Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

The interaction between religious and non-religious beliefs in Australian society is complicated. It is often obscured by a public debate which in recent times has been punctuated by simple slogans, such as “Australia is a Christian country” or “separation between church and state”. Passion about these issues has periodically run high through Australia’s post European-settlement history. To gain a better understanding of secularism and religion in Australia we need to dig under the gushing of rhetoric to examine the actions of Australians.

Education is an important arm of the state in Australia. As I’ve noted in my review of the recently published book about religion in schools by Marion Maddox, Australian children  learned about God in their public school classrooms even in the times of allegedly “free, compulsory and secular education” in the late nineteenth-century.  We continue to have religious education in our public schools and now we have significant funding of religious schools as well as religious chaplains in our public schools.

Michael Gladwin’s new book, Captains of the Soul, brings attention to how religion is embedded in another important arm of the Australian state. Chaplains have been part of the defence forces during every major overseas war in which Australians have been officially involved. Gladwin tells of how the New South Wales government “bowed to significant public pressure” and allowed two chaplains to accompany the troops to Sudan in 1885, one from the Roman Catholic Church and the other from the Church of England. Eighteen chaplains accompanied colonial forces to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Continue reading

Review: Broken Nation

Book cover of Broken Nation

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, by Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest (NSW), 2013.

Australia now has a comprehensive history of World War I. In one book, historian, Joan Beaumont gives an overview of the battles, the home front, diplomacy and memory of Australians at war. Written for the general reader, Broken Nation is a reference that family historians, students and anyone who is interested in war history would find a useful addition to their bookshelves.

A war is about the violence of battles. Beaumont recognises the “centrality of fighting”. She also recognises the centrality of chronology in a war. This history is told sequentially, each year of the war is allocated one long chapter which covers the battles and the experience of Australians at home. Helpful maps accompanying explanations of all the major battles that involved the Australians. After each significant battle for the Australians Beaumont asks why the battle is the focus of today’s fascination or why it has been largely forgotten.

While Beaumont focuses on the Australian experience of World War I, the reader will find her balanced approach refreshing. Beaumont periodically acquaints the reader with the overall picture of World War I, thus the reader will learn about the Germans, Russians, Austrians and other nationalities who fought in another significant theatre of World War I – the Eastern Front. Beaumont includes this, as well as the fighting between the Italians and Austrians to the south, in order to explain the overall picture that the Allied generals took into account when planning action involving the Australians. This provides the context the reader needs to better understand the tactical decisions of the Generals. Continue reading

History, Writing and Television: An Interview with Clare Wright


Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing author of Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I thought you may be interested in reading the thoughts of a published historian on writing history, the influence of television on her work and the place of women in Australian history.

Originally posted on Australian Women Writers Challenge:

Clare Wright

Author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka , Clare Wright.

Clare Wright’s history of the Ballarat Goldfields, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, is one of the six books which have been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. Described in the citation as “compulsively readable”, due to its “lively, warm, engaging narrative voice”, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is a history which reveals the influence of women in the events leading to the Eureka Stockade.

In an interview for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, Wright talks about how she wrote The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, the response of readers to her book and the place of women in Australian history.

After she wrote her first draft Wright turned to work as a consultant historian as well as working on her history documentary for ABC television, Utopia Girls. “This experience definitely contributed to the final shape of The…

View original 1,134 more words

Chinese Settlers in Atherton, Queensland

Old Chinese Temple

The Hou Wang Temple on the outskirts of Atherton, Qld.

Through a gap in our back fence we could see the lone building in the middle of a paddock. Surrounded by grass it stood solidly and silently. The building received few visitors but we knew it was significant and deserving of care.

The building was a Chinese Temple and was all that remained of a vibrant Chinese settlement in the town of Atherton in Far North Queensland. When we were living there at the end of the century the sound of voices were rarely heard around the Temple.

The grass had grown long. Continue reading

Family History – the Kernel of All History

My mother as a child with her family in a handmade boat -  country Victoria at the end of WWII.

My mother as a child with her family in the boat her father made – country Victoria at the end of WWII.

“The kernel of all history is family history.” I wrote that comment this morning in response to a thought-provoking post by Emeritus Professor David Carment about the importance of historians exploring and writing about their own family histories. The post picks up on a theme from a conference held in honour of highly regarded historian, Alan Atkinson.

Every one of us is part of a family. Hence all history in its essence is family history. Stumbling Through the Past is a history blog. It is also a family history blog. The blog header which I created when I started this blog back in August 2010 includes pictures of members of my family from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reflects the fact that it was the way my family retold and researched our own history which attracted me to further study of history. Continue reading

“If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”. The British Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones wrote in June 1957 to the Governor of Kenya. In the letter the Attorney-General shared how the policy over the use of physical violence on imprisoned Kenyans was being altered so that the beatings would be ‘legal’. (‘Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive‘, 18/4/2012).

In my last post I described how the quest for compensation by a small group of now-elderly victims started a process which led to the discovery of over one million historic documents that were illegally hidden from the inquiring eyes of the public. Some of these documents provide evidence of horrible crimes perpetrated by British personnel against colonial subjects in the dying days of the British Empire.

This raises many issues. The issue that I want to explore here is what we can learn about the construction of archives from this issue. This has then led me to wonder why horrendous crimes can be ignored for so long. Continue reading

Archives are Important… Very Important

We all rely on archives. The moment that we first drew breath in this world is registered in an archive. Our education records, driving records, legal records, marriage and death are all recorded in an archive somewhere. We go about our lives assuming that vital information about our lives is automatically and adequately stored by our governments. We assume that important records about the workings of government and businesses are held.  Our justice system depends on well-maintained archives and strong archival procedures.

Yet it doesn’t always work like that.

This particular story concerns the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony, Kenya during the 1950s.It is about a civil war, the messiest kind of war where right and wrong are obscured in viscious blood-letting that involves too many willing and unwilling participants. Very few people emerge from such wars without harbouring personal shame, bitter regrets and a sense of loss that lives with them for the rest of their lives. Continue reading