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Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Chapter 2

The Story in the Archive

Carolyn Landon

This chapter explores the idea of ‘The Archive’ as a repository for stories. Once it was a place for only a select few, those deemed worthy and capable of interpreting the documents in the archive and of wielding their power. Now there is an attempt to make the Archive accessible to all. Despite this, it retains for those who enter a feeling of ‘History’ – History in the traditional sense of something linear, positivist and patriarchal, as if one could follow a clue and find a true answer to any question. It is a feeling of something created by men for men who rule. The historian sorts through documents pertaining to the subject: letters, memos, complaints, minutes, bills of sale, titles, lists and more lists. Who would have thought so much would have been saved? Yet, although all the documents deal with Aboriginal affairs, they contain no Aboriginal voices. The attitudes in the documents represent the status quo, albeit in changing contexts.

I enter the Archive for the first time in my life in 2002. Janet Cowden has told me that her opinionated father was a great letter writer. She is sure he wrote letters to the editor of the local paper more than once. I have decided to search through the papers held by the Warragul Historical Society to see if I can find further traces of Hector Cowden. I believe that they will lead into the Jackson’s Track story along a path completely different from the one Daryl Tonkin followed. The historical moment has changed and become more complex and more interesting than it was when I first met Daryl in 1996. Now, those of us who are attempting to expand our imaginations to encompass new and divergent viewpoints are greatly challenged. Not only are we trying to meet the challenge of opening our minds to the Aboriginal points of view, but we are also being goaded into a new consideration of the views of those settler Australians who dealt with and made policy for Aboriginal people in the past. I am being guided in this second direction in particular by the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League documents that Janet has shown me. And so I find myself entering the Historical labyrinth through a new door called Archive but this time I am fully aware of its complexity as I had not been when I entered the Memoir portal.

The Warragul Historical Society is situated in the original Warragul Shire offices.1 The building is a small jewel of Victorian architecture made of brick and stone with a portico sheltering great heavy doors. Inside, a wide corridor under a lofty ceiling leads past more heavy doors behind which are beautiful rooms with great high windows surrounded by ornate architraves. At the end of the corridor a grand staircase is lit by crystal covered lamps hanging down on long brass chains. Upstairs in the old Council Chamber, empty and full of shadows, there is a feeling of ghosts lurking. Perhaps they are maintaining witness. Despite large windows, the light inside the reading room on the first floor is very dim in the late afternoons. Motes of dust dance in the thin beams of cold light entering through the wavy window glass. The dust rises up from volumes of local newspapers going back as far as 1880.

Dust! I think. This is the place where I will find History.

I am allowed to search through and view the yellowing flaking papers. I look for traces of Hector Cowden but the first thing I see is a reference to the local Aborigines Advancement League back in 1958. My eyes alight on the headline ‘District League Has Done Much to Advance Welfare of Aborigines’.2 My heartbeat quickens and I can hardly keep from calling out ‘Eureka!’ I return to this old building and sit alone or with Janet and Margaret Batten, week after week until our discoveries there lead to the Victorian Public Records Office and the National Australian Archive. In those places I sort through all sorts of documents pertaining to my subject – letters, memos, complaints, minutes, bills of sale, titles, lists and more lists. Who would have thought so much would have been saved? The imagination, excited by ‘archive fever’, careens into the bowels of the Archive conjuring miles and miles of shelves lined with traces of more facets of human endeavour than one could imagine.


Janet Cowden

Photo courtesy of the Cowden family

The Archive is a repository for stories. Its ledgers, letters, registers, reports, minutes, memos and articles all contain stories and are the stuff from which stories can be made. Derrida writes of it as ‘the place where things begin, where power originates, its workings inextricably bound up with the authority of beginnings...’3 Once it was a place for only a select few, those deemed worthy and capable of interpreting the documents in the Archive and of wielding their power. Now there is an attempt to make the Archive accessible to all. However, it is still only the educated – the researcher, historian or writer – who venture in to interpret the meaning of the treasure in the Archive. When one enters, no matter how modern a building it might be, there is a feeling of History – History in the traditional sense of something linear, positivist and patriarchal, as if one could follow a clue and find a true answer to any question. In other words, there is a feeling of something created by men for men who rule. All the documents placed on my table by the archivist at the brand new Victorian Public Records Office in North Melbourne were written by men for men, as were all the documents in Janet’s box, and the newspaper articles I locate in the Historical Society. It seems to me, from the wording of the documents they wrote, that these men were all articulating the dominant culture – Eurocentric and therefore civilised, socially and culturally androcentric, spiritually and racially superior – in which most of them felt secure and complacent. Although the documents I read deal with Aboriginal affairs, they contain no Aboriginal voices, with one exception: a report in the local newspaper that included a direct quote from Doug Nicholls, who, at the time the article was written, was a local Aboriginal pastor. The attitudes in the documents represented the status quo, albeit in changing contexts.

As a result of my frustrating experience looking for an Aboriginal voice in the Archive, I come to understand that it stands for what can and cannot be said, written or read. As early as the 1960s, Michel Foucault wrote in The archaeology of knowledge that the Archive is the ‘system that establishes statements as events and things’.4 This makes it a symbol of power, a metaphor for the processes of collecting traces of the past, of deciding what gets recorded, what gets used and what gets lost. The Archive seems so immediate and intimate that a researcher can be swayed and overcome by the points of view expressed in the documents. No matter how coldly they are written, we see personality, relationships, assumptions, attitudes, even desires and failures in them. It seems to me that it is this intimacy that gives the researcher ‘archive fever’, and we must guard against it. The only way to stay healthy is to measure the Story from the Archive against the stories gathered from the memories of those who were witnesses and draw conclusions that can lead to new ways of seeing the past, present and future.

For me, the particular story that the Archive throws up, as if out of the ether, stretches out Daryl Tonkin’s memoir immeasurably. His narrative, since it is a memoir, is, according to Carolyn Steedman, a variant of the novel in that the reader believes that the story being told is ‘the embodiment of something completed. That end, the finished place, is the human being, a body in time and space, telling a story.’ In contrast, in the Archive, ‘the implicit understanding is that things are not over... not finished... incomplete’.5 And they will remain so unless we find all the traces and hear all the voices of those who participated in and who felt the impact of the events with which we are concerned. Because of ‘all the fragments, traces – all the inchoate stuff – that has ended up in the archive’, the possibilities for the story are broader than Daryl’s story suggests and than he can possibly know. However, there are still absences, things we cannot find here. The gaps intrigue us and, as Steedman says, we ‘read for what is not there: the silences and the absences of documents always speak to us’.6

For instance, there is an incident in Daryl’s story that has reached mythological status in the shared memory of those who participated in the events he describes. This incident is the bulldozing of the bark huts at Jackson’s Track, homes in which people had lived for more than twenty years. We know that Daryl witnessed the event. We know that the Neerim Branch of the Aborigines Advancement League ‘initiated a move for demolition of the humpies’.7 We know that all those upon whom it had an impact heard that it had happened and talked about it time and again. Yet there is no record that the demolition ever occurred: no letter, no memo, no receipt for services rendered, no account in old Buln Buln Shire Council minutes. Anywhere. The silence is deafening.

Upon first glance, the Archive can seem the antithesis of Memoir. Or, to put this another way, Memoir and the ‘written record’ are at odds with one another. Or, as Mark Baker says in The fiftieth gate, ‘the memories and the histories seem to stalk each other’.8 There are many possible reasons why the demolition is not documented: it was done illegally without the landowner’s consent; it was done in secret and so it was covered up; it was considered by the perpetrators to be such a mundane act that no one thought to document it or take responsibility for it. Daryl witnessed the demolition and while it happened he situated himself so he would be seen as a witness when the bulldozers rammed the huts. It seems to me that his presence surrounded the act with guilt. Perhaps, then, the gap in the record is an indication that things have been left out in order to maintain the established story of good citizens doing good things in the name of progress and civilisation.


First council meeting at the Warragul Shire Hall, c1892

Photo by Larry Hills of original photograph held by the Warragul Historical Society

It is one of the purposes of oral history to ‘document particular aspects of historical experience which tend to be missing from other sources such as personal relations, domestic work or family life’.9 But because constructing narratives based on memory is such a subjective exercise, many historians find relying on oral history or Memoir problematic. Often the remembered past, constructed as a narrative for listeners in the present, conflicts with the record because it is essentially an interpretation of what happened. When she describes memory as partial, many-hued and selective, Wendy Lowenstein seems to agree that oral testimony is not pure recovery of the actuality of the past. However, she also declares that ‘[oral testimony] is far more reliable than the scraps of evidence contained in written records. If you want a date in history go to the records; if you want the flesh and bones, love and hate, ask the people who were alive that day.’10 It is up to the historian to weigh up one set of information against the other and decide, says Steedman: ‘It is the Historian who makes the stuff of the past (Everything) into a structure or an event, a happening or a thing, through the activities of thought and writing.’11

When I turn to the Archive looking for clues about the historical events at Jackson’s Track, I wonder if Pauline might make an attempt to enter with me, but I do not ask. The National Australian Archive is set up to be accessible, but it is not necessarily easy to enter. These days the researcher is at an advantage if he or she is computer literate and has some idea of the subject headings and kinds of words archivists use to classify and file documents. The archivist is always willing to help the confused researcher: she works fast, moves from computer to shelves, opens heavy books, scans lists, follows trails until what we are looking for is found. But will we ever be able to find it again? It is like a maze, a labyrinth. Some might call it a game, others a trap. I worry that if Pauline were to enter the archive her curiosity would dissipate the minute she realises that the thousands of pages of old papers, heavy books filled with long lists, the catalogue, the computers filled with written information (a substantial amount of it dedicated solely to interaction with Aboriginal people) were all largely missing the voices of Aboriginals themselves. ‘How can so much have been written?’ I imagine her saying, ‘without anyone asking us?’ I am afraid the Archive would show her an abyss between us, just as I am afraid of seeing it myself. Inevitably, when I begin to sift through documents relating to her and her family, I see some of the many, many reasons she would turn away and I understand how terribly she would be let down by the assumptions and value systems of settler Australians. I realise that the Archive is not limitless or all encompassing for her.

The story in the Archive is only one of many stories. It is not the only story. It is my job as the writer to gather all the stories, scour the record, note the silences and ultimately to write my own story, the story Pauline and I need to know in order to finally understand the meaning of what happened all those years ago.


1     Warragul Shire no longer exists. It was amalgamated with Buln Buln and Naracan Shires to become Baw Baw Shire in 1992.

2     The Warragul Gazette, ‘District league has done much to advance welfare for Aborigines’, 4 August 1959, p. 19.

3     Carolyn Steedman (2001: 1). Derrida is talking here about the ancient Greek arkhe stored in the arkheion, where only the archon, or magistrate, had access.

4     Steedman (2001, p. 2).

5     Steedman (2001, p. 147).

6     Steedman (2001, pp. 149–151.

7     The Warragul Gazette, ‘District league has done much to advance welfare for Aborigines’, 4 August 1959, p. 19.

8     Mark Baker (1997, p. 52).

9     Perks and Thomson (1998, p. ix).

10    Wendy Lowenstein is quoted in Murphy (1986, p. 162).

11    Steedman (2001, p. 154).


Baker, Mark. 1997. The fiftieth gate. Melbourne: Harper Collins.

Foucault, Michel. 1989. The archaeology of knowledge, translated by Smith, Sheridan A. M. London: Routledge.

Murphy, John. 1986. ‘The voice of memory: History, autobiography and oral memory’. Historical studies 22 (87): 157–175.

Perks, R.; Thomson, A. 1998. ‘Introduction’. In The oral history reader. London: Routledge.

Steedman, Carolyn. 2001. Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Landon, Carolyn. 2006. ‘The story in the archive’. In Jackson’s Track revisited: History, remembrance and reconciliation. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 2.1–2.7.

Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

   by Carolyn Landon