Category Archives: Victoria

What has Australia learned from Black Saturday?


Dr Kevin Tolhurst AM, University of Melbourne

Black Saturday was a day like no other; it will be forever remembered in the history of bushfire disasters in Australia. The fires burned about 300,000 hectares in a single day; 173 human lives were lost and more than 2,000 houses were destroyed in one afternoon.

Australia was shocked at the scale of the destruction. Questions were soon being asked about how this could happen in the modern world, what could have been done to reduce the loss of lives and physical destruction, and what can be done to stop this happening again.




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The many reports, studies and inquiries in the ten years since Black Saturday have created a new regime for assessing and dealing with fires. While this has meant many improvements in how we communicate and coordinate in the face of bushfires, I believe it has also resulted in an overemphasis on accountability and technology at the expense of effective fire control.

The aftermath

As days passed and the fires were still being fully controlled, attention turned to capturing information about the fires so we could better understand what had happened. Victims and people affected by the fires were interviewed by journalists and social scientists, welfare workers and counsellors, friends and family. Nobody, at the time of the fires, had full knowledge of what had happened, so the collective knowledge pieced the puzzle together.

Fire scientists and meteorologist were also trying to capture as much information as possible about the fires and what drove them. This was a unique opportunity to collect information about fire and weather that could never be reproduced in experiments.

Within a few days of the fire, the Victorian premier had announced a royal commission to investigate the cause of the fires, the factors leading to the unprecedented level of death and destruction, and the institutional response before, during and after the fires. The commission ran for 18 months, heard from 434 witnesses, cost more than A$90 million and produced 67 recommendations.

What has changed?

Research and the royal commission significantly increased our understanding of what occurred on Black Saturday. Research using these fires still continues ten years after the event. The knowledge gained has resulted in better weather forecasting, better communication about fires and weather to the public, better coordination and cooperation between emergency response agencies and public land managers, and better building and planning regulations for fire-prone areas.

Unfortunately, the close scrutiny of fire and land management agencies has led to greater emphasis on following standard processes and recording all actions and information used during fire events. This has led to a lot of time and resources being allocated to accountability at the expense of effectiveness in reducing bushfire impacts. This is clearly not a deliberate intention of the various agencies, but is the reality of a highly political and litigious world.

Another unintended development has been the increased reliance on technology for both fighting fires and communication. Many people in the bushfire-prone areas demand reliable access to warnings and fire developments, so there has been a rapid expansion of the mobile phone and internet networks across Victoria. However, just because people have access to such information does not ensure that they will respond in ways that emergency response agencies expect.




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Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


Other technology such as bigger, stronger fire trucks and the use of aircraft for water bombing has reduced the extent of dry firefighting techniques – that is, controlling fire using firebreaks, hand tools and backburning with little or no water used. This has increased the number of fires growing to damaging sizes and escaping control lines.

This failing has not been fully recognised. Partly, that’s because any “technology” is easily taken by the media, public and politicians as an improvement, when in fact it may not be.

The lessons we’ve yet to learn

Since Black Saturday, use of the concept of “bushfire risk” has been growing. This makes it clear that bushfires in Australia are a constant threat and the risk is never zero.

The “risk concept” allows public agencies, private groups and communities to reduce bushfire risk to a level that they can afford and are willing to accept. However, how bushfire risk is assessed and communicated, and how trade-offs are negotiated, still has a long way to go if bushfire risk is to be a truly “shared responsibility” as the royal commission recommended.

Another complication is that public agencies have a regular turnover of staff. This makes it more difficult to establish trusted relationships between public agencies and private individuals.




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Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now


An event like Black Saturday will occur again. The terrain, vegetation, climate and weather patterns in southeastern Australia ensure that. Climate change will increase this risk.

When it does happen again, the extent of what we learned from Black Saturday will be judged by the impact of that event. We should not expect there will be no loss of lives and property in future massive blazes, but we should expect it will be significantly less than Black Saturday.The Conversation

Dr Kevin Tolhurst AM, Senior Lecturer, Fire Ecology and Management, University of Melbourne

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

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70 years before Black Saturday, the birth of the Victorian CFA was a sad tale of politics as usual


James (Jim) McLennan, La Trobe University

Black Saturday, ten years ago today, was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy. It claimed 173 lives and more than 2,000 homes, and prompted a royal commission that made 67 recommendations, including 15 relating to the Country Fire Authority (CFA). All but one of the 67 were accepted by the Brumby government in 2010.

The CFA owes its existence to a series of earlier bushfire tragedies, but its birth was far less straightforward than is widely believed, and back then the government of the day was much slower to act on the advice it received in the aftermath of disaster.

January 13, 2019, was another significant bushfire anniversary: 80 years since the 1939 Victorian “Black Friday” fires. Before Black Saturday this was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy, with an official death toll of 71.




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In 1939 there was no CFA, and bushfires were fought by local volunteer fire brigades, with no statewide organisation responsible for managing bushfire danger.

In the wake of Black Friday, Premier Albert Dunstan’s Country Party government also established a Royal Commission, chaired by Leonard Stretton, to investigate the bushfires. His report was tabled in state parliament on June 28, 1939 – less than six months after the fires – and it continues to earn praise as a model of comprehensiveness and clarity. One of its recommendations was to establish an authority with overall responsibility for bushfire management in Victoria.

Not so fast

It’s widely believed that this recommendation led directly to the formation of CFA. In truth it did not – the CFA was not established until December 1944.

You might ask why it took so long to implement such a clear recommendation. The answer is a sad indictment of the Victorian politics of the day, which also has parallels with government reactions to today’s environmental issues.

Stretton’s report was attacked savagely in the Victorian Parliament. Deputy Premier and Minister for Forests Alfred Lind – whose department was criticised strongly in the report – led the charge. None of the report’s recommendations were acted upon. The Labor opposition was incensed at the lack of action and moved a motion of no confidence in the government, which was defeated on party lines. And that, it seemed, was the end of the matter.

But it wasn’t, because the environment itself intervened. The summer of 1943-44 followed a severe drought in Victoria. The fire season began with a grass fire on December 23, 1943, in which ten members of the Wangaratta volunteer fire brigade died. In January 1944, raging grass fires claimed more than 20 lives and destroyed many homes across several regions of Victoria. In February, a fire near Morwell in Gippsland spread to the Yallourn open-cut coalmine; the nearby power station was threatened and there were blackouts across the state.

All told, there were 51 bushfire deaths that fateful summer, leading to public outcry over the lack of action just a few years before. Dunstan and Lind decided there was no alternative but to ask Stretton to chair a second Royal Commission, this one inquiring into the circumstances of the Yallourn fire. The resulting report made several pointed references to the previous, ignored, Royal Commission findings.

Times had changed, and World War 2 was at its peak. War-related manpower needs meant that there were fewer volunteer firefighters available, and power outages were seen as interfering with war-related industrial output. The government came under intense pressure to mitigate future bushfire danger by establishing an agency with legislated statewide responsibility for fire management.

After protracted negotiations with competing interest groups – notably the Country Fire Brigades Board and the Bush Fire Brigades Association – Stretton’s recommendation was finally realised when a bill to establish the CFA was passed on December 6, 1944. The board of the new authority met for the first time on January 3, 1945.




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From its inception, the CFA has been the subject of controversy, most recently when the current Andrews government proposed converting it to an all-volunteer fire service, with professional firefighters moved to another agency. The necessary legislation has so far failed to pass the state parliament’s upper house. Politics, it seems, continues to determine how our fire services are delivered.The Conversation

James (Jim) McLennan, adjunct professor, School of Psychology & Public Health, La Trobe University, La Trobe University

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


Rediscovered: the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs



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Melbourne in 1846: a view from Collingwood. T. E. Prout.
State Library of Victoria

Jason Gibson, Deakin University; Helen Gardner, Deakin University, and Stephen Morey, La Trobe University

Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).

These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)

Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).

Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.




Read more:
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Aboriginal Melbourne

Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.

The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.

An extract from Howitt’s place names notes, including the word for Brunswick, Bulleke bek.
Melbourne Museum, XM765, Author provided

The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.

An extract from A.W. Howitt’s notebook showing the name for the ‘Collingwood Flat’.
Melbourne Museum, XM765, Author provided

These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.

The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.

Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.

And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.

The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.

Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.




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The trials of translation

Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.

Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.

However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.

Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.

The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.

Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.


This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.

The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.

Jason Gibson, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Helen Gardner, Associate Professor of History, Deakin University, and Stephen Morey, Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage



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Ring trees were made by binding young branches of young trees with reeds. As the tree grew, it formed a ring.
Tim Church/Timmy Church Films.

Jacqueline Power, University of Tasmania

In the forests of Watti Watti Country of north-west Victoria, you can find trees, typically ancient river red gums, with their branches trained by the Watti Watti people to form rings. There is little knowledge about these marker trees beyond the community, and they are currently afforded little in the way of formalised heritage protection.

Watti Watti (sometimes spelled Wadi Wadi) Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls describes family and community connections to the river red gum forests along the Murray in the following way:

Often we visit to pay respect to the sacred sites that are earthed on the land among the red gum trees. In the forest are some really old red gum trees that are known as markers and often can be seen near a heritage site. These huge old red gum trees have massive trunks and big branches that are joined together to make a ring.




Read more:
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These significant trees would have had their young, supple branches fused together using string woven from cumbungi reeds. The binding process trained the branches to grow in the form of a ring shape over time.

The number of rings in an individual tree varies. Sometimes there can be up to four rings in a single tree. My research on ring trees aligns with the goals of the local Traditional Owners, who are working to educate and build knowledge in the area.

There are other, more well known cultural practices in various parts of the country that involve trees, such as “dendroglyphs”, also called “carved trees”, that had decorative patterns engraved for ceremonial purposes.

Other examples are scar trees that had sections of bark removed to make canoes, shields, coolamon (or carrying) vessels and for the construction of other timber objects.

The role of ring trees

Watti Watti Elder Uncle Doug Nicholls has explained to me that ring trees demarcate boundaries and mark special areas on Country. The trees mark significant cultural locations in the landscape and have been found at “water junctions and inlets, campsites and burial grounds.”

Knowledge of these important places which the ring trees mark could then be conveyed to visitors to Country involved in trade and ceremony. A defining feature of the Watti Watti landscape is the mighty Murray River (miilu is the traditional language term of this area for river), its tributaries, and associated floodplains.

Ring trees were often made from river red gums around the Murray River.
Tim Church/Timmy Church Films.

Water remains an important story associated with the ring trees, including “cultural flows” – the right to water for cultural purposes. Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls has explained that the ring trees all hold stories and have spiritual and cultural significance.

There is one ring tree that is recognised by the broader community and even sign-posted. It is located in the township of Koraleigh on the New South Wales side of the state boundary. Its context has been disrupted by colonisation, cut-off from the broader environmental and cultural landscape, and is flanked by a road and a paddock.

Due to the disruption of its context, this tree has become a single “site”, rather than part of the wider cultural landscape – isolated and dislocated from its complete story. It is now a stranger in an agrarian landscape. The tree is no longer alive, impacted by the drought and lack of access to the river, although its heart-shaped ring remains visible.

Connecting past and present

Many ring trees that can be found in the forests of the Watti Watti landscape have been killed because of the colonial practice of ring barking. Ring barking describes the forestry practice of cutting into a tree’s trunk to kill it and was used for opening the land up for grasses and to source timber for paddle steamers. While we don’t know how long the Ring Tree making practice has been taking place, it is likely that it halted during colonisation, which proved destructive to the continuation of cultural practices.

However, ring trees continue to play an extremely significant role for the Watti Watti community. According to Uncle Doug Nicholls, ring trees form a recognised place where important cultural ceremonies can take place.




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Building knowledge and understanding in the broader community of these trees is important for their future protection. While formal heritage processes enable one avenue for protecting culturally significant sites, such as listing earth ovens and middens in the forests, Watti Watti Traditional Owners have been working to foster collaborations and space for dialogue about culture.

In the 1990s, the Indigenous Land Corporation, the federal agency which assists with Indigenous land acquisitions, purchased the Tyntyndyer Homestead in Swan Hill which is built on the traditional lands of the Watti Watti. Listed on the Victorian Heritage Register this colonial homestead has two stories to tell – a colonial one and a much older one – the story of the Watti Watti people.

This homestead provides a place for the coming together of Watti Watti Traditional Owners, as well as others in the community who support the goals of preserving the colonial heritage of Tyntyndyer Homestead.

The ConversationThe ring trees exist beyond the curtilage of this property. However the homestead is a focal point to connect with and tell the stories that weave through and across the landscape that is Watti Watti Country, and are manifest in the ring trees.

Jacqueline Power, Lecturer, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Vikings exhibit hangs up the sword, and gives us a welcome insight into domestic life



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A reconstructed Viking ship.
Caitlin Mills

Tom Clark, Victoria University

The Vikings are in Melbourne. It is hard to see anything “Vikings” without thoughts of the seafaring thugs who invaded or raided much of coastal Europe and beyond. As Viking scholar Judith Jesch has reminded us, that is essential to what the word originally meant: Norse-speaking people who got into surprisingly small ships and went in search of adventure, very often violent.

However, this is not the full story. A new exhibition at the Melbourne Museum is at pains to demonstrate this other side.




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The television series Vikings goes out of its way to show how its characters did some pretty amazing things in their rovings – just surviving those sea voyages must rate high on the list – but mostly we know about them because they plundered far from home, to great effect. From 793 until 1066, or thereabouts, many people feared a visit from the Vikings more intensely than they feared their own rulers.

Jesch has also explained how the word broadened its meaning, even at the same time as Vikings became increasingly caricatured in poplar knowledge (think the Terry Jones movie Erik the Viking). “Vikings” can now mean all people from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and many other colonies across the North Atlantic who lived during “the Viking Age”.

The Melbourne Museum’s exhibition takes this broader sense of the word and uses it against that other, narrower one. Brought to Melbourne by the Swedish History Museum, which owns the collection, it explores the lives of the Vikings as much more holistic than just the adventures of those Norsemen who went a-viking.

The approach will disappoint some people. There are weapons on show, some of them remarkably elegant for all the ravages of time, but none are better preserved than the bent sword from a burial mound in Sweden. Archaeologists reckon it was bent precisely to render it useless for violence – to prevent its misuse in the afterlife.




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There are boats, both original and reconstructed. Compared to the palpably seaworthy wonders of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, though, the standout here is a half-ship plotted in the abstract by its rivets — the planks have all perished in the boat’s burial site, but the rivets that once fastened them have been suspended in their true positions in mid-air. It offers a haunting impression of the boat that once was.

Rivets from a Viking ship create a ‘ghost ship’.
Swedish History Museum

Still, these are not displays to get the adrenalin pumping. The interactives will not push you to imagine yourself in armour, screaming from behind a wall of shields on some stricken hillside, mead in one hand and great axe in the other.

Instead, this exhibition focuses on domestic life, economy, religion and technology. Nobody should imagine that any visiting show at a museum can do comprehensive justice to even one of those four, but this one gives us plenty of concrete evidence if we wanted to imagine Swedish and similar communities in the Viking Age.

It shows us the basics of Scandinavian clothing, for example, which is so essential for imagining the people in those countries. Its displays of jewellery remind just how fine the silver and gold smithing traditions of Germanic Europe were — for example, a filigreed pendant depicting Mjölnir (“Mealgrinder”), Thor’s hammer.

Pendant, Thor’s hammer, in gold and silver. The pendant is richly decorated with filigree ornaments and is one of a kind. Erikstorp, Ödeshög, Östergötland.
Swedish History Museum

The Mjölnir pendant is also an example of how this exhibition explores the religious and spiritual dispositions of the Vikings. The gradual progression of Christian conversion through Scandinavia and Iceland meant that some southern communities were converted long before the recognised Viking Age began. Others in the north held to their faith in the Aesir (one of two tribes of Norse gods) until well into the 12th century.

What we miss in that story of incremental northwards progression, though, is how varied and often contradictory the local beliefs were. There may have been as many different schools of Aesir worship as there were settlements across the Norse-speaking lands. Certainly, during the period of Christian conversion, many people practised a dual worship — keeping the old gods alive, even though the new God forbade it.

There is a wealth of riches in the exhibition, as you might expect, which could be chaos if it lacked a strong logic of curation. Importantly, then, elements of the curation speak with great depth. The collectors have clear points to make, and they use the exhibits to make them.

A case in point is the questioning, rather than definitive, discussion of hair combs. Archaeologists have curiously found such apparently mundane items in most of the Scandinavian burial sites. Were they for carrying into the next world, for a final grooming of the dead person before burial, or something else entirely? If we cannot understand those combs, how can we understand the worlds they joined?

This emphasis on the social and everyday is quite different from many other Viking exhibitions – in English-speaking countries at least – which have tended to focus on the martial vigour of those people who repeatedly invaded “us”. A recent example was the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, which cast them as fighting fanatics for their religion, a medieval precursor of Daesh or ISIS.

Here, the curators are trying first and foremost to redirect our attentions. War was only a part of the Viking life, and only for a segment of Viking society at that. Anyone who wears a horned helmet to see this exhibition may feel an urge to take it off.


The ConversationVikings: Beyond the Legend is showing at the Melbourne Museum until August 26 2018.

Tom Clark, Associate Professor, First Year College, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Friday essay: the story of Fook Shing, colonial Victoria’s Chinese detective


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A depiction of Fook Shing in Melbourne Illustrated, November 13 1880.
State Library of Victoria

Benjamin Wilson Mountford, La Trobe University

On July 25 1882, Inspector Frederick Secretan, the head of Victoria Police’s Detective Branch, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In the wake of the Kelly Gang fiasco, during which Ned’s infamous band of outlaws had managed to elude the police until the bloody shootout at Glenrowan, a royal commission had been called to inquire into Victoria’s police force. Secretan’s detectives had been singled out for particular criticism. Now, as he fronted the commissioners, the inspector sought to explain the methods he deployed for detecting crime in Melbourne and across Victoria.

The anxiety and sense of impending chaos that accompanied the 1850s gold rushes had led to the early adoption of plain-clothes policing in colonial Victoria. Unlike in Britain, where detectives were discouraged from wearing plain clothes and liaising with criminals, Melbourne’s gumshoes were to move across the colony, detecting crime and weeding out offenders. Lacking scientific modes of inquiry, they relied on their ability to conduct surveillance and to establish relations with informants, or “fizgigs”.

By the 1880s there were 28 detectives in the colony. Seven were based in country districts, one serviced the post office, four were clerks and 16 were deployed on outdoor duty across Melbourne. The metropolitan force, Secretan explained, divided the city into spheres of influence, with the numbers of detectives apportioned accordingly. Ideally, Secretan suggested to the commissioners, 38 detectives would be deployed across Victoria, “including one Chinese”.

Secretan’s Chinese detective, and one of the men who had been briefly involved in the hunt for the Kelly Gang, was Detective Fook Shing.

Like tens of thousands of his countrymen, Fook Shing had journeyed from China to Australia during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Leaving troubled Guangdong, via the British ports of Hong Kong and Singapore, he appears to have arrived at South Australia (probably to avoid the poll tax implemented to deter Chinese arrivals at Melbourne) and to have walked overland to the goldfields.

On the Bendigo diggings, Fook Shing served the colonial government as a local “headman” (a “Chief of the Chinese” as he put it) and took a leading role in community life – being active in Chinese societies, running a successful theatre and brickworks. Wealthy, connected and well represented in court, he kept a pistol under his pillow for when extra-legal methods were required to protect his followers.

For the (heavily Irish) Victorian police force, who relied on interpreters of mixed quality, were befuddled by Chinese names and struggled to identify Chinese criminals, men like Fook Shing proved invaluable on the goldfields. During the 1860s, as the Chinese in Victoria increasingly left the gold country and congregated in Melbourne, particularly around the city’s growing Chinatown in Little Bourke Street, Fook Shing was formally appointed to the Victoria Police.

Arrival of Chinese Immigrants in Little Bourke Street, Frederick Grosse 1828-1894, engraver. Melbourne: Ebenezer and David Syme, 1866.
State Library of Victoria

For the next 20 years, Fook Shing served as Melbourne’s Chinese detective.
From his home, just off Little Bourke Street, he policed the Chinese community and visitors to the area. Among his colleagues he was regarded as a “trustworthy member of the service” who could “always be relied upon” and impressed with his “intimate knowledge of the Chinese criminal class” in Melbourne.

This support was mirrored up the chain of command. Superior officers paid tribute to his performance in the line of duty and awarded a number of gratuities in acknowledgement of service.

But the work of the Chinese detective was hardly confined to Melbourne. Fook Shing could regularly be found on assignment in country Victoria. There he was given “every facility” by local authorities, who (in the words of one goldfields constable) found him “in a position to give all necessary information and point out any further steps” for tracing Chinese criminals.

Word of his arrival in country towns spread quickly among local Chinese criminals and suspects. In 1875, for instance, the Chinese detective asked the murder suspect An Gaa: “You know Fook Shing?” The accused replied that he did, having been warned of the detective’s impending arrival by his fellow Chinese prisoners in Castlemaine Jail.

‘A civilised specimen’

At much the same time, Fook Shing served as guide for colonial and foreign observers seeking to understand the Chinese and their coming to Australia. “We need no magic horse or flying carpet to take us into China,” the great colonial author and journalist Marcus Clarke reflected in 1868.

All we do is turn down Little Bourke-street and our friend F – S –, once a Mandarin, now a distinguished member of the detective force, will point out to us the ‘manners and customs’ of his countrymen.

A decade later, in a two-part feature entitled “Melbourne Illustrated”, the London Graphic illustrated newspaper surveyed all the usual marks of colonial progress: the port, the commercial exchange, the university, the public library and gardens, and (of course) the racecourse.

Finally came a reflection on the “Anti-Chinese Movement” and a visit to Chinatown. “The Chinese question is the topic of the day”, the author informed his metropolitan audience, reflecting on the strong racial anxiety that the presence of the Chinese in Australia had evoked since the gold rushes, “and it may interest you as well as the Australians … We had as our guide Fook Shing, the Chinese detective, whose portrait I have taken as being a civilised specimen of a Chinaman.”

Melbourne Illustrated – In the Chinese Quarter, Graphic, November 13 1880. 1. Fan Tan Table. 2. Head of a Fan Tan Player. 3. Fook Shing, Detective. 4. Entrance to a Chinese Eating House.
State Library of Victoria

But just as he was etched into contemporary impressions of colonial Victoria, Fook Shing also confronted anti-Chinese racism and discrimination. Despite his impressive record over 20 years, and in contrast to a number of less accomplished white colleagues, the Chinese detective was never promoted above his entry rank of detective third class.

Opium and information

At times he endured poor relations with both uniformed policemen and fellow detectives. Colonial newspapers, meanwhile, regularly critiqued his gambling and his opium smoking, reporting his appearance in the gambling houses and opium dens that grew up along Little Bourke Street to service the community. “The Chinese Detective”, The Age declared in January 1873, while complaining about the lenient sentences being handled out to illegal Chinese gamblers, is “himself an inveterate gambler”.

Interior of a Chinese gambling house, 1871. Wood engraving published in the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers.
State Library of Victoria

While they disliked the sensational media attention, Fook Shing’s superiors were rather less concerned by these apparent moral failings. In fact, they quietly accepted them as essential to policing the Chinese – and helped to pick up the tab. After interrogating An Gaa, for instance, Fook Shing submitted a receipt for funds “spent obtaining information”.

“The amount charged,” Secretan noted when organising Fook Shing’s reimbursement, “is principally for opium supplied to the Chinese … I know opium is necessary to obtain anything from the Chinese at all.”

On occasion, Fook Shing appears to have carried his investigations beyond Victoria. In October 1875 the Chinese detective travelled to Sydney in pursuit of Ah Hon for “larceny of opium” and successfully ensured the offender was committed for trial.

While it was quietly approved by the Victoria Police’s top brass, Fook Shing’s drug use eventually took a heavy personal toll. By the 1880s, his health declining, he was utilised as an interpreter, before eventually being retired unfit for further service in 1886. A decade later, having anglicised his name, Henry Fook Shing was laid to rest in Melbourne Cemetery.

In recent decades, the importance of Australia’s commercial relationship with China and increasing migration from China to Australia have helped to spark renewed interest in the historical links between the two countries. As stories like Fook Shing’s remind us, colonial Australia was not simply an outpost of Britain, it was also a society intricately connected to China.

Towards the end of the 1850s, perhaps as many as one in five men in the colony of Victoria was Chinese; by the end of the 19th century Melbourne’s Chinatown was among the most well-known in the world.

As he trawled the streets of Marvellous Melbourne and traipsed across the countryside on behalf of the Victoria Police, Fook Shing played a vital role in mediating between the colonial state, white settlers and the first generations of Chinese migrants to arrive in large numbers and to make their homes in Australia.


The ConversationBen Mountford will give a talk on Fook Shing at Kyneton Museum on May 12 at 2pm.

Benjamin Wilson Mountford, David Myers Research Fellow in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Gold Rush Victoria was as wasteful as we are today



File 20170605 31044 9qy1xs
Gold Rush garbage.
S.Hayes. Artefact is part of Heritage Victoria’s collection.

Sarah Hayes, La Trobe University

Australians are some of the biggest producers of waste in the world. Our wasteful ways and “throw away” culture are firmly entrenched. We have a hard time curbing our habits.

To understand why, we might turn our attention to the great social and economic transformation that occurred after the discovery of gold (by Europeans) in Victoria in 1851. Archaeological excavations across Melbourne have uncovered masses of rubbish dating back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s.

Artefacts recovered from sites within Melbourne show that the city’s Gold Rush era occupants were incredibly wasteful. You might think that 150 years ago, Victorians would have been thrifty and mended their belongings or sold them on secondhand. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Working-class people living in Melbourne’s CBD were throwing out so much stuff that the weekly rubbish collections couldn’t manage all their trash. Residents were stockpiling rubbish under floorboards, in hidden corners of the backyard or digging holes specifically for it.

Cesspits (old-fashioned long drop toilets) were closed across the city in the early 1870s, leaving large empty holes in the ground. Residents took the opportunity to fill them with their surplus rubbish. Many of these rubbish dumps remain under current city buildings and have been found and recorded in cultural heritage management excavations.

Excavation of a cesspit in Little Lonsdale Street.
Green Heritage Compliance and Research

There were also larger rubbish dumps. At Viewbank homestead, on the outskirts of Melbourne, the tip was so big that archaeologists ran out of time to excavate it. Excavations at the Carlton Gardens have also uncovered a substantial amount of household rubbish dumped in the area by opportunistic city residents and night cart men.

Analysing the contents of all these rubbish dumps, it’s clear that people were discarding dinner sets and replacing them with more fashionable designs, buying and chucking out junk jewellery, and throwing out glass bottles in vast numbers in spite of industrial-scale local recycling operations. Sound familiar? They were even using “disposable” clay pipes, a Gold Rush era equivalent of our disposable coffee cups.

This plate was part of a large set discarded in the tip at Viewbank Homestead, likely because it was no longer in fashion.
S.Hayes. Artefact is part of Heritage Victoria’s collection.

Another surprising find was a rubbish pit dug in the backyard of a draper shop and filled with piles of seemingly perfectly good clothes and shoes. Perhaps they had gone out of fashion? Excess, it seems, is in Melbourne’s bones.

You are what you own

The discovery of gold brought a massive increase in population, new wealth, unprecedented access to a global network of consumer goods and great opportunities for social mobility. No one could be sure of your social background in the chaos of this rapid change. The old working, middle and upper class hierarchy became less relevant and it was possible to move up the social ladder.

How, then, did people communicate their status? Through stuff. Cultural capital refers to how people play the “culture game”: their accent, their clothes, their possessions, their manners, their interests. The argument goes that status is determined by the expression of cultural values and particular behaviours rather than wealth alone.

Dress Circle boxes Queens Theatre. Lucky Diggers in Melbourne 1853.
S.T.Gill. State Library of Victoria.

Everyday choices of consumer goods became powerful in carving out a new position and a better life in the new city. Your home, your furniture, your tableware, your drinking glasses, your clothes, all became vital markers of your place in society. You were no longer constrained by your situation of birth.

Melbourne society was reinvented and a new, much larger and more diverse middle class emerged. One that had a new system for determining status based largely on what they bought.

Why do we buy and why can’t we stop?

As a globalised world grapples with the problem of fast fashion, fast consumerism and a throw away culture, with massive landfills and climate change, the question of why we consume is more important than ever.

You might want to consume and waste less. But old habits die hard and it’s important to understand why we consume before we are able to make significant changes to our wasteful habits.

Social mobility might not have the currency that it did in the gold rush era, but we are still purchasing to communicate something. What we buy announces our position in the world and our values. Our possessions place us within one group and distance us from another just as they did in the Gold Rush era.

The ConversationAs the slow movement, anti-consumerism and concerns over sustainability gather pace, a new brand of cultural capital may emerge. A cheap polyester jumper and a disposable coffee cup may become a sign of inappropriate excess. A minimal wardrobe of ethically produced clothes and a reusable coffee cup could become the ultimate marker of status.

Sarah Hayes, Research Fellow in Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article: Shipwreck Buried for Preservation in Victoria


Burying what is discovered in order to preserve it because it is too expensive to do otherwise – I can’t say I’m a fan of doing that. I understand the reasoning behind it, I do, but surely our history needs to be preserved in a manner that people who are outside the elite, rich, know, etc, can also have an opportunity to embrace and cherish it. Burying it again, it is pretty much gone forever and will not be able to be viewed again. I think it is a tragic loss.

Post your thoughts on the practice in the comments – would be interested to hear them.

The link below is to an article reporting on a shipwreck buried again for preservation in Australia.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/historic-shipwreck-buried-in-seafloor.htm


Today in History: 19 May 2002


Australia: John Gorton, Former Prime Minister Died

On this day in 2002, John Gorton, the 19th Prime Minister of Australia died. Sir John Grey Gorton was born in Melbourne, Victoria, on the 9th September 1911 and died in Sydney, New South Wales. He was Prime Minister from the 10th January 1968 to the 10th March 1971.

ABOVE: John Gorton as Prime Minister

For more, visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gorton


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