THE MAKING OF AUSTRALIA:
A Concise History
by Robert Murray
(Sydney: Rosenberg Publishing)
Paperback: 320 pages
(To obtain a copy, please contact publisher)
Reviewed by Geoffrey Partington
There are many competent concise histories of Australia. Murray, in his newly-released The Making of Australia: A Concise History, provides a straightforward account that clearly differentiates between what is known and what is disputed, and he is helped by a very good range of black and white illustrations.
He frequently gives the reader new and interesting information, such as:
• the fact that the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, by which Pope Alexander VI had divided all newly-discovered lands between Portugal and Spain, was invoked to establish the Portuguese-Dutch frontier in Timor and the eastern boundary of Western Australia;
• that rosella parrots gained their name from Rose Hill, New South Wales, now Parramatta;
• that the Revd Henry Fulton (1761-1840) during the 1800s taught Greek and Latin to the children of convicts in Castlereagh, NSW;
• that the term “squatter” rose in general esteem very rapidly during the 1850s.
Murray explains changes in agriculture and sheep-breeding with particular clarity. He observes that a distinctive Australian accent first became widely noted around 1840.
He reminds us of difficulties in naming peoples. For several decades the term “Australians” unqualified usually referred to Aborigines. The central joke in Edward Geoghegan’s most popular play, The Currency Lass (1844), was the misapprehension of the hero’s rich uncle in England that the “native Australian” his nephew was proposing to marry was an Aborigine, who would perpetuate “the family features in bronze”. Natives often bore the same ambiguity, but the terms “cornstalk” or “currency” lads and lasses for the native-born (in contrast to the term “sterling” for the British-born) never became universally adopted.
However, if you want an analysis of disputes among historians of Australia, such as those called the “History Wars”, you may be disappointed. One can see that it would not have remained a “concise” history if Murray had spent a lot of time on the judgments of historians rather than directly on policies and actions.
But some claims and denials about important events in Australian history have been of sufficient importance to demand attention and, indeed, close investigation, since their truth or falsity must significantly influence our overall view of Australia’s place in world history.
For example, during the 1980s Noel Butlin, then professor of economic history in the Research School of Social Sciences in the Australian National University, alleged that the First Fleet of 1788, or one of its immediate successors, had been instructed by Pitt the Younger or some other London figure to infect the Aborigines of the new British colony with smallpox in order to speed up their replacement.
What seemed to many to be a convincing rebuttal of this claim, based on a sound case for the smallpox having travelled southwards from the Gulf of Carpenteria, was ignored in 1999 when Professor Colin Tatz, himself a political refugee from the then apartheid South Africa, wrote: “To date, no one has refuted the hypothesis of the late Professor Noel Butlin … of introduced disease as an intentional weapon of extermination.”
The Making of Australia has many admirable features, including Murray’s explanations of changes in economic life; of relationships between Irish Catholics and other migrants from Great Britain and Ireland; the establishment of colonial democracies in the years that followed the 1850 Australian Colonies Government Act; and the sensible reluctance of British governments to use the disallowing power of the Crown to block colonial legislation, although local laws to establish what became known as the White Australia Policy were a cause of major disagreement between London and the colonies for several decades.
Murray is at his best in describing the growing confidence and expansiveness of post-gold-rush Australia. Each colony for several decades became increasingly confident of its ability to defend itself, with some back-up from the Royal Navy, while the brash Queenslanders annexed Papua in 1883.
The influx of 600,000 immigrants during the 1850s was not dented by the Eureka Stockade and was further stimulated by the arrival of steamships in Sydney and the southern ports in 1852, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the connection of the overland telegraph line in 1870-72 and the telephone in 1878.
There were massive increases in the number of sheep and cattle, and the fall in the wool price in the 1840s was mitigated by the melting down of sheep for tallow. The American Civil War gave a boost to cotton-growing in Queensland, and Kanakas (Pacific Island workers) supplied the labour through an indenture system found satisfactory to most people involved — although later this practice, which was also followed in Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana and South Africa, would be denounced as racist and exploitative.
Murray’s treatment of 20th-century and contemporary political life is exemplary is its even-handedness. His own experiences in youth have clearly shaped his view that unemployment is one of the greatest evils that Australian governments should avoid. His preferences are usually for protectionist policies to safeguard jobs, but he provides space for free trade arguments as well.
Sometimes one wishes that Murray had given us a little more. For example, he describes the influence of Edward Gibbon Wakefield on British colonising policy. Wakefield maintained that land should not be given away or sold cheaply to migrants, since the colonies were in greatest need of wage labour able to move quickly according to changing demand.
Murray might have added that Karl Marx declared that Wakefield had given the final evidence needed for the truth of the Marxist labour theory of value. It is, so far as I know, the only allusion to Australia in Marx’s study, Das Kapital. But again, Murray may well be right in sticking to the main point.
Historians certainly need to be cautious in their use of literary descriptions of events. In Australia the vividness of Marcus Clarke’s classic novel, For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), and, even worse although less influential, its re-cycling by art critic Robert Hughes in the latter’s book The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding (1987), have helped to distort accounts of what was typical in the dreaded prisons of secondary correction.
But Murray has gone to the other extreme and makes no mention of Marcus Clarke and penitentiary literature. To the extent he thinks that Clarke may have misled readers rather than illuminated their vision, Murray could well have shared his findings with his readers.
Sometimes Murray takes the easy way out of a problem by having a bob each way. He writes of William Bligh that “history has been unable to decide how much Bligh’s dictatorial blustering and abusive style was the cause of his troubles, and how much his reforming zeal”. We are entitled to a considered opinion from the author.
Murray comments of the 1850s: “As with all slumps, recovery came.” Yet the world is littered with places that suffered from slumps from which no recovery was ever made.
It was important for Murray to practise self-discipline to ensure that this history was concise. But, as he frequently acknowledges, British policies and the conduct of the Australian colonists towards the Aboriginal peoples of Australia must remain a central concern in any evaluation of the “making of Australia”.
The great shadow over the advance and success of Australian civilisation was a continued fall in Aboriginal numbers in the southern long-settled areas and greater violence in northern Australia than previously. Given the poor results for the Aborigines of southern Australia from the colonial presence, greater militancy and escalating reprisals were to be expected.
Murray is sympathetic to Aboriginal sentiments and interests, but is also concerned that the new Australian society should succeed. His attempts to reconcile contrary interests and allegations are fair and honest. But, as with the Butlin and Tatz accusations, he sometimes fails to look closely at the available evidence and then give us his overall judgment. Too often he describes sources used in highly contradictory claims and counter-claims about numbers of atrocities and deaths as merely “estimates” that are unreliable.
Murray could have chosen just two or three examples of incompatible historical claims and revealed to us the extent to which the problem is one of ambiguity and contradiction in the sources or partisanship on the part of the historians.
For overall clarity and fairness Robert Murray holds his own with the best, but that particular task he does not tackle. This fine book would be even better if he had included an assessment of some irreconcilable claims that trouble many Australians.
The Making of Australia: A Concise History penetrates to the basic reality of Australia’s history since 1788.
On the one hand, it chronicles a fantastic story of success in creating a new nation in which freedom and security are as well balanced as anywhere else in the world, and much more so than in most countries.
On the other hand, it also records the failure so far to provide for its indigenous peoples the full share in that progress and prosperity that all Australians wish for them.
Geoffrey Partington, PhD, was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education, and last year published a book, Making Sense of History