History’s coats of many colours

Several things have combined to remind me: first, how little I really know even about the history of my own country even if I am comparatively well-informed; second, that there is not just one truth, one pattern, one narrative in the stories that come down to us.

So I think I will be borrowing more from the history and biography sections of Wollongong Library. There is more there than I have life left to read them!

Crime 16

The Old Chartist, Joseph Swain, 1862

‘The old man, returning home from transportation, leans on a great stone by the brook side and watches a brown water rat.’

1837 six points peoples charter resized

Just some of what I have been reading about lately in Tony Moore’s Death Or Liberty: Rebel Exiles in Australia 1788 – 1868. Not to mention a heap of others, neatly listed in Convicts to Australia. My own ancestor from County Cavan, Jacob Whitfield, was, it appears, just a horse thief, not a political. Here is how he arrived:

Isabella I (2)  09 03 1822  NSW   04 11 1821  from Cork Jn Wallis Master W Price Surgeon

Update: always something new. That says Jacob was a ploughman, sentenced for life – I knew that – that he was born in 1760 – we doubt that—and came from Tyrone.

But it is interesting that all the Chartists’ points – radical as they seemed to the 19th century’s Tony Abbotts, Scott Morrisons and Christopher Pynes – were achieved in Australia before they were in the homeland of Empire – with the exception of annual parliaments which does now seem an idea we could live without. Fixed terms, yes. Oh – and we enfranchised women earlier too, something the Chartists hadn’t asked for.

See some more of this fascinating history pathway, which really should be taught in schools but rarely is: A People’s History of Derbyshire, though avowedly Marxist, is thorough and well documented. Then we have the Tolpuddle Martyrs. And so on.

Last night on The Drum (ABC News 24) noted human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was interviewed about his new book Dreaming Too Loud. See also Geoffrey Robertson on Australian Values. The book appeals to me. For example, try this quick quiz:


  1. Who named Australia? Bonus point if you can name his cat.
  2. From which island did Captain Cook descry the break in the Great Barrier Reef through which he sailed the Endeavour back to Britain?
  3. Where is white Australia’s founding father, Vice Admiral Arthur Phillip, buried?
  4. The only armed revolt by Aborigines against white settler power was led by a police tracker known as Pigeon. Where did he and his army make their last stand?
  5. When did Australia become independent?
  6. What was the name of the schoolteacher at Glenrowan who fooled the Kelly Gang and prevented a terrorist atrocity?
  7. In 1916 the family name of the Australian head of state was changed to ‘Windsor’ in order to avoid association with Germany. What was their original name?
  8. John Howard’s Gallipoli hero was Simpson, the man with the donkey. Where did Simpson hail from?
  9. Eleanor Roosevelt handed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the President of the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, proclaiming it ‘the Magna Carta of mankind’. The president’s name?
  10. Which prominent New South Wales politician terminated a debate in the Upper House by crossing the floor and urinating in his opponent’s ear?

The cat’s name was “Trim”.

Delightfully provocative. Also provocative at times, though not delightful to everyone, is Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, Paul Keating. Never bland, though.

In 1993 Paul Keating made a speech, co-written with speech writer extraordinaire Don Watson, at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It is justly remembered as one of the great speeches of our time.

The Unknown Australian Soldier lay in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House for four days, and thousands of people came to pay their respects. On Remembrance Day, thousands more lined Canberra’s ANZAC Parade for the funeral procession to the Memorial, where Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered the eulogy. The speech has drawn comparisons to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for its succinct but poignant style:

The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia. His tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained … It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.

The soldier was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin. First World War veteran Robert Comb was given the task of scattering soil from the Pozières battlefield in his tomb. In an unscripted moment, he quietly said: “Now you’re home, mate.”

Yesterday Paul Keating spoke again at the War Memorial to deliver the commemorative address at Remembrance Day, and to again pay respect to the Unknown Australian Soldier.

… The statesmen who had set these forces in motion had never assumed that their conflict might be limited only by the scale of their young populations. They failed to understand how developing industrial organisation, railways, science and rising productive capacity rendered almost inexhaustible the ability of each to deliver the death blow and keep on delivering it.

The generals, especially the Allied ones, knew through military training that not since the Napoleonic wars had frontal attacks been effective, certainly not against the foil of barbed wire fortified by the modern machine gun. Yet, a line of trenches was dug from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps – a front which denied commanders the opportunity of that classic military manoeuvre – the turning flank and encirclement. This denied, the line was fortified by major cannon and howitzers, while the generals fell back on the only policy left to them – the policy of exhaustion.

And into this deadly crevice they fed their heroic, young obedient populations.

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism; a complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism…

That last paragraph would make an excellent “Do you agree?” examination question! Geoffrey Robertson did not quite agree, quoting Clemenceau:

“One thing is for certain: they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.”

Clemenceau’s reply when asked how history would remember the German invasion of Belgium

Keating 2013 goes on:

When Don Watson and I first discussed the writing of it, we both felt the poignancy of the occasion. My uncle, William Keating, had died in 1945 on the death march from Sandakan to Ranau, while Don Watson’s grandfather was twice wounded in Flanders after being infected with Spanish flu. He returned to Australia, never recovering from it.

The history of those two theatres of war had haunted each of our lives in differing yet similar ways.

I thought it important that the speech express with clarity simple notions of understanding and appreciation that went in personal terms, such that we might have been speaking of a relative who had died in some contemporary calamity. Hence the notion that he was all of them yet one of us.

By his interment, I thought it important to say that this unknown Australian soldier would serve his country yet again; that his presence would give us a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian as well as serving to remind us of the sacrifice of the more than 100,000 men and women who never came home.

As prime minister, I was particularly pleased to bring these episodes of our history, especially the First and Second World Wars, into sharper relief, to remind us that the deeds of our men and women at war give us an opportunity to renew our belief in the country, while renewing our appreciation of their faith, loyalty and sacrifice.

The soul of a nation is the richer for it having been warmed by its stories and traditions. Yet its stories and traditions should not stifle or constrain its growth as it needs to adapt.

I am greatly heartened that so many young Australians find a sense of identity and purpose from the Anzac legend and from those Australian men and women who have fought in wars over the last 100 years. But the true commemoration of their lives, service and sacrifice is to understand that the essence of their motivation was their belief in all we had created here and our responsibility in continuing to improve it.

Homage to these people has to be homage to them and about them and not to some idealised or jingoist reduction of what their lives really meant.

One thing is certain: young Australians, like the young Europeans I mentioned earlier, can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen. They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became: young innocents who had little or no choice.

Commemorating these events should make us even more wary of grand ambitions and grand alliances of the kind that fractured Europe and darkened the 20th century. In the long shadow of these upheavals, we gather to ponder their meaning and to commemorate the values that shone in their wake: courage under pressure, ingenuity in adversity, bonds of mateship and, above all, loyalty to Australia.

They are not bland words.  Tonight on ABC1 Paul Keating faces Kerry O’Brien at 8.30. By all accounts it will be worth it, whatever one thought of Keating.

It could be billed as a clash of the titans: two battle-hardened warriors facing off in a TV arena. But it’s a lot more civilised than that. This encounter takes place amid the golden light and polished wood of a refined male domain, the elegant Sydney office of former prime minister Paul Keating, as he’s interviewed by veteran journalist and anchorman Kerry O’Brien. And the atmosphere is more akin to port in the library than pistols at dawn or swords at sunset.

But it is also an extensive and revealing engagement between two men who are regarded as dominant forces in their respective fields; the possessors of formidable reputations, feared and admired, loved and loathed, commanding figures whom the unwary or the unprepared cross at their peril…

Finally, given that the cloth-eared now dominate Canberra, look again at Are the history wars really history? Abbott thinks not on PolitiFact.  History, ours in particular, needs rainbow colours and vigorous debate and advocacy! It is never bloodless.

Do visit the Museum of Australian Democracy.


I enjoyed the first part of the Keating interview. See ABC documentary reveals seven things you may not know about the former PM.