Thursday, 16 October 2014

Shaping a historiography: a mythic beginning

In 1916, Ernest Scott, newly appointed professor of history at the University of Melbourne, concluded his highly influential A Short History of Australia with a discussion of Australia’s novelists and poets. In the final paragraph of the book, he observed

Perhaps not many of the writings of these men are well known outside Australia; but what of that? She has her own life, and it is good; they wrote for her about the things that are hers; and they have helped her people to understand their country, their destiny, and themselves.[1]

Scott might have provided a similar commentary of the ambitions of Australia’s historians, across the twentieth century, to create and contest a mythic narrative of national experience. European national histories

…showed a remarkable zeal in demonstrating the uniqueness of their particular nation-state; a similar zeal in Australian national histories was intensified by a strong sense of insularity as a federation of colonies finding its path to nationhood in a region distant from comparable western nations.[2]

Australians defensively withdrew from the Asia-Pacific region in the name of economic growth and white cultural destiny. Looking inward, the national narrative attempted to discover the sources of Australian character from within a culture that could proudly acknowledge its British origins, while searching for evidence of its unique character.

This introduction considers twentieth century Australian national histories that have embraced or challenged myths of national identity and nation building from the interpretations of an evolutionary Australian-British liberalism and progress typified by Ernest Scott in the period between the two world wars, to the mid-century assertions of a culturally distinctive Australian nationalism, and the intensely competitive revisionism over issues of national identity, race and gender in recent decades. Successive generations of Australian historians have grappled with the themes of ‘mateship’ and ‘egalitarianism’, White Australia, and masculine struggles of progress and sacrifice in war. During the first half of the twentieth century, many Australian historians cultivated the status of these mythic themes in shaping what Margaret Somers has described as a ‘meta-narrative’: a myth of national identity.[3] From the late 1960s, this project, serving the needs of homogenous nation building, was challenged by a more critical analysis of the evolving nation, as the economic and cultural protectionism that had characterised Australian society since federation in 1901 began to break down under the influence of post-war immigration and the liberalisation of the economy.

Myth is a highly charged concept to link with the study of history: as Rebecca Collins observes, ‘myth and history are typically construed as antithetical approaches to the past’. To suggest that fable and fact may be reconciled to explain the past is to apparently suggest that truth and falsity can explain the same historical event.[4] Yet, myth cannot be so easily dismissed from a consideration of history, particularly from histories of nations and national identity. All histories contain some element of myth especially some sort of ‘creation story’[5], a distortion of the truth produced to draw out a significant explanation of the past; a sense of significance shared by a cultural group embracing a mythic explanation of the past in order to reinforce shared values. Historians write to communicate with contemporary audiences and Collins concludes that all history writing is concerned with the political problems of the present.[6]


[1] Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, (Oxford University Press), 1916, p. 340.

[2] Berger, Stefan with Donovan, Mark and Passmore, Kevin, ‘Apologias for the nation-state in Western Europe since 1800’, in Berger, Stefan, Donovan, Mark and Passmore, Kevin, (eds.), Writing National Histories, Western Europe since 1800, (Routledge), 1999, p. 10.

[3] Somers, Margaret R., ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing Class Formation Theory: Narrativity, Relational Analysis, and Social Theory’, in Hall, John R., (ed.), Reworking Class, (Cornell University Press), 1997, p. 85.

[4] The distinction between fact and fable was far less problematic for medieval historians. Take, for instance, the writings of Dudo of St Quentin and their importance in establishing the ‘Norman identity’ in the early eleventh century; see, Webber, Nick, The Evolution of Norman Identity 911-1154, (Boydell), 2005, pp. 1-53.

[5] The question of Australia’s creation story is contested. For the indigenous peoples, it lies in the ‘dreamtime’ though they have no single creation story. For those who came to Australia after 1788, the events at Gallipoli and the Anzac spirit have been regarded by some as the modern creation story. Ernest Scott linked the European settlement of Australia with the idea of Australia becoming a nation on the battlefields of Gallipoli: ‘This Short History of Australia begins with a blank space on the map and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac.’

[6] Collins, Rebecca, ‘Concealing the Poverty of Traditional Historiography: myth as mystification in historical discourse’, Rethinking History, Vol. 7, (2003), pp. 341-343, 356.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The need for an archive

Bonwick’s main interest lay in the preservation of records for posterity and he followed this interest assiduously even though he was not successful in having a public records office created in any of the Australian Colonies. Between 1872 and 1891 Bonwick called on Sir Henry Parkes, the NSW Premier to support and assist him in his endeavours.  Bonwick had a Public Service position in mind when he wrote to Parkes:

It was as the historian and not the copyist, that I sought to select from the old records of our Colony. I would copy the most important, make a digest of the others, and give a collective report of the whole as the archivist’.[1]

In May 1885, Bonwick wrote privately to Parkes:

By this mail is sent an application to the Colonial Secretary at Sydney, for permission to act as the archivist in your colony to a small extent. Knowing from Sir Saul [Samuel, NSW Agent General in London], who has little interest in literary matters, that the Govt may need a friend to literature to support my claim, I ask your service. Objections to a general transcription of early records I can understand, as family names and stories may appear, so I seek only to make for your Public Library a list of all the documents in the Record Office here, from 1786 and a short digest of their contents.[2]

Even though Bonwick was never appointed archivist of NSW, he was the first to raise the profile of archives in the Australian colonies and certainly contributed to the belief that the proper care of government archives was the cornerstone of democracy. Not everyone was impressed with Bonwick’s work. A reviewer of the second volume of Historical Records of New South Wales asked rather sarcastically

Why must we read a quantity of the dreariest public correspondence, all that is hardly the material for history...The whole thing has been conceived on an excessive scale which neutralizes the talent of the historian and exposes the community to ridicule...besides the disproportion of the work is melancholy. Four solid tomes bring us only a few years on our way to New South Wales. In four volumes Mommsen has written the history of the majesty of Rome.[3]

It was not all criticism and in the preface to Historical Records, Alexander Britton wrote:

But for the active search made in London by Mr J Bonwick FRGS, the early records on New South Wales would have been little better than a blank, the transcripts that have been made repair, so far as can be repaired, the loss of early Colonial records. [4]

Bonwick had written to Parkes in 1891:

I hope soon to report to you upon the systems adopted in various countries, in relation to the preservation and utilization of materials constituting a records office’.[5]

Bonwick was not the first person who had suggested the establishment of a record office for government archives. George Burnett Barton[6], brother of Edmund Barton, first Prime Minister of Australia,  noted:

The records of the Colony for the past hundred years are stored in a large room at the Colonial Secretary’s office; but no attempt has been made to ascertain their contents, or even to arrange them so that their contents could be ascertained, by anyone in search of information they are supposed to contain...the result is that the records, in their present condition, are not available for historical or any other purposes.[7]

Archives were invariably stored in a haphazard arrangement with no special premises. When the Garden Palace in Sydney was vacated after the International Exhibition of 1879-1880, it was thought to be a good idea to store some State archival material there. When the Palace burned to the ground, these irreplaceable archives, including relics of the Eora people, were also destroyed. In subsequent correspondence with Parkes, Barton puts forward a proposal for his employment as Keeper of Public Records, but this fell on deaf ears.

In 1891 a History Board was appointed to revise the text of the official history of NSW, to supervise the Colonial archives collection and to publish the documents on which it was based. This grew into Historical Records of New South Wales, edited first by Alexander Britton and then by Frank Murcott Bladen, who went on to become Principal Librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales in January 1907.[8] In that role he was vocal in his criticism of the lack of a public records office in NSW, stating:

It is a disgrace to Australia as an enlightened nation that there is no place where the original papers bearing on the discovery of the continent; the exploration and settlement of the states; the constitutional history and records of their courts of law and judicial and political institutions can be consulted by the student of history.[9]

As Principal Librarian Bladen occupied an influential post to push for the establishment of a records office, though despite his best efforts, nothing tangible occurred during this period. Bladen had undertaken a visit to Europe in 1902 looking at archives that influenced his thinking during this period. The concept of a records office was once more on the agenda with some powerful supporters. The Trustees of the PLNSW were pushing for a separate public records office for their own possibly more selfish reasons. This was the construction of a suitable building not only to house the library collections of the State but also the archival collections.


[1] Bonwick to Parkes, 16 January 1884, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes correspondence, A9, p. 51.

[2] Bonwick to Parkes, 8 May 1885, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence, Vol. 2, A872, p. 363.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1894, p. 4.

[4] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (1), p. xi

[5] Bonwick to Parkes, 2 November 1891, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence

[6] Ward, John M., ‘Barton, George Burnett (1836-1901)’, ADB, Vol. 3, pp. 113-115.

[7] Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence, Vol. 6, A876, p. 39.

[8] Fletcher, B.H., ‘Bladen, Frank Murcott (1858-1912)’, ADB, Supplementary Volume, pp. 33-34

[9] Bladen, F.M., Manuscript notebook on archives, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, C710, p. 12. .