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Powell, Alan Walter (1936–2020)

by David Carment

Emeritus Professor Alan Walter Powell, a longstanding and very active Historical Society of the Northern Territory member, is widely recognised as the Northern Territory’s pre-eminent historian[1]. He made significant contributions to understanding the Territory’s past, including its connections with nearby regions. His achievements also extended to other areas of history as well as academic leadership, and board and committee membership. For other Territory historians he was a valued mentor and friend.

Alan was born on 7 January 1936 in Rotorua, New Zealand and brought up on a nearby sheep farm, where he developed a strong distaste for eating lamb and mutton. After attending Rotorua High School he spent much of the following two decades holding a variety of jobs in both New Zealand and Australia.  These included timber felling, bush surveying, truck driving, factory work, service in the New Zealand Army, small business and school teaching. He also energetically pursued his passion for racing motorcycles, married and had children.

Following his completion of a Diploma of Teaching at Auckland Teachers College in 1964 and a BA degree with honours in History at Armidale’s University of New England in 1971, he enrolled for a PhD under Allan Martin’s supervision at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. He greatly enjoyed both La Trobe and Melbourne but after finishing a first draft of his thesis on the colonial New South Wales politician Sir Charles Cowper he applied for and was appointed to a Lectureship at the newly established Darwin Community College in 1974. Just before Cyclone Tracy he drove south for holidays, throwing his thesis into the car so it could be bound in Sydney, rather than leaving it to be done in Darwin once he got back. It was just as well that he did so as when he returned in early 1975 all his books and papers were pulp in a roofless flat. He submitted the thesis and was awarded his doctorate later that year.

Between 1974 and his retirement in 1997 Alan worked at Darwin Community College, Darwin Institute of Technology, the University College of the Northern Territory and Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University). He advanced to Professor. Among the positions he held were Head of School and Dean. In 1998 he was made an Emeritus Professor. He also undertook consulting work. Alan’s teaching focussed initially on Australian history and Northern Territory history, which he introduced at Darwin Community College. He later taught subjects on the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Following the University College of the Northern Territory’s establishment, he effectively supervised honours and postgraduate students. Some of his students, such as Tony Austin, Mickey Dewar, Suzanne Parry, Brian Reid, Peter Williams and Bill Wilson, became well-regarded historians. He was also responsible for the appointment of the young Ann McGrath, now one of Australia’s most distinguished historians, as a Darwin Community College staff member. It was her first full-time academic position. He continued research, supervision, teaching and writing following his retirement. In all these various activities he was highly regarded for his fairness and thoroughness.

Alan’s leadership deserves special attention. As the foundation Dean of Arts at the University College of the Northern Territory between 1986 and 1988 he worked closely with the College’s Warden Jim Thomson to establish a new institution that quickly won respect for its research and teaching. This was in spite of the federal government’s opposition to the college’s establishment and a difficult relationship with Darwin Institute of Technology. He developed strong rapport with the University of Queensland, whose degrees the college taught, and was much involved in new staff appointments. While the foundation Dean of Arts at Northern Territory University from 1989 to 1992 he successfully supervised a demanding and sometimes acrimonious amalgamation process between the Arts faculties of Darwin Institute of Technology and the University College of the Northern Territory. This included the greater resources being given to the teaching of music. Alan served on the councils and academic boards of the tertiary institutions that employed him.

Among his many publications are fluently written and carefully researched articles, biographical entries, books, book chapters and reviews that reach out to general as well as academic readerships.  His various research grants, including from the Australian Research Council, are just one indication of the growing esteem in which he was held as an author of historical works. Many of his books have sold well. His first book, Patrician Democrat: The Political Life of Charles Cowper, 1843-1870 (Melbourne University Press, 1977), is a pioneering study of New South Wales colonial politics. Far Country: A Short History of the Northern Territory (Melbourne University Press, 1982, with revised and reprinted editions since then) is the standard and best general history of the Territory as well as being widely regarded as an outstanding Australian regional history. The Shadow’s Edge: Australia’s Northern War (Melbourne University Press, 1988 and since reprinted), War by Stealth: Australians and the Allied Intelligence Bureau 1942-1945 (Melbourne University Press, 1996), and The Third Force: ANGAU’s New Guinea War, 1942-46 (Oxford University Press, 2003) are all innovative and important contributions to understanding Australia’s Second World War role. His critically acclaimed Northern Voyagers: Australia’s Monsoon Coast in Maritime History (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010) won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for History in 2011. Alan’s longstanding fascination with early British military settlements on the coast of the Northern Territory and elsewhere in Australia culminated in the magisterial ‘Worlds-End’: British Military Outposts in the ‘Ring Fence’ Around Australia 1824-1849 (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016). In recent years his interest in Central Australia’s past resulted in Desert Country: A History of Newhaven (Historical Society of the Northern Territory, 2015) and Blood and Sand: Alyawarra and Cattlemen in the Sandover River Country (Blair McFarland, 2016). He was General Editor of the Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography’s first volume (Northern Territory University Press, 1990). His last published book was Forgotten Country: A Short History of Central Australia (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018). At the time of his death he was well advanced on a book about early government ships in north Australia. Clear themes link many of his books: the impact of isolation, links between Australia and its Asian and Pacific neighbours, the powerful influence of Aboriginal Australians, Australians at war, and the Australian colonial experience, which in the country’s north extended for much of the twentieth century.

Alan served a range of organisations. Among his boards, committees and councils were the Northern Territory Board of Studies and Kakadu National Park Research Committee. He was the foundation chair of the Northern Territory University Press Committee and, reflecting his strong musical interests, chaired the board of the Northern Territory University Centre for Youth Music.

He was highly energetic and effective as a longstanding and much valued Historical Society of the Northern Territory Council member. He gave lectures for the Society and participated in many of its field trips. Of particular importance were his involvement in the Society’s extensive book publication program and long period as editor of the Journal of Northern Territory History (now Northern Territory Historical Studies). In the latter role he generously assisted students and early career researchers through encouraging them to publish in the journal. In 2013 he was honoured with a Fellowship of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies.

I greatly value my own long professional association and friendship with Alan.  Our first definite meeting was during my initial visit to Darwin in 1979. While I was staying there with two friends who worked at Darwin Community College, they invited Alan and his wife Wendy Powell to dinner. Alan told me about the joys of inspecting fascinating historic sites while cruising in his yacht along the Territory’s coast. I came to know him much better following my 1981 move to Darwin as Director of the National Trust in the Northern Territory. In 1983 we became colleagues at Darwin Community College after he strongly encouraged me to apply for a vacant position there. We subsequently worked together closely until his retirement and kept in quite frequent contact after then. He was a generous mentor who did much to support my teaching, research and other historical activities. Although I permanently moved to Sydney in 2006, I saw a lot of Alan and his wife Jan Moore during my regular trips to Darwin and their own visits to Sydney.

Alan and I shared a strong belief that it is essential to visit and understand historical places in north Australia in order to properly come to terms with the region’s past. This resulted in numerous worthwhile field trips together, sometimes with others joining us. We visited many areas with historical significance. Photographs that we took and notes that we compiled were used in my teaching of north Australian history and for our research projects. In 1984, for instance, we travelled in Alan’s yacht to Escape Cliffs, where we inspected the remains of the ill fated 1864-1867 South Australian settlement. I could see why Alan argued that it was poorly located and had an inadequate anchorage. In 1989 he joined me on a vehicle journey through the Victoria River District, about which I was preparing a long book chapter and he had a strong interest. We stopped at places such as the site of the explorer Augustus Gregory’s camp on the Victoria River’s banks, Jasper Gorge, and the homestead precinct at Victoria River Downs. During 2008 I was lucky to be with Alan on a Historical Society of the Northern Territory excursion to the location of the early British settlement at Raffles Bay that he later wrote about at length in ‘World’s End’.

In 2005 Alan recalled that when applying for his Darwin Community College job he expected to be in the Northern Territory for just a year or two before returning to Melbourne. Darwin, he observed, ‘would have been about my last residential choice within Australia … Old story! I’m still here thirty years later’. He went on to comment that he had found in Darwin ‘good friends’, ‘a great research field’ and satisfying professional opportunities.[2] Away from his historical activities, Alan’s interests in the Territory included camping, motorcycle riding, sailing, Scottish country dancing and walking. He was a Rotary Club of Darwin Sunrise charter member.

He died in his beloved Darwin on 25 November 2020, survived by his wife Jan, former wife Wendy and children Jennifer (Jenny), Myfanwy (Myf) and Russell. He was also a grandfather and great grandfather. At his own request there was no funeral but a large gathering of family members and friends informally remembered him at Darwin Sailing Club, to which he had belonged for many years, on 8 December 2020. He will be greatly missed and long remembered.

* David Carment AM is Emeritus Professor of History at Charles Darwin University.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by Alan Walter Powell

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Carment, 'Powell, Alan Walter (1936–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/powell-alan-walter-31595/text39064, accessed 30 November 2022.

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