Friday, August 31, 2012

Author Q&A :: Jack Cross - Great Central State

From time to time, we'll be talking to great Australian authors about their local history and what inspired them to start researching and writing their stories.

This week we talk to Jack Cross, author of Great Central State - The foundation of the Northern Territory and historian. Jack Cross grew up in the lower Flinders Ranges amid the influences of the German Lutheran community. Jack spent five years as a Research Fellow in Australian History at the University of Adelaide. For twenty years he was Head of Studies in Education at the Underdale campus of what is now the University of South Australia. He was a founder of the Aboriginal Tauondi College at Port Adelaide and the Anangu Teacher Education program at Ernabella in the APY Lands. He is now a teacher in the History of Ideas at the Adelaide Central School of Art and the University of South Australia, and was awarded the 2012 Chief Minister’s Award for History.

  1. Q. What inspired you to start researching the 19th-century history of the Northern Territory?
    • A. I was challenged by my mentor Douglas Pike (Paradise of Dissent, 1957) to write one thorough history in a lifetime. At the time, I was a teacher in history in the Northern Territory. 
  2. Q. You utilised over half a million pages of primary research documents over an impressive 40 years of archival research. What resources did you come across when compiling your book that haven’t been widely used by others?
    • A. There are no records on 19th-century Northern Territory history on the web. Most records are held in the State Records of South Australia. Some private records relating to the territory are held in the State Library of South Australia. Only a few nineteenth-century records have survived in the Territory. Because of the time I took, I wrote numerous letters to families of interest. Their documented replies are to be donated to the Northern Territory Library as well as my extensive rare library on Northern Territory subjects. Because indexes proved unreliable I worked line by line through half a million pages of documents. I still believe that relying too much on indexes is a sloppy way of doing history. Much revealing history is in the cracks – the give-away asides
  3. Q. Your publicity mentions that you were introduced to many leads and anecdotes by the strong oral tradition in SA regarding the Northern Territory. What were the advantages of using oral history in addition to documents?Could you name any specific examples where this oral tradition helped you?
    • A. Up until the Second World War, many Territorians retired to Adelaide. I got the tail end of these people. They provided me with a unique opportunity to obtain leads which I could then check against records. I heard many tales about the alcoholism of J.M. Stuart. In the 1960s the Royal Geographical Society was patronised by the Adelaide establishment. One prominent family would tell tales to me about the other.
  4. Q. Was there any information you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks?
    • Q. Which stories affected you the most in the course of your research?
    • A. I was exposed to the mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples as far back as the 1950s and it gave me a shock. The urban story that Aboriginal women would use sand to protect themselves from rape was cut out from the book in the last editorial review because we could find no documentary evidence to support it.
    • Q. Which stories amused you the most in the course of your research?
    • A. The Territory is full of tragic – comic stories. A good example is the first Government Resident at Darwin (Bloomfield Douglas) threatening to shoot up the police force while standing on the roof of the Residency, because he believed they were coming to arrest him as a debtor.
  5. Q. If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?
    • A. I would like to find out more about the mystery of the Shou Lao (now held in the Powerhouse Museum). It is a Chinese statue dug up four feet under a large banyan tree in Darwin in 1879, a tree not indigenous to Australia. It could be evidence that the Chinese navy may have come as far south as North Australia.
    • I am also interested in when the Macassan fishers first started first started coming to North Australia. Also when Aborigines first started going to the land of Macassar. 
  6. Q. What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?
    • A. As with most things of life, nothing can replace years and year of practice. History is a discipline which benefits from rich background experience and considerable knowledge. It also requires imagination in order to empathise with people in another time and another place.
  7. Q. In your book’s preface, you mention your desire to “make the history live”. How did you go about bringing the characters and stories to life?
    • A. I am a ‘raconteur lecturer’ – to quote student feedback. The way to make history live is to back up generalisations with interesting relevant stories. I believe that telling stories is archetypal as a way of transmitting culture. African proverb: God made Man so that he can hear stories!
  8. Q. How do you know when you’ve written a good book?
    • A. I doubt if you ever know. Early feedback is important. Soon after reading the text Michael Bollen of Wakefield Press said: ‘The kind of book that will be read 300 years from now.’ As a result Wakefield Press spent 6 ¼ years editorial work on the text. The book was launched in Government House Darwin in March 2011 by the Administrator Hon. Tom Pauling – who had seen an earlier version of the text. His detailed analysis was extraordinary – like a judge summing up a complicated case. It was re-launched in Adelaide in June by Dr John Bannon – former premier. Nicholas Rothwell wrote a two-page essay in The Weekend Australian. Philip Adams interviewed me on Late Night Live. In May 2012 I was awarded the Chief Minister’s Award for History, awarded in the Great Hall, Parliament House, Darwin. The cover by Liz Nicholson and rare nineteenth-century visuals have been applauded by the art school lecturers with whom I work. I have now been lined up to write three short histories.

"The Northern Territory's first European decades were an extraordinary mixture of grand vision and human folly, peopled with larger-than-life characters.

In Great Central State, Jack Cross tells the story of South Australia's ambitious - or foolhardy - plan to become the premier colony of Australia using its own unique experience in planned colonisation, and its bid to develop the north coast as an integral part of South-East Asia. Bitter feuding abounds alongside admirable efficiency, while tales of courage and sacrifice are matched by episodes of sad ignorance and abuse. This is a history strange but true.

Great Central State is a result of the most sustained historical research on a South Australian subject since Douglas Pike's Paradise of Dissent published in 1957. In his wry, meticulously researched book, Jack Cross demonstrates that already before 1911 when the Northern Territory was ceded to the Commonwealth, it had a sophisticated history of its own. He looks forward to the day when it will become the seventh Australian state". From our friends at Wakefield Press.

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