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.

Bathurst Connections

Together with millions of other Aussies I recently tuned in to watch some of the Bathurst 1000 motor race. I like many viewers am not a devotees of Supercars but still get a lot of enjoyment out of this “great race”. It is a unique event mainly because of the challenging circuit at Mount Panorama which is a public road when not used for racing. The Mount Panorama Scenic Drive on the outskirts of Bathurst was opened in 1938 and the first motor race was conducted that year.

Mount Panorama, Bathurst

Bathurst was the first inland settlement in the British colony of New South Wales, proclaimed in 1815 at the end of Cox’s Road over the Blue Mountains. It was named by Governor Macquarie after Henry Bathurst, the then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Henry was the third Earl Bathurst and hailed from Bathurst Manor in Sussex.

Until the “great race”, the city’s main claim to fame was probably the discovery of gold in the area and becoming the centre for Australia’s first gold rush from early 1851. The Bathurst 1000 has certainly brought further prosperity to the City.

Well, back to the 2019 race. This year the winner was one of our antipodean cousins, Scott McLaughlin, with fellow Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen coming second. It was again a most exciting and spectacular race with the cross-Tasman rivalry only being overshadowed by that between Holden and Ford.

The rivalry across the “ditch” between the two nations, who could be accused of being obsessed with sport, extends to almost all codes including cricket, sailing, rugby league, soccer, netball, but is usually epitomised by contests on the rugby field. The World Cup currently has the public’s attention but it is the annual Bledisloe Cup contests that continually embodies this local rivalry. The Bledisloe Cup trophy was donated in 1937 by Lord Bledisloe the Governor General of New Zealand, so that this competition started at about the same time as racing at Mount Panorama.

Bledisloe Cup on display in Sydney 2014

Lord Bledisloe, an avid rugby fan was President of the Lydney rugby club near his family home in Gloucestershire, a position he held for some 70 years until his death. He took his passion with him to New Zealand and surely would be happy with what he started.

Lydney was near the ancient hamlet of Bledisloe, which is recorded in the Domesday Book during the reign of William the Conqueror and which gave its name to his title. But the interesting connection is that Lord Bledisloe’s name was Charles Bathurst, a relative (second cousin three times removed) of the namesake of our wonderful City.

Sydney Metro Northwest OR Public Transport Pub Lunch

Does a group of retired civil engineers who have known each other for some 55 years need an excuse to meet for a pub lunch? Of course not, but having other elements of common interest for the get-together can certainly add to the enjoyment of the day.
Previous lunches have tended to be city-based and focussed on heritage aspects of our beautiful Sydney (see my blog of 18 June 2018). However, for our latest outing it was proposed that we give it more of an engineering theme with an on-site inspection of the newly completed Sydney Metro Northwest.
Coming from all over the metropolitan area as we do, a convenient rendezvous and starting point for our excursion was the Occidental Hotel in York Street near Wynyard. We have visited this establishment previously and enjoyed the atmosphere in this 1850s building. When all assembled, refreshed and our gold Opal cards in-hand we set off by train to Chatswood where we were able to merely cross the platform to board the waiting Metro train.
The train itself was like one continuous carriage with no internal doors. It sped along at 80 kph through the tunnel section of the trip and we were able to easily walk to the front of the train to check on the driver, but he/she must have been on a coffee break. There was a staff member aboard and she performed an excellent public relations role, answering all our questions and assuring us that she could take control of the train if ever required.

A Metro Station

The Elegant Skytrain

Once out of the tunnel the train could travel at up to 100kph along the elevated “skytrain” section while we enjoyed the vista of north-western Sydney all the way to the end of the line at Tallawong station.
After giving the rolling stock our tick of approval we detrained at Rouse Hill to get a closer look at the appointment of that modern station and the construction of the elevated structure as it swept away to the west above Windsor Road.

Windsor Road at Rouse Hill

A short stroll along that road brought us to the old heritage listed stone building that was the “Mean Fiddler Inn”. Dating from the 1820s and variously known as the Royal Oak Inn, the Queens Arms Inn and the White Hart Inn, it served as a popular watering hole between Parramatta and Windsor/Richmond.

The Mean Fiddler

Now known simply as The Fiddler after “cleaning up its act” (Daily Telegraph 25/10/2014) for being known as New South Wales’ most violent pub. Today it caters for the local community and is much more family friendly. We lunched and enjoyed the Irish pub atmosphere complete with Guinness pie, amidst the historic eclectic decore.
Our luncheon outing was completed by retracing our steps to the City.
We were all greatly impressed by the both engineering and operational aspects of this new public transport facility, and looking at the planned future expansion of the network it promises to be a big step towards meeting Sydney’s transport needs.

Our Darling River in a Land of “Droughts and Flooding Rains”

I do not class myself as a “greenie” (a person who campaigns for protection of the environment) but my environmental conscious was pricked when in the last two days two separate news items brought home to me the need for urgent action. I felt obliged to write this blog.

The first item was the latest Australian Story on the ABC called “Cry Me a River” about the plight of the Darling River at Menindee near Broken Hill. The current situation along our once darling river (without capitals) is a result of Government authority decision-making, emanating from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in conjunction with the current severe drought conditions.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established after the millennium drought, regarded as our worst ever drought. The Basin Plan 2012 was prepared under the Water Act 2007 by the Authority. The following is an excerpt from the Plan:

“5.02      Objectives and outcome for Basin Plan as a whole

(1)       The objectives for the Basin Plan …

(2)       The outcome for the Basin Plan as a whole is a healthy and working Murray‑Darling Basin that includes:

(a)       communities with sufficient and reliable water supplies that are fit for a range of intended purposes, including domestic, recreational and cultural use; and

(b)      productive and resilient water-dependent industries, and communities with confidence in their long‑term future; and

(c)       healthy and resilient ecosystems with rivers and creeks regularly connected to their floodplains and, ultimately, the ocean.”

On 24 December 2018, WaterNSW noted on their website that:

“A Red Alert level warning (high alert) for blue-green algae has been issued for the Darling River at Louth and Trevallyn, located in the Far West region.

Both sites are located upstream of the Menindee Lake system where multiple Red Alerts are already in place.”

As we know, the situation resulted in three major fish kills that occurred in the Darling River near Menindee in December 2018 and January 2019. The resultants Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling river system has found that river allocations were driven by politics, and called for a complete overhaul of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It argued that a scientific approach must be taken in determining how much water should be returned to the environment. (new.com.au on 1 Feb 2019)

As the champion of the Australian Story, a young Kate McBride indicated that all the decisions and actions were apparently quite legal but asked the question of whether they were moral. Irrespective there was undoubtedly a failure here in regard to the “outcome[s] for the Basin Plan” and it is only hoped that as a community and nation we can do something about this matter.

The Darling River is of special significance for me because my great-grandfather, Henry Harrison Briscoe lived and worked around Wilcannia from the 1870s. Later with his family he spent several years at other places along its banks like Louth and Bourke. Paddle steamers used had the Darling for river trade (except in drought times) until about 1880 when more reliable roads and railways were established. The river played a significant role in opening up the outback.

During a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales a painting by William Charles Piguenit caught my eye. Painted in 1895 it is called The flood in the Darling 1890, depicting when the town of Bourke was submerged by floodwaters. I understand that despite the current drought there will more than likely be other floods on the Darling, but the difference between the scene in this painting and the present reality was striking.
“The flood in the Darling 1890” by W C Piguenit (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

The Darling will never again be as navigable as it was in those early days, but it still has important social, economic and environmental contributions to make, and on which many rely. I hope we can learn to love our darling river again.

The second item was the United Nations report on the decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, but maybe more about that later…

Thoughts on ANZAC DAY 2019

Today it is 104 years since that fateful day when the youth of Australia and New Zealand, as part of the British force, stormed the beaches of Gallipoli. April 25 is the one day of the year when we stop to commemorate them and all the men and women who served in defending our way of life.

World War 1 ended 101 years ago, with WW2 ending 74 years ago, the Korean War 66 years ago and our “boys” returned from Vietnam in 1975 some 44 years ago. The history of our world, however, is not one of peace among peoples but of conflict and since 1990 Australian forces have been involved in various Middle East conflicts, not to forget a number of peace keeping operations.

Unlike many other countries Australia is not a militaristic nation, and this was the theme of the address of a very eloquent young man at the local Dawn Service that I attended this morning. He stressed how our service men and women were defending our way of life and how as individuals we all have a responsibility to uphold the standards that have, and are continuing to be fought for. He suggested that by emphasising and practicing a sense of community (is that “mateship”) and inclusiveness it would help counteract those who wish to spread division and hate in our society. If this young fellow’s views are typical of the coming generation we will be in safe hands.

Like most of my baby boomer era many of my family and extended family have served Australia. A few of those family members who I particularly wish to remember are:

Alfred Edward Henry Harrison BRISCOE, who served at Gallipoli contracting malaria after which he was evacuated to Cairo, where he now rests in the War Memorial Cemetery.

Alfred Ernest Cornelius BRAY, who as an 18 year old volunteered in 1915 serving on the Western Front where he was wounded and gassed. He again volunteered in in 1941 serving in a training capacity.

Alfred Ernest MORRISON who as a member of the 8th Division was captured following the fall of Singapore in February 1942 spending three and a half years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma railway.

Norma Beryl BRAY, who joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in 1942 serving at HMAS Harman and HMAS Rushcutter.

Clyde John Thomas BRUCE, who served in 4 Squadron defending Australia from the Japanese advance in New Guinea.

Violet Joyce TROTT, who was a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a vital support role.

The military service of others in my extended family is commemorated at http://morrisons.id.au/ui49.htm

Joseph Banks and Bankstown

It has come to my attention that on this day in, 13 February in 1743, Joseph Banks was born at Westminster, England. he subsequently rose to become a baronet and a very important and influential man.

In Australia he is remembered for accompanying James Cook on his wonderful voyage of discovery, when as a naturalist he presented to Europe and the world many samples and drawings of the varied flora and fauna of Terra Australis. He grew up at Revesby Abbey in the Lincolnshire village of Revesby and along with Banks on Cook’s expedition was an artist, Peter Briscoe, also from Revesby. I wonder whether Peter might be related to my Briscoe family. Among the specimens that Banks took home were examples of the species that now bears his name, the Banksia.

Banks also gave his name to many locations throughout Australia, New Zealand and indeed the Pacific area. In the greater Sydney area my own home town of Bankstown is named for him and his statue proudly stands in the City centre.

Sir Joseph Banks at Bankstown

A few kilometres to the south of Bansktown is the suburb of Revesby which commemorates Banks’s home town.

As time passes and things change across the years, I find it humbling to stop and contemplate the origins and history of where we live…

Jervis Bay

Australia is a big country with much to see and learn about.

Point Perpendicular and Jervis Bay (Courtesy of Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, 2003)

Jervis Bay is one of our favourite holiday destinations being just over two hour’s drive south of home in Sydney. The bay itself part of the larger Jervis Bay Marine Park and bordered by the Jervis Bay and Booderee National Parks with their white sandy beaches and clear waters. Accordingly there are many ways for visitors to enjoy the area swimming and boating plus remarkable snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities, and whale and dolphin watching.

Honeymoon Bay (on Jervis Bay)

The local Council has prepared the Jervis Bay Settlement Strategy in collaboration with the other NSW Government to preserve the character and values of the Jervis Bay Region by setting out a framework for managing settlement and growth into the future.

The bay is over 100 square kilometres in area opening to the Tasman Sea between Bowen Island to the south and Point Perpendicular to the north.

The bay was sighted by Captain Cook in 1770 (on about Saint George’s Day) and he named the southern headland Cape St George and the northern headland ‘Long Nose’ (near Point Perpendicular). It wasn’t until August 1791 that the bay was explored by Lieutenant Richard Bowen aboard the convict transport ship Atlantic of the Third Fleet. He named it Jervis Bay and several years later George Bass named the island off Cape St George, Bowen Island.

A young Captain John Jervis by Francis Cotes courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (London)

In thinking about places in Australia and their history it occurred to me that I had not long ago come across Cape Jervis in South Australia near Kangaroo Island (See post of 7 December 2018). Was that cape named for the same Jervis as the bay, and if so who was he?

It turned out that it was the same John Jervis whose name was given to both locations. Who was he?

John Jervis was a career sailor in the British Royal Navy who started as an able seaman in 1749 and after many years of service around the world was, on 1 June 1795, promoted to admiral. In 1797 he was part of Horatio Nelson’s force that defeated the Spanish Cartagena fleet in the battle of Cape St Vincent and following that victory he was created Baron Jervis of Meaford and Earl of St. Vincent. In 1801 he succeeded Earl Spencer as first lord of the Admiralty. It was in honour of his Admiralty position that inspired both Matthew Flinders (in South Australia) and Richard Bowen to name these locations after him.

Point Perpendicular Lighthouse

Getting back to the present day, we recently took a two hour cruise from Huskisson showing off the charms of the bay including the secluded beaches and diving spots.

We were in awe of the 75m high cliffs at Point Perpendicular atop of which sits the historic lighthouse marking and the northern entrance to the bay. The lighthouse was active from 1889 to 1993 and replaced the earlier Cape St George Lighthouse.

From this site there is the view of most of Jervis Bay, the villages around its shoreline, Bowen Island and the Tasman Sea.

(John Jervis: https://morethannelson.com/officer/john-jervis-1st-earl-of-st-vincent/ )