Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

‘This book covers more than a thousand years, and its geographical scope encompasses every continent save Australasia and Antarctica.’

The book has sixteen chapters divided across four parts: Imperium (c 410 AD – 750 AD); Dominion (c 750 AD – 1215 AD); Rebirth (c 1215 AD – 1347 AD) and Revolution (c 1348 AD – 1527 AD). This history takes us on a journey between the sacks of Rome in 410 AD and 1527 AD. Within this structure, Mr Jones identifies three key themes that have underpinned the success of the west: conquest, commerce, and Christianity.

It is an epic history, covering the period between the retreat of the Roman Empire in the west and the 16th century Reformation. What makes this book particularly interesting is that it ventures beyond the political timeline. In addition to the power struggles between emperors, kings and tribal leaders, Mr Jones also writes of the impacts of pandemics, of demographic changes, and of climate change. Exploration, religious conquest, commercial growth, decline, and rejuvenation are all part of the history. I am reminded of the power of the Byzantine Empire, diminished after the 7th century but still standing until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, of the impact of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, of the rise of commerce. There’s a lot to consider. I could get lost in reading about William Marshal, Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington, El, Cid and Leonardo da Vinci, or the impact of printing on the power of the Catholic Church.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking to expand their knowledge (and appreciation) of the period we in the west refer to as the Middle Ages.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus/Apollo for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a Nation by Anne Henderson

‘Who would have imagined that a woman born in 1897, married at seventeen, and the mother of twelve children, would be an achiever ahead of her time?’

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons (1897-1981) was born on 9 July 1897 at Duck River (Smithton) in Tasmania. She was the second of four children born to Eliza (née Taggart) and William Burnell. In this book, Ms Henderson raises the possibility that Dame Enid’s real father may have been Aloysius Joyce, the son of a wealth landowner in the Burnie district. I found this possibility difficult to reconcile with the character of Eliza Burnell contained in the book, but I guess it is possible. Does it matter? Not to me: Dame Enid has long been a hero of mine.

Moving beyond Dame Enid’s parentage, Ms Henderson describes her childhood and upbringing. Later, when the family moved to Cooee (now a western suburb of Burnie) where Eliza opened a store and a post office, Enid attended the Burnie State School. Enid and her older sister Nell attended Teacher Training College in Hobart and it was in Hobart at the age of 15 that Enid first met Joseph Aloysius Lyons, then the Labor member for the Tasmanian state seat of Wilmot. They married in Wynyard, on the 28th of April 1915: Joe was 35 and Enid 17.

And so began a partnership, which ended when Joe Lyons, Prime Minister of Australia, died in office on 7 April 1939. Joe and Enid had twelve children, the youngest of whom was born in 1933. Enid and Joe had been effective partners in life and politics: they supported each other.

On 21 August 1943, Enid Lyons was elected member for the Tasmanian federal seat of Darwin (now Braddon). She was the first female member of the House of Representatives. In her maiden speech on 29 September 1943, she spoke about social security, the declining birth rate, and the need for an extension of child endowment. She also spoke about the family, about housing and the need to look ahead to policies for the post-war period.

Ms Henderson covers in detail Enid Lyon’s life and legacy. After she left politics in March 1951, she remained active: including writing three books of her own, as well as serving as a commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

On moral issues Dame Enid was conservative, in keeping with her Catholic faith. Some of her children described her as remote. But it is clear that Dame Enid worked hard, and in her first parliamentary term could take some credit for the extension of child endowment and free medical treatment for pensioners.

This is the second time I have read this book. In between reads I have visited both Home Hill (the Lyons family home in Devonport) and the small cottage in Stanley where Joe Lyons lived with his aunts. Joe and Enid Lyons were a formidable team.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Enid and Joe Lyons and their achievements.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage that Launched Modern England by James Evans

‘In the first half of the sixteenth century a fundamental change was taking place in western Europe.’

I found this account of the first English mercantile adventure to Russia fascinating. The three ships that set sail in the spring of 1553 were seeking a northern passage to Asia. They were looking for both the riches of Asia and for opportunities to trade English cloth in the cold northern climes. Two of the ships were blown off course, but the Edward Bonaventure (under Richard Chancellor) made it and returned from Russia with a trade agreement.

In 1555, the Muscovy Company was formed, and Richard Chancellor led a second journey to Russia. And this is where I pause to mention that fiction led me to this book. In the fifth novel of Dorothy Dunnett’s marvellous Lymond Chronicles (‘The Ringed Castle’), Lymond is in Russia. Here he meets Richard Chancellor. Fact and fiction are skilfully combined, and it was Lady Dunnett’s mention of Richard Chancellor that led me to read this book which was first published in 2013.

While I enjoyed learning about the foundation of the Muscovy Company and the exploits of Sebastian Cabot, it was Richard Chancellor who held my attention. Mr Evans makes it clear just how dangerous sea travel was at the time, and how relatively inexperienced English seafarers were at the time. Arguably, this voyage could be seen as the first step towards the formation of the English (later British) empire.

The information is provided in short sharp chapters, within the context of the political events of the time. I found the book easy to read and understand and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading more about English exploration during the 16th century, and especially to anyone interested in some of the history related in ‘The Ringed Castle’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

In Her Own Name: A history of women in South Australia from 1836 by Helen Jones

‘An important history of changes.’

This book was first published in 1986, with a second edition in 1994 and this, the third edition, published in 2020. I had earlier read the second edition and have noticed that this edition has grown. Ms Jones starts her history in 1836 and writes of the changes that have helped women move towards equality. We may not be there yet, but we are much closer than we were.

While there are several important changes, the achievement of women’s suffrage in 1894 is perhaps the most important one. This is a fascinating book, a political and legal history filled with personalities, issues, and events. Legal changes usually lag behind social changes, but it is interesting to follow the changes to both marriage and property acts.

Ms Jones documents her history, showing how women were able to develop their lives, assuming roles and responsibilities once considered taboo. While at times I felt overwhelmed by the data, I was fascinated by the personalities involved. Catherine Helen Spence is a particular favourite of mine, and there are plenty of others. Ms Jones also points out that men and women frequently worked together in progressing the rights of women.

While I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of women in South Australia more broadly, I was particularly interested in the period between 1836 and 1901.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Convict-era Port Arthur: Misery of the deepest dye by David W. Cameron

‘In all, close to 13,000 convicts spent time at Port Arthur during its 47-year history (with around 8 per cent of serving convicts buried there).’

In this book, Mr Cameron provides background to the establishment of Port Arthur, the history of its operation as a penal colony and its closure in 1877. We learn about the differing approaches to the treatment of convicts. about the semaphore system used to convey messages, about the ships built there as well as the coal mines, the convict operated railway and the attempts at escape. In telling the story of Port Arthur, Mr Cameron incorporates the stories of several individuals within the history, including Charles O’Hara Booth (Commandant of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1844); Mark Jeffrey (a convict who was the gravedigger on the Isle of the Dead between 1874 and 1877); and William Thompson (a cobbler transported for life in 1841 who spent a year working in the underground coal mines).

The responsibility for Port Arthur was transferred from the British government to Tasmania in 1870 and the penal settlement closed in 1877.

‘It was on that day, Monday, 17 September 1877, that the seven remaining convicts were transported to Hobart on board the schooner Harriet and the doors to buildings were locked – Port Arthur ceased to exist as a penal settlement.’

These days, Port Arthur is a tourist destination. I visited twice during the 1970s, trying to imagine convict life amongst the peaceful ruins that remain. I walked around the shell of the church and the remnants of the penitentiary, around to the dockyards. I have not been to the Coal Mine site. And I feel a need, now, to include Mr Cameron’s epilogue:

‘The most pathetic and cowardly criminal to arrive at Port Arthur entered the site on Sunday, 28 April 1996 – he killed 35 innocent people, and physically and emotionally wounded another 23 along with the psychological scarring of surviving witnesses.’

This is a comprehensive account of both the events leading to the establishment of the penal settlement of Port Arthur and its operation. I knew some of this history and learned more. This book is an important addition to Tasmania’s complicated colonial history. Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE – 1492 CE (The Story of the Jews #1) by Simon Schama

‘In the beginning…’

A chance conversation led me to borrow this book from the library. I wanted to get behind the vague knowledge drifting within my memory to a more factual appreciation of Jewish history.

In this book Mr Schama starts with Elephantine, a Jewish garrison town dating from the 5th century BCE. Elephantine, which I had never heard of, is an island in the Nile River. I kept reading, some of the details reinforced my existing knowledge, others contradicted it. Why, I wondered, did the Jews return to Egypt? The more I read, the more I stepped away from the mythology (part of my Christian upbringing) and into Jewish participation in the world. I met scholars and poets, physicians, and philosophers. I became immersed in a world that I can appreciate without fully understanding. I admire the endurance and creativity displayed by Jewish people despite centuries of bigotry and persecution.

This book finishes in 1492, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I intend to read the second book (‘When Words Fail’) as well.

I finished this book with a greater appreciation of aspects of Jewish history albeit overwhelmed (at times) by the detail.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams

‘A knife … is it true? Who’s got a knife?’

On 5 April 1841, the Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England en route for Van Diemen’s Land. She carried 180 female convicts. Kezia Hayter accompanied the women as matron, in charge of the prisoners and their ten children. The journey took fifteen weeks: the Rajah arrived at Hobart on 19 July 1841.  During the journey, a number of the convict women made the Rajah Quilt, which is now held in the National Gallery of Australia.

Around these facts, Ms Adams has woven an historical thriller involving fictional convicts, including one who has stolen the identity of another to survive. In this novel, Kezia Hayter selects eighteen women to work with her on the quilt. The activity draws the women together and tentative friendships form. And then one of them is stabbed. Fatally. Who stabbed her, and why? Some of the women working on the quilt were on deck at the same time as the woman was stabbed, and it seems likely that one of them is guilty. The mood aboard the ship changes as the women become fearful for their safety. Kezia Hayter and the Captain want to find the truth, and an inquiry is launched.

Ms Adams brings the confined quarters of the ship to life: the cramped, uncomfortable conditions, the monotonous food, the seasickness. The chapters alternate between past (in which we learn more about some of the characters and how they came to be aboard the Rajah) and present. And the answer to the murder may come as a surprise.

Ms Adams chose to create fictional characters for the convict characters in her novel because some of the real women on the voyage have living descendants. Some of the others named (including Kezia Hayter) were aboard the Rajah.

‘A patchwork of souls.’

I have seen the Rajah Quilt on display at the National Gallery of Australia (it is not on permanent display because of its fragility). For those interested in more information about the making of the quilt, I can recommend this book: ‘Patchwork prisoners: the Rajah Quilt and the women who made it’ by Trudy Cowley and Dianne Snowden.  This is one of the books included in Ms Adams’s Bibliography.

I enjoyed the novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Debesa, the story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez by Cindy Solonec

‘As I read through my father’s diaries, I often wondered how he ever managed to fit everything in .’

Debesa is a rich family history set in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. Ms Solonec starts her family history in the 1880s, when her maternal great-grandfather, Jimmy Casim arrived in Fremantle from India. He moved north, met, and lived with Nigena woman, Lucy Muninga on Yeeda Station near Derby. Her father, Francisco (Frank) Rodriguez, arrived in Fremantle on 17 August 1937 as a Benedictine novitiate. He met Katie Fraser, formerly a novitiate at a convent for ‘black’ women, in 1946 and they married later that year. Not everyone supported their marriage. In Australia in the 1940s interracial marriages were opposed by many.

But from 1946 until Katie’s death in 1994, Frank and Katie worked together. They worked hard, raised a family, established their small sheep station at Debesa and remained connected to their own cultures.

‘Regardless of the overriding thrust by governments that all Australians would eventually live an Anglo-Australian way of life, our parents continued to embrace their respective cultures.’

This is an uplifting story of love, of cultural difference, of devotion and hard work set against a background of social challenge and change. Ms Solonec writes of two mutually respectful people working together to provide the best they could for their family and their community. An inspirational story drawn from Frank Rodriguez’s diaries, research and family interviews conducted by Ms Solonec.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

The Vandemonian War by Nick Brodie

‘The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion.’

I read an article by Nick Brodie which led me indirectly to this book. I was curious. I grew up in Tasmania, and colonial history was rarely touched on during my education during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Tasmanian Aboriginals are all dead, we were told, the race is extinct. Questions about how and why were neither encouraged nor answered. I moved away from Tasmania in 1974 and have since learned more.

‘The Vandemonian War was the British Empire’s best kept secret. Invasion was called settlement. Ethnic cleansing was called conciliation. Genocide was naturalised as extinction. Even Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania.’

What had Nick Brodie discovered, and how does it change our understanding of history?

‘My discovery of the truth about the Vandemonian War started with a certain manuscript volume in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in Hobart. It is labelled ‘No7/Records relating to the Aboriginals’, and has the archival designation CSO1/1/320 (7878).  It comes from the records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, and contains hundreds of pages of inbound correspondence only a tiny fraction of which has ever been previously examined, analysed or cited by historians.  These letters detail military and paramilitary operations against Aboriginal people in the interior of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 1830s.’

Until I read this book, I had (mostly) believed that while individuals and small local groups had killed Aborigines, that the colonial government had tried (however ineffectually) to protect them. It is confronting to read that was not the case, that the military and paramilitary forces deliberately drove the Aboriginal peoples from the lands they had occupied for centuries. This was no accident.

I finished this book with very mixed feelings. It is never comfortable having to revisit what was taught as truth and is now exposed – via the colonial records of the time – as inaccurate and incomplete. Documented fact, not an issue of interpretation.

‘Unearthed after nearly two centuries of established history, the Vandemonian War allows us to see that a society can be led to do almost anything – and then come to believe it did not do it at all.’

Uncomfortable, but important reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

Historic Tasmania Sketchbook by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry (text) Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips (drawings)

‘There is only one reason for Tasmania retaining so many splendid buildings: they have been lived in by people who appreciate them and are determined to preserve them.’

I have a copy of the 1977 edition of this book. Whenever I get homesick for Tasmania, I browse through the sketches and reacquaint myself with some of the magnificent nineteenth buildings I recognise. But it isn’t just sketches of buildings contained in this book, there’s a sketch of Kelly’s Steps between Salamanca Place and Battery Point, and of the iron hull of the ‘Otago’ (remember Joseph Conrad?) on the east bank of the Derwent.

I am pleased I was able to visit the Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1850) last time I was in Buckland (page 58). And the Morris Store building (now housing the everyday IGA) in Swansea (page 54) is superb.

While some buildings are in private hands, others are part of the National Trust including Franklin House (Launceston); Entally (Hadspen)and Clarendon (Evandale). And a visit to Richmond would not be complete without walking through the historic village, over the bridge and up to St John’s Church in Richmond (built in 1836).

On each page, there is a reminder of Tasmania’s colonial past: from the prosperous estates and mansions owned by the wealthy to the buildings of Port Arthur associated with convict transportation. I walk along St John Street in Launceston, past St John’s Church (page 186) where my grandparents were married in 1918, past the Dorset Terrace (page 164) where I’d love to live.  Launceston also has many beautiful civic buildings, built during its prosperous past: the Albert Hall (page 150) (where I sat examinations during the early 1970s); the Town Hall (page 168) and the Custom House (page174).

The book is divided into four parts:

Nineteenth Century Tasmania

Hobart

Launceston

Port Arthur

Superb sketches by Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips are accompanied by text by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry.

If you are interested in Tasmania’s colonial past, this book (if you can find a copy) is worth exploring.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021