Aboriginal Australians and Guns, Germs and Steel

This long title covers two matters that I address in this blog post. I start with a brief (completely inadequate) synopsis of the book by Professor Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel and variously subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, in 1997 when it was first published, or more recently in the 20th anniversary edition, The Fates of Human Societies. This book, which only recently came to my attention, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998 and is widely considered one of the best nonfiction books of all time. I will then look at how Diamond’s theory relates to Aboriginal Australians.

Professor Diamond proposed to take a scientific look at the history of the differential development of societies across the world in an effort to explain how and why they are different. He stresses that he has taken a completely non-racist approach to this question.

Diamond’s premise is that the evolution of human societies follows a certain path. Homo sapiens started off as small groups of hunter-gatherers, becoming sedentary farmers, enabling formation of villages, towns and cities (and finally nation states) where crafts, innovation, writing and governments developed.

He argues that “Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of superior intelligence [genetic superiority], but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.” (Wikipedia)

The basic driver for the development societies was food production. Back to Wikipedia, Diamond argues “geographic, climatic and environmental characteristics which favoured early development of stable agricultural societies ultimately led to immunity to diseases endemic in agricultural animals and the development of powerful, organized states capable of dominating others”.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. The basic staple crops and domesticated animals that make up the bulk of the world’s diet had their origin in the Fertile Crescent where early civilisation thrived. In those early times these plants and animal did not exist in, or could not be diffused to, other parts of the world because of different climates, growing, seasons or geographical barriers to their movement. It was only from the sixteenth century that it was possible to export these plants and animals to other parts of the world with similar conditions.

Let’s look at Australia and Aboriginal Australians.

Firstly, Diamond tells us [what we Aussies already know] that “Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent”.

He also contends that “most laypeople would describe as the most salient feature of Native Australian societies their seeming ‘backwardness.’ Australia is the sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples still lived without any of the hallmarks of so-called civilization—without farming, herding, metal, bows and arrows, substantial buildings, settled villages, writing, chiefdoms, or states. Instead, Australian Aborigines were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, organized into bands, living in temporary shelters or huts, and still dependent on stone tools”. The question is, why?

The simple answer is that Aboriginal Australians had no other option than to remain hunter-gatherers. There is not a single animal indigenous to Australia that could be (or has ever been) domesticated and farmed as a food source. Similarly the only plant indigenous to Australia that has ever been farmed is the macadamia. Hence the people had to live off the land as small groups of nomads. They were unable to create permanent settlements that could develop into villages, towns and cities. The other main (geographic) factor inhibiting Aboriginal Australian development was the remoteness.

Many other characteristics of how and why Aboriginal Australians lived can be explained in the approach Diamond takes in his book.  “The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leaving the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans didn’t want”. The story is the same for native Americans.

Diamond also explains his theory with regards the development throughout the world in North and South America, Africa, China, Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. The improvements in food production and the consequential “civilising” effects on the various locations and societies is a factor of geography and often the starting dates from which that process started.

Aboriginal Australians never had the opportunity to start that process before Europeans arrived.

William Ernest Morrison (1884 – 1951)

My grandfather William Ernest (Ernie) Morrison died when I was four years old and I had never met him because he and my grandmother had separated when my father was only twelve years old. Family members have indicated that he was a gentlemanly type who was generally well liked but because of such an early estrangement, little of the real details is known about him and his life. What we do know has been pieced together from oral history of family members and online records as more become available. My most recent discovery was a most exciting one, but before I get to that I will give a broad outline of his history.

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We know he was born on the Isle of Man in 1884 and his father had become a gardener on the large estate of Kentraugh and then at Government House (see my previous post for John Morrison). The 1901 census shows the family living at Kentraugh: John and his wife Margaret (nee Christian) and children John James, William Ernest, Lydia Christian, Edith May and Thomas Henry. Ernie, aged 16 years was shown as also working as a gardener. The next record of Ernie was when he married my grandmother Elizabeth Caroline Marian Thomasina (Briscoe) Ramsden, known as Carrie, in 1912 at Campsie, New South Wales. How and when he arrived in Australia had always been unknown until this latest discovery.

Following the marriage the couple initially lived with Carrie’s widowed mother on her 13 acre farm at East Hill, near Bankstown some 20 kilometres southwest of Sydney. Ernie apparently worked on the property for a while, since his occupation was given as farmer when he married. There, the couple had two children, firstly Lydia Emily Christian and then my father Alfred Ernest, but shortly before his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Briscoe, died in 1917, the extended family had moved into town at Leonard Street, Bankstown. When Alfred was born Ernie was recorded as being a stonemason.

By the early 1920s the family had moved again to a larger house in nearby Restwell Street, called Ellan Vannin but known as “The Ranch”. The large block included a tennis court where family and friends played and socialised. Also in this period Ernie established a fuel and produce business near the railway station in Bankstown with a succession of partners over several years, and there are a number of photographs of him and his delivery wagon. The business wasn’t to last more than a few years however and it has been suggested that Ernie was not a hard enough businessman, but somewhat of a “soft touch” in those difficult post-WW1 times, incurring too many bad debts to sustain the business. Whether this was a contributing factor is not known, but within a few years his marriage had failed and he had left Bankstown.

Produce Store in Bankstown, 1923

Ernie tried to meet and stay in contact with his children but this seems to have been denied by Carrie unbeknown to Lydia and Alfred although one remaining letter makes it clear that he missed his children but did not want to return to Bankstown.

Since that separation little is known of Ernie’s life except he worked at Sydney’s Central railway station as a “grill cook” until heart problems forced him to retire at the age of 61 years. It appears that he lived alone, renting a room in Riley Street, Sydney. in 1951 at the age of 67 his heart problems ended his life. His cremation was apparently attended only by his landlady and a small memorial plaque can be found at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.

Nowadays among the advice given to researchers includes: revisiting sources periodically, and especially online resources which are continually be added to. Also to break through a brick wall in the family tree it can help to “go around the wall” by researching other family members such as siblings. My discovery resulted from following these bits of advice.

By researching his older brother I found a John James Morrison who in 1902 he had enlisted in the Manchester Regiment. His home address was shown and Kentraugh, his next of kin were parents John and Maggie Morrison, and was also his brother “Earnest”. This was definitely our John James. The surprise was that next the Ernie’s name was “Royal Marines”.

The next step was the records from the UK National Archives where I found a page about William Ernest Morrison. He had enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division, in September 1901 only a couple of months after his seventeenth birthday. The records showed that he served seven years on a number of ships. Firstly, there was the HMS Majestic, a battleship stationed mainly in the Mediterranean Sea, next was the sister ship HMS Caesar which was the flagship of the Channel Fleet, and lastly the cruiser HMS Powerful. The most exciting news was that Powerful became the flagship of the Australia Station (prior to the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911), stationed in Sydney.

HMS Powerful (circa 1905)

This reasons for him deciding to stay in Sydney when he was discharged from service  in 1908 will never be known, but he must have seen a future for himself there. His life was not a very happy one, however the fact of his military service and how he came to Australia contributes greatly towards to our knowledge of my grandfather.

John Morrison (1855 – 1915)

John Morrison was a Manxman. Our Morrison family came from the Isle of Man, not from Scotland as would commonly be assumed, but from that small dot in the middle of the Irish Sea with its rich Celtic and Viking history. He was christened at St. Anne’s parish church on July 23, 1855.

By way of digression, the name St. Anne is a example of the Anglicisation of the Manx culture which over the centuries was similar to that occurring in Scotland and Ireland. The parish was originally named for St. Sanctain, a 6th-century Manx bishop, said to be a disciple of St. Patrick who originally came from the north of England. The name seems to have become confused with St Ann(e) once memory of this obscure Saint had disappeared. Today it is generally known as the parish of Kirk Santan.

St Sanctain’s Church

Another example of Anglicisation relates to the name Morrison which only came into common use on the Isle of Man from about 1800 when surnames also became more stablised. Ancestors of our Morrisons were known by many variations over the centuries including MacGilborr in the 16th century and then tending to be recorded as Mcillvorrey and later Mylvorrey. John’s grandfather was born in 1788 as Patrick Mylvorrey but he died and was buried in 1862 as Patrick Morrison.

Little is known of John’s early life. He married Margaret Christian at the age of twenty-five and raised a family of five children, with another dying in infancy. He worked as a fisherman for a number of years and then as a railway plate-layer, until at the age of about thirty-five he turned to gardening. By 1891 he was living with his family at Kentraugh Mill presumably at the Kentraugh estate where he worked as a gardener for  about the next twelve years. The owners of Kentraugh had included the notable Qualtrough and Gawne families. As well as the outdoor staff the large household sustained up to 12 indoor servants – governess, butler, housekeeper, footmen etc.

The Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute suggests that Kentraugh appears to have been an older five-bay farmhouse that was enlarged in the period 1815–1820 to become one of the island’s premier estates. The Kentraugh “villa” was built of freestone, taken from the quarries of Mostyn, Denbighshire, North Wales. A noble colonnade extended along the entire front of the building, “upwards of ninety feet, supported by eight massive columns of the Ionic order.”

The various owners of Kentraugh were known as keen agriculturalists. A 1842 guide to “the Isle of Mann” described Kentraugh as possessing “the most extensive shrubberies and hot-houses in the Island” and the 1846 Slater’s Directory noted that “the gardens and pleasure grounds are delightfully laid out.” 

Kentraugh House and Grounds 1969, Photographic Archive, iMuseum, Isle of Man

Gardeners were very well respected and much sought after by the Gentry, often they moved from family to family probably for better pay and maybe a larger garden and to have men working under them.

By about 1903 John had become gardener at Government House, “Bemahague” in Onchan, which was the home of the Lieutenant Governor Lord Raglan. Bemahague, originally a farm, was supposedly built between 1820 and 1830 and extended in 1904 (after purchase by the Government). The house commanded “a fine view of the whole bay” and the grounds covered approximately 12 hectares some of which is lawn and gardens with most of the rest being grazing land.

There may have been an earlier building at Bemahague because a July 2004 Manx National Heritage Library article refers to it in a Mutiny on the Bounty connection. “On February 4 1781 at the Onchan parish church, William Bligh, later commander of the Bounty, married Elizabeth Betham, whose family lived at Bemahague, Onchan.”

This photograph is indeed Government House in the Isle of Man and is published in the book ‘Governors of the Isle of Man since 1765’ by Derek Winterbottom and is captioned Bemahague in the 1880s. ( National Library of Ireland on The Commons: Photographer: Thomas H. Mason)

John showed his flowers at all the Chrysanthemum shows in Douglas and Castletown where he won prizes every time, and an example is seen in comments on the 1908 Chrysanthemum Show in Douglas, that appeared in the local newspaper: ‘Mr. J Morrison the Governor’s gardener made a big step forward in this section and by his wins must have made his Excellency a proud visitor at the Show.’

John must have been a very respected man as this would have been one of the most prestigious positions on the island to be the head Gardener for the Governor.

John is believed to have died in 1915 and buried in Onchan cemetery.

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Road Trip

In December 1966 two nineteen year olds undertook a road trip from Sydney to Adelaide, Melbourne and back to Sydney.

The recent discovery of letters and postcards written during those travels brought back back many fond memories.

Our Journey

Read about our road trip on my new page “1966 Road Trip” (see site Menu).

Norma Beryl (Bray) Morrison (1920-2005)

On this day, November 28, ninety-nine years ago my dear mother, Norma Beryl Bray, came into this world.

A young Norma

Born at Hurstville, she was the first of two children to Alfred Ernest Cornelius and Clarice Belle (Bryant) Bray. At about the age of two the young family moved to Restwell Street Bankstown when Alf qualified for a War Service home following World War 1. Bankstown was still a developing suburb at that time and Restwell Street was initially a strip of concrete pavement with no shoulders of kerb and guttering running down from the railway station.

Norma used to recall fond memories of growing up in Bankstown with her best friend Jean two doors away, her brother Doug and the school just up the hill. Recreation included the girl guides, mushroom hunting and family picnics to the Georges River or on trips on Alf’s old motor launch that he kept at Picnic Point. As a teenager Norma developed an interest in swimming when the new Bankstown Olympic pool opened in 1933. This later turned to competitive diving and she was a contender to represent in the Commonwealth Game, until an accident at home. Her father had fired buckshot at rats in the backyard and hit her in the knee. This sapped her confidence and she didn’t return to diving.

After graduating from the Domestic School she learned typing and shorthand and worked in the City. In her social life she enjoyed evening dances either locally or in the City at venues like the Trocadero. She was “stepping out” with her boyfriend Ernie “Skipper” Jordan at dances and watching him play football.

Norma was 20 years old when WW2 broke out. Ernie tried to enlist in the army with his football mate Alf Morrison, but his widowed mother was ill and needed his assistance. Later he decided to join the navy and was assigned to the HMAS Sydney. The sinking of this ship in November 1941 and loss of Ernie was devastating to Norma and she took quite a time to recover. It almost certainly influenced her decision to join the WRANS in October 1942. She was an early enlistment in this new service, number WR120, and spent the next four years as a cook at HMAS Harman at Canberra and later as a Petty Officer at HMAS Rushcutters in Sydney.

WRAN Norma Bray, WR120

After the war she teamed up with Alf Morrison who had returned to Bankstown after three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Changi and on the infamous Burma Railway. They were married on 13 July 1946 and were united for 49 years until his death in 1995 raising four children.

Norma and Alf’s Wedding, 1946

Alf was a carpenter and built the first family home at Auburn Road Yagoona. The family moved to Narooma on the NSW coast for five year before returning to Sydney where Alf built a home at Sutherland were they lived for the next ten years. During this period Norma raised her children, supplemented the family income when necessary and looked after Alf as health problems, resulting from his wartime incarceration, started to surface.

Norma and daughter – First baby born in Crown Street Women’s Hospital in 1949

As they approach retirement, the decision was made to move to Sawtell on the NSW north coast where Alf built their final family home. With the two younger children finishing school, Alf finally retired with a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) pension. This was not an easy period for Norma but she renewed her interest by becoming a Guide Leader and embracing “outside” fishing.

The couple’s final house moves were to the Central Coast where after trying to cope in their own home, they moved into the Lake Haven Masonic Village. Alf’s health condition was progressively deteriorating but they were able to undertake some overseas travels to Singapore and Thailand proving both a joy and therapeutic to both of them. Norma made several very close friends at the village and she threw herself into volunteering at Legacy for which she was later commended. Lake Haven was the venue of many family gatherings for Christmases and birthdays for her dispersed children and growing number of grandchildren.

Norma and Alf in Singapore

Alf died in 1995 at the age of 79 years and in Norma’s ten final years she enjoyed many holiday trips with her Lake Haven friends. She was dearly loved by her family and friends for her selfless approach to life.

Today the ashes of both Norma and Alf lie together with commemorative plaques at the Toukley RSL gardens. Although somewhat “out of the way”, her children often stop to say hello.

 

Cruising the Pacific

After leaving Kona we looked forward to five days at sea before reaching Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango). Five days at sea with nowhere to go and nothing to do – not really.

This cruise in the western half the Pacific Ocean starting in the northern hemisphere, at Hawaii, the most remote island group in the world, crossed the equator (and the International date line) heading generally southwest in the South Pacific to home.

With temperatures in the mid to high twenties (Celsius) it is easy to succumb to a routine of just relaxing next to one of the two pools, lying on a deck chair, catching a passing waiter for a cold Hawaiian beer in between eating, eating, Happy Hour and more eating.

But there is also a lot to do and while I do not like to subscribe to simplistic slogans, I would like to think that I could finish the cruise fitter not fatter even considering the many temptations.

Routine is always important, isn’t it? So starting the day with a visit the Fitness Centre each morning was good before deciding how best to enjoy the day. Among the available daily options chosen were: lectures by excellent speakers on a series of astronomy and relevant history/geography topics, Microsoft workshops with lessons on the various software, movies and variety shows in the large World Theatre, the string quartet plus piano at the Lincoln Center Theatre (in association with the New York Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts), and more.

We have a number of excursions ashore lined up during our stops at the various islands and we are presented with talks about each one so that we can make the most of our visits.

As I type, the string quartet is playing a series of movie classics including “Windmills of my Mind”, “The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Star Wars themes. Next I will pick up Jenny from reading her good book before repairing to the back pool for a swim, possible drink or two, maybe more reading for a while and generally relaxing.

Cruising at sea is about relaxing but that doesn’t mean doing nothing all day…

Visiting Hawaii

Our Pacific holiday started in Hawaii, visiting for the second time after some six years absence.

Waikiki and Diamond Head

There is an almost infinite number of ways to spent one’s time on the archipelago that is the Hawaiian Islands. Having briefly visited most of the major islands on our last trip, on this occasion we opted for a relaxing stay in Honolulu at Waikiki.

Arizona Memorial

Waikiki is all about tourism with its beaches, hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions. The most popular tourist attraction is Pearl Harbor with the Arizona memorial and “Mighty Mo” (the battleship Missouri).

“Mighty Mo” Missouri

The sunken Arizona is a war grave to hundreds of servicemen and naturally a hallowed site to Americans, as Gallipoli and the Western Front memorials are to Australians. Any visitor would be touched by the tragedy of the event commemorated. I had visited the Arizona previously and was equally moved on this second visit. The tour of the Missouri was the first time for me.

The battleship Missouri is the impressive vessel in itself, but also its decks witnessed the ceremony of the signing of the Japanese surrender in 1945. Our tour guide explained how despite the Japanese fears that this event would herald harsh recriminations by the United States and the Allies, General Macarthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, essentially just proclaimed an end to hostilities and a future peace.

Japanese Surrender 1945

Among those present on board in Tokyo Bay that day representing Australia was General Sir Thomas Blamey. One of the officers representing the United Kingdom had only days before been released from a Japanese prisoner of war camp and was present despite his weak and emaciated condition. The symbolism of his survival through the horrors of that captivity was particularly poignant for me because my own father had spent three and a half years in Changi and on the Burma Railway.

Back to relaxing in Waikiki. In addition to morning swims at the beach we enjoyed the hotel pool with its café and the nearby Maui Brewing Co. restaurant and bar. We sampled a number of restaurants and a delightful sunset dinner cruise complete with Mai Tais and Hawaiian entertainment. There was also the obligatory shopping, seeking shoes, beach and golfing wear.

There always seems to be something happening in Honolulu. We were told the Waikiki has many street parades and during our visit the colourful rainbow “Honolulu Pride” parade attracted large numbers of participants and spectators.

Honolulu Pride parade

After several relaxing days in Honolulu we boarded the MS Noordam for our 19 day island-hopping cruise back home to Sydney.

Day 1 – Lahaina, Maui

We opted for a submarine excursion to view the coral reef and old ship deliberately sunk off the coast. The distinctive native yellow tang and larger parrot fish were among the multitude of sea life living off the coral reef and the artificial one provided by the ship. It was an exciting experience diving to 130 feet in the purpose-built craft.

This was followed by a snack of delicious calamari and French fries washed down with some local beer and a Singapore Sling.

Then there was more swimming in one of the ship’s two pools, followed by happy hour, dinner and finally a pleasant session with a string quartet plus piano playing classic ballet numbers.

Day 2 – Kona

Like yesterday there was a shuttle service of the ship’s tenders to and from the island. Today we joined a glass-bottomed boat trip over the in-shore reef and got an even closer look at the sea life through crystal clear waters.

A short dip at the man-made beach near the pier was followed by another visit to the local lunch spot overlooking the shore where again we chose calamari with a different local beer and Pina Colada.

Another swim was enjoyed on board on our return. We set sail during “happy hour” saying goodbye to Hawaii as the clouds rolled across and the mountains behind the town and a bright rainbow rose from the shoreline appearing to wish us well on our voyage home.

Goodbye to Kona and Hawaii

After another delicious dinner we finished another enjoyable day by again listened to the string quartet this time playing their “American Songbook” highlighted by Rhapsody in Blue.