It’s when reviewing books like this that I wish that I had a proper degree in Australian history. Not, of course, instead of my degree in Literature and Classics (which included history subjects exploring Ancient Greece and Rome), but as well as. The Big Book of Australian History is a comprehensive history, which tackles some aspects of Australia’s past about which I have little expertise, and the new federal government shows signs of restarting those unedifying History Wars, so this review isn’t going to tackle questions of historiography or factual accuracy. That’s best left to professional historians. I am going to restrict myself to commenting as to its readability, coherence, and appeal to the young people for whom it is written.
I loved this type of general history book when I was young, but I don’t remember ever coming across one that was about Australia. My parents bought us many books when we were children, but they were (or purported to be) histories of ‘The World’ ancient and modern i.e. the 20th century world. In these books, published in the 1950s and 1960s (almost always, for some reason, with a red cover) Australia was an afterthought. They were probably published in Britain…
Written with the help of indigenous advisor and history editor and writer Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder (who won the 2012 NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize), The Big Book of Australian History covers many topics, conveniently arranged in ways that will suit students doing projects, but also appealing to kids who just want to browse through it to discover what they might be interested in. Chapter length varies from six to twelve pages and more, with clear layout and headings, and profuse full-colour illustrations, sourced from the NLA and other libraries. Most importantly it’s mostly written in kid-friendly language which may lure young people away from Wikipedia which is so often incomprehensible to them. Sentences are not too long, vocabulary is not too complex, and it’s mostly written in the active voice.
The book begins with Ancient Australia covering the birth of the continents. the fossil record and the period of megafauna. This chapter is a good starting point for students to follow an interest in palaeontology.
While there is much that is necessarily unsaid because of limitations of space and the complexity of indigenous issues, the chapter on The Dreaming seems respectful to indigenous Australians, and optimistic without denying Australia’s Black History:
Any human culture that survives for 40,000 years or more must be based on sensible, intelligent ideas. In modern Australian society, we have written laws to tell us what we must and must not do. Aboriginal society was based on accepted traditions that were passed down from generation to generation through the myths and legends that were taught to the young people.
For example, the story of Tiddalik the frog has a buried message about the value of sharing. From the earliest contacts with Aboriginal people, Europeans failed to understand that Aboriginal culture was based on sharing. In their hunter-gatherer society, the daily gathering of food by the women kept everyone alive, while the men’s hunting produced food on a less regular basis. Meat did not keep for long, and so, when an animal was killed, people shared it.
When white people arrived, they had no idea about this. Most of them did not even consider that other cultures might have different ways of doing things and different values which were as good, or perhaps even better than, their own.
This chapter includes an explanation of how our First People came to Australia from Asia, First Contact with Europeans, the story of survival and the role of Aboriginal art work in the transmission of culture. Big, bright graphics enliven every page and include artworks both by early settlers and Aboriginal artists such as William Barak.
There is a welcome overview on the voyages of exploration, which is a year 4 topic in the new Australian Curriculum, though I would have liked a timeline because kids in this age group so often find this topic confusing and tend not to have a very good grasp of chronology – especially when it stretches back over several centuries and events take place on opposite sides of the continent. (One of the best books around on this topic is Explorers: Filling in the Map of Australia, by Chris Milne and published by Black Dog Books. It does have timelines, and is manageable for capable year 4 readers).
The chapter entitled Founding Colonies is much longer, as you’d expect. It begins, of course, with Sydney, and the convicts, and includes Aboriginal Resistance. Unfortunately the section on Tasmania also includes the first settlement in Victoria at Sullivan Bay, which is not where students would expect to find it. Even more unfortunate is the opening paragraph of ‘Making Melbourne’ because most kids are not going to make sense of it without a bit of a struggle:
Those migrants who arrived in Adelaide knew nothing about Victoria but, logically, nobody should have gone to Adelaide when land was available at Port Phillip because it was far cheaper there – in fact, often land was just being taken and not paid for. (p. 49)
Apart from tidying up this sentence to make it shorter and more comprehensible, I would have liked this section to make it clearer that at the time Henty and Batman squatted on what is now Melbourne, the area was not called Victoria until Separation in 1851. And there isn’t anything about Batman’s scurrilous ‘treaty’ with the local Aborigines. Indeed, the section on Melbourne, Australia’s second city in importance, merits only six paragraphs.
Exploring the Land includes all the major explorers – but I was surprised to find this little snippet about Major Sir Thomas Mitchell:
In many ways Mitchell was an unusual man. His men probably killed more Aboriginal people, especially near Mount Dispersion, than any other party of explorers, and yet he preferred to use Aboriginal place names on the maps he drew.
It is hard for us to judge whether the killings were Mitchell’s fault, but he was blamed for them in an inquiry that was completed just after he died. (p. 60)
I probably know as much about Mitchell’s expeditions as most primary teachers, but my knowledge is rudimentary. I have no idea what to make of this comment, and I suspect that students will be mystified by it. Why is it hard to judge these killings? Why wouldn’t the leader of an expedition be held accountable for what takes place? Considering how many inquiries into violence against Aborigines were whitewash, and how few were undertaken in the first place, if this one did blame Mitchell, it seems only too likely that shameful behaviour did occur. The implication is that there is some controversy about this matter, but will young readers interpret it this way? It seems to me that this comment is an attempt to be even-handed that’s gone awry. (Mitchell is, after all, a Big Deal in NSW where the State Library bears his name). This vague allusion will be confusing and frustrating for students who will, (as I did), reread the section to try to clarify what Mitchell did, or didn’t do, but without success. Because apart from a reference to ‘a clash’ at Menindee, from which Mitchell backed off, there’s nothing about killing any Aborigines. Students will go Googling for that (as I did) and unless their reading skills are up to dealing with the long entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, they may end up none the wiser.
The chapter about the Gold Rushes in the 1850s includes the Eureka Rebellion, while Settling the Land is a respectful homage to the hard life of the pioneers, and covers bushrangers, the Depression of the 1880s and the rise of unions. But having noted in the introductory paragraph that settlement was ‘not good for the Aboriginal people who inhabited the land’ the chapter doesn’t make any further mention of them except to note that:
‘In the early years at least, ‘wild blacks’ – who were entitled to be upset at the sheep eating the kangaroo’s fodder – speared the sheep. On the Murray River, the Aboriginal people gave this new food a name – ‘jumbuck’. (p. 78)
I think that being ‘upset‘ is a bit of an understatement. There was considerable indigenous resistance to settlement, and rightly so, since (to paraphrase Henry Reynolds) as the settlements expanded, there were fewer and fewer places where the indigenous people could legally place a foot. And they speared those sheep because they were starving.
The Growth of Cities is an excellent chapter, covering everything from transport to communications to entertainment, but I particularly liked the section about education in the early days. This topic is always fascinating for young people, and they’ll be interested in the illustrations showing children at state schools in 1878.
What else? Federation and the birth of Canberra is covered, and so is Mawson’s legendary expedition to the South Pole. There are 25 pages about WW1 and 18 about WW2; there are chapters covering advances in science, transport, and communications; and of course there’s a lot of stuff about sport but there is also a comprehensive chapter about achievements in literature, art and science – Patrick White even gets a mention! The Vietnam War is included in the chapter on Controversial Issues, and so are issues such as the Dismissal in 1975, the Tasmanian Wilderness campaign, and Aboriginal Land Rights, Mabo and The Apology.
Over all, this is an impressive book with much to recommend it. Of course there are omissions, it’s impossible to cover everything and while I might quibble about the inclusion of this rather than that, or the amount of space devoted to one topic rather than another, I think that The Big Book of Australian History is a useful addition to any school library and would also make a lovely gift for a certain kind of child.
Author: Peter Macinnis
Title: The Big Book of Australian History
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of the NLA