Hawaiian music and dance arrived in Camden after sweeping the rest of the country on the stage, at the movies and broadcast across the radio waves. The craze of the 1920s and 1930s was centred on hula dancing and the steel guitar.
The first mention of Hawaiian culture in Camden occurred in 1925 when a young Daphne Butt dressed as a Hawaiian hula dancer at the 1925 Fancy Dress Costume Ball for the Camden District Hospital. She was the only example of Hawaiian culture in a sea of fairies, princesses, dolls, butterflies, American sailors, jazz musicians, and princes. (Camden News, 20 August 1925)
The dark history of Hawaiian music and dance
Daphne Butt’s naïve interest in hula dancing hides a dark past with links to transnational capitalism and colonialism. In pre-contact Hawaii, the hula was a strict religious practice of telling epic stories, past glories, and great chiefs within a framework of fertility rights expressed through poetry and body movements. Newly arrived Christian missionaries in the 1820s condemned the hula for its sexual and spiritual overtones. Restrictions on Hawaiian culture in 1859 effectively banned public performances, and the hula was driven underground. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)
Moralistic attitudes towards Hawaiian culture were also evident in the Australian press. Sydney’s Evening News reported on ‘hula hula’ dancing at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair in 1894. The reporter wrote:
‘the Hawaiian hula-hula dance. I think it would paralyse the average Australian playgoer, not merely to see this grossly indecent, immoral, and suggestive performance, but the class of people standing around looking at it.’
(Evening News, 4 April 1894)
Even in 1924, Lester Way wrote in The Bulletin that Hawaiian hula ‘dances were like the frolics of happy children who had learned with candor naïve and unshamed the lesson of sex’. (The Bulletin, 31 January 1924)
Racial stereotypes at the movies
By the 1920s and 1930s, American business interests recognised the tourism potential of Hawaiian culture, and Hollywood produced films depicting Hawaiian music and hula dancing that screened at Camden, Campbelltown and Picton.
Commodified Hawaiian women became the new ‘hula girls’, used to promote Hawaiian plantation sugar and pineapples. They were also marketed in print, on stage, and in film, appearing in bikini tops, grass skirts, flowers in their hair sensuously hips swaying to the tones of the steel guitar. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)
The first appearance of Hawaii on local movie screens occurred in 1926 when ‘The Hawaiian Melody Makers’ promised ‘a twilight in Hawaii’ at the Royal Pictures in the Picton Town Hall. (Picton Post, 1 September 1926) The Lopez Hawaiian Melody Makers, a nine-piece ensemble with steel guitars, had toured Australia in 1925 and played at Broken Hill Crystal Theatre. (Barrier Miner, 1 May 1925)
Film promotions from American film studios published in the Camden News relied on racial stereotypes and the language of primitivism. The film promoters for Cosmopolitan Productions ‘White Shadows in the South Seas’ promised ‘native instruments and customs, alluring dancing girls and feasting give intimate and colourful scenes of native life’. ‘White Shadows’ was an adventure romance loosely based on a book by Frederick O’Brien and screened at Sydney’s State Movie Theatre in 1929. The silent film ‘White Shadows’ was innovative and had synchronised ‘dialogue, sound, song and music’ where the soundtrack matched the film. The first synchronised musical soundtrack was the film Don Juan in 1926. (Camden News, 14 March 1929, 28 March 1929)
At Campbelltown’s Macquarie Cinema in 1933, the RKO-Radio Pictures ‘Bird of Paradise’, filmed in the ‘authentic background’ of the Hawaiian Islands, showed the ‘breathtaking’ beauty of the islands. The film, a romantic adventure drama, depicted the love of the hero and ‘white man’, Johnny Baker, with the ‘primitive, trusting Luana’ who ‘hopelessly sacrifices’ her love in a ‘sublime’ setting. The Hawaiian hula was described as ‘the barbaric beauties of the primitive Hawaiian mating dance were caught in all their splendour’. (Campbelltown News, 27 October 1933) Wikipedia states that the director King Vidor presented ‘this “tragic” romance as a clash between modern “civilisation” and a sexual idyll enjoyed by Rousseauian-like Noble savages’. In the early 1930s, Hollywood produced several films that connected former Pacific colonies with widespread interest in “exotic” tropical locations. (Wikipedia)
In the late 1930s, film promoters used less paternalistic language in advertising. The 1938 Camden’s Paramount Movie Theatre screened RKO Radio Pictures ‘Hawaii Calls’, and the advertising stated that the story of an ‘island paradise [that] rings with song’ and full of ‘adventure, beauty, novelty, song and entertainment’. (Camden News, 16 June 1938) The following year, Paramount screened MGM’s ‘Honolulu’, a movie that promised to ‘call you’ to Hawaii with ‘the sweat heart of musical hits!’ ‘It’s star-packed, song-filled, laugh-jammed . . . .the romantic colossus of spectacle . .with hundreds of hip-swinging hula honeys!’ (Camden News, 6 July 1939)
Hula dancing direct from the Tivoli circuit
Camden was part of the country circuit for Hawaiian musicians. In 1935 local promoter Charles New announced in the Camden News that The Royal Hawaiians, ‘direct from the Tivoli circuit’, would appear at the Camden Agricultural Hall on a Tuesday night. Patrons were promised the ‘greatest instrumentalists in Australia’ who were ably supported by comedians the Richie Brothers and ‘All Star Vaudeville’ of acrobats and dancers. Front seat prices cost 1/6, with others 1/-. (Camden News, 31 October 1935)
The Royal Hawaiians toured Australia appearing at Geelong’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1922 and 1929 at Hobart’s Theatre Royal. The company had an ‘extensive repertoire’ of Hawaiian music on steel guitar, ukuleles, and banjos. The show included ‘native songs and dances’ provided by Honolulu’s ‘premier hula hula dancer’, the ‘graceful Lilloukalani’. (The Mercury, 19 February 1929)
Author Jackie Coyle has stated that Hawaiian musicians toured on the Tivoli circuit in Australia from the 1920s. (ABC News, 23 January 2023). Hula hula dancing first appeared on Australian stages in the 1890s in Melbourne (The Argus, 6 August 1892), and Hawaiian sheet music, wax cylinders and 78rpm records were sold across the country. (ABC News, 23 January 2023)
Hawaiian music filled the Camden airwaves
Camden radio listeners who owned a Fisk Radiola wireless set from James Pinkerton’s store in Argyle Street could tune into the tones of Hawaiian music from the Sydney Hawaiian Club Band. The band had a spot-on Sydney radio 2GB every Sunday at 10.00 am and on 2GZ at 5.45 pm. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938) The popular radio show ‘Hawaii Calls’ was broadcast from the Moana Hotel on Waikiki Beach to a global audience from 1925. (Imada, 2004, Hawaiians on tour)
In 1938 Camden residents could purchase a Radiola wireless set from James Pinkerton at 59-61 Argyle Street, where he ran a tailor shop. Prices for the latest Fisk Radiola started at 13 guineas, a princely sum in 1938 when the average weekly wage for a factory worker was just under £5. Built by ‘master craftsmen’ and allowed Camden listeners to tune into global short-wave broadcasts with ‘better tone and performance’. (Camden News, 22 December 1938)
In country NSW, the Hawaiian Club band broadcasts on Goulburn radio 2GN on Friday nights at 8.00 pm. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938) For those who wanted to immerse themselves in Hawaiian completely, the Sydney Hawaiian Club toured country NSW, offering tuition on the steel guitar with weekly lessons costing 2/6 in Goulburn. The Hawaiian club Goulburn representative in 1938 was E Scarpas in Clifford Street. Steel guitars could be purchased for 30/1, with a 5/- deposit, or with weekly repayments of 2/-. (Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 February 1938)
Adria L. Imada (2004). Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits through the American Empire. American Quarterly, 56(1), 111–149. doi:10.2307/40068217
I have just finished watching online a critical discussion on the practice of history held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
In these times of fake news, misleading information, and conspiracy theories. Whom do you trust? What is the truth? Social media is all-encompassing.
This discussion on the practice of history is a dose of hope when political interest groups seek to rewrite the past on their terms.
Maybe this discussion was not a complete cure, but it certainly seems like a ray of sunshine into the swamp of the abyss.
So what did I see?
I watched a panel of learned historians and museum directors discussing launching the Reframing History report by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
The promotional email I received boasted:
This new initiative provides the field with a set of evidence-backed recommendations to communicate history more convincingly and to build a wider understanding of what inclusive history looks like and why it is important for all of us.
The discussion lived up to the hype.
I highly recommend this lively and challenging discussion to anyone involved in the practice of history. I do not think it matters whether you are from the academy, practise public history, or just like popular history. This discussion should interest you if you are concerned about the long term health of history as a discipline.
Panel Discussion Details
John Dichtl, president and CEO of AASLH, started the conversation by providing an overview of the project.
That was followed by a discussion by Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan, Director of the National Museum of American History.
Martha S. Jones, author and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University
Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with Slavery Across America
Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami and incoming founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino
The panellists expand on the Reframing History Report and Toolkit by talking about their personal experiences of communicating about history and sharing their recommendations for how history organizations can create environments for positive and productive conversations.
The local area has a new lifestyle magazine. I found my print copy of Edition 1 Volume 1 of The West Journal at Camden’s florist The Green Seed in Argyle Street, Camden.
The magazine is an interesting addition to the local media landscape. (Willis 2021)
Published by Camden based Olsen Palmer, the 262 page A5 (15cm x 21 cm) colour card cover magazine is a handsome addition to the Sydney lifestyle market. The magazine is published ‘seasonally’ – July, October, January, April. (TWJ:8; Media Kit)
The publisher of The West Journal boasts an estimated readership of 60,000, with social media impressions monthly average between 17,000-20,000. The magazine is distributed to ‘accommodation locations, hotels, pubs, clubs and sporting facilities, local and regional airports, and a host of hospitality locations’. (TWJ Media Kit)
The cover of the first edition has an unmissable orange cover, and the magazine is reflective of stripped back minimalist design principles. The New Yorker magazine said of minimalism in a critique that it is
a mode of living that strips away protective barriers and heightens the miracle of human presence and the urgency, today, of what that miracle entails. (The New Yorker, February 3 2020)
As The New Yorker points out, the simplicity of minimalism hides the reality of a complex world. The simplicity of the cover design of TWJ belies the complexity of publishing a magazine of this quality.
The publishers have been influenced by what Richard Rogers calls the notion of ‘Instagramism’ and image-driven platforms. TWJ states:
Our journal is made up of many beautiful images; we want our advertisers to emulate this. Minimise text, maximise imagery.(TWJ Media Kit)
Editor Boone states that this editorial policy leads to ‘simple and effective communications to our readers’. (TWJ Media Kit)
Cultural diversity and stereotypes
The magazine’s pitch is at a market in Western Sydney hungry for acknowledgement of its riches. Sydney’s West is a land of undiscovered treasures and unacknowledged riches of culture, travel and food.
Sydney’s West is a vast cosmopolitan landscape of a foodie’s heaven for those searching for suburban delicacies. This secret is out for city-based foodie tours who deliver their passengers to Westie foodie-hot-spots.
Sydney’s West has been undersold for years and dogged by unfair stereotypes. The West Journal states in its opening paragraph that
For too long, a generational stigma has tainted the perception of Western Sydney. (TWJ:1)
Campbelltown journalist and raconteur Jeff McGill wrote in 2013 ‘Careful what you call south west Sydney’. He examined the stereotypes and name-calling that existed in Sydney’s West and Southwest. Jenny said she had met contempt towards her by those in Sydney’s beachside and harbourside suburbs in a Facebook comment. She said that they think you are ‘slow-witted, lazy, anti-social’.
The West Journal is a positive move to counter these attitudes and boasts that it
Wants to celebrate the cultural diversity, food and individuality found within Western Sydney and Regional NSW. (TWJ:1)
Academic Gabriele Gwyther has argued that Western Sydney is a
region of great complexity: a patchwork of culture, language, ethnicity, personal histories, religion, income and status. (Gwyther 2008)
A rich history
More than this, I have argued that Sydney’s West has a rich history from the pre-colonial period to the present. (Willis 2018)
The magazine demonstrates the influence of the past on the present by presenting stylish images of the West’s cultural and natural heritage. The past shapes the present, and there is no escaping its clutches, whatever its colours.
The stories of the Dharawal, the Dharug and Gundungurra provide a rich tapestry of storytelling. TWJ acknowledges the traditional custodians of each site in the magazine, for example, the Dharug People at Blacktown. (TWJ: 14)
The European story on the Hawkesbury and down to The Cowpastures adds another layer (Willis 2018; Karskens 2020) with a profile of Camden Park House (CPH 2020), arguably one of the most important colonial properties still in the hands of the family built in the 1830s. (TWJ:226-229)
Embracing growth and change
The West Journal encompasses all of this and distribution across Sydney’s West from Hawkesbury Shire Council in the north, Wollondilly Shire Council in the south, west to Blue Mountains City Council, east to the Canterbury Bankstown.
Editor Deane Boone boasts that the magazine will ‘explore everything Western Sydney and Regional NSW has to offer’ extending to ‘West of West’ taking in Wagga Wagga to Armidale and Dubbo. (TWJ:4-5)
These claims are endorsed by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian MP. She states ‘Western Sydney is an exciting region undergoing profound growth and change’, and her government ‘shares this enthusiasm for Sydney’s West as a wonderful place’. The premier ‘commends’ the publisher for their efforts. (TWJ:6)
Editor Boone has set a high standard with this issue. It is hoped that later volumes match it. The magazine closes with the bold aim:
To embrace, inform and celebrate the amazing cultural diversity, experiences and offerings the West has to offer. (TWJ:263)
During the First World War, the Camden News’s editorial policy expressed strong cultural connections with France, especially around Bastille Day. The News carried reports of patriotic celebrations around the French National Day, visits by French soldiers and the personal reminiscences of Paris by Camden identity and owner of the News, William Sidman.
The Franco-Prussian war
In September 1914, the Camden News published a series of six articles written by William Sidman. They documented his personal experiences of the chaotic events of Paris at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. (Camden News, 27 August, 3 Sept, 10 Sept 1914, 17 Sept, 24 Sept, 1 Oct 1914)
Sidman had been sent to Paris in mid-1869 to ‘take charge ‘of The European News by the owners of Hull’s The Eastern Morning News, where he worked as a ‘junior reporter’. (CN, 27 August) The European News was large circulation bi-lingual, English-French, daily with a weekly edition. (CN, 3 Sept 1914)
In his memoirs, Sidman wrote about the chaos that broke out in Paris in mid-1870. There were large mobs of people roaming the streets after a national vote supporting the bellicose policies of Napoleon III towards Prussia. Sidman recalled that the ‘ends of streets were made impassable, omnibuses overturned’, resulting in ‘a political crisis’ with a ‘simmering discontent by the masses’. (CN, 10 Sept 1914)
Sidman wrote that eventually, the French government declared war on Prussia. The situation in Paris deteriorated, foreign nationals were told to leave, and Sidman left for London (CN, 24 Sept 1914). He was later told by an English compositor who fled Paris that the lead-type of The European News had been ‘melted down for bullets’ during the Prussian siege of the city in late 1870. (CN, 1 October 1914)
Sidman felt guilty leaving France and recalled that he felt sorry for ‘all my French friends’ during the conflict. The following year, he returned to Paris and found that the old newspaper office had been re-built by French authorities after its destruction by Prussian forces. (CN, 1 October 1914)
William’s articles were published under George Sidman’s editorship of the Camden News and were put on the front page. GV (George) Sidman was William’s son, took control of the Camden News in 1912, and continued William’s support for the French.
Support for French patriotic causes was not unique to Camden. Historian Alexis Bergantz in his book French Connections, Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions, writes that Bastille Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1915 were prevalent. He reports that ‘hundreds of women spilled onto the streets selling flowers and cockades and flags in the colours of France’ according to the Melbourne Argus. The Marseillaise was played and funds raised for the French Red Cross on 14 July. The day was topped out with a ‘great concert of French music’ at the Melbourne Town Hall. (Bergantz, p136)
Camden’s first celebration of Bastille Day and French nationalism occurred on Friday, 14 June 1916. The Camden News published Marcus Clarke’s patriotic French poetry as the story’s lead item (see the beginning of this article) and then reported on a town hall meeting called by Camden Mayor GF Furner. Press reports stated that a ‘very enthusiastic’ crowd celebrated the ‘French National Day’ by listening to patriotic speeches from the mayor and Rev Hogan and ended with ‘three hearty cheers’ for France. (Camden News, 20 July 1916)
In 1917 the Camden Red Cross organised a fancy dress procession and sports day for France’s Day on 14 July and raised £374. The aim of the appeal was to assist French widows and children after the defence of Verdun. France’s Day started with a ‘hearty’ fancy dress procession along the main street, ending up at the showground, led by the Camden District Band and the fire brigade.
The procession along Argyle Street was followed by a sports day where the Camden Red Cross conducted a ‘tea tent’. The whole event attracted an ‘enormous crowd of people’ and entry was 1/-. The ‘younger members’ of the Camden Red Cross organised a concert (9 July) and raised £23 with entertainment provided by the Guild of St Faith and the Camden District Band. (Camden News, 5 July 1917, 12 July 1817, 19 July 1917.)
New Caledonian garrison visits Camden
These Red Cross activities were followed later in 1917 (Monday, 15 October) with a visit by a group of 20 French soldiers from the New Caledonia garrison. Sibella Macarthur Onslow hosted the soldiers in the ‘famous gardens’ at Camden Park after a planned visit to Gilbulla had been cancelled. The soldiers were part of a group of nearly 300 French troops welcomed in Sydney by the military, the Red Cross and Sydney’s French residents. They were entertained at a variety of functions around the city.
After their morning visit at Camden Park, the soldiers were driven into Camden, where they were entertained at a garden party on the lawn at the Commercial Bank in Camden’s main street. They took afternoon tea and were introduced to Camden’s mayor, WF Peters, his wife, over 25 members of the Camden Red Cross and other local identities by Sibella Macarthur Onslow. Several toasts and speeches were followed by rousing cheers of thanks, after which they boarded the train for Sydney. (Sydney Morning Herald 15 October 1917; Camden News, 18 October 1917.)
Sidman and French nationalism
The country press is a store of knowledge around cultural heritage and powerful local political interests especially in wartime.
Sidman was an identity of some weight in the Macarthur family strong-hold of Camden and his newspaper was a powerful voice in the town and district. He well understood the impact of the provincial press after working on a number of local mastheads in the United Kingdom and his time in Paris. So what was he up to? What was he trying to achieve with his French memoirs of war?
I would argue that while Sidman’s memoirs were really just a recollection of events at the time, their publication had a very pointed political agenda in a New South Wales country town at the outbreak of the First World War.
Sidman whimsically opened his memoirs of Paris with these comments:
memory is our only friend and true in thought and as long as a man’s memory lasts it becomes a treasure of unknown intrinsic value’
(Camden News, 27 August 1914)
What was Sidman really trying to say in his memoirs? Who was he trying to influence?
Disappointingly George Sidman did not provide insight or editorial comment in the Camden News at the time of William’s memoirs of Paris to help answer my questions.
Part of the answer might be provided by William Sidman in 1898. He wrote of his despair at the cost of warfare, the loss of resources in the nations which took part in them and the threat to world stability. (Camden News, 9 June 1898)
The story of hard-bitten local newspaper identities and their publications has been told in a recent article published in British academic journal Media History. Local author and historian Ian Willis details the travails of local reporters, printers, owners, and others who made the news across the region for over 140 years.
These newspapers have told the story of the towns and villages across the Macarthur region and lives of people who have lived there – local weddings, births, deaths, marriages and other family events; men going to war and coming home; natural disasters, elections, and lots more. Some of these newspapers can be found on the National Library’s Trove Database and they include the Camden News and thePicton Post.
The digital revolution has drained these ‘local rags’ of their advertising, and crucified their profitability and their business models. Some still survive and struggle on like the Camden-Narellan Advertiser while other mastheads like the Camden Leader (1910-1912) have come and gone with no copies in existence. Some green shoots have emerged in recent times in print and online with the Oran Park Gazette and the South West Voice.
The article tells the story of local newspapers in the three New South Wales market towns of Campbelltown, Camden and Picton that made up the Macarthur region. Each community had a series of local town-based newspaper mastheads from the 1880s, some lasting longer than others. These local newspapers were run by hard-bitten owner-editors who were salt-of-the-earth people who had printer’s ink running in their veins. They survived on the smell-of-an-oily-rag and were assisted by family members who doubled as reporters, printer’s assistants, photographers, stringers and ‘Jack-of-all-trades’.
Amongst these colourful characters and local identities were: the gold-field printer and colonial-newspaper baron William Webb who owned a string of country newspapers; English journalist William Sidman who had his lead-type face confiscated in Paris for bullets during the Franco-Prussian war; and New Guinea war veteran and printer Syd Richardson, the first regional newspaper baron.
These newspapers used local history to allow their readers to reflect on their past by storytelling and creating an understanding of their cultural heritage. The local press lionised pioneer settler stories, and the most important of these were the exploits and activities of the New South Wales Corps Officer Captain John Macarthur. The legacy of this process was to turn the historical figure of Macarthur into a local legend and national hero, and use these stories to contribute to the construction of place and a regional identity.
UOW historian Dr Ian Willis has recently published an article in Media History (UK) about the role of local newspapers in the creation of Macarthur regional identity and the mythology surrounding New South Wales colonial identity John Macarthur.
The three New South Wales market towns of Campbelltown, Camden and Picton made up the Macarthur region where several local town-based newspapers emerged in the 1880s. Local newspapers used local history to enable their readers to reflect on their past by storytelling and creating an understanding of their cultural heritage. The local press lionised the historical legacy of John Macarthur and contributed to the construction of a regional identity bearing his name through the creation of regional newspaper mastheads. The key actors in this narrative were newspaper owner-editors, their mastheads and the historical figure of Macarthur. This article uses a qualitative approach to chart the growth and changes of newspaper mastheads, their owner-editors and Macarthur mythmaking and regionalism.
The article explains the role of the local press in the creation of the Macarthur mythology and included local newspapers like the Camden News,Camden Advertiser, Macarthur Advertiser, Macarthur Chronicle, Picton Post, The District Reporter and the Campbelltown Herald.
Local newspaper editor-owners were an important part of this story and notable names included William Webb, William Sidman, George Sidman, Arthur Gibson, Syd Richardson, Jeff McGill, Lee Abrahams and Mandy Perin.
The Macarthur regional press had its own press barons most notably Syd Richardson and George Sidman who had significant influence and power across the Macarthur region.
Then there is the New South Wales colonial identity of John Macarthur who was a great self-publicist, opportunist, rogue and local land baron. Over the last 200 years his exploits have been exaggerated into a local mythology that has become part of Australian national identity.
John Macarthur has become a local legend, a regional identity, and his name has been applied to a regional name, electoral division and lots of local business and community organisations.
What if? What might have been? What could have been?
These are interesting questions when considering the big questions about the past.
This area of history writing involves speculation about the past and the way history is interpreted and understood. One young historian who has addressed these questions is Wollongong independent scholar Amy Penning. She has written a critique of counterfactual history. This is a controversial area of history theory and practice. Penning has written a lively discussion that analyses a contested area of historiography. In deciding whether to publish this essay I considered editing the text and decided against it. I feel that the essay is worth reproducing here in full.
The aim of publishing the essay on this site is to give the essay and its author a wider audience. I hope you enjoy reading this very interesting and worthwhile contribution to history theory and practice.
What if? What could have been? Counterfactual history
Counterfactual history is the historiographical method premised on hypothetical alternatives about outcomes of the past events and circumstances which actually occurred. Through questioning and speculating upon what could have happened, the past becomes reinvigorated. As counterfactual history allows for a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history; as not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency. However, counterfactual claims without historical evidence are simply fantasying and are thus frivolous to historical study. Therefore, historians who employ a counterfactual paradigm have a scholarly responsibility to distinguish the conditions under which these ‘what if’ events are probable with accurate evidence to make these claims plausible and valid for the reconstruction of history.
A contested debate
As with all historiographical philosophies, counterfactual history has been subject to great debate, especially in recent years. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson a foremost proponent of counterfactual history deems virtual history as a necessity for understanding the past. He contends that through using empirical evidence, counterfactual analysis can enable a holistic and rigorous understanding of the past. Conversely, traditionalist historians, including academic Sir Richard J. Evans maintain that because counterfactuals are imaginative reconstructions, questioning the past using ‘what if’ scenarios are futile. He argues that personal speculation and curiosity is not history; that truth is truth and fact is a fact. Evans is right to insist on the primacy of facts in any historical inquiry – to do otherwise would render historical works fictitious. This does not, however, invalidate the potential merits of a counterfactual approach. By examining the conflicting views of Ferguson and Evans (among other historians) the contentions but also potential regarding counterfactual history is clearly illustrated.
Reconstruction of history
Counterfactual history has significant value in the reconstruction of history as it allows for a re-examination of causation, however many historians have interpreted this as a disregard of the past. It has thus been neglected among most academic historians across time and political ideologies ‘as having little epistemic value’. 
A definitive opponent to counterfactual history is E.H Carr (an English historian and opponent of empiricism) who in his famous book What is History? (1961) responded to Isaiah Berlin’s (British- Russian philosopher) criticism of those who do not give ‘priority to the role of the individual and accident’ , thus those who neglect counterfactual history, the role of human agency (humans action) and chance. E.H Carr responded to this by the dismissive phrase that ‘counterfactual’ history is a mere ‘parlour game’, a ‘red herring’. This was because for Carr, an investigation of causes and to suggest that something other than what did happen, might have occurred was a violation of the historical discipline. Strangely, ‘despite (Carr’s) denial of the value of counterfactual history in the book, it remains a landmark for understanding counterfactual history’.  As What is History ‘became the most influential text to examine the role of the historian…in the 1960s and is still widely read today’.  This is supported by the sheer amount of historians who use his definition of counterfactuals. 
The issue is that Carr’s definition of counterfactualism is not conclusive nor does it provide a true understanding of what counterfactual history is: a deeper look into causes, effects, and actors through questioning the past. It can be argued, therefore, that ‘for a long time, Carr’s criticisms made ‘what-if-history’ suspect for serious scholars’.  That is not to say, all historians of recent times disagree with counterfactual history as a result of Carr. However, his basic argument that reevaluating the past as more than predetermined contingencies poses a threat to the historical discipline, unfortunately, sums up the attitude of generations of historians on the subject.
The validity of the counterfactual inquiry
Further, many other influential historians have disregarded the validity of counterfactual inquiry in understanding history by dismissing it’s questioning into known historical events and causes as unhistorical practice. As counterfactual history ‘ambition to be consequential’ (aim to have important value in the historical discipline) is often misunderstood academic historians ‘(as a) distortion (of) scholarship‘. 
Therefore, questioning and reconstructing the past is threatening to some academic historians whose own study and understanding of history which have been cemented in traditional deterministic history (predestined nature of the past). Historian Marxist E. P. Thompson once famously called counterfactuals ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical garbage’. Furthermore, conservative philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott ‘who rarely agreed with Thompson’ (Sustein, 2014) said that the ‘distinction between essential and incidental events does not belong to historical thought at all’. This reveals the ignorance and unwillingness of many historians to understand what counterfactual history is actually is; the assigning of the importance of events, understanding the significance of human actors and a deeper look at the causation of all which are important principles of historical study.
Further, this demonstrates that prominent and scholarly historians of varying ideologies and beliefs have labelled counterfactual history as a historical tool unworthy of study or use. The impact of this is significant on the study and use of counterfactualism in history, as Niall Ferguson reveals when he states ‘hostile views from such disparate figures’ could explain why counterfactual inquiry ‘has been provided by writers of fiction (rather than).. historians’. Therefore, revealing that academic historians who simply denounce counterfactual history as unhistorical fantasy, have failed to understand the definition of counterfactuals (as counterfactual principles do align with historical practice) and consequently have been unable to see counterfactualism’s value and use in history.
The contentions surrounding the worth of counterfactual inquiry in reconstructing history have been debated by the two leading historians Richard Evans and Niall Ferguson in recent years. Sir Richard Evans a widely renowned historian agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott, as he insists that counterfactual history is ‘speculation, not history.’ Evans laments that this fantasizing ‘threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.’ However what Evans neglects is Ferguson’s point, that counterfactual hypotheses are ‘only legitimate if one can show if what if your discussing is one that contemporaries seriously contemplated’ by showing evidence.’  Ferguson explains this through the example of ‘what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings’ where he argues that this offers no historical insights, as this is not a realistic conjecture. Therefore, the basis for counterfactual arguments to be valid in reconstructing history must be provable plausibility through historical evidence.
Another counterfactual hypothesis which demonstrates the importance of historical evidence is provided by John Keegan a British military historian who contributed an essay to the military history journal about how Hitler could have won World War II ‘In 1941, Hitler controlled the world’s biggest tank fleet, and one of the biggest air fleets, and if he had decided to use them differently…he could have won’. Therefore, revealing how with factual evidence (the number of tank and fleets Hitler had), the counterfactual hypothesis can provide a greater understanding of the past; as through this inquiry, Keegan highlights the significance of the human actor in historical outcomes, particularly in military history. This is because ‘outcomes of battles were so often determined by the actions and decisions of a single leader’. Therefore, through providing historical evidence counterfactual claims are plausible and are useful as they provide a deeper understanding of the significance of causation and the role of human agency on historical outcomes.
Additionally, the predetermined nature of the past or determinism is a controversial issue for Evans and Ferguson when evaluating counterfactuals use and value in history. Ferguson sees counterfactual history as the ‘necessary antidote’ to the close-mindedness of historical determinism. In Ferguson’s words, ‘the past does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine, or otherwise only characters and a great deal too many of them’. Therefore, Ferguson reveals the non-deterministic and true complex contingency of the past as a result of human agency (human action and ability to alter history).
However, Evans contends that the very idea of determinism is too broad, as in terms of history moving towards an end ‘counterfactuals can only cast doubt on theories of history’ but can’t ‘undermine history as a whole because we don’t know where that trajectory will end’. Thus, he argues that since we already know the course of history, historical speculation on what might have occurred is pointless because it didn’t happen. However, Evans ignores that the unpredictable nature of human actors and that chance itself can both be significant factors in historical outcomes. Therefore, although ‘what if’ questioning will always remain hypothetical, chance and human agency do play a significant role in history. Consequently, study into alternative outcomes will always remain important and relevant for deepening the reconstruction of history.
Furthermore, throughout time counterfactuals have been used and will be continued to be used to reconstruct and understand history. This a result of the innate human desire to re-examine the past and to wonder ‘what if?’. In daily life, humans often speculate about what might have happened: ‘either grateful things worked out as they did or regretful that they did not occur differently’. As Niall Ferguson explains ‘(counterfactuals) is a vital part of how we learn’, because ‘decisions about the future are usually based on weighing up consequences of alternative courses of action’. As a consequence, of counterfactual questioning being innately human, historians throughout time have employed counterfactualism in their historical inquiry: sometimes unknowingly.
A further recent example is Robert Cowley, the editor of the military history quarterly who in 1998 used the counterfactual of ‘the fog on the East River on the night of Aug. 29, 1776, which permitted Washington to escape unnoticed by the British and save the Revolution from a Dunkirk. What if no fog?’.  Thus, as a consequence of counterfactual questioning being a part of human nature, it has been used and will be continued to be used throughout time, to better understand the complexity of the causation and events of the past. The innate human quality and use of counterfactuals in history further reinforced by historian and author Aviezer Tucker’s specialist in the philosophy of historiography and history. He reveals how to a certain extent, all historians use counterfactualism ‘when they assign cause, effects and the degree of importance to these causes’ because ‘The assignment of necessary causes assumes that had the cause not occurred, neither would the effects’. As all claims of causation, require the historian to give importance and necessity to events, people, and factors and their subsequent influence on the final outcome. As Jon Elster (Norwegian social and political theorist) explains historians ‘have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it’.
An interesting argument regarding the human quality of counterfactualism is put forward by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld a Professor of History, who uses examples of counterfactual history throughout time to reveal how ‘alternate history has consistently functioned as a means of using alternate pasts to expose the virtues and vices of the present.’  That is to say, the counterfactual questions asked throughout time reflect contemporary’s fears, attitudes and beliefs. Rosenfeld uses the example of American authors’ common use of the Nazis winning World War for to demonstrate this ‘For the first three decades of the postwar era most allo- historical (alternative) narratives.. depicted a Nazi wartime victory. This reflects the postwar history of the United States…(glorifying) the American decision to intervene in the war against, and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany’. Thus, (counterfactual history) ‘reflects its authors (current) hopes and fear.’  This reveals that counterfactual history is extremely useful to the historical discipline, as counterfactuals are inherently presentist. Therefore, counterfactual history gives insight into the evolution of historiography which makes it very useful to historians as documents of attitudes, values, perspectives and belief systems of individuals from that particular time.
Utilising the pre-existing conditions
Further, counterfactual claims can be valid through utilising the pre-existing conditions of the event developed over time. An example that demonstrates this, is the Greek’s defeat over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The battle ended with a Greek victory, in which the swifter and far more numerous fleet of the Persian emperor Xerxes was destroyed. ‘However, this victory was dependent on a subtle manoeuvre by admiral Themistocles’.  A Persian win would have prevented the emerging Greek conceptions of freedom and the individual and thus ‘the great strengths of present-day Western culture is due to Themistocles September victory off Salamis’.  In approaching this ‘what if’ historical question one must neglect the ‘anything could follow anything’ mentality. As this kind of counterfactual narrative is based on speculation and is consequently problematic as to ‘extend counterfactual history speculation is to exhaust the connection between facts and realities’. 
A stronger counterfactual inquiry instead uses pre-existing conditions as it’s basis. ‘The Persians could not have been defeated in any other battle, Salamis was the Greeks only opportunity. Had Alexander not lived to build a Macedonian Empire, no one and nothing else could have replaced him. Consequently, the individualist culture that flowered in Greek city-states could not have emerged anywhere else.’ In this version, the counterfactual questioning is a historical inquiry into contingency as it is grounded in the pre-existing conditions of the ‘event developing over diverse conditions across large expanses of geographical and social territory’ . Thus, through the utilising existing circumstances and conditions, the counterfactual hypothesis can be valid in historical practice.
A deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history
In conclusion, a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history can be achieved through speculation into the ‘what if’ questions of the past. The contentions and potential regarding counterfactual history are illustrated by examining the conflicting views of historians Ferguson (argues is necessary for holistic understanding) and Evans (argues it is imaginary and thus futile). Furthermore, influential historians such as E.H Carr dismissal of counterfactualism as unhistorical fantasy makes evident that counterfactual history’s definition has been skewed; as assigning importance to cause and effect are important historical practices. Through Evans and Ferguson’s arguments, it can be deduced that although counterfactuals claims will always be hypothetical in nature, they can be valid with historical evidence. These plausible counterfactual scenarios can then provide a deeper understanding of history. Historian John Keegan demonstrates through the counterfactual that ‘Hitler could have won World War II by acting differently’ the significance of human agency on historical outcomes. Moreover, counterfactual questioning and has been used by historians throughout time (e.g Thucydides, Livy, and Churchill) as it is inherently human. Consequently, counterfactual claims give insight into the memory and belief systems of individuals throughout time. Finally, through utilising existing circumstances and conditions counterfactual hypothesis can be valid historical practice. Therefore, counterfactual history has important value in the reconstruction of history, as questioning and rethinking the past reinvigorates and opens history; to not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency.
Amy Penning is an independent scholar based in Wollongong, NSW. She is interested in the philosophical nature of history.
Amy Penning can be contacted by email email@example.com
 For example, Martin Bunzl a professor of philosophy article ‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’, Richard Evans in his book Altered Pasts and Professor of history Peter J Beck in Presenting History: Past and Present all refer to and use Carr’s definition.
 Hekster. O., 2016, ‘The Size of History: Coincidence, Counterfactuality and Questions of Scale in History The Challenge of Chance Springer’, pp. 215-232, accessed 28 June 2019, Springer, Cham.
On a balmy late spring afternoon in central Camden a group of local people were conducting a photoshoot.
The late afternoon provided a deep even light that was ideal for the whole venture.
None were professional filmmakers. But that did not stop anyone.
The filming dodged pedestrians and was occasionally drowned out by local buses.
Historic John Street precinct
The project centred around the historic John Street precinct.
The film venture involved storytelling, great yarns, interesting characters, old buildings and lots of making do.
The location provided a rich collection of old buildings that speak about the past for those who want to listen. History enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the past in the present by walking the ground – the same streets as local identities and characters have done for decades.
This motley group wandered around a number of Camden’s old buildings – Laura Jane acted as storyteller for the 1-2 minutes historic grabs. LJ was full of passion in her completely ad lib performances. Ian listened for any gaffs – which were few and far between.
Debbie followed Laura Jane around with her handheld – tripod held – iphone camera. If she was lucky a bus didn’t drown LJ’s monologue. The roadies held all the bits and pieces – then reviewed the take and ably provided all sorts of advice – most it wisely ignored by the camera operator and storyteller.
The most challenging story was that of Henry Thompson’s Macaria from the 1870s, the ghosts and Henry’s 16 children. This is next door to the 1840s Sarah Tiffin’s cottage, one of the oldest buildings in the local area and one time lockup.
The Cawdor court house ended up in Camden in 1841 much to chagrin of Picton and Campbelltown which missed out. Next door is the 1878 police barracks which was always a site of plenty of action where miscreants were locked up in the cells to cool off.
The 1916 fire station which was really opened in 1917 was an improvement from the pig-sty in Hill Street. Next door is the modern library once the centre of learning and speeches in the town as the 1866 Camden School of Arts set up by James Macarthur.
Our storyteller and camera operator filmed a street walk outside the 1936 Bank of New South Wales building and its neighbor the 1937 banking chamber for the Rural Bank – interwar masterpieces.
The festival draws on a rich history of community festivals in the local area going back into the 1800s. The heritage of festivals is drawn from the English tradition of the village fair that came with the European settlers.
The origins of these festivals, according to Peter Hampson Ditchfield’s Old English Sports (2007), lies in ancient Saxon customs, particularly in Devonshire and Sussex, associated with ‘wassailing’ (carousing and health-drinking) to ensure the thriving of orchard trees (mainly apples) and exchanging presents.
On New Years Day village youths undertook indoor and outdoor sport to keep out the cold by ‘wholesome exercise and recreative games’. Sports included bat-and-ball, wrestling, skittles, blind-man’s-bluff, hunt the slipper, sword dancing and mumming (play acting).
In the financial year 2017–18 Australia generated $57.3 billion in direct tourism GDP representing growth of 7 percent over the previous year – three times the national GDP growth of 2.3%. Tourism also directly employed 646,000 Australians (1 in 19) making up 5.2% of Australia’s workforce.
In Australia and around the world, cultural tourism is growing. In 2015 NSW hosted over 11.4 million ‘cultural and heritage visitors’,1 both international and domestic, who spent an estimated $11.2 billion in the state, an increase of 15.4% on the previous year.
Another free bi-annual colour magazine has recently come to my attention called Smarter Macarthur. While it has been present for a few editions this newspaper nerd did not notice it, probably because it is a ‘business-to-business’ publication in the local media landscape.
The masthead is published by Smarter Media with a circulation of 5000 copies. It is letter-boxed to businesses across the region, dropped in professional premises and eateries, and distributed to advertisers and local networking groups.
Smarter Macarthur was originally published in 2014 and is produced with 200gsm Gloss Artboard cover and internal pages of 113gsm Gloss Artpaper, which gives the full colour magazine a quality feel and presentation. The publisher stays local by employing local photographers Brett Atkins and Nick Diomis.
The 52pp print edition for Winter/Spring 2019 is supported by an online presence. There is a Facebook page and a website , both appearing in 2014, with the website including a directory of advertisers.
Editor Lyndall Lee Arnold maintains that:
Our aim to produce quality content, to showcase local businesses within the area.
The print magazine carries news articles of local interest, stories of local businesses and advice pages on leadership, technology and health. The editorial approach of the magazine is to stress the local.
The editorial policy and the presence of the magazine strengthens regional identity and the construction of place by telling the stories of the local businesses and their owners.
This is a screenshot of the website established in 2014 for the Smarter Macarthur bi-annual glossy free colour magazine. (I Willis)
Being on the front cover of Smarter Macarthur along with our business story being featured inside the last issue has been so positive!
Macarthur businesses seem to want to support a new addition to the local media landscape.
On the Facebook page the editor maintains that she is looking to the future and the growth of the regional market place with the construction of the Western Sydney Airport, apply named Nancy Bird-Walton Airport, at Badgerys Creek.
The success of the publication will add to community sustainability by strengthening the local economy, job creation and economic growth.
It will be interesting to see if the Macarthur region’s competitive market place continues to support this masthead.
A group of American historians asked this question in 2012. They were concerned about the profile of history in the USA and its branding.
What resulted was the Value of History statement which is a statement of 7 principles on how history is essential to contemporary life. It provides a common language for making the argument that history should be part of contemporary life. They are seeking the support of US historical institutions and provide a tool kit for the implementation of the statement.
The American campaign is centred around this impact statement: “People will value history for its relevance to modern life and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.” They are convinced that history is relevant to contemporary communities.
I would argue that the 7 principles are just as relevant in Australia as they are in the USA. The principles are centred around 3 themes.
To ourselves (a) identity (b) critical skills
To our communities (a) vital places to live and work (b) economic development
To our future (a) engaged citizens (b) leadership (c) legacy.
The supporters of the US campaign want to change the perception that while history is nice is not essential.
There is certainly support for history in Australia as Dr Anna Clark has shown in her book Private Lives Public History that there is general support for history in Australia. But as American historians have found history is ‘nice but not essential’.
The Americans who are leading this campaign are seeking the development of a ‘set of metrics’ for assessing the impact of historical projects and thus prove their worth. It is their view that ‘funders ought to view history, historical thinking, and history organizations as critical to nearly all contemporary conversations’.
Australian historians need to similarly speak with one voice from the many corners of the discipline. From local community history, to scholarly work in academia, to commissioned work, to work in archives, museums and galleries as well the heritage industry.
Australian historian could learn a thing or two from their American colleagues. The statement of 7 principles of the Value of History statement has as much relevance in Australia as the US. Similarly the US desire for a set of assessible metrics would be a useful part of the Australian toolkit for historians of all ilks and backgrounds.
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