John Hirst (1942–2016)
Remembering a historian of fierce independence and unusual originality

There was a persistent theme in the tributes to the eminent historian John Hirst that appeared on social media at the news of his untimely death earlier this month, especially among those from younger historians: although they did not agree with everything he ever said or wrote, they admired and respected him.

Hirst might have found the idea that anyone was likely to agree with everything that anyone else might say as amusing as his sudden prominence on social media. He would certainly have found the implication that anyone could agree with everything that he had to say a most peculiar one. Hirst prided himself on his resistance to the current of fashionable opinion, and he was above all else a fiercely independent intellectual.

I’ve thought long and hard about why Hirst evoked this kind of response. He evoked it in me, too, and in many others I know. Apart from his personal generosity and kindness, I think it was because he wasn’t afraid to argue a case – historical or political – from a set of premises he knew to be debatable. Even if you could not accept those premises – for instance, that border protection was not thoroughly entangled in Australia’s distinctive and resilient politics of race – it was hard not to admire the passion, the fluency and the consistency with which Hirst would then prosecute his argument. The value was really in the case itself which, in his hands, would take flight with wings of its own.

Hirst was not really a historian of the “look at this startling new document I found today” type, although he was certainly no slouch among the dusty archive boxes. He ranged widely, but I believe he was at his best in writing about colonial Australia – the sharpest of his historical articles and essays on the 19th century still disclose a raw intellectual power decades after they were first published. He never seemed quite as comfortable when venturing far into the 20th century. A South Australian by birth and education, his doctoral research culminated in a fine study, Adelaide and the Country, 1870–1917: Their social and political relationship (1973) that remains the standard work on its subject. But it was the appearance of his Convict Society and its Enemies (1983) a decade later that announced the arrival of a historian of unusual originality.

In effect, Hirst founded a school of historical writing about convict Australia that is usually – if somewhat simplistically – referred to as the “normalisers”. The convict system, he argued, had suffered bad press in being presented as a form of slavery. Those who had wanted to end transportation had represented it as a brutal system dominated by chains and floggings, one that debased master and convict alike. He argued that this was essentially political rhetoric put about by enemies of the penal system; it did not correspond with a more prosaic reality. Colonial New South Wales, he said, “was not a society which had to become free; its freedoms were well established from the earliest times”. Even Robert Hughes, who would later write a bestseller indebted to the very image of convict society Hirst had tried to overturn (The Fatal Shore), could not but admire the persuasiveness of his argument.

Hirst was not afraid to take up some of the big controversies and puzzles in Australian historical writing – as in his recent Australian History in 7 Questions – or to challenge the orthodoxies created by the profession’s biggest names. So Geoffrey Blainey thought distance shaped Australia? Hirst was doubtful, and he outlined his case to his colleagues with characteristic eloquence in their premier professional journal, Historical Studies, in 1975. Russel Ward reckoned that the noble bushman, the pastoral worker, was the typical Australian? What about the pioneer, asked Hirst in the same journal in 1978; the conservative and patriotic small farmer who was also widely noticed and frequently celebrated? The federation of the Australian colonies was a mere business deal? Hirst wrote a whole book, and a very good one – A Sentimental Nation: The making of the Australian Commonwealth (2000) – putting that one to rest, presenting it instead as the fruit of nationalist idealism.

Hirst understood that nationalist idealism particularly well because he felt it so strongly himself. But I also sensed disappointment here: Australia never quite lived up to his ambitions for it. In these matters, he sometimes seemed like a talented bowler stuck on a pitch – his home turf, no less – that offered precious little encouragement.

Hirst did not shy away from the fundamentally political and contemporary nature of historical writing, including his own. But his politics were much harder to pin down than the recent predictable headline in the Australian proclaiming him a “culture warrior” might lead one to imagine. He was an active and principled supporter of public education, but became a critic of what he regarded as some of the sloppier, levelling versions of progressive pedagogy. He believed in economic redistribution but came to worry about welfare dependence. He thought Australia’s immigration program a great success but was a sceptic about some versions of multicultural ideology. He was an ALP voter by instinct and practice – he had been greatly angered by the dismissal of the Whitlam government – but he increasingly presented as a disappointed Labor man. At one point during the Howard era he declared in an op-ed that he was a social democrat and therefore a supporter of John Howard!

He was out of sympathy with the libertarianism of the 1970s, a period that coincided with his work on Convict Society and its Enemies; by his own account, working on that book changed his “bedrock assumptions about the world”. Hirst often found himself sympathising not with the convicts – which would have been a familiar enough stand for someone of the left – but with the masters and others in authority. His understanding, he recalled, was influenced by dealing with a “very rebellious teenager” at home: “I was under siege myself as I watched masters trying to control convicts.” An unusual insight into the relationship between this – or perhaps any – private man and public historian.

More distinguished books followed: in 1988, the year of the Bicentenary, there was The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy; perhaps less successful than the startling Convict Society and its Enemies, but all the same an important contribution to our understanding of the development of Australian political culture and one I still use in my own teaching. Hirst puzzled over how democracy seemed to have come into being “almost without a struggle” – a claim that has been hotly contested by others in the years since he wrote – and somewhat in the manner of EM Forster he seemed to want to offer only two cheers for the results. “But why should we care what [democracy] was like?” Hirst asked at the beginning of the book, before answering his own question: “Because in many fundamentals this is the political world we still inhabit.”

Hirst did not jump on and off bandwagons. A republican out of historical expertise and political conviction, he threw himself into the cause with passion and energy. He served as the first Victorian convener of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), and was also appointed by the Keating Government to its Republic Advisory Committee. He did not commit himself to republicanism because it was the flavour of the month, but rather out of a belief that Australian democracy would be incomplete for as long as its people owed allegiance to the British monarchy. As he made clear in A Republican Manifesto (1994), Hirst did not see a republican Australia as a break with our British past but rather as completing a decolonising and democratising process he had traced through his three major works of Australian history since the 1970s. ARM’s weakness for glitzy celebrities, however, ensured that the country’s leading republican intellectual would have no place at the table when a convention finally met in Canberra to devise a model for a referendum. The occasion and the nation were the poorer for it.

There were perhaps some complex issues on which he might have been well advised not to tread – the area of family law and fathers’ rights springs to mind – but it was hard not to see the usual Hirst traits in this business; his compassion for a student in distress; the embrace of a cause and a case he considered right; his belief that historians should be public intellectuals grappling with difficult things that mattered. Hirst was a frequent contributor to newspaper opinion pages not because he particularly enjoyed the limelight – I never sensed any desire for fame – but because it was part of his ideal of engaged citizenship. Hirst set a high bar for himself in such matters. There was a fierce intensity to many of his contributions to the media, including for the Monthly. These were invariably delivered in his spare but compelling prose.

The public saw a creative historian capable of engaging a wide audience, as well as a public intellectual who delighted, infuriated and provoked. Hirst’s colleagues in academia knew this John Hirst, but also a generous colleague and decent man. He spent a long career at La Trobe University in Melbourne, contributing to making its history program one of the strongest in the country. He was a committed teacher as well as a highly successful supervisor of postgraduate theses on a bewildering array of topics. Several of his students are now successful history professors in their own right, often with historical interests and political opinions diametrically opposed to Hirst’s, yet grateful for the guidance and support he offered them as young scholars. He also edited the nation’s leading academic history journal, Historical Studies (now Australian Historical Studies). And the large number of tributes that have appeared on the web in recent weeks attests to the boards and committees on which Hirst served, even during a busy retirement. Governments from both sides of politics felt able to call on his skills, judgment and expertise. Meanwhile, a new generation of postgraduate history students at the University of Sydney has in recent years learned from him the craft of historical writing, just as new readers of his work in several countries can enjoy his bestselling The Shortest History of Europe, which was a surprising late-season fruit of his teaching at La Trobe. It has now been translated into Chinese, something about which he was justly proud when I last saw him.

I cannot claim to have known John well, but our acquaintanceship went back over 20 years and he was a generous supporter of my career at critical junctures. In recent years, I visited him at his home in Coburg occasionally, where we would have a coffee either in a nearby shop or in his and Christine’s front room. I always enjoyed these brief moments in his company. We last exchanged emails just a few weeks ago: he wrote to congratulate me on my book on the 1980s, which he’d just read. Having encountered a passage in it on Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’, he had looked the song up on YouTube to see what all the fuss was about. Couldn’t hear a word of it, John reported, but it spoke of his intellectual openness that he had bothered to look. I suggested he try the Johnny Cash cover version.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University. His books include The Sex Lives of Australians and The Eighties.

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