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

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

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.

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