History in a stream of consciousness

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Shit this is FUN. (1907 Tairawhiti Museum, Gisborne)

In 1967 at the age of almost 100, my Dad’s great Aunt published a book. It details her move from Gympie, Queensland to Gisborne, New Zealand, at the turn of the century. Clara was from a white, colonial family*.

The thing I’ve realised, from reading historical accounts of everyday life, is that there is a point at which historical life becomes somewhat unknowable, a bit like a fairytale. Aunt Clara remarked on this herself as she marvelled at the good fun of rowing little canoes through town along Taruheru creek in Gisborne. She expected it was almost impossible for today’s teenagers, with their cars, television and music, to understand that life before the advent of these things could be hilariously, wickedly entertaining.

I’ve realised that historical accounts of life (dealing with the the last couple of generations) are often reduced to one dimension, a time when people were bad, or mad or good, or completely constrained and dictated by tradition or good manners. These historical characters weren’t ironic, didn’t play with fashion or meanings or boundaries. They didn’t transgress, argue, fret or consider themselves as part of the broader trajectory of life, with a sense of nostalgia or promise.

Their horrors are also unfathomable, for instance, Clara lost her brother in world war one. She writes of him constantly throughout the book, he was her closest friend in many ways. Yet his death is noted in one or two sentences. He was, like many other New Zealand and Australians, killed on the Somme. She doesn’t ruminate on the dimensions of this sadness, perhaps this is what makes older writing seem remote? We’re so used to endless exploitations of emotional whims in literature, when we’re presented with a taciturn description of a loved one’s departure it adds to the cast of unknowability.

Her intention in writing the book was to provide an account of early Gisborne, as she thought this might be of interest. Yet, what interested me the most were her accounts of life in Queensland. She spent most of her young life either in Gympie or Mt Morgan. Clara was from a large family of white people, many of whom are still there.

Mt Morgan was a mining town, although Clara’s father wasn’t a miner, he was a builder. He built some of the mine’s infrastructure but worked in Mt Morgan more generally. Life was obviously hard, but she describes it as a happy time. Like many families, the children came in two batches – a younger and older group. Clara’s parents, Emeline and James, took the youngest batch with them to Gisborne. Both Emeline and James were from Brisbane, so it must have been hard for them to leave Australia and their respective families.

In 1898 there was a devastating drought in Queensland, and many white families left. Her description of the drought and its effects was particularly compelling.

At the risk of becoming a genealogy bore I’ll stop there. Just ruminating I suppose….


*The other thing I’ve noticed as I’ve read a little ‘around’ Clara’s story, is the ubiquity of white accounts as ‘Australian’, with enormous interest in the movements of white people throughout Queensland. I tried to read about the Aboriginal history of Mt Morgan in particular, and found it really difficult to obtain information. I wanted to know how people lived in the area, as there was (and is) obviously huge diversity amongst Aboriginal people. I wanted to know what food was cultivated, what their houses were like, what patterns of movement they observed, how they nominated themselves.

It seems likely that the people who lived in the same area as my relative were Gayiri or Garingbal, (and there’s mention of them in the book) but more than that I really struggled to find. Given that I could easily establish the movements of almost every white family in the area at the time (if I’d wanted to, which I don’t), I find it kind of staggering the lack of interest and accounts of local people in the region. As far as I can tell from visiting there, Rockhampton and surrounding areas are incredibly rich – this is land that would have supported large numbers of people. I guess I’m not saying anything we don’t know already, it’s just hard for me, when looking into family history, to escape the feeling that I’m just reading the minutes of a colonial tennis club.


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