From writing history to walking it


I have spent the last 15 years writing books. My fourth, Australia and the Pacific: a history, came out in 2021 and an updated edition of my first work, Sydney Harbour: a history, was published at the end of 2022. What with working full time, there’s not been much time for blogging or much else.

But with the completion of the new Harbour history, I’ve been able to think about other ways to present history. I generally avoid neologisms but having mental bandwidth really is a perfect way to put it.

And so I’ve been creating and leading walking tours – encouraged by an old university friend, Mark Bowyer, who pioneered cultural tourism in Vietnam many years ago and more recently has identified a gap in the local market for serious historical walks. I hope he’s right.
It’s been good to have a project which pushes me out of the study onto streets and foreshores. Walking and observing is so important for historians of landscape and place – even if the places one reads and writes about have changed dramatically. Changes to fabric can help set the remnant in relief. Observing change helps in the understanding of scale, materials, and design. One of the challenges of writing books which cover extended time frames, as mine do, is balancing detail with long narrative arcs. Creating a walking tour is all about focusing on the detail: ‘Look at that lintel’. It can be very rewarding.

So, too, making connections between those details.

In scoping out my first walk from Bennelong Point, where Sydney’s Opera House sits, to Barangaroo, where a large glass casino now stands, I encountered two artworks which are connected on several levels; commission, proximity, the theme of natural abundance, colonial dispossession and concomitant inheritance among them.

The first is a relief bronze, commissioned by Australian Mutual Providence (AMP) for their new waterfront skyscraper, and completed by the modernist sculptor Tom Bass in 1960. Amicus certus is mounted on the side of another modernist masterpiece, designed by Australian firm Peddle, Thorp and Walker. The new building literally ushered in the era of the modern skyscraper for the 150-foot height limit set in 1912 was scrapped to allow its construction. When completed in 1962, it was Australia’s tallest building. (Remember what I said about scale? The building is now diminutive).

Amicus Certus, photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2023

Bass’s artwork gets its name from AMP’s adopted motto and translates roughly as ‘a true friend’. The whole Latin phrase is Amicus Certus in re Incerta, or ‘a true friend in uncertain times’. AMP started out as a life insurance company after all.

Tom Bass was a prolific creator of public art in the post war years and thereby assumed an important role in introducing Australians to modernism. Indeed, for me, his work has long epitomised Australian modernism. I recall being disturbed by works such as this as a boy. They seemed to eschew beauty in favour of angst. Prior to that sculpture was highly influenced by classicism in its realism, generally employed to depict beauty and/or nobility.
Bass also drew upon classicism but that was a thematic rather than aesthetic inspiration. The central female figure of Amicus certus stands reassuringly next to a family; father, mother, child. She is sometimes referred to as the Goddess of Plenty, presumably because of the cornucopia next to the group. I have wondered whether she was Demeter or Ceres – the Greek and Roman goddesses respectively of ‘the fruits of the earth’ (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1964, p.263) But she may also be Ops, sometimes referred to as a Roman goddess of agricultural abundance – although my classical dictionary rather unhelpfully calls her a goddess of ‘obscure functions’.

Whatever her classical inspiration, the ‘goddess’ is obviously watching out for a modern Australian family – no extended grandparents, aunts and uncles here. Her costume is part toga, part ‘day dress’ and the attire of the others is mid-century simple. They resemble characters from a Russell Drysdale painting. I especially like the physical connection between the ‘goddess’ and the mother. The former’s hand rests lightly on the latter’s shoulder suggesting recognition and bestowed solace in the shared role of provider. That the child looks to the mother leaves the father figure interestingly marginalised.
I think we can attribute the trio’s rather blank countenances to Bass’s modernist aesthetic, rather than genuine dejection for they are the beneficiaries of the contents of the cornucopia and, of course, the security provided by their suggested friend, AMP. Starkness aside, Bass’s artwork was intended as a celebration of post war prosperity.

AMP had operated since 1849 so was already a pillar of the Australian financial sector when it built its landmark Quay front office building went up between 1959 and 1962. The image of wealth spilling from a horn drew upon Australia’s longstanding self-identification as a land of natural abundance – vast pastures and fields of wheat. It is poignant in this place because the first AMP building stands on the site of a kitchen garden – that of the first Government House.

In the post-war years, mining was joining agriculture as a mainstay of Australia’s economic wealth. In this respect, Bass’s cornucopia was symbolic of all wealth. In the process Sydney was overtaking Melbourne as the financial capital of the country. The new AMP headquarters was evidence of that. It was indicative of Sydney’s shift from a gritty port city to a commercial and cultural centre – as did Jørn Utzon’s marvellous and contemporaneous Opera House, itself a sculpture as much as a building, begun on nearby Bennelong Point in 1959. So many layers.

Bass’s sculpture is protected because the AMP building is heritage listed. Both are part of the historical fabric of Sydney and its harbour front at Circular Quay.

Among the newer additions to that tapestry is an installation by Wiradyuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones called Remembering Arabanoo. This is the second artwork I referred to. It can be found, with some difficulty, in a laneway running between Loftus and Young Streets. It was installed very recently as part of the Quay Quarter redevelopment which centred on the ‘reskinning’ of the second AMP building, built behind the original in 1976.
That commissioning is the first connection between the two pieces. It manifests the relatively recent acceptance by corporate Australia to acknowledge this country’s Aboriginal past.

Remembering Arabanoo, photograph by Ian Hoskins 2023

And there the subject matter gets more interesting. Jones has inserted several rows of bronze oyster shells into the sandstone wall of the laneway. Given the ‘reclamation’ of the shoreline – that is the filling of Sydney Cove/Warrane – from the 1840s, this bank of oysters may not be too far from where shellfish may have been found in 1788.

Oysters were part of the Harbour’s abundance. The seven or more clans who lived beside the waterway were saltwater people depending far more on seafood than possums, kangaroos etc – the fare of the ‘woods people’ to the west. Here is a commentary perhaps on the cornucopia in Bass’s relief. The latter speaks of a landscape transformed for and by agriculture. Jones’ installation refers to the sustainable hunting and gathering economy of the first Harbour people.

And what of the name ‘Remembering Arabanoo’? Well, he was the first Aboriginal man kidnapped by the colonists in late 1788 in an attempt to establish a dialogue between usurpers and those who were about to lose their land and way of life. Thereafter flowed a great many difficult conversations, or perhaps lectures, about the inevitability of dispossession and change but not, it seems, with Arabanoo. He learned little English and his captors acquired a few words of the local language. He died within six months after of a disease that may have been small pox – along with perhaps two thirds of the original Harbour population. Arabanoo was buried in the grounds of the first Government House, so may still lie near the present-day Museum of Sydney – if subsequent earthworks haven’t destroyed his remains. Strangely none of this story accompanies the installation. I have no idea why.

If you would like to join me for a walk from Bennelong Point to Barangaroo to see these artworks and much more go to


Butter wouldn’t melt, but ice caps will

Mum would occasionally respond to her children’s naughtiness with the expression: ‘Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth’. It was an affectionate call out – notice that one of us had been sprung and were acting as if nothing had happened. We were a pretty well-behaved lot so the transgressions were minor.

The notion that one could be so cool in the act of deception or disingenuousness that a nugget of butter might stay solid in the gob is an old one. It long predates refrigeration, oddly enough. My wonderfully tactile second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs [1963] dates it to John Palsgrave’s 1530 book on French grammar. The term may therefore have continental origins but I suspect it was a local saying, already familiar and used by Palsgrave to assist his readers understand French. My English mum knew it well enough.

In either case the proverb refers to the practised dishonesty of the subject. And so it came to mind when I read the transcript of Josh Frydenberg’s speech to the Australian Industry Group a couple of weeks ago, titled ‘Capital markets and the transition to a low emissions future’. The Australian Treasurer’s chat was an upmarket assessment of what many scientists view as an impending catastrophe. It ended thus:

Climate change and its impacts are not going away. It represents a structural and systemic shift in our financial system, which will only gain pace over time. For Australia, this presents risks we must manage and opportunities we must seize. That work is well underway but there is still more to do. (24/9/21)

One wonders about the timing and content of the address. Scientists, environmentalists, and indeed many economists, have been pointing to the costs of not adapting to inevitable climate change for a decade and more. It has long been recognised that ‘climate change and its impacts are not going away’ and preparing for those makes good financial sense. Environmental issues no longer sit conveniently outside the market as irrelevant ‘externalities’, in the modelling of neo-classical economists, they are inconvenient truths which must be factored in. Surely something more leaderful would be have been appropriate from our Treasurer as we head, ever faster, towards the cliff of disastrous climate change.

Scene of bushfire devastation, New England, 2019, photograph by Ian Hoskins

Australia’s Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties – to which Frydenberg has belonged since 2010 – generally defers to market forces. Government regulation, taxation, interference is anathema to their vaunted defence of the individual and the family. They were even willing to let car manufacturing die in Australia. The last locally-built Holden – that symbol of this nation’s post-war industrial recovery – rolled off the assembly line during their tenure in 2017. Market forces simply demanded it.

And yet they have waged a culture war against the science of climate change since 2009 when Tony Abbott unseated Malcolm Turnbull as the leader of the then Coalition opposition. The opening salvo in that conflict was Abbott’s reference to the scientific predictions as ‘absolute crap’. His ensuing wholesale opposition to Government policy mirrored the tactics of the US Republicans against Barak Obama’s reforms, and helped him win Government in 2013. Dealing with climate was characterised as a typical Labor effort to raise taxes on hardworking families. It was something that only elites, detached from the real world of suburbs, farms and the regions around them, worried about. The popular consensus developing around the need to address climate change was eroded in the process.

The Coalition has been in power ever since, and ever since they have opposed effective action on climate change. In 2014, former treasurer Joe Hockey referred to wind turbines as ‘utterly offensive’ blots on the landscape without any sense of irony; of course, the term would be better applied to open cut coal mines. Major climate change rallies in Australian cities in 2015 were dismissed as manifestations of the selfish hysteria of urban ‘elites’. In the lead up to the 2019 Federal election, small business Minister Michaelia Cash furiously argued that electric vehicles would be imposed upon Australians by an authoritarian Labor government – thus crippling the businesses and families dependent upon gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and SUVs. In 2019 the office of Energy Minister Angus Taylor sent false information concerning the climate conscious Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, to the right-wing media in an attempt to embarrass her. In 2020 former resources minister, Matt Canavan, referred to renewable energies as the ‘dole bludgers’ of the energy sector compared to hardworking coal.

But most theatrical and outrageous of all was [then Treasurer] Scott Morrison’s goading of the Labor opposition in parliament in 2017. Then he waved around a large piece of coal, helpfully provided by the Minerals Council of Australia, while shouting, ‘This is coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared’. The message: climate change is a figment of paranoid imaginations.

Climate change rally, Sydney, 2015, photograph by Ian Hoskins

There was no mention of that litany of absurdities in the Treasurer’s recent rosy assessment. Indeed, he dutifully trotted out the creative accountancy which scores Australia high for its emissions reduction efforts, as he has done on previous occasions. All other credible commentators take the opposite view. With the defeat of Donald Trump in the US, Australia’s sorry record on climate change has become increasingly difficult to justify – hence Frydenberg’s recent anodyne address I suspect.

The melt off the West Antarctic Ice Cap has tripled since 2000. The pace of glacial disappearance is similar in Greenland and elsewhere. Sea level rise, shifts in ocean currents, increased severe weather events, bushfires and extinctions are following the disappearance of ice – just as scientists have predicted they would.

Yet instead of preparing Australia for the changes, or assisting with global efforts to lessen the catastrophe, since 2009 the Coalition has obfuscated and politicised an issue which affects everyone. More than a decade has been lost because of the so-called ‘climate wars’. As the ice melts across the world, the Australian government is being pulled unwillingly towards meaningful action. They won’t admit to fault of course – butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.


Follow my fellowship III: ‘The mountain cannot speak’

Follow my fellowship III: ‘The mountain cannot speak’

Visiting a place one intends to write about makes an immense difference. It really does. I spent three weeks in Papua New Guinea [PNG] in September trying to get a feel for the country that Australia ‘ruled’ as a colony from 1905 – that was Papua – and a territory from 1919, New Guinea. PNG came into being in 1949. The trip was background for my upcoming history of Australia and the Pacific. The CH Currey Fellowship from the State Library of New South Wales certainly helped to fund it; PNG is an expensive place to visit.

I was four days in Rabaul trying quickly to get a sense of the town which the Germans built in 1910 as the capital of their Pacific colony, the Australians took over in 1914 and made the centre of their League of Nations Mandate from 1919, the Japanese captured in January 1942 as the forward base of their Pacific campaign and the Australians reclaimed in 1945. What was left of old town after Allied bombing was destroyed 49 years later by a volcanic eruption. Four days was not long enough but I covered a lot of ground and had read up in preparation.

The papers of Kenneth Thomas, copied from the Pacific Manuscript Bureau collection and held at the State Library of New South Wales, describe the town encountered by a cadet patrol officer in 1927. The young Thomas headed straightaway to Rabaul’s ‘Chinatown’ area to be fitted out with his khakis from the tailor Chong Hing. He bought his helmet from Burns Philp, the Australian shipping and trading firm which dominated ‘Australia’s Pacific’ before the war, and for a time afterwards.

Rabaul looking south west from the hills above Blanche Bay, 2019

The Library also holds the original ‘War Diary’ of Jock Maclean who, as a planter, evacuated his family to Australia in late 1941 when news of war with Japan spread; ‘Many people were about, rushing from one place to another. Everyone seemed dazed’. His family farewelled, Maclean then escaped the Japanese invasion in January with a trek and boat journey to Buna, the very place where the Japanese would later land before the ‘Battle of Kokoda’. It is tempting to describe Maclean’s ordeal as extraordinary but, in 1942, it wasn’t.

The Australian writer Ian Townsend has told the awful story of the execution of 11-year-old Dickie Manson with his mother and her defacto partner at the hands of the Japanese in his book Line of Fire. The American historian Bruce Gamble wrote three books on wartime Rabaul, including Fortress Rabaul which I found really useful. It is also unusual to read an American take on an Australian story. Brett Evans wrote and presented the radio documentary ‘Last Letters’ which told of the Japanese mail drop of letters over Port Moresby written by prisoners captured in Rabaul. What might have been a rare act of humanitarianism by the Japanese turned out to be a more typical expression of cruelty. The prisoners were already dead.

Plaque honouring 2/22 Battalion dead at Bita Paka Cemetery Rabaul. Their bodies lie elsewhere, 2019

That was home work, but on the ground one really needs a good local guide to suggest places of interest and get to them, particularly if time is short. I am so grateful to the Rabaul Hotel, which survived the eruption, for their useful suggestions. I am so very appreciative of local historian Albert Koni who then took me to Japanese tunnels, airfields, wrecks, museums, execution sites and a submarine base. There I snorkelled along a reef drop off before entering two of five tunnels dug into the volcanic cliff face to store supplies for the subs. The last leg of our adventure had us crunching across the red and black beach of volcanic gravel towards the mountain that erupted and the site of Dickie Manson’s execution, a place identified by Albert after talking to a local man who learned Japanese during the war.

Albert Koni in front of the volcano which destroyed old Rabaul, 2019

Albert Koni was born in Rabaul, the main centre of East New Britain. His parents were from the Sepik region on the mainland but he claims local Tolai identity by birthright and is recognised as Tolai by others. He trained and worked locally as a butcher and only came to history late in life. Albert takes tours with passengers from the cruise ships that occasionally visit. It must have taken some courage to make that career shift. Albert is deputy president of the local historical society which uses the old New Guinea Club as its headquarters and museum. The pre-war Club was racially exclusive, as were all of Rabaul’s places of entertainment during the Australian administration. I’m not sure if there is irony there but it is certainly poignant. Albert has never studied history formally but his knowledge is extensive. It is matched by his passion and his love for Australia, somewhere he has never visited. That one of his family was tortured by the Japanese has influenced that affection. But he also believes Australia brought modernity to New Britain, and that was a good thing. Albert is a proud Parramatta Eels supporter and wears the football team’s anniversary cap to prove it.

Japanese writing on the wall of the command post known as ‘Admiral Yamamato’s Bunker’, 2019

The story of Rabaul during World War Two is Albert’s special interest. He is quite right in believing this is barely known let alone understood in Australia. The battle of Kokoda has been elevated in the Australian collective consciousness so that it rivals, almost, the mythic status of Gallipoli and the Anzacs. But despite the books and broadcasts few who don’t have personal connections with Rabaul, family who served there for instance, know about the tragic story of the abandonment of the 2/22 Infantry Battalion who defended the town along with a few ineffective aircraft and other defence personnel. This was one of the island ramparts that Prime Minister Billy Hughes fought for after World War One. It was, consequently, given to Australia as a Mandated to manage and develop ethically. The men at Rabaul were an ‘advanced observation line’ on that rampart. In the event of an invasion they were to ‘make the enemy fight for [that] line’ in the words of the Australian Chiefs of Staff. But even before the outbreak of war those men knew that the garrison could not withstand the scale of attack that the Japanese could mount. They were right. The defenders of Rabaul were doomed from the start. More than 100 were bayonetted to death by the Japanese with their hands tied behind their backs. A similar number of Tolai people were taken to Papua as forced labour on the Kokoda campaign. I suspect few of them returned.

Albert leads me down to a Japanese hospital tunnel, recently discovered, 2019

I asked Albert why he was so interested in history and he came back with something quite poetic and unexpected: ‘The mountain cannot speak’. It is up to people to do the talking, he said. And then cryptically ‘History will sustain you’. The puzzle that is our past will never, of course, be completely reconstructed or understood. But trying to put some of the puzzle pieces together sustains me too.

Thanks Albert.





Follow my Fellowship II: Caroline ‘Cara’ David on Funafuti – a woman of the right stamp

My previous blog got its title from the call for an expedition to New Guinea by the Honorary Secretary of the newly-established Geographical Society of Australasia in 1883. Edmond La Meslée spoke confidently of finding ‘men of the right stamp’ to head off in the cause of benevolent colonialism. As I work my way through the many books published about the Pacific in the late 19th century its proving hard to find a woman’s voice among all those ‘good men’ who plied the Pacific doing their patriotic duty, saving souls, furthering science or making money… and then writing about it.

Caroline ‘Cara’ David’s account of her visit to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands (today’s Tuvalu) in 1897 is not only unusual because of its female perspective, it is remarkably candid, down-to-earth and free of the worthy pomposity and superiority that characterises so much Victorian travel writing. One gets a sense of that from the title: Funafuti or three months on a coral island: An unscientific account of a Scientific Expedition.

Mrs Edgeworth David, as her name appears in the book, was the wife of the renowned geologist Tannant William Edgeworth David, better known as Edgeworth David. There is a building at my old alma mater, Sydney University, named after him. He was Professor of Geology there from 1891. As was the Australian custom until living memory, married women of social standing were typically referred to by their husband’s entire name – for he was the one who established the standing. So it was with Cara despite her education and profession as a teacher.

Edgeworth David’s intention on Funafuti was to investigate Charles Darwin’s theory of the creation of coral reefs. His Galapagos Islands epiphanies are well-known today, but Darwin’s coral theory is a relatively little discussed part of the famous trans-Pacific voyage in the Beagle. Yet it was a significant step in the gestation of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s 1842 work On the Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs anticipated the more famous On the Origin of Species published in 1859 by describing the evolution of ecosystems over time, a concept that differed clearly from Biblical creationism in which all life was perfectly made by God in seven days. It also challenged the ‘catastrophism’, the theories of sudden change, expounded by others who were struggling to explain the evidence of apparently displaced rocks, and the fossil remains of creatures long gone, within a paradigm which respected Christian precepts.

I’m guessing Cara and Edgeworth had a close and respectful relationship. As she wrote: ‘my husband said he was going, and politely hinted that I should be an idiot not to go with him. After that there was nothing for me to say’. It was not just, or even, wifely devotion that convinced Caroline to go: Funafuti was, she thought, ‘so intensely interesting’.

British-born Cara and Edgeworth had met on their passage to Australia in 1882, she to take up a post as the Principal of Hurlstone Training College for women teachers and he as the colony’s Assistant Geological Surveyor. They were married in 1885. Caroline’s college was near Ashfield in Sydney’s expanding western suburbs. Edgeworth spent most of his first two years in the field around New England in northern New South Wales. Separation might, therefore, have delayed the wedding.

Caroline David and others of the Funafuti expedition. Edgeworth David is sitting next to her

Here is Cara’s description of the travel homework she undertook with Edgeworth: ‘We noticed that no two atlases agreed to the exact position of the Ellice Group… The map labelled the islands British by putting a pink line under the name. Under our own flag, anyhow! And if the black people kill and eat us, we shall be avenged! Unutterable comfort in that thought!  We found afterwards that the Ellice Islanders hadn’t the faintest desire to kill and eat us; on the contrary, they were quite as civilised as most white folk.’ My reading of those remarks suggests a woman poking gentle fun at the authority of Empire, the associated certainty of cartographic knowledge and the assumptions about primitive ‘otherness’ that pervaded Pacific writing throughout the century. 

The Davids chugged along for eight days in the steamer that took them from Sydney to Fiji. A smaller vessel delivered the party to the Ellice Islands. Having recovered from the sea-sickness endured on that last leg between Suva and Funafuti, Cara set about domestic duties and taking note of the locals. Personal space and seclusion were things she immediately recognised as one feature of British society not shared in the Ellice Islands. Under the scrutiny of the islanders, she craved ‘the privacy of the poorest Englishman’s cottage’.

With Edgeworth out exploring drill sites for the coral core samples, Cara cleaned their allocated hut and arranged it as best she could along the lines of the hygienic, compartmentalised Anglo-Australian home: ‘I spread a layer of clean white coral pebbles [on the floor], and over them again a layer of rough palm-leaf mats, and over all three good pandanus leaf-mats… Then I placed the sleeping-stretchers at one end of the hut and close by them arranged toilet requisites in a packing-case… nailed up cabin pockets and tidies on the posts of the hut, fenced off small areas as hanging wardrobes… selected a centre of the hut for dining room, and turned a packing case upside down for a table; unstrapped my deck-chairs and fell into one with an ecstatic grunt’.

The village in which Caroline and Edgeworth lived

There developed a routine. Cara cooked and cleaned and washed clothes herself. She ‘gossiped with the natives near the drill or in their huts, collected flowers, gathered shells, and bathed in the lagoon’. Conversation was possible at first, no doubt, because of missionary contact but Cara later learned Samoan. She became the island doctor and nurse to both whites and locals, treating ulcers and ringworm and discouraging the eating of pork because of biliousness it apparently caused. There were alternatives to pig. Coconuts were plentiful, vegetables grown in gardens and seafood caught in what seemed like sustainable abundance. ‘Fish generally in Funafuti have a bad time of it’, Cara noted wryly, ‘they are hooked, speared, netted, and trapped, and yet in spite of all these drawbacks they manage to increase and multiply exceedingly’.

Cara went to church, as one may expect, but with nothing like the dedication of the local people. ‘I never saw people more reverent at prayer and at Holy Communion’, she noted.  She remarked upon the significance of hat wearing for women at church. That is especially interesting for here was a ‘tradition’ still new and yet well-established. Woven hats were a legacy of the missionary emphasis upon respectable attire for worship in the islands. Local people took to it with alacrity as weaving was a skill spread throughout the Pacific, particularly where pandanus grew. Mats were woven to wear and to use as roofs and walls. Weaving created baskets, fish traps and sails. On Kiribati, warriors wore armour made from thickly woven cocoanut fibre. The tradition of making and wearing woven hats for church is still alive and well. In French Polynesia the headwear is called ‘Taupoo’ and in the Cook Islands it is ‘Rito’.

Hats were proper but the wearing of flowers were not. Neither were locals encouraged to ‘dance on their feet’, which I assume allowed some swaying to the rhythm while seated. Puzzled, and I suspect put-off, by ‘these puritanical restrictions’, Cara asked the visiting white missionary about their origin and purpose. He explained that ‘Samoans dressed in wreaths of flowers for their native dances, that these dances lasted all night, and developed into obscene and licentious orgies of an indescribable nature’. The restrictions were imposed by white missionaries on Samoa but then exported by local pastors to Ellice Island. Christianity had become so embedded within Polynesian society – the first London Missionary Society vessel arrived in Tahiti in 1797 – that islander on islander evangelism was widespread by the late 19th century.

Group photograph showing local people wearing various styles of woven hats. That on the woman on the left may represent the type worn to church. I am unclear whether Cara took the photographs that appear in her book

The world for Ellice Islanders had expanded dramatically in the 50 years before Cara’s visit. Long part of a regional Pacific economy, by the end of the 19th century they were incorporated into a global culture of religion, science and trade. And yet the islanders embraced the people who turned up on their doorstep with apparent equanimity. They coined a word for Britannia, ‘Peritania’, and one for Sydney, ‘Sini’. There may have existed a sense of common humanity before the arrival of the missionaries but if so that was now expressed in terms of Empire, biology and the Christian god. ‘We, the people of Funafuti, are all very glad to see you here to-night at our sing-sing’, was the welcome given to Caroline, Edgeworth and others on one evening of song, ‘we are all friends, we are under the same Queen, we obey the same laws, and we worship the same God. There are black men and white men, and red men, but the heart and the blood are the same…’ Such an expression of equality cut across the hierarchies that were justifying colonisation across the world, scientific racism in particular.

Cara David seems to have received this openness with respect. Absent is any sense of superiority so often evidenced by drollness and irony in British commentaries. ‘Orphans and strangers were we when we landed at Funafuti, but in a very short time we had numerous official friends and quite a formidable array of relatives’. By that she was referring to the local custom of non-biological kinship, sometimes called ‘fictive kinship’ by anthropologists. A local woman called Tufaina became a ‘mother’ to the Englishwoman. In Cara’s words: ‘she told me that I was good, that she loved me, that she was my mother. I thanked her, said that I loved and respected her and was proud to be her daughter’. Cara herself became a mother to younger locals. She counted all the island women as her friends but singled out Peke ‘the trader’s handsome daughter’, Solonaima, and Tavaū ‘as the closest’.

Caroline’s close friend Solonaima

Just as the British brought changes to Funafuti, island life seems to have changed Cara in the months she was there. When she, like the other loyal subjects, observed Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Day with a chorus of ‘God Save the Queen’, Cara did so, ‘to a tune of my own – I’d forgotten the right one’.

Cara went on to become President of the National Women’s Movement and a State Commissioner for the Girl Guides Movement.

More from the collection later…..