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Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson is an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia. The third and final volume of his book, The Europeans in Australia, won the Victorian Prize for Literature 2015 and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History. He is also the author of Camden, The Commonwealth of Speech and a number of other books. His forthcoming book, Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm (NewSouth Publishing), will appear in late 2022.

Alan Atkinson reviews ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves: The Sydney experiment by Tom Keneally

December 2005–January 2006, no. 277 11 December 2004
Pity the professional historian. It is hard to know where to turn these days to avoid being abused, even from the most unlikely sources. According to Andrew Riemer, writing lately in the Sydney Morning Herald, the main reason professional historians castigated Robert Hughes in 1988, when he published The Fatal Shore, was because he had ‘occupied their territory’. Is there any other professiona ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'A History of New South Wales' by Beverley Kingston

September 2006, no. 284 01 September 2006
This book has one of the most beautiful covers you could hope to see: a Margaret Preston woodcut of Sydney Harbour, in rich blue, scarlet and ivory. Nor does the inside disgrace the exterior. It is a long time since anyone attempted a history of New South Wales, more than a century according to the blurb, presumably a reference to T.A. Coghlan’s annual publication, The Wealth and Progress of New ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Botany Bay: Where histories meet' by Maria Nugent

October 2005, no. 275 01 October 2005
Tasmania was named Tasmania, instead of Van Diemen’s Land, because of a need to push the island’s history back as far as possible beyond 1803. The Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman was usefully iconic partly because he had nothing to do with convicts. But yearning for a distant past, a past cut off from the present, was common among nineteenth-century Europeans. As John Stuart Mill remarked, ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Sense and Nonsense in Australian History' by John Hirst

May 2006, no. 281 01 May 2006
John Hirst is a throwback. I don’t mean in his political views, but in his sense of his duty as an historian. He belongs to a tradition which, in this country, goes back to the 1870s and 1880s, when the Australian colonies began to feel the influence of German ideas about the right relationship between the humanities and the state. Today it is a tradition increasingly hard to maintain. Under thi ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'The Origins of Irish Convict Transportation to New South Wales' by Bob Reece

October 2001, no. 235 01 October 2001
This book tells how the Irish government gradually rearranged its methods of convict transportation, from a variety of destinations in North America to a single destination on the far side of the world. The story takes place predominately between 1783 and 1791, from the independence of the United States (which effectively closed American ports to British and Irish transports) to the sailing of the ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Vandemonians: The repressed history of colonial Victoria' by Janet McCalman

December 2021, no. 438 23 November 2021
Though a generation has grown up with online technology, we are only just starting to grasp what it means for our understanding of humanity. As a historian, I’m surprised to find that I can now trace the emotional and intellectual experience of individuals, through long periods of their lives, with a new kind of completeness. Fragments of detail from all over the place, gathered with ease, can b ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian democracy' by Peter Cochrane

February 2007, no. 288 01 February 2007
This book is an account of politics in Sydney during the 1840s and 1850s. Occasionally, the story reaches into the depths of urban life, with descriptions of what Peter Cochrane calls ‘the city’s thick web of political conversation’. But Cochrane is mainly interested in the political leadership, and he has a small number of once celebrated men – William Charles Wentworth, Robert Lowe, Henr ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'People of the River: Lost worlds of early Australia' by Grace Karskens

November 2020, no. 426 21 October 2020
Grace Karskens’s previous book, The Colony (2009), which dealt with Sydney and the Cumberland Plain during the first years of invasion, was one of the great books about the early colonial period in Australia. People of the River is just as important but more profound and risky. In both, Karskens has found ways, brilliantly original ways, of taking in entire populations, and she is particula ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Dancing with Strangers' by Inga Clendinnen

November 2003, no. 256 01 November 2003
Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners, drawing them within the world of the settlement at Port Jackson during its first dozen ye ... (read more)

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Bedlam at Botany Bay' by James Dunk

June–July 2019, no. 412 23 May 2019
James Dunk is not the first Australian historian to notice that mental breakdown was surprisingly common during the first two European generations in New South Wales. Malcolm Ellis linked the ‘Botany Bay disease’ to rheumatic fever, rife on shipboard, which ‘ruined the lives or unbalanced the minds of … many pioneers’. Manning Clark spoke of sanity collapsing ‘under the weight of the v ... (read more)
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