Woman Shineberg, Dorothy Lois (1927 - 2004)

February 1927
Hampton, Victoria, Australia
19 August 2004
Alternative Names
  • Muro (Maiden)

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Dorothy Shineberg was a leader in the history profession, who made a pioneering contribution to Pacific history, especially Melanesian history and the history of imported Pacific Island labourers in New Caledonia.

Born in February 1927, Shineberg was the second youngest of five daughters in a working-class family in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Hampton. Her father, Alex Thomas Munro, died in 1936 when Shineberg was a child, leaving his widow, Ella Jessamine née Avenell (1893-1969), to raise their daughters alone. Her two eldest sisters were sent out to work in order to finance the education of their three younger siblings. Shineberg attended the selective-entry state school Macrobertson Girls' High School in South Melbourne and helped finance her high-school education by winning scholarships awarded by the Freemasons and the Rechabites. It was during her final year at MacRobertson Girls' High School that Shineberg discovered the history, classical music and left-wing politics that would become her life-long passions.

Shineberg won a scholarship to attend the University of Melbourne, studying at the History Department during its heyday under Professor Max Crawford. After graduating with First-Class Honours in 1946 she tutored in the Department for a year. In late 1947 Shineberg saw an advertisement for a Tutorship in Colonial History at Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney. The ASOPA trained field staff, magistrates, patrol officers etc. to administer what is now Papua New Guinea for the return to civil administration after the Second World War. Seeing an opportunity to leave Melbourne, where she had spent her entire life, Shineberg applied for the position. She later recalled her interview with Alf Conlon, 'He asked me what I knew about Pacific history. I said: "What's Pacific history?"' (The Journal of Pacific Studies 20 (1996): 1). Taking up the appointment at the tender age of just twenty-one, Shineberg taught colonial history to trainee patrol officers for two and a half years, working alongside anthropologists Camilla Wedgwood, Ian Hogbin and Kenneth Read, lawyers Hal Wootten and John Kerr and poet James Phillip McAuley.

In 1950 Shineberg was the first Australian woman to win a prestigious Fulbright Travelling Scholarship, taking up a Teaching Fellowship to Smith College, Massachusetts, in August 1950. This was an unusual step at a time when it was customary for Melbourne graduates was to proceed to Oxford or Cambridge to undertake graduate work. At Smith College, Shineberg worked with Massimo (Max) Salvadori, a Italian radical liberal whose universalist values had a lasting impression on what she taught and wrote about Pacific history.

Returning to the University Melbourne after two years in the United States with her unfashionable American MA, she found that 'nobody even asked me what I had done in America-it was too embarrassing to talk about' (The Journal of Pacific Studies 20 (1996): 6). However, the History Department was looking for people to teach very specialised fields of history to small groups of fourth year Honours students, assisting them to do their own research papers and, in 1953, Kathleen Fitzpatrick asked Shineberg to run a fourth-year Honours course on Pacific history, the first of its kind in Australia. Her students included Greg Dening and Niel Gunson, who themselves would become leading scholars in the history and anthropology of the South Pacific. Shineberg ran the course for three years, and was then joined by Jamie Mackie, who taught the Asian part, while Shineberg concentrated on the Pacific Islands.

In 1953 she married fellow Pacific historian Barry Shineberg and left the Department to have a baby at the beginning of 1956. At that time expectant mothers had no choice but to resign. Pacific history was not taught in the History Department again until 1974 when Greg Dening returned, taking up the Max Crawford Professorship of History. Shineberg had two children, Susan and Michael, and was out of academia for five years. Motherhood was a significant bar to the resumption of her academic career. She was offered a part-time tutorship in European history at the University of Melbourne but no prospect of a full-time job. John La Nauze, then Head of Department, told her, 'I would never appoint a woman when I could get a man' (The Journal of Pacific Studies 20 (1996): 8). La Nauze did, however, provide support for her research scholarship application, since he thought she could do a lot of work at home without interfering too much with her duties as wife and mother. Awarded a research scholarship Shineberg began her PhD under the supervision of La Nauze in 1962, researching early cultural contacts in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Initially she focused on missionaries, but once she realised that in most places they had been preceded by sandalwood traders, she switched her inquiry to the sandalwood trade in the wider southwest Pacific, gaining her doctorate from Melbourne University in 1965.

Shineberg developed contacts in the growing network of scholars working on Pacific history, including JW (Jim) Davidson, Foundation Professor of Pacific History at the Australian National University in Canberra. Her doctoral work also prompted correspondence with Harry Maude who had joined the ANU Pacific History Department in 1957. In 1964 Shineberg visited the ANU as a Research Fellow Department of Pacific History, revising her PhD thesis for publication as They came for sandalwood: a study of the sandalwood trade in the south-west Pacific, 1830-1865. Published in 1967, the book became a seminal work in the development of Pacific Islands historiography. Incorporating Melanesian perceptions, it set the standard for close, documentary research. Shineberg affirmed Islander agency and refused to objectify Islanders as romantic but supine victims of the 'fatal impact' of outside encounters. In 1968 she was appointed Senior Research Fellow, preparing a scholarly edition of Andrew Cheyne's narrative of his trading voyages in Island Melanesia and Micronesia in the early 1840s, published in 1971.

One of Shineberg's great regrets was that she was not appointed to a research-only position at ANU. She resumed teaching while she was still a Research Fellow, running a Pacific history course for Honours history students from what was then the ANU School of General Studies. Her later energies were channelled into teaching, transferring in the early 1970s to take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer (later Reader) in the Department of History in the School of General Studies, later the Faculties. She had a major impact on her students through her tutorials, one-on-one sessions with her students and her postgraduate supervision. Manning Clark, Head of her Department, observed that Shineberg: 'brought grace and wisdom to the teaching of Pacific history' (The Journal of Pacific Studies 27 no.2 (2004): 278). Utilising the marvellous manuscript material that had been collected by the 1960s under the auspices of the Research School, for her undergraduate teaching, Shineberg assigned her students the task of researching a particular Pacific Island society intensively. Each student studied a different place, with the idea that one pooled one's special knowledge, in tutorials, in a discussion of a particular theme. Students found their research immensely rewarding. As undergraduates, they could become the world authority on the evolution of a particular small society. Some had their papers published, while others are still having Honours theses quoted in scholarly footnotes. Her upbringing had instilled self-reliance and she expected the same from her own students. Shineberg observed a change in her students in the mid 1980s. She recalled that some students who found that they could get through other courses by studying one or two text books began to complain that they couldn't do the same in Pacific history. But it was only when students asked her to issue a bunch of photocopied articles to each of them so that they did not have to go to the library that she took early retirement from teaching in 1988.

A few years after her retirement, her newfound freedom to research and write was curtailed by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. She had focused her research on French activities in the western Pacific, particularly the labour trade from the New Hebrides to New Caledonia, which provided the subject matter for her final publication, The people trade: Pacific Island laborers and New Caledonia, 1865-1930, in 1999.

Shineberg served on the editorial board of the Journal of Pacific History from its inception in 1966 until 1987 was co-editor from 1987 until 1990. She was honoured with life membership of the Pacific History Association in 1998. Diagnosed with cancer in 2002 she died on 19 August 2004.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Douglas, Bronwen, 'Dorothy Shineberg: Pioneer Pacific Scholar, Teacher, Friend', Journal of Pacific History, vol. 40, no. 3, 2005, pp. 353 - 356. Details
  • Munro, Doug, 'Wise, humane and sagacious: a tribute to Dorothy Shineberg (1927 - 2004)', The Journal of Pacific Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, 2004, pp. 277 - 282. Details
  • Shineberg, Dorothy, 'Reflections: The Early Years of Pacific History', The Journal of Pacific Studies, vol. 20, 1996, pp. 1 - 16. Details

See also