Monday, March 17, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“ABOVE THE CITY – A History of Otago Boys’ High School 1863-2013” by Rory Sweetman (Published for the OBHS Foundation); “WATRIAMA AND COMPANY – Further Pacific Island Portraits” by Hugh Laracy (Australian National University, E-Press)
I have immense sympathy for historians who write official or institutional histories. They labour as long and hard over archival sources, secondary sources and oral history components in their research as do historians who are writing the biography of some illustrious national figure or an account of some major international crisis. They are aware that in the history of any long-lived institution there can be read immense social change. The institution can be seen as a microcosm of society at large.
And yet, diligent or perceptive though they may be, in the end institutional historians are doomed to address a very small audience. By its very nature, the institutional history has to account for many specific individuals who are of interest only to those who knew them. I often suspect that institutional histories are read most closely by other historians, looking for “raw” source material for broader-scope histories.
All of this is a long-winded and waffling way of saying that Rory Sweetman’s 150th anniversary history of Otago Boys High School is a very well-written, closely-researched and insightful history. It could not be any other given that its author is an historian of some standing (probably still best known for Bishop in the Dock, his account of the sedition trial of Bishop James Michael Liston). But in the end Above the City is still a book for insiders, and there is much here (notes on specific teachers and school customs; mention of illustrious Old Boys like Sir Keith Park) that will be of interest only to those closely connected with OBHS.
The book’s title comes from an old OBHS school song; and the author’s “Introduction” tells us that, curiously, the school has never before had an official history written, although every so often it has produced chronicle-like “Registers”, which have been used as a major source. OBHS is one of those high-toned establishments, which prefers to call its principal the “rector”. Sweetman deals, chapter by chapter, with the tenure of each rector since 1863, although the last two chapters were written by the current rector and his immediate predecessor, given that it’s neither seemly nor appropriate for an historian to make judgments on the living.
I am not sure that this organization of material was the best option, since it locks Sweetman into giving a brief biography of each man, the circumstances of his appointment, what effect he had, and so on. Still, it makes for many lively anecdotes. The man who would have been first rector drowned before he could take up his position. In the 1860s, there was tension between the very Presbyterian town of old Dunedin and a series of Anglican-tinged rectors, who were seeking to build a copy of an English public school, complete with all the Anglican rituals. This was especially so when the second rector Frank Simmons had had his say. The third rector Stuart Hawthorne was hounded for his poor examination results. The fourth rector resigned in a huff after a major fight with the school board. All the while as I was reading this, I was aware that the 19th century school being discussed had at most a few hundred students. By our standards it was a very small affair.
The whole school was rebuilt with new imposing buildings in the 1880s and the neighbouring lunatic asylum was cleared out, its inmates being moved to another location. It is interesting to note that until 1903, OBHS always had a struggle with a declining or marginal role. It was only in 1903 that secondary schooling became free. Before then, there was much resentment in the town over what seemed a mere luxury for the well-to-do. Having a junior school attached to OBHS (as a “feeder” to the secondary school) seemed to some to be sheer elitism on the part of people – sheep farmers; Dunedin’s wealthier merchants and professionals - who didn’t want their sons rubbing shoulders with plebs in the city’s elementary schools.
This sort of detail is part of the book’s value as social history. So is the inevitable mention of the impact of the Otago gold rushes soon after the school’s foundation, which changed the ethnic nature of hitherto very Scottish Dunedin, bringing in many feared or despised Irish papists. It was only in 1920, nearly sixty years after its foundation, that OBHS for the first time employed a Catholic teacher. Likewise it was only in 1934 that the school had a New Zealand-born rector rather than one imported from Britain.
Some things recorded here are so totally of their period that they now seem to belong to another world. There is, for example, the whole thing about military cadets; the enthusiastic send-off to the South African War in 1899 of “little band of heroes” led by an OBHS Old Boy officer (pp.156-157); and the school’s compulsory military drill after 1909. 1200 Old Boys volunteered for military service in the First World War. Over 200 were killed. The school’s reaction to the Second World War not quite as nakedly jingoistic, though over 2000 OBHS Old Boys served and again over 200 were killed.
There is a very questionable side to the history of any New Zealand boys’ school this old. That is the obsession some rectors had with sports. For OBHS, this often meant anxiety over whether or not they were beating Christ’s College at rugger or cricket. The socially elite nature of the school is most evident in this obsession. A particularly obnoxious period appears to have been under the rector Edward Aim in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He would actively interfere with the sports coaching of other teachers, should their teams suffer a loss, leading many teachers to resign in protest. This appears to be the main “hidden” story which Sweetman has unearthed - the incredibly bad blood that developed between Aim and his staff, to the point where the board came within an inch of dismissing him after a closed hearing. However, Aim’s authoritarian bullying is counterpointed by the fact that some of the teachers who stood against him were enthusiastic caners.
We are reminded for some pages of the culture of physical violence that existed in most boys’ schools at the time – the canings, bullying and “manly” hazing games to which teachers turned a blind eye. Interestingly, one of the OBHS Old Boys who is awarded space to give his memories in an appendix at the back is a gay man who remembers the school in a spirit of complete alienation.
The only other “scandal” which Sweetman covers is the minor affair of an upright Presbyterian rector managing not to resign, even though it was known that he had had an affair with the school librarian.
Nostalgia inevitably played its part as the school got older – Old Boys agonized when, in the 1980s, the maintenance on 19th century buildings became an issue and at last the old assembly hall was demolished and a new auditorium built. But things did have to change and, as this book presents it, most of the changes to the school’s traditional culture have been in the last thirty years.
In terms of physical presentation, one of the best aspects of this book is its generous collection of photographs. The best are the antique shots of changing grounds in late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m not so sure, however, about the space given in one colour section to schoolboys’ “satirical” artwork from the 1950s, which looks fairly crude even by schoolboy standards of the day and therefore hardly worth preserving.
If I praise elements of Above the City, it is because it reads much better than most of the institutional histories I have had to wade through over the years. For all that, it is still an institutional history, with the limited general interest of such. And while that title may come from an old school song, it does pertinently suggest a rather self-satisfied school community seeing itself and its products as standing far above the rest of society.
* * * * * * * * * *
Rory Sweetman writes about a single school. Professor Emeritus Hugh Laracy writes about a far vaster space – the whole Pacific Ocean.
Subtitled More Pacific Islands Portraits, Laracy’s Watriama and Co comprises 14 biographical essays about significant persons in the Pacific region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these essays have appeared in refereed journals of Australian, New Zealand and Pacific history in the last 25 years. In his preface, Laracy writes self-deprecatingly that the book is the product of “long-sustained, yet desultorily applied, personal curiosity” and that it is a “somewhat random and eclectic composition” which was motivated by “promiscuous inquisitiveness”.
I get the point about its being “eclectic” and “promiscuous”, because the people with whom Laracy deals are a very varied bunch.
At one end of the moral scale, there is the chapter on a saint - Pierre Chanel, a martyred Catholic missionary. Laracy is as interested in the process and motives for his canonization as he is in the man’s short life and early death. At the other end of the scale is the chapter on the long-lived Danish rogue and criminal Niels Peter Sorensen (1848-1935), who handily proves the adage that criminal lives often make livelier reading than those of the righteous. In Sorensen’s case there were long episodes of robbery and assault in various parts of the Pacific and grandiose schemes to exploit what he trumpeted as the untold mineral wealth of the Solomons. These schemes also made him a conman.
I confess to being less held by some of Laracy’s chapters than by others. I became somewhat confused by the genealogical details of the essay on “The Sinclairs of Pigeon Bay”; but its main purpose appeared to be to de-mythologize the backstory of a land-owning Hawaiian family, who made pretensions to more exalted origins than they actually had. The chapter on Cardinal Moran is interesting for the light it shines on sectarian tensions in the early colonial period, misreportings in the press, and the doggedness with which Moran attempted to “prove” that Spanish explorers had reached Australia before the British did. The chapter on the mariner John Strasburg celebrates him for the simple fact that he was a commercial seafarer who kept records and therefore made it possible for us to know better what trade was like in the Pacific one hundred years ago. As for the one on Beatrice Grimshaw, prolific author of romantic bestsellers, Laracy seems most interested in showing how her works can be mined for evidence of their racial and colonialist mentality. The novel’s concluding chapter is on the French (yes – French) historian of the Pacific, Patrick O’Reilly, whose labours helped to make Pacific Studies a respectable part of university History Department curricula.
For me, two chapters stood out.
That on William Jacob Watriama presents a fascinating paradox. When Australia still had a rigid colour bar, and the “White Australia” immigration policy, Watriama was one of the handful of black men to serve in the Australian armed forces in the First World War. He was a Melanesian from the Loyalty Islands, but long-time resident of Sydney. He had served in the Boer War and he agitated for Australian control of the Pacific. Thanks to much fantasizing, Watriama claimed to be of royal blood and claimed to be the rightful “king” of the Loyalty Islands, but his main significance was that he supported an Australian takeover of these French possessions, and he opposed Japanese and other Asian influence in Pacific. Hence the paradox of his life - he was a black man congenial to white imperialism, and regularly praised by such jingoistic white imperialist Australian publications as the old Bulletin and its offshoot the Lone Hand.
It is understandable that Laracy focuses our attention on this character with the book’s title.
The story of George Bogese is, however, even more fascinating. Bogese was convicted of treason by colonial authorities after the Second World War because he had assisted the Japanese in their occupation of the Solomon Islands, acting as an interpreter and informing the Japanese of Allied and guerrilla positions. But even as he was on trial, he was defended by some prescient British people (such as an Anglican bishop) who realized that British colonial authority had not been all that beneficial to the islanders, and who therefore argued that it was not unreasonable for an islander like Bogese to assume that Asian rule might be preferable. Laracy pursues this theme by quoting later pronouncements by islanders who had supported the Allies but who, decades after, wondered if it had been worth it.
Other readers will make their own pick of these essays, but these two on indigenous people are the ones that present the book’s most dramatic material.