August 2009

Arts & Letters


By Alan Atkinson
Recent Australian history writing

Australian history writing is on the move. For a long time, the stories of our origins were completely subordinate to our history as a whole, particularly the long legacy of Aboriginal dispossession. But our historians are beginning to recognise that origins in themselves are free of history; it is only their aftermath that makes them historically significant. Thanks to books such as Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003) and James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land (2008) we can now look at our national beginnings suspended in time, before hindsight identified them as the start of a larger national story.

Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land was a bigger and better-informed book. It was an account of European settlement in Tasmania up to about the 1830s – of a community putting down roots, weaving its own fabric of relationships and prospering in the process. The larger nation and the mainland seemed almost completely irrelevant. There was the same sense of a society suspended in time and place, yet reverberating in complicated ways into the present.

Now we have Grace Karskens’ The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Allen & Unwin, 540pp; $59.99) as proof that Dancing with Strangers and Van Diemen’s Land have made a permanent mark. Karskens fully acknowledges her debt to Clendinnen, but she also goes beyond her. She knows as much about the history of the Cumberland Plain as Boyce knows about Van Diemen’s Land, but she makes slightly less of the natural environment than he did and slightly more of the social and domestic. The Colony is a big book, but every page is startling for the mass of human and geographical detail, and for the extraordinary freshness of the argument. It propels Karskens straight to the first rank of Australian historians.

Karskens’ intimate stories give her writing a driving intellectual energy that carries the argument beyond the final page. She turns her back on the wide brown land of the interior, which for her belongs to later years. Instead, she explores the relationship between Sydney and its encircling hinterland and between Sydney and the sea, an area tied together in those days by walking and sailing, by talking and memory, and also by violence. The effects of violence are especially palpable within such narrow boundaries.

For a book about places, this one contains surprisingly few maps. But maps are views from above. Instead we have prose diagrams of feeling. Take the following passage. It draws on an account left by that highly articulate officer of marines, Watkin Tench, of an expedition to the Hawkesbury. The party included several Aborigines, including the Boorooberongal man Yellomundy and his little son Deeimba. It is an example of Karskens’ attempt to convey not only “the passionate curiosity” of the First Fleet officers, but also the network of black and white relations, which was already intricate within three years of landing. “That night”, she writes, “the Europeans and the Aborigines slept together round the campfire. The wakeful Tench watched Yellomundy in the firelight, cradling Deeimba in his arms, carefully moving the child before he turned in his sleep.” Tench watches Yellomundy and Yellomundy has his eye on Deeimba, all within the glow of one subsiding fire.

Karskens’ painstaking way of mapping this “middle ground”, this social space poised between the bewilderment of first landing and the apocalyptic anger of the frontier – between dancing and murder – is extraordinary. We can read about Yellomundy in Tench’s book. But Karskens represents this episode to new effect. Her familiarity with local detail, including memories written down by subsequent generations, makes it possible for her to trace changing attitudes. We can see how Aborigines and Europeans started to copy each other, the blacks forming rows in battle, the whites mimicking black rituals of retribution. Small interconnections of kin, alliance and employment are shown to matter. Intelligently dissected, they explain sudden shifts of loyalty and ambition on both sides – or rather, they undermine any simple notion of two distinct sides.

In Karskens’ pages the past is uncoupled from, and then remarried in a new way to, the present. The focus throughout is on the emotional mapping of small places, such as all human beings still inhabit. Maria Nugent takes another tack. Nugent has made her name describing the history and heritage of Botany Bay, especially its Aboriginal inhabitants. In Captain Cook Was Here (National Museum of Australia, 164pp; $39.99), her time span is at first glance smaller than ever – mainly the eight days that James Cook’s ship Endeavour spent in the same bay. The influence of Dancing with Strangers is especially clear in Nugent’s book. Her style even mimics Clendinnen’s – luxuriously patient and personal, a slow spelling-out of detail, like a dance itself in the way it draws us in. But like Karskens, Nugent takes Clendinnen’s promise further than Clendinnen was prepared to do herself. In Dancing, the Aborigines were “the Australians”. The British were “our white forefathers”. In Captain Cook Was Here, blacks are “locals” and whites are “strangers”. Karskens sometimes calls the British “Berewalgal”, copying Eora usage. These are even more minute and self-contained worlds than the one Clendinnen created.

And yet Nugent too wrestles with the connection between that world and the present. Her Botany Bay is a piece of staged action to be watched and interpreted. Her second-last chapter looks back over the rest and considers the various ways Australians, black and white, have contemplated Cook’s landing, and how those original footsteps have echoed through the intervening years.

The national is bypassed. Or rather, it is just one part of the story, and not necessarily the most interesting part. These authors link the trivial directly with the profound. They appeal not to a late-twentieth-century moral sense, with its concern for individual identity, but to a sense of responsibility rooted in daily relationships and in attachment to familiar and remembered sites, wherever they might be. These books place a particular emphasis on human will, and ask questions about law, and about the protocols of violence and resistance – again, conceived in the largest possible terms, but within narrow geographical and chronological boundaries.

The origins of Melbourne are more obviously replete with legal questions than the origins of Sydney. In Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History (Melbourne University Publishing, 432 pp; $54.99), Bain Attwood builds on all these scholarly developments to give a new account of John Batman’s supposed treaty with the Kulin people of Port Phillip Bay in 1835. This brilliant book draws on a different kind of learning, just as meticulous but more interested in the international context of first settlement, and in a world whose ideas were shifting more quickly perhaps than at any other time in human history. The argument is lucid and masterful. From an Australian point of view it gives a more finely nuanced and convincing account of such matters than any so far written. Crucial are the questions of territorial possession and dispossession, but Attwood, like Karskens, also pinpoints human will, including the will of individuals, in a way that somehow flies free of nationalist considerations.

More than anywhere else in Australia, in Melbourne a ponderous dignity has been built on the conventional account of local origins. Melbourne long saw itself as a centre of national power, and its buildings and monuments give that sense still. It therefore offers especially good material for a study like this. Attwood describes how the site began as a kind of jurisdictional no-man’s land, halfway between the government in Hobart and the government in Sydney. The point of the 1835 treaty was to take advantage of this void. The settlement placed in it, when in due course it began to need a history, fixed on the treaty as a founding document and on Batman as its founding father. The feat of conjuring greatness out of nothing was attributed to one supposedly good man, rather than to a convict bureaucracy.

Attwood’s argument turns on Batman. In legend the treaty was his. But Batman, fact or fiction, seems less solid and enduring than the geographical sites around which the legend grew up. Attwood’s strong sense of territory gives his book its firm underpinning, and anchors it in the wider global history of the time. Geography and law are shown to feed each other, and in a strikingly personalised way.

Boyce, Karskens and Attwood need to be read together. In the re-examination of origins, they are wonderfully complementary. By rearranging the national story they suggest radically new questions about the meaning of the nation itself. 

Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson is an Australian historian and the author of The Europeans in Australia.

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