‘A peculiar family history’

An interview with Robert Bollard

In the latest Overland, historian Robert Bollard writes a personal account of his exploration of his Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry. We spoke to Robert about his article ‘Who Was Bet B?’ and his writing process.

What was your motivation for writing your article? What issues were you interested in exploring?

In some ways this is a hard question to answer. The story is interesting, obviously. And I’ve learned from writing about history that stories you identify as interesting often turn out to be interesting, not just because they’re quirky or striking in some way, but because what makes them striking, on closer reflection, reveals something of significance.

Here we start with a peculiar family history. A grandfather whispers something to a new mother in the suburban wasteland of Canberra in the early 1960s. Two decades later the mother confirms that she’s a member of a supposedly ‘extinct race’. It’s obviously interesting, but is there any significance to the tale? Writing about it revealed to me that there is more. It enabled me to explore the meaning of identity – ethnic identity in this case. Why people identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic group and the connection that has with national or racial oppression are questions that I thought my own, rather unusual, family history shines some light on. The essay was originally written for another purpose and was much too long for the magazine. Much of what had to be cut out had to do with my Irish ancestry, which is closely intertwined with my Aboriginal ancestry and which is the only other, of all the myriad of ethnicities in the family tree, that anyone I can remember cared to identify with. A strain of Irish nationalism came through my maternal grandfather who, orphaned in 1920, was raised by his grandmother whose father had been transported from Cork in January 1848 for stealing potatoes – in the middle of the famine (Patrick Fitzpatrick was his name and his record is available online).

So my grandfather grew up in poverty, cared for by this grandmother. He had a great uncle, WB Propsting, who was not only wealthy and Protestant but a cabinet minister in the conservative Tasmanian state government of the time and who did nothing to care for him. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Granddad identified as a Catholic and that he was a strong Labor man (though he stopped going to mass after the split in the ‘50s). The strength of his political identification has strongly influenced my family’s politics ever since and was part of the reason I so easily gravitated to the revolutionary left.

This was, of course, the same grandfather who told Mum after my birth that we had Aboriginal ancestors, but he clearly never felt safe to identify, which is revealing as well. As a side point, if he had identified as an Aboriginal, he would have been the first indigenous Australian to obtain a university degree, having done so in the 1920s. The connection between identity and oppression works in a number ways and it is a problem that the three generations between Bet and my mother chose to hide their Aboriginality. As a result, there was no cultural continuity, I wasn’t brought up as part of the Koori community, didn’t know for certain about my Aboriginal ancestry till I was an adult and, most importantly of all, haven’t experienced oppression. There are no clear-cut answers to these questions and writing this piece was as much about working things out for myself as anything else.

After Andrew Bolt was found guilty of breaching section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act, Anita Heiss wrote on her website that, ‘I believe the result means that Australia will have a higher quality and more responsible media, and that to some degree the persecution of Aboriginal people in the press will be lessened.’ Do you think the verdict will have any impact on the Aboriginal rights movement?

Obviously, my sympathies are completely with Anita and the others who sued Bolt and I wouldn’t be upset to see Bolt punished in any way for sloppy journalism or racist demagoguery. Unfortunately, I fear that the case will not harm him and may even have helped his cause by granting him a bogus martyrdom. Moreover, I’m suspicious of using the courts to wage political fights. Even if Bolt was to be silenced, there’d be other right-wing hacks queuing up to be paid by Murdoch to do what he does. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for mobilising people; mass activity rather than the pronouncements of men in silly wigs is the best way to change the world. Of course, it is easy enough to say that when you’re not the one having your name dragged through the mud for the titillation of Bolt’s readership. So, I understand why they took him to court, but I fear that it may be a mistake and I certainly think that Anita is overly optimistic regarding the extent to which the verdict will deliver a ‘higher quality and responsible media’.

Since writing this piece for Overland, have you managed to uncover anything more about ‘Bet B’?

Nothing as yet about Bet, though I’d desperately like to establish whether the ‘B’ stands for Briggs – whether there is a definite connection with Mannalargenna and the Plangermaireener. If some nice person is willing to finance an extended trip to Hobart, I would like at some time to hit the archives thoroughly to see if I can uncover anything else. I have, however, through my brother’s cricket club in Canberra (of all things), come across a picture of Bet’s daughter, my great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Sawyer, taken in the late 1880s when she was in her forties. My great grandfather Herbert, then about eight or ten, is sitting next to her. The picture is a group photo and contains also her husband Robert Viney and his, by this stage, grown up children by his previous marriage. One of their descendants published a family history and another, who plays in my brother’s cricket club, lent him a copy.

(The Viney family, date unknown, but as Herbert (‘Bert’ here) was born in 1878, it looks like some time in the late 1880s. ‘Elizabeth’ is Elizabeth Sawyer, Bet’s daughter.)

What’s next for you? I understand you’re working on a book about Australia during the Great War.

I’ve a contract with UNSW Press to produce it by next August for release around Anzac Day 2013. The provisional title is In the Shadow of the Great War: A Hidden History of Dissent and Rebellion. It’s an attempt at a popular history of the radicalisation of the working class in that period focussing on the opposition to the war and conscription, the strike wave, the various spectacular riots, and so on. It’s very much a ‘history from below’ approach, viewing the movement from the level of the street rather than smoke-filled intrigue in Trades Hall or Caucus. In short, it will be about ordinary people misbehaving, ordinary people being magnificent, and ordinary people misbehaving in a magnificent way.

I did my PhD on the Great Strike if 1917, so it’s an extension of that to some extent. However, UNSW Press envisages it as a popular history, which suits me, being more of a propagandist than an academic at heart. So, rather than focussing on historiographic arguments about what is wrong with an institutionalist approach to labour history, it will be making the simpler argument that the Great War was a disaster, which many Australians opposed it and that social conflict during the war tore Australian society apart. I’ve already made the historiographic argument in my thesis and academic journals and so on; the popular argument is more important. In any case, just telling the tale is proving fun. My favourite so far is the tale of a group of young women at the end of a ‘women’s meeting’ at Fitzroy Town Hall in 1916, held to promote a ‘Yes’ vote in the conscription referendum. Having wrecked the meeting the women were reportedly so ecstatic that they refused to leave the otherwise vacated hall, and being pressed by some, perhaps comely, young constables to do so, they grabbed them and tried to make them dance in the aisles. Once again, this is a vignette that initially recommends itself simply by being interesting. Does it have a deeper significance? I think so, but you’ll have to buy the book to know for sure.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Hi Roselina, I have researched Viney’s for quite a while have dropped off in the last few years,however Elizabeth Sawyer has fasinated me for a long time, I would love to compare notes with you we probably have the same stuff, I do have that photo that you have, and probably some others, but when I retire I will solve Elizabth’s parents and more that I know.

  2. Hi Clem, I just saw your comments. The picture was in a Viney family history book that the Tasmanian family published in 2000. I believe a revision is planned.
    Mark Viney recognised my name and asked me if I was the person in the tree. We come from markedly different branches.
    The book has a different view of Elizabeth, claiming she was born in Devon, England in 1841. There are always errors in works like this. I have wondered if Devon was actually Devonport.

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