Travel writing and the pluralising of history : a case study from New Australia, Paraguay

  • Ben Stubbs

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The academic discipline of history writing is currently experiencing an era of rethinking (Jenkins 2003,Ankersmit 2009,Partner 2009). The call to broaden the scope of academic history stems, in part, from the discipline’s past reluctance to endorse a wider range of contributions, in spite of the continuingly-felt pertinence of post-structuralist and ‘post post-modernist’ critiques (Jenkins 2009). As a strategy for considering possible ways forward for history writing, we can observe the rethinking of ethnography which has occurred over the last forty years in response to a not dissimilar dilemma. A new generation of ethnographers has successfully established a place for the contribution of more creative expressions within the discipline (Pratt 1992). One of the modes for this rethinking and refashioning of ethnography has come from travel writing, which uses subjective, immersive and narrative-based techniques (for examples of its uptake among ethnographers see Taussig 1986,Fichte 1996,Jackson 2012). The aim of this thesis is to test the counter-intuitive hypothesis that travel writing, conducted at the level of the scholarly PhD, might contribute to a renovated practice of history writing as well. Travel writing and history writing might seem discrete; but, in fact, many travel books, from guide books through to book-length, first person accounts, feature extensive treatments of the past as part and parcel of their descriptive project (e.g. Marshall 2000,Kremmer 2002, Dalrymple 2009). What is more, travel writing as history writing presents a unique perspective on history to the reader, offering an embedded and local point of view as an alternative to the grand narratives and their perspectives on the same history. In this it comes tantalisingly close to recent, celebrated attempts to write history ‘from below’ (Ginzburg 1980 and Darnton 1984). Furthermore, scholarly work is innately experiential. As Grafton has recently argued (1997), history writing requires two stories – the written history, on the one hand, and the footnotes or research, which detail for the reader how the writer arrived there, on the other (see, for a similar argument as to the importance of the historian’s proof of their right to know, Berkhofer 1997). I will argue that the best contemporary travel writing implicitly shores up its stories with a not dissimilar appeal to the author’s experientially-based truth claims. My thesis attempts to think through how such features can be brought to the fore. In the process it constructs a set of suggestions for how we might judge the sort of creative, non-fiction travel writing that comes closest to making a genuine contribution to knowledge, both in my chosen field of travel-based history writing, and more generally. My PhD portfolio also includes an example of such work, in the form of a book-length narrative of my travels to discover what was left of the New Australian Colony in Paraguay. New Australia was founded in 1893 by a group of utopian socialists fleeing labour unrest around Queensland in the pre-Federation years. One of the colony’s early citizens was the poet Mary Gilmore, who now features on the Australian ten-dollar note. Within a decade the colony had lost its rigid structure and many departed for Australia and elsewhere, though some remained, leading to the 2,000 descendants who still live as Australian-Paraguayans today. I spent six months in Paraguay engaged in field-work so as to produce a book that would work within the received genres of contemporary travel writing, but also stand as ethnohistory in its own right. The resulting manuscript was published as Ticket to Paradise: A Journey to Find the Australian Colony in Paraguay Among Nazis, Mennonites and Japanese Beekeepers (ABC Books: 2012). A revised version appears as the creative component of the thesis.
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPaul Magee (Supervisor) & Matthew Ricketson (Supervisor)

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