Alan Atkin­son’s three-vol­ume his­tory of Aus­tralia is a mir­ror to our past that may also help shape our fu­ture, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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