You would think the question of why Australia was founded would have been settled long ago. Most people, of course, believe it has been. They accept the traditional story that the British colonised this continent in 1788 simply to create a dumping ground for convicts. In his best-seller The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes took the orthodox interpretation bequeathed by Ernest Scott, Max Crawford, Manning Clark and A.G.L. Shaw and argued colonial Australia amounted to an antipodean gulag, comparable to the Soviet version. This story has long played well on the left side of politics both for its moral equivalence and the permanent resentment it engenders against the Old Country. In The Tyranny of Distance in 1966 Geoffrey Blainey challenged the orthodoxy, arguing the principal British objective was an all-weather port in this hemisphere that would help extend trade with China and the countries of the Pacific rim. Academics wanted none of it. Alan Frost recalls one prominent Australian historian telling him at the time: “Nobody believes Blainey.” In 2003, Frost published what I think is the best single book ever written by an Australian historian, The Global Reach of Empire (Miegunyah Press). Never heard of it? Not surprising. The historical profession bestowed death by silence, and newspaper review editors followed suit. To its shame, the principal academic history journal, Australian Historical Studies, never reviewed the book, even though Frost had professorial status and numerous other scholarly works to his credit. Searches through Google, Questia, High Beam and Informit turn up only two locally published reviews. One by Donna Merwick in Australian Book Review is a grudging recognition of Frost’s ability to enter the mindset of eighteenth-century maritime Britain but also a rebuke for his failure to “take naked imperialism to task as others do”. The other by Kate Darian-Smith in the online Australian Public Intellectual Network declares it a “rather old-fashioned story of British progress, expansion and success” lacking any “glimmer of understanding of how British expansion was received by ‘Native’ peoples, and scant reference to recent histories of the cross-cultural encounters of Empire”. Frost deserves much better than this guff. He has read far more widely in the British archives than any of the adherents of the old convict dump thesis. He finds Blainey got it partly right in 1966 but the real story was much bigger and more adventurous. A settlement in Australia was an essential component of the grand scheme for a global empire of trade conceived in the wake of Cook’s voyages by William Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas. The pair, writes Frost, wanted to create a great triangle of commerce linking all the Pacific with avenues to India and Europe. The principal goal was trade with China, but the Spanish colonies in the Philippines and the Americas also came within the scope. If Spain would not concede trade, warships could be sent from Port Jackson to change minds in Manila and Valparaiso. Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels would love Frost’s book. They would recognise Dundas (Lord Melville) as Pitt’s War Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty who sent expeditions to the far side of the world. For those who can’t now find a copy of The Global Reach of Empire, Frost last month released a more Australian-focused version of his thesis called Botany Bay: The Real Story (Black Inc). The title is accurate. It sweeps away the scantily researched dross that has passed for our founding narrative to give us far more realistic and—dare I say it—heroic origins.
Meanwhile, the promoters of Australian history as white guilt want us to change the Australian Constitution to improve the status of Aboriginal people. None have explained how this might happen or given any idea of what wording might do the trick. Northern Territory indigenous MP, Alison Anderson, showed far more insight when she told the Australian the government should abandon the proposal: “I think it divides the nation and is a waste of time. It’s a diversion from the real issues of education, health and housing.” It will close no gaps. The only potential beneficiaries are those part-Aborigines who have already made it in the modern world, thanks to jobs in public service, universities, public broadcasting and the arts. The real aim is to give these descendants of the Aborigines (however slender the descent) a privileged position simply because some of their distant ancestors arrived here before the rest of us. But, as Gary Johns once observed, “We got here first” is a poor constitutional principle compared to “All people are equal before the law”. Johns has a new book coming out this month aptly titled Aboriginal Self-Determination: The White Man’s Dream (Connor Court). It has a foreword by Bess Nungarrayi Price, chair of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council. On March 23, Price will address a Centre for Independent Studies function in Sydney, while on March 24 Johns speaks at a Quadrant dinner, also in Sydney.It looks as if a serious debate on the constitutional amendment is about to start.
Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant.