Woman Clendinnen, Inga


Written by Susan Foley and Charles Sowerwine, The University of Melbourne

Inga Jewell was born at Geelong in 1934. Her mother Catherine Jewell (née Barlow) was a homemaker. Her father, Thomas William Jewell, owned a small cabinet-making workshop where he worked alongside a handful of employees. He was later active in the local RSL before becoming a Geelong City Councillor.

Inga Jewell studied history at the University of Melbourne, receiving her B.A. Hons in 1955 and her MA in 1975. On 1 June 1955, she married the philosopher Frederick John Clendinnen. They had two children. Inga Clendinnen worked as a Tutor, then Senior Tutor, in the University of Melbourne School of History from 1956 until 1965 and again in 1968. In 1969 she was named a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University. In this role, she quickly demonstrated leadership as a teacher at the new university (founded in 1967) and then as a scholar of Aztec society. With Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac and Donna Merwick, she became a leader of what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously baptised as the 'Melbourne Group'. In 1982, she began a series of pioneering studies, two of which appeared in Past and Present: 'Disciplining the Indians: Franciscan Ideology and Missionary Violence in Sixteenth-Century Yucatan' and 'The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society'. This period of creativity culminated in two books which quickly became classics: Ambivalent conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 (1987), which received the 1988 Herbert Eugene Bolton Memorial Prize (USA) in 1988, the Spanish-American Quincentennial Prize, and which the American Historical Review saluted as 'a splendid book by a gifted historian ... a remarkably powerful and compelling book'; and Aztecs: an interpretation (1991, 1993), demonstrating for the first time the penetration of human sacrifice deep into Aztec society. Clendinnen's article, '"Fierce and unnatural cruelty:" Cortés and the conquest of Mexico' (Representations 1991), received the prize of the American Society for Ethno-History.

The path-breaking nature of Clendinnen's work was widely recognised by a number of prestigious appointments: Fellow of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Research, Princeton University, 1983-84; Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 1987; and Arthur H. Aiton Memorial Lecturer, University of Michigan, 1987. Clendinnen was awarded a D.Litt by La Trobe University and 1991 and was named a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1992. She was promoted Reader in History at La Trobe in 1989. When ill health forced her to resign in 1991; she was named 'Emeritus Scholar'.

She abandoned intensive research to write as an essayist, showing leadership in several new domains. Reading the Holocaust (1999) set forth a new thesis on the holocaust by approaching the chain of assassination from an anthropological perspective: beyond the SS, Clendinnen took account of the role of Sondercommandos and of the prisoners forced to maintain the camp, as well as the complexity of relations between the prisoners and the various hierarchies. The book received the National Jewish Book Award (USA). There followed Tiger's eye: a memoir (Australia 2000, UK 2001) a series of autobiographical essays on illness and death. Her Quarterly Essay, The history question: who owns the past? (2006), has become a major text used in the study of history.

Finally, giving the ABC's 1999 Boyer Lectures, she questioned traditional interpretations of the relations between Australia's indigenous peoples and the colonisers and advanced a new, controversial interpretation, developed in two books: Dancing with strangers: the true history of the meeting of the British First Fleet and the Aboriginal Australians, 1788 (2005); and True stories: history, politics, Aboriginality (2008). In 2005, the Australian Society of Authors awarded her its biennial medal. The following year she was named Officer of the Order of Australia 'for service to scholarship as a writer and historian addressing issues of fundamental concern to Australian society and for contributing to shaping public debate on conflicting contemporary issues'.

Additional sources: Correspondence and discussion with Dr Clendinnen.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Australian Society of Authors, 'The Australian Author', no. 38, April 2006, pp. 12-13. Details
  • Geertz, Clifford, 'History and Anthropology', New Literary History, vol. 21, 1990, pp. 325-335. Details
  • Stern, Steve J, 'Review of Ambivalent Conquests', The American Historical Review, no. 94, December 1989, pp. 1515-1516. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Merkin, Daphne, 'Meditations on the Unthinkable', The New York Times, 11 April 1999. Details

Online Resources

See also