Coal River Working Party reviews Goal and Objectives

'Newcastle Heads' from the Illustrated Sydney News 26 June 1875 p.13
'Newcastle Heads' from the Illustrated Sydney News 26 June 1875 p.13

Over the past couple of weeks,  we have reviewed all the activities in which we are involved, and have taken to opportunity to refine our Mission objectives, goals and the necessary actions needed to achieve them. Please have a look at our Goals page by clicking on the tab on the blog’s header or located here: https://coalriver.wordpress.com/goals/.

As you can see there are many activities that our University, business partners and community volunteers are working on. We greatly appreciate the time and effort everyone is putting into this essential work.

Why is this work essential?

Newcastle’s history is closely bound up in the plight of history in Australia. The Colonial settlement that was set up here a couple of hundred years ago was a convict jail, and understandably, our records were not kept with the inmates, but with the jailers.

Our archival heritage is somewhere else, broken up like Humpty Dumpty and scattered to the four winds. The result is that we don’t really know who we are. We also seem quite content to bulldoze the past and cover it in concrete, as though something new and shiny will make everything alright.

The irony is, the more you look back, the further you see into the future. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going.

With the arrival of local archival repositories in the 1960s and 1970s, in the form of the Newcastle Region Public Library’s Local Studies and the University’s Archives, our region finally had a chance to locally safeguard its archival records for future generations.

It is impossible to write history without archival records, and so,  it is equally crucial that we try to locate our historic records and study them. And while it’s futile to believe that we can put Humpty Dumpty exactly back together again, it’s vital that we know what became of the pieces and how they fit into a wider tapestry or mosaic of knowledge. Our work in re-assembling this mosaic proves to be more interesting with each new piece, and it is thrilling (and fun) that our history could prove more interesting and challenging than we had ever dreamed.

Once a cohesive narrative(s) begins to be re-established based upon the extant archival records and sources, we also need to then verify that evidence with surviving physical evidence, and that is why we have tried very hard to seek archaeologists to help us. With ancient Aboriginal culture this work entails documenting and recording their ‘archives’ which take the form of cave paintings and engraving sites. Across the region these are under threat through natural erosion, theft and vandalism (both conscious and unconscious).

We also have Government legislation, created with all the good intentions of politicians that are paid to professionally debate (i.e., argue) along political lines. Once the law hits the community, it is no surprise that we argue and bicker as well. Thoughtful debate is much of the time sadly lacking when it comes to the protection and study of our history, which at most times is pitted against progress.

We need to re-examine whether our legislative framework with regards to our heritage is having a good effect, or creating more trouble in our countryside. It doesn’t make sense to me that we allow development applications to pass on land that we know might have important historical sites, before we know what is under the ground or on it.

It is no surprise that telling a developer these days that they have history under their feet is akin to telling them they have syphilis. They see it as a hindrance to progress, rather than a joy. Indigenous legislation is also a mine field, pitting Aboriginal people against one another with regards to Land Rights and Native Title. As the land is torn up, people are torn up with it.

As it stands, the legislated requirements for research of our history in Development Applications is not an independent process. Historians and archaeologists are in the direct employ of the developers, they investigate, document archaeological finds, create reports that remain the property of the developer. Is it right that our history then becomes the possession of a company, or private business? It is our shared history, and the use of archival institutions depends upon knowledge being shared and placed back into the ‘community bank’ for the next researcher to build upon that work. That’s how it works, by sharing knowledge. It also saves much time and effort.

With regards to primary and secondary schooling we are also aware of how much local knowledge appears missing, and/or out of reach of our educators. While it’s important to know about Uluru, isn’t it also equally important to know about our local sacred Mt. Yengo?

The Aboriginal people did not simply vanish after Cook arrived in 1770. Neither did they, and this land, simply come into being when a white European saw it for the first time and ‘discovered’ it. And neither did they both become someone else’s possession once pen hit paper and magically drew lines of the original Surveys. The more they drew, the more our surveyors acquired for the Crown. This was white man’s magic.

What is emerging from our collaborations is that our black and white cultures mirrored one another.

Whibayganba was the dreaming place of an imprisoned Kangaroo, and so was Coal River the place of interment for convict men and women.

Threlkeld met the Aboriginal people at the site of the Government Farm, (the former Palais site) in 1825, and besides providing him with the civilised welcome to Newcastle, they invited him and his family to watch them dance. And we later find, at the same place, that many people met and later married after dancing at the Palais.

There is no distinction between Black and White history, we need to see ourselves as beings within the spiritual contiuum of Aboriginal Dreaming, as they are a part of our very brief history here. And so the work of seeing new ways of learning from our shared history continues.

Having the privilege of working with a research group such as the Coal River Working Party has brought us in contact with many wonderful and generous people, who have much to impart about this amazing place in which we live. I love the collaborations that are being spawned across the University and beyond, and I sincerely hope that it helps people to understand one another and the land we all share a little better.

Newcastle and the Region’s history is of vital importance to the story of Australia. It was the birth of our economy and industry, and has been powering the Colony to Nationhood ever since.  It is also the home of many people and its vitally important that we respect and love it.

I hope that our community can come together and give this place the support it needs in order to be historically recognised at all levels. It is high time it gets the recognition it deserves.

Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist and Chair – Coal River Working Party


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