Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Essay – musings on the rise and fall of New England historiography

One of the traps of having broad interests while writing a general history lies in the way it takes me down by-ways. R. H. MathewsIt’s not helped by my weekly history column in the Armidale Express

Each week for the best part of three years now excluding Christmas and sometimes Easter, I have written 500 words on some aspect of local history. I am given some latitude, I can wander where I like, but there needs to be some direct or indirect connection with Armidale.

You would think that I would run out of things to say. After all, just how much can you say connected to the history of a city of 23,000 people?  Quite a lot, it would seem. I have more unfinished story ideas now than when I started.

As best I can work out, my readers seem to like my sometimes meanders and even seem to put up with my series, multiple posts on a single topic. I know that people do not read every column. I know that those who do read regularly are generally older with either some long-standing connection to Armidale or a strong interest in history itself.

Even with a backlog of ideas, sometimes I come up on a copy deadline with my mind a blank. Worse, sometimes the piece I am meant to write actually requires more research than I have time. In both cases, I scrabble to make do.

Still, in all this, the by-ways I find myself in can be fun. The photo is R H Mathews (1841-1918), a surveyor, magistrate and self-taught anthropologist who devoted the last three decades of his life to the study of the Aboriginal peoples of Eastern Australia.

I was twenty one when I first came across RHM. I was writing my honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life. I must say that I found his work somewhat bitsy and repetitive. It was much later that I came to realise his significance and indeed became interested in him as a human being.resized_9781741757811_224_297_FitSquare

Incidentally, I have only just come across Martin Thomas’s 2011 study of RHM and have yet to acquire a copy.

RHM came back on my radar a week ago because I decided to do a short series on New England historiography, the history of history in New England. This was triggered by the recent death of Lionel Gilbert, one of the doyens of New England historiography.  This is where by-ways comes in. To start writing the series, I needed to set a context, starting in the nineteenth century. I also needed to link that context to key features of New England historiography. So I started wandering.

There is a commonly accepted view that the interest in Australian history sort of began with the First World War and a dawning sense of nationalism and self identity. You can see this today in some of the hagiography associated with Gallipoli. Yes, I know that the term hagiography applies to lives of the saints, but we have actually sanctified Gallipoli. Indeed, some of the writing and broadcasting on Gallipoli seems to me to represent the worst type of hagiography.

There is also a commonly accepted view that no real Australian history was written until after the Second World War, nor was it available in schools until well after the war. Then we overcame the cultural cringe and really discovered ourselves.  

In talking about Australian history in the way I’m using the term, I am of course referring to the history of the European settlers and their societies. Writing on Aboriginal history came later.

The first writing on Australian history began early. There was great interest in Britain and indeed Europe in the new colonies being established in the Great Southern Land, so a range of books appeared on the early history of NSW telling the story of the colony, along with a range of settler reminiscences. In 1880, the new school text books introduced into NSW schools contained a segment on Australian history. That same year saw the founding of the Bulletin magazine. The 1880 and 1890s saw rapid growth in interest in Australian history. In 1901, the Royal Australian Historical Society was established, publishing its own journal from 1908.

The nineteenth century was a period of considerable intellectual turbulence that also combined a belief in the importance of progress and self-improvement. This was the age of the gifted amateur, the auto-didact or self taught man, as compared to the institutionalised professionals that we know today.

R H Mathews was one such gifted amateur. He devoted the last part of his life and his resources to investigating the structure of Aboriginal life, driven by curiosity as well as a powerful belief in the importance of his task. In so doing, he stood outside the accepted canons of thought. Then as now, established thought had a powerful tendency to exclude the outsider, a tendency not helped in Mathew’s case by his own sometimes difficult personality.

One of the features of the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century lies in the growth of state funded cultural institutions that came to control what we thought, how we thought and what we thought about. In a way, this gave added power to the established and the big, for those institutions interlocked with other mechanisms including publishing houses to determine what was important and why.

Consider the Bloomsbury Set, Do they actually warrant the importance now awarded to them?

In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.  

This probably sounds depressing and indeed it is from my viewpoint. Yet in this latest by-way that my interests have taken me, I have learned more about my own peoples and about the importance of structures in aiding continuity and in preserving the past.  



Evan said...

Fortunately there are now avenues outside the officially approved institutions - like blogs.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's true, Evan, and very helpful they all are. I couldn't do without them, but institutional structures are still important. Since UNE lost sight of its original mission, the volume of structured original research available for me to draw from has more than halved. That's hard to replace.

Evan said...

Yes the institutions tend to have a monopoly on particular resources.

Jim Belshaw said...

In history, Evan, its not so much the monopoly on particular resources that's important, that has tended to break down, but the volume of research on particular topics.

Today's books draw from past research at honours etc levels. As the pipeline dries, the final output diminishes. The work of Isabel McBryde on the development of a Northern archaeological sequence created something of a research explosion. After Isabel left and then later UNE changed focus, that early stage research effectively dried up. As it did, so did the scope for later synthesis.

Evan said...

Thanks for the clarification.