Sunday, March 07, 2010

Journeys through New England's history

I said that I was going off-line for a week and indeed have been, apart from posting my Express column on Wednesday. While off-line, I have been trying to complete a first draft of the seminar paper on New England history that I am giving at the university in Armidale on 19 March. This has taken longer than planned, but I now have the bulk of the first draft completed, leaving polishing and refinement.

While I am still working on the paper, it will be very much a personal paper, linking my own life, the people I have known, the work I have done, to my own journey through the history of the broader New England. In so doing, I hope to give a taste not just of themes, but of people and events. The underlying theme is the reason why I decided to write a history of the broader New England. 

The paper starts with an introduction, then moves to Armidale and the University of the 1960s, introducing history and especially the pioneering work of Isabel McBryde in Australian prehistory. I use this as an introduction to two main themes, each with sub-texts.

The first is the emergence of a unique university culture melding the ideals of the founders with the views of the academics who brought to Armidale their own visions of a university. Isabel’s focus on the need for a regional approach to Australian prehistory fitted with this. The result over 18 years was a very large pioneering research output from she and her students that not only added to regional knowledge, but also made a major contribution to Australian prehistory in general. The second theme is geography. I start with Isabel’s definition of the area to be studied, then look at other definitions of New England, before using the distribution of Aboriginal language groups at the time of European settlement to demonstrate the importance of geography and the associated need to adopt broad coverage.

I then return to my own history, my work in Canberra and my re-introduction to New England history following the decision by John Knight (ex Armidale, then Billie Snedden’s senior private secretary, later ACT senator) and I to write a joint bio of my grandfather. John's election to the Senate and later untimely death stopped us proceeding. I decided to continue, coming to the topic from a very different perspective after a period as an economist and a senior public servant. I talk about the way my own views had changed, my re-discovery of my own past, using this as a way to introduce some more of the themes in the European history of New England.        

I have also firmed up arrangements to deliver a paper to the Armidale and District Historical Society in July on New England's Aboriginal languages. I understand that the paper will be published in the 2010 edition of the journal.

This paper is already about 70% complete and is broken into five parts.

The first part sets a context, looking at Australian Aboriginal languages in a broader sense. New England examples are used to illustrate broader points. This is followed by an overview discussion of the languages’ decline, linking this to history on one side, factors in language survival on the other. Here I attempt to show the linkages between social and cultural dislocation and language decline.

I then review those who recorded New England’s languages in one way or another. This interesting and polyglot lot includes explorers, settlers, missionaries and amateur ethnologists. Later came professional linguists and then, today, local Aborigines themselves trying to discover their linguistic past. The pattern of recording itself provides further insights into the history of New England’s languages in the post-colonial period.

With this background, the paper then reviews the actual physical distribution of the languages, along with some of their key features. This is quite a complex exercise. Language boundaries were linked to watersheds, but the relationship was not precise. In many cases we simply cannot be sure.

The paper concludes with a discussion of the modern language Revival Movement. Extinct and now dormant languages are once again taught. Yet despite the successes, the Movement itself is arguably locked into past mind-sets that may limit its success.

All this means that my time to post here will continue to be very limited for the next week or so, although I will be posting on a regular basis. It also means that you are likely to get both here and on New England's History a fair number of posts with a personal and historical flavour while I am working issues through.

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