TO FEDERATION AND BEYOND
Alan Atkinson’s three-volume history of Australia is a mirror to our past that may also help shape our future, writes
TO write the story of a continent, a historian must have wide horizons, an open heart and a well-stocked, synoptic mind. To tell the story of Australia from the time of its first Western settlement, an author would need full mastery of the nation’s scattered archives, but also the wisdom to see beyond them, to grasp what documents fail to capture, and sense the things they obscure and hide.
How many ways there are to read Australia’s past and set its record down: it can be told as an unfolding saga of progress, richly patterned, full of grand continuities, or traced as a single thread in the darker narrative of the global march of colonial power. The nation can be viewed as an enlightenment project, an experiment in the applied science of man, or portrayed as a vast, chaotic tapestry, made up of countless disjointed fragments: the millions of encounters and discoveries and individual strokes of fortune that built a complete world in place of what had been before.
The narrative has multiple registers, it is drama, farce and epic rolled into one, it holds a thousand tragedies. Its cast includes the great designers and conceivers of nationhood and the drifters and swagmen seeking new beginnings on the inland’s dusty roads. Any full account of Australia’s first years must convey the sensory shock of the landscape the incomers found, and bent to their dictates: its colours, sights and rhythms, its great silences and its novel sounds. The writer of the continental story must deal with explorations and with innovations, with the evolving impressions, emotions and enthusiasms of a whole fledgling society. Above all the tale must be the history of Australia’s own changing ideas about itself.
When the first volume of Alan Atkinson’s The Europeans in Australia was published in 1997, readers understood at once that just such a work of vast ambition was taking form. Its author intended to explore new ways of thinking about the country’s past, and the shaping of the nation-state. At the centre of his account of the First Fleet and the early years of settlement Atkinson placed an elusive hero, governor Arthur Phillip, whose acts and decisions loomed in the forefront of the tale: A mere shadow sometimes, he shines nevertheless as one of a generation struggling to rise, by violence if necessary, above local prejudice, to move on the wings of science and high principle beyond the bounds of living, and dying, conversation.
The governor, sphinx-like and solemn, was “not only the starting point of settlement but its first judge”. Atkinson charted the wellsprings of The Europeans in Australia, Volume 3: Nation By Alan Atkinson New South, 505pp, $49.99 (HB) Phillip’s project and its impact, but also the way European settlement seemed to the Aboriginal people it displaced. He was explicit: his history would trace the experiences of individual lives as much as it would record the sequence of a society’s marking events. More than this, his volumes would serve as a description of “the dayto-day intellectual notions associated with life as an Australian among Australians”, and thus he would study not just words on the pages of archival documents but the words exchanged between people: “the living, burning, sharpedged exchanges of individuals face to face”.
With the release in 2005 of Atkinson’s second volume, dealing with the mid-19th century, a change in both the focus and the methods of his history was evident. By the 1840s Australia was no longer a wholly directed governmental project but its own nascent world. The material Atkinson gathered and built into his picture had become more fine-grained, and his net was more widely cast. He had immersed himself in the new technologies that shaped the period he was describing, and seeking to bring to life: the impact of printing and new means of transportation, the quickening in the pace of human experience — these were his themes.
This resulted in a form of inquiry that advanced down oblique angles of approach, reminiscent of French models while still bearing the impress of Atkinson’s two great foreign inspirers, the chronicler of national identities, Benedict Anderson, and the master of early Christian thought-worlds, Peter Brown.
Australia was being made, in those decades, by a revolution in communications, promoted by an upsurge in literacy — but the shift went much further: a new consciousness was forming, a self-awareness, or “self-overhearing” that gave educated men and women a far sharper sense of themselves in the world. The age of system had dawned in Australia: “nearly everyone, in greatly varying degrees, engaged with the interconnectedness of their universe”.
Inevitably, the trend towards greater complexity continued, and deepened. Atkinson’s third and final volume takes the story of the Europeans in Australia up to Federation, the familiar punctuation point, and then beyond, to reach a close with the end of the Great War in 1918. ANZAC and the new Australian secular religion are just being born: the nation’s trajectory is set.
The style of the history has shifted again; the author’s voice within the narrative as well. The sweep of the story has widened further; it has become a meditation on the grace and mystery of individual lives, each one precious, each one worthy of close, respectful attention. The focus is intimate, the attention forensic. Atkinson still makes use of broad categories to examine the underpinnings of Australian awareness.
How could one frame and order the spaces of an entire continent? What did the Centre symbolise? How did men think of water, distance, climate, trees and light?
But he also takes a set of special witness figures and gives capsule accounts of their passage through the landscape and the years: the famous war correspondent CEW Bean, for one,
Australia’s first federal ministry, left; and soldiers in 1914 on the troop ship Berrima heading to the war in German New Guinea