‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens


2009, 549p plus notes

This is an absolutely beautiful book.

Physically, it is a thing of beauty.  It is hard cover, brimming with photographs and drawings (some glossy museum pictures juxtaposed with current photographs that the author has taken herself), with thick, luxuriant white pages.   And beautiful it should be, I suppose, supported as it is by the City of Sydney, the Australia Council, the Australian Academy of Humanities and the State Library of NSW.  In fact at first I thought it was a coffee table book to accompany a series (there was an SBS series of that name) but it’s not.  It’s a history (with the humility to designate itself a history rather than the history) fair and square, without apologies.

Karskens nails her colours to the mast: she is writing as an historian, and participating in a historical conversation with other historians:

This book has its roots deep in a great mountain of existing research, thinking and histories.  Historians work collectively, within a wider community of scholars.  So history writing is less an individualist pursuit than a collective quest, and an ongoing process.  This is one reason references are so important: they rightly acknowledge the work of past scholars, as well as guiding future readers and scholars into the literature.  In the notes and bibliography of this book you will find, besides original manuscripts and archival records, maps and pictures, an extraordinary and diverse body of scholarship about early Sydney, works mainly by historians, but also archaeologists, economists, anthropologists, art and architectual historians, ecologists, geologists, museuologists, geographers, biographers and local and community historians.  (p. xii)

She is true to her word.  There’s a heavy debt to Inga Clendinnen here, not only in content but in writing style, and likewise to Alan Atkinson– two historians I deeply admire whose writing turns an event around and looks at it from different angles, giving us the gift of coming to the familiar with new eyes.   There’s also a connection with James Boyce whose recent book Van Diemen’s Land is almost a pigeon-pair with this book in its re-visioning of the penal colony as a new environment with new opportunities.  Unlike Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, this book joins other histories- John Hirst’s work springs to mind-  written with  a determination to look beyond Hughes’ gulag and horror: it looks to the agency, optimismism and opportunism of ordinary people in a new environment instead of just the dregs of the old world.

The history itself is a thing of beauty too.  It breaks free of many straitjackets: more than perhaps any other history of Australia that I have read it interweaves Aboriginal history, archaeology, women and environmental history throughout the book.  Not content with the almost obligatory “before” chapter dealing and then dispensing with “the aborigines”, she asserts that Sydney remained an Eora town- that Eora people continued to live within Sydney on their own terms, with their own geography and in resistance to christianizing impulses, into the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, they have never left.

The environmental theme carries throughout the book as well.  She starts in deep time and emphasizes the connection between landscape and food supply not just along the coastal regions, but inland along the rivers and ravines.  Unlike other histories which are drawn to the inland and the importance of crossing mountains and going towards the centre, she turns back towards the sea, just as the early Sydney people did.  She reminds us that Sydney had three beginnings: the abandoned Botany Bay settlement;  Port Jackson (truly a ‘port’ city where early convicts settled into the Rocks with their own raucous, uninhibited subculture), and then the third, more ordered attempt to start again in Parramatta by imposing conformity onto the layout.  She reminds us that once settlers spilled onto the Cumberland Plain, confronted by different tribes, the same battles had to be fought anew with new opponents.   The Europeans of early Sydney were not the industrialized huddled-masses; they were pre-modern people bringing with them the patterns of village tradition and the pre-industrial paradox of deference combined with the English moral economy.  At the same time, though, they were a consumer society, tied into the broader imperial economy by virtue of the port which serviced and was served by British trade routes and markets.

In Karsken’s book Macquarie is not the benign “Father of Australia”.  Instead she depicts both Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie as landscape artists, imposing their improving architectural vision onto Sydney, obliterating the emergent, spontaenous eruption of the workers’  lifestyle and culture by appropriating public space for the ‘respectable’ in mimicry of  a modern European urban landscape.

Nor, despite her obvious respect,  does she let Clendinnen’s romantic vision of dancing strangers blind us to the violence that was the first response and default position.  She is not so enamoured of Watkin Tench that she sees his expedition under Phillip’s orders as a face-saving farce, as Clendinnen argues.

In her review of the book  Cassandra Pybus chided Karskens for following the well-worn and well-mined biographies of  governors, scribbling military officers, Macquarie, Ruse and a few high-profile convicts.  I’m not sure that this is fair: the book is studded with small stories that move into the spotlight then fall back to the wings- not grand narratives to be sure, but small solo items that illuminate and make larger arguments human before moving on.  There is the grand design of official planning and policy, but she emphasizes that there was a complementary,unofficial, spontaneous counter-reality that emerged from the myriad small stories and small lives of ordinary people.

Some quibbles?  Karskens had succeeded so admirably in integrating an aboriginal worldview and interaction throughout the book, but two lengthy chapters at the close of the book focus on black/white relations in the Cumberland region.  Given that she was already handling this so naturally and unselfconsciously these two chapters deflected the book into another direction.  They are both long chapters.  Up to this point, there had been such elegance in the writing, at both structural and sentence level, but the conclusion of the book is  weighted unevenly and the work as a whole loses its symmetry.

The book is richly illustrated, so much so that I was surprised to find colour plates half-way through.  I had assumed that it was black and white only, and there was no reference in the text (e.g. Plate 3) to prompt the reader to search for them.  I felt almost cheated to find them later.  Likewise, maps would have reinforced her argument about the importance of waterways and coast and the pattern of the spread of settlement.

Ah, but these are just quibbles.  This is an insightful, intelligent, deeply human history with immaculate scholarship.   In his review published in The Monthly, Alan Atkinson wrote that the book  “propels Karskens straight to the first rank of Australian historians”- high praise indeed.  It’s certainly had me engrossed for about the last three weeks (hence the paucity of other book reviews recently), and you know- I think I’ll read it again one day.

12 responses to “‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens

  1. One to add to the library, by the sound of it. I’ve read Dancing With Strangers, and have (as yet unread) Van Dieman’s Land, Ochre and Rust and Colonial Ambition too – all bought as prize winners of some premier’s award somewhere. As an historian, what do you think of these three, Janine?
    (I also have 1788 by David Hill and Keneally’s Australians, Origins to Eureka, but these are not written by historians.)

    • Van Diemen’s Land is excellent, although he does have a rather curious, very lengthy appendix attached to the body of the work that examines black/white settler relations- much as Karskens has done here without actually calling it an appendix. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know how to integrate it, and it stands as almost a separate work in its own right. I read it while I was over in Tasmania and it changed my vision of what I was looking at. I hadn’t heard of him at all (I wonder if anyone had) until he wrote a brilliant response to Keith Windschuttle that I think was published in ‘Whitewash’ edited by Robert Manne.
      I too have Colonial Ambition and am ashamed to say that I haven’t read it yet- and I really SHOULD with capital letters and will need to before I move onto the Judge Willis as Political Actor chapter of my thesis. I enjoyed Peter’s earlier work on Simpson and his Donkey. I haven’t read Ochre and Rust.

  2. I’ll pop that on the Xmas list for my son, sounds like he’d enjoy it immensely, thanks for reviewing it! 🙂

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