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Reflections of a travelling scholar

A journey to Poland

I recently had the privilege of being a visiting scholar at the University of Warsaw at the 2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand: Changes, Innovations, Reversals. The aim of the conference was ‘to promote the culture of Australia and New Zealand in Europe’.

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The conference

The RANZ conference covered several themes related to national identities ranging across cultural, feminine, environmental, transnational and linguistic perspectives with a particular emphasis on memory, trauma and the image. Many of the papers would not have been out of place at the annual  Australian Historical Association Conference.

The ‘Australian western’ and its display in the film was an interesting theme that appeared in several papers. There was a strong interest in Pacific Islander, Maori and Aboriginal literature, art and performance across a range of presentations.

I presented my paper ‘An Australian country girl goes to London’ about the travels of Shirley Dunk in 1954, followed by a lively discussion with some conference delegates. My presentation raised several questions about this type of counter-migration story and what were these young women were seeking in their lives through their journeys. Were they searching for a greater truth about the forces that drove their ancestors to Australia?

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University of Warsaw signage (I Willis)

 

One issue, not unrelated to migration, that emerged at the conference was intergenerational and transgenerational trauma.  One paper suggested that this has become an issue for descendants of  Polish immigrants to Australia of the post-war period. There was an examination Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, her story of self-discovery haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland.

Polish migrants came to Australia after the Second World War seeking a utopia in a new land and sometimes it failed to materialise. Their own dark clouds created ghosts that have haunted later generations of their family. One delegate suggested to me that this was also an issue from some families in Poland.

Intergenerational and transgenerational trauma raises concerns around how current generations confront and deal with the history of trauma within their own family.  Research suggests that the answers to these questions are more complex than one might expect and that there are wider implications for others. For example, amongst Australian Indigenous populations and the descendants of Australian diggers and how they deal with the long shadow of the Anzac legend.

A less than flattering critique of the Australia migration story emerged at the conference in the form of a special issue of Anglica. The journal editor argues that Australia’s image as a successful model of multiculturalism has been destroyed by increasing intolerance and nationalism. A rather ‘disturbing and ugly face’ of Australia has emerged in a ‘semi-mythical multicultural paradise’.

Dark history and the power of the past

Poland’s deep past and dark history manifested itself in unexpected ways during my visit. The overwhelming presence of the Second World War, particularly in Warsaw, was a new experience for me. It brought into sharp focus the contested nature of my subjectivity and the need for objectivity in this personal reflection. It is a conundrum that has exercised my mind here, as it has done for many other historians on other occasions.

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Memorial on Nowy Swiat in the restaurant precinct of Warsaw. The English caption states in part: Here on December 3, 1943, the Germans killed 50 Poles in a street execution by firing squad. The victims were local residents captured at random in street roundups. Executions were announced through loudspeakers and posters put in the streets in an attempt to increase the sense of fear. (I Willis, 2019)

 

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The Nowy Swiat restaurant precinct Warsaw in the same area as the memorial to the 1943 street executions. (I Willis, 2019)

 

The Second World War lays over Poland like a blanket and its presence is everywhere. The city of Warsaw is like a field of monuments and the city’s dark history is ever-present in the view of the visitor. The past haunts the present in ways that are hard to understand without walking the city streets. Yet paradoxically the city’s dark history is invisible in the mind of many tourists as they walk around the reconstructed old city.

The rebuilt city is a metaphor for the resilience of the Polish people and their ability to be able to redefine themselves in the face of adversity. Polish cultural identity that has been shaped by the war is fundamental to the construction of place in Warsaw, Krakow and elsewhere.

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Memorial to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising on Krakowskie Przedmiescie Warsaw in 2019 (I Willis)

 

I should note that one conference delegate requested that I ‘be kind to the city’ in my reflections of Warsaw. I would suggest that the city needs to be kinder to itself.

For those in the English-speaking world, there are numerous silences in the stories of wartime Poland and its reconstruction. Some of these silences are the result of the hegemony around the ownership of the wartime narrative. The shape and conduct of 20th century German and Russian colonialism are not widely understood in Australia. There is a similar lack of understanding surrounding the role of European modernism and particularly Russian constructivism in the reconstruction of Polish cities.

The horrors of the past haunt the present

The consequences of 20th-century German colonialism are plain for all to see at Auschwitz and Birkenau with their industrial-scale slaughter. For this Australian, the ghosts of these Polish wartime memorials reminded me of the convict ruins at Norfolk Island and other sites.

Yet paradoxically the sacredness of Auschwitz and Birkenau are smothered by industrial-scale tourism that typifies many European tourist attractions. There is a feel of a theme park with the lengthy queues, crowded displays, and constant shoving. The memorial is loved to death.

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Auschwitz Concentration Camp guided tours with the crowds of tourists in September 2019 (I Willis)

 

Like travellers of old new experiences are one of the benefits of my journey to Poland. There are parallels with the story of young Australian women who travelled to London including new perspectives, new experiences, and new challenges. Like these young Australian women it has hopefully resulted in: greater empathy; greater understanding; and greater ability to cope with life’s challenges.

Aesthetics · Art · Attachment to place · Belonging · Camden · Colonial Camden · Colonial frontier · Colonialism · community identity · Cowpastures · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · England · Farming · Floods · Frontier violence · Georgian · Gothic · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · history · Landscape aesthetics · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Macarthur · Memory · myths · Place making · Ruralism · sense of place · Settler colonialism · Storytelling

A colonial diarist of the Cowpastures

Janice Johnson (ed), Camden Through a Poet’s Eyes, Charles Tompson (Jnr). Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2019. pp.126. ISBN 978-0-6485894-9-5

 

In 1854 Charles Tompson described that the ‘village of Camden’ had ‘the aspect and the attributes of an English village’ (p.118) In doing so he was probably the first European to describe Camden’s Englishness, an attribute that numerous writers have agreed with, particularly in the early 20th century. Tompson was not the first to note the Englishness of the Cowpasture district. That privilege belonged to John Hawdon in 1828.

These are some of the observations of the Cowpastures drawn from the pen of Charles Tompson in a new collection of his work, Camden Through a Poet’s Eye, Charles Tompson (Jnr). The Camden Historical Society has published a work that the late Janice Johnson had had been working on while she was alive. The book has been funded by a bequest Johnson estate.

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Cover of Camden Through a Poet’s Eyes, Charles Tompson. ‘The  Cow-Pastures, Camden Park’ William McLeod. c1886.

 

Tompson was a prolific writer and observer of the Cowpastures under the byline ‘From our Correspondent – Camden’ for The Sydney Morning Herald between 1847 and 1852. He wrote about the ordinariness of the area, while occupying the position of Clerk of Petty Sessions and his reports are far from ordinary.

Tompson was an educated man by colonial standards, born on the Castlereagh and attending the local parish school run by Irish rebel Rev. Henry Fulton. His observations are full of colour and movement and provide an invaluable archive of data, descriptions and general goings-on across the area.

Tompson published regular reports on a host of topics including farming, the weather, cropping, local identities, police rounds, court proceedings and the movement of people through the area, amongst other topics. He was an astute observer and has provided the earliest detailed overview of the early years of the Camden village from his position at the local court house.

A detailed reading of Tompson’s work provides the patient and curious observer with a detailed description of rural life in the Cowpastures. In 1847 Tompson identified the area as the Cowpastures (p.23) as it was to remain into the late 19th century. He provided a useful descriptions of the area (p.23). For example, there was a constant shortage of farm labour in 1847 to cut hay by hand on ‘small scale’ farms across the area worked by smallholders. (p.28). Maize was planted in October (p.28), and wheat and hay were harvested by hand-sickle in November (p.33), although the drought restricted the harvest (p.32).

Market prices are provided for those who need to know about such things. Horses were worth between £8 to £10 in 1847 (p.29), wheat might get 4/6 a bushel, maize worth 2/- a bushel, and good hay was worth £10 per ton.(p.32). By March 1848 price of wheat had dropped to 3/6 to 4/- a bushel, while fine flour was worth £12 a ton, and vegetables were scarce with potatoes between 1d to 1½d per pound (p.42). Flour was ground at one of mills in the area.(p.23)

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Back Cover of Camden Through a Poet’s Eyes Charles Tompson. Sketch of Camden, HG Lloyd, 1857 (SLNSW)

 

The local population and its growth (p.23) were detailed by Tompson along with the villages and hamlets in the immediate area including Narellan, Cobbitty (p.24), Picton and Menangle (p.25). Tompson could be effusive in his description and Cobbitty was a ‘diamond of the desert on the dead sea shore’ while he could be more grounded and just described Narellan as the ‘Government township’. (p. 24)

The local colonial grants are detailed for the reader and their links to each location. Cobbitty was surrounded by ‘Wivenhoe, Denbigh, Matavai and Brownlow Hill – all beautiful in their own way – from the homely milkmaid-like undecorated farm and the verandahed cottage, with group plantations, to the elegant Italian villa, embowered in orange groves, and the secluded chateau of dignified retirement’ (p.24). Similar descriptions were used by travel writers in the early 20th century.

The gentry estates were the same ones that reminded Englishman John Hawdon of his Durham homeland in the 1820s. The description of the landscape provided by Tompson reminds the reader how short the gap was in years between the original European settlement of the Cowpastures and his presence in the Camden village in the 1840s.

Camden Park was described by Tompson as ‘magnificent’, which had in the last few years had ‘been opened up and cultivated by a story of primitive pioneer who takes farms on clearing leases’ (pp24-25). The tenant farmers were  not the yeoman farmer the British colonial authorities were trying to create at the time. They were closer to a peasant culture.  Tompson likened Camden Park to a European ‘principality’ rather than the gentry ‘Estate’ it was and would remain for over the next 150 years. (p.26)

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The Razorback Range was ‘scarcely…a mountain’ and was ‘in fact a tract of excellent arable land’. The Nepean River and Bent’s Basin was a ‘small lake of about a furlong’s diameter’ and it was ‘round and deep’. (p.27)

The weather was an ever-constant in Tompson’s travails of the Cowpastures as were the constant dry spells that are all part of the Australian environment. He laments ‘how sadly the rain keeps off’ in October 1847 (p.27) A month later he left his thermometer in the sun and it rose to 1200F when left on the ground on his way home from church (p.28). He observed that the continued dry spell of 1847 had ‘driven’ the smallholders ‘to despair’ (p.28).

Thunderstorms unsurprisingly were typical of a summer’s afternoon across the Cowpastures. In December 1847 a ‘heavy thunder storm passed over, without much rain’ (p.33) as it still happens today. Thunderstorms could be the cause of bush fires that burnt throughout the hotter months of the year (p.30). Fire was been an ever-present part of the Cowpasture’s ecology – both natural and man-managed – by Indigenous Australians.

Tompson was not a fan of the Indigenous people and possessed the British attitude to the inferior nature of the Australian Aborigine that was the basis the settler society colonial project. In March 1848 ‘the blacks [Dharawal] from the south country always visit the Cowpasture…in great numbers’. Reminiscent that the colonial frontier could be violent site and a male domain. Tompson reported that there was a woman of a lonely farm hut ‘scarcely considers her safe’ as the Indigenous people moved through the area ‘in the absence of her husband’.(p.44)

The newbies to the local area in the 21st century could do themselves a favour and read the description of the 1848 flood at Camden. The flood was caused by an east-coast-low-pressure-system as they are in eastern Australia’s today. The 1848 flood event was over after three days with its peak reached within 24 hours of the river starting to rise. Tompson witnessed an ‘expanse of water several miles in circumference’ that had previously ‘dry land’. (p.43)

Disease was a problem with influenza (p.31) prevalent in 1847 and ‘everybody is wrapped up, pale, coughing and wearing a certain indescribable dreamy appearance’. (p.31) Tompson reported the presence of scarlet fever in 1848 (p.61) and called it scarlatina (p.61) as it was also known. Even as early as 1848 the Camden village was regarded by many Sydney ‘invalid refugees’ as a type of health resort with many staying at Lakeman’s Camden Inn. (p.61)

The very English activity of hunting made an appearance in 1849 and the Sydney gentry brought their ‘dingo hounds’ with them. Tompson reported that they were joined by some local ‘gentlemen’ and went deer hunting ‘in the bosky glens of the Razorback’. It was reported that some hounds ‘ran down a fine kangaroo’ and the party returned drenched ‘by heavy rain’. The following day the party moved to Varroville.(p.79)

Janice Johnson’s collection of Tompson’s musings and sometimes whimsical commentary on life in the Cowpastures is a convenient summary of work published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The researcher does not have to wade through hundreds of pages looking for a short descriptive paragraph as Alan Atkinson did for his work on Camden.

Johnson has done the hard graft by extracting these snippets of Cowpasture life using the National Library’s wonderful database Trove. This is a treasure trove of information for any researcher complemented by a useful index. For those interested in colonial New South Wales this book should be a standard reference of the colonial period in any library.