This August, the British Museum announced it had relabelled the artefacts collected by Captain James Cook on his voyages to Australia and New Zealand. This collection consists of the staggering number of 9,000 items. One would hope the motivation behind the venture was that the previous labels had, until that point, been inaccurate or deficient. However, it seems the museum’s curators had decided in their infinite wisdom that the display was simply not ‘woke’ enough, and had taken upon themselves ensuring the new labelling reflected the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. Thus, a visitor to the museum’s Enlightenment Gallery is now informed the collection of Cook’s artefacts is part of the “permanent British occupation of Australia” and that “the Eora people of the Sydney region suffered the first brunt of British colonisation from 1788”. Furthermore, “despite the loss of population due to disease and frontier violence as well as displacement,” the display informs us, “Aboriginal people continue to live in the Sydney region maintaining strong bonds with their traditional lands and culture.”
In his statement to the press, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer framed the relabelling as a quest for historical accuracy, saying “dedication to truthfulness is crucial when we face our own history”. Yet, when it comes to Captain Cook, the British Museum is doing exactly the opposite. Cook neither invaded, nor did he occupy Australia. Attributing genocide to the son of a Scottish farmer could not be further from the truth: this is historically inaccurate and morally wrong. Needless to say, Cook’s exploration of Australia’s east coast was in 1770, 18 years before the First Fleet arrived. As a world-class institution, the museum should know better, but chooses not to. The museum is simply buying into the version of Australia’s history which maintains everything since 1788 has been a story of dispossession, violence, exploitation, and racism. This version is relentlessly drummed into Australian children and cited every year around the 26th January by the radical minority which hates Australia. It is the version which has been created and now taught to Australian university students by mainly progressive academics in our history departments.
“Captain James Cook neither invaded, nor did he occupy Australia. Attributing genocide to the son of a Scottish farmer is historically inaccurate and morally wrong.”
Not always has it been so. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the history of Australia was taught largely within what has been termed an ‘Imperial framework’. Most Australian history, despite ostensibly nationalist concerns, had been defined by English historiography. The national story—celebrated equally by both sides of politics—was essentially one of the transplantation of British institutions, culture, technology and people into the new land. Liberals and conservatives celebrated the development of parliamentary democracy, English law and British industriousness, while the ALP championed trade unions, the Chartists, labour parties and English-style socialism. In short, they saw the history of Australia as a late chapter in British, European and world history.
Historians such as Clark and Blainey might have been divided by politics, but they shared a traditional approach to the discipline of history.
By the 1970s, this framework had all but been abandoned. Finding a historian or teacher who focussed on Australia’s British origins became increasingly difficult. A key factor was the influence of historian Manning Clark, who brought a leftist, nationalist, and generally anti-British perspective. In his monumental six-volume A History of Australia (1962-1987), reframed Australia’s history in terms of the battle among forces of the Enlightenment, Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglophile Australians were by definition reactionary. For the title of the final volume Clark borrowed a line from the poet Henry Lawson: The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green, to contrast the dying British tradition and the native Australian egalitarian and nationalist spirit.
Professor Geoffrey Blainey was hardly of the left, but he was in his own a driving force in the Australianisation of our history. Perhaps no historian before or since has displayed the same understanding of and empathy with ordinary Australians across the centuries. In 1976 he added a further dimension with his Triumph of the Nomads, relaying in detail the story of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of the British. This was a necessary correction—ensuring due recognition to the culture that preceded European settlement and making it part of Australia’s story—but in subsequent years the celebration of the Indigenous heritage has too often been a platform for reviling the British and Australian civilisations which followed.
Allan W. Martin, foundation Professor of history at La Trobe University, was a leading biographer of Sir Henry Parkes and Sir Robert Menzies. While he was a lifelong Labor supporter, he did not advertise this as such, because “he took his task to be simply to get the history right”. Professor Martin found it impossible to believe “some readily identifiable class or party or cause can mysteriously hold in its keeping the only truth essential for understanding the whole society”. In his introduction to The ‘Whig’ View of Australian History and Other Essays (2007), Martin noted younger historians had labelled him a ‘counter revolutionary’ and ‘bourgeois’ because he had penned objective biographies of Australian politicians.
One of Martin’s students, Dr John Hirst, followed him to La Trobe University, later writing Convict Society and its Enemies (1983) and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy (1988). Hirst was part of the late resistance, rejecting the by then orthodox version of Australian history as a popular struggle in search of national fulfilment, in favour of a story which told of a British inheritance which came with both independence and democracy, echoing Professor Martin.
The last major assault in the “History Wars”—when they were merely between the radical nationalist left and ‘conservative’ historians more willing to admire the British inheritance—was the publication by historian Stuart Macintyre of his Concise History of Australia (1999). Using the ‘three waves of Australian history’ framework (Indigenous, British, multicultural), Macintyre delivered a story of Australia’s history which included individuals, events and a narrative which culminated in forecasting the end of a recognisably British-derived civilisation in Australia, to be replaced by one with due weight for Aboriginal culture and the culture fundamentally transformed by post-war (not British) waves of immigration.
While historians such as Clark, Blainey, Martin, Hirst and Macintyre might have been divided by politics, they all shared a traditional approach to the discipline of history. They saw their role with great clarity, which was to understand and study Australian society, agreeing history is about the expanse of time in which human beings have lived and acted, that it is chronological, and a chronological study of the past and major events should be central to history as a subject. All operated under the assumption they were able to paint a fairly accurate picture of past events by using a linear model of historical thinking and sifting through historical evidence. All accepted truth is objective, knowledge is instructive, and the historian’s principal role is to construct a narrative using his or her professional judgement. A social mission could be built on that foundation, in the manner of (say) Macintyre, but the business of historical research and writing was fundamental.
Historians accepted truth is objective.
What came next had its roots in the 1960s, when there appeared a range of radical post- structuralist and post-modernist theories invented by a group of mostly French philosophers, who rejected such notions of objective truth and knowledge. Perhaps the most influential of these theorists insofar as history is concerned was Michel Foucault (1926-1984), philosopher, historian, social theorist, and inventor of the neologism ‘power-knowledge’. His underlying ideas, derived from Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, were that neither truth nor knowledge are grounded in reality but are merely subjective constructs created by one group for the sole purpose of wielding power over another. He proposed that knowledge is power and history is fiction. Accordingly, the sole purpose for writing historical accounts is to retell the past in order that power might be reclaimed and past abuses rectified. Ultimately, the historian’s role therefore, is not that of redactor, but of social commentator and political activist.
Foucault’s theories were transmitted from France to the English-speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period political history became unfashionable, while subjects focused on gender and race gained popularity. Not only did he teach extensively in Brazil, Japan, and Canada, but for several years Foucault was a visiting lecturer at the University of California.
In Australia, historians were schooled in Foucauldian theory by American historian Hayden White. American philosopher Brian Fay said White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) ostensibly educated “an entire generation of historians… to theory and metatheory in a way no previous generation was”.
White proposed history was nothing more than myth, that there is no distinction whatsoever between truth and fiction, and history is simply a “place of fantasy”. The past, he claimed, can be whatever the historian wants it to be. Two prominent Australian historians, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, conceded Hayden White was the most influential figure in “historical writing as writing” in this country.
The study of the chronology and events in Australia’s history is vital if we are to make informed decisions about the future. In The Idea of History, R G Collingwood wrote:
History is for human self-knowledge… The only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.
In recent years, the observation and study of events has been replaced with disconnected themes or highly specialised subjects, termed by Professor Niall Ferguson as microcosmographia academica. Ferguson has resurrected this term to convey the way this type of history deals with minor concerns, focussing on topics such as “the habits of New York restaurant-goers in the 1870s or the makeup of various Caribbean ethnic groups in areas of Brooklyn that made up West Indian Day Parade in the 1960s”.
There is a direct correlation between the history of Australia as taught in our universities and the perception of our nation’s history in the wider public discourse. The historical themes which preoccupy the academic community tend to frame public debate as well as policy decision making. Unfortunately, there is also a correlation between the history taught in our universities, and the curation of artefacts which inform—or, in this case, misinform—the general public. And if the annual visitor numbers to the British Museum are anything to go by, that is a potential six million misinformed members of the general public.