History

Of the many pernicious legacies of colonialism, Australia’s servility in the face of Britain’s nuclear arms aspirations is one of the most under-reported and most consequential. In this week’s episode of The ABR Podcast, Elizabeth Tynan reads her essay tracing the clandestine history of, and fallout from, the agreements that allowed the British to test atomic weapons at various sites in South and Western Australia after World War II. By highlighting the Menzies government’s eager consent and the Australian media’s compliance, Tynan shows that far from being a passive victim, Australia was largely complicit in tests that wrought havoc on large tracts of land and on the Indigenous communities who lived there.

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For at least the first half of the twentieth century, Australian playwrights were not held in high regard by their compatriots. Popular opinion was summed up by fictional theatre manager M.J. Field in Frank A. Russell’s novel The Ashes of Achievement (1920).

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In July 1887, a group of British naturalists set out from southern England bound for the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha in search of botanical specimens. They left Southampton with high expectations. Charles Darwin, in the 1830s, had visited Fernando as part of his Beagle expeditions and had remarked on the richness of the island, including its thick vegetation.

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Maria Theresa: The Habsburg empress in her time by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, translated by Robert Savage

by
June 2022, no. 443

Few Australians today will have heard of the Empress Maria Theresa (1717–80). And yet this queen of Hungary and Bohemia, archduchess of Austria, ruler of Mantua and Milan, who was also grand duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress by marriage, bestrode the eighteenth-century stage like a dumpy colossus. The mother of some sixteen children, she styled herself as matriarch for a nation, while the marriages she arranged for her children saw her emerge as a Queen Victoria-like figure: the central node in contemporary Europe’s game of thrones. 

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When I was launching my book Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story in 2016, one of the guests put it to me that the name Maralinga should be just as recognisable in Australian society as Gallipoli. This comment suggested that the British tests had a broader meaning that spoke to a national mythology and were not just interesting historical events.

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Freud once argued that the pleasure of shit is the first thing we learn to renounce on the way to becoming civilised. For Freud, the true universalising substance was soap; for Annabel L. Kim it is shit; and French literature is ‘full of shit’, both literally and figuratively, from Rabelais’s ‘excremental masterpieces’ Pantagruel and Gargantua and the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom through the latent faecality of the nineteenth-century realists to the canonical writers of French modernity.

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In 1959, David Hill, aged twelve, left England and sailed on the Strathaird to Australia with two of his three brothers. Like thousands of children before them the Hill boys were bound for a Fairbridge farm school. Like thousands of children before them, they had come from a poor background, with a struggling single mother who believed that Fairbridge would give her boys a better education and greater opportunities in life than she possibly could.

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In 1953, the British government conducted the Totem nuclear weaponry tests at Emu Field in South Australia. It was an inhospitable environment for non-Indigenous visitors. One London-based administrator called for the Australian military to remove all flies from the site. These tests earned part of a chapter in Elizabeth Tynan’s award-winning Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story (reviewed by Danielle Clode in the March 2017 issue of ABR). Now Tynan has expanded the Totem story into a book that purports to uncover the secrets of what happened there and why.

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When the offer came to review this book, I accepted enthusiastically, and unthinkingly added, ‘That sounds fun!’. Upon reflection, I deleted that last sentence: what would it say about me, I wondered, that I should expect the account of a hangman and his work to be entertaining? I thought better of the sentence, but the anticipation remained.

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In 2007, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Great Ocean Road, a bronze statue was unveiled at Eastern View, near Torquay. The statue, titled ‘The Diggers’, depicts two pick-wielding mates, one handing the other a drink. In name and form, the statue memorialises both the World War I Anzacs the road was built to honour and the repatriated soldiers who began constructing it in 1919. But the statue tells only half the story. As the anniversary date indicates, the Great Ocean Road was completed in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. It provided work not only for returned servicemen, but also for thousands of unemployed a decade later. Many probably worked under both circumstances.

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