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JB Hirst

I am writing this review in a cafe in the main street of Gympie, a town founded on gold discoveries in 1867. It is 200 kilometres north of Brisbane and seventy kilometres from the coast. Frontier types abound in a town population of 11,000 and in farming communities around. Rough, craggy, sunburnt faces, wizened facial muscles, arms creased by years of hard work and a determined walk. In their everyday habits they exhibit loyalty to friends, a capacity to improvise and a contempt for blacks. And these are the women.

As our feminist historians have pointed out, there are few women in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend, first published in 1958. Indeed in the index there are only a handful of entries: ‘on goldfields’, ‘prostitution’ or and ‘shortage of, in bush’, the last being the longest entry.

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In a major piece of historical revisionism, Dr John Hirst has scrutinised the so-called evils of convict society in New South Wales between 1788 and 1840. Together with a mythology that has stemmed from it. He sees the image of Botany Bay as a place of depravity, where ‘vice is virtue, virtue vice’, as having been created by the opponents of transportation, the late eighteenth-century prison reformers such as John Howard and Jeremy Bentham; he traces their influence through Evangelicals, like Wilberforce, to the liberal Russell and the radical Molesworth who, in the 1830s, saw Australian settlers wallowing with their assignees in a sensual sty. Since the penal colonies would never cleanse themselves, it behoved indignant parliamentarians at Westminster so to do.

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In some ways, John Hirst presents his tale of colonial New South Wales as if it were a book for today. In the preface he comments: ‘But why should we care what it was like? – because in many fundamentals this is the political world we still inhabit.’ This theme is sketched and hinted at several times in the text but it is never argued in a systematic and rigorous manner. What are we to make of the claim?

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