Historians versus hysterians

Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire. Graham Seal. Yale University Press

© Provided by Crikey

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Niall FergusonPenguin

Day of the Assassins. Michael Burleigh. Pan Macmillan

Stalin’s War. Sean McMeekin. Basic Books

Perhaps there is a rule that right-wing governments entering their decadence start to become interested in curriculum creation. John Howard, as he was being besieged by Kevin ’07, became obsessed with micromanaging the new history curriculum, overruling the designers he had chosen who had asked students to — gasp! — look at our past from different perspectives. Howard wanted a chronicle of Anglo-Saxon greatness instead. Months later he was gone, and within six months the only thing available to read in Australia was a small lambskin-bound selection of Rudd’s thoughts (The Little Beige Book). 

Our current education minister, poor old Alan Tudge, seems to be having the same moment. Something awry, old boy? Find yourself tearily humming “Lady in Red” and scrolling old texts? His recent passionate defence of Anzac Day against the Red Guards who’ve drafted the latest proposed curriculum — their document says that the day’s meaning has been “contested” — was a joy to behold, primo right-wing white male hysteria. No one contests Anzac Day, Tudge whined, it’s a day when we celebrate that we’re the freest, most liberal country in the world, etc — all a product of our valiant struggle to prevent the bestial Ottoman from getting his sharp-nailed hands on New Guinea. 

Anzac has been contested ceaselessly since the 1920s, and there’s something obviously bizarre about someone trying to celebrate a liberal society by closing down a pluralist model of education. It’s also entirely predictable. But the right are onto something when they exhibit wariness and fear at the prospect of any form of historical inquiry that is not simply recitative. For how could any re-examination of any historical period come to the conclusion that everything was pretty much alright? David Kemp, reviewed last time, exemplified the dilemma: to be any sort of competent historian, a right-winger must make “exceptional” the oppression of vast amounts of the population in order to preserve the narrative of essential goodness. 

But Kemp is relatively reflective, compared to the right-wing big beasts of history such as Niall Ferguson and Michel Burleigh. In Doom, Ferguson spends hundreds of pages exploring how catastrophes happen through complex systems — largely, it seems, to let Trump and Boris off the hook for the COVID disaster, and to deny the de facto certainty of climate change. 

Very Niall, but the tone is genial enough. Burleigh is something else. Hilariously, he can never retain a deep hatred of the left, even as he’s being enough of a historian to recognise the radical evil of empire and the West in the world. His book on the post-war third world, Small Wars, Faraway Places, is probably the best single volume on the modern uprising of the global south, but it reads like being trapped at a fogbound airport bar with a Daily Mail subscriber, impossibly snide about any human striving for better, courage in rebellion, or life steered by hope. 

Day of the Assassins is no different, although it matters less than in his other works, many of them key texts on politics and fanaticism. Burleigh always tries to credit the possibility of motives that aren’t delusional, but he always drifts. Here, his overall judgement is that individual political assassinations make no difference. It looks sceptical, but it’s actually cynical, denying that change — for good or ill — is really possible, and discounting the weight of the possibility that, at some point, political murder may present itself as a necessary moral action.

Without that drive, Burleigh’s tone tends to sourness, a defect of all his works. And really, all the right-wingers are like that, as in Sean McMeekin’s bizarre argument that Stalin pretty much started the Second World War. Few historians, plenty of hysterians, all pursuing Tudge’s line of forward ideological defence. 

What good history can do, and what it needs to be to be good, is shown by Australian historian Graham Seal’s Condemned, a sweeping study of a particular type of forced global population movement that were part of 500 years of western empires. This is less about genocides of the peoples they encountered than it is about the transportation of people to replace them, from the earliest trans-shipment of indentured servants and debtors to the Atlantic and global slave trade, convicts, orphans, the press-ganged — forced diasporae from one subject population to another.

The point — that empire was as much about the control of individual bodies in forced motion as of territories, as much about ceaseless movement as of occupation — has been long made in academic circles, but this is a synthesis of it for the general reader. 

But in telling this sweeping story, Seal brings to life hundreds of characters whose lives became visible in these vast surging tides of humanity.

Here is Mary Carleton, friend of Pepys, and bigamist gold-digger extraordinaire, transported to Jamaica in 1671, where she became a pirate princess in Port Royal, returning in style to London on the ship she had left it on, clapped in irons. Convicted of return from banishment she tried to “plead the belly” (pregnancy); 12 women gave evidence to the contrary (sisters!) and she went “gaily” to execution.

Here is Christopher Jeaffreson, who starts as inheritor of a rundown estate, and ends up driving purchased criminals in manacles to the London docks, part monster, part put-upon small businessman, swindled by chancers at every turn.

Here is Charles Ashton, convict-poet, a Chester jack-the-lad, transported for theft, leaving a record of the sudden horror of being plunged into Port Arthur in 1845:

With the cat-a’-nine-tails in his hand / He flogged me till my back was raw / And painted with my crimson gore; When I awoke / with a frightful scream — It was a reality, and not a dream.

There are boatloads of convicts bound for America, offloaded by the crew on the isle of Lundy off Devon, as a secret slave plantation. There are Fenian political prisoners, escaping Perth on American whaling ships. And on and on. It is a rip-snorter of a book, as well as scholarly history. As the story passes from the 17th and 18th centuries, when fate seemed to dictate either enslavement, wealth or the scaffold, rogues start to be crowded out by saints, the progress of such being highly questionable — as in the empire-wide farm schools that started to rescue slum kids from useless poverty to frequently become lonely, starved teen-peon farm labour. 

Seal’s virtuosity in bringing this altogether arises from the very questioning of received wisdom that Tudge would like to keep out of high schools. Australia is not a country founded in the brief aberrance of convict dumping to then resume its natural path as a beacon of Anglo-Saxon freedom. Our country is nothing other than a product of the movement of bodies by the state.

That can’t help but change our view, not only of what was but what is and who we are down to our toenails. To change our view of whiteness, race, the centre and periphery of a culture. And all done with a joy in the recounting of the best and worst of humanity on display, something that can only be achieved by the application of a motivated sympathy, beyond the intellectual decadence of the right-wing hysterians, and a rebuff to the culture warriors’ fearful resistance to the real encounter with full humanity, in its incommensurable affinity and otherness. 

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