$20,000 award will help solve historical puzzle

Published 16 November 2009

firstfleetDr Jan Holcomb has won a $20,000 award to help her solve an historical puzzle: What prompted people to risk their lives and fortunes in sailing to the small, remote penal settlement of New South Wales to set up businesses in Sydney before 1840?

The Premier of NSW, the Hon. Nathan Rees MP, presented Dr Holcomb with the award – a History Fellowship – during a presentation dinner in Sydney late last month for the winners of this year’s NSW Premier’s History Awards.

Dr Holcomb’s two-year project follows on from the research she did for a PhD degree awarded to her in April this year by the University of New England. Her doctoral thesis, Opportunities and Risks in the Development of the NSW Shipping Industry, 1820-1850, involved research on early Sydney merchants.

“My curiosity was aroused because it appeared that a lot of ship masters changed their focus to become merchants,” she said. “I’ll be addressing a few unanswered questions about why people would come all the way to Australia to set themselves up in what would seem to have been a very uncertain market.”

“They often brought merchandise with them,” she continued, “and this in itself was incredibly risky because there was no real currency here. A lot of businesses failed – some several times – and if you became insolvent or bankrupt you risked gaol and the loss of all your possessions barring the clothes you were wearing.

“I believe that this willingness to take risks is arguably as important a manifestation of the Australian character as is ‘larrikinism’.”

Jan Holcomb graduated from UNE in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree (majoring in history), and later in life gained several postgraduate qualifications including, in 1991, a UNE Master of Letters degree with a thesis – under the supervision of the late Professor Sinnappah Arasaratnam – on recent Indonesian military history.

“My interest in Australia’s early maritime and mercantile history began when, on retiring in 2002 after a long career with the NSW Department of Community Services, I began researching my family history,” she said. “Among my early Australian ancestors were several master mariners. A painstaking search through early newspapers and other archival records proved inspirational – raising questions and issues that deserved further exploration.”

And so began the research that resulted in her PhD degree, and now the History Fellowship that will enable her to complete her book Early Merchant Families of Sydney. “The book will relate the stories of the merchant pioneers – examining their motivation, family and business networks, sources of capital, business strategies, and fortunes and failures,” she said. “In forging early links with Asia, the Americas and the Pacific region, they helped shape the pace and direction of British imperial and colonial policies.”

In choosing Dr Holcomb as the recipient of the History Fellowship, the judges said they were impressed with “the ambition and depth of the proposed research, addressing the crucially important development of private economic activity and enterprise in colonial New South Wales” – a subject that was “largely unexamined in recent historical research into the early colonial period”.

Jan Holcomb lives in Manilla with her husband Paul Holcomb, who graduated from UNE last month with a Bachelor of Health, Ageing and Community Services degree.

Clicking on the IMAGE displayed here reveals a photograph of the Premier, Nathan Rees, congratulating Dr Holcomb on winning the 2009 NSW History Fellowship.