Professor Lyndall Ryan is a gentle and urbane historian who is "hopeless at the sight of blood" and doesn't care for violent movies. So how is it that she...

The Killing Field

15 May 2014

Professor Lyndall Ryan is a gentle and urbane historian who is "hopeless at the sight of blood" and doesn't care for violent movies. So how is it that she finds herself immersed in the notion of brutality?

Centre for the History of Violence members L to R: Professor Lyndall Ryan and Dr Michael Ondaatje (seated); Dr Mathew Lewis, Professor Phillip Dwyer, ARC Future Fellow Associate Professor Hans-Lukas Kieser, Dr Shigeru Sato and Dr Lisa Featherstone

Lyndall is a key player, along with colleague Professor Philip Dwyer, in the Centre for the History of Violence which was established three years ago as a result of the work the two and other colleagues - notably Professor Roger Markwick, the Head of School for Humanities and Social Science - were doing in their respective historical fields.

Philip, who has followed up his Australian National Biography Award-winning book, Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769-1799, with a second volume, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815, had been investigating the way Napoleon changed how wars were conducted, with bigger armies and more devastating weaponry.

Lyndall, meanwhile, had been focusing on the little-known Australian frontier wars as part of a research project on colonisation.

A mutual preoccupation with frontier massacres got them talking about long-term collaboration.

"I didn't know how to investigate massacres," Lyndall says. "The subject of frontier massacres in Australia seems to have been avoided."

And it seems Australia had not been alone in its ignorance. Lyndall says it took something like the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which claimed the lives of more than 7000 Bosnian Muslims, to awaken European scholars to the topic.

"Everyone was denying it but everyone knew that it happened," she says. "This new, appalling event got scholars thinking and researching on the topic of mass killings."

Talking to colleagues across the world, they realised massacres were part of the wider field of violence, and that the concept of violence had changed with time.

"It is a very interesting period at the moment," she notes, adding that violence against animals has become another big issue, triggered by the exposure of Australia's live animal exports to Indonesia on the ABC's Four Corners program in 2011.

In light of this, the Centre for the History of Violence is planning a project with the RSPCA to research the social history of live animal exports in Australia.

Lyndall was awarded an ARC Discovery Projects grant at the end of 2013 with Dr Jonathan Richards, from the University of Queensland, which will lead to the development of a digital map illustrating the frontier massacres across Australia that will be available online and will encourage further investigation. It builds on her book, Tasmanian Aborigines a history since 1803, published in 2012, which includes traditional maps that pinpoint frontier massacre sites.

Another collaborative research project just coming to fruition is titled Colonisation and Massacres 1780-1820, with Lyndall covering Australia and Oceania; Philip investigating the Napoleonic spread into Eastern Europe; Nigel Penn from the University of Cape Town focusing on South Africa; and Native American Professor Barbara Mann from the University of Toledo, Ohio, investigating the frontiers of Michigan and Ohio – then outside the boundaries of the new American republic.

Comparing and contrasting these four areas of investigation, the group expects to produce a book in the coming year.

"There are important differences and interesting similarities, it is a very exciting project," Lyndall says, adding that the remoteness of history helps soften the blow of what can be gruesome subject matter.

"The distance of the past gives you a sense that you can stand back and look at it. As historians, we have the luxury of working outside the heat of the moment, and it allows us to be sceptical, to look at things with a piercing eye.

"It's more like detective work and it's always very interesting to explore the context in which these incidents occurred. It is the past, and that helps, and once you've found a few clues, of course, you have to stay on the scent."

Find out more about the Centre for the History of Violence.

Find out more about research in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.