Decolonising the dictionary: reclaiming Australian history for the forgotten

You’re a student writing an essay or a journalist traversing uncertain historical terrain and you want to know a little, for example, about colonial leader Lachlan Macquarie, pioneering “settler” John Batman or former governor general William Slim.

So you search their respective names and “biography”. Your top hit, in each case, is likely to be their entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, this country’s pre-eminent resource about noteworthy deceased citizens.

Lachlan Macquarie, you’ll learn, approached Aboriginal people with a “humanitarian conscience” – though he did once organise a “military drive to chasten them” when they’d shown signs of “ungrateful hostility”. The ADB, meanwhile, portrays Batman in a most positive tone regarding Indigenous people. and Slim, Australian governor general from 1953 to 1960, was a war hero and “former teacher [who] enjoyed visiting schools and talking to pupils”.

Bennelong’s grave: how history betrayed Australia’s first diplomat
In fact Macquarie used “terror” (his words) tactics including cutting off and displaying the heads of Aboriginal victims and ordered that black children be stolen from the sites of his soldiers’ massacres.

Batman, meanwhile, was a syphilitic grifter who led mass killings of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and struck a worthless “treaty” with the Indigenous of the land upon which Melbourne was imposed.

Slim was the subject of paedophilia allegations at the recent commonwealth royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse relating to visits he made as governor general to a farm school for child migrants in rural New South Wales in the 1950s.

There are many more examples of where the ADB’s biographies have been exposed, with the passage of time as, at best, historically incomplete and at worst, perhaps, deliberately so in some cases.

History, of course, is not static. Time exposes its epochal trends, the contexts – political and social – in which it’s written and its occasional susceptibility to the cultural mores and sensibilities of its day.

And that is why the ADB has embarked on an ambitious project to reassess and re-scrutinise the lives of the subjects in its earliest volumes, to find the “missing” – mostly women and Indigenous people – and to apply new resources to scrutinising those in its 60-year-old pages.

It will involve the addition to some entries of material that was not originally available. In some cases it will involve the rewriting of history in the light of truths that may not have been apparent – or were overlooked – decades ago.

This process may well be the fantasy of every professional and autodidact history nerd – the latter a rank to which I claim membership. I’ve been a fierce critic of the shortcomings of the ADB’s earlier colonial volumes, although I was oblivious to the scant resources allocated to the dictionary and the enormous time and effort required to bring it up to date.

Frank Bongiorno, head of the history school at the Australian National University – which produces the ADB – describes what is happening as a “decolonisation”.

“Inevitably when you’ve been running for 60 years, and your life spans a revolution in how Australians understand their identity, their history and their place in the world, the earliest work will sometimes be out of date, and especially so in relation to the Indigenous experience of dispossession and violence.

“But the ADB team – which like so many of our great cultural institutions is much smaller than it once was – is decolonising a project whose origins lie in an era before most white Australians were prepared to face what they and their ancestors had done to Aboriginal people,” Bongiorno says.

“Clearly, updating the early colonial entries – most of them written over 50 years ago – is highly desirable but a multimillion dollar task involving thousands of hours of research, writing, fact-checking and editing.”

It seems almost incomprehensible that the ADB, which is part of the ANU’s National Centre of Biography, has eight equivalent full-time staff but just three – an administrator, a programmer and an online manager – dedicated to the decolonisation project.

It has great reliance on the brainpower of hundreds of volunteer writers – among them academic and autodidact historians, journalists, teachers and others with the demonstrated research skills to write the entries. The entries span first colonial contact to subjects who died in 1994. The ADB has 18 official volumes (and a supplementary volume of “missing persons”) covering more than 13,000 scholarly biographies written by 4,500-plus authors over a 60-year period. It runs on the smell of a dusty archive including last year $50,000 in interest from an endowment fund established in 1997 and re-launched in 2009, and a recurrent budget of about $1.19m (which has been stagnant compared with wages over the past decade).

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The ADB receives 60m to 70m internet hits a year, the Centre for Biography another 20m. These are remarkable figures that ought be the envy of internet news and information startups. Potential marketability aside (the ADB is driven by public service, not profit), they also highlight the public appetite for such important national content – for both history nerds and others with passing interest.

Bongiorno says Australians concerned with the future of what is a national cultural treasure (and the longest-running and largest collaboration in the humanities in this Australia) should donate to the ADB’s endowment fund. In recent years some of Australia’s wealthiest people (including Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull) are said to have contributed. The ADB only draws on the fund’s interest.

Punching above its weight
Bongiorno says: “In contrast with government generosity to the Australian War Memorial – about half a billion dollars (announced last year with little deference to financial and governance processes for such a large commonwealth spend) for a new major extension – the ADB is among the multitude of great national cultural institutions which have to do a great deal with pretty limited resources. But it has a visionary general editor, a fine staff and a large army of devoted volunteers around the country.”

Such is the cultural and political potency of Anzac, with its capacity to eclipse other Australian narratives – including the ADB’s 13,000 individual ones – that bring texture and complexity, for all the good and the bad, to the stories of Australia and the 60,000 years of continental civilisation that preceded it.

Led by Melanie Nolan, director of the National Centre of Biography and the ADB’s editor, the dictionary overhaul is underscored by a commitment to examine the lives of many more colonial women and the establishment of an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography (IADB), which aims to add 190 new Indigenous biographies.

The Australian Research Council funds the IADB project. The dictionary’s Indigenous working party will advise and guide the project and consult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Indigenous project includes eminent historians Tom Griffiths and Malcolm Allbrook as chief investigators and is led by Yawuru woman, the academic historian, Shino Kinishi.

Griffiths, chair of the ADB’s editorial board, has written of being “humbled by the range and generosity of its expert volunteer labour, the brilliance and originality of its thousands of unpaid and willing contributors, the enthusiastic support of universities, libraries and museums right around the country, the dedication of its vital working parties and members of the editorial board, the skill and devotion of its staff, and the daily dependence on ADB entries by scholars and readers, businesspeople and politicians, lawyers, teachers, journalists, nurses, farmers, cooks, possibly shearers and hopefully millionaires”.

Finding the missing
Nolan says the first step in addressing the dictionary of biography’s “glaring gender imbalance” is to identify an extra 1,500 females who lived and perhaps flourished during the colonial era.

“Just 12% of the ADB’s 13,000 biographical subjects are women – an imbalance which is even more notable when the early volumes alone are considered,” says Nolan.

“In the first four volumes 48 – just over 4% – of the 2,212 subjects were women ... and just 1.8% in volumes one and two.”

Glaring omissions, Nolan points out, include Barangaroo, the first wife of Bennelong (the Wangal-born warrior who became an informal envoy between the Gadigal tribes around Port Jackson and the British colonists) and Lucy Hannah Applewhaite. The name Barangaroo – an Eora woman of great authority who was probably present at a famous meeting of Indigenous women and white men in February 1788 – is appropriately well known. Yet she has no ADB entry.

With her husband, Applewhaite (1833-1909), a relative of musician Peter Garrett, worked at the NSW colonial immigration office and depot in 1861. “A year later she was appointed head matron of the Hyde Park asylum, making her one of Sydney’s first professional working mothers. Her husband and their nine children lived on the second floor of the asylum,” Nolan says.

“Following her husband’s death, she married William Hicks and had another five children – while continuing to work. With a salary at its peak of £250, she was one of the highest paid female public servants in NSW.”

Bennelong does have an ADB entry. But it is painfully inadequate and does him significant disservice, consistent with so much of the historiography about him until recent years.

Bennelong was a warrior and a peacemaker, for a time held captive in chains by his European dispossessors. He took the pragmatic path of becoming a diplomat of sorts between the Sydney tribes and the invaders. He travelled to England with the first colonial governor, Arthur Phillip, was a husband and father who clung to his culture despite the ravages of colonialism. He developed friendships – out of necessity, certainly, but they apparently came to be infused by genuine warmth – with Europeans on his country, not least Phillip, and the former soldier, convict and brewer James Squire. He lived the last 18 years of his life in what is today’s lower north shore suburb of Kissing Point, where he had another wife and more children, and led the local tribe. He was complex, articulate and politically savvy.

Yet for more than two centuries, he has been straightjacketed as the subject of a black-white colonial morality tale: the Indigenous man straddling two worlds, inevitably toppling into the divide, dying as an obstreperous drunk having surrendered cultural agency.

The Australian author Eleanor Dark – one of the early postcolonial female novelists I most admire – wrote Bennelong’s dictionary of biography entry, published in 1966. Dark was at the vanguard of her time when it came to shedding light on the colonial shadows. Her novel, The Timeless Land (1941), featuring Bennelong as a character, was remarkable in its literary elegance and for its groundbreaking historical research that promoted understanding of European invasion and the complex interracial relations that followed, among both regular readers and eminent historians including Manning Clark. It was most enlightened for its day.

But it, too, denied Bennelong the agency now being afforded him by another generation of historians, notably Kate Fullagar and Keith Vincent-Smith.

Dark writes how Bennelong, after returning to Sydney in 1795, “could no longer find contentment or full acceptance either among his countrymen or the white men”.

“Two years later he had become so fond of drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and violent as to be capable of any mischief.”

In a colony that ran on grog, the indignant scorn is reserved for an Indigenous man who drank, often at the governors’ table. In truth, Bennelong came and went from Kissing Point to the colonial hub across the water and he had a rich tribal life for his last 18 years, which Dark manages to all but avoid.

Nolan says: “Even the most progressive often did not view Indigenous subjects on their own terms. Take for instance Eleanor Dark whose 1941 [The] Timeless Land was a real effort by a white woman to understand the Indigenous perspective. Then look at her ADB articles on Bennelong and Arabanoo [also a captive, for a time, of Arthur Phillip]. She writes the ADB articles from the colonising perspective. But then going back and rereading Timeless Land reveals the limits of her research and knowledge. We are about to put revised articles up for three Indigenous subjects, including Bennelong and Arabanoo because they are so woeful.”

Slavery associations
A revisions committee is “currently triaging the articles in volumes 1 and 2”, according to Nolan. “My understanding is that a third of them need to be completely rewritten. A third need to be revised and a third need minor corrections.”

They include numerous entries about prominent figures from Britain who became pillars of colonial society in Australia, but whose connections to the slavery industry were omitted from the ADB. In September 2018, I published an article about these omissions.

They include men like English-born George Fife Angas (1789-1879), a pillar of the South Australian establishment. A merchant banker, landowner, colonial parliamentarian and philanthropist, he helped establish the Union Bank of Australia in 1836 and the South Australian Banking Co. He was sufficiently wealthy to buy 4,000 acres of fertile land on the Rhine and Gawler rivers in the Barossa range and, according to the ADB’s 1966 entry he was: “A Christian first, despite his varied business ventures Angas had a lifelong passion for forming societies and joining charitable committees.”

Colonial Australia’s foundation is stained with the profits of British slavery
The ADB says: “He joined influential reformers in fighting for the emancipation of slaves and the restoration of nonconformist missionaries in British Honduras.” It omits to mention he’d also been a slave owner.

The association of some colonial figures with slavery came to light in a book by political scientist and historian Clinton Fernandes of University of NSW, Canberra. They were drawn from the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database at the University College London (UCL) – a remarkable resource that aims to publicly record those Britons who profited from slavery.

At the time of the book’s publication, the ADB had been aware – due to the UCL database – of the slavery connections (and the omissions from the biographical entries) of some of the relevant colonial figures. It is understood that multiple sources indicate that potentially dozens of prominent colonial men with ADB entries might have slavery connections. If so, their entries need to be rewritten in light of the new information.

Many of the current entries do reference interests in Caribbean plantations. This begs the question, of course, about whether the omissions of slavery connections (just like the absent details of frontier violence against Indigenous people by prominent graziers in the ADB’s articles) are deliberate.

“Did an author in 1960 know that her subject was a slave owner who received compensation from the British government and migrated to Australia to invest the money and become rich and then, knowing this, she deliberately did not put it in her article? I cannot say that that was the case definitely (I only joined the ADB in 2008), but I think that this kind of thing was rare,” Nolan says.

“On the other hand, many authors wrote articles from a colonising perspective. What they selected and how they presented their subjects sometimes tells us as much about the authors as it does about the subjects that they are writing on.”

How many entries need to be revised?
Nolan raises the example of the ADB article on explorer and pastoralist Angus McMillan (1810-1865) after who a federal electorate was named.

“[It] recorded that he ‘took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of Aborigines’. New research has shown he was involved in frontier violence so we have commissioned a new entry that will cover this. How many other entries of pastoralists will need to be revised?”

The answer would seem to be: perhaps dozens.

And they include those relating to the pioneering Kimberley pastoralist family, the Duracks, whose most prominent member, the novelist Mary Durack, wrote evocatively about frontier grazing and pioneering in her novels Kings in Grass Castles and Sons in the Saddle.

The omissions in her books about the appalling, intensely violent, inhumane treatment of Aboriginal custodians (by her antecedents; by what passed for a remote judicial system; by an evidentiary protocol that invariably absolved the invaders of culpability; by a brutal, corrupt policing system that bolstered the profits of those families in Durack’s grass castles) have been left to contemporary Western Australian historians such as Chris Owen, to fill.

A lack of resources promises to make the top-to-toe revision of the ADB slow going.

The most (but not the only) problematic volumes, 1 and 2, currently comprise 1,182 (mostly white men). Revision has started with the missing persons volume in 2005, which added 565 articles and the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography project which will add 190 Indigenous articles. Much more is needed.

Nolan explains: “In a revised version I would both revise the articles we have, add a few hundred more and then add the same number of female, convict and Indigenous Australians ... a total of, say, 3,000 subjects. So a really realistic costing to just revise the period up to 1,850 would be $8m over eight years.”

It is a lot of money. Though not in the scheme of funds allocated to other cultural projects; think about other potential usages of the more than $500m granted to the war memorial, which has not been subjected to the cuts of many other national institutions.

Other countries have placed comparatively greater value on their own equivalent national dictionaries of biography.

In the decade from 1994, Britain’s original Dictionary of National Biography (30,941 articles, written by 653 authors between 1885 and 1900 with annual updates) was completely revised. The ODNB went online in 2004; 10,000-plus contributors produced 50,113 articles covering 54,922 lives at a cost of £25m, bankrolled by the British Academy and Oxford University Press.

The first official state-funded two-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography was published in 1940. The 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand, again state-funded, comprised 1,157 biographies.

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography project began in 1983. Underwritten with NZ Lottery Board grants, from about 1990-2000 the project received between $800,000 and $1m per annum. More than 3,000 articles were published in five volumes between 1990 and 2000 (with two volumes in Maori).

A historical life of its own
A cultural behemoth such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography takes on a historical life of its own. In 2013, Nolan and Christine Fernon published the first official history of the dictionary: The ADB’s Story. They drew, in part, on all of the working files on subjects in the dictionary from the earliest to the latest volumes – 44 metal filing cabinets full of them. In writing history, the chosen authors made their own. Today those cabinets would also hold truths about the notable omissions, mere oversights or otherwise, in some of the entries.

Political events, new databases – such as the profits of slavery resource – and public inquiries all raise new questions about the accuracy of some biographical portraits.

As ADB editor Melanie Nolan writes: “Some readers assumed that we could simply and systematically add an addendum to ADB articles of sexual abusers in light of the findings of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse ... However, much of the evidence to the 2017 royal commission was on camera. Moreover, the problem with naming and accusing is that it [the allegations] is untested in the court.”

Sometimes other records will emerge, unanticipated, to cast new light – or shadow – on old subjects. For example the original ADB article on artist and writer Donald Friend didn’t mention his sexual relations with houseboys in Bali and Sri Lanka during the 1960s and 70s. But Friend’s diaries, which the National Library of Australia published from 2001 to 2006, document his paedophelia. This is proof enough for the ADB.

“Evidence is the issue,” Nolan says.

History demands no less.

Daley, Paul

17 February 2019


Updated:  26 June 2019/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications