New South Wales, oops, Australia Day 2019

Great History as told by Great Men

On Tuesday, a prime minister announced there’ll be a re-enactment of Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of Australia on the 250th anniversary of his maiden voyage to Australia in 1770 because that would be an act of reconciliation with Indigenous people.  That would really show those who like to talk down our history, he said.  It’s important the lessons are shared with the rest of the country, and it’ll be good for tourism and a great opportunity to spark a conversation about our history.

‘The view from the ship’ – one of the flags the  Cook circumnavigation re-enactment might spy on the shores of Western Australia.  Image wikimedia


Many leapt to take up the invitation.

On Wednesday, a lawyer and Brexit entrepreneur opined that if you research the debates in Australia at the time of the 1899 independence and Federation referendum, you will see for those opposed to Federation the arguments of losing the trading block and economic subsidies of the ‘motherland’ made them think Federation was as silly as Brexit. Britain has never been a comfortable European, despite being ruled over by a German royal family who married Greeks.  For many who support Brexit, he said, taking back control is not a racist view, it is a de-colonial one.

On Thursday, a country musician solemnly told a TV audience that Australia Day is every day, it’s all about loving the bush which is what Indigenous people have done, but we must never deny that fact that Captain Cook brought the modern world into this country because only 230 years ago people were still making fire with sticks, but, he said, when we get a republic that should be the day we can all celebrate together.

Making fire by striking a piece of metal on a stone, an eighteenth-century tinderbox, English or Welsh.  Modern?  Image wikimedia

26 January 1788: some say it was the day the invasion of Gadigal Country began with the unloading of several hundred convicted criminals on the shores of Sydney Cove.  But, as these great men have taught us, in their very own words, with their lessons and research and anti-denialism, that’s just some weird counterfactual.

Either this week has been evidence of the existence of parallel universes, or history is fiction and historians don’t exist.

26 January 2019 – what a long, long weekend.

A multiverse.  Image wikimedia

Anzacery, or, Who Is Not Invited To The Great War Centenary?

I watched the commemorations last weekend broadcast from Albany in Western Australia marking the centenary of the departure of the first convoy of ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The streets were filled with thousands of cheering onlookers as returned and serving army, navy and air force personnel paraded with banners flying and bands playing. The sun was shining, the old town was all dressed-up, the waters of Prince Royal Harbour and King George Sound were sparkling in a truly inspiring setting. It was all very rousing.


But it all left me with an odd feeling. Something was missing, but what? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the sunlit scene, the delight of the crowds or the pride of the marchers. It was something else, something about the way the images were being framed for the television audience, something about the story being told. I wondered if the townsfolk and the marchers knew how their participation was being presented?

Then flicking through the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald two stories caught my attention. The first, a commentary on page 11 upon the Albany commemorations, noted that Banjo Paterson had been in the convoy as a ‘special commissioner’ reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. Banjo was apparently an enthusiastic war correspondent for the paper, and wrote a typically evocative piece describing the departure from Albany. However, it was the final two paragraphs that caught my eye. Paterson’s reporting was ignored, his descendants had not been invited to the commemorations, and there were no official plans to honour or mark his connection to the anniversary. Good enough for a ten-dollar note portrait, but not for Anzac commemorations?


Then on page 18 there was a report on a rarely-noticed event, the attack on a Broken Hill picnic train on new year’s day 1915 by two ‘Afghan’ cameleers that killed four people and wounded another ten. Local people wanted to commemorate the attack, but their requests for support from the official commemorative authorities in Canberra had been ignored. The local police, back in 1915, killed the cameleers, and the attack was reported in the press as a ‘Turk atrocity’. The local people’s retaliation including torching the German Club in Broken Hill, and preventing the fire brigades from extinguishing the fire.

Thinking back to the commemorations in Albany I began to pick at my unease. The dais from which the official speakers spoke was blazoned with the official “100 Years of Anzac” logo. I have been uneasy about this for some time, as it seems to cast the whole five years of war as a single event, almost predetermined, whose only real significance lay in its causing the creation of the Anzac story and, by implication, the birth of ‘the’ Australian ‘nation’. It follows, of course, that anything not connected to Anzac (especially this version) would not get a place in the “100 years of Anzac” story, and I began to see what was making me uneasy, and I began to see who was not in Albany.

The first, and most obvious missing historical actor, was any sense of British involvement. Australian Prime Minister Abbott once mentioned the British Empire in his speech, and New Zealand Prime Minister Key once referred to the Australian Imperial Force, but otherwise any sense that the convoy of a century ago was participating in a British imperial war, or that the departing soldiery had any sense of Britishness or being British subjects was completely erased from the event. When the laying of wreaths took place, there was eventually a call for the “British Ambassador” to take his turn. The whitewashing of Britishness from the commemorations was, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of early 20th century Australian or New Zealand history (or current intra-Commonwealth diplomatic terminology), utterly bizarre and ahistorical.


“100 Years of Anzac”, as well as being Britannically-amnesiac, also appears to have no interest in reconciliation with former enemies, except for a certain type of Turk. ‘Johnny Turk’, fighting from the trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, has been reified as the noble adversary (perhaps has had to be) in order to explain the Anzac’s “loss” in that deadly battle. And, in the roll call of wreath layers was a Turkish diplomat. But, no one was called to represent those erstwhile enemies, the Germans (or the Austrians, Hungarians or Bulgarians). Ironically, that is who the soldiers in the convoy thought they were sailing off the fight. How the Ottoman armies later encountered by the Anzacs in Palestine and Mesopotamia will be represented is yet to be seen, but the historical inconvenience of the ‘Turk atrocity’ near Broken Hill doesn’t augur well.


The other missing actor from Albany was royalty. The Australian Crown was well represented by the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove KC and the Governor of Western Australia the Honourable Kerry Sanderson AO, but in 1914 there was no Australian Crown, only a single unitary British Crown. The divisibility of the crown was an outcome of the war, but it was unheard off in 1914. Members of the royal family have been evident at war commemorations in Britain and Canada, but apparently have been subject to some sort of silent fatwah in Australia.

Army Aus 31a 2

The unease I felt watching the Albany commemorations picked up a similar unease I had felt watching two recent television series, Anzac Girls and The War That Changed Us, both shown on ABC. Both displayed very good production values and told entertaining stories, but at their heart they both conformed to the standard, orthodox, nationalist interpretation of the Great War that has prevailed since the 1960s.


This interpretation could be called the ‘futilist’ view, and consists of five main points. One, the war was futile and had no actual purpose; two, the main protagonists were Australia (young, free, bronzed, Anzacs) and Britain (decayed, class ridden, pasty, Colonel Blimps) while the Germans and others were a bit of a side-show as ‘our boys’ valiantly fought the incompetent gin-sodden pommie generals; three, everyone on the home front was a pacifist trying to stop the war, either overtly or covertly; four, men only joined up for a ‘boy’s own’ adventure, they had no other meaningful reasons for doing so; and fifth, the few people who actually supported the war in Australia were hysterical imperialists who, by definition, were obviously not real Australians. It is a script straight out of British revisionist historian Alan Clark’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, with an Australian nationalist overlay.


This futilist approach leaves no space for any counter-narratives. It cannot account for, or even acknowledge, the shameful treatment of German Australians during the war. This national disgrace has never been faced, never accounted for, and still, I believe, forms a large but ignored historical scar. The centenary of the Great War could be a time to open our eyes to seeing this scar, to at least beginning a reconciliation and acknowledgement of our German Australian heritage. It could be a time to face the denigration and repression of German Australia that continued well into the 1920s. It could be a time of healing. It could be time when we might learn of any ‘honourable Germans’, like the Gallipoli Turks. It could be a time to question the war-time attribution of an innate Germanness to the royal family. However, the “100 Years of Anzac[ery]” seems it will be at best ambivalent about any questioning of the German-hating propaganda and rhetoric of a century ago. As the official slogan proclaims, “the spirit lives”.




The Anzacery of the “100 Years of Anzac”, it seems, is simply unable to cope with histories beyond the futilist view. It just can’t encompass Britishness, reconciliation with old enemies, royalty, a Turkishness beyond Gallipoli, even the descendants of Banjo Paterson. And this is the official commemorative body set up, funded and endorsed by the federal government in Australia. This is the official narrative of commemoration. What is unfolding before our eyes, it seems, and not unexpectedly, is a very limited and nationalistic version of history that, if not endorsed by the “100 Years of Anzac”, then it’s just not the true, real, actual history of the Great War (or rather, of the Anzacs).

It will be fascinating to see just who gets included and who gets excluded from this new official history, and even more fascinating to see the underground commemorations or anti-commemorations that arise among communities who don’t, can’t or won’t conform to the “100 Years of Anzac” official narrative. They might instead choose to mark the centenary of the Great War by trying to understand its consequences that we still live with today.



Neil McMahon, ‘Poet sailed in to Anzac history’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 11

Damien Murphy, ‘First terror attack recalled’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 18

Damien Murphy, ‘Silver City Showdown’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 1-2 November 2014, page 28

‘Centenary of ANZAC: Albany Commemoration’, News, ABC1, 12:00-3:00pm, 1 November 2014, and blog

‘Anzac Girls’, Drama, ABC1, 10 October to 14 September 2014 (six episodes)

‘The War That Changed Us’, Documentary, ABC1, 19 August to 9 September 2014 (four episodes)

100 Years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018, official website

Alan Clark, The Donkeys: A history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, Hutchinson & Co., London 1961

The Royal Family attending Commonwealth Great War commemorative services in Glasgow and in Liege

Joe Quixote | Hot Air or Wind Power: which is actually offensive?

Federal Treasurer Joe ‘Quixote’ Hockey thinks wind farms are a blot on the landscape. “Utterly offensive” he says here and here and here.  Presumably that’s an ideological statement rather than an aesthetic, conservation or economic argument. Every wind farm that is stopped is an opportunity to expand or open another open-cut coal mine or frack another CSG site. That is the real cost of wind farm phobia, not the faux ‘saving’ of any local landscape.

The Alinta Wind Farm, Greenough, Western Australia.  Established in 2005 with a 90 megawatt capacity from 54 turbines, capable of displacing 400,000 tones of CO2 from fossil fuel power generation each year.

Part of the Alinta Wind Farm, Greenough, Western Australia. Established in 2005 with a 90 megawatt capacity from 54 turbines, capable of displacing 400,000 tones of CO2 from fossil fuel power generation each year.

While I would agree there can be aesthetic value in the ruins of an old coal-fired power station, I am curious to know why the Treasurer seems to think the total and overwhelming destruction of a landscape inherent in open-cut coal mining or the fracturing of landscape sub-strata, and the consequent destruction of even more landscapes arising from transporting and burning the excavated coal or gases, has greater aesthetic and landscape value than a wind farm?  The Treasurer later claimed, “just for all the greenies”, that he would also be appalled by the aesthetic impact of a “huge coal-fired power station” in a beautiful landscape.  Perhaps a small one would be OK, or at least, better than a wind farm of any scale.

: an abandoned coal fired power station becomes a romantic ruin in Charlottesville in the United States.

Aesthetic values and coal power: an abandoned coal fired power station becoming a romantic ruin in Charlottesville in the United States. Source vtunderground

Open-cut coal mining involves the absolute destruction of the landscape it consumes, and so-called ‘rehabilitation’ does not restore a landscape ruined by an open-cut pit or fracturing. Even if the aesthetic sensitivities of wind farm phobics can never be ameliorated, at least at the end of the farm’s life the mills can be removed and the landscape returned to its pre-wind farm aesthetic forms.

An abandoned open-cut iron ore mine at Koolanooka, Western Australia.

An abandoned open-cut iron ore mine at Koolanooka, Western Australia.  This site has been ‘rehabilitated’.

An open-cut coal mine consumes and destroys every grain of the material evidence of the history of its own site, and leaves only a blank and deformed monument to human greed and short-sightedness. By contrast, a wind farm contains the potential for future possibilities, for histories and senses of place to continue and evolve.

The power of the wind: One of the leaning trees of Greenough, WA, river gums shaped by the constant southerly winds.

The power of the wind: one of the leaning trees of Greenough, Western Australia, river gums shaped by decades of the constant southerly winds, and an emblem of the local community.

Wind power has a long and continuous history in Australia. It shaped the design of the humpy, it was the industrial energy source in Old Sydney, it still powers the iconic rural windmill and all sorts of water craft, and the kilometres of shelter-belts across the countryside attest to its landscape-forming powers. It is an inheritance that any conservative can embrace in preference to pandering to the highly destructive and short term attractions of open-cut mining and fracking. Wind is continuity and lineage, coal is rapid change followed by absence.

The Sydney skyline in 1822, artist Joseph Lycett: numbers 3, 13, 15, 16 are all windmills.

The Sydney skyline in 1822, artist Joseph Lycett: numbers 3, 13, 15, 16 are all windmills.

The aesthetic values of landscapes are important to local communities, a point that the Treasurer appears to appreciate. That appreciation could be enhanced by also considering which and whose landscapes bear the real costs of stopping wind farms when offering aesthetic insights to the public.

The Old Brisbane Line: asylum for whom?

Fact or fantasy, either way abandonment and fear, driven by our political classes, were the guiding motives in drawing the Brisbane Line in 1942 and 2013.

Firstly, some family history

On the 31st January 1942 my grandfather enlisted in the Australian Army at Geraldton, on the Indian Ocean shore 400 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia.  He was assigned to the 10th Garrison, with the rank of private and service number W47600.  Just a fortnight later, on the 16th February 1942 my grandmother gave birth to her second baby, a little girl she named Wendy Beatrice.  She was born in at the maternity hospital in Geraldton.  On the same day, the reputed fortress of Singapore fell to the Japanese army, 3,500 kilometres to the north.

Three days later, on the 19th February, her first-born little girl, my mother, turned four.  It was the same day that the bombing of Darwin began, 2,500 kilometres to the north.  In just three days, the frontline had moved 1000 kilometres closer to home.

My grandmother with her eldest daughter and my grandfather in his Army uniform, Geraldton 1943

My grandmother with her eldest daughter and my grandfather in his Army uniform, Geraldton 1943

On the night of Saturday 21st February, Geraldton was subjected to its first air raid.  Or so many people thought.  Townsfolk were beset with panic and fear as they scrambled for refuge in the sandhills behind the town, contrary to all directions from wardens.  My grandmother and her new baby were still in the hospital.  The local paper reported that, at the hospital, “many people had been greatly perturbed and very seriously inconvenienced”, and that in future such unannounced ‘tests’ of the air raid system must be preceded by evacuating patients from the hospital[1].  There was a lot of finger-pointing about who had ordered the test, but some called for lessons to be learnt as the town was obviously unprepared for the war rapidly descending upon it.  The press reporting makes it very clear that there was widespread panic in the town on the night of the 21st and 22nd of February, from which the hospital was not immune.

As my grandmother and her five-day old baby lay in the hospital, the local newspaper was full of reports on building air raid trenches in school grounds, and the evacuation plan for Geraldton: all women, children, the infirm and elderly, carrying only a backpack, a blanket and a water bottle, were to be removed by trains to inland towns, while the Greenough Flats where my grandparents lived were to be totally evacuated and closed to all civilians and occupied by military forces.  All radios, telephones and bicycles were to be destroyed.  The local Radio Theatre schedule included training films such as “Bombs and Their Effects”, “Bombing of Singapore” and “Man’s Army” as well as movies such as “Whispering Enemies” and “the first garden newsreel, certainly the first in colour” of the new vegetable gardens in the grounds of Buckingham Palace[2].  The Prime Minister called for a total war effort in face of the dire threat to the Commonwealth[3].  There were items on how to meet black-out restrictions, and public air raid shelters to be built by the Municipal Council.  And, to reinforce these messages, they were interspersed with articles detailing Japanese desires to occupy Australia[4], and frontline news such as the Japanese invasion of Portuguese Timor (“the nearest point of approach to Australia … Australian garrison wiped out”), the first air raids on Port Moresby[5], and calls to ignore Japanese propaganda such as the radio broadcasts claiming Japan only wanted to help Australia break free of Britain and America[6].  Even the advertisements reflected the times: the Silver Jubilee Fruit Market had potatoes, onions and cooking apples, but “all other vegetables scarce”, and Crothers Brothers had “Aladdin lamps for air raid precautions”, while the advertisements for Liberty Loans (see below) seem hardly reassuring.  On the other hand, the AMP Society was still advertising its free ‘Planning Your Baby’s Future’ booklet, and Frank Green’s Big Store was selling “Children’s Cotton Fuji Pyjamas … at special prices”.

Advertisement for Liberty Loans, emphasising the destruction of country towns: Geraldton Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 4

Advertisement for Liberty Loans, emphasising the destruction of country towns: Geraldton Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 4

After the triple shock of the fall of Singapore, the Darwin air raids and the Geraldton air raid ‘test’, the frontline continued to stream southwards.  Japanese bombing of Broome (1,400 kilometres north of Geraldton), then full of several thousand refugees from the Dutch East Indies, began on 3rd March, followed by other attacks in the Kimberleys, the Top End, Torres Strait Islands and Far North Queensland, then Port Hedland on 30th July, Wyndham on 21st August.  The front line seemed to be moving closer and closer.

Fears had been raised by the mysterious disappearance of HMAS Sydney off the coast from Geraldton in November 1941, just weeks before the war began with Japan, and local people had given generously to the New Sydney Fund.  But the knowledge that German craft could strike the west coast at any time, sinister as it was, was nothing compared to the advancing Japanese air front.  Throughout 1942 and well into 1943 the war cast a long and deep shadow over Geraldton.  Air raids continued with Exmouth bombed on 21st May 1943, Port Hedland again on 17th August, Onslow on 15th September and Exmouth again the next day.  After the air raid on Onslow, Carnarvon (just 480 kilometres north of Geraldton) was the only un-bombed town of any size between the air front and Geraldton.  The apprehension in the town and district must have been palpable.

On the 2nd July 1942 baby Wendy died, aged just 4½ months.  My grandmother always told me that just after Wendy was born, there was a false air raid on Geraldton and all the babies in the hospital, local babies and refugee babies from the East Indies, healthy babies and sick babies, became mixed up in the ‘air raid’ confusion, after which Wendy was always ill.  Her death certificate says she died, in St John of God Hospital in Geraldton, after two days of bronchopneumonia.  She was buried the next day in the Old Greenough Cemetery, among other members of her extended family.  The local newspaper reports give us some idea of that awful time of fear, panic and confusion, and confirm my grandmother’s memories of the ‘air raid’ and its consequences.

The grave of baby Wendy Beatrice, Anglican Section, Old Greenough Cemetery.

The grave of baby Wendy Beatrice, Anglican Section, Old Greenough Cemetery.

In October 1942, just three months after Wendy’s burial, 3000 kilometres away in the south eastern corner of the continent, federal Labor politician Eddie Ward gave a speech in Melbourne.  He claimed that the previous minority Menzies UAP government had planned to abandon most of continental Australia to the Japanese and defend only the south east.  The rest of the country (such as Geraldton and its hinterland) would be subject to a scorched earth policy, potential battle sites were to be completely evacuated to engage the enemy (such as the Greenough Flats?), and guerilla fighters would remain behind the lines to slow down the Japanese advance.  Ward had no evidence of his claims, and argued that the documents had been destroyed by Menzies when leaving office.  General Macarthur referred to this plan a few months later in March 1943 when he coined the term ‘Brisbane Line’.  Prime Minister Curtin established a Royal Commission to investigate these claims, which found no evidence of either the plan or destroyed documents, and the Curtin government went on to win the 1943 general election.  Ward was promoted to Minister for External Territories (most of which were, at that time, occupied by Japanese forces)[7].  In his 1964 reminiscences (22 years later) Macarthur maintained that there was such a policy to fall back to a defensive line between Brisbane and Adelaide following the Darling River.  Whether the Line existed remains a controversial subject to this day.

One map showing a Brisbane Line arcing from the coast north of Brisbane to the headwaters of the Darling River, and the 'main defence area' shaded along the south eastern coast.  Image Wikipedia

One map showing a Brisbane Line arcing from the coast north of Brisbane to the headwaters of the Darling River, and the ‘main defence area’ shaded along the south eastern coast. Image Wikipedia

The Geraldton Guardian & Express advised its readers to ignore Ward’s claims about the Brisbane Line, casting them as so much ‘political sniping’[8], and after Labor won the 1943 election argued that Ward should be replaced as a minister of the crown by the member for Kalgoorlie[9].  The Guardian’s editor well knew the panic that had swept the town just six months earlier, and was equally well aware that Geraldton was at least 2,500 kilometres on the wrong side of the Line.  He had seen and experienced the power of fear, and the capacity of politicians to harness that fear and turn on a scapegoat for explanation.  To think that Ward could have been correct was too awful a prospect to take seriously.

Now, A Counterfactual

Imagine, now, that the air raid had been real, not a surprise drill.  The invasion did happen.  Geraldton had been evacuated – chaotically, frantically, panic-driven.  The Greenough Flats was the site of a huge but forgotten battle (the vanquished don’t write the histories).  Refugees streamed southwards and eastwards, into the vastness of the deserts, mobbed the Transcontinental train crossing the Nullabor or crammed onto boats and ships heading out into the wild Southern Ocean, all desperately seeking the safety of the Brisbane Line.  All the while they were harassed by straffing Zeros and submarines over thousands of lonely kilometres.  An exodus of 275,000 refugees, fleeing very real threats of warfare, violence, invasion, subjugation and repression.

And, of course, we must imagine that they would have been accepted with open arms behind the Line.  That no one would have resented the presence of a people who only nine years earlier had tried to have their State secede from the Commonwealth[10], who now run away and wanted to share in the material security that wasn’t theirs.  And I must imagine that my grandparents would have made it, with their four year old daughter and perhaps baby Wendy.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps she died anyway, and her tiny body laid in a shallow, invisible grave on the vast treeless plain west of the Line.

Perhaps not everyone fled, perhaps some stayed and tried to adapt to the new regime.  Perhaps my grandparents might have chosen to do that, hoping to rebuilt their home on the Greenough battlefields, after my grandfather burnt his uniform and service papers to avoid being sent to a POW camp.  And perhaps, after a couple of decades of occupation their surviving children, fearful for their survival under tyrannical rule, repressed and discriminated against, decided to make the arduous and dangerous journey to the other side of the Line.  Perhaps my grandparents borrowed money from a loan shark for their children to pay a ‘smuggler’, knowing they could never repay.  The occupiers might not have really tried to stop them leaving, after all they had their own new land-hungry settlers arriving every day.

The authorities in South East Australia, however, may have had a different view.  “We will decided who comes to the South East and the manner in which they come” cried one of their leaders.  A few years later another of their leaders was broadcasting the same message: “Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance of being settled in the South East as refugees”.  The political class, as always, was speaking as one, regardless of their party branding.

And so, perhaps, my grandparents children, my parents, having paid the smugglers some exorbitant fee, and after days sailing across the Great Australian Bight in a crowded, leaky fishing boat from Esperance, as the shoreline of the hoped-for refuge hove into sight, were intercepted by a vessel of the South Eastern Navy, arrested and taken to the remote Macquarie Island Detention Centre until, after a long, long time they were shipped off, like so much cargo, to the only place the South Eastern government would agree to refugee resettlement, the Japanese colony of Bougainville Island, where there was always work to do in the copper mine for those deemed to be merely ‘economic migrants’.

All is contingent

All history is contingent, as is all future.  None of us can know when we might be the refugee, desperately seeking asylum, being treated like a criminal, extorted for money and possessions.  It doesn’t always take a foreign invasion to create a refugee.  Having the government of your own country turn on you will also do the trick.

AWM Caption: Geraldton, Australia. An anti-tan...

AWM Caption: Geraldton, Western Australia. An anti-tank gun and a Vickers Machine Gun form a defence post at a corner of Geraldton’s main street during field exercises carried out by 2nd and 4th Australian divisions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The real story of Geraldton in February 1942 is a story of fear, panic, conflicted leaders, destroyed documents, unrealistic evacuation plans and the looming threat of cultural annihilation.  It is the story of a community on the verge of descending into chaos.  It is a story of place almost consumed by events way beyond its boundaries.  It is the story of a people who almost became refugees in the most destructive war ever seen, subject to forces way beyond their control.  It is a story of my grandmother, and the loss of her baby.  But decisions and actions taken by others meant the war took a different direction.  The horrors of invasion and occupation were avoided.  My family never became refugees and asylum seekers.  That time.

It could have all been so very different.

The 'Blue Starmarine' asylum seeker boat arrives in Geraldton in 2013; or, in the counter-factual universe, having sailed from Esperance, and avoided the South Eastern Navy, sails into Robe harbour on the other side of the Line.  Image ABC TV

The ‘Blue Starmarine’ asylum seeker boat arrives in Geraldton in 2013, overloaded with Sri Lankan asylum seekers; or, in the counter-factual universe, having sailed from Esperance, and avoided the South Eastern Navy, sails into Robe harbour on the other side of the Line with Westralian asylum seekers. Image ABC TV

Further reading (Brisbane Line)

Randolph Stow’s novel The Merry-go-Round in the Sea (Macdonald, London 1965) provides another history of Geraldton in 1942 and the decisions a local family faced about whether to flee or stay as invasion loomed.  The story is a metaphor for the conversations that took place all over Geraldton at this time.

Further reading (Counter-factual histories of the Japanese invasion of Australia)

  • Birmingham, John (trilogy), Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1, Designated Targets: World War 2.2 and Final Impact: World War 2.3, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney 2006
  • Vader, John, Battle of Sydney, New English Library, London 1972
  • Willmot, Eric, Below the Line, Hutchinson Australia, Milsons Point 1992
  • My own incomplete online story, Sunland,, 2005

All newspaper references can be viewed online through TROVE:

[1] ‘Evacuation Plans | Official Attitude | Approval of Voluntary Removals’, Guardian and Express, 19th February 1942, page 3; ‘The Week-end Alarms | Municipal Criticism | An Explanation Requested’; ‘Air Raid Precautions | Two Night Alarms | Valuable Lessons Learnt’, ‘Civil Evacuation | Plans for Geraldton | Preparing for an Emergency’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, pages 1, 3; ‘Letter to the Editor | “Air Raids” to Order | Good effects of a Jolt’, from WP Edwards, Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 1.

[2] ‘Amusements | Radio Theatre Talkies | Current Attractions’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 21st February 1942, page 2

[3] ‘Call to Duty | Curtin’s Declaration | Battle for Australia | Full Devotion to Efforts’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 17th February 1942, page 1

[4] ‘Japanese Desires | Australia as Prize | Only Country Suitable for Emigration’, and ‘Value of Australia | Possible Enemy Moves | Important Base for Allies’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3

[5] ‘Invasion of Timor | Protest by Portugal | Japanese Claim’, and ‘Port Moresby Raided | First Daylight Attack | Bombers from Rabaul’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3 and 26th February 1942, page 3.

[6] ‘Tokio Blandishments | Radio Fairy Tales | Japanese Naivety’, and ‘Danger of Attack | Australia’s Need | Full Preparedness’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3 and 28th February 1942, page 1.

[8] ‘Political Sniping’ (Editorial), Geraldton Guardian and Express, 5th June 1942: 2

[9] ‘Labour’s Sweeping Victory’ (editorial), Geraldton Guardian and Express, 25th August 1943: 2

[10] In April 1933, 66% of Western Australians voted to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia.  The vote in Geraldton was 63% in favour and surrounding Greenough 78% in favour (Western Mail, ‘The Referendum | Count Completed | Secession Majority Maintained’, 4th May 1933: page 15).

Eating our Coat of Arms: imagining a Commonwealth Cuisine

The idea of eating Australia’s coat of arms occupied some media attention over the 2013 Australia Day long weekend when a fast food chain marketed its ‘coat of arms burger’ (rather confusingly as ‘a new anthem that you eat’).  As is often the case in such discussions, ideas of what constitutes a coat of arms were rather hazy.  For this article, it means the whole design, known as the full achievement.

What was meant as edible in the above case was the supporters of the Commonwealth Arms, the kangaroo and emu (reduced to a meat patty).  It apparently did not include the black swan in the Western Australia quarter.  The lions in the New South Wales and Tasmania quarters, and the piping shrike in the South Australia quarter seem unlikely culinary items.  The wattle sprays usually depicted with Arms might contain foods such as wattle seed and wattle flour, but they weren’t included in the patties.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

The Arms of the states and territories set out a veritable degustation: Queensland has sugar cane, wheat, beef, lamb and venison; New South Wales has wheat and kangaroo; Tasmania has apples, hops and fresh water; Victoria has kangaroo, olives and corn; South Australia has wheat, vines and citrus fruit; Western Australia has kangaroo and swan; Northern Territory has kangaroo, conch and cockles; ACT has swans and rose and Norfolk Island has kangaroo and laurel (bay leaf).

The inclusion of edible elements in national coats of arms is a feature of some three quarters of Commonwealth countries.  The Bahamas has a blue marlin and a conch; Barbados has sugar cane and dolphin; Canada has maple and rose; Cayman Islands has pineapple and turtle; Dominica has banana; Grenada has roses, corn and banana; Guyana has sugar cane and rice; Jamaica has pineapples and crocodile; St Kitts and Nevis has sugar cane and coconut; St Lucia has roses; Turks and Caicos Islands has conch and lobster; Kenya has chicken; Lesotho has crocodile; Mauritius has sugar cane and venison; South Africa has wheat; Namibia has oryx; Botswana has beef, sorghum and fresh water; Zimbabwe has fresh water and kudu; Zambia has maize; Tanzania has cloves; Ghana has cocoa; Seychelles has tortoise, coconuts and swordfish; Bangladesh has rice; Malaysia has pinang (areca or betel nut); Maldives has coconut; Pakistan has wheat and tea; British Indian Ocean Territory has turtles; Ascension has turtles; Tristan da Cunha has lobsters; South Georgia has venison; New Zealand has wheat; Solomon Islands has crocodile, turtle and shark; Tuvalu has mussels and bananas; Cook Islands has flying fish; Fiji has cocoa, sugar cane, coconut and bananas; Samoa, Tonga, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Cyprus and Malta have olive branches.  The United Kingdom has roses, shamrocks and thistles.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, assigned by Royal Warrant in 2002

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, granted by Royal Warrant in 2002

This list does not included representations of sheep as wool or a golden fleece rather than meat, or of horses.  Deer, as a metaphor for venison is included, as are thistles and other plants mainly known only to ‘wild food’ connoisseurs.  There are occasional examples of edible national emblems outside the Commonwealth, such as the olive branches of the Israeli Arms, or US state seals and other emblems, but they are uncommon.  More usual are agricultural implements, especially in former communist state emblems, but they are no longer common.

There are two rhetorical questions often asked: are Australians the only ones who eat their national symbols?  Does eating national symbols show disrespect for the symbols and/or the nation they represent?

As this quick survey shows, Australia is far from being alone in having edible and culinary symbols and elements in its national Arms.  In fact, a very diverse and tasty ‘Commonwealth menu’ could be prepared that should suit many gastronomic tastes, drawing upon wild and farmed animals and plants, spices, herbs, seafoods and sweets.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for a budding restaurateur?

The issue of disrespect or offence is more complex.  Eating a nice swordfish steak does not immediately bring the Seychelles to mind, yet it is one of their national heraldic beasts.  However, if a dish is listed on a café menu as a country’s ‘coat of arms’, do we defile their sovereignty by eating it?  Another fast food chain recently withdrew its ‘Virgin Mary’ labeled dish of chips with tomato flavouring after complaints that it (the name) was offensive to Catholics.  So, is it the denominating of a national coat of arms or a religious icon as a ‘food’ that is the problem?  After all, kangaroo meat is freely available in supermarkets and butchers, but I never seen it marketed as ‘Dexter Supporter’, or any sort of coat of arms.  Should the namers of new fast foods be scorned for their lack of cultural sensitivity, or should heraldists ‘piggyback’ on their view that any controversy generated by such names is free advertising and good for their bottom line, as a means to educate the public about national and community symbols?

A confusing culinary message?   Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008:

A confusing culinary message?
Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008:

None of the media commentary suggested that being offended by the marketing or eating of produce that is also represented in national symbols should be against the law.  A civic space remains for public debate and comment – and therefore opportunities to promote heraldic knowledge and understanding.

Do we, for instance, by some sense of appreciation for culinary heraldry, come to understand something of another culture when we knowingly eat its symbols?  Do we, in some primal sense, absorb something in the same way a warrior might have once eaten his defeated opponent’s liver (or other organs) to both honour and ingest his warrior spirit?

What if we slice and eat a cake with a national coat of arms depicted in the icing? Perhaps respect is shown or offence avoided more by the way a ‘heraldic food’ is served and consumed than by the way it is marketed?  Is leaving most of the swordfish steak on the plate, or using the armorial cake in a juvenile food fight, really where offence is given – to the fisher, the farmer, the cook, the cleaner, the rubbish tip attendant? Similarly, is the not uncommon practice of placing a coat of arms in a floor pattern, where it is walked on every day, disrespectful?  There are no simple answers, and it is important to understand the context for these issues.

Heraldically, however, there is an interesting question of why does food, or food sources, feature so prominently in British-influenced national heraldry?  We might suppose that it would be a feature of Mediterranean, Chinese, Indian, South East Asian or Middle Eastern heraldry, of cultures where me imagine cuisines are so much more exciting and adventurous than our own.  It is a question probably more suitable for debating over a long, slow lunch, and I look forward to any reader’s thoughts on these gustatory ‘brain food’ delights.  Bon appétit!

(Originally published in The Australian Heraldry Society’s Members’ Circular, No. 158, January-February 2013)


‘Coat of Arms Burger Launch @ Grill’d, Shafto Lane, Perth CBD’,

‘Royal Bunfight: Monarchists warn Grill’d will roo its menu’, MX, 21 January 2013, page 1

‘Advance Australian fare’, The Cook and The Curator – eat your own history, 26 January 2013,

‘Stay in Touch: With a happy face and a sandwich to go’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4th February 2013, page 14