Australians: Eureka to the Diggers

Andrew Dilley reviews a colourful, but flawed, study of Australia’s coming of age

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Reviewed by: Andrew Dilley
Author: Thomas Keneally
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Price (RRP): £19.99

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In the second volume of his history of Australians, Eureka to the Diggers, Thomas Keneally, probably best known as the author of Schindler’s Arc, covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This period saw the dramatic expansion of the continent’s white population, Australia’s political unification in 1901, and its mobilisation in the Great War.

The novelist Keneally seeks to tell a tale with plenty of ‘good bits’, and constructs his history through a series of engaging pen-portraits of a diverse cast of Australians. Some are familiar: the bush-ranger Ned Kelly, the leading politician Alfred Deakin, or poets such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson (the author of Waltzing Matilda).

Others are less well known. For example, Keneally follows the fortunes of Charles Dickens’s sons, ‘Plorn’ and Alfred, dispatched to make good in the backcountry of New South Wales. Early chapters also provide glimpses of the Chinese, Japanese and Kanaka (Pacific island) immigrants, and of Aborigines such as Harry Bungaleenee, the first non-white to be admitted to the Society of Oddfellows (a tradesman’s version of the Freemasons).

Throughout his account, Keneally highlights the distinctive experiences of Irish Australians, and finds space for homosexuals and cross dressers. Keneally’s Australia was made by women as well as men, and nowhere is this clearer than in his chapters on the Great War, which play close attention to Australian nurses as well as soldiers.

Through these intertwined biographies, Keneally offers an accessible and at times deliberately quirky history.

Nonetheless, it follows a strong tradition narrating a straightforward transition in Australia from colony to nation: a nation born in the bush and imbued by values such as ‘mateship’, which came of age under fire in Gallipoli and Flanders. This tradition originated in the period of Henry Lawson’s poetry and CW Bean’s history of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, but only became dominant in the decades after the Second World War.

Keneally updates this story, acknowledging its dark underbelly of racism and violence, and according a greater role for women, the Irish, and others. Like his antecedents, Keneally overemphasises the importance of the bush.

He also retains the colony-to-nation tradition’s main anti-hero, the British and especially the British aristocrats and statesmen who, in contrast to Keneally’s loving pen portraits of Australians, are generally reduced to simplistic caricatures: arrogant, meddling, incompetent, and unable to comprehend Australian aspirations.

Thus Joseph Chamberlain is described as a ‘‘monocled incarnation of imperial arrogance” and “high Tory”, completely misrepresenting one of the most complex of British politicians, a former radical Liberal, and later Liberal Unionist (not Conservative) whose imperialism was driven not by arrogance but an acute fear of decline. Certainly such ‘pomme-bashing’ makes for a clear national(ist) narrative but its simplicity creates problems.

By emphasising the forces separating Australia and Britain, it leaves unexplained the persistence of connections and affections between the two. Most Australians did not wish to leave the British empire, but aspired to become what Alfred Deakin described as “independent Australian Britons” – independent within the British empire.

It was on this basis that so many Australians volunteered to fight in the First World War.

Thus Australians offers an inclusive version of an old tradition for the 21st century, but like that tradition it offers only a partial account of the Australian past.

Andrew Dilley, lecturer in history, University of Aberdeen
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We ran an interview with Thomas Keneally at the time of the publication of volume 1 of Australians for our Christmas 2010 issue. You can buy it now as a back issue