The Women of Little Lon (Sex Workers in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne) by Barbara Minchinton

‘In the 1880s, Little Lon was Melbourne’s premier sex-work precinct.’

I did not know, until I read this book, that prostitution was not technically illegal for most of the 19th century. Instead of being charged with soliciting or prostitution, women (most sex workers were female) could be charged with ‘being drunk and disorderly’ or ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’. Little Lon (Little Lonsdale Street) was not the only site of brothels in central Melbourne but thanks to C. J. Dennis, in ‘Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’:

‘Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?

They scraps in ole Verona with the’r swords,

An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,

An that’s Romance.

But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots

In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.’

Little Lon became more infamous for drunkenness, gang violence and prostitution than Little Bourke Street.

In this book, as she describes the economy and the community centred around sex work, as well as the hazards, Ms Minchinton mentions many women by name. But the most powerful part of the book, for me, was Part 3, in which Ms Minchinton writes about five quite different women who demonstrate different aspects of the business of sex work. Some of these women were quite wealthy, with their own real estate empires. Many of the brothels were owned an operated by women. Some of the women may have turned to sex work because of financial necessity but others enjoyed the freedom provided at a time when most women could only choose domestic work or marriage (which would usually involve domestic work).

I found this book fascinating and while I appreciate the challenge Ms Minchinton had in trying to trace lives through public records, I found it interesting to learn about the different women involved.

‘When it comes to reforming sex-work legislation today, the history of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century industry offers one important lesson: while sex workers need the same protection from violence and exploitation as other workers, the more salient issue is the ongoing stigma and discrimination that sex workers suffer as a result of other people’s moral disapproval. Until sex workers and the services they provide are accorded legitimacy and respect, they will require a regulatory model that addresses the ugly moralism passed down from the nineteenth century.’

True.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Friday essay: creation, destruction and appropriation – the powerful symbolism of the Rainbow Serpent (from The Conversation)

A mural of the Rainbow Serpent in the NSW town of Bourke, pictured in 2015. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Shino Konishi, Australian Catholic University

Prior to colonisation there were approximately 250 different Aboriginal languages spoken by some 500 clans throughout Australia. Each clan possessed numerous Dreaming stories, depicting how the land was traversed and marked by the Ancestral Beings, who created land-forms, people, animals, plants and celestial stars.

Their experiences, and often the consequences of their actions, formed the basis for Aboriginal kinship systems, laws, ways of caring for Country and connecting to land.

These ancestors are not relegated to the past, for their presence is still felt at sacred sites, and they are still responsible for providing the resources that sustain the clan. Some Aboriginal people maintain their connection to these powerful beings by continuing to perform the songs and dances they gave them, and marking their bodies and objects with their sacred designs.

Thus Aboriginal cultures are necessarily rich with symbolism. Towards the end of the 20th century, Aboriginal culture was increasingly being called upon to provide a symbol of nation – representing Australia as a whole – by groups of non-Indigenous Australians who believed it offered a depth and richness of symbolic meaning that more conventional symbols had lost (or perhaps had never had).

Rainbow Serpent mural created by teacher Jenny Noble and the children of Rosebank School, New South Wales, 2000. Rosebank Public School

The most widely known Ancestral Being is the Rainbow Serpent, or Rainbow Snake, the English names for the figure that appears in the Dreamings of many different Aboriginal language groups across the continent.

It features as an important creator figure, guardian of sacred places, bringer of monsoonal rains and storms, bestower of powers upon healers and rainmakers, or a dangerous creature that punishes people who violate laws, or dwells in waterholes threatening to swallow unwary passers-by, to name just a few incarnations.

It is also strongly connected with fertility, both human and ecological. In all of its guises and geographies the Rainbow Serpent is associated with water, an essential resource, and the rainbow, whose shimmering light and curved form reflects the scales and body of the snake. The rainbow is also an important bridge between the water and the sky, the sky yet another resting place for the Rainbow Serpent.

The Rainbow Serpent is associated with water and the rainbow. shutterstock

Just one of the many Rainbow Serpents who travelled the land is Yingarna, whose story is told by Kunwinjku-speaking people from western Arnhem Land. In one of many stories she was said to be the first Rainbow Serpent, and all of creation burst from her body. The Kunwinjku also possess Dreaming stories about Yingarna’s child, Ngalyod, who is associated with the “potentially destructive power of the storms and the plenty of the wet seasons”.

The immense power that Yingarna and Ngalyod have is both creative and destructive: these Rainbow Serpents are not simply benevolent symbols of unity, but can also be threatening, so their resting places should be avoided. This menacing aspect has been symbolised in Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru’s painting from the National Museum of Australia’s collection, which depicts Yingarna with terrible crocodile’s teeth and tail, and a round, emu-like body capable of holding all she has swallowed.

The idea of the Rainbow Serpent as a composite of many other animals and even plants appeared elsewhere; western Arnhem Land rock paintings portray Rainbow Serpents with the head of a kangaroo, body of a snake, tail of a barramundi, and yam-shaped protrusions from the body. The oldest of these rock paintings have been dated to 6000 years, supporting the argument that Rainbow Serpent stories are among the world’s oldest continuous religious traditions.

This makes it especially useful as a national symbol, claiming for modern Australia both universality and longevity.


Read more: ‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: who dreamed up these terms?


For Aboriginal people the Rainbow Serpent is not relegated to the past and time of creation, but remains an awesome source of power that shapes the contemporary world. When Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, local Aboriginal people interpreted it as a “warning to stop neglecting their traditional law and associated rituals”, and succumbing to the temptations of “lawless” city life.

Attaching meaning

Non-Indigenous Australians have known stories about other Rainbow Serpents since colonial times. Francis Armstrong, the first government interpreter of the Swan River Colony (now Perth), recorded an account of the Waugal (also spelled Wagyl), a Noongar Rainbow Serpent, in 1836, seven years after the establishment of the settlement. He observed that there were

certain large round stones, in different parts of the Colony, which they [Noongar people] believe to be the eggs laid by the waugal … On passing such stones, they are in the habit of making a bed for it, of the rushes of the blackboy [balga, grass tree or Xanthorrhoea preissii].

This was because, according to Noongar elder Clarrie Isaacs, the Waugal had created the Swan River and all its associated waterholes, and “has the power of life and death over Aborigines and demands the respect due to it”.

However, despite noticing the reverence that the Noongar paid these stones, the settlers still removed them from their place, indicating that they accorded them no significance.

This instance suggests the difficulty of translating the symbolic significance of an object and story across cultures, especially when there is such disparity in power relations. But in addition it reveals the way the very land contained symbolic meaning for Indigenous people, whereas for the increasingly utilitarian colonisers the land was reduced to little more than an economic resource.

The Rainbow Serpent, then, means different things for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Armstrong’s example demonstrates that in the early period it was considered a mere curiosity and disregarded, for the colonists were busy transforming and re-purposing the land.

Conflicting attitudes about the Waugal arose again in the 1980s when the state government wanted to redevelop the site of the Old Swan Brewery, also known as Goonininup, a resting place of the Rainbow Serpent.

Perth’s Old Swan Brewery is a resting place of the Rainbow Serpent. Harry and Rowena Kennedy/flickr, CC BY-NC

Again, a century and a half later, few non-Indigenous Western Australians sympathised with Noongar protests, and received the idea of the Waugal with great scepticism. Isaacs attempted to find equivalences in European systems of belief:

They say because when they drive past the site that because they cannot see some sort of ridiculous fire breathing dragon-like creature poking its Loch Ness Monster-like head from the waters that it does not exist. It is as ridiculous as myself making an assertion that God is actually a large white man sitting on a throne atop some puffy clouds.

But the developers ignored inconvenient arguments about religious symbolism, preferring a more self-interestedly rational interpretation which, according to cultural studies scholar John Fielder, demonstrates the imperial nature of Western rationality, where our logic renders all other logics as essentially illogical, irrational – not to be thought of as logic at all.

The Noongar saw the Waugal as a “spiritual being”, while their opponents saw the Waugal as “some wildly primitive superstition” and the Noongar themselves as troublemakers.

‘Domesticated’

However, non-Indigenous Australians have attached a range of other meanings to the Rainbow Serpent, for the most part far from hostile. This is partly due to the influence of anthropologists who, in the early 20th century, became interested in what they called “myth”.

Anthropologist AR Radcliffe-Brown compiled a survey of stories from different Aboriginal language groups across Australia, and concluded that the Rainbow Serpent occupied “the position of a deity”. Despite noticing many differences in these stories, Radcliffe-Brown assumed that there was just a single Rainbow Serpent, and that it was akin to a god, “the most important nature-deity”. It was a view that greatly influenced non-Indigenous Australian understandings.

Taken out of the particular contexts of each language group’s Dreamings, the Rainbow Serpent has been stripped of its numerous ambivalent symbolisms and iconographic forms, and frequently reduced to a singular entity – a benevolent mother/creator-figure in the form of a brightly coloured snake.


Read more: Indigenous cultural appropriation: what not to do


Perhaps this is in part due to the snake’s particular morphology; it is easy to imagine its enormous sinuous body carving out the rivers and creeks in the ancient “Dreamtime” (as it used to be described), whereas the meaning of the multiple symbolisms and composite form of Yingarna, Ngalyod and other Rainbow Serpents discussed by Aboriginal clans eludes outsiders.

It could be argued that this new rendering as a benevolent snake is a process of intellectual colonisation, for the settlers have domesticated the Rainbow Serpent, making it comprehensible and palatable to Western ideas. It was a case of non-Indigenous Australia connecting to Aboriginality only on a disembodied and superficial aesthetic level rather than at a level of deep understanding.

In the 1970s, celebrated Australian artist Sidney Nolan painted two large murals depicting Rainbow Serpents. Snake, a 45-metre long mosaic was said to be Nolan’s “homage to Australia’s Aborigines”.

Snake by Australian artist Sidney Nolan, at the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart, Tasmania. Wikimedia Commons

The second work, Little Snake was inspired by the sight of the Central Australian desert blooming after years of drought. Nolan used the Rainbow Serpent to represent “the magical power of water that brings life from a state of stasis”.

It is this “domesticated” image of the giant brightly coloured snake with which Australians are probably most familiar, and which would prove most suitable for representing the Australian nation as a whole.

A commonplace symbol

Since then, images of Rainbow Serpents have slithered across school walls and community murals in suburbs and towns throughout the nation, at least those with large Indigenous or left-leaning populations.

The education system has taken the Rainbow Serpent to its widest audience. For many young Australians the Rainbow Serpent has been packaged as an Indigenous fairytale. From the 1970s, Australian children have read illustrated books depicting the life and adventures of the Rainbow Serpent.

The Rainbow Serpent features in many children’s books. goodreads

By the 1990s, children could paint their own Rainbow Serpent designs during NAIDOC Week, Harmony Day, or other events celebrating Australia’s multiculturalism. For adult Australians, the Rainbow Serpent has a number of other connotations. Tourists have been able to buy prints, T-shirts, books and jewellery or even underpants decorated with the great snake’s sinuous form, as an exotic souvenir of Australia.

Walkers and leisure-seekers can photograph, sit on or picnic by large public sculptures of the snake in public spaces, where it was intended to acknowledge and commemorate Aboriginal people. And since 1997 New Agers, ravers and ecotourists can come from “across the globe to dance a common dream” at the annual Rainbow Serpent Festival in Lexton, central Victoria, to camp and dance, but also learn from local Dja Dja Wurrung and Wadawurrung peoples and other Indigenous people from the Pacific and north America.

The New Age market has been one of the most avid consumers of the Rainbow Serpent symbol, reading in it positive messages about the earth and people’s spiritual relationship with it. Anthropologist Sallie Anderson has noticed that:

The authors of many New Age books on Aboriginal culture and spirituality pick and choose characteristics from ethnographic descriptions of various rainbow serpent myths that seemingly support their comparisons with the Kundalini, electromagnetism, Vishnu, fertility and death, vibration and energy sources and various other themes.

The Rainbow Serpent Festival, 2019. Raimbow Tomcat, Wikimedia Commons

The Rainbow Serpent’s winding form and brilliant colours have become a commonplace symbol within Australian pedagogical, cultural, economic and built environments.

This widespread familiarity with the image, and the apparent tangibility of the concept in its domesticated and aestheticised form, has led to it being understood as a preeminent symbol of Aboriginal identity, especially apparent in public events celebrating the centenary of Federation.

The turn of the century saw a groundswell of interest in Aboriginal people and their place in Australia. The first year of the new millennium was supposed to mark the end of the ten-year journey towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

In June 2000, hundreds of thousands had participated in the Walk for Reconciliation and in September Australians cheered for Indigenous athlete Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics. These milestones meant that a feelgood emblem of the newly reconciled nation was needed for 2001, when Australia’s national identity was celebrated in the centenary of Federation. The Rainbow Serpent was called into service.

Fireworks at the Sydney Opera House in 2001: the two symbols on the bridge are the Rainbow Serpent and the Star of Federation. Russell McPhedran/AAP

On 1 January 2001 the Journey of a Nation – Centenary of Federation parade through the streets of Sydney included a float shaped like a huge coiled snake, with dancers wearing costumes decorated with Rainbow Serpents designed by Bundjalung artist Bronwyn Bancroft.

Then, at Canberra’s 2001 Floriade festival, the Rainbow Serpent again appeared, this time in the “Century in bloom” display. On this “floral walk through the decades”, viewers passed through plantings of humble vegetables representing the hardships of the Depression and beds of flowers planted in the shapes of the German Iron Cross and the Japanese Rising Sun, indicating World War II.

The 1970s were represented by a display of tulips and native flora planted in the design of the Rainbow Serpent, ostensibly symbolising “Australia’s Aboriginal heritage”. These examples suggest that the Rainbow Serpent was used by the event organisers as a metonym for Aboriginality, so audiences could embrace Aboriginal peoples’ place within Australia’s national identity.

However, the Rainbow Serpent was also used to symbolise Australia as a whole, and not just its Indigenous peoples. In Sydney’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display, the grand finale is always the lighting of the mystery symbol that adorns the eastern side of the city’s beloved Harbour Bridge. In 2001 that symbol was the Rainbow Serpent, depicted alongside the Federation Star. The maxim of that year’s show was “100 years as a nation, thousands of years as a land”.

Thus the Rainbow Serpent was used to give modern Australia an ancient past, and, in conjunction with the star, was appropriated to represent Australia.

The use of the Rainbow Serpent was no doubt well intentioned, but this plainly benevolent and amorphous meaning was far removed from that connoted by the original, highly ambivalent Rainbow Serpents of the Dreaming.

A Rainbow Serpent mural in Sydney. Newtown graffiti/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Aboriginal people have also adopted new symbolic meanings for the Rainbow Serpents. Due to the history of colonisation and the emergence of Indigenous political organisations and media, Aboriginal societies have become more mixed and cosmopolitan, and a pan-Aboriginal identity has emerged.

Instead of identifying solely with one’s clan or language group, Aboriginal people have formed a community that encompasses the entire continent. As such, they have needed to develop their own symbols to represent this new pan-identity, and the ubiquity of the Rainbow Serpent in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies makes it well placed to act as “a symbol of unity … amongst urban Aborigines”.

The image of the Rainbow Serpent has been used in a number of ways. The Rainbow Serpent has provided a logo for Aboriginal corporations such as the Northern Land Council. Victoria’s Rumbalara Oral Health Centre depicted the Rainbow Serpent as dental floss, “twisting through an orange tangled web, which represents plaque on teeth”.

For the Aboriginal community of Moree, it was a symbol of unity when they constructed a 17-metre long Rainbow Serpent for the Black + White + Pink Reconciliation Float, entered in the 1999 Mardi Gras parade.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (left) is presented with a bark painting of the Rainbow Serpent by Gagadju Aboriginal elder Alfred Nayinggul (centre) and Michael Bangalang (2nd right) during a visit to Kakadu National Park in 2010. David Hancock/AAP

Inscribing new meaning

The Rainbow Serpent has been an important symbol in Aboriginal societies for thousands of years, and by the start of the 21st century it was also a recognised symbol for the wider Australian society. In making that transition it lost its particular “traditional” meanings of creation, water and fertility, and its ambiguous combination of creative and destructive forces.

Although it has not featured much on the national stage as a symbol since the Federation centenary in 2001, it remains a potent symbol of local Aboriginal community spirit and reconciliation. For example, Bundjalung artist John Robinson’s Rainbow Serpent artwork was installed at a shopping centre in East Maitland, New South Wales to celebrate 2018’s Reconciliation Week.

In 2019 a Rainbow Serpent water feature designed by a collective of Kamilaroi women artists was commissioned for the Gunnedah Civic Centre, and the Perth Royal Show showcased a public performance by Noongar elder Walter McGuire, featuring a “35m long Wagyl inflatable creation … illuminated by the colours of the rainbow”.

It is evident then, that the supple skin of the Rainbow Serpent continues to provide an ideal canvas for inscribing new meanings and symbolisms for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This is an edited extract from Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation, edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White, published by NewSouth Books. Footnotes for this article can be found in the book.

Shino Konishi, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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

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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

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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

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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

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