Today I read an article by Nathan Hondros in the Mandurah Mail, entitled, ‘What’s the deal with Thomas Peel, and why the controversy over the name of our region?’
It was refreshing to see a story covering local history, and the article itself was entertaining, informative and unbiased. It was written in response to a recent push to change the name of the Peel region to the Bindjareb region. The article talks about Thomas Peel’s life, his character, his pivotal role in the settlement of Mandurah, and the Pinjarra Massacre. It is clear that Thomas Peel’s reputation has not improved over time.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Thomas Peel himself would make of this odd name-changing debacle, if he were still around to comment. So I decided to conduct an imaginary interview with the ghost of Thomas Peel.
Here it is.
(Disclaimer – I do not believe in ghosts, and I am not claiming to be able to communicate with the dead. Most of what follows is tongue-in-cheek, and is not intended to be taken seriously.)
"Thomas, what are your thoughts regarding this Mandurah Mail article?"
It was a well-written piece of historical fiction, and I was pleased to see my surname mentioned no less than thirty two times. However, my pride compels me to defend my reputation.
Had I lived in this modern era of electronic newspapers and pre-plucked swans, I might have developed a different sort of character. Alas, I did not. I lived in an era of harrowing journeys by sea to cruel, uncertain lands. I lived in an era of inherent inequality, rampant malnutrition, and impossible time stipulations added suddenly to land grants.
I arrived at the Swan Colony a mere six weeks late, to find my promised land had been given to another. I was allotted inferior land much further south.
If that were not disastrous enough, my shipments of food and supplies never arrived, leaving my settlers and I at a great disadvantage. Have you ever tried to live off feeble amounts of year-old flour, in an alien land, with hundreds of angry humans glaring at you over their sunburned noses?
"No, but last week I took my family to the beach for a picnic lunch. It felt suspiciously similar to what you just described."
Well, I can assure you, this period was no picnic. We had little food, no shelter, and few possessions. I accrued significant personal debt in order to procure food for myself and hundreds of settlers, and what thanks did I get? A gunshot wound to the hand, ingrates trying to sue me for the wages I could no longer afford to pay, and a whole lot of deserters. All the while, I never complained. I simply did what I could to make the most of my miserable situation.
"Were you blamed for the unlucky occurrences that befell you and your settlers?"
Of course I was blamed. It was far easier for the settlers to blame me for our bad luck, than it was for them to take personal responsibility for exercising their own free will in taking a risk. I was not a popular man, but one of strict principles and strong determination. It is true that I had a short temper, and little tolerance for ignorance, but one can only suffer through so much stupidity.
I played a major role in creating the town you now call home. Does it matter whether or not I was personally likeable? My disposition and actions were understandable and justifiable, in my opinion.
"Surely you can't excuse the Pinjarra Massacre as being justifiable?"
Of course not. History will forever punish me for that terrible day. But what fickle history neglects to mention is the expedition Septimus Roe and I led, prior to the massacre, with the intention of negotiating peace. Obviously, we failed.
It was Stirling who gave the orders to end the attacks "once and for all".
"Captain James Stirling actually said that?"
Yes, and it's on Wikipedia, so it must be true. James was more instrumental in the Pinjarra Massacre than I was, yet I haven't heard a word about renaming the City of Stirling.
"Funnily enough, neither have I. Was Stirling more popular than you, by any chance?"
Yes, but then, I'm pretty sure measles was more popular than me, too.
The events of October 28th, 1934, have placed a dreadful pockmark on the face of our heritage. But the massacre happened, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that now.
One hundred and eighty three years ago, such actions were viewed as reasonable, if not necessary, retaliation to what we perceived as a threat to our people.
It is easy to view the past through a modern filter, and judge antiquated actions harshly. Fear breeds violence, and in my time, we did not understand cultural differences in the same way you do in modern times.
One hundred and eighty three years from now, your own actions may seem equally as questionable to whatever strange society awaits us in the future.
"That is a good point, but don't you think it would be better to remove your name from council buildings, street signs, and football clubs, so our modern over-sensitivity to political correctness can be appropriately catered to?"
Of course not. In fact, my name should be used more often. I was hoping the Forum redevelopment would include changing the name of Mandurah Forum to 'The Thomas Peel Consumer Collective'. Perhaps the new Mayor might consider changing his name to Thomas Peel? Also, why is there only one Peel Street?
If Mandurah Mail can write the word 'Peel' thirty two times in an article about not using the word ‘Peel’, surely we can counteract this name-changing folly by passing a law which would require my name, Thomas Peel, to be displayed prominently on every building in the region, in bold red lettering.
"Wouldn't that offend people who would prefer to complain about history, rather than learn from it?"
Definitely. However, perceived offence does not cancel out our human need for seeking truth, and preserving history. If I cared to bend to the whimsy of political correctness, I might have made more friends in my lifetime. But I didn't care for it then, and I don't care for it now.
I am truly sorry for the death and suffering endured by the Bindjareb people, just as I am sure they have compassion for the suffering of the early settlers of the Swan Colony.
I fail to see how renaming a region will ease the pain of a tragedy that occurred almost two hundred years ago. If anything, this action would dilute public awareness of our region's heritage. What is the point of recording history, if we do not strive to remember (and therefore learn from) the mistakes of those who have lived before us?
My life was not an existence of ease or comfort. My contributions to the town you take for granted caused me considerable hardship, financial ruin, and personal pain. Have you ever been to the Mandurah Community Museum and seen my old chair? Does it look like a comfortable chair?
"It does not look like a comfortable chair."
It was not a comfortable chair, but that doesn't mean we should stop calling it a chair. Life is not supposed to be comfortable. You can't deny the very existence of something just because some people might experience discomfort.
"Like your name, for example?"
Yes, like my name. Like the name of this region. Like the name of your local football club.
Let the world remember me for the stubborn, proud, town-founder I was. It's up to you whether you perceive me as a murderous money-grubber, or as a flawed human being, with determination, dedication, and a grumpy disposition. For better or worse, I, Thomas Peel, have made my mark upon this world.
There is no need to polarise history. There are no heroes or villains. Only people, doing the best they can within their unique limitations and paradigms.
Call a chair a chair, and be done with this nonsense.