Australian History

While France provided a relative trickle of immigrants – the French in Australia numbered only four thousand at the end of the nineteenth century – its influence in Australia was surprisingly pervasive. Some years ago, an exhibition entitled The French Presence in Victoria 1800–1901 drew together an extraordinary range of materials, including French opera libretti and school textbooks printed here, together with original Marseille tiles and sumptuous fabrics. But Alexis Bergantz’s new book, French Connection, is not concerned with the spread, or penetration, of French goods. Rather, it is a careful examination of the idea of France. It is typical of its verve and elegance that the cover captures this nicely: Fragonard’s frilly beauty swings high at the top, a world away from the bottom-left corner, where Frederick McCubbin’s bushman sits Down on His Luck. (Tom Roberts got it in one: his well-known painting of Bourke Street includes the French tricolor, flapping from a shopfront.)

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Tongerlongeter was surely one of Australia’s toughest military leaders. Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements expressly narrate his story to affirm the place of the Frontier Wars in the Anzac pantheon. Reflexive conservative responses to such arguments – that Anzac Day commemorates only those who served in the Australian military – are flawed and outdated. The Tasmanian frontier is one of Australia’s best-documented cases of violent operations against Aboriginal people. In 1828, Governor George Arthur, unable to gain control over the ‘lamentable and protracted warfare’, issued a Demarcation Proclamation later enforced by the formation of Black Lines, military cordons stretching several hundred kilometres across southern and central Tasmania to secure the grasslands demanded by white settlers.

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The myth and reality of the Anzac legend has proven a perennial subject of inquiry and argument for over thirty years now, since the publication of Ken Inglis’s justly famous articles in Meanjin and elsewhere in 1964–65. These prompted a spirited exchange with the late Geoff Serle and others. More recently, John Robertson examined the Gallipoli campaign in terms of the myth (1990), and found the critics of Australian martial performance wanting, while Eric Andrews took the Anglo-Australian relationship between 1914 and 1918 to task (1993), and found duplicity and manipulation in the construction of the Australians’ image.

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In the era of perpetual Covid lockdowns, many of us can relate to the isolation of the mid-twentieth-century housewife. Like her, we’re stuck at home, orbiting our kitchens, watching the light move across the floorboards. Each day mirrors the last, a quiet existence spent mostly in the company of the immediate household. Yet whereas we can flee our domestic confines via Netflix or TikTok, last century’s housewife had fewer avenues to the wider world. There was reading, of course – books or magazines or newspapers – but this was usually reserved for the end of the day. For most waking hours, her hands and eyes were needed for cooking, cleaning, mending, childcare, and a thousand other tasks.

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For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).

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‘People are not entitled in a civil society to pursue a malicious campaign of character assassination based on a big lie.’ This was Andrew Clark, son of the historian Manning Clark, expressing understandable outrage on behalf of his family. The issue was the infamous allegation, based on nebulous evidence, that Manning was ‘an agent of Soviet influence’ and had been awarded the Order of Lenin. Unfortunately, as the Clarks will know, the big lie, even when refuted, spreads across generations. Although the onus is supposed to be on the accusers to prove their allegations, in reality it is easily, plausibly reversed.

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This book is about the battles in which the First Australian Imperial Force took part between June and November 1917. It is not, however, a battle history. Rather, it takes the interesting approach of investigating how Australians remember these battles. Spoiler alert: they don’t.

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In the process of British colonisation, Aboriginal people lost their country, kin, culture, and languages. They also lost their freedom. Governed after 1901 by different state and territory laws, Aboriginal peoples were subject to the direction of Chief Protectors and Protection Boards, and were told where they could live, travel, and seek employment, and whom they might marry. They were also subject to the forced removal of their children by state authorities. Exemption certificates promised family safety, dignity, a choice of work, a passport to travel, and freedom. Too often, in practice, exemption also meant enhanced surveillance, family breakup, and new forms of racial discrimination and social segregation.

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As readers of her two volumes of memoirs will know, Sheila Fitzpatrick trained at the University of Melbourne until departing for Oxford in 1964 to pursue doctoral research on the history of the Soviet Union. That took her to Moscow, where she gained access to Soviet archives. Fitzpatrick would make her name as an archival historian, in contrast to earlier Western scholars who relied, both of necessity and by inclination, on other sources; she showed remarkable ingenuity in using the officially sanctioned records.

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In 1969, an Anzac veteran visiting Gallipoli fell into conversation with a retired Turkish school teacher. The teacher had with him a guidebook featuring a quote from Şükrü Kaya, the former head of the Ottoman Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants. The quote came from a 1953 interview Kaya gave, in which he recalled a 1934 speech he made on behalf of Mustafa Kemal, a sentimental entreaty to Anzac mothers to ‘wipe away’ their tears. The teacher shared Kemal’s supposed words with the Australian visitor, who returned to Brisbane and passed them on to Alan J. Campbell, a Gallipoli veteran. Campbell, who was involved in the creation of a Gallipoli memorial in Brisbane, contacted the Turkish Historical Society to verify the quote. They could only confirm Kaya’s 1953 interview, but this was considered good enough. In this convoluted way, ‘the most iconic refrain of Anzac Day’ ended up on the memorial’s plaque, attributed to Kemal, with one addition. Campbell invented the now well-worn line about ‘the Johnnies and the Mehmets [lying] side by side’.

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