Review: Australian History in 7 Questions, by John Hirst.

Black Inc., 2014, 206pp.9781863956703

John Hirst’s latest book, Australian History in 7 Questions, examines Australian History in a new format. Unlike previous Australian Histories, resembling Manning Clark’s epic six volumes, or Thomas Keneally’s three volumes of Australian History, or The Oxford History of Australia, Hirst addresses Australian History in a thematic aspect, rather than a grand or specific narrative.

The idea for the book derives from Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe, and four lectures given under the title ‘Four Questions in Australian History.’ The lectures were extended to seven questions for the purpose of this book. The question addressed in the book are: “Why did Aborigines not become farmers?”, “How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy?”, “Why was Australia so prosperous so early?”, “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”, “What effect did convict origins have on national character?”, “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, and “Why is Australia not a republic?”.

The questions Hirst has chosen to answer for his readers are specifically chosen. These questions comprehend parts of Australia’s contested history; address Australia’s most treasured myths, overlooked historical questions, and the possibility of Australia’s future. These seven questions also lead to others: the question of Australia’s frontier violence, the rise of the Anzac legend, the effect of the White Australia policy, Australia’s national anxiety with migration, and the failures of Australia’s republican movement.

Hirst’s answers also provide contrasting accounts to some Australian history ‘classics’. For example, Hirst demonstrates that the Australian colonies and their peaceful transformation into a federation – first dismissing the connotations of an open prison and demonstrating the colonies emphasis on English law, and therefore its economic, social and political triumphs – provide a complete contrast, for example, to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that demonstrates the suffering and brutality in the colonies.

The Australian story embraces several myths, and it is both the Anzac legend and the New Year message from John Curtain: Australia ‘looks to America’ that feature in Hirst’s work. While Hirst discusses the “speculative connection between convict shame and national history”, Hirst believes that modern Australians are puzzled by the assertion that the Australian nation “was born at Gallipoli”. I disagree. Today, both modern Australians and young Australians believe that Gallipoli was where Australia was born, and not at federation in 1901.

Many historians, including Tom Millar, claim that the New Year message of Prime Minister Curtain in 1941 “marked the beginning of a new shift in Australia’s sense of military dependence away from Britain to America.” It is under closer scrutiny that this claim becomes more complex and problematic for Miller and other historians. Hirst demonstrates that this “new shift” was not the case, and by the end of the war, the New Year Message from Curtain had left no lasting mark on Australia as it continued to develop military links with Britain; including a long-range rocket facility at Woomera, and the development of nuclear bombs in South Australia. “In the 1950s Britain tested its atomic and nuclear bombs in Australia. Australia welcomed the mushroom clouds because Britain with the bomb made Australia more safe.”

Hirst, while answering “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, rejects the notion that Australia’s backlash against Asylum Seekers arriving by boat was a result of racism and xenophobia, rather:

[I]t was the boat people’s mode of arrival that caused resentment. It was uncontrolled, so there was the potential for the numbers to blow out. The people were not fleeing immediate danger; they were imposing themselves on the country rather than being invited and there were grounds for thinking that they were not all genuine refugees. This was a complete reversal of how migration was usually conducted.

 Therefore, asylum seekers arriving by boat “affronted the Australia egalitarian instinct.”

If you are familiar with Hirst’s previous works – Australian History in 7 Questions is Hirst’s 14th book – such as Convict Society and its enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Looking for Australia, or Sense and Nonsense of Australian History, some of his arguments will be familiar. However, Australian History in 7 Questions is a fresh new format in discussing Australia’s history. The straight-forward responses, clarity, insight, diagrams and lists, and contentious conclusions not only encompass all of Australia’s past, but demonstrate that Australian history is far from being “dull and predictable”.

While you may agree or disagree with Hirst’s questions or answers – or both – it is the combination of a lifetime of research and writing Australian history written for the novice historian, and the professional.

Review: Tasmania Aborigines

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803,

by Lyndall Ryan.

Allen & Unwin, 418 pages.


 tas aborigines

“The white men have killed us all; they shot a great many. We are now only a few people here and we ought to be fond of one another. We ought to love God. God made every thing, the salt water, the horse, the bullock, the possum, the wallaby, the kangaroo and wombat. Love him and you will go to him by and bye.”

In 2005, Eddie Kneebone, a member of the Bangerang people and reconciliation campaigner, painted a multi-panelled work to exhibit the impact of European settlement on the north-east of Victoria. The work was titled Bones of Contention and was painted shortly before his death. Along with the painting, Eddie Kneebone provided notes beginning with the so-called Massacre at Broken River in 1838. Kneebone wrote of the aftermath: “the troops came on horses with guns and swords, hunted and killed the Aboriginal people as they found them…” Kneebone continued: “land truly did bleed and their bones fell like rain.”

Lyndall Ryan first encountered Aboriginal History at Macquarie University in 1970s with her PhD thesis. The thesis was later transformed into the book The Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981, with and a second edition appeared in 1996 containing an additional two chapters. However, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is a completely new book. Nonetheless, the thesis of her early work – that Tasmanian Aborigines resisted British colonisation and did not die out in 1876 or in any other period of Tasmania’s history, still remains cogent.

Ryan suffered more than any other scholar during the ‘History Wars’ and the ‘Black Arm-band of History’ – brought about from Historians Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Windschuttle charged Ryan and fellow historians – Henry Reynolds to name one – of deliberately misleading Australians about Australia’s contact history. Windschuttle argued in several articles in the journal Quadrant and his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 that Ryan had fabricated footnotes to invent settler massacres in the Black War during the 1820s.

Tasmanian Aborigines is Ryan’s vindication from Windschuttle’s “fabrication” claims. The book is divided into six parts: Invasion, 1803-26, War, 1826-31, Surrender, 1829-34, Incarceration, 1835-1905, Survival, 1840-1973 and Resurgence, 1973-2010. Each section of the book continues a sysinct path through Tasmania’s contact history; one of the many strengths of Ryan’s new book compared to her 1996 edition. It adds clarity to her argument and assembles what I would have thought to be a irreducible topic, into an argument of outstanding clarity.

The beginning of the book introduces the reader with a comprehensive overview of Tasmania, or Trouwunna as the Aborigines called their island. Ryan provides a detailed and interesting overview of migration movements, physical features, landscape, food, family and the nine nations of Trouwunna. The opening chapters are important to the whole work. Ryan surveys several sources dealing with the original population of Aboriginals in Tasmania before and during the European settlement of the island. These numbers provide a firm base for the rest of Ryan’s thesis.

Next, Ryan begins to analyse the first steps of the European invasion (a term that Ryan consistently uses through the book): the Wrangeowrapper – White Devil, up until 1826 with the “pastoral invasion.”

The book moves drastically into a new phrase of Aboriginal and European relations between 1826 and 1831. With Aboriginal attacks, European reprisals, and increased atrocities led Governor George Arthur to declare Martial Law on 1 November 1828.

In the sixteen months between the declaration of martial law in November 1828 and March 1830, it would seem that there were at least 120 attacks by the Aborigines on the settlers, leading to about fifty deaths and at least sixty wounded. On the other hand, at least 200 Aborigines had also been killed, many of them, it appears, in mass killings of six or more. The war was beginning to take its toll on both sides (p. 121).

Late in 1830, Arthur was still under serious pressure from settlers. Settlers, including women and children, were still under attack from Aboriginal tribes. A further sixty colonists were killed in settled districts. In comparison, 300 Aboriginals were killed in the same period, with at least 100 of these losing their lives in mass killings of six or more. The continued pressure on Arthur led him to respond with a “sledgehammer.”

This sledgehammer solution from Arthur was to drive the Big River and Oyster Bay Aborigines from the Settled Districts to the Tasman Peninsula. To do this, Arthur called on every able-bodied male in the colony, bond or free, to combine with the military and police forces to form a human chain or line to undertake the task (p. 131) on 7 October:

The line would advance for three weeks in a pincer movement south-east across the Settled Districts until it converged on 28 October unto a 60-kilometre line bounded at one end by the towns of Sorell and Richmond at Pitt Water and the stretched along the Prosser River and Prossers Plains to Spring Bat on the east coast.

Arthur’s Black Line was meant to be “a knockout blow that would bring the conflict to an end.” The line was “more like a very large scale Scottish Highlands shooting party: the soldiers and colonists were the bearers and the Aborigines were the prey waiting to be flushed out of the bracken.”

The Black Line gave the colonists in the Southern, Central and Eastern parts of the Settled Districts unfettered possession of the land. The “reckoning” of the Black War and the Black Line in the Settled Districts of Tasmania, an estimated 1000 people had perished, with an Aboriginal to colonial death ratio of 4:1.

The catastrophic destruction of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania after the Black War marked a new policy direction for Australia colonies. The new policy direction was for ethnographer, humanist and devout Christian G.A. Robinson, to walk around Tasmania to organise the surrender of Aboriginal survivors. Robinson and Arthur’s plan was to remove the remaining Aboriginal population from the main island of Tasmania to a “sanctuary” at Wybalenna. The task Robinson undertook was no small feat. Robinson first had to track down a dwindling population that would more than likely have been avoiding contact with whites. Furthermore, Robinson then had to negotiate with the Aboriginals: removing them from their land and relocating them.

Ryan’s detailed account of Robinson’s task is both chilling and at most times confronting. Ryan’s tone throughout this section of the book remains elucidate, even though there are some passages that cause a feeling of aghast. “Both men firmly believed they were saving the western Aborigines from certain extermination and extinction and providing them with the benefits of British civilization and Christianity (p. 214-15).”

Even with Robinson’s and Arthur’s good intentions, their actions can only be described as myopic. Both men were unprepared for the consequences of removing the remaining Aboriginals off their land. The consequences were devastating: as fast as Robinson was brining Aborigines to the sanctuary, they were dying.

The Wybaleena Island sanctuary was a disaster. After successful lobbying by the remaining the Aboriginal population on the island, they were later removed to the ‘Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station’. The station was divided into two sections, with a total area of just over 700 hectares. Nevertheless, the suffering of the Tasmanian Aboriginals continued. At theOyster Cove Aboriginal Station, there was still a “shocking” death rate, dreadful conditions and massive alcohol abuse: “The realisation that many white people saw more value in them as skeletons than as a living people led them to fear for their lives. It is not surprising that more of them resorted to alcohol to drown the prospect of the impending horror (p. 263).”

With the death of Truganini in 1876, many white Tasmanians believed that the colony was now completely ‘native free’ (p. 275). Her body was exhumed in 1878 and was available for scientific purposes until it was placed in the Tasmanian Museum where it was on public display. The vile desecration of Aboriginal remains were commonplace. However, Truganini’s death and then the public display of her remains, promoted the belief of a native free Tasmania.

I recall several times being told that the only successful genocide in Modern History was that of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I even recall myself saying it to others. Having said that, it is completely wrong. Ryan’s cogency is the argument of resurgence. Even though the duration of Ryan’s book is devoted to destruction and death, the remainder is filled with the important fight by the Tasmanian Aboriginals to regain their identity.

Ryan thoroughly recounts the prodigious work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and campaigners such as Michael Mansell, in their effort for recognition and also the return of ancestral remains that were taken from the Aboriginal people and taken to various institutions.

The work of the TAC, Mansell and other campaigners, led to the Tasmanian parliament to apologise to the Aboriginal community to the Stolen Generations; the first to do so in Australia. Tasmania was also the first to compensate the Stolen Generations.

Ryan applies an equanimity narration throughout the whole book. This is in spite of various accounts of death, incarnation and desecration that will no doubt cause some aghast in most people. Ryan’s eminence as a historian is broadcasted throughout this work. It is an account that brings together a pragmatic and irreducible topic with a didactic tone, giving Australians, and future Australian’s some issues to discuss openly if White Australians and Aboriginal Australians are to move forward.

As aforementioned, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is Ryan’s vindication. The “few, explicable and trivial” errors that were made in her previous works have been rectified. If there was a positive to come from the history wars, it is this book. Only on several occasions Ryan mentions Windschuttle, yet, convincingly refutes his myopic claims. Tasmanian Aborigines is a vital scholarly work that leaves Windschuttle’s work in a state of dilapidation.