The Making of Australia: A Concise History
by Robert Murray
Rosenberg, 2014, 320 pages, $29.95
A few years ago Robert Murray, a Melbourne journalist and historian, published his autobiography, called Sandbelters: Memoirs of Middle Australia. His people were Scots Australians who settled in the Wimmera, struggled and survived over the generations; his father was a railway employee living in Melbourne’s southern bayside suburbs. The Murrays were hard-working, undemonstrative, persevering denizens of middle Australia, and the author has written his new history of Australia from their perspective. He has foregrounded the concerns of ordinary Australians, not the sometimes off-centre interests of today’s professional historians, with their various agendas.
Australian history is now a big subject. Murray has covered an enormous area in gathering his information, which he has distilled into a straightforward narrative. His book reads at times like a primer of the basic facts of Australian settlement, such as one finds in nineteenth-century instruction manuals for those unfamiliar with the new conditions. It’s a book you’d recommend to a student, or a visitor to Australia, or a new settler who wanted the core story. Murray’s tone is relaxed, not excited, heavy on factual information and light on ideology and spleen. The following passage on basic home-building techniques in Australia gives a sense of his informative, matter-of-fact, summary tone:
The new settlers then discovered the reality of much Australian forest—iron hard, gnarled wood that needed months of drying before it made suitable building timber. Soon, however, hundreds of settlers were housed in huts made of cabbage-tree or hardwood frames, with walls of acacia, which they called “wattle” … Gradually eucalyptus slabs for sturdier walls (a slab was an upright split log) and bark roofs became more common than “wattle and daub”. In time wood shingles (tile-like blocks) often replaced bark on the roof. “Slab ’n’ bark” (or shingle) housing was the Australian equivalent of the American log cabin, made of upright instead of horizontal split logs.
Murray is fair-minded, giving both sides on recent historical controversies. He reports claims that the First Fleeters introduced smallpox which devastated the Aborigines; that the Aborigines conducted guerrilla warfare in response to the coming of Europeans; that there was a vast Stolen Generation of young Aborigines; but in each case he is quietly sceptical of new sensationalist claims, and gives his reasons for preferring the traditional account. Nor is he convinced by recent doomsday scenarios that we have made a dreadful mess of our inheritance. Overall he takes a benign view of our history: “Governor Phillip’s raffish boatloads (of convicts) had formed one of the world’s better societies.”
Murray has come to the task well prepared. His history of early Sydney, Dharug and Dungaree, gives him a good start on the founding of the colony and the early treatment of Aborigines, and his history of the Victorian government, 150 Years of Spring Street, helps in his understanding of state affairs. His books on the great Labor Split of the 1950s and on the Ironworkers Union display his familiarity with postwar politics, and his employment as a political and business journalist from the 1950s means he is conversant with more recent public events. His family’s rural background gives him a realistic understanding of the bush that many historians lack.
This book is full of odd bits of interesting information I was not aware of. Many early squatting runs were apparently given Aboriginal names by the authorities, because familiar European names would have given the occupants a sense of proprietorial rights which they were not entitled to. The Sydney suburb of Blacktown was originally “Black’s Town”. In the copper-mining towns of South Australia, the miners tended to be Cornish, the carpenters Germans, and the carters Irish. Australian Merino wool was so successful in the nineteenth century it put the renowned Saxon and Silesian producers of Germany out of business. During the gold-rush years South Australia supplied the bulk of the wheat to feed the new population. Migration to Australia was strong in the 1860s partly because the American Civil War made the United States a less attractive option than previously. The British colonial authorities considered a population of at least 50,000 was necessary to declare a new colony in Australia. A rule of thumb was that wheat needed to be grown no more than twenty kilometres (or was it twenty miles?) from a railhead to be economically viable. The name of our Wirraway fighter plane in the Second World War came from the Woiwurrung tribe of Melbourne, where the planes were made.
An outstanding part of the book is its chapter on “The Wild North”, a neglected part of Australian history. Murray shows how the development of our northern tropical third was different from the rest, more like the American Wild West, attracting quasi-criminal types for whom there were no rules. Nicolas Rothwell has memorably described Darwin as “the capital of the second chance”. In the north there was a frontier, whereas in the south some squatters jumped well ahead of others, meaning there was no clear frontier line. In the north the Aborigines tended to retreat from the fertile river valleys which the whites chose for their cattle runs, and to regroup in rocky hilly outcrops, from which they would conduct raids on cattle and ambushes of settlers. While holidaying in the Kimberley last year, I was given a recent book, Darrell Lewis’s A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier, which confirms in vivid and disturbing detail Murray’s overall description. The last massacres of Aborigines happened in the north. We are familiar with the gruesome photos in the early twentieth century of northern Aboriginal prisoners chained to one another by the neck rather than by hand manacles. Murray says this was so they could brush away the flies. Is this true?
I think Murray is correct when he writes that “the view that [the Eureka rebellion] brought democracy to Australia is hard to sustain”. Political disputes like that at Ballarat in 1854 arise all the time, and are normally solved by negotiation and compromise in our type of society. For both sides to immediately resort to a shoot-out with large loss of life is the opposite of everything democracy stands for.
Murray fits the pieces of his jigsaw together to produce a big-picture version of our history. The antique drawings, photographs and cartoons which illustrate the book give it an appropriately old-fashioned feel. The text could have done with a final proofreading.
Patrick Morgan, a frequent contributor, lives in Gippsland.