Australian History

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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John Bryson has tried to solve one of Australia’s great mysteries – how Azaria Chamberlain died. The cover of Evil Angels gives the clue to his answer. A bruise-coloured sky glowers over a stark, orange-brown desert. There is the twisted relic of a tree in the foreground and in front of it, like a spreading puddle of blood, the shadow of a dingo, its eyes on an evil slant.

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Okay, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. For a start, we have this profoundly stupid and deeply irritating myth that we’re all irreverent freedom-loving larrikins and easygoing egalitarians, when it is painfully obvious that we have long been a nation of prudes and wowsers, that our collective psyche has been warped by what Patrick Mullins describes, with his characteristic lucidity, as ‘a fear of contaminating international influences’, and that we are not just an insular, conservative, and deeply conformist society, but for some unaccountable reason we take pride in our ignorance and parochialism. And let’s not neglect the fact that we are cringingly deferential and enamoured of hierarchy. Oh yes, it’s all master–slave dialectics and daddy issues around here. Why the hell else would we keep electing entitled, smirking, condescending autocrats?

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As with many authors, Covid-19 forced Catherine Bond to cancel the launch event for her new book. But unlike most authors’ work, the contemporary relevance of Bond’s latest book has been considerably heightened by the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, in the midst of this crisis it is hard to imagine a historical text timelier than Law in War: Freedom and restriction in Australia during the Great War. A century later, lessons from that era are still instructive today.

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John Curtin and James Scullin occupy very different places in whatever collective memory Australians have of their prime ministers. On the occasions that rankings of prime ministers have been published, Curtin invariably appears at or near the top. When researchers at Monash University in 2010 produced such a ranking based on a survey of historians and political scientists, Curtin led the pack, with Scullin rated above only Joseph Cook, Arthur Fadden, and Billy McMahon. Admittedly, this ranking was produced before anyone had ever thought of awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip, but the point is clear enough: Curtin rates and Scullin does not.

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I am ashamed to recall that when our high-school history class in the late 1970s was set K.S. Inglis’s The Australian Colonists (1974), I – and I don’t think I was alone – didn’t quite know what to do with a text that focused on ‘ceremonies, monuments and rhetoric’, one that began as a study on 26 January 1788 but worked back as an historical enquiry from 25 April 1915.

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Desmond O’Grady is uniquely placed to interpret Australia for Italians and Italy for Australians. He grew up in suburban Melbourne, but as a journalist, biographer, and writer of fiction he has spent most of his working life in Rome.

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