The Book Group and John Hirst’s Australian History in 7 Questions

John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc 2014)

9781863956703Before the Book group meeting: ‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable,’ John Hirst starts his introduction to this book. Invited to lecture on this potentially deadly topic at a branch of the University of the Third Age, he had the thought that if he framed the lectures as puzzling over genuine questions, they would cease to be predictable. I don’t know about the lectures, but this book is lively and has quite a few surprises.

Hirst’s seven questions, and severely truncated version of his answers, are:

  1. Why did Aborigines not become farmers? The real question is why did other hunter-gatherer peoples ever make the transition to farming, when it’s advantages are far from obvious? (He relies on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel a fair bit. It’s not part of his story that Aboriginal people did become farmers, but were ruthlessly driven off their land by the colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – as in Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy.)
  2. How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? This question is based on a misapprehension: New South Wales was never a penal colony. It began as a colony of convicts: from the beginning the work of the colony was overseen by other convicts, and convicts had substantial rights. The penal reform movement in England led to a failed attempt to turn it into a penal colony in the 1820s and 1830s.
  3. Why was Australia so prosperous so early? The most interesting aspect of Hirst’s answer is that the colony was run by government employees. That is, the people in charge weren’t there to make profit for themselves or their company, but were public servants, and had the resources of the British government behind them.
  4. Why did the Australian colonies federate? This chapter is mainly a rebuttal of two common replies: that Federation happened because of business interests or because of racism. Business in fact opposed Federation until the eleventh hour, and while racism was big and ugly it wasn’t the motivator. You have to ignore the vast amount of bad poetry being published in late 19th century Australia not to realise that the move to Federation was driven by a deep yearning for independence, a powerful nationalistic sentiment.
  5. What effect did convict origins have on national character? Relying on a 1969 essay by Henry Reynolds, Hirst rebuts Russell Ward’s well-established story that our convict origins made us an irreverent lot, free-spirited and suspicious of authority. On the contrary, the ‘convict stain’ meant Australians felt the need to prove themselves among nations by, for example, sending off lots of young men to die in England’s wars. The need to transcend the ‘impure origins’ of the nation may have lain behind the racism of the White Australia policy – Australia would be ‘racially pure’.
  6. Why was the postwar migration program a success? Hirst points to the way the colonies dealt with cultural differences well before the 1950s. The conflicts that were left behind in Britain and Ireland were savage, and though prejudice and mutual unpleasantness continued, there was a general consensus that the old conflicts should not be imported into the new country.
  7. Why is Australia not a republic? The Australian colonies were too far away from England to feel safe if they cut ties, and much more recently John Howard played on people’s distrust of politicians to secure a defeat in the 1999 referendum.

That gives some idea of the book’s arguments. Of course, the story you tell depends on what questions you start from. Ask any Australian historian to come up with 7 questions, and you’ll get a different book. It’s hard to imagine an Aboriginal historian such as Vicki Grieves choosing Hirst’s first, even without the questionable term ‘Aborigines’, or James Boyce, author of Van Diemen’s Land, being so focussed on Sydney and Melbourne. I don’t remember any mention of the Chinese on the goldfields, or of the substantial non-Anglo immigrant communities that flourished before the Second World War – Germans in South Australia, and Southern Europeans in north Queensland, say.

I’m not a historian myself, but I enjoy reading history, and plan to keep my ears open for the discussion this book generates. Hirst has stuck a number of spanners in the well-oiled works of received versions of Australian history, and that can’t be bad.

The meeting: This was our last meeting for the year and was even more convivial than usual. The business of the evening began with ceremonial distribution of  books each of us had chosen from our shelves and wrapped in bright paper. I scored The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays by Andrew O’Hagan.

The book turned out to be a fabulous choice for the group. There was a lot of interesting discussion, which included quite a bit of holding personal histories up against Hirst’s generalisations. We are all white, almost all of Anglo heritage, but quite a few of us had our own experiences or those of people we’re close to that resonated with Hirst’s notion of conflicts being left in their place of origin, not dwelt on here. One guy started out saying that he didn’t care for the book much because the writing is pedestrian, giving information but no pleasure – but by the end of the evening, he said he had been converted. We laughed a lot, but I don’t remember what about.

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