Sunday, 25 April 2010

It's Complicated

Miss Marsh, our school scripture teacher, had two catchphrases. She began each lesson with one - 'Pull up a pew, girls', bellowed as she strode into the room - and she wound things up with the other, which was delivered as part of a slowly swelling valedictory sermon, intended to sustain us through the days until she saw us again. Its subject was the virtues of the bible, which she claimed was jampacked with excitement. Within its pages we could find everything, she told us - adventure, romance, tragedy, history, madness - if only we would just 'dip in.'

I thought of Marshie's advice when I went into St James's Church yesterday morning. Built in 1819 and intended as a courthouse, it is Sydney's oldest church now. It stands opposite the lovely Hyde Park barracks and, like them, was designed by Francis Greenway, of whom more another time. Whereas the bible, upon being dipped into, has not always fulfilled Marshie's promise of excitement, it turns out that the walls of St James's certainly do.

For a start we have history in the plaques to Ensign Henry Middleton Blackburn, Captain John Shaw Phelps and Lieutenant George Philpotts, all of whom died in the Maori Wars - an episode most of us barely realise Australia ever took part in, (it certainly wasn't mentioned in any school history I did.) Then there are the the inscriptions, such as the one praising Commodore Sir James Brisbane for his efforts in 'the submission of the Burmese empire'. Such a confident phrase that, expressing an unquestioning belief in European cultural superiority - although not quite as astonishing as the one we saw in a Belgian town called Chateauneuf: it was on a memorial to soldiers who had died in the Belgian Congo, and read, quite simply: 'Morts pour la civilisation'.

The fairly casual view we once took of foreigners and their rights is also on display in St James's in the form of a framed bit of mosaic tiled floor, which, according to the inscription, the desert mounted corps helped themselves to in August 1918, when they 'discovered' an ancient church near Jericho, in which the tiled floor lay.

The plaque 'To the memory of the Reverend Richard Hill, the first minister of this church, who expired suddenly in the performance of his duty within its walls,' brings us the drama that Miss Marsh promised. The mind boggles at the thought of what that service must have been like. Did he lean out of the pulpit and drop like a stone or was he administering Holy Communion when he 'expired', the goblet flying from his hand, wine splashing across the lace fronted panelling of some pillar of the community's best Sunday frock?

There's tragedy in the plaque 'In memory of Robert John Birch, who was accidentally drowned at Clontarf, Middle Harbour, Dec 7th AD 1865, aged 8 years'. The poignance of this incident is increased by the fact the plaque was erected by his playmates 'in affectionate remembrance of their beloved school fellow.'

More tragedy follows in the commemoration of 'James Green, Commander of the ship Dunbar, who perished with all his passengers and crew save one by the wreck of that vessel at the Sydney Heads in a fearful gale on the night of 20th August 1857.' This event, sometimes referred to as 'Australia's Titanic', shocked Sydney at the time. According to, after an 81 day voyage, the clipper was driven into the reef at South Head and began to break up immediately. Only one able seaman survived, by clinging to a cliff face for 36 hours. A mass funeral was held for the victims and a monument to them can still be seen in Camperdown in Sydney.

Finally, there are the several plaques which refer to conflict with the original inhabitants of the land. There is one that is 'Sacred to the Memory of Capt Collet Barker, of His Majesty's 59th regiment of foot, who was treacherously murdered by the Aboriginal natives on the 30th April 1831 while endeavouring in the performance of his duty to ascertain the communication between Lake Alexandrine and the Gulf of St Vincent on the South West coast of New Holland.' Another pays tribute 'to the memory of Lieutenant Edward Murray Tupper Rn Aged 22 years and William Kennedy Seaman aged 43 years, both of HM Ship Iris who were killed by the natives of Tana on the 1st July 1858 whilst on service on shore.'

A monmument headed 'Dulce et decorum est pro scientia mori' hangs near the door. It is dedicated to 'John Gilbert, ornithologist, who was speared by the blacks on the 29th of June, 1845, during the first overland expedition to Port Essington by Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt and his intrepid companions.' Beside it a tablet with a carved scene of Aboriginals with spears in the background and a dying man being held in the arms of another in the foreground tells a wild story from which some of the subtle complexities of white Australia's relationship with the original dwellers of the land emerge.

Erected 'in testimony of the respect and gratitude of the inhabitants [of New South Wales]' it 'commemorates the active service and early death of assistant surveyor Edmund Besley Court Kennedy who after having completed the survey of the River Victoria was chosen by the government to conduct the survey of York Peninsula, where, after the most patient and persevering exertions to overcome the physical difficulties of the country, and the destructive effects of consequent disease, by which the expedition, originally consisting of thirteen persons was reduced to three, he was slain by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Escape River on 13th December 1848, falling a sacrifice in the 31st year of his age to the cause of science, the advancement of the colony and the interests of humanity.' So far the dividing lines between natives and settlers seem clear and undeviating, but the tablet goes on to memorialise a survivor of the expedition, 'Jackey Jackey, an Aboriginal of Merton district, who was Mr Kennedy's sole companion in his conflict with the savages and though himself wounded tended his leader with a courage and devotion worthy of remembrance, supporting him in his last moments and making his grave in the spot where he fell.'

Aside from the very touching story this tells, which gives us a glimpse of a less simple world than the usual one we are taught about, in which whites oppressed blacks and blacks hated whites, it is interesting that only in this final passage, in which they are actually praising an Aboriginal individual for his - to western eyes at least - noble behaviour, do the writers of the inscription stray from neutral terms such as 'blacks' or 'natives' and describe the Aboriginal attackers as 'savages'.

Sometimes it seems to me that it is no easier to see into the past with any clarity than it is to look into the future. Certainly, the story of Kennedy and Jackey Jackey indicates that history - especially Australian history - is never as straightforward or clearcut as we're sometimes led to think.


  1. I am really into my Australian history, I have a couple of shelves worth of books on the settling of the continent and the various explorers who blazed their respective trails and died in lonely places. On the subject of Leichardt - have you ever read Voss?

    I think the reason that Australian history is so interesting is best summed up by Mark Twain - in a quote that I love from the epigraph of Peter Carey's Illywhacker

    "Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened."

  2. Worm - I've never read that Mark Twain quote before. It's brilliant, thank you. I haven't read Voss. We did Tree of Man at school and I found it hard going. I often think of giving P White another go, but each time I try I'm repelled by his even-handed loathing of all his characters - and possibly the whole of mankind. Next time the mood comes upon me to attempt him again, I'll reach for Voss though. Perhaps it's the one I've been looking for

  3. Check out Alan Garner's Strandloper - a true(ish) tale of an English yokel deported to Australia back in the day, he became a shaman and did cool shit. My favourite Garner book.

  4. zmkc - its a great book - but after reading what you said..I don't know if you'll like it! Its full of loathing, everyone is vain and foolish. It deals with male vanity, ambition, pride and hubris - and it's as hard and dry as the landscape it describes

  5. elberry - I love the weirdstone of brisingamen (spelling?), will try to find strandloper in the library.
    worm - you've really sold it to me as a cheering read. Still I should grow up and read tough books occasionally, I suppose.