Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Belshaw's World - towards a history of the broader New England

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  9 December 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I am really pleased!

I am now an adjunct associate lecturer in the School of Humanities at UNE. I applied for an honorary connection with UNE to provide structure for a major project I am working on. The adjunct position was the outcome.

Given this, I thought that I would talk a little about the project itself, since you keep seeing bits of it in this column.

I am writing a history of the broader New England over the last 50,000 years.

What is now called the Northern or New England Tablelands is Australia’s largest tablelands area. From the Tablelands a series of rivers run to the west, south and east.

The Tablelands and those rivers form the heart of my story.

Our perceptions of geography are a funny thing.

Look down from high in the air over the Tablelands, the natural pattern stands out. On the ground, however, things are very different.

The creation of Queensland neatly excised the northern tip of the Tablelands. This was not without significance.

The northern portion of the Tablelands become a separate entity, Queensland’s Granite Belt, while down on the coast the new political boundary split the traditional territory of the large Aboriginal Bundjalung language group.

This had quite significant effects that continue to this day; the January 2007 Githabul land rights deal, for example, had to be limited to the NSW portion of traditional Githabul territory.

In recent times, the Tablelands/rivers entity has become very blurred as a consequence of demographic change.

The majority of modern New Englanders are now coast huggers, facing the sea with their backs to the mountains. To many of them, the blue rim of the mountains is a mental boundary.

This is the world that places Armidale, as the ABC so often does, in the North West.

Geography does continue to exercise its influence, you only have to look at the ever-changing NSW agency boundaries to see this, but it is much harder to see.

This means that the introductory chapter to the history will need to include sufficient material on New England’s geography to at least set a framework.

This is also important for readers with no knowledge of the area. I am trying to write a history that will stand alone as a story for the general reader.

The main part of the book will be broken into three parts: Aboriginal New England, Colonial New England and then New England in the twentieth century.

When I did my first outline, I was going to include the section on the arrival of the Europeans and the subsequent Aboriginal responses in the first part of the book. Here I hit a real mental block in that the knowledge of what was to come kept distorting my thinking about what still was and what had been.

To overcome this, the Aboriginal New England section will finish with the arrival of the Europeans. I found this tremendously liberating, because it meant that I could focus on telling the story of Aboriginal New England as it was.

This approach will also, I hope, make it easier for readers to understand just how devastating the subsequent European invasion was and why.

At the other end of the book, I had to decide where to close.

My problem here lay in the fact that the last decades of the twentieth century were a period of fragmentation and decline. I just couldn’t see how to handle this.

The break-through here came with Don Aitkin’s What was it all for?, for the book provides an interesting example of social history pointing and counter-pointing between the local and broader change.

Reading the book, I realised that the general writing I had done on economic and social change in Australia actually provided its own framework.

In a later column I will give you a taste of some of the themes and issues that make the history of New England between the European invasion and the end of the twentieth century so interesting.

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