20 May 2017

Mentoring Noel Pearson - a guest post

I was born in Eastern Europe and eventually moved into a UN refugee camp for people seeking visas to safe countries. Life for me was fine once we got to Aust­ralia, but I was always aware how my parents worked long, miserable hours every week to give us children a decent life. It must have succeeded because my sister became a 4-language translator in the Health Department, my brother became a mathematician and maths teacher, and I became a doctor.

Throughout those years of struggle, my parents never forgot the people who mentored them, enrolling them for citizenship ceremonies (successfully), teaching them English (with mixed success) and help­ing them with driving lessons. Now it was possible to mentor a new generation of young people in medical practices, preferably migrants or the children of migrants. Each year my coll­eagues and I decided to take one undergraduate student into our practices; there they spend one term of hard work, professional supervision and personal support. A very minor contribution to be sure, but one that brings an emotional thank-you from parents in the same heavily accented English my parents spoke.

 Noel Pearson, Prof Marcia Langton, Professor Patrick Dodson, Mark Leibler. 
Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 2010

Here is an example of a mentoring program I really admire. Noel Pearson (born 1965) was born in Cooktown and grew up at Hope Vale, a Lutheran Mission in the Cape York Peninsula. His father was from one Aboriginal people, and his mother was from another. After finishing primary school in Hope Vale, Pearson left and travelled all the way to Brisbane where he was a boarder at St Peters Lutheran College. He did two degrees at the University of Sydney – the first in history, and the second in law.

The young legal graduate had to do his articled clerkship in a reputable, large legal firm so he chose Arnold Bloch Leibler, in a totally unfamiliar city 2000 ks away - Melbourne.

Pearson wrote “During an articled clerkship at ABL’s Collins St headquarters, I came to know the story of Australia’s Jewish community and how a people endured oppression and discrimination through history; how they rose up from the ashes of the Holocaust”.

“It was Ron Castan QC who recommended me to Leibler. Ron was one of the greatest legal advocates this country has known and I got to know him following his long crusade with Eddie Mabo to establish native title in the Murray Islands. He later worked with us on the Wik peop­le’s claim to Cape York and was a paternal mentor to me.”

“My time at ABL was a crucial period: I learned so much interacting through the firm with the Jewish community of Melbourne, in the worlds of business, education, arts and culture. I learned how you can be victimised by discrimination but never succumb to victimhood. How you can never forget history but you must engage the future.”

“I came to understand Castan and Leibler’s mentorship in their community is a virtuous cycle through the generations. So I was inspired to start sponsoring young girls from Cape York Peninsula, enabling them to attend private boarding schools in Brisbane. The first one went on to become the first university graduate from her community. Others started their own programs”. [All the quotes come from The Australian Newspaper, 21/12/2013].

As everyone in Australia now knows, Pearson went on to become famous as an advocate for Indigenous peoples' rights to land. In 1990 Pearson co-founded and directed the Cape York Land Council. Pearson's first official appointment was to a Queensland government taskforce which was formed to develop land rights legis­lation. He was also a legal advisor for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In 1993 Pearson acted as representative to the traditional owners in the first land claim (successful) to the Flinders Island and Cape Mel­ville National Parks. Following the Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia, Pearson played a key part in negotiations over the Native Title Act 1993 as a member of the Indigenous negotiating team.

In Dec 2010, the Australian Government announced the membership of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Panel included Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts and parliamentary members. It was co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC. Noel Pearson and Professor Marcia Langton were vital members of the Expert Panel.

Noel Pearson, 2014
Melbourne lecture

And mentoring is passed on to the next generation. Jawun is a not-for-profit organisation pioneered by Noel Pearson to help indigenous people regenerate their local communities through corporate partnerships. Bank staff, for example, are taken to visit parts of Australia to engage in a culture most Australians would rarely engage in. Using mining royalties, the bankers sit down with elders and local land councils, to help with legal obligations, rights, income distribution, school reforms and information technology.

Mentoring is valuable.


I (Helen) would like to add two thoughts. Readers might like to find Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay 55 A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth, published in Sept 2014. Pearson shows how the idea of race was embedded in the constitution, and the distorting effect this has had. Now there is a chance to change it. Pearson shows what constitutional recognition means, and how true equality and a renewed appreciation of an ancient culture would be possible. This is a wide-ranging, eloquent call for justice.

At the 1967 referendum on removing discrimination against Aboriginal people from the constitution, 91% of us voted yes, making it the most successful in Australia's history. Now each of Australia's major parties committed to hold a referendum to change the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Leaders have yet to agree on the model for change, so the words of the change to the constitution remain uncertain. But the Federal Government will announce a timetable for the referendum soon. May 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Australia's landmark 1967 referendum.

16 May 2017

The British Raj in India - in perfect control or in chaos?

The Dutch and Portuguese had dominated Euro­pean trade with the Subcont­in­ent during the 1500s. England (then Britain from 1707 on) was a late-comer to Asia. After Vasco da Gama discovered a sea-route to Asia in 1498, the Portuguese established forts and settlements around the coast of India and SE Asia. Netherlands sent dozens of ships in the 1590s, each returning with large profits. Alas the first English voyages were disasters.

So the East India Company was formed in 1600 to undo the humiliation Eng­lish merchants had felt in Asia. Queen Elizabeth I gave the Company a royal charter on England’s trade with Asia and from then on, the Company zealously pro­tected its monopoly.

My high school British History teachers stressed how pro­g­ressive Imperial Britain had been in India. Undoubtedly the Indians wanted to run their own country, uninvaded by military or corporate raiders. But the teachers could give wonderful examples about British railways systems were built, British laws legislated, economies devel­oped, irrig­ation systems installed and young Indian women protected. All in all, it was a civilising mission accomplished.

Then I read India Conquered, where the author Jon Wilson suggested that far from res­cuing India from chaos, the British caused it. Even on legal issues, the British didn’t manage to reform and univers­alise per­sonal law, leaving a confused tangle of pro­p­erty legislation that impeded modern commercial relations. With nothing to replace them, periods of food-price inflation led to the deaths of millions of Indians.

Charter granted to the East India Company, 
Dec 1600

The Company was not merely a collect­ion of merchants; rather it was a mini-state with power to wage war, issue regulations and make treat­ies with foreign powers. Pow­er was centralised in London offices that issued instructions to officers overseas.

Critics argued that the Company was actually protecting its own corporate power and status, not Britain’s commer­cial relat­ion­ship. The Company’s aggressive approach created a tense relationship with Indian merchants and political leaders. Its officers hid behind the walls of forts and military garrisons whenever they could. Negotiations were short; force resolved difficult situations.

The first major clash began in 1686, when Company officials were anxious that a] the Mughal empire wasn’t letting them trade without paying taxes and b] the Mughals were collaborating with private English traders to flout the Company’s monopoly. So war was declared on the Mughal empire. A fleet of 19 ships and six army companies was sent to liberate the English. But the Company’s ships were scattered by bad navigation and they were easily defeated by the Mughal military at Bombay.

By 1710 the Mughal empire practical power had begun to fragment. But until the early-mid C18th, India’s political system was powerful enough to defend against the Company. Violent events in 1720 could have led to the British conquest of Kerala, had the East India Co. not been embroiled in bigger battles elsewhere. A fleet and a small army sailed down from Bombay to take revenge, and land was “conquered from the natives”. But the fight in Kerala was quickly abandoned. In 1721 the British ships and troops were needed to defend Bombay against the Marathas of Maharashtra state.

Prince of Wales on a tiger hunt in India, 1875

As noted by my history teachers, the standard view of Britain’s empire in India emphasised its control, stability, success and the rational pursuit of profit. After all this story had been recorded by the empire’s governors and generals, after they returned to Britain.

The reality was that British actions were messy and chaotic. The Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded India in 1739, overthrowing the Mughals and stripping their treasuries. The invasion provoked conflict in the capitals of India and sent bands of warlords to ransack the country side.

Company forces led by Robert Clive sailed from Madras to a battlefield north of the Company’s base at Calcutta, and defeated the army of Bengal’s nawab Siraj ud Daula in Oct 1756. Then the Battle of Plassey, in June 1757, was the most important event that led to the Company’s conquest of India. It pitted 3,000 soldiers of the British East India Co. against the 5,000-strong army of the young Nawab of Bengal and his allies. When the Company refused to back down, the nawab marched, driving the British from Calcutta. After Calcutta was retaken and Siraj signed a peace treaty grant­ing all they demanded, the British marched to depose the Nawab! British trade and honour were protected by violence; Robert Clive, perhaps an unstable sociopath, became known as the Conqueror of India.

The British replaced Siraj on the throne with the more compliant Mir Jafar. But always paranoid about Indian actions, trust broke down again. Allies became antagonists and the British began to assert power more widely. Mir Jafar was blamed and ousted, apparently because conqu­est didn’t lead to quick profits. But Bengal’s wealth was rapidly draining into Britain, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced like slaves by their new masters.
Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala,  1911

The British fought in a succession of late 18th and early C19th wars, including the Second Maratha War of 1805. Only by 1818 had Britain and the East India Co become India’s clearly dominant powers. But conquest didn’t create a stable, effective state, nor did it create peace. During the 1820s the British faced a succession of insurrections that needed many more troops to win.

In April 1857, the north Indian city where the Commissioner of Meerut was stationed became the heart of the greatest-ever insurrection against Britain anywhere in the British empire. During the Indian Rebel­lion of 1857, much of north India was ruled by leaders hostile to the Company. Atrocities happened on both sides, but the last days of the Rebellion were so brutal, Indian Delhi and Lucknow were destroyed. The British massacres of rebel sepoys and unarmed citizens were war crimes.

The days of the British Raj in India were numbered. After 1858 the Com­pany was abolished and Queen Victoria was proclaimed India’s direct sovereign. British power was exerted through law courts and public works, railway timetables and codes of law, not just military violence. Yet imperial power was still limited and messy.

The British finally left India in 1947. 

Readers might like to read India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 2016. Also The Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount, Simon & Schuster, 2016. 

13 May 2017

Mussolini's fake nation - the Italian Social Republic (1943-5)

In July 1943, the Allies had pushed Italy out of North Africa and subsequently invaded Sicily. The war had been going so bad­­­ly for Italy that a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, with the support of King Victor Emmanuel III, overthrew and arrested Il Duce Benito Mussolini. One of those who voted against Mussolini was his son-in-law, the foreign min­is­ter Galeazzo Ciano)! The following day, Mussolini was dis­missed by Victor Emmanuel III saying ‘My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’

The Italian Fascists took revenge against the 19 members who had voted against Mussolini: death! Even Ciano was dis­missed from his post by the new anti-Fascist government of Italy after his father–in-law was taken. In Aug 1943 Ciano, Edda and their three children fled to Germany, but the Germans sent them back. Ciano was then arrested for treason, imprisoned, tried and executed.

Rachele and Benito Mussolini
and their children, 1930

The new anti-Fascist Italian government, under Marshal Pietro Badoglio, began secret negotiations with the Allied powers and made preparations for Italy's capitulation. When the Armistice of Cassibile was ann­ounced in Sicily on 8th Sept 1943, Italy swapped sides and formally joined the Allies.

Germany was prepared and quickly intervened! Germany seized control of their Operational Zones, freeing Mussolini from his Abruzzo prison and taking him to the German-occupied area to establish a satellite regime. The Germans immediately mobilised some of its best Wehrmacht units to Italy, both to resist new Allied advances from the south and to face the defection of Italy with a brutal venge­ance.

In a last-ditch attempt to rally Fascist Italy, the Germans sent Il Duce and his reformed Repub­lican Fascist Party to Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano, on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy. Here he est­ablished the Italian Social Republic of Salò/RSI, a state centred on Salò where Mussolini and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs now liv­ed and worked. Germany had annexed Trentino, the South Tyrol and much of the northern end of the lake, so the borders of the Reich had advanced and Gargnano was easy to reach and to defend.

The Fascist state was established in Nov 1943, at the same time the National Assembly of the Fascist Party was held in Verona. Villa Feltrinelli was patrolled by thirty SS officers from Hitler’s personal guard, lodged in the cellars beneath the villa. An anti-aircraft cannon was installed on the roof. In the tunnels between Gargnano and Riva del Garda, factories were set up to specialise in the production and repair of weapons and engines for cars and planes.

Map of Italy, Sep 1943 - 5 
Dark green = Italian Social Republic 
Light green = German Operational Zones

Il Duce was joined by his wife Rachele Guidi (1890-1979), their two youngest children, the in-laws and nephews. Mussolini’s very young mistress-de-jour Claretta Petacci and her parents agreed to accept a neigh­bour­ing house on Lake Garda. [Rachele Mussolini was furious, yet hundreds of love letters between Claretta and her lover still survive].

Although the new Italian Social Republic claimed at least the northern half of Italy and the islands as its own, the republic held little real political control. The RSI had its own army, with 150,000 men, its own flag and currency, but it had no constitution, was fin­ancially dependent on Germany and the choice of ministers in the new RSI government was veto-able by the Germans. The RSI received diplomatic recognition only from Germany, Japan and their puppet states.

Once the anti-Fascist Italian government had declared war on Germ­any, a disastrous civil war broke out between those Italians who stuck with the Central Powers (in the north including Rome) and those Italians who sided with the Allies (in the south). In March 1944 the Italian resis­tance exploded a bomb in Rome that killed 33 German soldiers. Retaliation was swift and brutal – for each German soldier killed, Hitler ordered the execution of ten Italian civil­ians. 335 civilians were immediately shot in a hideous retribution called the Ardeatine Massacre. When Muss­olini met Hitler in April 1944, the Italian protests were totally ignored.

In late April 1945, Mussolini's republic came to an end on a day lab­­elled Liberation Day. On this day a general partisan uprising, alongside the Allies during their final offensive in Italy, largely ousted the Germans from Italy. By the time of its demise, the Italian Social Republic had existed for only 19+ months. On 27th April partisans caught Mussolini, his mis­tress Claretta Petacci, several RSI ministers and other Italian Fascists, while they were attempting to flee to Switzerland. The next day the partisans killed Mussolini and most of the other cap­tives, including Claretta. Vittoria Mussolini, the second son, escaped to Argentina via The Vatican Route and was welcomed by the Minister for War, Juan Peron.

RSI poster 
German, Japanese and Italian soldiers fighting together

The Italian Social Republic might have been a make-believe state, but in its short existence, 240,000+ Italian civilian and soldiers died. The RSI Minister of Defence surrendered the survivors on 2nd May when the German forces in Italy capitulated; this put a final end to the crisis.

Villa Feltrinelli, where Il Duce lived, is now a luxury hotel that I visited (but could only afford afternoon tea). Down the road in Salò is the Museum of Salò on the shores of Lake Garda, that only opened in 2015. Richard Bosworth reviewed the museum of Fascist history and found it very unbalanced. The Museum’s stance was that the Germans were the perp­etrators of evil and the Italian Fascists were the tragic victims. And there was no reference to Fascism in practice or theory towards the peoples of the Italian Empire.