Sunday, August 29, 2010

Perth’s lost city.

In 1831, 400 people left everything they had ever known to follow a British entrepreneur to one of the most isolated places on earth.

Instead of a brave new world, the 400 were stranded on the Western Australian coast for over a year in a chaotic makeshift city that came to be known as Clarence Town.

Lost for 150 years, the site was recently rediscovered by a local archaeologist and is revealing new information about our colonial past.

The Swan River Colony was always intended to be Australia’s first private settlement. Convict labour was definitely not part of this vision; in fact, until the latter half of the 20th Century many Perth families would strenuously deny their convict roots. But where to access cheap labour to build this new British outpost?

An answer was found in indentured servants – workers bought over from Britain in exchange for a period of labour (generally 3-7 years). Though the agreements were generally entered into voluntarily, the backbreaking work and harsh conditions were a high price to pay.

Thomas Peel was one of the colonies’ major investors and planned to bring over 400 indentured labourers. In exchange, he had been promised 1,000 square km of prime land - however there was a catch. To claim the land Peel had to arrive before November 1829. Unfortunately Peel was six months late so by the time he arrived the land had already been claimed.

Panicked, Peel threatened to take his entire cohort back to England and protracted negotiations began for a new allocation. While these continued all men, women and children were stranded on the coast, where they inadvertently created one of Perth’s first towns. The site itself was completely unsuitable with little water, basic shelter (the lucky ones created canvas tents, with others forced to dwell in barrels and boxes) and dwindling supplies.

After over a year living in slum conditions, the government stepped in to release all labourers from their contracts. Peel balked – his dreams for a grand town in his name were all but shattered – causing Governor James Stirling to write:
‘Had the Magistrates given a contrary order and compelled your people to remain in your service they would have acted illegally, for such an order would have been equivalent to Sentence of Death by Starvation.’
The settlement was abandoned.

Peel died in Mandurah in 1865 and it is said in his later days he would ride his horse throughout the colony in full (but tattered) English riding gear. Once the colonies’ main investor, he ended his life as a local eccentric with illusions of grandeur. Indeed his folly was so famous it even caught the attention of Karl Marx who used his tale of woe as an example in Das Kapital.

The citizens of Clarence Town are rarely mentioned in colonial records, indeed most could not read or write. However, recently, a team of archaeologists led by Dr Shane Burke have been working to release their unique voices from our colonial past.

For over 50 years historians believed the town site was at Woodman Point however a treasure trove of artefacts have proven that the actual site was 8km further south. Finds have included hundreds of thousands of artefacts – including pipes, bottles, coins, thimbles, flint and limestone structures – even a piano key...

The objects left behind are revealing much about the people of Clarence Town. Once abandoned on the fringes and erased from the records, they are finally telling their side of the story.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The girl in the yellow dress.

I’ve always loved this poster and have a framed copy hanging up above my desk. Maybe it's because there's something so optimistic about the girl in the yellow dress; the promise of youth, possibilities and endless horizons. Posters such as this were created by the Australian National Travel Association – an organisation established in 1929 with the sole purpose 'to place Australia on the world's travel map and keep it there'.

This one was published by the Western Australian Tourist Bureau in 1936 and is the work of Australian artist Percy Trompf (1902-1964). His bright, cheerful artwork was extremely popular, especially during the hardships of the Depression era.

But who is the girl in the yellow dress and why would she have appealed to potential tourists? Human figures were often used in Australian travel advertising to provide some scale for the vast landscapes. They also made the wide open spaces of the outback seem far less frightening and empty.

It’s likely we’ll never know if Trompf modelled the girl on anyone he knew however the fact that she reflects a European ideal with blonde hair and ruddy complexion is no accident. In fact, if it wasn't for the distinctive Australian wildflowers (including 'Kangaroo Paw' - the floral emblem of Western Australia) the poster could be a scene from continental Europe! A fantasy girl in a fantasy land, she perhaps reveals more about wishful-thinking than reality.

Despite this, the American-style image of a smiling, beckoning girl was so successful that is still used in travel advertising today – albeit it’s her older sister this time.

The forgotten freedom fighter.

Sometimes the stories we forget reveal more about us than those we remember.

Yagan was a freedom fighter who lobbied for peace between Australia’s first peoples and the first British colonists. His exploits and efforts to bring peace to the Swan River Colony made him a celebrity in his time, however today his legacy is little known.

The son of a Noongar elder, Yagan was in his early twenties when colonists arrived in 1829 and quickly proved himself a bold and charismatic leader. In 1831 he was declared an outlaw after seeking revenge against an settler who murdered one of his tribesmen - one of the first examples of Aboriginal resistance in the Swan River Colony. Over the months that passed, Yagan’s exploits became legendary as he evaded authorities.

His trust in settlers, many of whom he considered friends and relatives, resulted in his eventual capture in September 1832 however he soon escaped. In an act of incredible bravery, instead of going into hiding Yagan boldly walked into Perth and negotiated a treaty between the Noongar and European settlers.

Yagan’s celebrity grew and the Perth Gazette newspaper made frequent mention of his doings, praising his good nature. Settlers went so far as to compare him to a Scottish resistance hero, William Wallace.

The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 20 April 1833

Peace was shattered when a visitor to the colony murdered a group of Noongar women and children. This unprovoked slaughter sparked a series of revenge attacks and the incarceration and execution of Yagan’s father. Once again, Yagan was an outlaw and once again his good nature was his undoing.

Three months later a teenage boy, who Yagan considered a friend, shot Yagan to claim a reward. The Gazette reported his death with ‘mingled feelings of gratification and regret’ later calling his death ‘treachery’. Yagan’s head was preserved and sent to England where it was studied and displayed an anthropological curiosity - before finally being forgotten in a distant archive and buried in an unknown grave.

Since the early 1980’s attempts were made by the Noongar community to locate and repatriate Yagan’s head. After being located in Liverpool in December 1993, permission to exhume it was granted by the British government in 1997. The return of the head by a delegation of Noongar elders was highly symbolic to Noongar people and one which was likened by some to the repatriation from Gallipoli of Australia's Unknown Soldier. Yagan’s traditional burial took place this year, more than 170 years after his death.

Australian historian Henry Reynolds once asked ‘ if we are to continue to celebrate the sacrifice of men and women who died for their country, can we deny admission to fallen tribesmen?’. Unless we come to terms with frontier conflict and our part in it, Yagan will be doomed to be remembered for controversy rather than his extraordinary courage and stance against injustice.

This failing will be ours and we will be lesser for it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Is this a time traveler?

The photo below was taken in Canada in 1940 and it is part of the collection of the The Virtual Museum of Canada. At first glance it seems ordinary enough - but look a little closer...

You might see a stranger that looks a little out of place.

Or does he? Find out more at Boing Boing.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What is historypunk?

After spending a childhood in rural Australia dreaming of travel and adventure, I couldn't wait to head off to see the world. A commerce degree later I was only my way to London where I worked in advertising, the music industry and travelled for six years. Then one day, I realised the biggest adventure had been waiting for me at home the whole time.

I was soon back in Perth to do the one thing I'd always dreamed of doing - completing a History degree. After juggling part time study with a job as a digital marketing specialist I took the plunge and am now studying full time at the University of Western Australia.

I'm endlessly curious about the stories we choose to tell, and fascinated by those we don't. Historypunk is a journal of my ongoing adventures in history.

The aim of Historypunk? To reveal the stuff they didn’t tell you at school, provide an alternative take on Australian History and maybe surprise you with a few stories from our own backyard. Because our history is not something that belongs solely to politicians, academics and educators. These are our stories and they belong to us. They’re just waiting for us to claim them.