Reviewed by Gerard Healy
Don Watson, of Paul Keating speechwriter fame, has updated his history book for the young (and the curious). By young, we are assuming around 11 to 14 years of age and, by curious, we mean anyone interested in Australian history. Watson published the original text in 1984 and there have been significant social, cultural and technological changes since.
The structure of the book follows a chronological sequence from the earliest evidence of humans in Australia around 60 000 years ago, through descriptions of traditional Aboriginal communities, the arrival of European explorers and then the invasion of settler/colonisers up to the present day. Interspersed with these chapters are stories of both everyday people and of more famous figures (Bennelong, Caroline Chisholm, Billy Hughes etc).
I think Watson has done a good job of dealing, albeit somewhat briefly, with major events in our backstory. Think of your own top ten/ twenty notable events (Anzacs, Ned Kelly, world wars, the First Fleet, etc) and they’re almost certain to have been covered. Also, he takes the view that the arrival of British settlers was an invasion of Aboriginal land and the subsequent expansion across the continent caused great hardship for our First Australians.
One difficulty of writing primarily for a younger audience is the need to limit the complexity of the language used. So there are more shorter sentences and plainer vocabulary used than would be the case in writing for adults. However, this can be turned into a positive with adroit wording. For example, PM Bob Hawke is described as “a larrikin with brains” (190). Covering an earlier era in politics Watson writes, “Bob Menzies was prime minister for sixteen years. He was self-assured, eloquent , shrewd and lucky.” (182). It is perhaps unfair to describe either PM in such short-hand fashion, but it does convey something important about them. Hopefully, students will read further to widen their understanding of the complexities that historical figures present.
Watson describes the changing role of women from traditional Aboriginal societies to convict women and on to settler pioneers and currently. While many things have improved, full equality hasn’t been achieved. There are some remarkable stories told: Elizabeth Macarthur successfully running the family sheep farm and raising six boys by herself (60), Daisy Bates living with remote Aborigines and trying to help them (138) or Betty Cuthbert and other athletes doing so well at the Melbourne Olympics (168).
Watson also gives students an idea of how things were at school last century. In the 1950s, girls did Cooking and Sewing while the boys did Woodwork. Thinking back on my own schooling in the 1960s, I realise how the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘massacre’ were never mentioned in the same sentence. A shameful omission that today’s students shouldn’t have to experience. Watson covers this dark chapter in own history thoroughly. Reading about the Myall Creek massacre (72) and the attitudes of the white murderers is chilling to reflect on.
In a radio interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live on 30/6/2021, Watson said that he tried to sidestep the idea of contestability. He thought his audience were too young to fully understand the nuances involved in competing views on a topic. He also said that it is hard not to be wrong when you have only 500 words a chapter.
There were some basic editing/ proofreading errors. On page 113, he wrote that in 1904, “the Australian Labor Party becomes Australia’s national government” but over the page it’s in 1909 that this happens. It’s 1904 (from April to August under PM John Watson, who was born in Chile). Then we’re informed that in 1953, “King George V1 dies and his daughter Elizabeth becomes Queen” (161). Half right; Elizabeth’s Coronation was in 1953, but George V1 died on 6 February, 1952. Then there’s Menzies sixteen years in office (182) and seventeen years in the job (161).
Who was Australia’s greatest Prime Minister? Watson uses this clever form of words, “Some people say (John Curtin) was the greatest prime minister Australia ever had” (160). Quite true, some people do say that. However, what about these statements?
“Japan never intended to invade Australia (in WW2)” (154). There is a view that Japan, as it swept further south through Asia, decided not to over-extend its Army by attempting invasion. But did it never intend to invade?
“Curtin was a socialist. He (believed) there should be no rich or poor in Australia. The country’s wealth…should be evenly shared among the people.” (160). My Macquarie says socialism is vesting the ownership and control of the means of production (etc) in the community as a whole. Perhaps a debatable difference.
Recommendation: This would be a good history text for younger High School students to read and study. It is comprehensive, fairly balanced and readable. Older Australians can learn much from it also.
Don Watson is the author of Caledonia Australis, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, American Journeys, The Bush and Watsonia. He was born in 1949 and grew up in country Victoria. He has a PhD from Monash Uni and was an academic historian for ten years.
The Story of Australia
by Don Watson