A rich history of failure: Australian history according to undergraduates

Bruce and Willis. Or: Arthur Loureiro's Death of Burke (1892).

What follows is a collection of excerpts from genuine undergraduate history essays across Australia. Compiled by Professor Neve R. Stenning-Stihl, here is Australian history as you've never known it:

Australian History is a broad subject in which many influences and events have gathered to form what is known as the past.

British migrants who came to Australia from 1788 didn’t bring much cultural baggage because the boats were so small. On the convict ships, bibles were given to convicts and women. Women ripped out the pages for hair curls. This was to teach moral upright behaviour.

When Captain James Cook first landed in Sydney Harbour his orders were to start a convict colony. They found that the local Aboriginal people, the Eora, were littered throughout the landscape. One of the tactics the Aborigines used was to stand on rocks and scream things out aloud to scary people away.  They tried to leave the British alone, which only made them madder.

When the First Fleet arrived, there was not much shopping in Sydney. Convicts roamed the muddled land. We know that convicts had families, houses and lives beyond the convict stigmata. What cheap source of building material could they use for their houses? Timber. There was so much of it, there it was just standing there asking to be cut down and put to use. Australia was the land of convicts without bars. All but one convict successfully escaped from Cockatoo Island during its entire history.  Later, people did not remember the convicts. They simply chose to erase them. Convict relatives were callously chopped off the family tree.

Life in New South Wales was seen as a living hell, so the main focus of survival was the past time of drinking. Another reason for the popularity of beer was due to the poor quality of drinking water. Beer contained a chemical called hops, which acted as a natural bacteria killer, so it can be said that health reasons were the values reflected by the popularity of drinking.

In 1808 the Rum Rebellion saw the overthrow of Governor Blight. The most recognised architects that arrived in the colony were two men by the names of Francis Greenway and Bristol Assizes. You can see their buildings in Macquarie Street. Macquarie Street still reaps with historical content.

Many Australians viewed their history sheepishly. In 1841 the average number of sheep per shepherd was 450. In comparison, in 1851 each shepherd was in the care of over 1000 sheep. In the 1840s depression the sheep were burned down for tallow and candlemaking. But the introduction of Alien species to the environment compounded the effects of soil erosion with hooves and the tendencies of European animals to up-route fauna.

During the Gold Rushes there was a belief that the lower classes may finally emerge from the basement of society. At the Eureka Stockade, women were there. Anastasia Hayes opposed verminously the treatment of men on the goldfields. Others like Bridget Hayes and Phobie Scoobie assisted the wounded and protected bodies when soldiers were attempting to baronet them by shouting ‘they are dead!’

The pattern of economic development from the 1830s to 1900 can be summed up in one word: ROLLER  COASTER. Cities started to grow. Melbourne although exploded quicker than Sydney, some what slowed right down at a quicker rate. The first bridge in Melbourne was a bow-string iron construction built in 1854 at the end of William Street with others following in pursuit. Stores started to specialise in certain goods and awnings. Sewage started to be run though the city. In Sydney the land surrounding Oxford Street was divided into sections, with hopes of forming Sydney in a grid, although they were not completely successful, as Oxford Street is bent.

One way that the cities were made more respectable in the Victorian period was that gentiles moved into the area. The middle and upper classes didn’t want to share parks with the working class because they were scared they would spread disease for hygiene purposes. Cities are important for the work of Australian painters. Jeffrey Smart’s two main inspirations were TS Elliot and his birth city of Adelaide. Both of which helped him with his style of emptiness and emotional detachment.

In the 19th-century city, prostitutes occupied a variety of positions. The historical impression of prostitution notoriously has a shady storyline suspect to more probing. Prostitutes are commonly depicted as being very sexually promiscuous.  Some historians suggest that the history of prostitution is largely oral.

The outback was regarded as an anecdote for urban decadence. It’s really important to understand who were the different explorers for e.g. Bruce and Willis. The national sediment of the bush life will be forever ingrained in the image of Australia. The bushman’s life was hard. As the bushman is resting in his ‘dingy little office, where a stingy ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall’. Yet under these terrible conditions, the bushman would gain character but more importantly an identity. The bushmen’s health-related concern about sunburn in Australian society during the 1850s may have contributed to the formation of its national identity as a sunburned country that Australia is so fondly described as in literature, for example, Dorothy Mackellar’s poem ‘I love a Sunburned Country’. Many people go missing in the bush and have done so throughout history (take for example the Stolen Generations).

In the nineteenth century it was commonly thought that the Aboriginal race was inferior and dying out and that it was the duty of white Australians to ‘fluff the pillow’. However, their attempts to sooth a dying pillow were just a ply to serve the economic needs of whites. The Aboriginal cricket tour to England in 1868 was perhaps a contribution to smoothing the pillow of the Aborigines. (However, why you would take them on a ship to England to smooth a pillow is beyond my comprehension). Later, Aborigines fought for their rights, for example, the Mambo case.

Many significant church buildings erupted during the period. Missionaries began to grow in the second half of the nineteenth century. Australia was a religiously rooted country.

In the 1890s strikes the Chinese in Melbourne who owned and ran Laundromats were seized upon as the enemy. All the tailors started using stopwatches. The community that developed on the waterfront created a union conciseness. However, the working class continued to bear the grunt of economic burden.

Federation in 1901 was not to bore a nation, but to affiliate its colonies. The six colonies of Australia were united in a park.

During World War 1 Prime Minister Joseph Cook said Australians should grid up their lions for Briton. People couldn’t believe the Gaul of him. The First World War forced a lot of women into labour. After the war people such as Keith Murdoch, Charles Bean and Hobart Mercury built and shaped the Anzac Legend.

In the 1920s radio came to the fore, cinema became the passion of suburbanites, electric trains and electricity came into the home. Women’s fashion changed, the waist line dropped to the hips and the backside was flattened out of existence. With the cities now relying on electricity for lights at night, night life took off, and women went with it. Females (Feminism Movement) did a lot to establish retail and shopping. They pushed for sexuality - always made themselves look nice and had sparkling nightlife. Many unemployed youths had sought solstice in the emerging phenomenon of surf culture. Out of a desire to regulate their behaviour was born the life-savors movement.

In World War 2 Prime Minister Menzies sent the six deviations to Egypt for training. After the war, population was a concern, so recruitment began, hoping for British, but invaded with Asians, the city population bursted. Most Italian immigrants came from an impoverished background and had not received any vocal training beyond the most basic level.

If we thought the last 150 years were destructive the next 150 would change the landscape to unrecognisable.

Australia’s Holy Trinity of national heroes are: the bushranger Banjo Patterson; the cricketer Mark Wayne (or Shane Wayne); and the horse Farlapse.

As you can see, Australia has a rich history of failure.

*In the tradition of Anders Henriksson's "A History of the Past: Life Reeked with Joy" (Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1983)

Professor Neve R Stenning-Stihl

Professor Neve R Stenning-Stihl has tirelessly taught history to generations of students across Australia.  She enjoys hiking, spherical shapes and rummaging through her late great-grandfather's collection of fossilised sea urchins.

Read on

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?