History

The Japanese tactics in today’s export war are identical with those they employed so successfully in 1941–42 against a bigger army than theirs in Malaya: they attack individual units ‘with surprise and with our strength concentrated’. This is one of the two leitmotifs of Russell Braddon’s book. The other is his notion of Japan’s ‘hundred years’ war’. During his years of captivity in Changi between 1942 and 1945, Braddon was told once by a Japanese officer: ‘This war will last a hundred years, Mr Braddon. I’m afraid you will never go home.’ Later, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, when he was about to leave Changi, he passed a Japanese officer who was being escorted into the gaol. ‘In a spirit half of elation and half of spite I turned and shouted, “This war last one hundred years?” “Ninety-six years to go”, he called back; and neither of us bothered to bow.’

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On his first day at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, Vincent Buckley was ‘flogged and flogged’ by a Jesuit priest in ‘an incompetent fury’. It is an experience that many of his readers will easily recognise, though their remembered lambastings were more likely to have been incurred at the hands of the Brothers and, unlike Buckley’s, would have been a continuing feature of school life. 

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Making the sea passage south to Flinders Island, I began reading this while off-watch, hoping book and destination might augment, but tough weather cancelled free time until after a landfall sleep. I’ve not much enjoyed histories which cast these manuka and granite islands in dismal role, they are shockingly beautiful, but the crowded cemetery wails, the old lath church is empty of joyful song, and the rule of Commandant Jeanneret recalls similar miseries of bonded Malay and Bantamese on Cocos.

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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The centenary of World War I offered a significant opportunity to reflect on the experience and legacy of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. In Australia such reflection was, on the whole, disappointingly one-dimensional: a four-year nationalistic and sanitised ‘memory orgy’ (to use Joan Beaumont’s wonderful phrase). It did, however, galvanise historians to produce important new studies of the war and to tackle long-standing questions about Australians’ attachment to Anzac. Many of those historians, established and early career, feature in The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration.

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It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.

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Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse follows the life of the strong Nuenonne woman who lived through the dramatic upheavals of invasion and dispossession and became known around the world as the so-called ‘last Tasmanian’. But the figure at the heart of this book is George Augustus Robinson, the self-styled missionary and chronicler who was charged with ‘conciliating’ with the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples. It is primarily through his journals that historians are able to glimpse and piece together the world fractured by European arrival.

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Artful Histories represents that extraordinary achievement – a learned critical study, based on a thesis, which is exhilarating to read. While it covers the expected ground, with careful accounts of Australian autobiographies of various types, it also addresses a core problem of current literary debate – the relative status of different literary genres, and the interrelation between writing and life. There is no mention here of The Hand That Signed The Paper or The First Stone (they are beyond the range of the discussion) but McCooey’s elucidation of the relationship between autobiography, history, fiction, and life bears directly on the issues which have kept Australian readers arguing over the past year. At the end of his chapter on autobiography and fiction, McCooey summarises the difference in a seemingly simple statement: ‘Fictional characters die fictionally, people die in actual fact.’ The implications of this are far from simple, and McCooey argues for the maintenance of the boundary between genres on the grounds of moral responsibility.

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Another book on George Augustus Robinson, the nineteenth-century oddity who toured Tasmania gathering Aboriginals whom he eventually incarcerated on Flinders Island? Historians from John West to Brian Plomley have written about his Tasmanian adventures; Robert Drewe and Mudrooroo Narogin have added interpretations of his singular career. Do we need another?

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After his success in forcing the British Natural History Museum to return skulls and bones of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was asked by the Greek minister of foreign affairs to ascertain whether international law could be used to induce the British to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Although the project found favour with a succession of Greek prime ministers, the Tsipras government decided not to act on Robertson’s recommendations. This book is a revised version of his report, along with a discussion of demands for the repatriation of other cultural treasures.

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