The first volume of The Story of Australia’s People concentrated on Indigenous Australians and the impact of European settlement on them and the country, ending in 1851. This volume continues the story beginning with the discovery of gold in western NSW and the subsequent gold rush there and later in Victoria.
Geoffrey Blainey is an historian who has often courted controversy in his career. Many Australians will know him from his work The Tyranny of Distance, first published in 1966. The Story of Australia’s People is more of a social than political history which allows space for less well-known events and individuals to be covered. It was the joint winner of the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.
A highly significant event at the end of 1859 was the arrival of 24 rabbits, along with hares and partridges, imported by the English born squatter Thomas Austin. He employed a gamekeeper on his western Victoria property and planned to hold shooting parties – just as he had ‘back home’. It is recorded that in the year 1866 rabbits were so prolific that 14,253 were shot on his property. And we are all well aware of the enormous problems rabbits have caused since then.
In focussing on people, Blainey makes it clear how dislocated many of the early settlers felt, as did Indigenous Australians – neither side fully understanding or appreciating what they might have learned from each other. The Euro-centric, racist superiority expressed by many in the new colonies continued up to and beyond Federation with one of the earliest legislative acts of the new parliament being the Immigration Restriction Act, generally known as the White Australia policy.
I think the author is being disingenuous when he argues ‘White Australia’ was not an accurate description. He asserts that Indigenous Australians were not white yet were ‘part of the land’ but omits to mention that until the 1967 referendum they were not counted in the census and were excluded from the law making provisions of the federal constitution – so much for being ‘part of the land’ (page 218).
His views on Asian (ie non-white) immigration were again in question in 1984 when Blainey commented it was a threat to Australian society and he also fails to mention in this book his strong disagreement to what was called the ‘black armband’ view of history. He believes other historians put too much emphasis on the racism of colonial times, a view strongly supported by John Howard. He has mentioned in interviews that he plans to write about such contentious issues in an upcoming memoir which ‘will correct the “myths” he says have built up around him’.
The book provides only a broad-brush approach to Australian history as it covers such a wide period. Despite the above criticism, it provides a very readable introductory text to some of people who made Australia what it is today.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 7
Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: October 2016