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.

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…

Kangaroo Island, Flinders and Baudin

Kangaroo Island was never on the top of our list of places we must visit, but when we were able to accompany good friends on their four day excursion we jumped at the chance and were glad we did. It followed on from our Murray River cruise and, of course, was only a short hop from Adelaide where that trip finished. I had some expectations of what we would find on the island in terms of scenery, wildlife and probably its isolation but were surprised at how it would be so historically significant.

At Penneshaw

Our home for the visit was at Penneshaw with a wonderful view across the 13.5 km Backstairs Passage to where the ferry departed at Cape Jervis near the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Day trips in our hired SUV took us to many of the most scenic and interesting spots on the island. We drove as far as Flinders Chase at the south western extremity to see the impressive Admiral’s Arch where we enjoyed the sight of a dozen young seals playing in the sheltered little cove below. On a nearby headland were the Remarkable Rocks which we imagined could have easily been the inspiration for modern sculptors.

Admiral’s Arch

Remarkable Rocks

The wildlife park was surprisingly well presented with a large variety of animals and birds and we were fortunate enough to be there when a delivery of more than a dozen wallabies arrived from a closing Hunter Valley park. After a quick overnight dash to minimise their distress, each animal was released from its hessian sack that, we were told, produced a pouch-like calming environment during their trip, before they bounded free into its new large grassy enclosure. Among the other highlights was a local gin distillery and tasting of honey ice cream produced with the nectar of the Italian Ligurian bees, now only found on our island and of course some souvenir shopping when we visited the island’s largest town of Kingscote.

Our accommodation at the small township of Penneshaw provided us with a tranquil setting only disrupted by the arrival of tourist buses on overnight tours. With several restaurants and a very friendly pub, all our simple needs for a quiet few days of unwinding were nicely met. It was helped by the fact that September is still “out of season” and the water temperatures of the Great Australian Bight (and Southern Ocean) did not encourage swimming.

Monument at Frenchman’s Rock

We enjoyed strolling around Penneshaw and along the Hog Bay beach to the Frenchman’s Rock and the monument that commemorates the bi-centenary of Nicholas Baudin’s visit. This was the start of an understanding of the historic part the French had played in this part of the world. In our travels we came across a myriad of French place names, starting with the Fleurieu Peninsula on the mainland to points on the island including Cape Bouda, Cap du Couedic, Baudin Beach and Vivonne Bay to name a few.

After a relaxing four days on our ferry back to Cape Jervis we met two ladies (one with a place on the island), whom we assumed were academics, and who in our discussions advised us to read “Encountering Terra Australis” (The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders) by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath, John West-Sooby, as a way of learning more about the history of the region and the significance of Kangaroo Island.

I took up the challenge almost immediately on my return home and was very pleased to learn more about these two remarkable men and the part they played in our history. The book looks at the available historic documents, ship logs and reports to the respective Governments to give us a picture of their respective expeditions with the trials and tribulations, their discoveries and achievements and how history recorded them, often inappropriately.

The two men were different personalities but also had much in common. Their expeditions were very similar being primarily scientific with the French in particular including a large contingent of naturalists. They also had a goal to improve the map of this southern land and learn more about its people.

The expeditions took place during Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign, and despite the period of the Peace of Amiens (1801-3), England and France were really still at war so there were definite political and national undertones. Each had to obtain a passport from the opposing country to ensure the safe passage of their expedition.

Nicholas Baudin sailed from France in October 1800 in his ship the Geographe and accompanied by the Naturaliste. It was not a happy company because of the contrary behaviour of some of the many scientists, putting a lot of additional strain on Baudin. Following episodes that delayed the voyage Baudin reached the French island of Mauritius in March 1801 and eventually sighted Terra Australis on 27 May 1801.

Matthew Flinders left nine months later in July 1801 in the Investigator and had a smoother and more uneventful passage, especially across the Indian Ocean and reached Cape Leeuwin on 7 December 1801.

Baudin first proceeded to explore the coastline of Van Diemen’s Land, while Flinders set about mapping of the southern coast of the Australian continent. In April 1802, the two expeditions and their leaders had a very respectful meeting at Encounter Bay near present day Victor Harbour on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Flinders, who reached and named Kangaroo Island on his way eastward, advised Baudin of its safe anchorage and the possibility of replenishing supplies of meat from the numerous kangaroos he saw. Baudin was to become the first to circumnavigate and chart Kangaroo Island, whereas Flinders was later to be the first to circumnavigate the whole of Australia, and verify that New Holland and New South Wales were one continent and not two as was widely believed.

Flinders then sailed for Port Jackson arriving in May 1802 and noticed the remarkable advancements that had occurred since his first visit in 1795. After leaving Kangaroo Island Baudin called into Port Jackson in order to reprovision and carry out repairs to his ships. He spent some months there and developed a friendship with Governor King.

Finally after visiting King Island, northern Australia and Timor, Baudin set sail for home. He arrived in Mauritius on 12 August 1803 in a poor state of health and within weeks he was dead. The unhappy nature of those on his ships resulting in him not getting the credit the deserved from the successes on the expedition and his place in history has, probably until recently, been undervalued.

Flinders’ circumnavigation of the continent was completed in what was by then a “leaky, barely seaworthy vessel.” He finally left Port Jackson in September 1803 and reached Mauritius on his way back to England. Unfortunately the Amiens Peace had expired and because of technicalities over his passport together with his own obstinacy he was detained by the island’s governor for six and a half years. By the time he reached home his discoveries and successes were old news.

Nicholas Baudin

Matthew Finders

As indicated in the book, there was a lack of justified recognition of both explorers’ accomplishments by their respective homelands. History however has been somewhat kinder to Flinders in that the emerging nation of Australia and its people have celebrated and honoured his achievements.

Their contributions were similar and complementary in terms of the advancement of the world’s knowledge of our great southern land.

 

The Mighty Murray River

Proud Mary River Cruise

Together with friends, we recently had the pleasure of a five day cruise on the Murray River from Murray Bridge about an hour south-east of Adelaide, upstream visiting the historic towns of Mannum and Swan Reach and as far as the first of fifteen locks at Blanchetown, and then back again.

Map courtesy of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA)

Murray River in South Australia

 

Like many Australians, I have had a passing acquaintance with the Murray River over the years. I have crossed it numerous times at Albury/Wodonga on the Hume Highway driving between Sydney and Melbourne. I have visited Renmark and Mildura, and historic Echuca enjoying a short trip on a paddle steamer. I have played golf at several of the fine courses along its banks including Corowa, Cobram-Barooga, Yarrawonga and Tocumwal. I have attended a conference at Wentworth at the confluence with the Darling River discussing ways to mitigate the infrequent but inevitable floods that occur in this catchment. However, in these few days in South Australia we learned much more about the river giving a greater understanding behind its Mighty Murray title.

The Murray rises in the Australian Alps just south of Mount Kosciusko and after a journey of over 2,500 kilometres through New South Wales and Victoria meets the ocean at Goolwa on Lake Alexandrina in South Australia. Together with the Darling-Barwon and Murrumbidgee Rivers together with their many tributaries, the total catchment covers more than 1 million square kilometres and makes up about 14% of the Australian continent. In this catchment, the flood of record at Wentworth was in 1870 when flows in both the Murray and Darling Rivers combined to inundate the countryside.

Aboriginal Rock Carvings at Ngaut Ngaut

That history of the Murray River is very Aussie. The Murray has supported life for aborigines through the millennia and ancient rock carvings can still be seem at places like the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve at Nildottie. As a major transport corridor in the 19th century it helped to develop inland Australia. In its heyday more than 200 paddle steamers are said to have carried supplies and produce between the various settlements along its banks.

The township of Mannum that we visited was one of the major ports. It now has an extensive museum telling the story of its early history and pioneers such as the Randell family whose members held some of the first leases in the 1850s, operated the first paddle steamer, the “Mary Ann”, in South Australia in 1853 and raised the first building in Mannum in 1864.

Historic Plaque, Mannum

Among others were the Shearer brothers with their agricultural manufacturing business contributed greatly to the area’s prosperity throughout the latter part of the century. Here we also learnt of the historic 1956 flood that affected much of the town and how rowboats pulled up at the first floor balcony of the pub to get a beer from the higher bar the publican had quickly set up.

The main traffic these days consists of river cruise boats giving tourists a glimpse of the wide variety of birdlife, the ancient river red gums that thrive with their toes in the water ,and which have some of the most beautiful red timber often used for furniture and decorative works.

In the lower South Australian reaches that we travelled the river has cut its broad path, over millions of years, through the soft red sandstone countryside to form kilometre after kilometre of sheer cliffs that are alternatively on either the right or left side as it meanders across its flood plain. At Big Bend the cliffs are more than 30 metres high and quite majestic in the sunlight as the boat sweeps around the curving river.A feature of the area has been the use of the local sandstone for the construction of houses and civic buildings and which gives

Sandstone Building (Swan Reach)

 

Sandstone Building (Mannum)

The Murray is not a roaring torrent but a wide slow moving laid-back flow falling only about two centimetres every kilometre. On our visit we had the opportunity to learn more about it and its history as well as enjoying the serenity of this very Australian river.

Sweeping Sandstone Cliff at Big Bend