The Cambridge History of Australia

Published in History Today

The Cambridge History of Australia
Alison Bashford and Stuart Macintyre (eds) 2 vols Cambridge University Press 1,536pp £200

A major multi-authored history of Australia appears once in a generation. The celebrated and contested bicentenary of British colonisation in 1988 marked the last effort: Australians: A Historical Library, which sliced the nation’s past at 50-year intervals from 1788 onwards. Now we have an updated picture of the ‘land down under’ fit for the 21st century. No longer an island nation scourged by the ‘tyranny of distance’ (in Geoffrey Blainey’s influential 1966 vision), the 67 contributors make plain the geological, geographical and human connections which have shaped the continent and the people who call it home. 

The editors have commissioned not only established experts but also undertaken editorial ‘match making’, linking historians from different generations. The result is the ideal mix of experience and ambition and an account that is as much about how Australian history has been written and understood as it is about ‘what happened’.

Rather than ‘slicing’ the past, the editors have chosen a novel approach: January 1st 1901, the day the Australian colonies federated, becomes the ‘hinge’, dividing the two volumes logically into ‘Indigenous and Colonial Australia’ and ‘The Commonwealth of Australia’. Each begins with a series of chronological chapters narrating the major developments of the period, followed by a raft of thematic chapters. The best of these present traditional historical subjects in new and surprising ways. Graeme Davison’s chapter on religion approaches the multi-denominational character of an apparently secular society through the idea of the ‘tribes of white Australia’, noting that in 1901 ‘the religious landscape ... was almost as tribal as that of the first Australians’. In ‘Newcomers, c.1600-1800’, Shino Konishi and Maria Nugent displace the primacy of 1788 in the national narrative, demonstrating instead the incursions of outsiders over two centuries and the ways they were perceived by indigenous Australians. The authors largely overcome the challenge of a huge disparity in documentation: European explorers and colonisers self-consciously ‘made’ their histories in letters, maps and diaries, and in the (re)naming of places; indigenous experiences were passed down through generations in story, song, dance and art, forms of history-making only recently incorporated into academic and popular understandings of Australia’s past. 

There is some overlap between chapters, especially those thematic ones that deal with similar time-frames. Some important narratives fall between the chosen themes. For instance, the immigration revolution of the postwar years, which saw the settlement of millions of migrants from Europe and Britain (many of them ‘ten-pound poms’), is broken up throughout the second volume: in chapters on ‘The Menzies era’ (the reign of Australia’s longest serving prime minister, 1949-1966), ‘Government, law and citizenship’ and ‘Travel and connections’. The extensive indexes in each volume are thus indispensable. Further reading lists for each chapter and chronologies in both volumes will also prove useful for researchers and enthusiasts alike. 

Rich in depth, historiography and detail (who knew that strict animal quarantine meant the equestrian events of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were held in Stockholm?), these volumes will become the backbone of Australian history for a new generation.

Eureka Henrich is a Rydon Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London.

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