07 September 2007
Professor Dorothy Shineberg [1927–2004] was a legend among Pacific historians, described as “wise, humane and sagacious” and “an ornament to the discipline”. She wrote They Came for Sandalwood (1967), the pioneering and definitive account of the 19th century sandalwood trade in Melanesia, and in retirement completed her long project The People Trade, a sharply focused study of imported Pacific Island labourers in New Caledonia.
After graduating from Melbourne University she was recruited by Alf Conlon in 1948 to join the staff of ASOPA, where she taught Pacific History, hitherto an unknown discipline. Her subsequent teaching career spanned four decades mainly at ANU where she developed the first stand-alone university course in Pacific History.
They Came for Sandalwood is the work for which Dorothy Shineberg will be best remembered. It was original in presenting history in a way that incorporated Melanesian perceptions, while at the same time avoiding a romanticised view of Melanesian culture. It also set a standard for close, documentary research - not always easy in the investigation of the activities of nineteenth century Pacific traders.
To her lasting regret, Dr Shineberg was never appointed to a permanent research position at ANU. It was the tragedy of her professional life, a tremendous disappointment to her and a loss to scholarship. She was channelled instead into undergraduate teaching, which she did remarkably well. She would have been the first to admit that she was not a flamboyant or entertaining lecturer. But what was lacking in presentation was made up for in careful preparation. Her reputation as teacher was widely bruited by her students; and her Head of Department (Manning Clark) spoke for everyone with the observation that she ‘brought grace and wisdom to the teaching of Pacific history’. The self-reliance that her mother instilled carried over into her teaching: she expected her students to show initiative as well as enthusiasm, and took early retirement when they started asking for a bunch of photocopied articles as a substitute for their own research.
Dorothy Shineberg once said that she felt fortunate in having all her life known so many interesting people. She herself was intensely interesting and very good company, noted among other things for her robust sense of humour. There were other sides to her life besides being an academic historian, including an informed appreciation of classical music. Like many academics from Melbourne she was passionate about her football club (Collingwood). She was an equally ardent, and knowledgeable, follower of the Australian cricket team, although disliking the boorishness of some of the players. Not least were her concern for social justice, a product of her precarious upbringing, and her love for her family. She was described as a lioness—‘and no lioness,’ said her daughter Susan, ‘defended her cubs more fiercely’.
[Source: Obituary by Doug Munro, The Journal of Pacific Studies, vol 27 no 2, 2004]
Read Dorothy Shineberg's account of how she landed at ASOPA in the latest Mail, out today
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