Founding Moments

Stuart Macintyre

  • The Oxford History of Australia. Vol. II, 1770-1860: Possessions by Jan Kociumbas
    Oxford, 397 pp, £25.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 554610 5
  • The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony: Law and Power in Early New South Wales by David Neal
    Cambridge, 266 pp, £30.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 521 37264 X
  • Waterloo Creek: The Australia Day Massacre of 1838, George Gipps and the British Conquest of New South Wales by Roger Milliss
    McPhee Gribble, 965 pp, February 1992, ISBN 0 86914 156 2
  • Living in a New Country: History, Travelling and Language by Paul Carter
    Faber, 214 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 571 16329 7

Tasmania’s prodigal son, Peter Conrad, suggested recently that his island-state had ‘unwritten its own history’ in accordance with ‘a self-protective incuriosity about origins’. Tasmania’s origins lay in an act of genocidal conquest and a penal experiment, both of which were so recent and so omnipresent in their effect as to make recollection intolerable. There are certainly striking instances of this desire for amnesia. The reiterated claim that the Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were extinct effaced both their demise and their uncomfortable presence. And the story is still told of the historian working in the state archives who was surprised to be asked to take tea with the Governor. His Excellency wanted reassurance that he was not chasing convict ancestors among Tasmania’s leading families.

Yet the occasion of Conrad’s suggestion belied the observation. Down Home, in which Conrad recorded his experience of ‘Revisiting Tasmania’, was one of the many publications during the bicentenary of British settlement to cater to an apparently insatiable interest in the past. The cultural politics of the Bicentenary demanded an inclusive past, one which celebrated diversity and served the growing need for vicarious atonement. Not only were convict ancestors a source of pride, but there was a desire to know an Aboriginal past, however harrowing to the white conscience it might be. The revisiting expatriate could not but be struck by the altered sensibility. As Conrad observed, ‘if anything, Tasmania possesses too much history: a succession of pasts queuing up like unappeased revenants to accuse the ignorant present.’

These four books are concerned with the moments of colonial origin, discovery, conquest and civilisation, with the formative event which begins a process that is encoded in subsequent habits, institutions and modes of thought. Jan Kociumbas’s general history of the Australian colonies begins with the flogging of three female convicts: while allowing that this was not part of any ‘formal plan’ of colonisation, she believes the event indicates the assumptions about property and authority, sexuality and family life, on which the settlement’s ‘blueprint for growth’ was premised. By contrast, David Neal’s monograph opens with a successful legal action brought by a convict couple against one of the First Fleet captains.

Neal is concerned to show how the establishment of the rule of law in a penal colony, at once a tautology and an oxymoron, created the conditions for a free society. Yet the insistent lesson of Roger Milliss’s massive account of the fatal impact of the newcomers on the indigenous inhabitants, as played out in a series of bloody encounters in New South Wales during the late 1830s, is the signal failure of the rule of law. Paul Carter’s essays offer a far-reaching re-evaluation of the processes of cultural transference triggered by the act of migration.

The most familiar of the books in form and scope is that of Kociumbas, whose brief was to write the first post-Aboriginal volume in the Oxford History of Australia. While each of the authors in that series (myself included) worked both with and against the conventions of the general history, she was presented with the greatest challenge. All of us sought to synthesise scholarly research into a literary narrative that told the story of a nation: in her case the combination of ingredients was so volatile that they threatened to burst the vessel. For almost a century, textbooks had laid down the outlines of her period. Exploration, settlement, enterprise, the redemption of penal origins through industry and enterprise, the arbitrary rule of the governors yielding to self-government, social amelioration and civic virtue – each phase following providentially in anticipation of the nation that was to be. Historians might vary in their readings of this history – for some it affirmed the British colonising genius, while for others it marked the emergence of an indigenous radical tradition – but the effect was always a lillipultian version of Whig triumphalism, a history populated by masterful individuals, whether rancorous or exemplary, whose visionary foresight established their status as national progenitors.

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