© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
According to Wikipedia, 'History … is the study of the past. Events occurring before the invention of writing systems are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Historians place the past in context using historical sources such as written documents, oral accounts, ecological markers, and material objects including art and artifacts.'
Some time ago, I was looking at all the books on my shelves, many of which hadn't been opened in years despite having survived several moves (including a trip across the Pacific in a container), and I came across one called, "Australia since 1606." I cast my mind back to the 1960s when I first had social studies in school, and I remembered that the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, not too many years after Captain James Cook "discovered" Australia.
[It wasn't until many years later that I discovered the link between American independence and the settlement of Australia. Also, from Wikipedia, "Convicts were originally transported to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, but after the American War of Independence ended in 1783, the newly formed United States refused to accept further convicts. On 6 December 1785, Orders in Council were issued in London for the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales, on land claimed for Britain by explorer James Cook in his first voyage to the Pacific in 1770."]
I remembered learning about the Dutch explorers (especially Dirk Hartog and Abel Tasman); after all, Australia used to be called New Holland! However, as I got into that book, I found that the Spanish had also sighted the northeast tip, something I'd never heard about before. And these folks were exploring the general area well before 1770. However, they thought the land was quite inhospitable and they made no claim to it.
When I got to the chapter covering the settlement of my home state, South Australia, I came across a reference to Encounter Bay, a place I had visited on several occasions. But how did it get its name? Who encountered whom and why might anyone care? Captain Matthew Flinders (an English navigator and cartographer) encountered one Nicolas Baudin (a French explorer, cartographer, naturalist and hydrographer). They met peacefully in April of 1802 even though they thought their countries were at war back home. [Unbeknown to them, a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier.] So now the French were in the picture, something else I don't recall having learned in school.
After 25 years in Australia, I've now lived 43 years in the US, almost all of that in the state of Virginia, the oldest of the US states having been formed in 1607 (vs. South Australia in 1836).
In this essay, I'll talk about my early exposure to the subject of history, I'll mention some of the historically significant places I've visited, and I'll mention how history actually can come alive when you are standing in the place where it happened!
My Early Exposure to History
Let's begin with social studies in elementary (AU: primary) school. I was one of 28 students in a 1-teacher country school, with seven grades being taught in parallel, by the same teacher! I expect we barely got the basics. Our entire reference library was probably no more than 50 books, one of which was a world atlas, lots of which was colored pink to indicate the far-flung British Empire.
In high school, I had history classes for four years, with emphasis on the British Commonwealth. [Of course, now that I live in the US, not surprisingly, I see the emphasis here is US- and state-based.] From my report card, Year 8: Terms 1, 2, and 3 – 63%, 52%, and 53%, respectively; Year 9: 57%, 56%, 45%; Year 10: 74%, 48%, passed the EOY state-wide exam; Year 11: 57%, 49%, failed the EOY state-wide exam; Year 12: no history; YES! And none in university/college. (Hey, I was a math/science nerd!)
Let me make this perfectly clear: I did not like history! The materials were boring: no color, no slides, no films, and no relevance. It was all about the regurgitation of dates for tests, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that learning history was punishment! I did, however, have a small world atlas, and to this day, I love maps and various aspects of geography, and I've even come to embrace at least some history.
In a fit of madness, in Year 11, I took Modern History, which covered South East Asia, Australia's own backyard. We learned about China and Vietnam. Now this was in 1968, and Australia was a significant player in the Vietnam War, and Australia had conscription at age 20.
By the way, being raised in the British Commonwealth, for us World War II started in September 1939, whereas for the Americans, it was December 1941.
Outside of school, I was exposed to a few historical things:
- One of the main immigrant groups (including my ancestors) to settle my home state were German-speaking Lutherans from Prussia. They started arriving in the 1840s. [Even though my parents were 4th-generation Australians, they spoke only German until they started school. My maternal grandparents' first language was actually Wendish/Sorbish.]
- When my parents were children, their families farmed with horse-drawn machinery, and I well remember riding in a horse-drawn cart with my maternal grandfather, repairing fences on his farm.
- My region had several Historical Villages and restored paddle-wheeler boats as tourist attractions.
- Once during my school years, I visited the South Australian Museum in the state capital.
- At the end of Year 11, I travelled to Alice Springs in Central Australia where I visited the old Telegraph Station and the Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission where my sister lived.
- I visited Uluru (formerly Ayer's Rock), a huge world-renowned sandstone rock formation in central Australia that is sacred to the local Aboriginal people.
My First Trip Abroad
During my 25 years Down Under, I visited only a few areas of my state and I had few short trips to two neighboring states. My first big travel adventure involved five weeks in Southeast Asia and Western Europe on my way to living in the US. Here are some of the history-related activities from that trip, all of which involved visiting places with a recorded history that was far older than the almost-200 years I was used to:
- Hong Kong: This was my first exposure to a non-Western society and my first ever international destination. It surely was exciting. (According to Wikipedia, "Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the Qing Empire ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1842."
- Singapore: I took a cable car to Sentosa Island to see the military fortress and WWII Allied surrender memorial.
- Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, and Penang. In Penang, I had my first experience of being woken by a very loud public-address system for early morning prayers at a mosque nearby.
- Thailand: Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, and Pattaya. Kanchanaburi featured in the construction of the infamous Burma Railway, and was the location at which the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was filmed.
- India: In Bombay (now Mumbai) I encountered my first slums and deformed beggars. Initially, I had visions of touring much of the country by train, but I stayed only 24 hours. The experience was quite a shock, and I couldn't leave fast enough!
- Italy: After seeing many and huge sitting, standing, and reclining Buddhas through Southeast Asia, in Rome, I progressed to the 7-hour walking tour of the Vatican City museums, which I completed in an hour, Philistine that I am! I also dropped by the Coliseum and Circus Maximus.
- Switzerland: In Geneva, I stumbled across an interesting museum of armor, pikes, and crossbows.
- France: I was accidentally in Paris during Bastille Day, and I made the usual tourist walk along the Seine.
- England: In London, I checked out the Houses of Parliament and watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
The Very Old Days
- After 10 days in the Amazon rainforest of northeastern Peru, my first foray into an old culture was to Cuzco and Machu Pichu, Peru, the heart of the Incan civilization. Once the afternoon train departed with the day-trippers, I was one of only 100 overnight tourists on-site, and I lay on the grassed terraces listening to the roaring river beneath the clouds below me, thinking about life there during the city's heyday.
- While Stonehenge looks impressive in photos, I had the opportunity of walking among, and touching, the great stones. [On my second visit, the stones had been roped off and we looked from a distance.] It's hard to imagine that 150 years ago, one could rent a hammer from a local blacksmith and break off a souvenir piece to take home, and farmers crushed some of the huge lintels for gravel.
- On a trip through Mexico City and points east, I stopped off at the great earthen pyramid near Puebla. Much later, on a trip to Guatemala, I spent several days at the Mayan Temple city of Tikal. Finally, I visited the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. While at each, I thought a great deal about their builder's knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
- The reason I went to Jordan was to spend several days at the 2,000-year-old Nabatean city of Petra. [By the way, Jordan's capital, Amman, was named Philadelphia during its Greek and Roman periods.] Once I got in-country, I discovered a delightful bonus, the Roman city of Jerash, where tourists could ride in a horse-drawn chariot driven by a centurion!
- My first trip to Beijing, China, was in early winter, and it was cooold! However, I braved the elements and went to see, and walk on, a section of the Great Wall. There were no labor unions back in those days!
The Good Old Days
- I was very impressed by the castle in Heidelberg, Germany, which had already been a ruin for 400 years.
- Places worth visiting when in London, England: Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London, and Greenwich (where one can straddle the Prime Meridian).
- The Protestant Reformation Wall in Geneva.
- Classic Italy: Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Venice, and a walk around the ruins of Pompei.
- The Adriatic coast of Croatia, including the fabulous walled city of Dubrovnik with a sobering day trip to Mostar, Bosnia, and a walk around Diocletian's Palace in Split.
- The Viking ship museum in Roskilde, Denmark.
- The Forbidden City in Beijing.
- The temples in Kyoto, Japan, and the great bronze statue of Buddha near Kamakura.
I've spent quality time in the following European countries and cities, all of which have plenty of historical sites:
- Berlin, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, all in Germany
- Hanseatic League states: Lubeck, Rostock, and Bremen in Germany, and Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia
- Denmark and Norway
- Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam
- St. Petersburg, Russia
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Vienna and Salzburg, Austria
- Bratislava, Slovakia
- Budapest, Hungary
Here are some historical highlights I've visited in Canada and the US:
- Dover Castle, England, is impressive. Its miles of underground tunnels are still mostly off-limits. It's the place from which the Dunkirk evacuation of WWII was managed.
- In Brussels, Belgium, I spent time at the Waterloo battlefield.
- While in Helsinki, Finland, I visited the island of Suomenlinna, home to an impressive naval dry dock and fortress. There, in a museum, I learned about the Winter War of 1939–1940 against the Soviet Union.
- The 1066 Battle of Hastings actually took place in Battle, some miles inland. The battlefield has never been developed. It was interesting to walk that field with an audio wand that allowed me to listen to a reenactment from the point of view of the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, and someone in King Harold's medical corps. On a separate trip, I visited the York battlefield area where Harold defeated his half-brother just days before having to march all the way to Hastings to face William of Normandy.
- If you have a spare half day in London, I highly recommend the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum.
- It was a sobering experience to visit the US War Cemeteries in Luxembourg (General Patton); the Netherlands; and in Normandy, France.
- I've been to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, three times; frankly, once is enough.
- On a walk through the lovely town of Caen, France, I tried to imagine what it was like in the days immediately following the D-Day landing in WWII.
- After WWI, the French started—but never completed—the Maginot Line, a defense against future attacks by Germany. I toured some of the tunnels near Alsace.
- Peenemunde on the German island of Usedom was the place where the V1 and V2 flying bombs were built and tested. I've visited it twice.
- On a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, I was most interested to see that people who had survived the atomic bomb blast there received free admission to the museum. Some benefit, huh? My young son was especially taken with a wristwatch from a victim, which showed the exact time of the blast, when the watch stopped working.
- In Ireland, I walked around the field from the Battle of the Boyne (1690).
- Part of a "social" event during a conference in Berlin, Germany, involved a tour of a WWII bunker.
- While riding a bike in rural Germany with two German friends, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a small village church. As I walked around the cemetery, I saw a section for local men who'd died in WWI and WWII. I immediately thought of similar graveyards back in Australia, and I quickly realized that people were conscripted on both sides.
- My hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, almost bragged about having had the most bomb threats during The Troubles!
Some Odds and Ends
- While touring the Adriatic Coast of Croatia, I visited the island where long-time Jugoslav President, Tito, lived and met with leaders from the non-aligned countries. It's now Brijuni National Park.
- A plaque marks the place on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream speech."
- On a week's holiday in County Kent, England, I stopped off in Sandwich and visited the Earl's place. I also visited Botany Bay the namesake of the place were the first settlers landed in Australia. [The Earl of Sandwich was a sponsor of Caption James Cook, who named the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) after him.]
- The highlight of Pula, Croatia, is a beautifully preserved Roman Coliseum.
- I once spend a few hours in Lutherstadt Wittenberg where Martin Luther famously nailed his theses on the church door.
- If you are looking for a spectacular castle that is not at all drafty, go visit the Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein, which Walt Disney reportedly used as the model for the centerpiece of his Magic Kingdom. (King Ludwig's palace Linderhof ain't half bad either!)
- I've had the pleasure of visiting more than a few areas over which the Habsburgs ruled.
- While in Bratislava, Slovakia, I saw a memorial to all the people killed trying to escape from behind the Iron Curtain by swimming across the Danube River to Austria (near Vienna).
- While in Berlin, I went in search of The Empty Library, "a Memorial in memory of … the Nazi book burning that took place in the Bebelplatz in Berlin, Germany on May 10, 1933. The memorial is set into the cobblestones of the plaza and contains a collection of empty subterranean bookcases." As a non-recovering bookaholic, it was stunning!
- The highlight of my personal time in Stockholm, Sweden, was a visit to the Vasa Museum, which houses the warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.
- In Denmark, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the home/museum of Hans Christian Anderson.
- Lapland, Finland, was definitely worth the visit, although the vodka the reindeer herder gave me to drink from a traditional wooden mug surely was "fire water!"
- On a day trip from Reykjavík, Iceland, I visited the site of the Althing, the oldest parliament.
- Port Arthur the infamous convict settlement (in the Australian state of Tasmania), is definitely worth a visit. (Separately, in 1996, it was the scene of a tourist massacre by a deranged gunman.)
- For years, I've been saying, "History is nothing but one thing after another," something I'd picked up over many years of reading. It seems that around 1909, various US magazines and newspapers contained text such as, "Life: One damn thing after another," "life is just one darn thing after another," and later "History is just one damn fact after another."
- A number of people (including George Santayana and Winston Churchill) are credited with saying something like, "Those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes."
- If you want a quick overview of (tongue-in-cheek) history, watch Mel Brooks' movie "History of the World: Part I." In the same vein, I also recommend Monty Pythons "Life of Brian."