Holiday Reading III – A Short History of Australia

By the famed Manning Clark, this is his condensed version of Australia’s history, from European settlement until 1963.  It is to my dismay and shame that  I have not read any of this historian before.

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What struck me was the preponderance of economic reasons for policy decisions, as well as the desire to keep Australia “civilised”, in line with Protestant religion and the British Empire. For example, Australia was kept white because of both the fears of the middle-class surrounding miscegination and Australia becoming non-white, as well as the fears of the working-class that non-white labour would reduce wages and living standards. When it came, non-British migration was a result of population and economic pressures, rather than ideological concerns.

Manning Clark also has an eye for the individual. As he traces the historical narrative, he constantly introduces individual characters into the narrative, always sympathetically but never uncritically. For example, of Billy Hughes he recounts his difficult path to politics so that we understand the barriers he overcome, but he also observes “It may be doubted whether he ever loved any man“, immmediately exposing Hughes’ coldness and pessimism.
I have recently waded through some of the players in the “history wars”, with their interminable debates about how to interpret the evidence we have available. This is all necessary, and historical skills are important for students so that they can come to their own conclusions. But it is also a joy to read history as a story, uninterrupted by interpretative concerns. That is what Manning Clark gives us in this book, well told and well written.

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