Being Australian 25: Australia Day Reading

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1. The Commonwealth of Thieves by Tom Keneally

This is excellent, far better than Robert Hughes and his cliched, melodramatic account in The Fatal Shore.

…Comparison between the two books is inevitable and also illuminating. In contrast to the Gothic melodrama of The Fatal Shore, The Commonwealth of Thieves is sober and restrained and all the better for that. The brutal practices enacted at Sydney Cove during the first years of settlement – floggings and public hangings in a time of famine – are all duly recorded but not dwelt on with the salaciousness to which Hughes succumbed occasionally.

Nor does Keneally follow doggedly in the steps of those who have been dubbed – maliciously in most instances – the black-armband brigade. The terrible conditions endured by convicts waiting for deportation and the miseries they endured during the long voyage to New South Wales (particularly on the Second and Third Fleets) are detailed unsparingly. No less telling are Keneally’s comments on the horribly draconian criminal justice of late-18th-century Britain. But he also acknowledges the decency and humanity of some of the men involved in the emptying of overcrowded jails – for instance, the master and crew of Lady Juliana, a women’s transport that set sail independently before the Second Fleet left for the Antipodes.

He is equally moderate and even-handed in his accounts of the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous owners of the land. Particularly notable are the pages that deal with the clash of two catastrophically incompatible cultures. Keneally resists the temptation to romanticise or sentimentalise Aboriginal society, its often bloody conflicts or its systems of retribution that seemed arbitrary and perhaps even barbaric to eyes that had glimpsed, no matter how faintly, the rational idealism of the Enlightenment.

These are, of course, perilous paths for a writer to follow. Keneally’s tact allows him to negotiate its hazards with aplomb…

2. STEEL TOWN: The Making and Breaking of Port Kembla By Erik Eklund

…While closely linked to economic developments, this is very much a social history and Eklund takes care to consider the impact of industrialisation on all sectors of Port Kembla’s society. One of the strongest parts of the book is the examination of the different experiences of men and women in early industrial society, and the importance of the informal economy in women’s lives.

Industrialisation was not easily accomplished and, during the Depression, more than 1000 people lived in humpies at Port Kembla. Eklund shows how the resources of the local authorities were not up to the sanitation task. The unemployed and itinerants were simply left to fester.

Also important is the account of the attempts by Port Kembla Aborigines to retain their land rights through to World War II. This is carefully qualified, and quite heartbreaking, history.

Steel Town is an adaptation of Eklund’s University of Sydney doctoral thesis and his attempt to use a theoretical analysis based on the notion of “locality” is less successful. Stripped of its academic context, it appears to be little more than old-fashioned parochialism.

Perhaps more serious is some sloppy use of sources. Eklund analyses a BHP booklet, produced in 1955 to mark the opening of the hot strip mill by the prime minister, Robert Menzies.

He writes: “The usual information on local services and settlements that graced such company publications in the pre-war era was absent.” It is an interesting point, meant to demonstrate the company’s aloofness from the community during the postwar period. A check of the booklet, however, shows that, far from being absent, photographs of new housing estates and medical services are featured alongside those of local beaches and other beauty spots.

Elsewhere, the analysis is incomplete or partial. Given the detail provided on women and the informal economy, it is surprising how little attention is paid to their entry into the industrial economy….

3. Memoirs of Mollymook Milton and Ulladulla by ALEX McANDREW. My grandfather, Roy Christison, was Principal of Milton Central School in the early 1930s. There is some excellent material in this book on the Aboriginal history of this area. Included is this quote from Major Mitchell.

We cannot occupy their [Aboriginal] land without producing a change fully as great as that which took place on man’s fall and expulsion from Eden. — 1838