Australian History

I am a great fan of archives, and so is John Fahey, a former officer of an Australian intelligence service (the Defence Signals Directorate) turned historian. His previous book, Australia’s First Spies (2018), covered the same time period (1901–50) but focused on the good guys (our spies) rather than the bad ones (their spies). His itemised list of Australian, British, and US archival files consulted runs to several pages. Most of these are the archives of intelligence agencies. And here’s the rub: intelligence files contain many names, but not necessarily the names of actual spies.

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Unsurprisingly, Australia leads the world in the production of close-grained studies of convicts sentenced to transportation. Since 1788, it’s what we do. Emma Christopher proves herself to be a crackerjack at tracking down just about anyone who ever stood before an eighteenth-century court. She reels off their crimes, social origins, associates, aliases, lovers, victims, favourite haunts and previous convictions like a bailiff of long experience. What is more, she appears to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the alleys, lanes and bolt-holes of every city in the British Isles. So stupendous is her talent for conjuring up the atmosphere of the times that most readers will forgive her for too frequently slip ping into the archaic language of the documents she studies.

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On the shelves of Australia’s bookshops colonial history follows military history in popularity, though a distant second. While, say, Allen & Unwin has made brave efforts with a succession of books about the convict period – Hamish Maxwell-Stewart’s Closing Hell’s Gates (2008), Babette Smith’s Australia’s Birthstain (2008) or Grace Karskens’s The Colony (2009) – not one (not even Thomas Keneally with his Australians: Origins to Eureka, 2009) has sold as well as Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1987). Hughes spoiled the Bicentennial celebrations for a generation of scholars, piqued at such a sensational popular book, one that outsold their academic books combined.

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As a middling country far from the centre of major world events, Australia has usually bobbed about in the wake of greater Pacific powers. After being a dependency of Britain for nearly two centuries, the country was accustomed to having its fate decided by distant power brokers. Yet Australian leaders occasionally attempted to strike out on their own in pursuit of what they saw as distinctively Australian interests. Alfred Deakin did it in 1908 when he ignored the usual diplomatic niceties of consulting the British Foreign Office before inviting the American fleet to visit Australia; Billy Hughes did it with his grandstanding at the Versailles peace conference of 1919; and Robert Menzies and John Curtin did it during the desperate days of mid-1941, when they tried to keep Japan out of the war, as British Empire forces struggled to maintain their tenuous hold on the Mediterranean.

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Somebody recently told me that Geoffrey Blainey wrote much of the text of this history of Victoria while travelling in aircraft. If true, Blainey has an enviable knack of finding seats with elbow room, but otherwise there’s no reason to complain. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian of the Napoleonic wars, was said to have drafted one book during a summer spent waiting for connecting trains at French railway stations. Those fortunate enough to possess a lot of intellectual capital should make the most of it. In the central four chapters of social history, perhaps the most satisfactory part of this book, Blainey cites his evidence as ‘the accumulation of years of casual reading of old newspapers, looking at historic sites and talking with old people’. Disarmingly, he adds: ‘Most of the explanations of why change came are probably my own’.

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That Australia’s first national school of painters were ‘city bushmen’ is well documented. Tom Roberts began his career as a photographer in Collingwood, Frederick McCubbin in the family’s West Melbourne bakery and Arthur Streeton as an apprentice lithographer. Stories about their plein air painting excursions to Box Hill, Mentone, and Eaglemont are often told. The useful art historical label ‘The Heidelberg School’ first seems to have been used by a local journalist reviewing Streeton’s and Walter Withers’ work done chiefly in this attractive suburb where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting (The Australasian Critic,  l July 1891). Leigh Astbury, however, defines his use of the term Heidelberg School ‘in its current broader sense, that is, artists of a more ‘progressive tendency working in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1880s and 1890s’.

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John Hirst is a distinctive figure in Australian intellectual life. As an academic, he has had a distinguished career at La Trobe University in teaching, supervision, and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies with which to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history, there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia’s European cultural heritage, with some of the lectures recently published as The Shortest History of Europe (2009).

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In their recent polemic What’s Wrong With Anzac? (2010), Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds lament the militarisation of Australian history epitomised by the profusion of memoirs and military history in bookshops. The authors make a fair point that war history and commemoration has drowned out other notable achievements and failings in our country’s past. But their broad brush sweeps away an important Australian tradition of critical reflection about war and society. If historians ignored Australians at war – as most did until the 1970s – there would be much more wrong with Anzac. Anzac Legacies, edited by Martin Crotty and Marina Larsson, is a compelling and insightful collection of carefully researched essays about the impact of war upon Australians and Australian society. It is a timely reminder that historians need to stay in the Anzac game, and can take it in challenging directions.

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As generations of Australian tourists have found, the kangaroo is a far more recognisable symbol of nationality than our generic colonial flag. Both emblematic and problematic, this group of animals has long occupied a significant and ambiguous space in the Australian psyche. Small wonder, then, that Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver have found such rich material through which to explore our colonial history in The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt.

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In 2007, Britain’s Royal Mint issued a £2 coin commemorating two hundred years since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the zero in ‘1807’ appearing as if a broken link in a chain. While interrupting the notorious transatlantic trade, the Act did not end slavery itself – that was achieved, at least in parts of the British world, with further legislation in 1833 that outlawed enslavement in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope. Emphasis on the dramatic, if illusionary, chain-breaking moment in some bicentenary celebrations extended a tradition of dwelling on Britain’s role in slave emancipation.

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