It has been a little while since we’ve done a Q&A with an Emerging Historian: our most recent participant was Gwyn McClelland in April. To revive the series there are few better than Dr Thomas James Rogers. Over to you, Tom!
I received my PhD in history from the University of Melbourne in late 2014 and am currently a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial. I am towards the middle of my third twelve-month contract in this position. I’m very fortunate in that this is a full-time role, and I’ve had two extensions, but the contract uncertainty is still there. Hopefully it can be extended again!
How did you come to be a historian?
For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in history. I blame medieval- and pirate-themed Lego, and the computer game Wolfenstein 3D, which I first played at the tender age of 7. I believe it was the original first-person shooter. Set during the Second World War, you play an American POW imprisoned by the Nazis in “Castle Wolfenstein”, and you need to break out—it’s extremely violent, and great fun! I know my dad regretted allowing me to play it at such a young age, but it actually sparked an interest in the real events of the Second World War, and I learnt a great deal in my school and local libraries.
History became an academic interest for me in Year 10. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and I had a fantastic US history teacher by the name of Douglas McKenzie. He encouraged us to think about the link between ideas and actions, something that has fascinated me ever since. It’s very easy to think of ideologies as things that other people have, but he forced his students to examine our own ideas about how the world works, and the individual’s place in society. This approach was an excellent way to enter into discussions of revolutionary-era and nineteenth-century US history. It has also served me well in studying the Australian colonies.
Then I went to university and didn’t want to leave. I had the usual blinkered undergraduate view of academic staff: they appeared to be living in a wonderful utopia of research, writing, teaching, and discussion. I was very fortunate to have three semesters’ worth of learning about the ancient Mediterranean with Professor (now Emeritus) Ron Ridley. At some point I visited the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, and realised that nineteenth-century Australian history wasn’t boring. When I went into Honours, I did something that had been unthinkable just three years earlier: I wrote my thesis on an Australian topic. Well, a British-in-Australia topic: the Rum Rebellion of 1808.
Tell us about your PhD research.
My PhD was entitled “The Civilisation of Port Phillip”, and it was about the British settling in the Port Phillip District from 1835 to 1851. I began by thinking about how free settlers in the Port Phillip District had argued for separation from the colony of New South Wales, something they began agitating for very soon after first settlement. What a ridiculous topic! My education to that point had made me think that colonial political history was a story of white people. The Rum Rebellion that I had studied in Honours had not changed that view—legitimately, because it would be very hard to find or resurrect an Aboriginal view of the Rum Rebellion.
A few months in to my PhD, I realised that the real story was in fact the settlement itself. Settlement was an inherently violent process, one that was underwritten by a whole universe of tropes about Aboriginal people, free settlers, and convicts. That was where the story actually lay—Separation was barely even a sideshow in this reading.
My thesis therefore examined the rhetoric of free settlers. I came to see how the apparently benevolent words that free settlers used actually justified violence against Aboriginal people. A discourse about stages of civilisation justified taking the land from Aboriginal owners. It also justified beating down ex-convicts and importing poor “respectable” Britons to take their place. I had identified a conflict that echoed in the present, instead of a nineteenth-century version of the tedious Melbourne–Sydney tension I had started out to trace. That struggle was only the most superficial part of the story, of very little importance, merely the conquerors arguing about how to divide the spoils.
My thesis showed how the language of the settlement project was woven into everyday life in Port Phillip. At every turn, you could find settlers in fear that the settlement project would fail. Indeed, many settlers did fail, and many schemes to improve either lands or peoples failed. This is where I began to get into some really interesting work on these themes in other parts of the world, especially books by James C. Scott and Pierre Clastres. They fitted what I was seeing into a European intellectual history that was familiar to me.
I also started to understand postcolonial writers, like Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose work I had read in various undergraduate classes, but had not really “got”. And that’s key isn’t it—I didn’t get it as an undergraduate because I had been surrounded totally by the settler colony and never considered “the other side of the frontier” in an intellectual sense. I hadn’t needed to, because I’d grown up as a white boy in a country explicitly founded for white men. Bruce Pascoe’s book Convincing Ground—taking its name from a massacre site in Western Victoria—was key in opening my eyes to this other side.
The term civilised kept coming up, in opposition to savage. Other terms also came up a lot: respectable, hostile native, friendly native. Often settlers could be seen using self-serving rhetoric, but what I found was more than simply opportunistic off-the-cuff statements. Instead, I found patterns of settler rhetoric that seemed humanitarian but actually justified the settler project. In some cases, settlers openly accepted the frontier killing of Aboriginal people. In other cases, their rhetoric justified what the late Patrick Wolfe called the “elimination of the native”. This was not necessarily killing, but the physical removal of Aboriginal people from their lands, and then the deliberate suppression and destruction of their cultures.
The thesis was passed without revisions, and went on to win the 2014 Dennis–Wettenhall Prize, awarded by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne.
Why does it matter?
There are many fundamental misunderstandings about this country’s past. That is especially true of its nineteenth-century past. If my work can act against some of those in some small way, that would be a good thing.
Modern-day settlers no longer use the same words that free settlers used in the 1830s and 1840s. The basic settler project, though, hasn’t changed. If we want to understand modern Australia as a settler-colonial country, we need to look its foundation in the nineteenth century.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
The thesis was revised and published as a book in February 2018 (The Civilisation of Port Phillip, available from MUP). So it has been some time since I have had a “big project”, but I have a few ideas!
At the Memorial, I have continued to research frontier violence in Australia, and I also work on research projects relating to Australians in the South African (Boer) War and the First World War. I have published on a number of topics: Aboriginal military service prior to the First World War; British Empire loyalty amongst Australians who went to the South African War; and the Coniston Massacre of 1928. One interest that I have been able to pursue is to show the links between the Australian colonies of the nineteenth century and the early years of the Australian federation in the twentieth. I think we often artificially separate the two, when in fact the links are quite strong.
What do you love about being a historian?
I am now a public historian, so in addition to producing peer-reviewed publications, I have had to hone my skills in writing for a wider audience. I am on the editorial committee of the Memorial’s history magazine, Wartime, and also write articles for it. I’m enjoying things that I didn’t do enough of as an academic historian: finding images to accompany text, doing media appearances, and acting as a historical advisor on exhibitions.
But I suspect your question is broader than that. Historians are keepers of knowledge about the past. My curiosity about the world is what keeps me going as a historian.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The ability to plan my life. And it’s not “challenging”, it’s downright soul-crushing. I am only able to do it because I have a support network. I am eternally grateful to my partner Jo, especially, for her unending support of my career choice.
Come on, were you expecting any other answer? “Flexibility” is a neoliberal con. It works for hobbyists and near-retirees who own their own homes and have financial security. It doesn’t work for young people. Universities in particular have been guilty of outsourcing the bulk of teaching to casuals. I did it for nearly seven years, before I was lucky enough to find employment elsewhere, and only then because I was able to move cities to do so.
I don’t know where I’ll be living twelve months from now. I don’t know where my income will come from. And because I am the less-employable one, my partner is also caught up in this limbo, and so is my son.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Er, any time after the invention and widespread availability of antibiotics. Or, maybe a visit to Genghis Khan. Either would be good, though I suspect the second one would end in me being killed.