Looking again at Australian Lives by Barrie Dyster

The first two volumes of the  Australian Dictionary of Biography  — A to H, I to Z—  were published way back in 1966. They dealt with people who flourished before the gold rushes of 1851. So began a massive enterprise of scholarly cooperation. From the start authors wrote lucidly within the limits of sources available to them at the time. The editors licked deficiencies of content and style into shape. New information inevitably came to light, through further research and through corrections submitted by readers. Purchasers of volume 7 in 1976 received a booklet entitled “Corrigenda”, with amendments to the six previous books that had been identified over the intervening decade. Almost the earliest error that was noted concerned the last sentence in the entry on James Atkinson (1795-1834, vol 1 p. 42), which ran “His first child Charlotte Elizabeth (born 1828) died in infancy”. It was to be replaced by “his first child Charlotte Elizabeth lived to a ripe old age at Orange”.

Librarians all over the country rushed to the shelves. They painstakingly entered the alterations in the margins. Because the books were bound and set in hard type the “Corrigenda” booklet did not dare add substantial and lengthy information, nor could it include reinterpretation. 

Yet reinterpretation was underway before the books were published. Robert Reece, for example, had already begun the research that issued in R.H.W. Reece, Aborigines and Colonists (Sydney 1974), where he expressed amazement that the Dictionary’s report on Henry Dangar (1796-1861, vol 1 pp. 280-282) did not mention that the Myall Creek massacre of 1838 occured on his squatting run and that he joined the Hunter River Black Association in defence of his workers (Reece, p. 35, footnote 119). When the Blue Mountains – born author Roger Milliss brought out his blockbuster Waterloo Creek (Melbourne 1992) Dangar filled half a column in the index at the back (p. 936).

Then there was Angus McMillan (1810-1865, vol 2 pp. 183-184). He “pioneered Gippsland and spent the rest of his life contributing to its welfare”. His memory remained green in 1948 when the federal electorate covering Gippsland was given the name McMillan.

It was during the 1970s that Don Watson (who addressed the Blackheath History Forum in 2015) was working on what became Caledonia Australis: Scottish highlanders on the frontier of Australia (Sydney 1984). The Dictionary declared “McMillan took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aboriginals”. But Watson showed that McMillan took part in, and maybe led, genocidal campaigns against the Gurnai.

The Wikipedia notice on Angus McMillan does not mention Watson’s account, but it does cite two scholarly articles, from 2001 and from 2004, that reinforce Watson’s conclusion. Wikipedia has not yet caught up with Cal Flyn from Skye, Thicker than Water: a memoir of family, secrets, guilt and history, a shocked and unflinching book from a collateral descendant  of Angus McMillan. And now Russell Broadbent, federal member for the seat of McMillan, has joined the movement to have its name changed.

For more than a decade the Australian Dictionary of Biography has been online. It is now possible to make major changes, once they seem justified. The Victorian working party of the Dictionary commissioned Cheryl Glowrey to write a brand new entry on McMillan. It can   be found at the click of a mouse.

A benign example from volume 2 (p. 283) concerns the parentage of Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), “statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician”. The solidly researched original entry informs us that he “was born on 23 November in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant-agent to Lord Egremont, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant. Nicholson’s mother died when he was three, and his father a few years later, and he was brought up by a maiden aunt in Yorkshire”.

Nicholson’s collection of antiquities became the basis of a museum named after him at the University of Sydney. A recent director of the Nicholson Museum enquired further into the benefactor’s early life.. When you call up the entry online nowadays this is what you will find: “He was born on 23 November 1808, in Iburndale, near Whitby, Yorkshire, illegitimate son of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a labourer, and an unknown father. He was christened Isaac Ascough. Isaac’s mother died when he was five, and he was brought up by his uncle William Ascough and aunt Mary Clink (nee Ascough) in Yorkshire. After attending school in York, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, by which time he was known as Charles Nicholson”.

Fifty years ago such details might have been hard to trace. And if unearthed they may have been thought unbecoming to relate in an account about such a notable figure as Sir Charles. These days, however, do  we think less of the man once these circumstances have been recorded?

This is not the only instance where old assumptions appear outmoded. The supervisor of a boys’ home in another State was remembered in a more recent volume as a stern and heroic force for good. We have since had several enquiries into the institutional abuse of children. That biography is now under consideration.

Taboos in the early 1960s, and the appearance of gentility expected within universities, encouraged warm or at least bland  judgements of the Immortals in volumes 1 and 2.  It was not always possible, however, to hold back. The author of the life of John Edye Manning (1783-1870, vol 2 pp.202-203) could not avoid setting out forensically the great and systematic embezzlements that Manning undertook as registrar of the Supreme Court and curator of intestate estates. Hazel King, a kindly and judicious scholar, was not very impressed by the provost marshal William Gore ( 1765-1845, vol 1 pp. 459-460). Dr King’s colleague at the University of Sydney, John M. Ward, had written a book about the colonial policy of the third Earl Grey, so his nine columns on Henry George Grey, third Earl (1802-1894, vol 1 pp. 480-484), could encompass the subject’s unpleasant as well as praiseworthy characteristics. And the Dictionary’s supervising editor, Douglas Pike, writing with modest anonymity, found the Sydney businessman Alexander Brodie Spark (1792-1856, vol 2 pp.463-465) to be profoundly shallow.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography is a federal enterprise. Initial responsibility has been borne by State working parties for selecting the Immortals from their State and for selecting also the people who should be asked to immortalise them. Each appropriate working party, recently, has the task of considering revisions within its jurisdiction. There are also separate Commonwealth, Indigenous and Military working parties, the last of which was chaired in the past by Robert O’Neill, retiring vice president of the Blackheath History Forum.

I am a member of the New South Wales working party, whose long-term chair has been Beverley Kingston, formerly professor at the University of New South Wales, and whose chief researcher is Chris Cunneen, formerly assistant editor of the Dictionary at the ANU. As we were nearing the end of the process of whittling a list of almost 3000 people from our State who died between 1991 and 2000 to the 370 allotted to us the ABC carried a documentary about the Myall Creek massacre. Jack Carmody, president of the Australian Catholic Historical Society and the working party’s expert on scientists and musicians,  heard the broadcast with less of the resigned complacency of those of us who live professionally in colonial Australia. He looked up Henry Dangar in the Dictionary, and was as amazed as Robert Reece and Roger Milliss had been about what he didn’t find.

So when we had completed our duty towards the future volume 19 we went back to the very beginning, to Isaac Aaron (1804-1877, vol 1 p. 1). Our deliberate slow march has just now brought us almost to the end of book 2.

Most obviously for work done half a century ago much about parentage, birth, marriage and even death had been obscure, or seemingly irretrievable, for subjects born overseas and in the 18th century. The problem was eased when Sally O’Neill, one of the founding committee members of the Blackheath History Forum, lived in England between 1983 and 2001. She also wrote fifty lives for the Dictionary on her own account.

Nowadays so many birth, baptismal, marriage, death and census records have been digitised that an experienced searcher can retrieve information without leaving home.

To give an example of what might be involved, take the life of James Wallis (1785?-1858, vol 2, pp. 568-569). An army officer, he was in Australia only from 1814 to 1819. The main justification for his inclusion was his short period commanding the convict settlement at Newcastle (and the naming of nearby Wallis Plains and Wallis Lake). The question mark after the date of birth has not yet been removed. Both his original entry and that of the convict forger and artist Joseph Lycett (1774-1828, vol 2, pp.141-142) assert that they travelled from London on the same ship. Wallis used Lycett’s talents as sketcher and as architectural draftsman in Newcastle, but they had not met on shipboard; Lycett arrived on a convict transport and Wallis on another vessel with part of his regiment.  The birth and death years of both of Wallis’ wives have been discovered. Wallis was a father at least once. His second wife was brought to bed at the age of 40 of twin boys. One was stillborn, the other lived for three years.

These incremental changes will soon be added  online. But there is a different challenge in a single sentence in the opening paragraph. “In April 1816 he commanded a company of grenadiers of the 46th regiment against hostile Aboriginals near Airds and Appin, and received the thanks of Governor Macquarie for ‘zealous exertions and strict attention to the fulfilling of the instructions’.”

This sentence may have seemed unexceptionable in the mid 1960s. It rings alarm bells today. It was the colony that was invading Aboriginal country, after all, not the other way round, and this expedition was meant to speed the conquest. Since 2015 the Dictionary of Sydney Online has carried an entry, “Appin Massacre”,  by Grace Karskens who addressed the Blackheath History Forum in 2009 and again in 2017. Macquarie ordered Wallis to “apprehend or destroy” the Aboriginal people who stood in the colony’s way. A raid before dawn on 17 April 1816 killed most of a community aroused from sleep, either directly or by driving them over the edge of the Cataract Gorge. Two women and three children were taken prisoner. This event calls for reappraisal of the entry on Macquarie as well as on Wallis.

Perusal of Wallis’ journal allows us to consider his friendship in Newcastle with Burigon, with whom he hunted, fished and bushwalked. The Indigenous working party of the Dictionary  is considering whether Burigon deserves a biography of his own. And it appears that Captain Wallis adopted an Aboriginal boy he named “Wallis”, who was delivered up to the Native School when the soldier sailed away, a particularly poignant occurrence to contemplate on the tenth anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

A contrasting amendment may be made on the page following James Wallis’ entry. John Warby (1774? – 1851, vol 2, p.570) arrived in Australia in 1791 on a short seven year sentence. From 1803 he was official custodian of the wild cattle that roamed around the region known as the Cow Pastures. His bushmanship on what was then the south-western frontier of the colony was greatly respected. “In 1814”, we read, “he was among those rewarded for visiting Aboriginal tribes in the inland area and for arresting Patrick Collins, a bushranger, and in 1816 for guiding soldiers who were pursuing Aboriginal tribes.” The concluding words of this sentence refer to the posse led by Captain Wallis.

The very recent book by Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars: conflict in the early colony, 1788-1817 (NewSouth, Sydney, 2018), casts a little more light on Warby. Reporting on Wallis’ sortie, “[Warby]  seems to have tried to protect the Aboriginal people he knew from falling into the hands of the soldiers” (p. 234), and earlier refernces in Gapps’ book confirm Warby’s habit of shielding Aboriginal lives and deflecting punitive expeditions. It appears, too, that Charles Throsby (1777-1828, vol 2, pp. 530-531) and the future explorer Hamilton Hume (1797-1873, vol 1, pp. 564-565) were other settlers in the neighbourhood of Appin and Minto who lived in active amity, not hostility or suspicion, with the people whose country it was.

It can come as no surprise that so many reinterpretations should involve the Aboriginal presence in the story. The Dictionary’s earliest volumes were published two years before W.E.H. Stanner gave the Boyer Lectures, After the Dreaming, in which he spoke of “the great Australian silence”. On other matters, too, there is more to be said, or to be said for the first time.

Some authors from fifty years ago are still alive. It is a matter of courtesy as well as good sense to approach them before any amendments are made (if any) to their thoroughly professional contributions. Some authors are pleased, or at least content, to leave all decisions to the working party. Others, understandably, would like to participate in, or even to veto, decisions about change. But now that the Dictionary is online, and 1966 essays are being read far and wide in 2018 as if they are the last word, the task must be done.

[Barrie Dyster has written entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Canadian Dictionary of Biography and the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography. He is treasurer of the Blackheath History Forum.]

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