Looking at Darwin with new eyes

Media release: Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Darwin historian Dr Mickey Dewar has shed new light on the city's post-war history, with a research grant from the National Archives of Australia.

'Many historians have traditionally assumed there is a shallow sense of community memory in Darwin,' said Dr Dewar. 'This is because the city has been evacuated so many times and also has a large transient population, up to 60 per cent in some areas.'

'Instead of my research supporting this assumption, I was surprised to discover a thread of cultural continuity in Darwin, a persistent survival. The people who returned after the war formed and still form the nucleus of the town. They strongly remember the 1950s as multicultural when everyone was eating garlic and chilli in Darwin long before the rest of Australia.'

Dr Dewar was granted the $15,000 Frederick Watson Fellowship by the National Archives in 2007 and spent the past year researching the development of Darwin after its wartime evacuation.

'Darwin has been totally destroyed four times, by cyclones in 1897, 1937 and 1974, and by Japanese bombs in 1942 and 43,' she said. 'The resulting destruction and loss of life meant everyone was evacuated and sent south.'

'When people returned home after the war, there was no housing for them. Everyone, white and “coloured”, had to live in the remains of old military camps, under terrible conditions. Typhoid broke out in some areas.'

In the camps, everyone felt a similar sense of deprivation and, as a result, formed various progress associations to fight for better conditions. They included the Housewives' Association, founded by married women who were forced to live in shacks and shanties, and also the Half-Castes Association, set up by Aboriginal people, many of whom had served during World War II but returned to face discrimination.

'People wanted better representation and there was a sense of agitation for political change. I wanted to find out where it was coming from and I discovered it resulted from the shared experience of disadvantage,' said Dr Dewar.

'The names of many people in the camps now survive in prominent Darwin business families. It is heartening to find this surprising thread of cultural continuity.'

Dr Dewar is giving a public talk on her findings at the National Archives in Canberra on Tuesday 28 October at 12.30am. Those wishing to attend are asked to book on events@naa.gov.au.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
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