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Our past revisited: new Cambridge History of Australia gives us the big picture

This week’s launch of the two-volume Cambridge History of Australia comes just as the Coalition government fires the opening salvo of a new battle in the Australian history wars. Over the past 12 months…

A new academic work which covers all of Australia’s history is a timely addition to Australian historical scholarship. Australia image from www.shutterstock.com

This week’s launch of the two-volume Cambridge History of Australia comes just as the Coalition government fires the opening salvo of a new battle in the Australian history wars.

Over the past 12 months, the Coalition has signalled its intent to review the teaching of Australian history in the nation’s schools and new education minister Christopher Pyne looks set to deliver on the promise.

It just so happens that one of the editors of the latest Cambridge History is none other than the University of Melbourne’s Professor Stuart Macintyre, a veteran of the history wars and lead writer of the national history curriculum.

If historians are set to return to the trenches, what better time for the latest interpretations of Australia’s history from the nation’s leading scholars to appear?

Under the guidance of Professors Macintyre and Alison Bashford of the University of Sydney, the Cambridge History of Australia brings together the work of over 60 historians to present a “state of the field” of Australian history writing in the 21st century. Several years in the making, this history of Australia appears 25 years after the last large-scale, collaborative effort in Australian history writing in recognition of the Bicentenary.

Five years after the apology to the Stolen Generations, and on the eve of the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli, the contributors respond to the ongoing tensions between past and present from post-colonial, feminist, cultural, transnational and interdisciplinary perspectives.

The editors have assembled an impressive team of contributors, who enjoy national and global recognition in their fields, and range from emerging to established scholars. This array of expertise allows experienced scholars to reflect on decades of research, while at the same time bringing exciting new voices to the table.

Collaboration and cooperation are key to the production of works of this scale, not just in its preparation but in the practice of history itself. Through extensive debate and discussion about the range of historical scholarship in Australia and abroad, the contributing historians have crafted their chapters to show the breadth and depth of academic Australian history today.

The Cambridge History of Australia spans Australia’s history from ancient times to the 21st century, with federation in 1901 dividing the two volumes. The volumes are structured both chronologically and thematically, so that in depth analysis of a particular aspect of the past complements the broader historical narrative of the nation’s history.

The contributors chart and contextualise enormous changes over time, not only in terms of the continent and its people, but also the writing of Australian history itself. Historians and the histories they write are products, after all, of their time, and like Australia, they have turned from the imperial to the national and, in recent times, to the global in their outlook. Meanwhile, the emphasis on place and locality, on particularity and distinctiveness, has strengthened.

Reflecting these trends, the project does well to draw out both national and regional histories, while highlighting Australia’s place as an island continent. In doing so, the contributors not only engage with Australia’s connections across its surrounding seas and oceans, but they also remind readers of Australia’s local empire and its legacies, particularly in the islands of the Pacific.

A common refrain and reference point for the contributors is Edmund Barton’s 1898 declaration: “For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation”. These words open up a space to explore Australian history over a range of time spans: from geological or “deep” time, to prehistory to a more recent “national” history, through archaeology, environmental history, economic history and so on.

But Barton’s words also pointed to isolation and its attendant anxieties, which are also threaded through the volumes, not least in a chapter dedicated to “Security” in the 20th century. It is a theme that continues in the closing chapter by historian Mark McKenna, which offers a fitting and provocative conclusion to the volumes. In his reflection on “The History Anxiety”, he explores the self-consciousness of settler societies about their histories and the sensitivities that the search for a foundational narrative can stir.

McKenna maps the steps towards the Apology as an attempt to end the nation’s anxieties about its history of Indigenous-settler relations, and contends that the resurgence of the Anzac legend has provided a more “secure” sense of the nation’s past for many Australians that offers “honour and pride rather than guilt and shame”. This emphasis on emotion and attachment was striking throughout McKenna’s chapter, and a timely reminder of the significance and value that Australians place on the nation’s past.

Retailing at A$325 and extending to some 1,500 pages, the two-volume set is certainly not for the faint hearted. Nor will it sate the expert seeking in depth analysis. The natural habitat for such species is on the reference shelves of libraries in Australia and overseas, where it can be readily accessed and utilised as a synthesis of Australian history captured at this particular moment in time.

It offers valuable overviews of important historical moments and themes, ranging from Indigenous and settler relations, to the environment and religion, to the microeconomic reforms of the 1980s which teachers in high schools and universities will surely appreciate for their classes.

You might wonder whether, in our age of Wikipedia and with the enormous growth of history-writing in Australia, such encyclopaedic tomes have become defunct. The hunger for history that these trends suggest, however, highlights the significance and value of such works, rather than their irrelevance.

An authoritative text such as the Cambridge History of Australia helps the reader to navigate this vast ocean of research and to steer her through the field’s choppy seas. To continue the nautical metaphor, such works help to steady the ship, to take stock, and to seek new directions. Moreover, they reveal that the conversation between the present and the past is ongoing and enduring, no matter where and when or how the battle lines are drawn.

Join the conversation

41 Comments sorted by

  1. Stewart Riddle

    Lecturer in Literacies Education at University of Southern Queensland

    This all sounds awesome, but it's not going to stop Pyne et. al from dismissing the entire project as a 'leftist' propaganda project aimed at reducing our children's appreciation for the Eurocentric white-protestant-male-Australia version of history. *sigh* If only our conservative politicians learnt to keep their hands off the History curriculum...

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    1. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Stewart Riddle

      "Progressives" ought to keep their hands of the history curriculum as well, then. The text has scholars from "post-colonial, feminist, cultural, transnational" perspectives. Some of these sound very "progressive" to me. To claim that their approach isn't political is pure dishonesty.

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    2. Stewart Riddle

      Lecturer in Literacies Education at University of Southern Queensland

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Who said that "progressives" aren't political?! It's impossible to opine on education without drawing on political, ethical and critical values. However, for our education minister to claim that the History curriculum takes a ''black armband view of Australia's history'' is simply plain wrong.

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    3. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Stewart Riddle

      Actually, there are a number of university courses that take the black armband view. In fact, is there a university course today that teaches only a pro-British view? Humanities and Social Sciences departments are stacked with "progressives". Do you think they're going to represent a view of history that goes against their ideology?

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Let's face it, it's not exactly a pretty picture.......

      We've said sorry and more, now at least lets be brave enough to own up to what went on.

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    5. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Who is "we"?

      But, I know what you mean. The people that treated the Aboriginals badly where white, therefore, white people today must feel guilt and shame over this. A racist argument if there ever was one. All us white people are the same eh? Maybe all those blackfellas are the same, too? Perhaps next time an Aboriginal person assaults a non-Aboriginal person I'll tar them all with the same brush. Or, maybe next time an ethnic Lebanese assaults someone we can blame all Lebanese. Of course, though, this would be racist. But for some reason poor ol' whitey cops all the racial taunts without any repercussions.

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    6. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Your words not mine.

      We as a nation via the PM have said sorry.

      Did I say guilt and shame (no YOU did).

      I have immense regret at what happened historically, but I do not have any guilt or shame.

      In reality it was the English wot did it.

      Please Mr Fields, don't put words into my mouth.

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    7. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hmmm, I am not so sure you can bag our English forebears without taking some of the flak yourself.

      Whilst, as you claim, our Prime Minister apologised to the stolen generation, I note that you still live on stolen land, as do many others who support the so called 'progressive' view of history.

      When you give your land back to the local Aboriginals in your area, you can consider yourself cleansed of historical guilt.

      But as usual, nobody will give their stolen land back preferring to offer words instead.

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    8. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Oh pooh Gerald

      The whole world is in trouble if past crimes and misdemeanours are taken into account.

      Is every German living responsible for the Holocaust, or every Chinese guilty for the Rape of Nanking etc etc etc etc etc.

      I do regret that "english" comment though, but only b/c it tended to make light of a serious issue.

      Oh btw I don't own any land to give back, but can I give back yours in recompense.

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    9. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Stewart Riddle

      Stewart,

      You said: " If only our conservative politicians learnt to keep their hands off the History curriculum..."

      I agree wholeheartedly.

      The only people who should be allowed to propagandise and slant are progressives. After all, conservatives might say somethine progressives don't want let out, or put an emphasis on things that progressives would prefer were not bandied about, and we all know that shouldn't be allowed.

      Progressives, as we all know, are on the moral and intellectual high ground, and we have to make sure this is what all children are taught, regardless of what their may parents want.

      No one but progressives can be trusted to keep to the permitted narratives.

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    10. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      If you do not have a warts and all history curriculum than it is not a true reflection of history. That has nothing to do with 'Progressives' so to speak. It is more about being honest rather than resorting to a narrow propaganda view of history.

      Even the United States does not hide from its Indian wars, its role in slavery, or any of its other warts. Yet it seems our conservatives want to stick purely to a white Anglo-Saxon/British view of the history of Australia. My ancestors are all of…

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    11. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      Well, I believe that history should walk the middle path between the black armband view and the pro-British view. This would encompass a "warts and all" perspective. However, history taught by academics today takes solely the black armband view.

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    12. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Many people may feel as you do Stephen in that we as a nation via the PM said sorry and I have no qualms over Rudd having said that even if the far greater percentage of the nation was not even around for any sorry events of the past nor are involved in sorry events of the present.
      There is however much that occurs regularly all around the planet that we can feel sorry about and hope that some peaceful resolutions can be found for.
      I like you have immense regret and the only shame I would feel…

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    13. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, the belief of some indigenous people at least is that they never owned the land but care for it so who has land been stolen from?
      Are not the systems that are in place for much of the planet a result of the evolution of mankind as different civilisations and cultures have developed.
      It is said that Australia's indigenous came from the north at a time when crossing oceans was not as necessary and that there were even territorial wars way back when, certainly there being many languages and some differences of appearance between indigenous peoples of different regions and that may indicate something of the evolutionary movements.

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    14. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      'Black armband view' I'm not sure what that means. I know that people use it to dismiss what went on in the early days of settlement, but when a mate dies, do you not wear a black armband? Isn't it a sign of respect?

      The inability to feel some remorse for the treatment of the Aborigines is I think a feeling of guilt. Terra nullius. A lie. The fact that they didn't develop the country. When in fact they did. A Stonehenge older than Stonehenge itself. Fish traps thousands of years old…

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    15. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      "However, history taught by academics today takes solely the black armband view".

      Is it? Thomas I would suggest that is a rather broad questionable assessment of the way history is taught today by academics. Are you sure you want history taught that encompasses a "warts and all" perspective? Because as far as I can see your criticism is very much akin to those who strongly defend pro British white perspective that I was taught at school in the 1950's and 1960's and is still clung to by many…

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    16. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Greg North

      "Gerard, the belief of some indigenous people at least is that they never owned the land but care for it so who has land been stolen from"?

      Even though I do not have an in dept understanding of Aboriginal history. I know that all Aboriginal families and tribes or clans depending on how you term it all had a known claim on territory and resources with that territory.

      They might not have written official ownership as we now know it, but that form of ownership is a very recent form of ownership…

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    17. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      There is an extent of truth to what you say Peter and also much which could be questioned or is relatively unknown for in the first instance indigenous peoples have often been regarded as nomadic, that possibly giving us the thoughts of they having been wanderers and gatherers, living with the land as it can often be put rather than off it.
      At the same time the impression of being nomadic and wanderers is possibly something of a generalisation and it could be that it is something that has been developed…

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    18. Donald Runcie

      retired

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      Peter, I and I would imagine many others would prefer a "warts and all' perspective, providing it mentioned facts like that modern Australia is one of the few if not the only society where there has never been slavery. Forget the Fatal Shore-convicts here were not slaves. Other facts like that Australia is one of the few if not the only county where independent states came together to form a larger country without bloodshed. I wonder these facts are in the new history,

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    19. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to Donald Runcie

      SYDNEY, Australia — Shackled, flogged with kangaroo hide whips and raped at will, Australia's slaves died by the thousands.

      Between 1842 and 1904 more than 60,000 men and boys from the South Pacific islands, and an unknown number of women and girls, were kidnaped and brought to Australia to work as slaves on the sugar plantations that still dot the country's northeast coast.

      Los Angeles Times October 13, 1991

      There's more if you want to read it.

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    20. Donald Runcie

      retired

      In reply to Phil Dolan

      Phil, take a Valium, and look up Quadrant Online, current issue.
      Read the article pp7-12, "The Infamous Omissions from Australian History", and look up the footnotes, Page 6 outlines the differences between the Melanesian experience in Queensland, and the experience of eastern Polynesians in the Chincha Islands off Chile. These two experiences have been confused. I would prefer believe to the latest Quadrant than the Los Angelese Times of 1991.

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    21. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to Donald Runcie

      Quadrant and Keith Windshuttle? That's like Andrew Bolt and climate change.

      I Actually bought a Quadrant once. Threw it in the bin before I got halfway through.

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    22. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      You said: "Well, I believe that history should walk the middle path between the black armband view and the pro-British view"

      Nope, that is just another attempt at indoctrination, albeit in a different direction.

      The problem is, there are such a large number of views that can be taken of history, and all can be correct. It depends on your emphasis.

      Consider, class war, Imperial progress, influence of the anglosphere, black armband, kings and dates, glory of empire, clash of ideas...

      These…

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    23. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      When I was taught history in the 1980s and 1990s it was simply a matter of dates and occurrences: "this happened on this date", "that happened on that date", and so forth. There was little to no moralization of history. When I started university in the early 2000s, history had been completely re-written from the (supposed) perspectives of Aboriginals, women, and ethnic minorities. It was also taught in a way that introduced an oppressor/oppressed paradigm, which was saturated with morality; oppressor…

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    24. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Thomas, you can keep repeating your view ad infinitum but, withpout citing anything that might reasonably be regarded as evidence it is merely a personal assertion and of little value.

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    25. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Donald Runcie

      Donald, insulting people who offer substantial contrary evidence with patronising an dpompous lines like 'take a Valium' indicates merely that your comments are as arrogant as they are vacuous.

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  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    The world and each of it's countries and islands have only ONE history.

    It's the variations that have counted for much of the recounting of that history.

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  3. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Ruth. Yes, once more unto the fray for Professor Macintyre with this new Cambridge tome signifying the territory and the heritage to defend? But the resurgent neoconservatives, the new generation of denialists/"white blindfold"/Howard's soldier sons are more aggressive, more opinionated, more fundamentalist, organised and well armed now in their ideological campaigns. Their underlying structure and organisation, crypto-fascist and subliminal in form inspired by the US neocon fatherland's…

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    1. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Black armbands - what rubbish! It's just a matter of recognizing that any time a technologically or administratively superior culture encounters a less developed one it can dominate, it will.

      Should I feel aggrieved that my English ancestors treated my Celtic ancestors abominably? Should I be distressed that one or more of my female ancestors had an unpleasant close encounter with a Viking? Surely over time all this washes out.

      So it will in respect of the Aborigines.

      No one should deny that the European settlers treated the Aborigines badly. But what's done is done and shouldn't be denied. However, over time the pain will lessen. It just shouldn't be forgotten.

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " Nor will it sate the expert seeking in depth analysis. "
    Indeed, it is not to be expected that two volumes can offer all on history but offer overviews as well as being a guide.

    That we have a volume for pre federation and one for post federation does seem to be questionable on balance of what is relevant for whilst there is no harm for modern day Australians to have a sense of settlement and what has transpired throughout the 1800s in the lead up to federation, our future no doubt is going…

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  5. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    Thank goodness for Stuart MACINTYRE and his team - for this new Cambridge History of Australia. It is clear that the general ignorance of history - or rather the fear of its spotlight - is alive and strong within the commentary contributions re this essay from Ruth. We need such histories. Black armbands help us to see the whitewash. I was impressed by the ABC - TV documentary last night (Sunday Sept. 6) on Yagan - and the campaign for the return of his head from the UK - where it had been sent, severed and pickled in 1833 - led by WA's Ken COLBUNG. Brilliant re-enactment, historical sources, nuanced at the time - nothing truly black and white - who could not feel grief at the trivial way in which this young man was sacrificed to the ignorance and whipped up fears of those times by those invading his land. Read Archie WELLER's poem about the the earlier murder of his brother and father to give you some perspective, too.

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  6. John Pollard

    Casual Observer

    SJR I don't think too many Chinese feel guilt for the rape of Nanking, as it was committed by the Japanese. I feel the treatment of the convict class can be added to the atrocities perpetrated by the British, and for which they ought apologise. Read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.

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    1. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to John Pollard

      John, to whom, exactly, should the British apologise?

      OK, we all should recognise that there was something close to an undeclared civil war going on in Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries, between the haves and the have nots. But we, today, who can trace at least part of our ancestry back to Britain in those times are likely to have derived part of our genetic endowment from each side of the conflict.

      Learn from the past, but don't dwell on it.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to John Pollard

      Yep you're right of course - a senior moment on my part.

      History is not pretty reading, in every sense it's a bit of peace between a lot of wars and a whole lot of a minor and major atrocities.

      There's a lot to be sorry for - perhaps the UN should have a world SORRY day.

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    3. Donald Runcie

      retired

      In reply to John Pollard

      John, after reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, read Freedom on the Fatal Shore by John Hurst.(2008).

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  7. Gary Stainton
    Gary Stainton is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Instructor at BERLITZ

    I read "Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland's Frontier Killing Times" by Timothy Bottoms. (Allen and Unwin 2013.)

    Struck me as a well researched, drawing on Aboriginal oral history and Australian and British published sources.

    Do the "cultural warriors" believe that the events depicted in that book are fiction?

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    1. Donald Runcie

      retired

      In reply to Gary Stainton

      Gary, I really don't know. Read the Quadrant article that I referred to above, and make up your own mind. Quadrant October 2013, "The Infamous Omissions from Australian History",pp7-11, particularly page 10.

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  8. Peter Stanley

    Research Professor in the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at UNSW Australia

    Thank you: a fair summary of the books' stature and significance (I'm a contributor to it). But the article impels me to comment on the author's use of language. Her phrase, that the books can be 'readily accessed and utilised', exposes what's wrong with much published writing today. Ruth means 'found and used' or 'obtained and read'. She employs two vogue words - 'accessed' and 'utilised' - that have swamped older, more direct and clearer words. 'Utlised' is just a longer, fancy Latinised word meaning 'used': so why don't we use it? Excuse the rant but it bears out my axiom of changing language - by the time you notice a deterioration in language it's actually too late to resist it. Doesn't anyone think about the words they choose any more?

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