Greg Dening (1931–2008)

On the occasion of the forthcoming Greg Dening lecture, we thought it timely to republish an obituary for Greg Dening by his former colleague, Emeritus Professor Chips Sowerwine. This obituary first appeared in the Journal of Australasian Irish Studies 7 (2007) and has been reprinted by permission of the journal’s editor. 

Greg Dening died on 13 March 2008. Three weeks earlier, on Sunday, 24 February 2008, my wife and I visited the ‘Temple of Literature’ in Hanoi. It was founded in 1070 as the place where scholars went to study and to pass the competitive examinations for state service. Each year the names of successful candidates were engraved on stone stelae; now students touch them for good luck. I touched the head of a turtle holding a 1442 stela, or at least the one the guidebook, and the guide said was from 1442, and I was suddenly reminded of Greg.

Greg used to tell an Indian story used by the late Clifford Geertz in his famous essay on Thick Description:

An Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

All his life, Greg led in the pursuit of turtles, not to rack up a body count, but to understand what lies beneath the surface, each surface, the next surface. He had an immense impact on us all. He was inspiration and frustration, leadership that challenged without giving answers, friendship that supported without intruding. As Head of the History Department at the University of Melbourne, he was both priest and intellectual. He challenged and raised issues, but he put the resolution back on one. Greg was likely to respond to a question not by an answer but by another, more probing, question or by a paradox which required one to probe oneself.

Greg studied at Xavier College, Melbourne, and there committed himself to entering the Society of Jesus. In 1958, he completed his BA Honours in History and Political Science at the University of Melbourne. The following year he undertook an MA in Pacific prehistory under the supervision of John Mulvaney, while tutoring in British and ancient history. He had thus mastered an extraordinary range of disciplines when he undertook a PhD in anthropology at Harvard University. His Harvard PhD became the celebrated study of culture contact in the Marquesas, Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land.

Greg left Harvard in 1967. He was named Assistant Professor in History and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii. He intended after that to spend a year – his ‘Tertianship’ – studying liberation theology in South America, but instead he came back to Australia at the request of the Australian Jesuit Provincial. In Australia, he experienced a profound conflict of conscience.

The Jesuits sent him to Brisbane as chaplain to the University of Queensland. After the promulgation of Humanae Vitae in July 1968, as he puts it in Beach Crossings, “the Australian Catholic bishops added a protocol to the encyclical. All priests were ordered to preach the rationality of the Pope’s stand against birth control. It was this protocol,” he continues, “that undid me.” He could not “preach that the encyclical was rational. Without making any public stand, I approached the Archbishop of Brisbane privately and told him of my dilemma. Without a moment’s hesitation, the archbishop reached for the telephone and called my Provincial and told him that I must leave the archdiocese of Brisbane immediately.”

In the ensuing struggle, the order gave him full support, but Greg felt increasingly uncomfortable with the direction the Church was taking. In 1970, he left the order, remaining grateful to the order for its support and remaining a deeply critical but deeply loyal Catholic.

Meanwhile, in 1969, he was named Senior Lecturer in History and Sociology at La Trobe University, which had opened its doors just two years earlier [established in 1964]. With Inge Clendinnen and Rhys Isaac, he developed what Clifford Geertz called the ‘Melbourne Group’ of ethnographic historians: they shared a concern to understand the workings of the turtle and to focus on both the indigenous and the exogenous peoples’ turtles.

Greg came to the Chair of History at the University of Melbourne in August 1971. The appointment of an ethnographer to this chair raised some eyebrows. Melbourne was not a vibrant young department in a new university, but a very established department in one of Australia’s oldest universities. Under William Edward Hearn (Professor 1854–1873), Sir Ernest Scott (Professor 1913–1936) and Max Crawford (Professor 1937–1970), its history school was widely regarded as pre-eminent in Australia. During the twentieth century, its graduates staffed most of Australia’s history departments.

The Melbourne department had been drained to staff the many new universities of the 1960s. It risked falling into complacency on the basis of its past glories. But no institution could be complacent if Greg was there pushing and prodding. When finally he could advertise three new lectureships, he looked actively for people beyond the Melbourne-Oxbridge circuit, which he thought had dominated recruitment despite efforts to attract candidates from overseas. These efforts had resulted, it must be said, in one overseas recruitment, which played a major role in Greg’s life: in 1969, the American historian Donna Merwick, a University of Wisconsin PhD, came to the University of Melbourne as Senior Lecturer in History; in 1971, she married Greg.

(L to R) Professor Greg Dening, Dr Donna Merwick Dening (University of Melbourne) and Professor Rhys Isaac (La Trobe University), c1990. Photographer: Norman Wodetzki. University of Melbourne Archives 2003.0003.00139

Donna’s was the last new appointment before Greg made the three new ones, in 1973. They showed the range of interests and formations which Greg sought to make the basis of the school: David Philips, a South African historian of policing in England with an Oxford D Phil; Sow-Theng Leong, a Malaysian Chinese historian of China with a Harvard PhD, and an American historian of modern France with a University of Wisconsin PhD. I was that appointment.

During the next two decades, Greg always inspired and usually chaired the department. Today, intellectual and pedagogical considerations are buried beneath accounting and sloganeering. Then, Greg kept bringing us back to the question of how to study history and how to teach it. Meetings, roundtables and informal discussions were devoted to our craft.

This could be frustrating when one faced practical considerations. In an intense correspondence with Greg during the six months before my arrival at Melbourne, I kept asking for marching orders and Greg kept side-stepping my questions, asking me instead what I thought was at the heart of what I wanted to teach, what were the issues and how I might construct my teaching around them.

Greg led by example. He not only pursued ethnographic history of indigenous peoples, but also, through his studies of William Gooch and Captain Bligh, applied historic and ethnographic analysis to the white culture which came to the indigenous peoples. He kept writing theoretical articles and books about the issues of the past and how to respond to them. And, from the Marquesas to Xavier College, he pioneered the involvement of those who were part of that history.

So Greg kept us focused on history and the writing of history. There were always new books suggested, round tables called, study groups encouraged. Greg led us to accept that history slipped through one’s fingers like sand and that we could only approximate it, as theologians approximate God, thinking by anagogy, by performance, by metaphor, but above all probing all the time and remembering who we were and where we stood in relation to what or whom we were probing. Greg continued to inspire the ‘Melbourne School of History’, which came to mean both the dynamic group at La Trobe and the department at Melbourne, but Greg was beyond schools. There were no fixed answers, not because Greg was a relativist, but because he always saw another turtle, another viewpoint, another problem.

Once I went to see Greg and discussed a departmental issue. I then said I wanted to talk about a personal question. Greg spun around in his chair and said, “do you want the priest or shall I spin around again and be the friend?” Thinking back on this later, I reflected that it was the essence of Greg: one had to choose, one had to make the choice oneself. And when one made it, Greg would be there questioning, prodding, asking one to look for the next turtle.

With the appearance of Church Alive!, I learned more about Greg’s thought on religious issues. It is a great book on which to end, though the ending has come far too soon. I trust Greg is with the turtles. He wouldn’t want to be in any fixed, rule-bound abode. He will keep working his way down among the turtles, always delighted to find another turtle, always pursuing the next turtle and experiencing joy in the quest, never demanding that we arrive but asking instead where we are, and always helping the rest of us revel in the questing/questioning rather than demand the answer.


Charles Sowerwine, Paris, 12 May 2008


With thanks to Frances Devlin-Glass, Katie Holmes, John Poynter and Charles Zika.

We remember Greg Dening through an annual memorial lecture, the text of which is published in Melbourne Historical Journal, and through an annual Greg Dening Memorial Prize, generously supported by the SHAPS Fellows and Associates Group.

Join us for the 2021 Annual Greg Dening Lecture ‘Performances on the World Stage: Interpreting Iron Innovation ‘In the Light of What is Old’ by Jenny Bulstrode (UCL) on Wednesday 27 October at 18:15 Melbourne time (AEDT) (8:15 Wednesday 27 October in London).

You can also read Charles Sowerwine’s memorial to Donna Merwick on Forum.


Select Bibliography of the Works of Greg Dening

‘LinkTapu and Haka’iki in the Marquesas, 1774–1813.’ PhD, Harvard University, 1971.

Xavier: A Centenary Portrait. Kew, Vic.: Old Xaverians Association, 1978.

Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land: Marquesas, 1774–1880. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of Hawaii, 1980.

With Erwin Christian. The Marquesas. Papeete, Tahiti: Editions du pacifique, 1982.

The Bounty: An Ethnographic History, Parkville, Vic.: History Dept., University of Melbourne, 1988.

History’s Anthropology: The Death of William Gooch. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

With Doug Kennedy. Xavier Portraits. Kew, Vic.: Old Xaverians Association, 1993.

Performances. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996.

Readings/writings. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1998

Beach Crossings: Voyaging Across Times, Cultures and Self. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2004.

Church Alive!: Pilgrimages in Faith, 1956–2006. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006.

With Barney Mungoven. Wallumetta: The Other Side: Faith, Life and Worship on the North Shore 1856–2006. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006.