Triumph of the iconoclast who sparked the history wars

Bookmark and Share | Richard Allsop
The Weekend Australian 6th March, 2010

"In his desire to restore the balance between white man and black man and to make up for our scandalous neglect of the Aboriginal heritage, he has at times swung too far the other way."

That is a reviewer for the The Sydney Morning Herald criticising Geoffrey Blainey for being too sympathetic to Australia's indigenous population. Yes, you read that correctly: a reviewer criticising Blainey for being too sympathetic to Aboriginal Australians. Now, it should be pointed that these words were published in 1975 and were contained in a review of Blainey's landmark work, Triumph of the Nomads.

In the early 1970s, Blainey had been the first academic historian in the country to include Aboriginal history in a general Australian history subject. Blainey had come to the then unusual view that Australia's history before European settlement was worth studying.

Triumph of the Nomads brought this radical premise to a much wider audience. An integral part of Blainey's argument was rejecting the assumption that Aboriginal society had been static. Blainey also believed that previous writers had underestimated Aboriginal economic success.

Blainey suggested that "by the standards of the year 1800 . . . the Aboriginals' material life could be compared favourably with many parts of Europe".

For some, he went too far in redressing the historical imbalance, but most welcomed the fact radical thinking was a leading feature of the book.

As well as many positive aspects of pre-1788 Aboriginal life, Blainey also drew attention to some of the less pleasant characteristics of their society, such as infanticide and inter-tribal wars.

These aspects of his work were seized on by certain critics; however, a lot of this seizing did not occur until after March 17, 1984. This was the day when, at the height of his prestige and influence, Blainey's life changed. He concluded a talk to a Rotary conference in Warrnambool, Victoria, with some comments about Asian immigration, which sparked a furore.

Blainey had been involved in controversies before, but debates about whether flax and pine were factors in the British decision to colonise Australia, or whether the Literature Board head office should be based in Sydney or Melbourne, were hardly adequate preparation for this conflagration.

One does not have to have shared Blainey's position on Asian immigration to lament the vitriol that was poured on him. Not content with just debating the actual issue of Asian immigration, many historians went back through Blainey's opus to find examples of poor practice they could use to undermine his authority.

It presaged a new era in the national discourse, one in which someone with a view with which one disagreed was not just wrong on that issue but was a bad person.

The attacks on Blainey probably mark the beginning of the so-called history wars in Australia, wars in which ideological correctness became more important than any other factor in assessing a historian's worth.

Apart from Blainey, the other key victim of the history wars was Manning Clark who, while obviously disagreeing with many of Blainey's views, nonetheless decried the attempts to silence him.

Perhaps it is now safer to discuss such matters following the official ending of Australia's history wars by prime ministerial edict on August 27 last year. Given Kevin Rudd's attempts to rewrite modern political and economic history in a partisan manner, one may doubt his sincerity, but there is at least something appropriate in him making his declaration at the launch of Tom Keneally's book Australians: Origins to Eureka.

This is because, at the height of the controversies of the 1980s, Keneally wrote to Blainey: "I regret very much the impulse of some people to attempt to discredit your history in the simple-minded and intellectually fascist belief that this would somehow undermine your social and political arguments. I don't care whether you accept this or not, but you are for me one of the very finest Australian writers and historians. As for the rest, our disagreements are a matter of record."

There is much to be said for ending the history wars. While history should be debated and interpreted in a multitude of ways, these discussions should be able to be conducted without every issue being used in a contemporary political debate. And ending the wars may also provide an opportunity to evaluate Blainey's career in a more balanced manner.

By any measure it has been a remarkably productive career. Blainey has written almost 40 books, been a highly regarded teacher and university administrator, a chairman of important government committees and a participant in some of the big debates of recent decades. And he invented the perpetually busy phrase "the tyranny of distance".

Blainey will turn 80 on Wednesday next week, which also marks the 60th anniversary of his public debut as a historian. It was in 1950 that Historical Studies published an article by the undergraduate Blainey dissecting the work of a well-known authority on Federation, R. S. Parker.

Blainey found that Parker's assertions about the economic interests of particular voters were not matched by the evidence. As one observer put it, ``Here was this young undergraduate applying departmental research techniques to confound an authority . . . it was quite remarkable."

However, this was not the only example of the 20-year-old Blainey's preparedness to challenge authority and conventional wisdom. He found theory and method of history classes at the University of Melbourne so abstract that he declined to participate and negotiated with the lecturer an alternative reading program.

More significantly, Blainey rejected the example of other successful history undergraduates by exhibiting no interest in pursuing postgraduate study at Oxford.

Instead, Blainey headed off to the isolated west coast of Tasmania to write the history of the Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company, the start of an initial 10-year career as a freelance historian, making a living from writing books.

From late 1961 onwards, Blainey did follow the more conventional path for a historian of working in a university. However, his early departure from Melbourne University, after the controversies of the 80s, means that he has spent a slight majority of his 60-year history-writing career outside the academy.

Blainey's work has clearly derived benefits from his time spent inside and outside the academic tent. On becoming an academic in the early 60s, he learned a lot from students, their interests and questions, and more than one book began life as part of a subject he taught to undergraduates.

Between 1966 and 1980, he produced three works, sometimes considered a trilogy, that took his reputation to a new plane.

The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Land Half Won took Blainey from being a writer in the niche of economic, business and mining history to a contributor with a distinctive vision of the important themes in Australia's history.

All three books challenged conventional views about their subjects and, by coining the phrase "tyranny of distance", Blainey contributed -- along with Donald Horne's "lucky country" and A. A. Phillips' "the cultural cringe" -- one of the three best-known, and often misunderstood, phrases of modern Australia.

The breadth of Blainey's work has been remarkable, but not everyone approves. Perhaps the strangest criticism of Blainey's broadness came after the publication of A Short History of the World, when one critic decried a generalist having a shot at a task that, in his view, should be left to specialist world historians.

Just as the breadth of Blainey's work is remarkable, so is the longevity of his career. Both are the product of his insatiable curiosity to find out about the past and to explain it to others by writing about it in beguiling prose.

Blainey shows few signs of slowing down. Highlighting the continuing interest in his views, he was quoted in the Melbourne Herald Sun on the first day of the new year on whether we were likely to call this year "two thousand and ten" or "twenty-ten". Based on historical precedent he favoured the latter. At present he is writing a history of Christianity.

In each of the past six decades, Blainey has produced works of great interest and importance. Odds are that the twenty-tens will be no different.

Let's hope they can be read on their merits and not through the prism of the history wars.