A Year with Bluestone: An Emotional History

BluestoneEmotions are everywhere. We most commonly think of them as governing inter-personal relationships; or, as much CHE research is showing, as driving political and historical change.  But as many contemporary thinkers are realising, the “human” is not the only category to think with.

Aligned with work in the environmental humanities and eco-materialism, one of my research projects for CHE is a cultural and affective, or emotional history of human relationships with stone. But it is also very much a local history, as the particular stone I am concerned with is the volcanic basalt — commonly called bluestone — that spreads over much of the state of Victoria, and that has become such a distinctive feature of the built environment, both in rural Victoria and the city and suburbs of Melbourne.

As a volcanic stone, basalt has undergone violent transformation from molten lava to the solid round boulders that spread from south-western Victoria to the western and northern suburbs of Melbourne. These boulders are typically held together by sticky black clay (even this Merri Creek mud is famous, used as the basis for the cricket pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1859). The basalt plains of Victoria are the third largest in the world. In the built environment, bluestone is characteristically cut into long rectangular blocks or square pitchers. It is a hard and unyielding stone that resists carving into decorative or figurative features. Yet even in its most common appearance as a building block, bluestone has some very evocative and emotional associations that are crucial to Victorian history, and local understandings of, and feelings about heritage culture. Bluestone “frames” Melbourne, in the foundations of many buildings, the basis for many iron railings and fences, the laneways that are such a distinguishing feature both of its central business district and its suburbs, and in the kerbs and trims of so many of its roads, to say nothing of its use in some of its most distinctive buildings and landmarks: Pentridge Prison, St Patrick’s Cathedral and other churches, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Grammar School. Regional Victoria also boasts significant numbers of bluestone gaols, churches and other buildings.

The book I am writing will constitute an emotional history of the way people have worked with this natural phenomenon, shaping their world with it, and reflecting on its characteristic features and affects.

Many of the earliest bluestone buildings in Victoria, for example, were built from bluestone quarried by convict labour. The irony of prisoners cutting bluestone blocks to form the walls of their own prisons is inescapable. Made of this very dark stone, bluestone prison walls seem particularly forbidding, though as a former prison guard at Pentridge explained to me, the stones of the prison cells were so large, and fitted so neatly, it was relatively easy to pull the stones out and escape.

The architecture of the original Pentridge site is a curious mixture. Its imposing front entrance with its crenellations and circular towers invokes a medieval fortress, while inside it is modelled on Jeremy Bentham’s ‘modern’ panopticon: archaeologists have recently uncovered the bluestone foundations of the old exercise yards: high walled wedges of a circle with a surveillance tower at the centre. One guard could see all the prisoners, but none of them could see each other.

The front gate of the famous Pentrage Prison.

The front gate of the famous Pentridge Prison.


After Pentridge was closed in 1997, much of the vast site in Coburg was sold to private developers to build housing stock. One developer consciously modelled his estate — Pentridge Piazza — on Italian walled towns, preserving many of the bluestone walls as features. As one resident explained, living at Pentridge is “like being someone special.” House prices increase, the closer they are to the original walls. In the context of the housing market, any gloomy penal associations have been displaced by the cultural capital of heritage and tradition.

In other contexts, however, like modern heritage tourism, bluestone prisons like the old Melbourne gaol in Russell St actively capitalize on the haunted gothic associations of convicts, prison labour and executions. The famous Victorian bushranger Ned Kelly plays an important role here. Kelly spent time at Pentridge and the Melbourne gaol, where he was executed. He also spent time on the prison ship Sacramento, anchored in the port of Williamstown, the site of another bluestone quarry. Tourist guides at Williamstown claim that Kelly would have broken many of the bluestones used on the foreshore and in other buildings there. Of the millions of bluestones used in Victorian buildings, laneways and streets, it is irresistible to think of just a few of them bearing an individual touch. In the same way, I am regularly told the story of how certain bluestones, carved with prisoners’ initials, were taken from the old Melbourne gaol in 1930 as part of a project of building a sea wall at Brighton beach, as a depression-era work project. One of these stones is said to bear Kelly’s initials, too, though it is no longer visible.

Bluestone is often associated with the gothic, with penal culture, or the haunted past. But it is also linked to the prosperity of the state of Victoria in the gold rush and the flourishing of Melbourne in the second half of the nineteenth century. More recently it has become a sign of heritage culture and the symbolic value of the past. Bluestones carry a strong affective charge, and have the capacity to tell an intriguing story about a city’s sense of itself. They are regularly recycled and used in modern gardens and other projects, like the labyrinth made of bluestone according to an ancient design, made by local residents along the Merri Creek in Collingwood, and now become a site both for meditation and all-night parties.

A bluestone maze frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.

A bluestone labyrinth frequented by walkers of the Merri Creek trail.

What can this particular stone tell us, then, about our relationship with our own environment, and our own history?
Over the course of this year, I am blogging my research into the affective history of bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria at http://stephanietrigg.blogspot.com.au/. Everyday I post a picture, or discuss an image or a reference to bluestone. CHE readers are warmly invited to follow this blog and send images and stories of bluestone by email to Stephanie Trigg or on Facebook or Twitter @stephanietrigg using #BluestoneCHE.

Emotion and Reason at the MLA

Jennifer Clement

Blog post Author and CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

I was in Vancouver to attend the recent Modern Language Association convention earlier this month, where I was lucky enough to pick up a two-volume paperback copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in Vancouver. Turning to the first page I find this sentence:

“In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility.”

That’s a quintessentially Calvinist way of thinking. For Calvin, humans are indeed worthless and miserable, but through fear they can move closer to God and recognize their need for grace. Calvin gives us a very dynamic understanding of the passions, in fact, because his Christian is always moving between fear and love, misery and hope, pride and repentance. So although the word “emotion” doesn’t come into general use until the end of the seventeenth century, there’s a sense in which it’s important for understanding early modern Calvinism, which is very much about the movement – the motions – of passions or affections (the two words Calvin himself, and his contemporaries, would have used).

At the MLA itself, a couple of days later, I attended one of the best panels there, on Shakespeare and religion. The best paper in the panel was Brian Cummings’, tracing the persistence of secularist assumptions in early modern literary studies. But most relevant to my aims here, he noted that, in modern scholarship, there is often a tendency to avoid thinking of Calvinism as a passionate faith, or Calvin as a writer who engages the emotions. And yet, Cummings said with truth, you can’t read more than a few lines of Calvin without running into the passions.

I was particularly excited to hear Cumming’s views because the panel I proposed and chaired for MLA, on early seventeenth-century English sermons and emotions, was designed precisely to focus on the central role played by the passions or affections in English mainstream Protestantism, which is certainly Calvinist even if not as reformed as most Continental churches (Philip Benedict’s book on Calvinism is a good source for understanding this history). It’s interesting to think about the roles of emotion and reason in these sermons because they usually work together, rather than being opposed as is often assumed. There are exceptions, of course – from the more Arminian or Laudian end, Launcelot Andrewes writes intense, highly allusive and intellectual sermons that don’t exactly prioritize emotion, although they also don’t avoid it altogether. And at the more Puritan end, the influence of Ramist techniques of sermon-writing can result in very dry, incredibly chopped-up and subdivided sermons that look appallingly dull as laid out on the page, even before one starts to read them.

But speaking generally, what we might call the average, mainstream clergyman of the early seventeenth century is going to care most about moving his congregation rhetorically, to help them towards salvation. It’s a longstanding truism that, to persuade effectively, you must move your audience’s emotions, and early modern sermons are, above all, rhetorical documents. We three panelists drew attention to various aspects of rhetorical performance in early modern sermons, aspects that clearly invoke emotions in varying ways.

My co-panelist Daniel Derrin focused on the role of humor in this process, a dicey topic because as I’ve written above, most Protestants tend to focus on the soul’s need for fear, sadness, and repentance. Collapsing the distinction between the humorous and the not-serious, Daniel argued that, in fact, humor in sermons could be very useful and, indeed, crucial for serious attempts at rhetorical persuasion. Daniel instanced the mockery directed at the Pope in early modern sermons, as well as towards ineffectual and boring sermonizing. And he made the audience laugh, which is always good! My other co-panelist, Emily King, took a more affect-theory inflected approach, arguing that affect contagion – a concept taken from current work in neuroscience – can help us understand what John Donne achieves in his famous sermon “Death’s Duel.” The gruesome images of corruption Donne includes in this sermon, Emily suggested, are part of an attempt to make his congregation feel fear and anguish, and to demonstrate these emotions through their tears.

My own paper focused very tightly on a conventional term repeatedly used by most clergymen in the seventeenth century as an address to the congregation, “beloved,” and asked what that term could tell us about the preacher’s own role in relation to his congregation. I argued that, by studying the uses of this term and its variations – “my beloved”, “dearly beloved”, and the like – we can recognize how much love, in early modern sermons, is most usefully understood as a kind of institutional emotion, rather than a personal one; and also that these sermons depict feeling in general as something that can be shaped and directed, and not simply as a force to which humans are helplessly subject. Put differently, sermons often accentuate a sense of agency in relation to emotion.

All of these topics would bear much further discussion; sadly there’s not room for it all, but in due course all our papers will probably see print. My point here is that all of us were interested in thinking about rhetoric as a technique for drawing emotion and reason together, and thinking about the possibilities and problems inherent in that technique. The seventeenth century church, in sermons, brings emotion and reason together through the sermon, in a way that – in spite of obvious differences – seems to me analogous to academic events like the MLA, because the MLA convention itself is an emotional space, an emotional event, as much as it is an intellectual one. This was my third MLA, and the first one where I wasn’t interviewing for a job. Because of the physical layout of the convention centre, in fact, a lot of the job interviewing took place in areas where I wasn’t going, so I was less conscious of the tense anxiety that always accompanies that part of the convention.

Which is not to say it wasn’t there. My husband, who also has a PhD, and who worked for years on short term contracts – he now works as support staff at another university and does research in his own time – turned his ID tag round and wrote on the back, in caps, “ADJUNCT WHO QUIT.” This drew a lot of attention, as you might imagine, some of it quite guilt-ridden, some of it approvingly amused. They were emotional responses, in other words, although that isn’t to say they weren’t rational responses as well. It seems to me important to remember that occasions like MLA bring together intense intellectual effort and equally intense emotional reactions. These conventions and conferences are occasions when we can think about the emotions involved in our intellectual work and careers, and what the conjunction of emotion and reason means when yoked together in a time of increased professionalism and pressures to produce more, faster, with fewer (if any) resources.

By CHE Associate Investigator Jennifer Clement

Good Fortune: 50 years of the New Fortune Theatre

On September 19 to 21 Bob White (CI) and Penelope Woods (Research Associate, UWA) attended the  spectacular opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski) in the Old Town of Gdańsk in Poland. On behalf of the Centre for the History of Emotions and UWA’s New Fortune Theatre, they made a presentation on the historic occasion to Professor Jerzy Limon, the distinguished Shakespeare scholar who more or less single-handedly raised the money to build the theatre. The opening was hailed by the European press as ‘one of the most important events since Poland gained its freedom 25 years ago’.

Reconstruction of the theatre based on the builder’s contract, drawn by W. H. Godfrey in 1907. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The spectacular building, costing some £18 million to construct, contains within it a recreation of the Elizabethan playhouse, the Fortune Theatre (1600), which is the prototype for UWA’s faithful reconstruction, the New Fortune Theatre, itself celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2014.

The Gdańsk theatre is built on or near the site of the seventeenth century Fencing School, an unroofed, galleried building used for fencing classes, bear baiting, and by visiting English actors in Shakespeare’s time. Dark Belgian brick on the windowless outer walls gives intimidating bulk against the skyline, while the interior is pale cream and light, constructed from Bulgarian marble and Polish birch. An engineering and architectural marvel, the theatre can be transfigured in many different ways, and there is a spectacular 90-tonne retractable roof that opens in three minutes to allow for daylight performances in good weather. The building was three-quarters funded largely by the European community, topped up by corporate sponsors and local authorities.

The opening attracted about 3,000 spectators outside, who watched an astonishing sound and light display around the ramparts and roof, while inside royalty and corporate magnates were regaled with speeches.

On the day following the opening there was a performance of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre, the 43rd stop on the ‘Globe to Globe’ tour of the play to every country in the world. The company will reach Australia in June 2015. On the following night, Bob attended the acclaimed one-man performance by Tim Crouch in ‘I Malvolio’.

Bob White and Penelope Woods

Bob White and Penelope Woods at the opening of the Gdański Teatr, showing pictures of the New Fortune Theatre at UWA.

Later in the month, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre hosted the city’s 18th Shakespeare Festival, which has so far staged more than 200 different subtitled productions from 40-plus countries. Both the Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski and the Globe are part of the important European Shakespeare Festivals Network, which includes other reconstructed theatres and also ‘Hamlet’s Castle’ in Elsinore, Denmark.

Our Australian New Fortune Theatre is internationally hailed and coveted by theatre historians as one of the earliest and most important of such reconstructions. Built from the dimensions given in the Fortune Playhouse contract of 1600, the New Fortune Theatre at UWA offers an accuracy of dimension and layout that the reconstructions of the Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, VA or the Globe Theatre in London cannot, since the contracts for these buildings did not survive. With the erosion over some years of the drama and theatre studies staffing at the University of Western Australia, and the current trend for the monetization of University spaces, this asset is currently underutilized and undervalued.

CHE, together with the Graduate Drama Society (GRADS) and the Faculty of Arts at UWA, however, have been working hard to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the New Fortune (and Shakespeare’s 450th birthday) and to raise its profile at UWA and Australia. We organized an historic collaboratory in 2011, ‘Performing Old Emotions on the New Fortune Stage’, which involved the world’s most important theatre historians who had themselves been involved in reconstructions, material and digital. This was followed in 2012 by the international conference, Shakespeare and Emotions’, as a collaboration between CHE and the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association and the arrival of the internationally acclaimed Two Gents Production Company from London via Harare (or vice versa) in February 2013 to perform The Two Gentleman of Verona  and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet. These performances were accompanied by a special re-performance by Perth’s celebrated Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company of the five sonnets they translated in Noongar and performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012.

On 29 January 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the very first performance in 1964 of Hamlet, an official ceremony celebrated the occasion, and was followed by a full season of Hamlet by GRADS. Pen and Bob, with Steve Chinna, taught an honours course in first semester on “Fortune Theatres Old and New” in which Merridee Bailey (Adelaide) participated as a distinguished visitor. Pen raised funds through the UWA Arts Faculty, Cultural Precinct and CHE to build a ‘tiring house’ on the stage which has since been used for various theatre research experiments, and Steve has recently directed a spectacular ‘chopped’ version of Titus Andronicus.

On 14 November the celebrated director Aarne Neeme delivered the Second New Fortune Lecture-Performance (the Inaugural one was given by John Bell). His title, ‘Fortune Tellers: Shakespeare and Dorothy Hewett’ recalls his own productions over thirty years, and valorizes Hewett, a former member of staff in English at UWA, whose plays are powerful, spectacular and unjustly neglected.  Enjoy a video recording of the 50th Anniversary lecture/performance here.

In these and other ways, we are trying to persuade the University that the New Fortune is as historically significant and worthy of investment as ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ and ‘Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski’. It is not only a priceless heritage site, ideal for diverse community involvement, but also remarkable in its unused potential as a thriving theatre space for Elizabethan and contemporary, experimental, Australian, and Asian drama; as well as being ideal for teaching and researching the theatrical dynamics and emotions of early drama on a faithfully reconstructed stage.

by Chief Investigator Bob White.

(Ab)Using Brian Massumi

This post is a revised version of a short paper from the ‘Emotions Work in the Historical Past’ workshop, University of Melbourne, November 13, 2014.

Posted by Grace Moore


On Thursday September 13, 2001 Diana Pharoah Francis of the University of Montana Western posted a message to the Victoria list server, in which she said:


As I’m going to teach my Victorian class today, I plan to talk about the Indian Mutiny. I have been struck by the US response (personal rather than national) to the attack. In particular, as I try to make some sense of it for myself, I was thinking about how the British must have reacted to the news of the mutiny. I have been a member of the postcolonial listserv, and a number of people there have pointed out that the US foreign policy is largely responsible, and how did we expect them to react? It gets at the complexity of the issue, even as I can hardly bear to hear it.*


Francis, like many working in the humanities, turned to her work as a means of making sense of what had happened in the United States just two days before, and also possibly out of a need to make it meaningful in a time of crisis. Her posting led to a sequence of responses in which a number of Victorian scholars—some of them highly distinguished—played out their responses to 9/11, sometimes in a highly emotional manner. One contributor followed a tirade with the words, ‘I will no doubt apologize for this outburst in a week or so…’, unable to stop himself, all the same.


I recall, at the time, feeling a great sense of pathos, peppered with despair, when reading some of these messages. On the one hand it seemed as though the scholarly rigour of the list had been compromised or contaminated through attempts to tease out transhistorical parallels, while on the other I experienced deep discomfort in watching list members deal with their shock and grief in this semi-public manner. More than a decade on, these messages have stayed with me in a way that the—sometimes hundreds of—other posts I receive from the list-server each week have not. And over the last couple of years, that issue of the transhistorical parallel has become a type of intellectual sticking point for me, as I’ve leaned on Brian Massumi’s work on the ontology of threat to explore literary—and sometimes literary-historical responses to bushfires.


To date I’ve used Massumi for two projects. The first is a co-authored piece on John Kinsella’s 2013 poem ‘Bushfire Approaching’, a work that uses fire in the Western Australian wheatbelt as a means of exploring broader issues of climate change and extinction. The second is an exploration of emotional responses to arson in Anthony Trollope’s 1872 novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil and a handful of short stories about arson from the nineteenth-century Australia periodical press.


Massumi’s essay, ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’, has been incredibly useful for both pieces because of its exploration of trauma and what he calls the ‘anticipated threat’. The annual seasonal menace of the bushfire makes Massumi’s work on the fear of future catastrophe a near perfect fit for the work I’ve been engaged in, with its heavily traumatized characters and cyclical disasters. He writes:


Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, it is still not over. There is always the nagging potential of the next after being even worse, and of a still worse next again after that (53).


Taken in isolation, this analysis seems to lend itself perfectly to a reading of JS Borlase’s bleak little story, ‘Twelve Miles Broad’ in which an act of arson leads to a dramatic suicide, causing the survivors to abandon their home because they can no longer live either with the memories that it evokes or with their deep fear of future bushfires. Massumi writes beautifully of what he calls the ‘smoke of future fires’, reading the fire alarm through the semiotician Charles Peirce as an ‘index’ which ‘acts upon the nerves of the person and force(s) his attention’ (64). For the survivor of a fire who returns to the site of the home, there are usually two possible responses. One is what the fire historian Tom Griffiths has identified as a type of willed amnesia, in which the memory of the fire is contained by casting it as a freak event, something unnatural that can never happen again. The other is to live in what Massumi identifies as a state of heightened arousal, endlessly fearing the next disaster, interpreting the merest whiff of smoke as a signifier of impending catastrophe.


My major stumbling block is that Massumi is not, of course, writing about bushfires in the late nineteenth century, nor is he concerned with the West Australian wheatbelt. Rather, his work is engaged very specifically with the climate of paranoia, uncertainty and terror which followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. His theories of anticipated disaster were formulated in response to the visceral fears of New Yorkers in the days and months that followed that terrible September day. A world in which white powder signified anthrax and in which when a plane crashed in New York City two months later, a witness was quoted as saying, “I heard the explosion and I looked out the window and saw the flames and the smoke and I just thought, ‘Oh no, not again’.”


Massumi, then, is and is not a perfect fit for my research and, while I continue to use him, I’m troubled by a sense of scholarly irresponsibility in using work that is so politically, historically and geographically specific to unpack responses to very different forms of fire. The question which began at the back of my mind, and which is pushing itself increasingly to the forefront is, ‘Does trauma “translate”?’, or can there be such a thing as a transhistorical emotion?


Ann Kaplan’s Trauma Culture a 2005 work that she describes as a ‘belated’ response to 9/11 offers me some legitimacy here and it is to Kaplan that I am indebted for the idea of emotional ‘translation’. Kaplan herself is a New Yorker and writes very movingly and personally about her traumatized reactions to the two smoking towers. Kaplan is mostly concerned with what she calls ‘quiet trauma’ (or the very personal), but she argues compellingly that disaster can cause history, memory, time and space to collapse into one another. To support this idea, she analyzes how the terror attacks caused flashbacks to her childhood in the London of the Blitz, bringing long-buried fears to the surface one more, combining with her more immediate trauma and leading to a dread of what the future might hold. Kaplan is not alone here, and New York Holocaust survivors have also spoken of being plunged back into memories of traumas past, while at the same time living with what Massumi terms the ‘ontology of threat’—a threat that is both real, but also manufactured and manipulated by politicians and the media (and I’ve written elsewhere on John Howard’s rather cynical attempts to draw parallels between the attacks of 2001 and the Canberra bushfires of 2003 through his notion of the ‘summer terror’.


What Massumi and Kaplan show us, I think, is that trauma is a very mobile response, in which reactions to the present collapse into those of the past, and in which the suddenness of an event can lead to a type of catastrophic anxiety in relation to the future. Kaplan tells us, ‘Trauma can never be “healed” in the sense of a return to how things were before a catastrophe took place, or before one witnessed a catastrophe; but if the wound of trauma remains open, its pain may be worked through in the process of its being “translated” via art’ (19). Whether trauma is an historically transferrable emotion remains for me an open question that sits uncomfortably alongside my engagement with Massumi.


On an obvious level, we live in a media age, which saturates us with images of disaster—for some this leads to vicarious or secondary trauma, in which empathy for unknown suffers can be overwhelming. For others, over-exposure to disaster leads to a state of anesthaesia, in which it becomes impossible to feel anything. While I can read about fictional and actual bushfire survivors from the nineteenth century, I remain uncertain about what they felt; about whether the fear they experienced in the menacing Australian bush was the same as the terror I feel when a kookaburra cackles through the wilderness. Certainly, while I identify many of my subjects as ‘traumatized’, they wouldn’t have labeled themselves in this way and I find myself endlessly troubled by my own historical situatedness as I try to capture emotions in history. The J.S. Borlase story that I mentioned before ends with the narrator voicing fears for his wife’s endangered ‘reason’, which to me signals deep trauma. Yet in a Victorian context, the mechanisms for dealing and not dealing with this emotional response are so different from those of today, that I must also ask how useful it is to anachronistically impose the term ‘trauma’ upon people and characters of the period.


To end somewhere close to where I began, I want to go back to the Indian ‘mutiny’ of 1857.** It was an event that, like 9/11 elicited highly emotive and very public responses, in which writers and thinkers including Charles Dickens responded to what was essentially a military insurrection that got out of control by advocating mass genocide. The parallels between the events of September 2001 and the subsequent wrath of the Bush administration are tempting here (and I’m using the term wrath with a strong awareness that it is for the most part an historically-bound emotional response). Diana Francis and those responding to her post were mostly able to situate themselves in relation to a critique of US cultural imperialism. The ‘mutiny’ was very much a media event, in which erroneous reporting whipped up a racist furore in England (albeit much more slowly than the real time in which CNN dramatizes disaster). As with 9/11, there were clear signs for those who were willing to see them that some sort of uprising was inevitable. Yet, what makes me pause with both this unwieldy comparison of events separated by more than 150 years, and my application of Massumi, is the question of shame.


Queen Victoria’s immediate public response to events of May and June 1857 was to declare a day of national fasting and humiliation, and more than 150 churches opened their doors to members of the public who wished to humble themselves. For the Victorians, this event was an expression of divine disapproval (and large-scale fires were often interpreted in the same way). The acceptance of shame, if not responsibility, was part of their grieving and healing process and a much more wholesale, visceral and public experience than the way we express shame today. I can say, ‘I am ashamed of British/American/Australian foreign policy’, but it would not occur to me to express that shame through starvation and abjection, actions which are both personal and collective and which might, it occurs to me, be cathartic too.


It is here, then, that I see and feel historical distinctions and an embodied emotional response that is deeply alien. With that knowledge, I need to continue to question the utility and responsibility of myself collapsing disasters into one another, and to accept that the historical emotion might be elusive and inscrutable, even while I continue to chase it.


*I am grateful to Diana Pharoah Francis for permission to cite her post to the VICTORIA-L listserv


**I use this term because this is what the Victorians called the event now known as the first Indian War of Independence.

A breastplate reveals the story of an Australian frontier massacre

By Penny Edmonds, University of Tasmania

The breastplate given to ‘U. Robert King of the Big River and Big Leather Tribes’ by an unknown settler at Goonal station. Photo Dragi Markovic, National Museum of Australia

The breastplate given to ‘U. Robert King of the Big River and Big Leather Tribes’ by an unknown settler at Goonal station. Photo Dragi Markovic, National Museum of Australia

The flood of coverage of the centenary of Gallipoli and the first world war profoundly shapes the way we think of Australia’s history; but we suppress other violent events in our own country that also shaped us.

On Australian colonial frontiers, violence and conciliation went hand-in-hand. Acts of aggression, retribution, and pacification were linked in complex ways — ways that were not always recorded in archival accounts. We come to our history often through the written word, or television, and objects too often are left as mere footnotes to our history.

So can historical objects from our frontier past gives us fresh perspectives in rethinking and writing colonial history, and give us a window on such violence and troubled diplomacy?

In an essay Australian novelist Delia Falconer wrote for the the Australian Book Review in 1999, she noted evocatively that using objects as originating points for our research is like “walking though the back door of history, you don’t necessarily end up at the front door of the same house”.

In the course of my work – in Australian and Pacific-region colonial histories – I came across a curious 19th-century heart-shaped breastplate (main image) and found myself at the front door of frontier massacre. The breastplate was given to “U. Robert King of the Big River and Big Leather Tribes” by an unknown settler at Goonal station, established in 1843 on the Gwydir River or “Big River” in New South Wales.

The breastplate is clearly part of the widespread settler tradition of giving crescent-shaped breastplates plates to Aboriginal people for alliance and pacification, on a continent where there were no formal treaties.

Yet with its heart-shaped form it is exceptional, and at the top – between an emu and kangaroo – it shows an intriguing motif of crossed spears and gum boughs, similar in style to North American “peace medals” given to native Americans that displayed a crossed hatchet and peace pipe, suggesting pacification or the halting of violent relations.

‘Mounted Police and Blacks’ depicts the killing of Aboriginals at Slaughterhouse Creek by British troops.
Wikimedia Commons

The heart motif in European tradition is a symbol of love, friendship, and affiliation, but also of “bone fides” or good faith. Yet, as it turns out, this strange and unique object can be traced directly to the Gwydir River, in the New England region, and to the general vicinity of two of the most infamous massacres in Australian history: the Waterloo Creek massacre and the Myall Creek massacre of Kamilaroi peoples in 1838.

In this year, escalating frontier skirmishes between settlers and Aboriginal peoples led the Governor to dispatch Major James Nunn to the region to “suppress these outrages” by the “blacks”. Nunn led a group of more than 20 troopers to the Liverpool Plains district in January of 1838.

On January 26 1838, known as “Foundation Day”, our precursor to Australia Day, Major Nunn and his group attacked a large group of Aborigines camped by a lagoon at Waterloo Creek (or Slaughterhouse Creek), resulting in what most historians agree were the deaths of at least 30 Aboriginal people.

Vigilante-settlers continued Nunn’s campaign, riding the country shooting Aboriginal people they could find, in what Muswellbrook Magistrate Edward Denny Day would come to call a “war of extermination” on the Gwydir.

Five months later, on the afternoon of Sunday June 10 1838, a gang of 11 convict and ex-convict stockmen led by a squatter, surrounded and tied up Wirrayaraay Aboriginal men, women and children, who were camped peacefully next to the huts on the Myall Creek cattle station of Henry Dangar, near Bingara on the Gwydir River.

They were taken away and slaughtered. The gang later burned the decapitated bodies. Despite public outcry, and after a second trail, seven were hanged in December 1838 in one of the few instances when white men were tried, convicted and hanged for the mass-killing of Aboriginal people.

When His Honor Judge Burton passed sentence on the men, he remarked:

I sincerely hope that the grace of God may reach and penetrate the hardened hearts that could surround a funeral pile lighted by themselves, and gloat on the tortures and sufferings of so many of their fellow beings.

By the 1850s remaining Aboriginal people in the area continued to seek protection on stations were they could, with men and women often working as shepherds and stockmen.

The breastplate given out to “U. Robert” of Big River, probably a senior Aboriginal man and possibly a shepherd, within decades of massacre, is a greatly unsettling object and represents a supreme conceit given the pernicious violence that occurred in the region as settlers pushed into northern New South Wales to take pastoral lands.

It is an object of alliance and friendship, given all too late. Aboriginal artist Andrea Fisher has rightly critiqued the coercive sentiment of the breastplate tradition with her reworkings and subversions of the breastplate motif in her works “blood” and “truth”.

Andrea Fisher, Blood.
Museum of Democracy

But the heart-shaped breastplate may be suggestive of other meanings and valences. While I have not traced it to an individual settler with a “whispering in his heart” – historian Henry Reynold’s compelling phrase to suggest settler conscience – it may be nonetheless expressive of compassion and conscience.

In fact, Robert Brown, the owner of Goonal Station, to which the breastplate is linked, and a devout and evangelical Christian, went quite mad and was declared a “lunatic” in 1862, and died a year later in an asylum. Did he commission this breastplate for the Aboriginal people living and working on Goonal Station, their region only so recently invaded and beset by violence?

Was this the folly of a madman, or was it given in the name of friendship, reward, pacification, coercion or some form of conciliation with “U. Robert” and his family group? Did the whispering in Brown’s heart drive him mad? We may never know.

“Heart” can mean conscience, and it can also mean hope and acting in good faith. Every year, for 14 years now, commemoration ceremonies have been held at the site of the Myall Creek massacre. Here, the descendants of Aboriginal people and settlers come together in good faith as part of a community-based reconciliation project.

Artworks by Andrea Fisher.
Museum of Democracy

The non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal participants in the reconciliation ceremonies at Myall creek have described “a great lifting”, and that they felt “set free” when they acknowledged the violence of their shared past.

Heart may also be the courage to remember, honour, and the strength to forgive in order to reconcile. These acts of reconciliation were possible at the Myall Creek site because some form of justice – at least, in part – had been seen to be done, unlike Waterloo Creek. The plaque on a stone memorial at the Myall Creek massacre site reads:

Erected on 10th June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in an act of reconciliation and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history. We remember them/ Ngiyani winangay ganunga.

These ceremonies are rites of passage in settler societies, events crucial to peace-building and healing, where the past has been strewn with conflict and trust can be low; here through truth-telling and ritual the past is acknowledged and shared, and new stories are made.

These are emotional journeys where “fraught hearts” come into play and individual acts of consciousness and the building of trust matters.

Every year Australians engage in such grassroots commemorations, to mourn, reflect, say sorry, and honour, and to build new peaceful accords.

These community ceremonies are sometimes uncomfortably close to our hearts and homes, based on events that occurred under our very feet, and are far closer than battles on distant shores. There must be room for these too. Our most important history is too often at our own front door.

And its vestiges can be elicited by extraordinary objects in museum collections.

Penny Edmonds’ book, Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim (Routledge), co-edited with Kate Darian-Smith, is due out in late 2014.

Penny Edmonds receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, which is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.

Emotional Shakespeare on the Eighteenth-Century Stage

“Hamlet and His Mother”, Eugene Delacoix, 1849. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shakespeare as performed on the eighteenth-century stage was arguably more emotional than the Shakespeare we know now. Once the English theatres reopened in 1660 (following their closure during the Civil War and Interregnum), playwrights took the opportunity to revise Shakespeare’s works for new audiences, new theatre spaces and new actors (women being allowed to perform on stage for the first time). Many of these adaptations held the stage until well into the nineteenth century, so emotional Shakespeare was the primary way in which the works were staged for many years.

One of the most fascinating elements of these adaptations is the way in which they alter and even augment the emotional impact of the plays. In 1681, Nahum Tate gave King Lear a new ending in which Cordelia remains alive, marries Edgar and is left to reign over the kingdom. Lear is spared the pain of losing his daughter and he survives too. Thus joy replaces sadness at the play’s denouement.

Thomas Otway’s Roman adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, entitled The History and Fall of Caius Marius (1680), has Juliet awaken in the tomb in order to exchange some tender parting words with Romeo before she dies. The most influential actor, manager and adapter of the eighteenth century, David Garrick, followed Otway in including this romantic scene in his version of the play (first performed in 1748). A painting by Benjamin Wilson depicts Garrick and his stage partner, George Anne Bellamy, at this precise moment: Romeo steps back in amazement as Juliet awakes to gaze longingly at him. Critic Francis Gentleman approved of the alteration and acknowledged its emotional impact, writing that the scene gave “an opportunity of working the pathos to the tenderest pitch” (Francis Gentleman, note on Romeo and Juliet in Bell’s Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 2nd ed., 5 vols. (London, 1774), vol. 2, p. 148.) XYC129305Image: “David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy in Romeo and Juliet”, 1753 (oil on canvas) by Benjamin Willson

The heightened emotion prevalent in eighteenth-century performances of Shakespeare’s plays was readily replicated by the audience. There are several accounts of women weeping in response to what they saw on the stage. In 1756 Frances Brooke took a group of young women to see King Lear and noted both the copiousness of the tears they shed and that their response was shared by other audience members: “I had the satisfaction of finding we were accompanied in our tears by almost the whole house”(Mary Singleton [Frances Brooke], The Old Maid 18 (13 March 1756), new edn. (London, 1764), pp. 144-50 (p. 146)).  Men joined in too. James Boswell wrote of going early to the playhouse to see Garrick act in order to get himself into the right frame of mind to watch the performance, that is, to facilitate being emotionally moved by it. He recorded his verdict of this experience: “Mr. Garrick gave me the most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears” (James Boswell, 12 May 1763, Boswell’s London Journal, 1762–1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle (London: Book Club Associates, 1974), p. 257).

These public displays of emotion were facilitated by the fact that it was not possible fully to dim the house lights in theatre auditoria at this time. Playgoers could thus easily read emotion on the faces of other audience members, which allowed feelings to circulate readily in the theatre. Our modern audience experience, which predominantly involves sitting in darkened theatres, significantly shuts down the possibility of the kind of emotional community that was readily available to eighteenth-century playgoers and which the period’s adaptations of Shakespeare facilitated.

by Early Career Researcher Fiona Ritchie, McGill University.

For more CHE research on Shakespeare performance,  see Dr Penelope Woods on “Feelings in the Room: Theatre Audiences and their Emotions,” Dr Robert White on “Shakespeare in our World,” and Dr Glen McGillivray on “Forms Forced to their Conceit: Semiosis and Affect in Eighteenth Century English Acting.”

The frightening ball of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots: A Halloween tale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImage: “Stirling castle at night”.  Licensed under Creative Commons  via Wikimedia Commons

by CHE Honorary Chief Investigator  Susan Broomhall

Lodged in the rafters of the Queen’s bedchamber at Stirling Castle, excavators found a worn leather  ball…. Did someone kick it accidentally into the ceiling cavity before it was sealed up in the 1540s, or was something more superstitious at work?

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure to work with staff at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland in my role as a member of the Centre. We developed this particular project to provide PhD students and early career scholars with a chance to learn how to pitch research for the general public, to highlight the importance of emotions to the story of individual objects, and to showcase the wonderful range of artifacts held in the collection of the museum.

This is the football – one of the world’s oldest in fact – which Dr Joanne McEwan at The University of Western Australia researched for one card. picture of football

In the card, Jo wrote about how Scottish monarchs were highly superstitious. Perhaps, she wonders, this ball was carefully placed above the bedchamber to protect its occupant, the young Queen Mary Stuart (1542-87), who lived in the castle as a child.

Even more superstitious than his mother Queen Mary, James VI thought it perfectly reasonable to insist in his work on demons, the Daemonologie of 1597, that “assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized.” James was all for witch hunting, and sat in on the interrogation and torture of a few women himself. He was convinced that there was “a fearefull aboundinge at this time, in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters”.

It was not uncommon at the time for people to place clothing, or objects in rowan wood, as protective charms in meaningful boundaries. And, Jo notes, marks have been found scratched into Stirling Castle’s outer door, marks that were thought to ward off witches.

Jo’s research offers an exciting new dimension to this small piece of leather and pig’s bladder that sits in the Stirling Smith. As a serious contender for the world’s oldest football, it gets a fair bit of coverage, especially lately, as the Smith has opened up the collection on ‘touching days’ (emotion and sensation entwined) when visitors can handle historic artifacts for themselves and create emotional memories of their own.

It’s been wonderful working with the Smith’s staff as they explore how their objects can resonate with modern audiences and their stories be told in new and different ways. In this project, we created six cards to showcase some of the medieval and early modern treasures of the museum. garnet ring

With the team in Australia and Scotland, we discovered the poignant tale of the garnet ring once owned by covenanter Reverend James Guthrie who slipped it from his finger as he ascended the scaffold, the soulful meanings embedded in a sixteenth-century samurai sword, the frighteningly heavy chains once used to bind the insane in the hopes of cure by St Fillan, the elegant propaganda fans used by society ladies to signal their political allegiances, and the passions stirred up to create an accurate pint measure for ale!

We also learned a great deal from designers about which precise object detail to highlight in order to attract and intrigue a viewer, just how much information is enough, and how to bring emotions to the fore in our story-telling.

You can see the rest of the cards, at the Stirling Smith shop or via the CHE website, where you can see and read about each card in more detail – including Mary’s frightening leather ball…

Emotions make history: fairy tales and broad horizons for CHE doctoral student

Love me love me not:bronwn redden

Bronwyn Reddan, a postgraduate candidate in SHAPS (the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies) at the University of Melbourne, is writing her thesis on love in early modern French fairy tales. Her research examines how these fairy tales problematise love and challenge the cultural stereotype of love as the ultimate happy ending. By examining a corpus of fairy tales which present a range of perspectives on love, her thesis aims to illustrate an ambiguity in early modern attitudes to love and enrich the history of this complex emotion.

How did you become involved with  The Centre for the History of Emotions?

I first found out about CHE when I was completing my honours studies in history at the University of Melbourne. One of the elective subjects offered was a course on the History of Emotions and it was the best subject I studied during my honours year. This subject was not run by CHE staff but my tutor told us about CHE and I subsequently attended a CHE collaboratory where my honours supervisor gave a paper. My honours thesis was about magical objects in seventeenth-century French fairy tales and when I decided to apply for a PhD, CHE was a natural fit as I had decided to broaden my project from magical objects to love.

How has working within a research research centre impacted your graduate experience?

Being involved with CHE has had an enormous positive impact on my graduate experience. The main benefit of being involved with a research centre is that I am now part of a research community as well as having individual faculty supervision. This means that I am invited to CHE events where I get to meet researchers from a range of different disciplines and attend presentations by leading history of emotions scholars. As well as attending CHE events, I also been given the opportunity to present my work and obtain feedback from a range of different scholars as well as my supervisor.

Another benefit is that I am involved in methodological discussions shaping history of emotions scholarship. It is an amazing opportunity to see first-hand how this cutting edge field of research is developing and it has been extremely helpful in the formulation of the methodological approach of my own research.

Did you know about “the history of emotions” before embarking on a PhD at Melbourne? How has working with this particular lens on history and literature shaped your work and thinking?

I did know about the history of emotions before I started by PhD at Melbourne and the presence of the centre was one of the reasons I decided to do my PhD in Melbourne rather than apply to international programs. Using history of emotions methodology in my research has broadened my perspective on the sources I examine and challenges me to think about exactly what information about the past we can uncover in literary sources. Thinking about the social nature of emotion and its role as a cultural framework shaping our experience of both the past and the present has allowed me to examine the fairy tales I work with as historical sources providing evidence about changes in ideas about love in the seventeenth century.

Bronwyn is currently in Berlin attending a summer school on the history of concepts at the Max Planck Research School for Moral Economies of Modern Societies. She will be presenting a methodological paper about the relationship between emotion and language as well as participating in discussions with an international group of scholars about new approaches in the field of conceptual history, including the conceptualisation of emotions across different languages and cultures.
After the summer school has finished, she will go to Paris for two weeks to conduct research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France before heading to London, Ontario where she will be presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Society for Interdisciplinary French Studies (SE17). This trip has been funded by CHE, the French History Research Higher Degree Scholarship from the University of Melbourne and the Max Planck Research School for Moral Economies of Modern Societies.

Find out more about Bronwyn’s research on The problem of love in early modern contes de fées.

‘Thrust down a rabbit hole of pain and loss’: Moira Fahy’s Afterburn


Filmed over three years, Moira Fahy’s remarkable documentary, Afterburn: In the Tiger’s Jaws, offers extraordinary insights into the emotional journeys of bushfire survivors. Framed by a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the work explores how the world can become uncanny and unrecognizable when catastrophe strikes.

The small rural village of Steels Creek was ravaged by fire on February 7, 2009, the day now known as Black Saturday. As is well known, 173 people died in Victoria on that day and more than 4500 square kilometres of land were burned. In the Steels Creek community, ten people were killed and sixty-seven properties destroyed in a fire from Kilmore East that most residents believed would never reach them.

Initiated by Jane and Malcolm Calder, one of the three couples whose stories are woven together in this astonishingly beautiful film, Afterburn is, as Libby Robin has noted, a very important part of the healing process for the Steels Creek community. In addition to the Calders, the documentary tells the stories of Edd and Amanda Williams, who watched their ecofarm and bed and breakfast business burn to the ground, and Rob and Julie Fallon, who left Steels Creek belatedly on the day of the fire with their two young children. In addition to losing their home, the Fallons lost two sets of neighbours, very dear friends who decided to stay and defend their properties, and who were burned to death when the fire roared through the valley.

Interlaced with moving accounts of the different types of grief, pain and trauma experienced by each of the couples, are contributions from three experts. Their input offers valuable contexts for understanding the history of fire in the region, the trajectory and destructive force of a bushfire, and the many pressures that accompany survival. Fire historian Tom Griffiths draws important yet sensitive parallels with the deadly bushfires of 1939, commenting that, ‘the most haunting aspect of this tragedy is its familiarity’, while reminding us that ‘fire always returns to the same place’. Peter Stanley, a social and military historian, offers a vivid account of the trajectory of the Black Saturday Fires across the landscape, which is accompanied by footage from the day, while psychologist and disaster expert Rob Gordon provides an overview of the physical and mental pressures that each of the survivors will endure in different ways.

Each family deals with the fire in its own way. The Calders hurl themselves into community work, but to begin with, take little time for themselves. The Fallons decide to leave Steels Creek and, in quick succession, purchase both a unit and a camper van, embarking on an extended trip across Queensland, before settling down in a new home. Julie Fallon speaks movingly of her grief at the loss of the ‘simple bush life’ she had wanted for her children, while her husband Rob talks with great regret about their tremendous losses when he says, with great pathos, that having lost both home and friends, ‘we would look to the bush for identity, but that’s gone too’. The final couple, Edd and Amanda Williams, set to work to rebuild the home and business that they have lost, creating an underground fortress, designed to withstand the onslaught of any future fire.

Charting the passage of time and milestones in the recovery process with haunting shots of the landscape and its regeneration, Fahy sets up a beautiful contrast between the natural world’s swift renewal and the much slower recovery of the delicate human beings, whose lives have been redefined by the fire. Rob Gordon’s commentary is valuable here, as it explains the protracted emotional and physiological toll of rebuilding, outlining in particular how adrenaline can save us when we are faced with an immediate threat. Prolonged exposure to adrenaline, however, leaves us trapped in a survival mode, which then hinders our ability to get on with everyday life. In particular, Gordon points to survivors’ frantic attempts to re-assert their old lives through hard work and rebuilding, before outlining the emotional slumps that they experience in trying to do too much, too soon.

Events like natural disasters can, according to Rob Gordon, trigger the re-emergence of past traumas, forcing survivors to confront incidents from their lives that were never resolved. Some of the Steels Creek survivors featured in Afterburn find themselves reliving previous ordeals, while others find that, having pushed their bushfire experiences to one side, they suddenly catch up. Jane Calder speaks of suddenly becoming very tired (which, Rob Gordon explains, is part of the replenishment of reserves that will allow survivors to go on), while Amanda Williams observes, towards the end of the film, that it has taken two years for her to allow herself to grieve, particularly for the loss of her dogs.

Roger Newcome’s narration brings Moira Fahy’s elegant script to life, setting the tone for a subtle, thoughtful journey through devastation, sorrow and fortitude. The stories are concluded with a bittersweet mixture of success and numbness, while Rob Gordon warns that recovery has to be about much more than building a house or creating fortifications.

Afterburn is a profoundly moving piece of work and perhaps the words that reverberate through it most strongly are those of Tom Griffiths, who warns that, ‘Fire is something that we have to live with, not triumph over’. Moira Fahy’s outstanding film reveals the paradoxical combination of resilience and fragility that make us human, with her delicate touch allowing the three families to tell their own stories. Touching and inspiring, Afterburn has much to teach us about the emotional process of learning to live with fire and its destructive power.

Afterburn is part of a bigger bushfire recovery project in the Steels Creek community, details of which may be found here: http://steelscreek.vic.au/publications/

Professor Tom Griffiths of ANU has written about the emotional background to Afterburn here: http://history.cass.anu.edu.au/monthinhistory/afterburn-emotional-legacy-bushfire

Another film by Moira Fahy about the 1939 bush fires, ‘Black Friday’, may be viewed here: www.abc.net.au/blackfriday/

Posted by Grace Moore

Trollope Hunts a Dingo

Charles E. Hammond, 2 of 6 sepia wash drawings, "The Sick Stockrider," ca. 1915. Image courtesy of The State Library of Victoria, digital archive.

A dingo hunt… Charles E. Hammond, 2 of 6 sepia wash drawings, “The Sick Stockrider,” ca. 1915. Image courtesy of The State Library of Victoria, digital archive.


In recent months I’ve been working on an extended piece dealing with Anthony Trollope’s deeply affective response to the Australian environment. Trollope visited the Antipodes twice. Once between 1871 and 1872, when he based himself in Australia, but also travelled to New Zealand. He returned in 1875 for a shorter trip, when he mostly remained in New South Wales.

Trollope’s son Frederic had settled in Australia as a young man having, as his father expressed it, ‘resolved on a colonial career when he found that boys who did not grow up so fast as he did got above him at school’.   Fred was not a very successful farmer, at least partly because of his attempts to transpose European agricultural methods onto the southern hemisphere terrain. Anthony Trollope was, nevertheless, fascinated by the settlement of Australia, channelling his experiences into works like the novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874) and his novel, John Caldigate (1879).

Like many other Victorian writers Trollope was fascinated by the fortunes to be made in the southern hemisphere. Yet, unusually, he also felt that settlement in the empire should be a long-term commitment—that men should not simply plunder the colonies only to return home with their riches, but rather they should commit to their new home in a whole-hearted and respectful manner. The most extensive account of Trollope’s time in the antipodes appears in his two-volume work, Australia and New Zealand (1873), in which he charted the ecological vandalism that European settlers inflicted upon the landscape. He weighed in on controversial issues like the ring-barking of trees (of which he disapproved) and he also wrote a damning indictment of the wholesale damage caused by gold prospectors.

Trollope was, for the most part, intrigued by the strangeness of life on the other side of the world, but his appreciation for its fauna was somewhat inconsistent. Moving from a description of some of the world’s deadliest snakes (of which he remarks, ‘I do not think much of Australian snakes’, he rather perplexingly comments, ‘Australia is altogether deficient in sensational wild beasts’. While Trollope’s knowledge of Australian fauna is undoubtedly patchy, he astutely captures its endangerment at the hands of European settlers. Although at home in Britain he was a keen hunter, Trollope approaches most Australian wildlife with respect and curiosity. He also reveals deeper insights into precarious ecological and anthropological balances in the Antipodes when he ostensibly writes of proliferating animals. Commenting of the possum,

The opossum, –‘up a gum tree’, where he is always to be found, –seems to be the most persevering aboriginal inhabitant of the country. He does not recede before civilization, but addicts himself to young cabbages, and is a nuisance. As the blacks die out there is no one to eat him, and he is prolific. He sleeps soundly, and is very easy to kill with a dog… But there is no fun in killing him, for he neither fights nor runs away.

For Trollope, the possum is hardy and adaptable, able to change his diet to accommodate non-native plants, like cabbages, and to adjust to the differences of settler life. The possum is, however, curiously vulnerable because of the trust he places in humans. Thus, Trollope’s sense of an Australian eco-system is, accordingly, unable to accommodate compassion for the land’s traditional custodians, expressing approval only of those with what he sees as the vigour to change.

Trollope’s attitude towards dingoes, the wild dogs whom he describes as ‘the squatter’s direct enemy’, is remarkably similar to his position on indigenous Australians. He regards the dingo as a pest and describes, in graphic and shocking detail, some of the attempts made to obliterate the dogs, who posed (and continue to pose) a threat to livestock and hence to livelihoods, too:

The squatter attempts to rid himself of the dingo by poison, and consequently strychnine is as common in a squatter’s house as castor oil in a nursery. On many large runs carts are continually being taken round with baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief. Hence it comes to pass that the use of a shepherd’s dog is impossible, unless he be muzzled. But the dingo likes lamb better than bait, and the squatters sometimes are broken-hearted.

The anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has written of what she calls the ‘violent unmaking’ of dingoes in Australia’s Northern Territory today, charting the ways in which they continue to be poisoned and treated as vermin. According to Rose, the dingo pits itself against the pastoralist, who destroys the dogs in order to assert or display dominance (See Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, 93). Far from being a companion species like his domesticated European counterpart, the dingo opposes himself to imported ideas of the pastoral, feeding on sheep instead of herding them; actively resisting the idea that the countryside can be parceled up and fenced in. The dingo is, for both Trollope and Rose, what Raymond Williams would term a counter-pastoralist—albeit a particularly feral one—who pits himself against Europeanized farming practices and ideas of property ownership. Ignoring the boundaries imposed upon the landscape by settlers, the dingo continues to treat the land as a source of ‘innate bounty’. Indeed, as Australian sheep stocks grew after 1850, so the number of dingoes trebled.   The dingo is a living, plundering reminder of just how incompatible imported ideas of land ownership are with the vast and wild Australian terrain.

Towards the end of his travelogue, Trollope offers an account of a dingo hunt, which is, for him, ‘great sport’. His depiction reveals how a privileged sector of settler society sought to contain—and possibly also to redefine—the dingo by treating him as they would an English fox. There are distinctions, as he explains, noting that while a fox who is shaken from a bag declines to run, the dingo is much more obliging. For the most part, Trollope focuses on the hunters themselves, recounting how they crash into fences that are too high, lose their mounts and generally prove to be unequal to the differences involved in riding to hounds in the bush. Trollope is so weary by the time he and his fellow huntsmen and women catch up with the dog that he declares, ‘I cared little what it was’. This particular dingo is taken alive, having been pursued for two miles, although what happens to him next is not reported. Most dingoes who were caught up in hunts were killed as vermin and newspapers contain numerous accounts of the stalking of dingoes, sometimes as a bloodsport and sometimes in response to the theft of sheep.

While on the one hand a replication of an English country pursuit that is for some an important tradition dating back to the sixteenth century, on the other the Australian version of the hunt is something more. Hunting in England is about the pursuit of an individual fox, with no sense that these enemies of the farmer might ever be eradicated through this highly ritualized chase. The hunting of dingoes, however, was part of a much more widespread and systematic process of extermination that hinged on the labeling of the wild dog as a pest. The hunt might thus be regarded as an attempt to express mastery, albeit one that fails, according to Trollope’s descriptions of fallen riders and general calamity. The transposition of this aspect of English rural life to the bush is far from seamless and fails to account for the many differences between the countryside at ‘home’ and the much more rugged Australian terrain. In many ways, Trollope’s dingo hunt highlights the numerous challenges that the land threw in the faces of migrants, challenges that were exacerbated by such willful attempts to impose aspects of the pastoral onto a resistant environment.

Trollope allows some of the ideas that sanctioned and legitimated the dingo hunt to permeate his contribution to the debate surrounding invasive species. Once more invoking the idea of the ‘pest’, he remarks that, ‘the rabbit has become so great a plague in Victoria and parts of Tasmania that squatters in some localities are spending thousands with the hope of exterminating them’. He notes that one farmer claims to have spent more than fifteen thousand pounds in attempting to eliminate rabbits from his property, an aim which modern-day land managers know to be futile. Yet while on the one hand he registers the nuisance posed by the rabbit, on the other he voices an admiration for its ability to proliferate in new climes. Trollope writes of imported European animals ‘thrusting out the aboriginal creatures of this country’, noting with approval that ‘The emus are nearly gone. The kangaroos are departing to make way for the sheep’. He continues to celebrate the ‘numerous’ sparrows, also asserting that the ‘busier bee from Europe’ has quickly displaced his Australian counterpart, in terms of sheer numbers, but also production of honey. When read alongside Trollope’s dismissive comments regarding indigenous Australians, remarks of this kind become inflected with contemporary notions of natural selection and racial vigour. While today’s ecologists are perturbed by introduced species, for Trollope the fact that they were able to thrive in the Antipodes became a legitimation of the colonial venture and an implicit assertion of mastery. European creatures were stronger and more spirited than their Oceanian counterparts and were therefore, just like white settlers, able to displace those who had occupied the land for millennia.


This entry is a compressed account of an article, ‘”So Wild and Beautiful a World Around Him”: Trollope and Antipodean Ecology’, which will be published in 2015.

Posted by Grace Moore


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