Rough World Historical Thoughts on Castle Larnach

Castle Larnach, Dunedin, NZ.

Castle Larnach, Dunedin, NZ.

There are two items to blog about today. The first is the short record as to what we did yesterday, and the second is what is on the itinerary for today. They blend together, as life does, and I’ll try to make sense out of that below. Of the former:

Yesterday morning Matthew, Molly and I walked a couple blocks to the center of downtown Dunedin, to what I’ve been calling the undisputed octagon (because the city center was laid out like an octagon; not because it has any association with Ultimate Fighting). I learned quickly to watch for the little green man, an indicator that lets pedestrians know when it is a guarded time to cross the street. We also found a grand little breakfast shop. One contrast between NZ and ‘merica is that restaurants and cafes are, generally, a bit more spendy than the States. But this is offset by the reality that NZ servers are paid a greater wage than State-side servers, and this also means that when in NZ one is not expected to tip.

Also, the breakfast was delicious. Matt had French toast and Molly and I split a breakfast of egg, toast, bacon and sausage. It was a very traditional breakfast, at least if one grows up on the northern Great Plains of North America. In many ways NZ is like a parallel universe to the English-speaking Atlantic World, which in turn gives a person pause as to the influence the 18th– and 19th– century Great British world had on the globe. This is going to be a point of conversation for the second item today, which is the Writing Histories of Empire and Colonialism, this put on at St. Margaret’s College at the University of Otago, Dunedin.

Castle Larnach stairwell, from the top floor looking down.

Castle Larnach stairwell, from the top floor looking down.

One of the aims of this history workshop is to bat around and consider ideas about how to write solid global history. One of the potential problems with writing world history is that one is dealing with a large topic, and there is always a danger of saying nothing in an attempt to say everything. So this is why we don’t do that. Instead, a different way to go about it, at least as I’m sitting here and typing, is to 1) work in topics of 3s and 4s; 2) give the reader a personal element to fixate on; and 3) carry a theme/thesis that runs through the entire historical essay or monograph — this, arguably, can be a model for any writer’s workshop.

So to return to the first blogging topic for today: I’m thinking a bit about yesterday afternoon, when we all visited, had high tea, and took an afternoon stroll at and of Castle Larnach, a late-19th century industrial Victorian “home.” While wandering through this castle, I thought about simultaneously how great a view one had from the top of the castle tower and about the excessive absurdity of this kind of built la-la land. I say la-la land because castles, in their original utilitarian form, were built as defensive positions, often in an attempt to protect the feudal lord and local populace when mean outsiders wanted to be mean to the said lord, baron and locals.

In the case of Castle Larnach, this banker and politician made a ton of money off the New Zealand and Australian gold fields, and then decided to conceive of himself as some kind of varietal noble. It reminds me of super late-19th century castles in America, such as the James J. Hill home in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is these sorts of industrial wealth concentrations that, after the turn of the 19th century, Progressive Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt thundered against, or sought to break up. (Out of this period in world history, we get self-validating, hyper-dodgy theses that the über-rich came up with, such as Social Darwinism and the Social Gospel — we’re rich because either nature or God made us rich). The notion here, though, is to consider how or if a world historical theme is reflected on the local level. Then, in theory, readers might think of their own regional histories as being both local and global.

Fern, the exhausted and super friendly castle dog at Castle Larnach. Nothing gets by Fern. Not that she cares, though.

Fern, the exhausted and super friendly castle dog at Castle Larnach. Nothing gets by Fern. Not that she cares, though.

Another point to consider is that the James J. Hill home, and this Scottish castle in Dunedin, could not be sustained for any length of time, at least not by a singular family. Today they have turned into public historical enclaves, administered by private or public entities, and the public has access to them in ways that they wouldn’t have in their original historic context.

Anyhow, and moving along, I’m excited to get after this first day’s seminar/workshop. All of the world history workshop attendees are required to read three different essays which, of course, I did on the flight over. The readings include Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (2011), and Tony Ballantyne, “On Place, Space and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand” in the New Zealand Journal of History, 45, 1 (2011). But enough about all this. It’s almost 8:00AM Dunedin time, and we need to track down this thing in Australia and NZ called breakkie.


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