Book Review: Making Australian history by Anna clark

Making Australian History by Anna Clark is a remarkable book. Just the concept got me excited. A book about Australian historiography written for a general audience. I thought it’d be hard to pull off, but Clark surpasses all my expectations. Making Australian History is not only immensely readable, but is incredibly perceptive, timely and succeeds in deconstructing and exploring the inherently complex nature of Australian History (I’ll follow Clark’s convention of using the capital H when I’m talking about the History discipline) whilst articulating its and Clark’s position within its narrative. Simply I’ve never read another book that so clearly explains Australia’s historiography with eyes wide open to all its issues.

So it’s clear I liked the book.

I wanted to start with a quick discussion about what the history of history means for me and this blog. I am trained traditionally in the History discipline and I currently work as a librarian, both of which are structurally set up to preference a telling of History through sources held in libraries, archives and other collecting institutions. They are also both inherently colonial methods of knowledge keeping and knowledge management, which often preference a white and masculine narrative. I am also fifth generation Australian on both sides of my family, with my ancestors arriving as part of colonisation in the mid 1800s and I have benefited from the structural privilege this entails. But while I unavoidably bring these prejudices with me as part of my background, I do try to be aware of them. And on this blog I do try to find the gaps, to tell the stories that might not otherwise be part of a broader narrative. I am also very aware that History is not immutable, it is not a clear definition of fact or not. This is why you’ll find a lot of use of the word arguably on this blog, as any version of the past is very much only one argument. History is also written by those who survive to tell it, those who are doing the writing and by the structures that perpetuate it, which when you’re looking at Western and indeed Australian History are invariably white and male. So that’s the background I’m bringing to this and all my posts.

Why is this important? For this review it is essential. Making Australian History is about the history of History in Australia, how it has shaped our national identity, but also how History has been shaped. Clark firmly positions the creation of Australian History at the same time as Australia was forming a national identity, but also at the time the study of History was being formalised and professionalised internationally. This ‘scientific’ concept of History, where facts are immutable, personal opinion should not come into it, where History is unbiased, is at the core of the book. In unpicking Australian History Clark exemplifies the issues with this approach. Largely, the sidelining of non traditional sources including: oral history, First Nations history (through oral history and art work amongst other sources), family histories, local histories, non professional histories, fiction (including poetry), and other unwritten sources. By bringing these voices and sources back into the traditional view of History Clark makes the History richer, and explores how these alternative sources enable alternative voices to be heard.

Clark’s narrative is thematic, but also largely chronological. She splits the book into 16 sections: making history, beginnings, contact, convicts, nation, memory, colour, protest, distance, silence, family, gender, emotion, imagination, country and time. Each section begins with a single source that exemplifies its theme. Holding with the overall concept of the book, these sources are not all traditional written sources; they range from: First Nations art work, to convict songs, to photographs, to poetry, to fish traps. This is not say Clark excludes traditional sources with: speeches, early histories of Australia and other books also receiving the spotlight. Clark places these alternative sources on the same standing as traditional sources.

What Clark does masterfully is explain the intense complexity and contested nature of Australian History, both on a professional History stage and on a national stage. Simply put I learnt a lot about whole areas of the history of Australia that I hadn’t explored before. Clark highlights that while History is inherently colonial, and was imported to this continent, it doesn’t mean that First Nations people didn’t have a History or a method of telling it before colonisation, or that their History didn’t continue after colonisation. This last point was especially key for me, though it may seem simple. It is easy to see First Nations history as being suppressed completely once colonisation occurred, but Clark tells the story of its continuation as First Nations people continued to tell their own stories in many forms to advocate and fight for their rights. Their history is there, even in colonial sources, it is just often put aside by broader History.

Clark’s chronology follows History in Australia. She works from contact through to Federation (where the nation building drove a more blinkered version of Australia national identity that you see in the 1800s). Continues through convict stories (as in the reality not the romanticised version) and their displacement as a ‘stain’. Then through the White Australia policy and how History facilitated Australia’s national narrative as white. On to protest (with an especially illuminating looks the the extremely constructed national History on display at the Australian sesquicentenary). Along to The Great Australia Silence (the deliberate exclusion of First Nations people from Australia’s history). Into family history (including her own- Clark is the granddaughter of Manning Clark) with a special focus on Judith Wright’s work. Along to gender and women’s history, being both written into History but also looking at History overall from a domestic female lens. Continuing to emotion and ‘bias’ and the History Wars. On to the importance of imagination in History, looking especially at Tony Birch’s poems that draw on the letters of First Nations people living on reserves. Then examining Country, looking at the concept of ‘Country’ and whether it can be expressed in Western History but also the affect of landscape on History. Concluding with time looking, at the concepts of deep time and how it supersedes modern Australian History by thousands of years.

Clark concludes with “our understanding and practices of History reflects values and beliefs at a point in time as much as it does any knowledge about historical time: histories shift and change with each iteration, according to their context, author and audience. This text represents my present, as well as my reflections on History’s past.”

This succinctly summarises the over all point and what I took most from the book. History is biased, it is biased by the writer and the time. But History also should be personal, in writing History we are bringing our own views in, we can not write the past or the present dispassionately as disinterested observers. Our imagination fills in the gaps and that is OK, arguing possibilities when there is no one reality is essential as long as we acknowledge what knowledge and views we are bringing to the telling.

Making Australian History is an immensely interesting, informative and exciting book. It connected me to Australian History in all its flawed and often painful complexities more than anything I’ve ever read. As the national conversation and national identity continues to be shaped in an increasingly divisive and divided world, reckoning with our past and understanding it is vital. This is something I hope to continue to play a small part in with this blog.

I just wanted to finish with an image, a source of my own I guess. I finished reading Making Australian History in the Organ Pipes National Park. I took the book with me on a hike. It was a Monday afternoon so I had the park pretty much to myself. It’s an ancient landscape formed about a million years ago with molten larva flowing over the Keilor Plains. It was the site of First Nations grasslands and cultivation for tens of thousands of years, before it became part of a pastoral run following colonisation, and then a national park in 1972. It is a very Australian landscape and as I sat by Jackson’s Creek with dust on my boots it felt an appropriate place to reach the end of what is a very Australian book.

References: Making Australian History by Anna Clark ISBN: 9781760898519 you can buy it from any bookstore, but you can also borrow it from your local library and I can speak for the quality of the copy in the PMI Victorian History Library https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=32577

The photos are all mine.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Making Australian history by Anna clark

  1. I read Clark’s book and was annoyed by the mistakes in it, and the east coast bias of the book. My analysis of History would be that the search for an Australian identity is a smoky room preoccupation. As some one born and bred in SA, in the 40s, 50s, 60s, we never celebrated, commemorated or even acknowledged 26th Jan as of any significance other than it was another day in our summer school holidays, probably spent sewing bags of oats or barley. It was only later when it was a public holiday that it became important, but as a day off. Proclamation Day, 28 December was more important, and I say that as someone whose ancestors arrived (free, of course) in 1838-1839, from both England and Germany. Convictology was something entirely uninteresting, as was the idea gold rushes and Eureka had anything to do with democracy. SA had its first full adult male suffrage legislation on the books in 1856, and it included full adult male suffrage for Aboriginal Australians. The same full suffrage was extended to adult women in 1894. Victoria it was 1857 before men got the vote, 1908 before women. The first gold rush was in SA, at first it was copper, and gold. Gold was being mined at Glen Osmond in the early 1840s. SA copper covered the bottoms of Royal Navy ships, those wonderful ‘wooden walls’. SA also supplied the east coast with grain until the second half of the 19thC, partly as a result of mechanisation of harvesting.

    Clark’s history of History is also missing stuff, like the fact the shearing machine was invented in outback NSW, and manufactured first in Melbourne, but manufacturing was transferred to Birmingham England for quality reasons. This led to the British car industry. Austin was Wolsley’s-the inventor-manager in Melbourne. She never mentions colonialism is a two way thing. British banking, shipping, manufacturing etc were all improved, innovated, because of colonies. Squatters in Australia invested in international and intercolonial mail service shipping, banking. Australian gold rescued the British economy and the European economy in the mid 19th C. The old story of Brits sending their sons to Australia as ‘remittance’ men is only half the story: their fathers back in Blightly were the real ‘remittance’ men. I have seen letters from British partners in Australian squatting complaining about not getting a proper dividend.

    Also as a historian trained in the research techniques of History, I found they were useful only so far. It is what the historian makes of the research that matters. I know in Melbourne Uni they valorise Manning Clark, but I found his history less interesting and less historical than say Humphrey McQueen’s, or Brian Fitzpatrick’s, or some of the eco historians, or the geographers, because Manning was making a big deal out of trivial matters, he was writing the BIG History. After reading his history of Oz I gave all the books to the local library. I have kept my Braudel, Marc Bloch, Ladurie and others.

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    1. Thanks for your in depth comment Kevin. I do agree that Making Australian History is East Coast focused. As far as the missing things goes, I’d argue that as it is a history of History rather than a history of Australia there were always going to be elements that could not be included, as is true of any history as well.

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