Historymatrix Index History in Common PHA(NSW) Site Map Blue Cedars Home

Carment, David (1949 -)
Looking at Darwin's Past:
Material evidence of European settlement in Tropical Australia.
North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University,
Darwin 1996.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

This review was originally written in 1996 for Public History Review, the journal of the Professional Historians' Association (NSW).

Book description: 117pp, including 6pp bibliography, 6pp index, plus contents page, acknowledgements, introduction; 60 black and white photographic plates, 8 figures. Soft-cover edition, ISBN 0 7315 2305 9, Dewey 994.295

The Review

I have never been to Darwin, although there were once some family links. My working experience as a historian/heritage practitioner has mainly been confined to another Australian capital, Sydney. Therefore it was with more than usual interest that I read Carment's study of Darwin's 'European' built heritage.

This slim volume is divided into 8 chapters. The first 7 group Darwin's built environment into distinct themes: a northern capital, imposing authority, defeating distance, commerce and enterprise, servicing the community, Darwin's home and Australia's front line, with a final chapter summarising the historical significance of that built environment as a whole. Reader's will quickly recognise this arrangement from heritage studies in New South Wales. Each chapter is well illustrated with historical and contemporary photos, line drawings and diagrams.

Carment's introduction is a good explanation of the importance of multi- disciplinary approaches to understanding the historical development of a place and the significance of surviving physical evidence. The influence of Paul Carter is obvious. Carment also introduces the reader to the idea of buildings-as-documents:

It is only possible to understand several vital themes in Darwin's European history when the evidence of historical structures is examined and explained.
While this may seem 'bleedin' obvious' to heritage practitioners, there are still plenty of historians with phobias about using non-documentary sources, and the concept remains novel for many a lay person.

Overall, the narrative generally flows smoothly and logically, integrating sites and themes fairly seamlessly. The chapter on servicing the community seems a little disjointed, but this is probably inherent in the 'planning history' mode of writing rather than a deficiency in Carment's style. The conclusion is a concise statement about why any of this matters:

The European zeal in Darwin for building and rebuilding ... marks, in many respects, the continued assertion of a desire to mark the land as belonging to the settlers rather than the earlier indigenous inhabitants ..[and] insecurity bought about by a hostile climate and proximity to Asia. In order to come to terms with, and understand, this often complex process, surviving key elements of the highly diverse cultural landscape created in Darwin after 1869 need to be preserved.

Carment's history offers some interesting insights: colonial architect John Knight emerges as a sort of territorial Greenway (does every capital have one?); the photos suggest that the influence of South East Asian colonial building styles is more widespread than just the designs of the 1930s Government Architect Beni Burnett; while the clerestory of southern buildings is transformed in Darwin into an open- sided ventilator.

With regard to the concept of significance, Carment touches upon with the idea of shared experiences in a highly stratified society through sites such as the former railway station. He also assumes that monuments can be read as surviving physical evidence of a former site, and that post-cyclone restoration/ reconstruction of buildings does not detract from their historical significance. I agree, but many architectural purists would be appalled at the thought. Carment also discusses the political difficulties of trying to conserve vernacular or working class homes - a problem familiar to heritage practitioners everywhere (and an argument for greater involvement in such decision making by historians).

My criticisms are few: the disparate nature of the 'Servicing the community' chapter has been touched on already; the historical development and changing of local place names (Palmerston/Darwin is one example) surely deserves some analysis in such a study; a reluctance to use the adjective 'territorial' is noticable, although this seems to be a general characteristic of the local culture; and a glossary is needed for non- local readers - punkah, Sidney Williams hut, and porcellanite are three examples of terms needing some definition.

Looking at Darwin's Past is both readable and usable. Comparisons with other tropical cities and other capitals can be made (if they also possess such written histories). The text avoids jargon (except for some localisms), and is accessible to historians and non-historians alike. In fact, it should be required reading for those heritage/planning officers in New South Wales unable to see beyond aesthetic significance, as well as certain firms responsible for local heritage studies. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the histories and heritages of built environments, for its application extends far beyond Australia's northern-most capital.