Australian History

Melbourne’s Moreland City Council recently agreed to adopt a new name, after petitioning by Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community leaders and prominent local non-Indigenous representatives. The petitioners argued that the name ‘Moreland’, adopted in 1839 by Scottish settler Farquhar McCrae, derived from a Jamaican slave plantation. Renaming the council was an opportunity to bring about greater awareness of both the global legacies of enslavement and the history of Indigenous dispossession. In this week’s episode, Samuel Watts reflects on the politics of memorialisation and its impact on public conceptions of history.

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It was one of the most notorious episodes in the annals of Australian publishing. In September 1993, writing in Quadrant, Peter Ryan, the former director of Melbourne University Press (1962–87), publicly disowned Manning Clark’s six-volume A History of Australia. Clark had been dead for barely sixteen months. For scandalous copy and gossip-laden controversy, there was nothing to equal it, particularly when Ryan’s bombshell was dropped into a culture that was already polarised after more than a decade of the History Wars.

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This collection of Peter Ryan’s writings, Lines of Fire, is no grab-bag of oddments. The pieces included here are given an impressive unity by the author’s imposition of his presence, by his trenchancy, elegance of expression, a desire to honour the men and women of his younger days and to excoriate a present Australia in which too many people wallow in ‘an unwholesome masochistic guilt’. The finely designed cover shows a wry, ageing, wrinkled Ryan smiling benignly over his own shoulder, or rather that of his younger self, in uniform, in late teenage, during the Second World War. What happened in between is richly revealed in the elements of Lines of Fire.

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‘The past only comes into being from the vantage point of the future,’ the novelist Michelle de Kretser told an interviewer recently. History is written in a present that is inexorably moving forward, while historians explore as far back as their interests take them. All the while they are backstitching, a step forward, a half step back. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

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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 be used to build up inter-connected portraits of real depth. A new inwardness, a richer kind of subjectivity, takes shape as a result.

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We routinely think of the past as a subtext of the present, but in The Women of Little Lon Barbara Minchinton flips this around. She aims not only to ‘dismantle the myths and counter misinformation and deliberate distortions’ about sex workers in nineteenth-century Melbourne, but – in an explicitly #MeToo context – to ‘reduce the stigma attached to the work today’ while heightening our ‘understanding of and respect for the lives of all sex workers’.

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Travel itineraries are significant in the world of diplomacy, as Ian Hoskins illustrates in this panoramic survey of Australia’s interactions with the Pacific. Gareth Evans, freshly installed as Australia’s foreign minister in 1988, made a point of visiting the South Pacific neighbourhood before paying his country’s traditional obeisance to Washington and the European capitals. Within a month he had visited Papua New Guinea, Nauru, the Solomons, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Evans was sending a message, visibly prioritising ‘our Asia-Pacific geography over our Euro-Atlantic history’.

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On the wall of Yindjibarndi leader Michael Woodley’s modest office in the Pilbara Aboriginal community of Roebourne hangs a large framed portrait of Muhammad Ali and a pair of boxing gloves. It seems a highly appropriate metaphor for the tale of this small Aboriginal group’s thirteen-year resistance to one of Australia’s most powerful companies, now recounted by former Australian journalist Paul Cleary.

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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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