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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Macinnis’

The Big Book of Australian History, by Peter Macinnis

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 1, 2013

The Big Book of Australan HistoryIt’s when reviewing books like this that I wish that I had a proper degree in Australian history.  Not, of course, instead of my degree in Literature and Classics (which included history subjects exploring Ancient Greece and Rome), but as well asThe Big Book of Australian History is a comprehensive history, which tackles some aspects of Australia’s past about which I have little expertise, and the new federal government shows signs of restarting those unedifying History Wars, so this review isn’t going to tackle questions of historiography or factual accuracy.  That’s best left to professional historians.  I am going to restrict myself to commenting as to its readability, coherence, and appeal to the young people for whom it is written.

I loved this type of general history book when I was young, but I don’t remember ever coming across one that was about Australia.  My parents bought us many books when we were children, but they were (or purported to be) histories of ‘The World’ ancient and modern i.e. the 20th century world.  In these books, published in the 1950s and 1960s (almost always, for some reason, with a red cover) Australia was an afterthought.  They were probably published in Britain…

Written with the help of indigenous advisor and history editor and writer Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder (who won the 2012 NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize), The Big Book of Australian History covers many topics, conveniently arranged in ways that will suit students doing projects, but also appealing to kids who just want to browse through it to discover what they might be interested in.  Chapter length varies from six to twelve pages and more, with clear layout and headings, and profuse full-colour illustrations, sourced from the NLA and other libraries.   Most importantly it’s mostly written in kid-friendly language which may lure young people  away from Wikipedia which is so often incomprehensible to them.  Sentences are not too long, vocabulary is not too complex, and it’s mostly written in the active voice.

The book begins with Ancient Australia covering the birth of the continents. the fossil record and the period of megafauna. This chapter is a good starting point for students to follow an interest in palaeontology.

While there is much that is necessarily unsaid because of limitations of space and the complexity of indigenous issues, the chapter on The Dreaming seems respectful to indigenous Australians, and optimistic without denying Australia’s Black History:

Any human culture that survives for 40,000 years or more must be based on sensible, intelligent ideas.  In modern Australian society, we have written laws to tell us what we must and must not do.  Aboriginal society was based on accepted traditions that were passed down from generation to generation through the myths and legends that were taught to the young people.
For example, the story of Tiddalik the frog has a buried message about the value of sharing.  From the earliest contacts with Aboriginal people, Europeans failed to understand that Aboriginal culture was based on sharing.  In their hunter-gatherer society, the daily gathering of food by the women kept everyone alive, while the men’s hunting produced food on a less regular basis.  Meat did not keep for long, and so, when an animal was killed, people shared it.
When white people arrived, they had no idea about this.  Most of them did not even consider that other cultures might have different ways of doing things and different values which were as good, or perhaps even better than, their own.
(p. 20)

This chapter includes an explanation of how our First People came to Australia from Asia, First Contact with Europeans, the story of survival and the role of Aboriginal art work in the transmission of culture.  Big, bright graphics enliven every page and include artworks both by early settlers and Aboriginal artists such as William Barak.

Explorers: Filling in the Map of AustraliaThere is a welcome overview on the voyages of exploration, which is a year 4 topic in the new Australian Curriculum, though I would have liked a timeline because kids in this age group so often find this topic confusing and tend not to have a very good grasp of chronology – especially when it stretches back over several centuries and events take place on opposite sides of the continent. (One of the best books around on this topic is Explorers: Filling in the Map of Australia, by Chris Milne and published by Black Dog Books.  It does have timelines, and is manageable for capable year 4 readers).

The chapter entitled Founding Colonies is much longer, as you’d expect.  It begins, of course, with Sydney, and the convicts, and includes Aboriginal Resistance.  Unfortunately the section on Tasmania also includes the first settlement in Victoria at Sullivan Bay, which is not where students would expect to find it. Even more unfortunate is the opening paragraph of ‘Making Melbourne’ because most kids are not going to make sense of it without a bit of a struggle:

Those migrants who arrived in Adelaide knew nothing about Victoria but, logically, nobody should have gone to Adelaide when land was available at Port Phillip because it was far cheaper there – in fact, often land was just being taken and not paid for.  (p. 49)

Apart from tidying up this sentence to make it shorter and more comprehensible, I would have liked this section to make it clearer that at the time Henty and Batman squatted on what is now Melbourne, the area was not called Victoria until Separation in 1851.  And there isn’t anything about Batman’s scurrilous ‘treaty’ with the local Aborigines.  Indeed, the section on Melbourne, Australia’s second city in importance, merits only six paragraphs.

Exploring the Land includes all the major explorers – but I was surprised to find this little snippet about Major Sir Thomas Mitchell:

In many ways Mitchell was an unusual man.  His men probably killed more Aboriginal people, especially near Mount Dispersion, than any other party of explorers, and yet he preferred to use Aboriginal place names on the maps he drew.
It is hard for us to judge whether the killings were Mitchell’s fault, but he was blamed for them in an inquiry that was completed just after he died. (p. 60)

I probably know as much about Mitchell’s expeditions as most primary teachers, but my knowledge is rudimentary.  I have no idea what to make of this comment, and I suspect that students will be mystified by it.  Why is it hard to judge these killings?   Why wouldn’t the leader of an expedition be held accountable for what takes place?  Considering how many inquiries into violence against Aborigines were whitewash, and how few were undertaken in the first place, if this one did blame Mitchell, it seems only too likely that shameful behaviour did occur.  The implication is that there is some controversy about this matter, but will young readers interpret it this way?  It seems to me that this comment is an attempt to be even-handed that’s gone awry. (Mitchell is, after all, a Big Deal in NSW where the State Library bears his name).  This vague allusion will be confusing and frustrating for students who will, (as I did), reread the section to try to clarify what Mitchell did, or didn’t do, but without success.  Because apart from a reference to ‘a clash’ at Menindee, from which Mitchell backed off, there’s nothing about killing any Aborigines.  Students will go Googling for that (as I did) and unless their reading skills are up to dealing with the long entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, they may end up none the wiser.

The chapter about the Gold Rushes in the 1850s includes the Eureka Rebellion, while Settling the Land is a respectful homage to the hard life of the pioneers, and covers bushrangers, the Depression of the 1880s and the rise of unions.  But having noted in the introductory paragraph that settlement was ‘not good for the Aboriginal people who inhabited the land’ the chapter doesn’t make any further mention of them except to note that:

‘In the early years at least, ‘wild blacks’ – who were entitled to be upset at the sheep eating the kangaroo’s fodder – speared the sheep.  On the Murray River, the Aboriginal people gave this new food a name – ‘jumbuck’. (p. 78)

I think that being ‘upset‘ is a bit of an understatement.  There was considerable indigenous resistance to settlement, and rightly so, since (to paraphrase Henry Reynolds) as the settlements expanded, there were fewer and fewer places where the indigenous people could legally place a foot.  And they speared those sheep because they were starving.

The Growth of Cities is an excellent chapter, covering everything from transport to communications to entertainment, but I particularly liked the section about education in the early days.  This topic is always fascinating for young people, and they’ll be interested in the illustrations showing children at state schools in 1878.

What else?  Federation and the birth of Canberra is covered, and so is Mawson’s legendary expedition to the South Pole. There are 25 pages about WW1 and 18 about WW2; there are chapters covering advances in science, transport, and communications; and of course there’s a lot of stuff about sport but there is also a comprehensive chapter about achievements in literature, art and science – Patrick White even gets a mention!  The Vietnam War is included in the chapter on Controversial Issues, and so are issues such as the Dismissal in 1975, the Tasmanian Wilderness campaign, and Aboriginal Land Rights, Mabo and The Apology.

Over all, this is an impressive book with much to recommend it.  Of course there are omissions, it’s impossible to cover everything  and while I might quibble about the inclusion of this rather than that, or the amount of space devoted to one topic rather than another, I think that The Big Book of Australian History is a useful addition to any school library and would also make a lovely gift for a certain kind of child.

Author: Peter Macinnis
Title: The Big Book of Australian History
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9780642278326
Source: Review copy courtesy of the NLA


Fishpond: The Big Book of Australian History
Or direct from the National Library of Australia bookshop.

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Book Review: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists, by Peter Macinnis

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 21, 2013

Curious MindsCurious Minds, by Peter Macinnis, is a lovely book.  I stumbled across it when I was at the library picking up a book I’d reserved (Simone Lazaroo’s (2006) The Travel Writer) and I’ve been reading it on and off over the weekend.

Australians often forget just how odd our flora and fauna seem to Europeans.  That Wallace Line which defines the boundary between our fauna and what’s in the rest of the world was only recognised in 1859, but long before that travellers’ tales were full of strange rats, greyhounds that hopped (i.e. kangaroos), swans that were black in defiance of Aristotle*, and double-ended reptiles.  Curious Minds is the story of the naturalists who came to our shores and began to identify and classify our strange animals.  It’s fascinating reading.

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

It starts with my favourite ‘pyrate’ and his ‘hippototomus’.  William Dampier (subject of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell) visited Australia twice in the 17th century, and most importantly for science, wrote a book about his travels afterwards.  In A Voyage to New Holland (1699) he wrote about a massive shark that his men captured, which had in its mouth an animal still seen only rarely today :

Its maw was like a Leather Sack, very thick, and so tough that a sharp knife could scarce cut it, in which we found the Head and Bones of a Hippototomus, the hairy Lips of which were still sound and not putrified, and the Jaw was also firm, out of which we plukt a great many Teeth, 2 of them 8 Inches long and as big as a Man’s Thumb, small at one End, and a little crooked, the rest not above half so long.  (cited on p. 14)

A dugong!

Quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

But even before Dampier, there was Willem de Vlamingh (1640-c1698) with his Dutch crew .  They were searching for a ship lost at sea when they found themselves on an island they named Rottnest, (Rat Nest), in honour of the quokkas that they saw everywhere.    These cute little creatures will scamper up to visitors in hope of a treat – and from what I’ve seen they get a completely different reaction to an approach by rats – but then maybe sailors at sea were more used to rats than we are today…The men and women who observed these curiosities were indefatigable.  From the time of British Settlement, semi-professional and amateur naturalists gathered specimens, dissected them and sometimes (bravely) ate them.   They preserved their specimens with varying degrees of success, and they did their best to take them back, dead or alive, to Europe.  More in keeping with the way contemporary conservationists work, they also described them in painstaking (if sometimes inaccurate) detail, and drew or painted illustrations of them.  The book is lavishly illustrated with full colour pictures from the National Library’s collection and some of the botanical paintings are so beautiful one might almost buy two copies of the book to cut out and frame them.

Naturalists were not, however, always popular on board.  According to Nicholas Baudin (read more about him in my review of Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby), the single-mindedness of these enthusiasts could be rather a headache …

More anxious than the rest, they had pestered me from the moment they dropped anchor to allow them to go ashore, and I had been obliged to give my permission in order to be rid of them I must say here in passing, that those captains who have scientists, or who may some day have them aboard their ships, must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience.  I admit that although I have no lack of it, the scientists have frequently driven me to the end of my tether and forced me to retire testily to my room. 

(The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, 1802, translated by Christine Cornell, 2004, cited on p24)

I was very pleased to see that the contribution of women is acknowledged in this book.  I had read about Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women but I had never heard of Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891).  Molloy came to the Swan River Settlement with a ‘genteel love of gardens and plants’ but was worn out with childbearing and the drudgery of pioneer life when an amateur botanist called Captain James Mangles heard about her interest in plants and struck up a correspondence with her, asking her to collect specimens for him.  She sent him remarkable new species, complete with viable seed and pressed specimens that were ‘far better than those sent in by professional botanists’.   Tragically, she died aged only 38. Dietrich, on the other hand, was a professional collector.  Although the biography written by her daughter is unreliable, Dietrich seems to have had training in collecting herbs from her husband, and when the marriage failed, she sailed for Australia to collect specimens for a private museum in Hamburg.  She appears to have been undaunted by Australia’s most deadly species: she is thought to be the first European to capture a taipan, and may even have gutted a 6.7 metre crocodile.  There are wasps named after her, and her collection of spiders formed the basis of the first study of Australian spiders.

Our little Aussie platypus is one of the most intriguing animals on the planet, and the story of George Bennett (1804-1893) shows just how this elusive creature has fascinated scientists for so long.  His quest to breed the platypus was never successful – and like many in this period he sent rare and valuable specimens back to England instead of retaining them for Australia’s fledgling museum – but still, he made a remarkable contribution.

Curiously though, considering that Sir Joseph Banks is a Big Name in Botany,** his erroneous assumptions about the lush meadows of Botany Bay nearly cost the lives of the First Settlers in 1788.  There were ‘no farmers, no naturalists, no botanists, and nobody who understood mining or geology’ in the First Fleet and since they arrived in the middle of Sydney’s scorching summer, they almost starved to death.  It was up to the chief surgeon John White to accompany the governor Arthur Phillip when he went exploring, and he sent drawings, specimens and his journal back to England.  Macinnis also tells us about the mystery of the so-called Watling Collection which consists of paintings which were the first scientific descriptions of several Australian species, including some such as the magpie goose which is now extinct in Sydney.

Macinnis has an engaging chatty style, enriching his stories of these remarkable men and women with quotations from their journals and anecdotes about their lives.  But it is no hagiography: he is alert to the temptations of pride and hubris, professional jealousy and dishonesty.  There was occasional recklessness, unconcern for the safety of others, and single-minded selfishness.  He acknowledges the improper appropriation of Aboriginal artefacts and remains ‘in the name of science’ and he recognises the limitations of those whose enthusiasm was not matched by preparedness or organisational skills.  He is staunchly patriotic, devoting the latter part of his book to those naturalists who were either born here or settled here permanently and were the foundation of an Australian-based scientific community.  These include Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller (1825-1896) who founded Melbourne’s own Botanic Gardens; Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) whose exquisitely illustrated travel books chart the transformation of her opinions about the Australian bush from dismissive to enthusiastic; the Scott sisters, Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910)  whose artwork, says Macinnes, has never been bettered; and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) who was lost to natural science through childbirth – her studies of birdlife are just gorgeous.

I was especially taken with Macinnis’s description of Von Mueller’s protégé Ellis Rowan (1848-1922):and the challenge to her artistic credentials:

In open competition with male artists, she had again taken out a first-class award [the first was the gold medal in the Melbourne Exhibition] and the boys’ own hissy fit brigade began to squeal.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the chaps were outraged that a mere woman (and a mere flower painter at that) should again beat them. (p.142)

It was a sign of mean-spiritedness to come, but today her collection is the pride and joy of the NLA.

There is a delightful chapter about William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) and his bunyip skull and Macinnis reminds us to ‘think kindly on Macleay, for he was a creature of his time and society … [and] … an original thinker, an extremely clever observer, and an encourager of others who were keen to pursue natural history’ (p. 152)

What shines through this lovely book is a sensitivity to the courage of people who set out for the unknown and to the curiosity that drove them to search for knowledge.

Highly recommended as a gift book or as a science, art, or history resource for every secondary school library.

Visit Peter Macinnis’s website to see more about Curious Minds.

* Aristotle used the example of white swans as an irrefutable fact, i.e. because all swans were white, etc.

** One of our loveliest plants, the Banksia is named after him.

Author: Macinnis
Title: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2012
ISBN: 9780642277541
Source: Kingston Library

Availability Fishpond: Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Posted in Australian History, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »