50 Treasures: Lectures on North Queensland History

Our sixth treasure is part of a keystone publication series produced over many years by the James Cook University History Department. From the North Queensland Collection comes the  Third Series of Lectures on North Queensland History which now completes the multi-volume digital set held in NQHeritage@JCU.

Dr. Claire Brennan answers the question 'Why is this significant?'

Lectures on North Queensland History. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
The five volumes of ‘Lectures on North Queensland History’ demonstrate the importance of history at James Cook University to the people of northern Queensland, and Australia. Published in 1974, 1975, 1978, 1984, and 1996, they were overseen by James Cook University Foundation Professor of History Brian Dalton. Dalton continued his involvement with the series after his retirement in 1989, and drafted his foreword to the fifth volume days before his sudden death. Throughout the series Dalton’s commitment to supporting the writing of other scholars is clear, and it is only in the fifth volume that he includes a chapter he authored; the series as a whole is devoted to promoting the work of his students and colleagues.

The series published original research undertaken by research students and staff associated with history at the University. The contents are an example of the way in which teaching and research enrich each other—the first volume emerged from an undergraduate subject on Australian history that sought to include the history of north Queensland in the national story. The work it contains builds on a tradition of regional history writing that had started during the 1960s and gathered pace during the 1970s; a process that has been recognised and analysed by Dr Lyndon Megarrity . In particular, Geoffrey Bolton’s survey of north Queensland history A Thousand Miles Away, first published in 1963, marked the start of a blossoming of histories written away from Australia’s metropolitan centres. While those centres still dominate the production of ‘Australian’ history, the work done at James Cook University (including that presented within this series) highlights the variation present within the history of this continent, and the importance of writing the history of northern Australia.

JCU Foundation Professor of History, Brian Dalton.  Source: Year of 1967 University College of Townsville.
Dalton’s foreword to Volume 3 is longer than those of the other volumes, and he uses it as an opportunity to reflect on the project of writing the history of our region. The themes he presents remain familiar. Working in northern Australia, scholars are still subject to the ‘tyranny of distance’ that he notes. Digitisation projects (including NQHeritage) are astounding in the resources they make available online, but digitisation of archival material concerning the north is generally not a high priority for state and national institutions whose digitisation efforts are directed by the politics of memory and the weight of population. The tyranny remains, but so does the truth of Dalton’s observation that ‘Geographical proximity has its advantages.’ The history of our region can best be written by those who have experience of it, who live within its environmental constraints, and who observe history’s on-going consequences.

A selection of books held in the North Queensland Collection published by the JCU History Department.
The history of the north is distinct and important. Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos are regular contributors to the volumes of this series, and in the same year the first volume was published their discussions with Eddie Koiki Mabo about north Queensland history proved instrumental in Mabo’s decision to pursue title to his land, and to change Australian law along the way. While Mabo sought justice through the courts, Reynolds and Loos continued to re-write Australian history from the north. Mabo appears in volume 5, in a chapter written by Loos reflecting on Mabo’s life, his contribution to James Cook University, his wide-ranging and successful activism, and the respect the two men had for each other. The distinctiveness of our region’s past makes the production and publication of local history a matter of national significance. The frontier arrived later in the north than in the south, and ideas about the tropics led to greater racial diversity here than in more southern regions. As Dalton wrote, ‘some accepted conclusions [about Australian history] need to be scrutinized in a regional context’.

The volumes of this series mark a commitment by James Cook University to the people of our region in the present, not just to their past. Research in Dalton’s history department was not produced to gather dust on a shelf. Instead, Dalton promoted publication by making the department itself a publisher. By publishing works within this series (and others), the history department of James Cook University kept the cost of its volumes low, and their local popularity and reach high. That commitment to publication also ensured that the voices of emerging scholars were heard. The series includes the work of honours students, PhD students, and tutors as well as staff. Many able scholars were first published courtesy of Dalton. His determination to make history accessible to residents of the north was a commitment to the emerging scholarship of north Queensland, and the work produced within this series demonstrates the importance of having a university located within our region, working for our region.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.  

Author Biography

Dr. Claire Brennan is a history lecturer at James Cook University, Townsville where she researches the environmental history of northern Australia. She is particularly interested in the history of hunting and the way in which animals are used to create connections between people and landscapes. At present she researches the history of crocodile hunting in northern Australia, although she is engaged in writing the history of northern Australia more broadly.