September which marks the end of winter and beginning of spring.  It is known as Wattle Day or, in the earlier 20th century, as Australia Day.  It iss about rebirth, or re-emergence after winter, and the blooming of the national flower, the wattle (or specifically, the Golden Wattle).  Golden Wattle blossom ornaments the Commonwealth Coat of Arms (since 1912), provides the decorative forms for the insignia of the Order of Australia (since 1976), and its green and gold foliage provides the national sporting colours (since 1988).

Clearly, there is some coincidence of dates with the serial ordering of Australia Day referred to before, but the difference is that 1st September, like Melbourne Cup Day, is a date without any notable political significance.  That is a strength.

Sandhills or summer-scented wattle (Acacia rostellifera), Bootenal Spring, Western Australia.  This species flowers from July to December, and it is said that there is always a wattle species flowering somewhere across the continent at any time of the year.
Image mrbbaskerville

Do we even need a ‘national’ day?

While some countries have a national day that lacks contention, I’m not really sure such a thing is possible in a settler society.  It may be better to try and turn that contention towards creating change rather than trying to silence it in favour of some illusory neutral ‘fun’ celebration of beer, bbqs and beaches sans angry words.

Many countries manage to have a national holiday without the name of the country in it.  Think Bastille Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Accession Day, a patron saint’s day, a sovereign’s birthday, Statehood Day, Longest Day of the Year, Liberation Day.  Some relate to ‘nation-building’ events, but not all.  Perhaps, whatever the date, even retaining the name Australia Day needs to be considered.

Another consequence of this debate that has rarely been mentioned but which, logically, must arise at some point, is the ‘State days’, by which I mean those dates on which the various state and territories celebrate their own ‘national’ day.  Those which mark the commencement of colonisation are WA Day, formerly Foundation Day, in Western Australia (first Monday in June), and Proclamation Day in South Australia (28 December).  Canberra Day (second Monday in March), Queensland Day, formerly Separation Day (6 June), Territory Day in the Northern Territory (1 July) and Foundation Day on Norfolk Island (6 March) are similar.  With such State Days available, is a single homogenous national day essential in a country with multiple beginnings?

A land of many flags, many stories. Image mrbbaskerville

Where to next?

A common theme in the opinion writing about Australia Day has been an unwillingness to name an alternate date, or a demand that someone name another date.  The term ‘Australia Day’ hasn’t been questioned so much, although I’m not sure there’s any compelling reason to preserve it.  Perhaps it too has ‘had its day’, so to speak, and another name without the historical baggage may be better.

This are my suggestions for replacing an Australia Day celebrated on 26th January.

26th January should be retained as a significant day, devoted to reflection and contemplation, atonement and redemption, in a secular or civic space.  Colonisation commenced on that date, and we need to face this and its consequences.  I think the original name for this date, the Day of Landing, is both historically descriptive and sufficiently ambiguous to provoke people to think about what happened, about consequences and about futures.  It should be a day with similar sensibilities as Anzac Day.

A seasonal holiday is still needed to mark the end of summer, and I think we could create a new Summer’s End Long Weekend in the first weekend of February.  This would celebrate the end of summer and return to ‘ordinary’ time, and is deliberately lacking in any political or nationalistic symbolism.  A celebratory Summer’s End first weekend in February would provide a sensitive gap after the atoning Day of Landing.  It would re-establish this holiday in its traditional ‘long-weekend’ form.  The ‘modern’ Australia Day Honours could be returned to New Year’s Day Honours, reinstating an actual tradition for honours.

Summer’s End, in The Rocks where invasion and colonisation began in 1788. Image mrbbaskerville

If we really need to have a specific national day, then at this stage 1st September is my suggestion, named either as Australia Day or preferably Golden Wattle Day.  This would enable some element of traditionalism to be included in the day, as it has a history as an informal national day, and it could celebrate the date of which the Golden Wattle was formally adopted as the national floral emblem on 1 September 1988.  It would also have the seasonal, celebratory neutrality of Summer’s End.

Finally, if we should have a national day with cultural and political resonances, then I think that can only really come in the future when a treaty or treaties have been made between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.  We must address the fundamental issue, the original sin, at the heart of our commopnwealth, to properly hear and listen and respond to that “whispering in the bottom of our hearts” described by Richard Windeyer in 1844.  The circle can never otherwise be closed.

I find inspiration in the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 25 May 2017, especially in these two passages that intersect place and time:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom … it has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.  How could it be otherwise?

This our ancestors did,

according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation;

according to the common law, from time immemorial; and

according to science, for more than 60,000 years.

Creation, common law, spirit, co-existence – how, indeed, can it be otherwise?  And yet this is what was so flippantly dismissed by our republican prime minister, avid defender of Australia Day 26th January.  Now, I suspect, it will be time for him to reap the whirlwind.

Treaty Day, or Uluru Day, on 25th May, would be an honourable day and date for which we can all strive.

How could it be otherwise? Image Parks Australia

Sirius | Brutalist and shining ever-more brightly

[click on images to enlarge for better viewing]

Concrete mould for URO (Unidentified Running Object), public art for Sirius building, 1979. Photograph Tao Gofers

A recent decision by the New South Wales Land & Environment Court has declared ‘invalid and of no effect’ the refusal by the Heritage Minister to list the Sirius apartment building on the State Heritage Register.

The dreams of some: the Sirius site in Cumberland Street, The Rocks before construction, c1977. Photograph Tao Gofers

The decision has some important implications for heritage in New South Wales and Australia, especially places that are of historical significance.

Other dreams: providing quality social housing in the heart of Old Sydney for the local Rockites and Pointers in their home quarter. Source: Sirius, Housing Commission of NSW, c1980, page 10

One very significant implication is that the heritage significance of a place must be properly considered when deciding the future of such a place.  It is not just one factor among many, but the prime factor that needs to be decided first, and which will provide the subsequent framework for all other decision making about the place.

Aged community balcony area, 1980, with characteristic use of rich colour, and view to the Harbour Control Tower on Millers Point (demolished in 2016).  Photograph Tao Gofers

A speaker at the recent Australian Historical Association conference in Newcastle said “constraint is enabling”.  In other words, any field of endeavour needs to be bounded in order to keep it achievable, and the ‘constraints’ of a heritage listing can have the effect of focussing attention on carefully crafting and designing new works that support and even enhance heritage and historical values.

Sirius under construction, tower stepping down to south wing, east facade, overlooking Atherden Street, The Rocks.  Photograph Tao Gofers

Sirius is a creative design response to the environmental constraints of its site.  Its multiple levels and forms mimic the natural topography of the sandstone cliffs and ledges of The Rocks, emphasised by its exaggerated scale.  ABC TV’s second series of the dystopian Indigenous sci-fi drama Cleverman, filmed around Sirius, reveals the complexity of the building’s geometry and shows to full advantage its relationships with its setting.  It is remarkable that, along with the old State Archives building also in The Rocks, Sirius can still convey a visual sense of an imagined modernist future nearly 40 years after it was built.

Sirius under construction: stepping downwards along the north wing, with Bunkers Hill rock face in foreground and Harbour Bridge approach in background. Photograph Tao Gofers

This has been a signal victory for the Millers Point Community Association Inc., all the other people and groups that have continued to campaign and fight for keeping the Sirius building in The Rocks, and the Environmental Defender’s Office who successfully argued the case in Court.

The Royal Australian Historical Society has posted a more detailed summary of the Court’s decision on its website, which also contains a number of links to other useful sites concerning the Sirius battles.  Click here to read the summary and access the links.

Sirius under construction: east facade of tower, stepping down to the north, with westerly views to Pyrmont.  Photograph Tao Gofers

The Minister for Heritage has been ordered by the Court to properly consider whether Sirius has heritage significance, and while it is entirely possible that may still lead to a curmudgeonly decision of ‘no significance’, the possibility that heritage conservation might finally be turning a corner after the past few Stygian years gives some cause for hope.

Pausing to take a cool drink – public art in Sirius, a URO fibreglass model, 1979. Photograph Tao Gofers

Historic Reserve Trusts & Boards Abolished, Commons Almost Go Same Way

The NSW Government’s new Crown Land Management Act 2016 came into force on 14 November.  This new Act repealed the Crown Lands Act 1989 and a number of other Acts such as the Trustees of Schools of Arts Enabling Act 1902, the Western Lands Act 1901, the Hay Irrigation Act 1902 and the Orange Show Ground Act 1897, as well as the regulations and by-laws made under these Acts.  The mainstream media failed to cover any of these fundamental changes.

One Act slated for repeal was the Commons Management Act 1989, legislation with roots going right back to the first commons established by Governor King on 11 August 1804 and the historic Epitome of the Existing Laws respecting Commons drawn-up by Judge Advocate Richard Atkins in Sydney in January 1805.  This was the first ‘charter’ of common rights created in Australia, linking the new commons here with the customs and practices of their ancient predecessors and with a future in which local people – commoners – would share and manage resources for their mutual benefit as communities.  Wherever they came from, however they arrived, their shared interests as local commoners were what mattered.  About half the first trustees appointed in 1805 were ex-convicts.

Following determined representations by the community in St Albans and the commoners of St Alban’s Common to all State MPs in all parties, all references to commons and the Commons Act were removed from the Bill by parliament.

One effect of the new Crown Lands legislation is to abolish or otherwise fundamentally change existing community bodies managing various Crown reserves.  This includes many boards and trustees.  In their place, the Minister may appoint a ‘land manager’, which could be a local council, a ministerial corporation, the head of a government agency or the existing reserve trust or board, among others, at the Minister’s discretion.  The Minister may sell, lease, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of such Crown land.

Another effect of the new Act is that many old and historic local community-based institutions have been abolished or transformed.  About 700 local reserves are (or were) controlled by local trusts.  For example, the 119-year old Orange Showground Trust will be replaced by Orange City Council as Orange Showground Land Manager. On the other hand, five reserve trusts are designated ‘special reserve trusts’ and appear to be exempt from the new Act, such as the 150-year old succession of trustees for Wagga Wagga Racecourse Reserve, and the 133-year old succession of trustees for the Hawkesbury Racecourse Trust, as well as all Crown cemetery trusts.  Apart from these few, the whole concept of local community trusteeship has been discarded in favour of management processes subject to the Minister.

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

Folk rhyme, 18th century

The quick action of the St Albans Commoners means that all commoners still retain control of their commons.  St Albans Common is one of the ‘old commons’, established in 1824, under the control of the trustees chosen by the commoners.  It is the oldest common still continually managed by its commoners as trustees, formalised in an 1853 Deed.  At 163-years old, the commoner’s Trust is older than any other form of self-governance in NSW and Australia, older than the parliament (160 years) which almost abolished it without a second thought, older than any local council, and equal in age to the Supreme Court of NSW.  Only the Governor and the Crown itself predate the St Albans Commoners as continuing historic institutions in New South Wales.  Commons and their trustees are just as significant to our shared heritage.

A politician realizes the significance of a common. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

A politician realizes the significance of a common. ‘St Albans Common’, Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

However, the late change in the Bill does not mean commons are safe.  They will be considered again in 2017 when further amendments to the Act will be made.  The abolition of Commons Trusts has only been ‘deferred’ (Second Reading speech, Hon Niall Blair MLC, 8 November, and Kevin Andrews MLA for Tamworth, 9 November), so all commoners, whatever their common, need to remain alert.  In the debate, Clayton Barr MLA for Cessnock noted that the ‘deferral’ only occurred because commoners

“…came bearing arms against the changes … they were repulsed … they took up arms – their pens and keyboards – they were successful and should be congratulated for dragging the Government to agree to an amendment … at the eleventh hour

(Legislative Assembly, Second Reading Debate, 9 November).

It is clear from reading the debates that the Commoners of St Albans played a key role in saving the commons (see, for example, speech by David Shoebridge MLC, 8 November).  The commoners continued a very long tradition of upholding their rights, and their actions today recall those of the commoners of the Field of Mars Common and Ham Common in the 1860s and 70s and many other commoners over the years who fought valiantly, but often unsuccessfully, against enclosure and privatisation of their commons.  Eternal vigilance is the real price of commonage.

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. 'Field of Mars Common', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. ‘Field of Mars Common’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Are you a trustee or member of a reserve trust?  Are you aware of the impacts of the new Crown lands legislation on you, the Crown reserve that you steward, or your local community?  Has your reserve, its trust or its board been in existence for many years?  Do you know its history?  Is it embedded in the traditions of your community?  Do you know where its records and archives are (the new Crown land managers are specifically not ‘government agencies’, and so will not be subject to the State Records Act 1998)?  Do you know if it is being abolished?  Is your reserve listed on your local council’s LEP or the State Heritage Register as a heritage item?  Are you a commoner worried about the future of your common and commonage rights?  Do you know if you are a commoner of your local common?  Do you know where your common is (or perhaps, used to be)?

Commons are a part of our shared histories as communities, and they are also part of our present and future.  Commons were the first places where people had to work out how to live together in a new place, how to share resources so that all could benefit, and how to care for and look after a sustainable local environment that could support them all now and into succeeding generations.  Some succeeded, some didn’t, but that is part of our ‘common history’ from which we can learn so much about communal endeavour and ways for people to live and work together.  Conservation of historic institutions such as commoners and their trustees goes hand-in-hand with the conservation of environments and natural resources.  The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is never inevitable.

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. 'Sydney Common Estate', Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. ‘Sydney Common Estate’, Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

The new Act has only just been passed, and the fate of the ‘deferred’ commons and the ‘special reserve trusts’ has yet to be decided by your parliamentarians.  Instead of waiting to see what might happen, you can begin making inquiries now with your local council, Lands Office or State MPs.  Ask your MPs which way their vote was cast on this legislation, what they said in the debates, and which way they will vote for commons in the future.  Remind them to keep you informed of what they will do when commons next come before parliament.  Let them know you’ll be watching.  Don’t let them forget that historic, learned ways of local stewardship of local environments are central to continuing community traditions, living local economies and healthy local communities.  They must not be quietly stolen away.

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Some Useful Resources

 Some useful words:

  • Common: land over which rights of common may be exercised without personally owning the land.
  • Commonage: generic term for rights of common, such as grazing, wood gathering, camping, mushrooming, collecting clay and fishing.
  • Commoner: a person with rights of common, usually defined by residence near a common.
  • Tragedy of the commons: an economic theory claiming commoners only act in their self-interest and will inevitably destroy their shared resources, but which ignores the reality of commoners managing their shared resources prudently and cooperatively without any need for enclosure or privatisation.
Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16

Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16

Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

Sydney City Council recently posted to an invitation to a public meeting hosted by the Council on Wednesday 16th October in the Abraham Mott Hall in Millers Point, Sydney to discuss a proposal to shrink Millers Point and Dawes Point by formally separating parts of each locality and combining them to invent a new suburb named Walsh Bay. For all the papers, see Corporate, Finance, Properties and Tenders Committee, scroll down to ‘Item 4’.  The notice and invitation to the public meeting can be viewed here.

Links are included to a number of technical papers, of which City Historian Dr Lisa Murray’s paper will be of most interest to historians. I urge all members as well as other historians and toponomysts to read these papers, and give some thought, in our practice as public historians, to the issues raised. You might also like to go along to the meeting.

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo.  Image mrbbaskerville

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo. Image mrbbaskerville

I have a view that a place name, or toponym, is a historical record that can be researched, read and interrogated like any other historical document. Yes, I have been much influenced by Paul Carter’s writings in this regard, especially Road to Botany Bay (1987), but place names have long been an important historical record for historians in many other countries. In contrast, place names in Australia have largely remained the province of linguists and taxonomists.

Historians would be appalled by and resist proposals to destroy archival records. Those of us working in public history are well aware that the archive is much bigger than the documentary records alone. Buildings, landscapes, artefacts, archaeological sites and place names are some of the other records critical to our work. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to place names generally, and especially to proposals to change place names, just as we would if someone was proposed to change or detroy any other archival record.

Of course things change. I believe change is the only constant in the universe. But change is not necessarily a juggernaut. The idea of managing change so that what is significant is not lost to the future is at the heart of heritage conservation. Another word for it is sustainability. Millers Point has already had its western boundaries manipulated and shaved to invent the new gambler’s playground named Barangaroo. If its northern shores are lost to the newly surburban Walsh Bay, the once maritime Millers Point will have become landlocked. How much longer before even that name, with all its inherent history, is lost and the Millers Point community consigned to the shadows?

fedration homes, millers point, sydney

fedration homes, millers point, sydney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The community arguments for and against the proposed new suburb name are summarised in the documents on the Council website linked above. Support for conserving the existing toponomyscape comes from the people who have lived in the area for generations, and long-ago acquired their own demonym of ‘pointers’. Advocates of the new suburb claim a new identity by virtue of their recent resettlement in the rehabilitated wharf buildings. They may think of themselves as baysiders rather than pointers, at any rate they do not seem to regard themselves as new pointers.

I am struck, in reading the submission summaries, by claims that people who work in the old wharves are counted as ‘residents’ (which would surely mystify, although as a tactic perhaps not surprise, experienced resident action activists). Perhaps it reflects the merging of work and home into one continuum with no escape from work, something that the waterside workers of Millers Point would have resisted. I am also struck by the seeming failure of the much-vaunted arts and cultural activities in the old wharves to have meaningfully engaged with the residents living south and east of Hickson Road. Instead, culture is offered as a reason for separation. Have the Hickson Road-Pottinger Street revetments become a sort of harbourside Berlin Wall, separating the old town above from its waterfront below, quite contrarily to the intention of their design? The bridges and public steps are the links and unifiers between the levels in the landscape, not exits or entrances. Has a border been created where once there was none? And in only ten years? I think it is too early to know.

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, whic...

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, which are part of the Sydney Theatre Company, are located in Dawes Point (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The central claim for the suburban name change is that a new community has arisen in Walsh Bay that is distinct and separate from the old communities of Millers and Dawes points. The ‘test of time’ needs to be considered: how much time has to pass before something can be understood as historical and not a passing fad. Finding a correct answer is not the purpose of the question. Rather, exploring the test of time is meant to help us distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring, to help decide what we want to conserve within a changing environment, what we can allow to pass, and how that passing might be done without losing the genius loci.

A place name attracts and evidences loyalty and identity. That is part of its function and also its meanings. Just like institutional names and personal names, place names are not mere assemblages of words that label something to distinguish it from what is around it. To change a name will invoke deep and often unplumbed emotions and resonances. It is an identity issue. It is not something to be done lightly or cavalierly, or, as the Heritage Council’s guideline on place names states “for reasons of fashion or expediency” (have a look at Place Names of Heritage Value Policy).

The question becomes one of whether the new residents (however they are defined) of the old Walsh Bay wharves have truly become a historical community, so distinct that it needs a named and bounded space separate from that out of which it has grown? I am not arguing that a place name should never be changed or that its boundaries should be set in concrete. But there must be a rationale for a change that is persuasive and meaningful. The poor mapping and comprehension skills of some government agencies who apparently have some difficulties telling the location of a Walsh Bay apartments street address is just not such a reason.

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To remove or shrink a place name is to remove or reduce an archival record, to loose or restrict the histories contained within the name. Would Sydney still be Sydney if its name was changed to something else, with no historical connections to its foundings or contexts? Place name changing can sometimes be a form of historical denialism, of pretending that the history of place didn’t happen in the ways that it did, of fulfilling a wish that it happened in some other way, or inventing an ephemeral future without roots. There will be instances of a community strongly desiring such a change so that their future can be freed from an oppressive past (for example, Stalingrad). That is not necessarily wrong, but it still raises a question of whether it socially and culturally desirable to purposely forget parts of the past because, at a certain time, some people find it uncomfortable or confronting? Should future generations be denied the opportunity to visit that past on their own terms, pretty or not? Will they thank us for whitewashing their history?

The issues involved in diminishing the highly significant histories of Millers Point and Dawes Point, and inventing the rehabilitated wharfscapes of Walsh Bay as a new suburb, are emblematic of larger issues. They go to the heart of how we value, understand and manage our cultural environments. There are plenty of examples of old place names being discarded or new place names invented across Sydney and NSW. Some of the results are truly awful, some so artfully the contrivance of property developer interests, some little more than empty syllables strung together in a supposedly mellifluous arrangement (vale Pristine Waters Council Area, 2000-2004).

The proposed name change does not reduce the place name Walsh Bay to that level. It is the proper name of a geographical feature over which wharves were built as part of the wholesale transformation of Millers Point by the Sydney Harbour Trust. That twentieth century history should be understood and valued in a holistic sense and on its own terms. I am not convinced that Walsh Bay is really a separate place from Millers Point and Dawes Point. At least, not yet. But nothing is inevitable. It’s that old ‘test of time’ issue.

The Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct listing on the State Heritage Register (2002, see here) includes the statement “The natural rocky terrain, despite much alteration, remains the dominant physical element in this significant urban cultural landscape in which land and water, nature and culture are intimately connected historically, socially, visually and functionally.” That for the Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct (2000, see here) includes the statement “The Walsh Bay area is … [a] unique combination of steep rocky terrain, early, mid, late-Victorian and Edwardian housing, surviving relatively intact Victorian bond stores, and the results of an early twentieth century urban redevelopment scheme of unique scale”. The boundary of the proposed new suburb is the boundary between these two heritage items. Just a decade ago the distinction between the bay and point was only perceptible as a convenient planning arrangement. The evidence from the submissions for change suggests that still remains the only real distinction.

Walsh Bay, 1949

Walsh Bay, 1949 (Photo credit: State Records NSW)

There is little respect shown towards old place names and their histories and associated communities in NSW or indeed Australia. Place names are a significant historical record, and we as public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the public heritage values of place names. There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive. Suburbanising Walsh Bay neither respects nor values the histories that have shaped and continue to shape this still-evolving and beautiful pointer locale. I think time is needed before it can be said that the name Walsh Bay has shifted onshore and up the escarpment, just as time is needed to heal a broken heart when something of value is lost forever.

Declaration: I was an Crown employee assigned to the NSW Heritage Office between 1998 and 2008, and during that time processed the Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct nomination for State Heritage Register listing in 2002, and was the executive officer to the Heritage Council’s History Advisory Panel when it developed the Place Names of Heritage Value policy document for the Heritage Council in 2004. I have not been employed in the NSW Heritage Office since August 2008.

Happy 225th Queen’s and King’s Birthday Holiday

Today, Monday 10th June 2013, is the 225th Queen’s (or King’s) Birthday holiday in eastern Australia (Western Australia has the holiday in September or October, during the wildflower season).  It is Australia’s first and oldest public holiday, having been celebrated and recorded every year since 1788.

Captain Watkin Tench of the Marine Corps wrote the following description of the King’s Birthday in Sydney Cove on the 4th June 1788:

“Hours of festivity, which under happier skies pass unregarded and are soon consigned to oblivion, acquire in this forlorn and distant circle a superior degree of acceptable importance.

On the anniversary of the King’s birthday all the officers not on duty, both of the garrison and His Majesty’s ships, dined with the governor.  On so joyful an occasion, the first too ever [be] celebrated in our new settlement, it were needless to say that loyal conviviality dictated every sentiment and inspired every guest.  Among other public toasts drunk was prosperity to Sydney Cove, in Cumberland county, now named so by authority.  At daylight in the morning the ships of war had fired twenty-one guns each, which was repeated at noon and answered by three volleys from the battalion of marines.

Nor were the officers alone partakers of the general relaxation.  The four unhappy wretches labouring under the sentence of banishment were freed from their fetters to rejoin their former society; and three days given as holidays to every convict in the colony.  Hospitality, too, which ever aquires a double relish by being extended, was not forgotten on the 4th of June, when each prisoner, male and female, received an allowance of grog; and every non-commissioned officer and private soldier had the honour of drinking prosperity to his royal master, in a pint of porter served out at the flagstaff, in addition to the customary allowance of spirits.  Bonfires concluded the evening and I am happy to say that excepting a single instance which shall be taken notice of hereafter [the convict Samuel Payton’s attempt to rob an officer’s tent], no bad consequence or unpleasant remembrance flowed from an indulgence so amply bestowed.”

In one of the more formal rituals on the day Governor Phillip described the boundaries and named the plain around Sydney Cove as the County of Cumberland, in honour of the King’s brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland.  This was the first significant regionym (royal or vice-regal placename) bestowed in New South Wales, and the first and oldest sub-division of the colony.  He had also planned to unveil the name of the intended town in Sydney Cove but decided otherwise, although that name was rumoured to be Albion.

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog.  Image source National Library of Australia

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog. Image source National Library of Australia

The King’s Birthday was also celebrated in the colony’s other settlement of Sydney Bay, on Norfolk Island, where Lt Governor King recorded the following in his journal:

“Wednesday 4th June 1788, Winds NW, no surf at landing place, fresh gales and cloudy, began breaking up part of the ground on the NE side of the hill [Mt George, now Flagstaff] to sow wheat.  At sunrise hoisted up the colours in observance of the Anniversary of His Majesties Birth Day and gave each of the people some liquor to drink His Majesties health and at their request excused them from any work in the afternoon.”

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790.  Image source Nationbal Library of Australia map-rm3460-v

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790. Image source Nationbal Library of Australia

Back in London, on the other side of the globe, there were official ceremonies that were reported in newspapers across the kingdom, of which this is a typical example:

“Yesterday being the anniversary of His Majesty’s birth-day, who entered into the fifty-first year of his age, the drawing-room at St. James’s was one of the most numerous and brilliant perhaps ever seen at the British Court.  Their Majesties, the Princess Royal, Augusta, Elizabeth and Mary, Prince of Wales, Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland, with all the foreign Ambassadors, Envoys, Secretaries, and Consuls, Duke of Orleans, Mons. de Calonne, and other foreigners of the first distinction; the Lord Chancellor, most of the Bishops, all the great officers of State, a number of the Nobility of both sexes, &c, &c, were precient.  Their Majesties, and the Princesses … came to the ball-room … at nine-o’clock, and the Princes and Duke of York a few minutes before them.

The King was dressed in a dark coloured suit, exceedingly plain, not even a diamond.

The Queen was superbly dressed in a blue silver tissue buoy, train and petticoat; the latter entirely covered, in waves, with deep fine blond lace; in front, finer stripes of blue satin ribbon, edged with diamonds; in the middle of the ribbon were roses of diamonds at proper distances, and pendant from each a tassel of diamonds; round the bottom a deep silver fringe; on each extremity on the top of the hoop was a large bow of diamonds; the stomacher one blaze of diamonds, and a large bouquet of diamonds placed on the left-side sleeve knots of diamonds; necklace and ear-rings equally superb.

Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762.  Image source Tumblr

Queen Charlotte, the first queen-consort for New South Wales, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762. Image source Tumblr

The Duke of Cumberland appeared in his naval uniform.

The King was surrounded by all his Ministers during the evening, but conversed mostly with Mr Pitt, Lord Sydney and Lord Howe.

Some of the illuminations, particularly at the west end of town, were splendid as were all the places of public amusement.”

Many of the newspapers also printed the ‘Ode for His Majesty’s Birthday 1788’, that included lines such as “What native Genius taught the Britons bold/To guard their sea-girt cliffs of old?/’Twas Liberty …/ The King’s, the people’s balanc’d claims to found/ On one eternal base, indissolubly bound/ … For lo, revering Britain’s cause/ A King new lustre lends to native laws/ The sacred sovereign on this festal day/ On Albion’s old renown reflects a kindred ray/”

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him.  Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him. Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists may have imagined him.  Image source Museum of Victoria

George III as the colonists may have imagined him. Image source Museum of Victoria

But what does it all mean?

Historian McKenna argued in 2004 that the Sir Robert Menzies’ understanding of allegiance to the crown was a means of connecting contemporary Australians with enlightened and noble historical traditions, with a mystical past.  The constitution itself, in the mystical, shakespeareanesque language of its covering clauses and preamble, connected Australians to an ancient and mythological past.  Republicans see this as anachronistic, but overlook its profound appeal, its mythological language of belonging, what might be called a Dreaming.  For Menzies the crown was ‘an element of the spirit, a spiritual and emotional conception’.  Political scientist Judith Brett has written that the crown still fulfils the need to symbolise the foundations of the nation-state by something beyond itself, something broadly accepted and emotionally rich in symbols.  The foundations of this civic creed, as described by McKenna and Brett, flows through the readings of the King’s Birthday celebrations in 1788 in Sydney Cove and Sydney Bay and London.

The colonists, by the act of place naming, imagined into existence new places such as New South Wales, Botany Bay, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, Norfolk Island, Sydney Bay, and Cumberland County.  This is how they imaginatively and intellectually occupied, historicised and inhabited the native spaces of the continent.  The first king’s birthday celebrations added further historical depth to these new/old places.  It was part of the revolutionary transformation of locally indigenous spaces into globally connected places.

Part of the history evoked in these new/old place names, and the serial royal birthday celebrations (as Tench indicated, this was the first of many to come), is a history of a direct mystical connection between peoples and their king, regardless of place or social status.  The king’s ethereality is enhanced by distance and absence, by being in a faraway place, present only in the symbolic representations of royal heraldry and royal portraiture.  For most colonists, his presence can only be imagined, rather than physically encountered as it was by the denizens of St James’ Palace (although even they encountered but a representation, a king ‘in a dark suit without even a diamond’ amidst the silken blue finery of his official birthday party).

The annual Queen’s Birthday holiday reveals, year after year, the enduring founding mythos of a sacred covenant between subjects and their sovereign that extends across time and space, ‘indissolubly bound’ as the Ode declaimed, and which remains at the heart of the society that has evolved in Australia.

Indeed, this mythos is contained in the preamble to the Australian constitution which states the people have agreed (through the Federation referenda of 1898, 1899 and 1900) to “unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”.  A deep desire to retain this immemorial entanglement was again expressed by the people through the republic referendum in 1999.

Is it possible for a new civic mythos to be imagined, a fusion of indigenous and settler ancientness, another Dreaming that explains peoples and places across the continent and its isles?  Could it be argued that the Queen’s Birthday holiday, pregnant with possible futures, is the real Australia Day?

A re-imaging of the Queen's Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013.  Image source Keystone Group

A re-imagining of the Queen’s Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013. Image source Keystone Group

Watkin Tench A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 1793; edited by Tim Flannery and published as 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne 1996: pages 66-68

Philip Gidley King Remarks & Journal kept on the Expedition to form a Colony in His Majestys Territory of New South Wales …His Majesty’s Ship Sirius …, 24 October 1786 – 12 January 1789pages 150-151

Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. I, Part II, 1783-1789, Government Printer, Sydney 1889

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5th June 1788

Chelmsford Chronicle, 6th June 1788

Mark McKenna This Country: A Reconciled Republic, UNSW Press, UNSW 2004, pages 98-101

The dedicated reader will find it useful to have a look at Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, first published in London 1651, particularly Part II: ‘Of Common-Wealth’; and (regarding the power of place naming) Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, Faber and Faber, London and Boston 1987.

Celebrating the Coronation Anniversary, Australian media style

Yesterday, 2nd June, was the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

In a blast from the 1990s, a couple of 1990s politicians launched a book with the marketing tag “bring our head of state home”.  It sounds like another of those great tag lines from the recent past, “a mate for head of state”.  They claim we are all Elizabethans now, which apparently means we are just waiting around for the Queen to die.  That was the cheery ‘happy anniversary’ from our political leaders and tabloid press.

In the coronation oath taken by the Queen back in 1953 she was asked “Madam, is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?”, to which she replied “I am willing”. The Queen was then asked “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?”, to which she replied “I solemnly promise so to do.” The Queen was then asked “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”, to which she answered “I will”.

The Queen was then asked if she would maintain, in the United Kingdom only, the protestant religion and the Church of England, which she promised to do.  The Queen then gave her oath in sight of all the people (vastly increased by being the first coronation to be televised) and before the altar of Westminster Abbey, kissed the bible and signed the oath.

English: Australian stamp, coronation of Queen...

Australian postage stamp marking the  coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harold Holt, Australian Minister for Immigration and President of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, sat to the right of the Queen and participated in the ceremony. 250 seats were reserved in the Abbey for Australians, and another 7000 on the procession route through London. Coronation festivities ran in Canberra over several days between 31st May and 4th June, as well as in communities around Australia and its territories. The ‘Coronation Contingent’ of 250 representatives from the defence forces sailed on HMAS Sydney and HMNZS Black Prince, arriving in England on 5th May. All members were awarded the coronation medal on the 3rd June, and on 15th June took part in the Coronation Review of Commonwealth naval forces at Spithead, southern England.

Some good sources for more information are the ‘Royalty Guide’ issued by the National Archives, and the Australian National Memorial’s ‘Coronation Contingent’ page.  The coronation ceremony can be viewed here on YouTube.

Apart from the ‘bring our queen home’ book launch, the media has avoided any other Australian anniversary news such as the jubilee ceremony at Christchurch St Lawrence in Railway Square, Sydney (in the diocese of leading evangelical Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Dr Jensen, who complains that after 12 years of his episcopacy his church is still too narrowly English), the Perth Mint’s issue of a collector’s silver commemorative coin, the Royal Australian Mint’s issue of a commemorative 50 cent coin, Australia Post’s issue of two commemorative stamps, and the portrait of the Queen by Australian artist Ralph Heimans leaving the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to be hung in
Westminster Abbey.

Reference:  Stephanie Peatling, ‘Political rivals set aside differences for republic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd June 2013, pages 4-5

Necro-Nationalism Struggles to Rise from the Grave

A response to Charles Miranda’s ‘An Admiral Endeavour’,

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18th May 2013, page 17

So, ten years ago Premier Bob Carr secretly commissioned expatriate lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, to locate the remains of Captain Arthur Phillip, who died in 1814, and report on sending them to Sydney for reburial.  Secret commissions, exhuming dead bodies, Sydney politicians and lawyers – it sounds like a case for ICAC.  But, as these things are no doubt all perfectly legal and above board, it seems more like a case of necro-nationalism.

Mr Robertson QC was able to locate the gravesite, or at least a gravesite, about which he casts aspersions as to whether it is actually Phillip’s grave.  These aspersions are valid because the beastly British have once again been treating ‘our heroes’ with their usual casual indifference and shabbiness.  Shockingly, Phillip was buried in the graveyard of a country church, beside his wife, just as he wanted.  More evidence of what the British thought of an Australian hero claims Mr Robertson QC.  Phillip should, he says, have been in entombed in London’s Westminster Abbey with other national heroes.

As the British have recently found the remains of some old kings such as Richard III and Alfred the Great, this means that ‘foreign heroes’ should also be dug up and returned to where they came from.  Things get a bit confusing at this point, as Phillip did not actually come from Australia, so ‘repatriating’ his bones (if they’re his) for burial in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney would be deliberately falsifying history.  Still, that has never stopped nationalists from re-writing the past as they think it should have been.  Once safely repatriated in some harbourside Westminster Abbey of our own (was Mr Carr or Mr Robertson QC channeling Henry Parkes’ State House?), Phillip will then, no doubt, be claimed to have always been a republican, and to have intended all along to found a convict republic at the earliest opportunity and rebel against the nasty imperialists in London.  If only grovelling British-minded historians hadn’t written him out of our history.  Repatriating Phillip’s bones would show those awful Brits that they can’t steal our history.

Once the Poms have been forced to give up our hero’s bones, we could then demand the repatriation of all our vice-regal heroes.  Poor Lachlan Macquarie lying in his cold mausoleum in Scotland, or James Stirling and John Hindmarsh in neglected church paddocks on the English south coast.  Gosh, Britain must be full of the bones of our founder-heroes just aching for repatriation.  But, why stop there?  Lord Sydney, suitably restyled as Tommy Townshend, would be an obvious candidate for liberation from his English family tomb.  Of course, these hero’s descendants, and local people who honour their gravesites today, might object but really, this is our great national project.  They’ll just have to get out of the way, those foreigners, those thieving Brits with no right to purloin our heroes.  Clearly, they learnt nothing from transporting our innocent convicts.

Some of Phillips relics have already been repatriated, such as the bricks from a shed once on Phillip’s farm in southern England.  These were a bicentennial gift to Australia, and some of the bricks ended up on the waterfront in Kingston, Norfolk Island, where they were made into a combined seat and monument to HMS Sirius (a British ship wrecked there in 1790).  Today the bricks are eroding away, not being made for a harsh seaside environment. Phillip never went to Norfolk Island (a tiny detail), but a vice-regal successor, Governor-General Sir William Deane, unveiled the enigmatic seat-monument on the anniversary day of the island’s British settlement in 1788, during the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001.  Its meanings remain as confused as the righteousness of necro-nationalists.

Mr Robertson QC, who has been on this heroic quest for some time, told Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program in 2007 that “The moral of this story is that we can’t trust the English, the Church of England, the British, to look after our national treasures”.  But before we go off body snatching in the cause of the endless nationalist quest to traduce Britain and all things British, perhaps Mr Robertson QC could again be secretly commissioned to report on the fate afforded by ‘us’ to the remains of Henry James O’Farrell, ‘our’ failed assassin of Prince Alfred in 1868.  Sure, anti-heroes are not the stuff of heroic necro-nationalism, but perhaps that’s the point.  Throwing stones about neglecting to tend the graves of the long-departed, heroes or otherwise, will soon reveal myriad glass houses.

Phillip was an Englishman of German and Huguenot heritage who did his job as a professional officer in the Royal Navy.  We should understand him for who and what he was, in his own times.  Trying to saddle him with retrospective Australian nationality and herohood does, I think, a disservice to the man, his memory and his many fine achievements, not all of which were in Australia.  He continued to advocate for New South Wales after he returned to London, but never expressed any desire to return, and certainly not to have his remains transported across the seas to a republic of thieves that he never founded.

Monument to Captain Phillip in St Nicholas Church of England, Bathampton, England: photo Adrian Pingston 2006, Wikipedia Commons

Monument to Arthur Phillip in St Nicholas Church of England, Bathampton, England: photo Adrian Pingston 2006, Wikipedia Commons

Australia Chapel, St Nicholas Church of England, Bathampton, England: photo  Adrian Pingstone 2006, Wikipedia Commons

Australia Chapel, St Nicholas Church of England, Bathampton, England: photo Adrian Pingstone 2006, Wikipedia Commons

I say, leave Admiral Arthur Phillip RN to rest in his grave in England, beside his wife, as he wanted.  The local people there respect his memory, tend his grave and take pride in a shared history between our two countries.  We can probably learn something from their generous spirit.  Nature should be allowed to get on with quietly reclaiming his remains and his headstone free of the not-always tender mercies of heritage restorers and body snatching necro-nationalists.  Dust to dust is at least an honest epitaph.