Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea.

We swim in it, fly over it and pollute it; we harvest its resources and, in greater quantities that ever before, we consume goods that come to us in ships that have sailed over it. Yet for all our dependence on the ocean, we denizens of the twenty-first century are very much creatures of the land. We no longer see the sea that sustains us, and this brings with it a dark tragedy: with the world rapidly heating, it will soon be the waters that engulf us.

Our terra firma myopia sets us apart from our nineteenth (and even twentieth) century forebears, whose relationship to the sea was much more intimate and bodily than our own. For all the emphasis on land and conquest in colonial and imperial history, for much of this period the resources of the oceans and their shorelines were much better mapped than those of the colonial interior.*

In Britain and Australia, as elsewhere, maritime industries, subsistence fishing and naval economies pulled people onto the waters; while migration drew people over them. Between 1850 and 1880, more than 1.3 million men, women and children travelled in sailing ships to the Australian colonies, lured by the discovery of gold, assisted passage schemes and by the promise of a better life.

Lasting between seventy days and five months, these journeys took these passengers from the industrial urbanised ports of Britain, and carried them far from any sight of land, through both hot and freezing temperatures, to colonial cities that by the 1850s were well established.

What did this mean for the people who travelled these routes?

I have tried to get at this question by attending closely to the diaries written at sea by eight passengers who made the journey to Australia between 1850 and 1880.

These accounts reveal just how intimately migrants came to know each other’s bodies. In the cramped and frequently unsanitary conditions between decks, corporeal boundaries became porous. They leaked into each other, eroding individual sovereignty.

In the last couple of decades historians have done much to historicise bodies. They have stepped away from deterministic and naturalistic notions and instead examined how bodily ideas and practices changed over time and place. Ever since Foucault, scholars have been interested in the ways that bodies were disciplined and rendered docile, not just by coercion, but increasingly by ‘modern’ techniques such as enclosure, ranking, exercise, partitioning, timetabling, synchronisation, repetition, and spatial ordering.

The diaries I read, suggest that travel by sea to Australia in the era of sail disturbed the bodily practices that were increasingly being learnt on shore in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. At sea bodies were anything but stable, individualised, clean and orderly. By contrast they continually threatened to break their boundaries. Passengers of all classes experienced acute anxiety at this prospect. They were unsettled by shifting temporal and spatial practices, and immobilised by dramatic changes in temperature. The bodily fluids, bugs, noises and diseases of others were hard to avoid. If the better class of traveller sought escape in above deck cabins, they nonetheless also lived in fear of contagion from below.

In these conditions passengers, as much as those who organised migrant vessels, sought to assert forms of organisation that were familiar to them. In many ways their writings stand as cries of frustration and anxiety that at sea, land-based practices of order and control did not quite work the way they felt they should.

And what did this mean for passengers’ after they arrived?

These migrants’ first actions on landing were often deliberative attempts to recompose their bodily and social selves. They washed, put on clean clothes, ate a proper meal, read their mail and sought out family and friends.

Yet for many the sea journey never left them. They carried the death of a child, serious sickness, or friendships made on board with them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps their ship-board apprehension of the loss of bodily order never left them either.

While historians of mobility are increasingly showing just how important spaces of transit were in fashioning experience and identity, historians of colonial cities and societies tend not to consider the impact of the sea journey in fashioning bodily subjectivities and cultures of rule. Might passengers’ experience of bodily anxiety at sea have influenced their eagerness to embrace and even produce the cultural classifications and hierarchies of rule that typified colonial and settler societies?

This question asks us to connect bodies at sea to bodies on shore. By doing so we may find a way, once again, to look both out to sea and across the land, and to stitch back together distributed geographic processes and chains of production and consumption that land-based histories have long elided.

*This is a point Alecia Simmons recently made at the Voyages and Visionaries conference in honour of John Gascgoine and Ian Tyrrell in Sydney, July 2016.


I’m talking about this at the Australian Historical Association conference in Ballarat this week. A free-to-download pre-print version of  the published article, ‘Bodies at Sea: Travelling to Australia in the age of sail’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 209-228 is available for download here.

Or if you have library access, visit Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016) where you will also find a series of excellent papers by Roland Wenzlhuemer, Martin Dusinberre, G. Balachandran, Johanna de Schmidt and Frances Steel as well as an incisive theoretical article by Dusinberre and Wenzlhuemer, all on the theme of being in transit at sea and the incompatibilities of global history.


Gustave Doré, The New Zealander 1872

In an academic world where we all need a tagline, I find myself hard to categorise. Writing the little blurbs for websites or talks is excruciating. British or imperial? International or Global? Cultural or social (or political)? Nineteenth or Twentieth century? And now, increasingly (and slightly surprisingly, even to me) the United States or the Sea? Since moving to Sydney I’ve ended up writing about Australian history too. What sort of historian am I?

At the heart of all my work is an interest in universities and the institutions and spaces of knowledge production, but embracing the label of ‘university historian’ leads pretty directly to eyes glazing over at dinner parties and almost certain career death.

This seemed a worry too, for the presenters who gave papers at a workshop on British History in the ‘Antipodes’ in May 2015. Despite working with British sources, almost all of them seemed reluctant to adopt the label ‘British historian’.

In my contribution to the special journal issue of History Australia (13:1) that grows out of the workshop, I try to think about this disavowal in the context of recent developments in both transnational history (and its global, international and new imperial iterations) and the continuing robust life of more insular national approaches.

Australia and Britain were (and are) made both by cross-border processes (such as the tendrils of capital, the routes of imperial and transnational migration, the regimes of land, labour, trade and consumption), and also by local efforts to create, resist and direct these forces.

As scholars we too are made by and in these dual processes. We are conditioned and enabled by thick networks of connection, and by variously resourced and located institutions. We work in the midst of specific currencies of legitimacy and we are fashioned by distinct intellectual and economic geographies that, in the case of the ‘Antipodes’, still reflect our particular connected history as part of the English-speaking former British empire that now buys us good access to the international universities, overseas students, archives, journals and funding opportunities that are so crucial to the contemporary (neo)liberal intellectual order.

In the article I suggest that our task as historians might be, not to disavow, but instead to claim these multiple labels (though I would say that wouldn’t I?)

It might be to situate our histories within the supply chains (of commerce, governance, labour, belief etc) that stretched across the globe, and also within the particular polities that sought to locate and contain these in various contexts.

These multiple geographies not only shaped the lives of our historical subjects, they also (if in a somewhat different guise) continue to shape our own.


Here is the free-to-download full text pre-print version of the article.  For the subscription version visit ‘Afterword: What was Britain? Where is its history?’ History Australia 13:1 (2016), 153–159.

The full issue is here. It includes pieces by James Vernon, Leigh Boucher, David Blaazer, Kate Fullager, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrew J. May, Tanya Evans, Charlotte Greenhalgh, and Shurlee Swain with a brilliant bonus meditation of a life in history by Wilf Prest.


University-aged students in Australia are missing from the electoral roll in large numbers.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has recently released data that suggests that 18% of 18-24 year olds are not registered to vote. The largest non-enrolled group is the youngest, with a staggering 48% of 18 year olds and nearly 24% of 19 year olds not enrolled.

This data on enrolment rates needs to be set alongside population data.

Young people are under-represented

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2015 there were 140,000 more people aged over 70 than there were aged 24 and under. But AEC statistics from March 2016 reveal there are 725,340 more grey-haired voters over 70 than there are youthful voters under 24.

What these statistics show is that young people in Australia are disproportionally under-represented on the electoral roll. They are not engaging in the most fundamental of all democratic rights: voting. In doing so they are reducing their electoral leverage at a time when generational issues should be high on the political agenda.

Why this matters

This matters for two reasons.

First, young people have a lot at stake when it comes to current political decisions.

In her recent book, Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young, Jennifer Rayner points out that today’s young Australians are the first generation since the Great Depression to be worse off than their parents.

When it comes to work, young people find it harder to get a foot in the door and harder to advance when they do. Rayner quotes ABS figures which reveal that the number of young people working in casualised employment has risen from 34% in 1992 to 50% in 2013. Over the same period wage growth for young people has dropped well behind that of older workers.

As Rayner shows, average incomes for people in their 20s have grown at less than half the rate of those people in their mid-50s. And with these older workers staying on in their jobs longer, the prospects of advancement are significantly curtailed as well. While this can mean flexibility for some, it more often means vulnerability, exploitation, and uncertainty.

Poorer work prospects make it doubly hard for young people to enter an increasingly unaffordable housing market. Especially given they are carrying another kind of debt, from which previous generations were exempt, and that is higher education loans.

Waiting longer to buy a first home, or not being able to afford one at all, has life long consequences. It makes harder the kind of risk taking necessary for entrepreneurship or starting a small business. And it either means being saddled with debt well into your 60s, or entering them without the financial investment that for many people home ownership represents.

This magnifies the problem fashioned by insecure work, of the generational disparity in the relative size of superannuation savings.

And then there is environmental policy – an issue in which young people have a real and long-term stake.

“Lopsided” society

Jessica Rayner talks about the emergence of a “lopsided Australia where young and old live differently”.

In part this generational inequality is a consequence of global demographic, technological and economic forces that have come together at the start of the 21st century.

But these are forces that too often are exacerbated rather than mitigated by policy measures. If young people are going to build a fairer future for themselves and coming generations, argues Rayner, they are going to have to get involved.

And this leads to the second reason that the under-representation of young people on the electoral roll is a problem.

If we want a strong and representative democracy we need young people to participate in it. We need them to believe their voice matters in the future of this country and we need that voice to be heard.

Our political institutions work better when we all care about them: their health is in the hands of those who will inherit them.

Crucial role of universities

Universities have a crucial role in building a participatory democracy. One of the ways they do this is by teaching students to engage in robust and thoughtful discussion.

Every day in the classroom, be it mathematics or anthropology, university lecturers foster respectful cultures of disagreement and impart tools of argument and evidence, that teach students to be informed participants in public debate.

Beyond the classroom, students put these skills into action. On the sports field, in the university bar, and in the myriad array of clubs and societies on campus, universities provide opportunities for student participation and leadership that they will carry throughout their lives.

This civic role is one of the reasons universities have long been valued as public institutions that encourage students to be active and engaged citizens.

There are, of course, a wide variety of ways that students enact this citizenship, and many views they express in the process. But one of the ways they participate needs to be via the most fundamental of democratic processes and that is our voting system.

We need our young people to have a voice in our formal democratic processes. Not only will current political decisions have long-term consequences for their lives, but our political institutions and our society will be stronger for their participation in it.

Must enrol by 23 May

Australians have until 23 May 2016 to enrol to vote in the 2016 election.

The AEC has made this process really easy with a simple online enrolment form. All that is needed is evidence of identity, such as a driver’s licence or Australian passport number, and a residential address.

University lecturers can help to ensure this happens.

Attending university is one of the factors causing young people drop off the electoral roll. When they move out of the family home for study or work, the AEC loses track of them, and without a shared culture of participation, it can be hard to get them back.

Appeal to lecturers

Ask your students if they are enrolled to vote. Tell them about the statistics at the start of this article, and get them to check their enrolment in class. Download the infographic to show at the start of your lectures.

In doing so you will be acting in the long tradition of the academic as public intellectual: a scholar who not only contributes their expertise to public debate, but also a scholar who fosters that debate through a commitment to encouraging active participation in its processes and institutions.

This article was published in The Conversation, 13 May, 2016