The Oxford History of Autralia. Vol III: 1860-1900 
by Beverley Kingston.
Oxford, 368 pp., £22.50, July 1989, 0 19 554611 3
Show More
The Road from Coorain: An Australian Memoir 
by Jill Ker Conway.
Heinemann, 238 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 434 14244 1
Show More
A Secret Country 
by John Pilger.
Cape, 286 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 224 02600 3
Show More
Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past 
edited by Stephen Nicholas.
Cambridge, 246 pp., $45, June 1989, 0 521 36126 5
Show More
Show More

An older generation of my compatriots would regard an Oxford history of Australia as an oxymoron. Quite early in the preparation of my own volume in the series of that name, I became interested in Bill Somerville, a trade-unionist who for nearly forty years served as the workers’ representative on the industrial tribunal of Western Australia. A skilled craftsman (his union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, rejoiced in the title of ‘the tin gods’), he grew up, with the Australian labour movement, in the hungry Nineties when troops were used to crush the shearers, miners and transport workers. His whole life was dedicated to the creation of institutions that would prevent the recurrence of such hardships and injustices, and his beliefs – rather, his certainties – provide a roll-call of the advanced nationalist programme.

He believed passionately in national development, the dignity of labour, state socialism, rationalism, racial purity, the male breadwinner, education (he served as Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, created by a Labor government ‘to help the sons and daughters of the working man’), self-education (he called his intellectual autobiography A blacksmith looks at a university) and afforestation. Three of his children passed through the University but the fourth struggled at school and was exiled (‘Dad didn’t believe in failure’) up to a smallholding twenty miles into the hills behind Perth where Somerville kept a smithy for weekend recreation.

Somerville detested most aspects of the British Empire, but for Government House, the symbol of snobbery and privilege, he had a special contempt. Not till the very end of his life did he accept an invitation there, and then, still convalescent from illness, only because of an aberrant desire to meet the young Queen Elizabeth during her tour of the Antipodes in 1954. She charmed him. Stricken by remorse for a lifetime of stiffnecked pride, he dragged himself again from his sickbed on the following Sunday to seek forgiveness at the nearest church. He died from a stroke within days.

Inevitably, the errant son, who told me this story, was truest to his father’s values. I approached him when he was in his seventies, still living in the bush retreat, and explained that since his father’s experience and aspirations were central to the period with which I was concerned, I hoped to write about him in the opening chapter of my volume of the Oxford History of Australia. The identification of my project was ill-judged. ‘An Oxford History of Australia!’ he exclaimed. ‘They will lie, cheat and steal and write countless half-truths to denigrate the Australian, and nobody does that better than the Oxford University Press. You are lower than a snake’s arse to hijack my father into such an enterprise.’

I perambulate in this serpentine fashion for two reasons. First, to declare an interest in the first of the books under review. Second, because the spirit of Bill Somerville still haunts Australian historiography despite all the recent efforts of revisionist academics to exorcise it. His preoccupations were those of his time and class and gender, but their effects linger, and shape popular understandings of the past.

National development. The dominant theme of the received orthodoxy is the coming into being of a mature and autonomous nation. Open almost any of the narrative accounts published during the 1950s and 1960s and familiar signposts mark the path to national fulfilment. Convict origins, free settlement, self-government, gold, wool, federation, war, depression, war, immigration, industrialisation, prosperity. Each stage of the journey leads inexorably towards a still-unattained destination, a final and complete emancipation that somehow continues to recede into the distance just as the vision of fertile plenty receded from the explorers of the arid interior.

The dignity of labour. The subject of this history is the ordinary Australian who made the country into what it is today. He (rarely she) was a convict, a digger, a pioneer, a battler imbued with national characteristics of self-sufficiency, fortitude, egalitarian mate-ship. He found his apotheosis in the nomad bushworkers (like Bill Somerville, humping his bluey on the track during the Nineties) who gave birth to the organised labour movement at the turn of the century.

State socialism. These experiences gave rise to popular expectations that found expression in the institutions created by the new Commonwealth. A sparsely populated country rich in natural resources had to be secured from its northern neighbours – thus the White Australia Policy, pro-natalist measures (including a maternity allowance, or ‘baby bonus’) and compulsory military training. An open economy heavily dependent on foreign markets and foreign capital had to be insulated from external shocks – thus tariff protection for local industry and the provision, through the industrial tribunals on which Bill Somerville served, of wage awards calculated to meet the family needs of the male breadwinner. Enjoying rapid success, the Australian Labor Party (and the prefix was emphatic) augmented the role of the colonial state as a borrower of external funds, a financer of development projects and public utilities, and a provider of employment. The policies lasted well into this century.

The historians who recorded these themes were in broad sympathy with them. The teaching of history in schools and universities occurred within an imperial framework until the second half of the century. Sir Keith Hancock wrote his seminal Australia (1930) for a London publisher during a brief inter-war return to his homeland; Sir Ernest Scott edited a more substantial conspectus as a volume of the Cambridge History of the British Empire (1933). It was only with the expansion of the university system after the Second World War that Australian history began to be studied and taught in any systematic fashion. Even then, it remained a Cinderella subject in those departments where the authority of Oxford and Cambridge remained paramount.

Thus the access to higher education of the ‘sons and daughters of the working man’, and their decision to pursue the study of this country within this country, gave Australian history a particular cultural valency. Prominent among its enthusiasts were young ex-servicemen whose formative experience of the war against Fascism sharpened their national consciousness into radical activism. They included Russel Ward, Ian Turner and Bob Gollan, who were all Communists when they embarked on their careers. Their influence on Australian history was perhaps even greater than that of their British equivalents, Hill, Thompson, Hobsbawm and Rudé, since they were there at the beginning and hence in a position to shape the discipline along lines that codified the radical nationalist interpretation of Australian history.

Even in his own lifetime, Bill Somerville’s hopes remained unrealised. Australia remained strategically, economically and culturally dependent; Labor governments quickly lost their reforming energy; a new generation of militants condemned the system of state arbitration and wage determination as a device for enforcing the exploitation of wage-earners. Events after his death irretrievably altered the place he knew. During the long conservative ascendancy of R.G. Menzies, Australia exchanged the imperial attachment for a similarly supine relationship with the United States. A monoglot White Australia gave way first to assimilation and subsequently to multiculturalism as the declared national objective. Market regulation and public provision yielded in the economic climate of the Seventies and Eighties to free trade, deregulation and user pays. The future of industrial arbitration, having long since curtailed the privileges of the male breadwinner, is itself in doubt.

So, too, the radical nationalist interpretation of the nation’s past gave way. At first, in the Cold War of the Fifties, conservatives wanted to repudiate the indigenous popular identity and dwelt on philistinism and levelling conformity. Then, in the late Sixties, a challenge came from a younger generation of radicals who, in the ferment of the Vietnam War and feminist and Aboriginal activism, dwelt on the silences and equivocations of the established account: the demotic was now seen as authoritarian, militarist, racist and sexist. Finally, and in the end most tellingly, there was the cumulative effect of agnostic academic scholarship that finally closed off the Old Left perspective.

How to reconstruct the fragments? My own strategy was to dust off a convention of the original Oxford History of England and restore a national discourse to the absent centre. This could no longer mean – as it had meant for Clark or Woodward or Taylor – the public endeavours of influential men to control national events. It would have to accommodate the greatly enlarged range of contingent relationships that the new social history had uncovered. It would need to attend to the politics of the workplace and the family, and to problematise the politics of the nation. More than happy to abandon the illusion of the general historian as the grand synthesiser, I remained convinced that a holistic account could make sense of even the more arcane forms of recent historical scholarship.

Beverley Kingston works with a different strategy in her volume of the Oxford History, which covers the period immediately before mine. I began with a series of discursive chapters on aspects of material and social life, and my history then rumbled into narrative movement that accelerated as the chronological tug became steadily more insistent. Hers is organised into five themes – materialism, belief, society, culture and power – and its tempo is more even. I conformed to the conventional periodisation – early Commonwealth, war, Twenties, depression, war. She eschews the conventional markers and not even the epic strikes of the Nineties interrupt the resolutely non-narrative treatment. I worked closely from the specialist literature. She guides the reader to the most important scholarly account, but the tone of her history comes from contemporary sources. As she explains in a bibliographical note, ‘the most recent work does not necessarily mean the most useful or the best’; ‘modern perceptions of productivity and scholarship’ preclude the substance of older works; ‘the approach of some older works may seem unfashionable, but the content is frequently more detailed.’

Both of us, I think, work at a critical but respectful distance from the radical nationalist interpretation of Australian history. Our subtitles echo our inheritance. Her romantic catchphrase ‘Glad, Confident Morning’ was taken from Browning and used in a key passage in the work of Brian Fitzpatrick, a libertarian radical and freelance mentor of the Old Left historians. He wrote of the strikes and the depression and drought at the end of the century as bringing to an end an age of innocence: ‘What took place was like the ending of childhood: the curtain’s fall on wide-eyed expectation, the entrance instead of uncertainty, doubt and mistrust: “never glad confident morning again”.’ My response, ‘The Succeeding Age’, came from Nettie Palmer, a writer and critic, and a close associate of Fitzpatrick’s, who on the eve of the Second World War reread Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and its speculative reference to Terra Australis Incognita, and reflected: ‘this is the succeeding age, and a difficult one: here are we, a part of mankind, and being forced to face the fact.’ But whereas I saw the Succeeding Age in much the same way as Palmer saw it, Kingston’s reassessment of the Glad Confident Morning is far more challenging.

She begins on the frontier of white settlement and establishes its dynamic in the interaction between imperial capital and labour and colonial cupidity. She traces the movement of the frontier ever further from the centres of population in the south-east corner of the continent, away from the pastoral heartlands made familiar on the canvasses of Streeton and Roberts, to a harsher and more elemental environment north of the Capricorn. Here the bush legend is turned inside out. The reliance on Aboriginal stockmen and concubines calls the racial and sexual foundations of colonial society into question. Similarly, her treatment of Belief shows the imposition of nationalism, along with science, political economy and secular progress, on popular customs and practices.

Class is a minor element in her analysis of society, which brings out the role of the family as the basic social unit and that of women in the maintenance of society. Leisure overshadows work in Kingston’s account, and social practices are more fundamental than political practices or the activities of the state. Above all, she breaks down the idealised and undifferentiated ‘people’ who were the subject of the popular version of the past into geographical, demographic, religious, occupational and temperamental patterns. The interpretation is illuminated with flashes of insight and she delivers some of her most arresting observations with wry understatement. Readers unfamiliar with the subject might not appreciate the full magnitude of her achievement, but they will delight in its richness.

They will notice also that it is wholly untroubled by the conjunction that exercised Bill Somerville’s son, for Australian historiography has left behind the argument between imperial apologists and indigenous asserters of independence. For Kingston, as for the great majority of her colleagues, the civilisation that was created in Australia needs no such validation. While problems of national identity remain insistent, responses are no longer constrained within the outmoded alternatives of Government House and the bush smithy. Yet for those whose understanding of their native culture was formed while that argument seemed to define the range of possible responses, and who sought refuge in exile, the argument continues. The expatriate intellectuals who fled Australia in the Fifties and Sixties carried with them memories and predispositions that they nurtured during their absence and now become even sharper as they recall the place of their youth. Two recent books provide instructive examples.

Jill Ker Conway left Australia in the early Sixties to undertake postgraduate study at Harvard and thereafter pursued with distinction an academic career in North America – Vice-President of the University of Toronto, President of Smith College. Her childhood memories, on a pastoral station deep in New South Wales, begin with the elemental force of the flat, baked earth, the endless horizon and the harsh light. This is the site of a ‘bush ethos’ which she characterises in familiar terms – ‘hard work, self-sufficiency, physical endurance’, loyalty to your mates, disregard for idle speculation, fortitude in the face of recurrent disaster. Her parents embody these values, the father a skilled bushman and returned serviceman, the mother a nurse with sufficient strength to bear and raise her children miles from the nearest neighbour. They consolidate, improve and prosper. For Jill Ker Conway, ‘it was an idyllic world.’

The idyll ends in drought and dust storms and stock losses and mounting anxiety and ill-health and finally death, when her father is found drowned in a dam. Then the shift to Sydney and the discontents of civilisation. In a mean suburban school the traumatised girl runs the gauntlet of class jealousy: ‘Stuck up, ain’t you.’ At an élite Anglican girls’ school she is instructed in a derivative English curriculum and in the mores of Australian middle-class respectability. At home her mother retreats into hypochondria and possessive jealousy. Her success at school and then at the University of Sydney merely intensifies the strain, for now she has to reconcile her awakened interest in literature and history with the Australian distrust of the ‘brainy’ and the particular suspicion of the brainy woman. She found the study of Australian history ‘an exercise in frustration’. Both the imperial version taught at University and the left-wing alternative encountered through fellow students were far removed from her experience and interests, yet there was no way those interests could be pursued within an Australian academic context. The only escape was to the United States.

As so often in Australian autobiographies, the evocation of childhood is surer than that of the transition to adulthood. As nature yields to culture, the diction becomes more uncertain. Americanisms replace Australianisms. Local details are misremembered. Personal experiences are made to carry a heavy symbolic significance. When she is passed over by the Department of External Affairs for men of lesser accomplishment, she discovers ‘kinship with black people’. A visiting American with whom she has an affair is depicted as his country’s answer to Crocodile Dundee, who outdrinks and outshoots his hosts: his life-affirming force frees her from maternal tyranny and unlocks her emotions from the dungeon of Australian stoicism.

John Pilger’s journey back to A Secret Country begins also in a state of nature, Bondi beach, where all are equal, the light has a diamond incandescence and life is ‘healthier and freer sexually than anywhere outside the Trobriand islands’. His remembrance of childhood summers launches him into an exploration of present and past discontents, as well as a search for the vestigial remains of a more authentic Australian past that might provide the basis for regeneration. The discontents are legion: a get-rich-quick mentality that produces increasing extremes of wealth and poverty administered by the Prime Minister and his circle of right-wing Labor politicians who do deals on behalf of their big business and media-magnate ‘mates’ and truckle to the United States in their foreign policy. Pilger’s access to an international audience, his abrasive style and polemical power – the Australia he describes is Texan in its gargantuan vulgarity – command attention. Bob Hawke himself, as well as various press columnists and sundry apologists for the Order of Mates, tried hard to discredit Pilger and his television series The Last Dream which struck such a discordant note in last year’s Bicentennial festivities, and on which his present book is based.

Muckraking telejournalism of this sort works in a declamatory register. The book moves rapidly from one scene to the next, panning from the close-up to wide angle with voice-over and then moving on. The argument is cumulative and allows for few complexities. Unity is provided by Pilger’s conviction that his country is a secret, its land half-won and its story half-told. The crucial evasion, he believes, is the refusal to own that this is a conquest society that compounds its bloody dispossession of the original inhabitants by obliterating them from the historical memory. Until that wrong is remedied, the failure to confront the past will vitiate Australian life.

Like Jill Ker Conway, John Pilger rehearses the complaint that his education failed to equip him with the means to understand the history of his own country. Like her, he describes the stultifying silences of what he calls ‘imperial history’. Unlike her, he suspends judgment on the radical nationalist alternative. Throughout his journey he sets up a version of the past rooted in popular resistance and egalitarian solidarity, but is not sure whether to treat this as a source of strength or to reject it as a false comforter. Against the weight of his material, he concludes the journey with present-day battlers who exemplify the Australian legend – the miners of Broken Hill who seek to defend a century of union militancy in the face of industrial decline, and the farmers of the Western Australian wheat-belt who sink deeper into debt as a result of EEC and United States agricultural policies.

The expatriate puts a shoulder to more than one open door. Back in the old days, the convict skeletons were kept securely locked in closets. As recently as 1940 in Tasmania, where sensitivities were acute, a young historian working in the underground vaults that served as the public record office was surprised to receive an invitation to take morning tea with the Governor. His Excellency wanted reassurance that the scholar was not convict-chasing. At that time the historical debate counterposed the imperial historians, for whom the convicts were a bad lot best forgotten since they tended to pop up embarrassingly in the best family trees, and the radical nationalists for whom they were innocent victims of the British ruling class. The re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet for the Sesquicentenary in 1938 kept the convicts out of sight. For last year’s Bicentenary, replica convict ducks, with imitation ball and chain and spray-on sweat, were sold. So the revelation of a convict ancestor in the Pilger family has none of the iconoclastic impact he expects.

The radical edge to writing on convicts has long since been blunted by those historians whom Robert Hughes, in his epic The Fatal Shore (a tour de force which showed that the expatriate can instruct the locals), labelled as the ‘normalisers’. To expunge the convict stain, the normalisers play down the violence and horror of the transportation system; to affirm a patriotic pride, they dwell on the contribution convicts made to the new nation. Quasi-feminist normalisers present female convicts as successful mothers of future Australians. Now normalising economic historians tell us that the convicts were not criminals at all, merely workers caught up in a global system of forced migration who brought useful skills, were physically fit and productive, belonged to a system of labour based on incentives and rewards, worked fewer hours than most British workers, and enjoyed better diets, more spacious accommodation and a high standard of medical care.

No, this is not a colonial parody of Hard Times. It is a series of claims that the editor and principal author of Convict Workers draws from his computer analysis of 20,000 of the 60,000 convicts sent to New South Wales between 1817 and 1840. Even by the standards of present-day grantsmanship and academic aggrandisement, the book is singularly uncharitable (in its denigration of previous research), ill-founded (it ignores the first thirty years of transportation to New South Wales and excludes altogether the 67,000 convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land) and confused (it labours under the illusion that the study of the official convict indents constitutes ‘history from below’). When Russel Ward and the other radical nationalist historians rescued the convicts from the enormous condescension of posterity and made them the progenitors of the Australian legend, could they have foreseen their eventual fate – to serve as human capital?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences