A new book by Anna Clark, Making Australian History, sets out a new history and an old. It is, she states, “a history of Australian History and offers an account of the discipline over time”. She has selected twenty “texts”—not always written—which she uses to explore building blocks in our history in chapters with one-word headings such as Beginnings, Contact, Convicts, Nation, Gender, Country.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Clark’s assemblage is unbalanced by opinionated speculation standing shakily on shallow research. In a topic like Convicts she is aware of the archives but never actually goes there and she is not even sure that the “text” she is looking at was written by the author she names—and she has done nothing to find out more. Looking at the poem “Moreton Bay”, she does not print the complete text, and then establishes the authorship by saying of the supposed author, “it does sound like him, however”, and then relies on a questionable account from 1979 to assert “it’s almost certainly his work”. Here she is ignoring a serious study by Professor Jeff Brownrigg in 2016 which argues the “weak provenance” when ascribing the work to her chosen author, Frank the Poet, Francis MacNamara. Also, strangely, she uses the Brownrigg essay about these poems simply for a rather anodyne remark about the convicts in general while ignoring his real investigation into the poems. The warning signs are present for very uncertain scholarship, linked to very loud opinions.
Clark—you recognise the name—is a well-connected celebrity academic currently operating the family history franchise. Her new book has been widely reviewed and publicised. Google is already overweighted with references to it which include her astute observation of Northern Territory rock art which included “a long gun, painted with white ochre, an unmistakable image of the colonisers”. This mention of a gun is on the back cover but not actually in the book. The Vintage/Penguin publicity has been more read than its author. Clark has chosen “texts” to explore our history and I have chosen “texts” to explore the writer and her book.
Tim Rowse, The Conversation: “Clark established her academic reputation with studies of contemporary practices of school history teaching.”
Clark’s University of Sydney honours thesis, in 2000, was on Black Armband history. While working on a postgraduate degree at Melbourne University, studying debates about teaching history in schools, she co-authored The History Wars with her supervisor Stuart Macintyre, published by Melbourne University Press in 2003.
Anna Clark, “The History Wars”, essay: “I distinctly remember the publisher [Louise Adler] asking me to be more strident and argumentative. It would sell more books.”
It did, and all concerned were surely aware that bringing a new-generation Clark onto a book published by MUP would further aid sales and be a gleeful poke at a previous publisher who had so harshly criticised her grandfather Manning Clark—the company’s onetime best-selling author. It was opportunism that brought benefits for all concerned—not least the student with a career to build.
Two chapters of Making Australian History deal with the History Wars. One (to criticise Keith Windschuttle) is called Emotion and the other (to praise Tony Birch) is called Imagination. In the earlier History Wars Birch was thanked for helping in its “preparation”—he also helped sell it with a review in the Australian Book Review which praised Macintyre and his co-author, “the young historian”. In that review Birch was confused about who were propagandists and who were historians: “At present, we have a group of populist conservatives waging not a history war but a propaganda one—and a cultural and political struggle. It is an issue for all of us, not just historians.” The History Wars won literary awards from both the New South Wales and Queensland premiers and helped Clark’s entry into her present academic career at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
Anna Clark, UTS Research Interests page: “I am an award winning historian specialising in the fields of historiography, history education, public history, memory studies and historical consciousness.”
Her postgraduate thesis was also published as Teaching the Nation by MUP in 2006 and there was a further spinoff, History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom (NewSouth, 2008). She was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the UTS which in her case was extended from three years to seven years and produced a book of interviews and observations about history in Australia, Private Lives Public History (MUP, 2016). The first lines are the most interesting: “It’s 3 A.M. and I’m in the front seat of a taxi on my way to the airport to attend a conference in New Zealand. ‘What do you do?’ asks the driver. I’m a historian.” There was also a book about fishing and two children’s books called Explored! and Convicted! The latter sets out to explain our convict history to children—one page is headed “Very smelly undies” and the writing throughout is equally depressing. This is the Australian history twenty-year-olds probably remember from school.
On 1770: “English explorer Captain James Cook maps the east coast of Australia and decides the place is perfect for British bumpkins who want to do a bit of farming and sunbathing. He puts up the British flag and claims the whole east coast for Britain (but doesn’t bother asking any Aboriginal people if they actually want strangers on their land).”
On transportation: “Did you know? Transportation is a time-old tradition that many countries have used to get rid of people they don’t like. The French sent prisoners to New Caledonia (in the Pacific) from 1863 to about 1896. Russian leader Josef Stalin sent millions of prisoners to their death in Siberia in the 1930s. Under Adolf Hitler, the German Nazis sent millions of prisoners to labour camps in France, Germany and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s, where many of them were killed or died of starvation.”
In this childish book there are several humorous mentions of convict cannibalism, which was unusual, but no mention of Aboriginal cannibalism, which was usual.
Anna Clark, The Conversation: “History education should teach students how to deal with diverse and contrasting interpretations by historians, as well as over time.”
Tim Rowse, The Conversation: “Clark’s 35 references to feminism attest to its reformative influence on her discipline and on her.”
When Clark was doing Black Armband and History Wars activities her contemporaries were in the archives—working. Intellectually she is still in the overgrown defensive trenches her team occupied some twenty years ago, and neither allows the old enemies to enter her story without insults nor notices the serious new criticisms that have arisen of present-day history-making. In an essay published last year in The Conversation (cited above) she spoke of teaching students to appraise “contrasting interpretations by historians”—she should take heed of her own words.
In Making Australian History she writes of her grandfather but excludes mention of Peter Ryan’s Quadrant essay “Manning Clark” (September 1993) which so enraged Stuart Macintyre at the time. In writing of Anzacs she excludes any reference to Mervyn Bendle and his book Anzac and its Enemies, though in Private Lives Public History she called him a “frequent public correspondent” and “the prolific Bendle” while citing only text cut from a 2007 letter to the editor of the Australian Literary Review and ignoring his book. There are two chapters on the History Wars with much mention (unfavourable) of Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle, but she has not read the third volume of his The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, or his books The Break-Up of Australia or The White Australia Policy—all books which are directly relevant to aspects of the Australian history writing she is supposed to be exploring.
In her chapter on “Colour”, Clark specifies Myra Willard’s History of the White Australia Policy to 1920, published in 1923, as her text for discussion. It is also the starting point for a chapter, “The politics of immigration restriction” in Windschuttle’s The White Australia Policy. Clark finds space to illustrate the continuing relevance of Willard’s book by including an irrelevant anecdote: “‘I literally have a copy sitting on my desk!’, exclaims the immigration historian Sophie Loy-Wilson when we meet to chat about this chapter.” While Windschuttle presents an examination of Willard’s ideas, Clark’s non-discussion wanders aimlessly both bemused by gender platitudes and more concerned with the author than her book: “Willard’s lack of self-promotion [sic] is evident in the text itself, which is so impartial it’s difficult to determine any personal opinions about the White Australia Policy.” Windschuttle allows Willard to be heard and provides significant quotations from her work. Clark provides not a single substantial citation from the book which is supposed to be the central “text” of her chapter even as she convincingly illustrates the accuracy of the claim made by Windschuttle: “Rather than argue against her conclusions, most historians of the Sixties [generation] simply pretend they did not exist.” A proposition further illustrated by Clark’s concluding words on Willard: “the text reveals itself to be a product of its time, implicated in the endurance of the policy itself, in spite of its efforts to be an ‘unbiased’ historical account of it”. The problem for progressive historians is that, Windschuttle states, “Willard argued the policy was based on cultural rather than racial grounds.” An argument not in the slightest discernible in Clark’s woolly and meandering text.
Clark’s self-evident anxiety to exclude dissenting voices is painful. She still inaccurately uses the phrase terra nullius but does not mention my book The Invention of Terra Nullius. She refers to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu as a “bestselling reappraisal of indigenous agriculture” but does not refer to Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest or Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? by Peter Sutton and Kerryn Walshe. She cites Thomas Mitchell but has not troubled to examine the use and misuse Pascoe has made of him in Dark Emu. She is interested in family history but does not refer to the genealogical study carried out by Jan Holland into the Pascoe family which clearly destroys the hoax historian’s claims to be Aboriginal. Likewise, for a professed student of public history, the Dark Emu Exposed website is also unmentionable. She offers praise for Lyndall Ryan and her Massacre Map but does not mention the plagiarisms and fake massacres.
Mark McKenna, cover quote: “One of a kind. Ambitious in scope, broad in its vision of history, and beautifully written.”
Larissa Behrendt, cover quote: “Powerful, moving, clever … understands the complex role of the discipline in creating a national narrative.”
McKenna wrote a biography of Manning Clark. The three dots in the praise from Behrendt are a sentence, cut by the publishers, in which she misspells the author’s name.
Paul Daley, Guardian, author interview: “ ‘And even when I conceived of this project—and I can’t believe I’m saying this now—I sort of didn’t really think that I would have to mention him, or that if I did, that I would have to mention him in a particular way.’ It is a mark of Clark’s modesty—well known to friends and colleagues—that she was concerned that detailing her grandfather’s legacy (on her and the nation) might be misinterpreted as ‘self-indulgent’.”
Anna Clark: “I am the granddaughter of historian Manning Clark.” (MAH, p. 12)
Anna Clark: “I don’t like talking about him publicly [this is in the Family chapter], and I try to keep ‘history work’ separate from ‘family history’.” (MAH, p. 188)
Paul Daley, Guardian: “Anna Clark took seven years to write her latest book, Making Australian History, but it seems a wonder it didn’t take her twice as long.”
Anna Clark: “The funding bought me seven years of part-time research freedom—to travel, think, listen, read, talk and write as well as to be with my family when I needed and wanted. Every day I quietly thank the ARC for this opportunity.” (MAH, p. 311)
Anna Clark: “Shortly before I started writing this book, I visited my grandparents’ house in Canberra. I was attending a family history conference, and I stayed at their empty house [also known as Manning Clark House] to spare the organisers the cost of putting me up in a hotel.” (MAH, p. 188)
Paul Daley, Guardian: “Once she’d nailed the structure of Making Australian History, Clark spent precious, memorable months writing at a secluded south coast New South Wales family property, Ness, near Wapengo. Her family lived there during her long service leave in 2019, then through the Covid lockdown in 2020.”
Frank Bongiorno, cover quote: “The story of how Australian history has been created—not only by professional historians but ordinary people using written word, sound, image and stone.”
Anna Clark: “Among these wise friends I’m indebted to Frank Bongiorno and Stuart Macintyre for reading the book in draft form and providing such astute and generous feedback. Frank methodically worked through the entire thing, noting errors, asking for clarification, and recommending less academic language.” (MAH, p. 312)
Anna Clark: “I’m painfully aware that as beneficiaries of this country’s colonisation, voices like my own are still privileged in Australia.” (MAH, p. 309)
Clare Wright, cover quote: “Elegant, erudite and timely, this book confirms Anna Clark as one of Australia’s most perceptive and persuasive historians.”
In fact, a single chapter from her book shows Clark as superficial, misleading, unfair and wrong. “Contact” is a twenty-page chapter which takes as its text what Clark calls “Contact art” from rock art at Kakadu. She is talking of a particular representation of a sailing ship but the reading of her chosen image/text, and its relevance to the theme of contact between settlers and Aboriginals, is limited simply to two statements. This at the beginning of the chapter:
“This two-masted sailboat in the Nanguluwurr Gallery, a pearling lugger from the 1800s, is another unmistakable rendering of contact. It is surrounded by thousands of Aboriginal readings of Country and culture, and so I wonder if we can see this piece of contact art as a reading of history?”
This at chapter end:
“Its location in a vast gallery of rock art confirms that Aboriginal practices of history-making began well before that moment [of European contact].”
Clark provides a photo of her chosen “text” but no discussion or even description. She does not date it, describe it or discuss it, though the drawing exhibits not just observation but seeming understanding of how the ship worked. The vessel has two sails and two jib sails, a carefully drawn anchor chain with individual links and what seems to be a dinghy following behind. The image exhibits a Westernised understanding of line, structure and form—artistic principles surely not spontaneously absorbed by an Aboriginal observer simply from the shock of first seeing a sailing ship. The representational imitation has been accomplished with a knowledge of dimensional drawing—it is not an “innocent” eye copying what has been seen. By classifying the drawing as “contact art”, Clark is assuming the ship was seen and the cultural shock was so great that the first observer carried away a lasting impression that became a rock illustration of almost photographic illustrative quality in faraway Kakadu. Is it an “Aboriginal historical perspective” as she asserts, or a passer-by’s graffiti? Contact art or assimilation art? Was the maker even Aboriginal?
In her children’s book on convicts, Clark was dismissive of Cook for not asking the Aborigines before taking possession of the land, but she has appropriated a Kakadu artwork and not asked the Aboriginal owners what it means to them, and when they believe it was made. Here was room for a conversation, but Clark only gives a monologue. And, also strangely, she gives no indication of what other historians and archaeologists have said about the ship drawing.
This chapter is almost devoid of direct Aboriginal sources. She has ploddingly constructed her account with quotes from the most usual of readily available written historical sources—Cook, Banks, Collins, Tench, William Charles Wentworth, John West and others. To these she has added authors from a modern academic’s library—Grace Karskens, Inga Clendinnen, W.E.H. Stanner, Henry Reynolds, Nicholas Thomas, Denis Byrne, Greg Dening, Kate Fullagar and Maria Nugent. But not a word of the history of the Aborigines who made the Kakadu art.
Anna Clark: “Like [historian] George Arnold Wood, I ‘test my facts’ and ‘check my evidence’. To write this book, I read books and archival material held in public libraries that were established as a testament to an emerging nation.” (MAH, p. 309)
As the chapter progresses she presents “Watkin Tench’s account of Arabanoo’s touching burial of his countrymen”, who died in the 1789 smallpox outbreak, and describes it and a text by David Collins which she had previously discussed as a “mix of observation and opacity”. Tench tells of the Aboriginal Arabanoo gently burying a small girl whose body had been found when colonists had gone to assist a sick and dying Aboriginal family noticed in a cove near the settlement. Arabanoo had not seen the child’s dead mother lying nearby, and Governor Phillip had not allowed anyone to point this out so as not to upset him further.
Tench’s written account is misused by Clark to mark the obtuseness of the settlers and her own cultural sensitivity and superiority: “Arabanoo’s apparent absence of obvious religious ceremony is described in terms of a ‘lack’ by Tench; but we know that Aboriginal people had rich cosmologies that inhabited every corner of their lives.”
Her punctuation indicates that Tench has used the word lack, but he didn’t—and there is nothing at all in his words to justify her invention—he simply describes the burial and concludes: “Here the ceremony ended, unaccompanied by any invocation to a superior being, or any attendant circumstance whence an inference of their religious opinions could be adduced.” Elsewhere Tench had written: “To their religious rites and opinions I am equally a stranger.” Nowhere in his book is he judgmental about Aboriginal beliefs. Strangely, although he was present, he never observed those “rich cosmologies” that are so obvious to the modern academic.
Penny Russell, Australian Book Review: “The elusive shadow arguments are a product of Clark’s deliberate choice to eschew the conventions of scholarly debate and to adopt a horizontal structure and a looping, meditative, discursive style.”
Whatever that may mean, Clark had misused Tench and she also misread William Charles Wentworth—or perhaps, and it is a long poem of over 400 lines, she may not have read him but simply selected suitable words: “William Charles Wentworth’s prize winning 1823 historical poem ‘Australasia’ gives poetic licence to that logic [of ‘colonial expansion and displacement’] describing the looming advance of the First Fleet as the harbinger of a fateful end:
Say, what terror fix’d the natives’ eye,
When first they saw emerging from the sky,
That stranger bark in sullen silence sweep
A wrathful spirit o’er the troubled deep,
Treading with giant stride the subject wave,
The wind his herald, and the tide his slave; –
While onward stalking the terrific state
He loom’d portentful of impending fate.”
These lines are not about 1788. They occur in the poem’s opening section where the natives are reacting to the appearance of the explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in the early seventeenth century—which is Wentworth’s error, for de Quiros never landed on Australian soil. And the poem did not win the Chancellor’s Medal at Cambridge University. Wentworth was disappointed to be awarded second place.
Peter Ryan, Quadrant, September 1993: “How often does Clark [Manning and Anna?] mislead us into misapprehension on the basis of ‘facts’ which are not facts?”
Seven funded years of research by Anna Clark. The slightest reading of Wentworth’s poem clearly shows that he tells his history chronologically, and the section from where she has appropriated the words begin and end with specific references to de Quiros. The First Fleet, with Phillip’s “floating arks” and “teeming barks” only enter the poem after references to Cook and La Pérouse. The matter in the poem which describes the Aborigines may not at all be observed historic evidence but simply invented classical claptrap introduced to give the poem a suitably dramatic setting with (hopefully) sufficient competition-winning grandeur and atmosphere to impress a Cambridge audience who had never seen the colonial reality.
James Boyce, Sydney Morning Herald: “For the past 200 years, Australian history in its choice of subjects, definition of evidence and form of expression has silenced those whose story can’t be readily accessed in the written archive.”
Also in the Contact chapter we find the Aboriginal Mahroot offering irreplaceable personal testimony, yet his voice is silenced by the modern historian. Clark uses/abuses the Report of an 1845 New South Wales Legislative Council select committee set up “to consider the condition of the Aborigines, and the best means of promoting their welfare”. The Report and the annexed evidence were published in fifty-nine pages of small type. A questionnaire of eighteen questions was prepared and circulated to magistrates and settlers, thirty-five responses were received and four witnesses were examined in person. Mahroot was the first person to be questioned and his evidence takes up the longest space in the Report. He was asked 209 questions in what appears to be a flowing conversation. Listen to his voice and you have the biographical outline of an Aboriginal man born in the colony at the beginning of the century and making his way in the new society.
Clark quotes nine “leading questions” Mahroot was asked, but not his responses, and manages to confuse some of the question numbering. Mahroot is silenced, his life story reduced to this: “He explains that he has kept fishing, despite falling fish numbers, and that Aboriginal people continue to practise culture and language despite the cleavages of colonisation.”
Mahroot and his wife fish to make money by selling the catch to a local fishmonger. He owns a block of land at Botany and gains further income from renting part of it. Only he and three women still speak their language, and he was never initiated. In a memory of first contact, he states that the whites did not attack Aborigines but Aborigines attacked whites: “It was when they came round this part, walked inland from Port Jackson to Botany, they speared them in the bush”.
There is an extraordinary sentence in the Report’s two-sentence introduction which Clark ignores:
Different Members of the Committee have undertaken to produce, next year, from their Several Districts, intelligent Aborigines able to state their own views of their condition; a species of testimony so desirable that, if with no other view than to obtain it, your Committee would have forborne to make a final Report this Session; your Committee purpose, at present, to do no more than report the evidence they have already taken, and the means by which they hope to obtain more.
That alone should have inspired the historian to search the archives, but she appears more intent in imposing her view.
Clark’s concern is to lash the investigating committee as she imposes her own inflexible analysis over the evidence: “They ask for Mahroot’s account of colonial history, but the inquisition [sic] reveals their predetermination that the cultural vulnerability of Aboriginal people meant contact had only one possible outcome.” This is followed by a citation from the historian John West in 1852 which allows her conclusion: “In these sources and others we see a reading of early colonial history that plots a narrative of inevitability.”
She does not give the impression of having read all the evidence submitted to the committee or having taken note of community responses such as an article in the Morning Chronicle, Sydney, which spiritedly attacked the committee for not taking immediate action to improve the condition of the Aborigines, blamed the settlers, and suggested forms of help that could be given:
…the evidence now published by the Select Committee, will show that the unfortunate aborigines instead of disappeared [sic] “before the march of civilization,” have fallen victims to the most ruthless passions of the whites; and to loathsome diseases, engendered by their intercourse with men little more advanced in the stage of civilization than themselves.
Peter Ryan, Quadrant: “It falls not far short of amazing, how often [Manning and Anna?] Clark’s account of some individual or circumstance proves, when one consults the original source or the specialist authority, to be a tendentious or trivialised version, refashioned for his [their] own purpose.”
In the real world, I’m reading Michelet’s History of the French Revolution. I don’t agree with him, but God he can be exciting. He has clarity, verve and style. Clark doesn’t.
Making Australian History
by Anna Clark
Vintage, 2022, 432 pages, $34.99