Blogging the 2010s — 83 — August 2019

So reaching the end of another decade of months….

20,000 years from my window

Another pic from the set in my last post — from my window:


Last week I revisited ANU Press and downloaded for free several essays/chapters and seven comlplete books or journals. Some of the books have a China/Asia theme, one on recent Australian politics, and four relate to Indigenous Australians. Of the last set one is of considerable local interest, Julie Dibden, Drawing on the Land — Rock Art in the Upper Nepean Sydney Basin, NSW (Canberra, ANU Press, 2019).


Much of the book is highly technical, but much is more immediate for the interested lay person. I have to admit I was not sure exactly where “Upper Nepean” might be, thinking it a little further west than it is, for it turns out I see it from my window here in West Wollongong every day — the eastern portion at least.


I didn’t know this, but the Upper Nepean catchment has approximately 810 known archaeological sites. Some are rock shelters, many with markings, others are areas with grinding grooves — I recall seeing such things in the Royal National Park when I was younger.


How old? “…the south coastal hinterland and adjacent coast were first occupied before 19,000 years BP, and that early occupation of the hinterland ‘appears not to have been intensive’. Throughout the Holocene, occupation levels fluctuated with sites being temporarily or permanently abandoned at different times, and the intensity of occupation varied between sites.” The art pictured above may be as recent as 2-300 years old. Little survives from the earliest period. Keep in mind that there is now general agreement that Aboriginal Australia dates back 60,000 years.

So many nuggets in this book. “It seems to follow that one cannot make full sense of the development of European life in Australia without reference to the structure of racial relations and the persistent indifference to the fate of the Aborigines; in short, without an analysis of the Australian conscience. Part of such a study would be the apologetic element in the writing of Australian history, an element that sticks out like a foot from a shallow grave… The occupation and settlement of New South Wales by the British in 1788, and during the colonial period, was predicated on ‘two quite opposite and irreconcilable requirements … one the need to assure settlers their legal rights to possess land (and dispossess the Aborigines); and the other the moral requirement that the Aborigines should be treated well and their rights as human beings protected’ (Plomley 1990–1991:1)…. Given that the Upper Nepean catchment was largely unoccupied by European settlers, it can be considered to have been located actually beyond, or on the far side of the frontier (cf. McNiven and Russell 2002). Historical records are scanty in regard to Aboriginal use of this land during the colonial period; however, there is evidence that indicates people did retreat to the Woronora Plateau to recover from introduced disease. It is possible, if not probable, that some rock art present in the Upper Nepean was produced at this time.”

Smallpox. “The most obvious and immediate impact following the arrival of the First Fleet was the introduction of disease, the most lethal of which was smallpox (Butlin 1983). Three major smallpox epidemics were recorded in Australia: in 1789, one year after European settlement, in 1829 and in 1866 (Curson 1985). The 1789 epidemic had a devastating effect on the local Aboriginal people living close to the British settlement at Port Jackson, and it was reported that the region was evacuated until the disease had disappeared (Bell 1959:345). At the end of the 1789 epidemic, when Aboriginal people began returning to the shores of Port Jackson, it was estimated by Governor Phillip that smallpox had claimed at least 50 per cent of the population (Butlin 1983). In the years immediately after the epidemic, its effects were observed in locations well outside the 1789 European frontier.”

And this I found quite fascinating, given Wellington is a place I visited quite often in the 60s and 70s, having relatives in the district. “From the late nineteenth-century accounts, the dominant belief at that time in the south-east was in an All-Father being known by various names, including Baiame and Daramulan (Attenbrow 2002:128). These two beings are in some places the one, but with different names, while in others, Daramulan is the son or half-brother of Baiame (Knight 2001:59; Attenbrow 2002:128). In the late nineteenth century, Howitt emphasises the heaven-dominated cosmology that is central to the Baiame/Daramulan belief, and which is described by Swain (1993:203) as a utopian tradition, whereby humans and ancestral spirits are removed to a sky realm…. There is no mention of the All-Father Baiame in the accounts of the earliest commentators in the Sydney region. Swain (1993:145) argues that the earliest mention of Baiame dates to the 1830s, in the Wellington Valley mission, in central western New South Wales, and that Baiame was introduced to that area from closer to the Sydney frontier. Carey and Roberts (2002:822–823) examine in detail the records (many of which have previously been overlooked) from the Wellington Valley mission, and argue that Baiame, and an associated dance ritual, waganna, was a phenomenon linked to the aftermath of smallpox. Their research is also concerned with exploring the intellectual and cultural response to the impacts of disease and death. At Wellington, Baiame was associated with an adversary, Tharrawiirgal, who was believed responsible for the bringing of smallpox because of his wrath due to his loss of a tomahawk (Carey & Roberts 2002:830–831). Smallpox reached the Wellington Valley in 1830, and was particularly severe. It has been estimated that a third of the population died (Carey & Roberts 2002:827, 829). The Wiradjuri, via a range of Indigenous and/or borrowed natural and/or magical explanatory frameworks, began to search for an explanation and possibly control of ‘so virulent a misfortune’ (Carey & Roberts 2002:831). They argue that, from 1830, there is evidence that suggests that one cultural response was the creation of new dance rituals and mourning ceremonies, and that, by c. 1833, these responses had been elaborated into a waganna, or dance ritual….”

You may download a PDF of the chapter that comes from here. The last quote continues:

Missionaries recorded that some dance rituals were held at this time specifically in regard to smallpox (Carey & Roberts 2002:832). Over a period of time they were performed on a regular basis and with increasing intensity and ritual elaboration. By 1835, there was also a shift in focus from smallpox to the issue of sexual access by white men to Aboriginal women and children, and an insistence on the traditional practice of nose piercing (Carey & Roberts 2002:833, 837–838). Between 1833 and 1[8]35 it was also strongly believed, as Swain (1993) similarly documents, that the end of the world was a possibility, and specifically that the world was to be destroyed by flood.

The Baiame waganna cult at Wellington lasted for two years only, and during this time missionaries recorded what Carey and Roberts (2002:843) describe as the formation and transformation of the Baiame travelling cult. They observed major changes in the prophecies. The concern with smallpox shifted to the issue of the sexual abuse of women and children by white men and a focus on the instigation of traditional practices. The cosmology saw a decline in the acknowledgement of Tharrawiirgal, who was regularly replaced by Daramulan, and to a ‘magnification of the authority of Baiame’ (Carey & Roberts 2002:843). The evidence from Wellington is testament of dramatic and swift change in Aboriginal people’s beliefs and concerns, which could take place in a very brief period to time.

It is inconceivable that the Aboriginal people from the Upper Nepean catchment and environs did not also adapt their world view and conceptions of existence to meet the demands of life within the colonial milieu.

I will share more from my ANU trove later, just adding that the slogan “world’s oldest continuing civilisation” often, and not totally wrongly, applied to our First Australians masks a much more dynamic picture, in fact doesn’t necessarily do First Australians a favour. They were not preserved in aspic for 60,000 years after all.

Not really about NAPLAN….

Best thing to do with all that chest beating about NAPLAN results? Ignore it. Best thing to do with NAPLAN? Scrap it. Especially the so-called literacy/writing tests.


Now I have that off my chest, I’ll tell you a bit — I can never recall all anyway — about what I dreamed last night. This book, over 50 years old, is part of it. That was our poetry text in English I at the University of Sydney in 1960. I read every word of it, and some things stay with me still, though the copy I am holding here is one I bought second-hand some years later. My original copy I lost, or it fell to pieces — not sure which. Oh, the dream? It was (of all things) about poetry, about Andrew Marvell in particular. My friend Chris T was in it for some reason, and my former neighbour Persian Danny, last I heard in Germany. But what they were doing in the dream I can’t recall.

Somewhere in the dream I was back in the Wallace Theatre in 1960 listening to (later Professor) Gerry Wilkes reading from Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”. It isn’t in that Penguin Book of English Verse, though “August” is.

It’s no go, the Yogi-Man, it’s no go, Blavatsky
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Rather different is Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). The Penguin has quite a good selection: “Bermudas”, “To His Coy Mistress”, “The Definition of Love”, “The Garden”, and an extract from “Upon Appleton House”. I recall “The Garden” being discussed in my tutorial group in 1960, though I didn’t quite know what to make of it at age 16. Later at 20-21 under the tuition of Professor Sam Goldberg and with my little group of women — I was the only male in that Honours group — it made more sense. Goldberg was rather inspiring on the Metaphysical Poets — though the Lit Crit of the day was alarmingly narrow in general.

Now of course I am of an age where the dark turn of “To His Coy Mistress” — the wit betrays an anxiety beyond its surface intention– rather speaks to the heart. I am a bit past the “carpe diem” stage though. And do you also think that final stanza seems a bit desperate? Mind you, that generation lived through the Plague, after all. And a Civil War — Marvell was close to the Commonwealth General Lord Fairfax, and indeed one of his greater poems is “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland (1650).” That poem is interesting in its ambivalence about power:

THE forward youth that would appear,
Must now forsake his Muses dear,
Nor in the shadows sing
His numbers languishing.

’Tis time to leave the books in dust,
And oil the unused armour’s rust,
Removing from the wall
The corslet of the hall.

So restless Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace,
But through adventurous war
Urgèd his active star:

And like the three-fork’d lightning, first
Breaking the clouds where it was nurst,
Did thorough his own Side
His fiery way divide…

Now the last two stanzas of “To His Coy Mistress”:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.