Sunday, November 14, 2010

6 events from WA history every child should learn.

Last week British historian Simon Scharma listed 6 events from British history every child should learn and American journalist Michael Tomasky quickly responded with a list of his own. The prospect of distilling the history of a nation into a few key events is daunting but it got me thinking. As a WA history blogger I was inspired to take up the challenge and propose a list of our own.

In keeping with Scharma I wanted to select events that seem particularly relevant to the challenges of our time. Being able to empathise with those in the past is powerful; it is at these moments of 'relatability' that the past is suddenly brought to life.

I also wanted to create a list that might inspire fresh debate and discussion in the classroom. Much of history is about power and while it is impossible to separate history from politics (and if you tried kids could see right through it) - critical thinking can help neutralise this. The point is not to tell kids what to think, but to give them the freedom to think for themselves.

With so many events to choose from where to begin? Perhaps with the advertising campaign that started it all? James Stirling is not generally credited as a PR guru however his promotional campaign for the new colony was so successful that it created 'Swan River Mania' in 1820’s England. The reality for new settlers was very different and in a few short years they were united in a battle for survival. The arrival of convicts in 1850 was another major turning point in our history. They were never part of the plan for this 'genteel' colony - in fact - until the latter half of the 20th century it was common for Western Australians to hide their convict heritage! However without them the future would have been bleak - their labour was used to build many of the first major roads and buildings.

Our isolation had always defined us – even today we are the most isolated capital city in the world. It is revealing that the first settlement in WA was not the Swan River colony in 1829, but a military base at Albany four years prior. Isolation has been a source of pride but also insecurity; perhaps it is from this legacy that sinking of the HMAS Sydney during World War Two resonated so deeply with us then and now.

And what of the current debates surrounding political refugees in WA? Some of the first refugees to arrive on our shores were intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe fleeing persecution from the Nazis in the 1930s. Their arrival too heralded fiery debate – they looked different, spoke differently and worshiped different religions. Despite facing intolerance they injected new life into the Perth cultural scene founding opera societies, starting modern art movements and introducing new ways of thinking. After considering these events (and many more) I finally arrived at the list below.

6 events every Western Australian child should learn...

1. First Settlement
40,000 – 60,000 years ago
Genetic evidence suggests that all of us are descended from a single group of 10,000 Africans and that humans reached Australia long before they reached Europe - even though Australia is further away from Africa. Indigenous Australians arrived on our north-west coast 40,000 – 60,000 years ago. They possess the world’s oldest continual culture and when faced with today’s environmental challenges there is much they can teach us.

2. European Exploration
Early 17th Century
Rumours of a mythical ‘great south land’ had been circulating Europe for over 2,000 years but despite (or maybe because of) grand expectations - many early visitors were unimpressed. The Dutch of the early 17th century viewed our treacherous waters as an endurance obstacle course on the way to Asia, rather than an attractive destination. The 18th century bought curious French and British explorers who, while happy to visit, were less than enthusiastic about the huge job of setting up a colony and living here! It was the threat that the French might colonise WA that finally prompted Britain to establish a settlement in Albany, then Perth.

3. Yagan’s Peace Talks
When the first settlers arrived at the Swan River they encounted a complex Noongar society. Initial relations were peaceful however miscommunication and battles over scarce resources soon resulted in violent conflicts between settlers and indigenous Australians. During his lifetime, Yagan was not only a respected Aboriginal resistance leader and patriot - but arguably the colony’s first celebrity. In 1833 the Perth Gazette newspaper likened him to a European ressistance hero, reporting that Yagan was ‘now generally known as ‘The (William) Wallace . Despite being a wanted man, Yagan met with Lieutenant Governor Frederick Irwin in 1933 and negotiated a short-lived peace between the Noongar and European settlers. In the past, controversy surrounding Yagan’s death has tragically overshadowed his leadership and achievements.

4. Our first mining boom
While the nature of any economic ‘boom’ is short-term they can have lasting legacies - our first mining boom changed us forever. The Gold Rush of the 1890’s brought thousands of immigrants from overseas and the Eastern states – in a few short years our population increased by 400%! Individual fortunes were won and lost but the effects can still be seen over 100 years later – not only did it lead to the creation of much needed railways, roads and telegraph communications, it also resulted in new art galleries, zoological gardens, grand hotels and theatres. The boom also saw one of the greatest global engineering feats of its time – C. Y. O’Connor’s ‘golden pipeline’ pushed technology to its limits to provide water to the Kalgoorlie goldfields.

5. Federation
It’s time to look at federation differently. Far from being dull and boring, this event defined us unlike any another. While we joke about secession, it was by no means inevitable that WA would ever join the Commonwealth. The federation debate also indirectly led to WA being a leader in women's rights! We were one of the first places in the world to give women the vote in 1899 - women in Britain and USA waited another 20 years (1918 and 1920 respectively). Though we had an innovative suffragette movement, it was no coincidence the vote was awarded just before the federation referendum. Women were viewed as a conservative influence and less likely to want to join the commonwealth. However - in the end the huge influx of immigrants from the mining boom (especially those from the eastern states) led to a yes vote for federation.

6. The end of World War One
Despite technology allowing us to connect with the world in new and innovative ways, it is easy for us today to feel detached from the reality of war. While the rest of the world commemorates World War One on the day it ended (Armistice Day), we are unique in Australia as we also commemorate Anzac Day – the day we first went into battle. Over 10% of WA's population enlisted to fight in WW1 and the conflict left no family untouched. The end of the war brought joy and optimism however many who returned found it difficult to adjust back to civilian life. Looking back today the causes of this conflict seem heartbreakingly complex however attempts to understand the effects of any war cannot succeed without first learning why we were there.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Does the past have a future?

While taking a break from exam study yesterday I read a thought-provoking article by historian Simon Schama in which he outlined his vision for history in British schools. Insightful and inspiring, it reminded me why I started studying history in the first place (and how neglected this blog has been during exams).

Schama argues that sanitised, spoon-fed history curriculums patronise kids and underestimate an enthusiasm for complex stories proven by the popularity of books such as Harry Potter, The Dark Materials Trilogy, Twilight and Lord of the Rings. Perhaps we should ask if they stay in the best-sellers lists despite hefty word counts and challenging themes - or because of them. The truth is certainly stranger than fiction. Is it time we started telling history differently?

In a Facebook culture firmly focused on the next 'status update', Scharma suggests that ‘unless (children) can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now’. I would argue that the dangers of being seduced by the ‘eternal Now ’are in no way limited to children. The 24hr news cycle has come to offer us a relentless drumbeat of action and reaction. With our minds set in the present, the perhaps future may soon become obsolete.

In his article, Scharma listed six key events from British history that he believes every child should learn, along with the reasons why. It made me wonder - how do you even begin to list the most important events in a community’s history? Do you select those events that had greatest impact at the time; or ones that have become more important in retrospect? Is it more important to know the about events that have made us who we are; or to select those that may help us become who we should be?

While we may never reach consensus on a single list of events that have defined us; perhaps we can all agree that to claim our future, we must first reclaim our past.