Showing posts with label Australian history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Australian history. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lost children in Australia

In my native land, it's Australia Day, and Google offered computer users an appropriate "doodle" :

We see an Aboriginal lady sitting on the ground and pining for her lost children. How in fact did she "lose" them ? Well, that's a terrible chapter of our Australian history...

The art was created by Ineka Voigt from Canberra High School (ACT).

Here, from the Mirror newspaper, are some comments on Ineka's excellent painting:

Her entry, entitled, "Stolen Dreamtime" was created in response to the theme of: "If I could travel back in time I would …"

Ineka wrote that: "... I would reunite mother and child. A weeping mother sits in an ochre desert, dreaming of her children and a life that never was ...all that remains is red sand, tears and the whispers of her stolen dreamtime".

The "stolen generation" refers to the indigenous children who were removed from their families by the government and church missions.

From 1909 to 1969 the Aborigines Protection Amending Act allowed the Aborigines' Protection Board - later the Aboriginal Welfare Board - to take children away from their parents without needing to establish that they were being mistreated in any way.

The children were cut off from their Aboriginal culture and history. Many mixed-race children placed into white families were never told of their black heritage.

In a blog post, Leticia Lentini, brand and events marketing manager for Google Australia, described it as "a powerful and beautiful image" that "helps bring attention to the critical issue of reconciliation in Australia".

However, it has not been so well received by everyone.

Brisbane-based indigenous rights activist Sam Watson has labelled the artwork "enormously disrespectful" and is calling on Google to remove it immediately.

Speaking to the Huffington Post , Watson took particular offence with the topless representation of an indigenous woman, with tribal markings painted on her nude body.

He believes the representation is unacceptable and offers "very plastic caricatures" of his people.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Aborigine talks of "the Australian dream"

The journalist Stan Grant is a descendant of the Wiradjuri tribe.

I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges… It reminds me that my people were killed on those plains. We were shot on those plains, diseases ravaged us on those plains. My people die young in this country. We die 10 years younger than the average Australian, and we are far from free. We are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent, a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons. And if you're a juvenile it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school. My grandfather on my mother's side, who married a white woman, who reached out to Australia, lived on the fringes of town until the police came, put a gun to his head, bulldozed his tin humpy, and ran over the graves of the three children he buried there. That's the Australian dream. And if the white blood in me was here tonight, my grandmother, she would tell you of how she was turned away from a hospital giving birth to her first child because she was giving birth to the child of a black person. The Australian dream. We are better than this.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Pathetic end of a pioneering era

I don’t know whether many of my compatriots have ever heard of a NSW rural township named Breeza. Here’s a wonderful photo of the Breeza landscape from Ian Stehbens:

Breeza is surely one of the loveliest names you could possibly imagine for a hot flat place out on the Liverpool Plains. One imagines sea breezes floating in magically from the distant Pacific! I heard this name constantly during my childhood, because my grandmother Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964] was born in nearby Quirindi and brought up in Breeza, on a sheep station named Currabubula. What fabulous place names! If you’ve got a map—or, better still, Google—you’ll find that the municipalities named Breeza and Currabubula lie in the middle of a triangle whose corners are Gunnedah, Tamworth and Quirindi.

I’ve just published (through Gamone Press) a family-history book, They Sought the Last of Lands, presenting pioneering stories of my Australian ancestors.

If you’re interested, I invite you to click here to download the chapter in which I speak of my grandmother from Breeza.

Now, some of the few remaining flimsy threads that tie me to my native land are about to be destroyed forever. A Chinese company named Shenhua has apparently received approval from the NSW state government to build a gigantic coal mine on the agricultural lands of the Liverpool Plains near my ancestral township of Breeza. Astounded and shocked by such a scenario, I hardly know what to say.
Australia is selling off to China
 the lands and spirits of her pioneers.
The souls of my ancestors.
Click here and here for press stuff on this unfolding tragedy.

Meanwhile, as usual Down Under, where life is casual, nobody seems to give a coal-mine fuck. Is our Australian people really as apathetic and indeed pathetic as that? Yes, no doubt. I would love to be contradicted...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My English story is finally finished

A week ago, I announced [display] that my maternal family-history document was completed. Today, I'm happy to announce that the complementary dimension of my genealogical challenge has been completed. That's to say, I've finally finished a full version of my paternal family-history story, entitled They Sought the Last of Lands. It's 276 pages long, and can be downloaded from this address:

In my title, the expression "last of lands" (with might be thought of as an exaggeration) has been borrowed from a great Australian poet.
They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.
Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,

Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,

The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive

Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,

A type who will inhabit the dying earth.
                                     — A D Hope, Australia

My paternal ancestors sailed from the Old World to the Antipodes because they had romantic dreams of a young continent where they would be able to lead a happy, healthy and prosperous rural existence... including, among other things (for my grandfather Ernest Skyvington), the possibility of riding horses: an upper-class privilege in England. In modern terms, it might be said literally that my ancestors were thinking of a fabulous sea change. And so they were.

Created in a similar style to my maternal genealogy, A Little Bit of Irish, this second document reflects a new kind of family-history research and presentation, based largely upon the resources made available through the Internet.

To my mind, it's sad that too many people imagine that the genealogy/Internet tandem must necessarily give rise to antiseptic documents that look more like pages out of a phone directory than something you might wish to read, like a novel. The key to producing a readable family-history document consists, I believe, in unearthing and then transcribing poignant anecdotes that place the story in a human-all-too-human context. So, one of the heroes of the tale of my father's forebears was the Bournemouth milkman who sired so many Skyvingtons (from several mothers, but all perfectly legitimate) that he placed our surname indelibly in Northern America. And another hero was the Pickering brother who stayed at home in London (leaving the discovery of the New World up to his two elder brothers) and then created an amazing double-life inspired by his passion for ancient ancestors.

A family historian is so intimately linked to his stories that he cannot evaluate objectively the quality of his writing. For me, as far as They Sought the Last of Lands is concerned, I like to imagine myself drinking Billy Tea and talking to a kangaroo.

Our Aussie beast would surely understand everything.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

End of an Australian automobile era

As a boy in Grafton, I grew up in the shade of the celebrated Ford motor company, founded in Detroit (Michigan) in 1903 by the legendary industrialist Henry Ford [1863-1947].

In Australia, the Englishman Charles Bennett, a bike-rider of the penny-farthing era [see], had become a New South Wales champion cyclist in 1883, and he went on to create the highly successful Speedwell brand of bikes [see]. But times were changing due to the arrival of the automobile. Charles Bennett moved into this field, starting up an Australia-wide automobile affair whose branch in Grafton was known as the City Motor Garage and Engineering Company. Around 1920, in Sydney, my London-born grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] met up with Bennett, who persuaded his young compatriot to take over Bennett's Grafton business.

That soon became the dominant preoccupation of my grandfather. And, throughout the years that followed, the latest model of the Ford automobile became a standard feature in family photos.

On the left, that's my wonderful grandmother Kath Pickering [1889-1964]. The little boy is my father Bill Skyvington [1917-1978], and the little girl is his young sister, my aunt Yvonne Tarrant, who celebrated her 94th birthday in Taree a few weeks ago.

As soon as he acquired land, enabling him to become a beef grazier, my father (a mechanic in his father's business) was so faithful to the Ford story that he chose V8 as his cattle brand. Click here to see my blog post on this subject.

I learned yesterday that Ford has decided to abandon Geelong.

Why not? After all, these days, nobody rides a Speedwell bike. In any case, another fragment of my childhood Australia is crumbling away.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My geographical location

Readers of Antipodes must wonder at times where I actually live. So, here's a helpful map, which provides you with clear indications concerning my whereabouts.

As you can see, I live in a land that is covered in castles of all kinds. In fact, my humble house at Gamone is one of the rare edifices in France that cannot rightly by designated as a castle... but that doesn't bother me; I've never been a snob.

Down in the middle of the lower section of the map, you can see a double-spired castle representing Marseille (Marceille), just below a sign indicating Provence (Provincia). To the west, you can see clearly the delta of the river Rhône (Rodannis), which moves in a northerly direction to Avignon and then Valence. Between these two cities, an unidentified river (maybe the Drôme) flows down from the Alps. Besides, the map identifies this region as the Dauphiné. Just to the north of Valence, a big reddish blob on the right bank of the Rhône indicates the position of an unnamed city: Romans. At this point, a major tributary of the Rhône flows down in an oblique direction from the Alps. This, of course, is the Isère. And, beneath this river, the mapmaker has drawn a series of four mountains. The one on the left designates the Vercors mountain range. And, once you've reached that area, you'll be able to find me easily by asking directions from any of the neighboring castle-owners, since they all know me. Simply mention "the Australian with two dogs and two donkeys".

This map is part of a collection whose title is Universal Cosmography, created in the middle of the 16th century by a cultivated French navigator and part-time pirate (friend of Francis Drake) named Guillaume Le Testu [1509-1572]. Click here to access this fabulous publication on the Gallica website (emanation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Here's another Le Testu map, in which he evokes the existence of a great southern continent, referred to as Terra Australis:

Let us listen to Le Testu himself on the subject of this mysterious southern land, the future Australia (which would be discovered officially, two and a half centuries after Le Testu, by James Cook):
This Land is part of the so-called Terra Australis, to us Unknown, so that which is marked herein is only from Imagination and uncertain opinion; for some say that La Grant Jave [Java Major] which is the eastern Coast of it is the same land of which the western Coast forms the Strait of Magellan, and that all of this land is joined together... This Part is the same Land of the south called Austral, which has never yet been discovered, for there is no account of anyone having yet found it, and therefore nothing has been remarked of it but from Imagination. I have not been able to describe any of its resources, and for this reason I leave speaking further of it until more ample discovery has been made, and as much as I have written and annoted names to several of its capes this has only been to align the pieces depicted herein to the views of others and also so that those who navigate there be on their guard when they are of opinion that they are approaching the said Land...
Is there a case for considering Guillaume Le Testu as the authentic discoverer of Australia? I like to think, at times, that the Frenchman deserves this honor. It seems clear to me that he must have been in close contact with the northern coastline of Australia at one time or another, maybe through hearsay, otherwise he would not have referred so explicitly to the southern continent in his maps and the texts attached to his maps. Admiring Le Testu's attention to details in his map of France, I refuse to believe that the same navigator would have simply got carried away by pure fantasy in the case of the Terra Australis hypothesis. On the other hand, Le Testu insists upon the fact (in the above excerpt) that Terra Australis remained "unknown", and he certainly hasn't left us the least map fragment that clearly evokes any part of the Australian coastline. So, we can be sure of nothing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Joan Baez sings an Australian song

The ballad entitled And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda was written in 1971 by Eric Bogle, a Scotsman who had emigrated to Australia in 1969. I heard it soon after, and often used to sing it, late of an evening, accompanying myself on the guitar, at Le Petit Gavroche in the Marais district of Paris. The Joan Baez version dates from 2008.

The haunting female voice is surprising in the case of a soldier's song, like certain illustrations in the video, but the overall result is impressive.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Free settlers in the Antipodes

Australia Day is an appropriate moment to commemorate my ancestral relative Thomas Rose [1749-1833] from Dorset. Aboard the Bellona, Thomas and his wife Jane Topp [1757-1827] were the first free settlers to arrive in New South Wales, on 15 January 1793. While not a direct ancestor of mine, Thomas was a close cousin of my ancestor Elizabeth Rose [1728-1774]. The Rose family came from the village of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. The following map indicates the location of this village with respect to Blandford Forum, the main town in this part of Dorset:

The following chart presents the family context of Thomas Rose:

Thomas's parents were married at Sturminster Newton. The four offspring were born and/or christened there, and Thomas and Jane were also married there. Here is the church of St Mary's at Sturminster Newton:

Let me turn now to my direct Skivington and Rose ancestors:

Elizabeth Rose, my 6-times-great-grandmother, was the eldest child in the Rose family.

Her father William Rose was christened in Sturminster Newton. Later, he moved to the nearby village of Okeford Fitzpaine where he married Repentance Ridout [1708-1774], and where their four offspring were christened. In the map near the top of this article, other neighboring villages associated with my Skivington ancestors are highlighted: Belchalwell, Shillingstone and Iwerne Courtney.

Comparing the two Rose charts, I would imagine that the respective grandfathers of the Antipodean settler Thomas Rose and my ancestor Elizabeth Rose—that's to say, the elder Christopher Rose and James Rose—were brothers in Sturminster Newton. In one branch of the family, an audacious grandson, Thomas, decided to leave for Australia in 1793. In the other branch, a granddaughter, Elizabeth, stayed in Dorset and married a local fellow named Charles Skivington [1728-1778].

Over a century later, one of their descendants—my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—would venture out to Australia. After becoming interested in genealogy, I discovered (through the Internet) that we Skyvingtons had an 18th-century ancestor named Elizabeth Rose. More recently, I heard about Elizabeth's second cousin Thomas during an excursion to Blandford Forum in August 2007, described in my article entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display].

The name Sturminster means "monastic church (minster) on the River Stour", while Newton means "new town". There's a beautiful old stone bridge over the Stour at this place.

An ancient sign on the bridge warns that vandals found "injuring" the bridge might be transported.

So, out in New South Wales, Thomas Rose could have run into former adolescent friends from Sturminster Newton who had traveled there in rather different circumstances to those of the free settlers.

Today, I'm tempted to compare the quiet and beautiful environment of England's West Country with the somewhat dramatic lifestyle in Australia… expressed famously by Dorothea Mackellar [1885-1968].

She was a romantically-minded lass… but I haven't always shared her enthusiasm for the Down Under landscapes, climate and meteorology.

I often wonder which of the Rose cousins got "the better deal": those who left for the exotic Antipodes, like Thomas, or those who stayed in the traditional Old World, like Elizabeth. My personal reaction to that interesting question is betrayed by my current address…

There's another intriguing anecdote, in a quite different context, concerning my discovery of ancestors named Rose. In Israel, in 1989, I visited the splendid Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in the Holy City, near the Knesset, funded by a US philanthropist.

After this memorable visit, I had imagined that Rose was surely a Jewish surname. I discovered much later that the full name of the famous showman Billy Rose [1899-1966] was in fact William Rosenberg. Meanwhile, I had started to write my Israeli novel, which would finally become All the Earth is Mine (published as an iBook).

The hero of my novel is an Australian-born engineer, resembling myself in certain ways. Since he was Jewish (which is not my case), and since his professional and human destiny would coincide with that of the modern state of Israel, I thought of the above-mentioned Jerusalem benefactor and decided to name my hero Jacob Rose. He would arrive in the Holy Land and perform various engineering miracles there. So, I liked the expression "Jacob Rose in Israel", which evoked the Biblical-sounding declaration: "Jacob arose in Israel". Later, having completed my tale of Jacob Rose, I was surprised to learn that I actually had ancestors named Rose. But all this is purely anecdotal and coincidental, and I'm not suggesting that my fictional character has anything in common with my English Rose ancestors.

Today, I'm thrilled and proud, of course, to realize that a member of my ancestral Dorset family named Rose was the first free settler in the land that would become Australia. I was equally enthusiastic about having my fictional Australian alter-ego named Jacob Rose settle in Israel. Between genealogical facts and imaginative fiction, the differences are of little significance. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose (Gertude Stein). And by any other name would smell as sweet (William Shakespeare). That's how I see this celebration of our past and present: Australia Day.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Exemplary Australian scholarship

I've always known that, when my compatriots decide to tackle seriously various cutting-edge challenges of an intellectual or scientific nature, they are capable of producing world-class results. A typical example of Australian excellence concerns the domain of the computer processing of our journalistic heritage.

Click the banner to discover a fabulous website that offers us access to our nation's newspapers from 1803 to 1954. Needless to say, my praise of this kind of historical and technological effort is unbounded, since it enables every one of us to explore freely the events of our past.

My grandfather Ernest William Skyvington [1891-1985] once told me of his arrival in Sydney on Christmas Day, 1908. He described the thrill of seeing excited crowds at the Rushcutter Bay stadium, the following day (known traditionally as Boxing Day), awaiting the monumental match (which would go down in history) between the white man Tommy Burns and the Negro Jack Johnson. What a fabulous symbol for a young lad who has just arrived in the Antipodes. The website offers us a short article concerning this match:

I'll surely be spending many long hours in front of this wonderful Australian website, which can reveal so many secrets about our past. As you might imagine, I jumped immediately onto the issue of The Sydney Morning Herald dated 24 September 1940… when my peephole opened at the Runnymede maternity clinic in Grafton. Well, I'll let you share my joy (if you're interested in this kind of archaic stuff) by discovering that the king of England himself made a celebrated wartime speech on that very day. Personally, alas, I was far too young to hear him. Indeed, I'm not sure that anybody did.

Friday, March 19, 2010


The last member of the indigenous family of Tasmanians was a lovely lady named Truganina (attired here in silly Victorian clothes).

This 64-year-old Queen of the Tasmanian Aborigines (as she has often been designated) died in Hobart on 8 May 1876. On her deathbed, she pleaded to be buried in the mountains where her tribe had wandered for millennia. Instead, her remains were mounted as a specimen and placed in a glass box in a Hobart museum.

Since then, I don't know whether the DNA of Truganina has been preserved. I hope so, because her people were fabulous Southern Hemisphere pioneers whom we might encounter and celebrate, today, through their genome. We would be thrilled to know how and when they arrived in Tasmania, and what they did there...

Well, it seems that (as they say in French) there's bread on the breadboard, waiting to be tasted, eaten, appreciated. For the moment, the essential data is filtering slowly and unsatisfactorily... but it would appear that a horde of ancient artifacts has been unearthed [display] at a place named Brighton, near Hobart, during roadwork operations.

In my recent article entitled Seafarers [display], I evoked the existence of my archaic compatriots Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, born (like me, but a little earlier on) in New South Wales. Well the Brighton findings would appear to date from that epoch. So, we can look forward to learning, little by little, how Truganina's ancestors spent their time on the planet Earth.

I like to think that the spirit of Queen Truganina would be happy to know that her pale-skinned cousins from the "New World" (of Asia, Europe, America, etc) have finally got around, through perseverance, to tapping into—be it ever so little—her archaic Dreamtime.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Walker ancestors

Yesterday, I indicated the existence of a chapter from A Little Bit of Irish concerning my links with the Braidwood bushrangers. From that same monograph, here is the main chapter on my Walker ancestors:

This chapter ends with an expression of my doubts concerning the alleged Catholic Irishness of my great-great-grandfather Charles Walker [1807-1860], who was quite possibly a Scottish Protestant: a young brother of the whisky inventor John Walker [1805-1857].

I'm taking risks in evoking spiritual subjects such as Catholicism, Protestantism and whisky in a single superficial sentence. There might be vapors of archaic blasphemy in what I've just said. Incidentally, I wonder what theological authorities in modern Ireland think of the sex of angels, or the maximum number of tiny angels that you can fit onto a pinhead. I'm sure they have strong opinions on such fascinating questions.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Braidwood bushrangers

About a year and a half ago, I placed the following document in the Issuu system:

It's a chapter of the monograph entitled A Little Bit of Irish, which presents my maternal genealogy.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive a friendly comment from a woman in Australia named Kylie Clarke, whose great-great-uncles Thomas Clarke [1840-1867] and John Clarke [1844-1867] were prominent bushrangers in the Braidwood district, executed by hanging in Sydney on 25 June 1867. For a while, my great-great-uncle William Hickey [1818-1901] was a member of their gang.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Repetitive Aussie apologies

Australians are special people. When I returned to my native land in 1985 for a lengthy stay, I was alarmed to discover that many of my compatriots were victims of a mysterious physiological affliction known as RSI: repetitive strain injury. In a nutshell, Australians who had developed the habit of using their hands to perform repetitive manual tasks enabling them to earn their living (a hugely ordinary situation throughout the planet Earth) found themselves stricken down with mysterious painful symptoms that prevented them, alas, from carrying on their work. Having just left France, I was intrigued by the fact that this affliction appeared to exist only in Australia. Was there a demoniacal "magnetism" in the geographical specificity of the Antipodes that was dealing a cruel blow to Aussie workers, and making them incapable of working repetitively at a given task? Maybe it had something to do with Vegemite consumption. I wondered, but I never found an answer to my interrogations. Meanwhile, I returned to France, where people were still working manually as usual...

These days, there's a new epidemic in Australia: a compulsive need to apologize... to accelerate the "healing process" in all kinds of domains. On 13 February 2008, the Australian prime minister apologized formally to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children who were removed forcibly from their family context in order to be brought up in a Westernized environment. On 16 November 2009, the same prime minister apologized formally to a second group of citizens, referred to as Forgotten Australians, designating individuals without parents (for many reasons), placed in institutions... and maybe abused in one way or another.

From my observatory in France, I remain highly skeptical concerning the well-foundedness of the current Aussie media razzmatazz about Kevin Rudd's apology to these so-called "forgotten Australians". It all sounds rather silly to my European ears. Sure, there were sad cases of infants without parents, kids being abused, adolescents without guidance, etc. But was it worse in Australia than anywhere else on the sad planet that emerged from World War II?

To my mind, my compatriots would do better to concentrate upon the sole political problem that faces modern Australia: the fact that our gigantic resources (mainly mineral) have been raped by international capitalists who don't even leave enough in our nation's piggy bank to build a decent infrastructure of roads, railways, defense systems, etc. Australia doesn't need apologies. It needs a violent political revolution of a left-wing kind (maybe with blood) and new republican thinking.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anzac pilgrims on the Western Front

After their calamitous initiation into warfare in Turkey in 1915, Australian troops were brought to the region in northern France that the Germans referred to as their Western Front.

Today, in a few hours, when the sun rises over Picardy, crowds of Australian visitors will be assembled for an Anzac Day celebration at Villers-Bretonneux.

The geographical heart of Anzac Day commemorations seems to be shifting from Gallipoli to France. By an amazing coincidence, the successful Australian action that liberated Villers-Bretonneux took place on Anzac Day in 1918: exactly three years after Gallipoli. But, between the events of Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux, by far the greatest number of Australian casualties on the Western Front had occurred in 1916 at Pozières: over 22,000 dead.

We must remember and celebrate solemnly these terrible happenings, but it would be a monstrous mistake to imagine for an instant that there might have been anything glorious or heroic, or even vaguely rational, in all that mindless butchery.

I feel ill at ease about the idea of a nice touristic "twinning" atmosphere between Australia and Villers-Bretonneux, culminating in the preposterous notion that people in that modern township might be expected to express some kind of gratitude to today's Australian war pilgrims. Obviously, the citizens of Villers-Bretonneux are unlikely to complain about this situation. Pilgrims are pilgrims, here as in Lourdes, and tourism is a business.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Childhood mysteries

Here in my adoptive homeland, France, we would like to know more about what happened to the great aviator who wrote the fabulous story of The Little Prince: a tale that has charmed the people of our planet, which might one day convince warring humans that naive fascination with the Cosmos should replace hatred. In fact, an 88-year-old German, a former Luftwaffe ace named Horst Rippert, has just revealed that he considers himself [what an appalling claim to fame] as the poor bastard who shot down Antoine de Saint-Exupéry over the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944.

In the Antipodes of my childhood, we would like to know more about what happened to fellows aboard this Australian boat:

HMAS Sydney disappeared abruptly and totally, inexplicably, off Western Australia on November 19, 1941, after a short and violent battle with a Germain raider, Kormoran, disguised as a merchant vessel. This last photo shows some of the 645 Australians, spread out like the icing on a cake, who disappeared with HMAS Sydney:

Shattered wreckage of the Kormoran has just been salvaged. Maybe, I hope, we'll soon find traces of the lost boys whose disappearance haunted my childhood epoch.

BREAKING NEWS: During the twelve or so hours since I published the present blog article, Australian PM Kevin Rudd told reporters in Canberra that the intact hull of HMAS Sydney had just been located some 22 kilometers from that of the Kormoran, at a depth of about 2470 meters, in waters 800 kilometers north of Perth.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Man of trees

In my contacts with exceptional human beings, I've often been struck by their respective affinities with grand domains of the Cosmos: either living, inanimate or the fuzzy in-between. I've often found that individuals who announce clearly at the outset that they're primarily concerned with their fellow-humans can in fact turn out to be the least interesting of all, particularly if their alleged interest in others is merely a disguised form of self-centeredness. Enough of Fascist monsters patting little boys on the head, kissing little girls on the cheek, and attending church on Sunday to display their concern for the souls of their brethren. At the other extremity, individuals who are preoccupied by the purely mineral worlds of geology and astronomy, not to mention cosmology at large, are often genuinely warm and compassionate friends, with an extraordinary sensitivity towards all that is human, too-human. These days, I've grown to admire individuals such as Brigitte Bardot who are alarmed by the distress of animals. When Brigitte expresses her love or concern for a dog or a horse, or even an Antarctic whale, she's talking directly to me... just as surely as when she used to wiggle her attractive backside in movies. When a musician is impassioned by the presence of wolves, for example, she is on the same wavelength as the Cosmos at large, including my humble being. A woman who loves wolves loves me too, in a way... not because I'm a wolf, but because I feel capable of sharing her passion. Let's jump to the opposite pole: that of a person who abandons their dog on the roadside, because they are no longer concerned by their animal. People like that make me vomit with disgust. I could kill them. Let's change the subject.

Jacques Brosse, who died in January at the age of 86, loved trees, and he was considered as a world expert in this domain. There are people like that. Exceptional individuals with vegetal sensitivity. I recall the image of Christine Mafart weeping when she witnessed the destruction wrought by the tempest at the family domain of Le Rufflet in her native Brittany. I believe that my neighbor Tineke Bot, the Dutch sculptress, is endowed with a strong degree of vegetal sensitivity, but I'm personally rather dull in this domain, and I have trouble trying to comprehend the nature of this capacity.

The reason I've been thinking of Jacques Brosse is that he happens to be the author of one of the finest books that exists on the fascinating subject of great exploratory voyages in the Pacific during the 18th and 19th centuries. The English translation, entitled Great Voyages of Exploration, with rich illustrations, was brought out in Australia in 1983. To my mind, this book is a must for all Australians interested in the history of their Pacific universe at around the epoch of the arrival of James Cook. [My old friend Harvey Cohen has just informed me that the Australian scholar and writer Danielle Clode has tackled this subject in her Voyages to the South Seas: In Search of Terres Australes. I am looking forward to reading her book, in the hope that she has built upon the great work of Jacques Brosse.]

Jacques Brosse describes a man who might almost be his namesake: the great 18th-century French writer Charles de Brosses, whose History of Navigation to the Southern Lands, published in 1756, can be considered as the primordial expression of European interest in the future continent of Australia, eagerly absorbed by his friend the Scotsman Alexander Dalrymple [1737-1808], whose enthusiasm gave rise directly to the adventures of Cook. Truly, if ever my native land were seeking to identify an authentic founding father, I would discern the title to this Frenchman known as Président de Brosses.

Getting back to Jacques Brosse, the Man of Trees who has just left us (former associate of the intellectual giants Albert Camus and Claude Lévi-Strauss), I should point out that this laureate of the highest literary award of the French Academy was acclaimed primarily in France through his 30-year-old status as an authentic Zen Buddhist monk. Jacques Brosse wrote about navigators who searched for a legendary southern land, and his imagination was stirred by the vision and aromas of vegetation in this mythical continent. He finally found that land in his inner being, in the quiet contemplation of Zen.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Saying sorry to indigenous Australians

The antipodean continent chosen by the British authorities as an excellent abode for social outcasts had been inhabited for many millennia by a vast community of Aborigines whose tribal culture and pantheistic religion were exclusively oral.

These innocent and relatively peaceful natives were no match for the European invaders—convicts and settlers—who simply snatched the plains, rivers and mountains away from the indigenous Australians, using violence, if need be. Later, the colonial authorities stole, not only the natives' land, but their children too, in view of an absurd eugenic principle according to which the only survival strategy for this people would consist of educating them in a European context and inter-breeding them with white individuals.

Today, it would appear that the prime minister of Australia is at last about to apologize officially to the so-called "stolen generations" of indigenous Australians, victims of cruel acts perpetrated in the past by white Australians. It's far from easy, of course, to decide upon the most effective and morally just way of making such a formal apology... and this explains, no doubt, why it has taken such a long time for this event to become a reality. We current Australians tend to say, or at least think, that our ancestors, not us, were responsible for these crimes against the Aborigines. So, why should we say we're sorry for acts that we didn't actually commit, personally?

Although the respective situations and tragedies are profoundly different, Australia's forthcoming apology to the Aborigines reminds me of the French government's complex relationship with Jewish citizens and residents of France during the terrible Nazi period. Justifications of a similar kind were advanced for decades to postpone the fateful act that would consist of saying explicitly: The nation, today, is sorry for all that happened!

Whatever we might say concerning the errors and foibles of former president Jacques Chirac, we must give him credit for being largely responsible for this official act of contrition, on 16 July 1995, at the former location of the notorious sporting stadium (the so-called winter cycling track of Paris) where Jews arrested by French police were assembled before being deported to concentration camps. In a fortnight, in the Antipodes, Kevin Rudd will be performing a solemn act of the same order.