I was reading a fairly old book of collected essays on Upper Canada the other night. It was the 1975 edition of Historical Essays on Upper Canada edited by J. K. Johnson. There has been a second collection of essays released in 1989, again edited by J. K. Johnson but joined by Bruce Wilson this time.
It interested me that in the introduction to the 1975 book, Johnson noted that one of the themes of the essays was a preoccupation with economic affairs. He wrote:
It is probably no accident that the preoccupation of historians of Upper Canada has often been with economic affairs- with the study of growth, of the metropolitan dominance of Toronto, of agriculture, of business firms, of lumbering or public works. It is true that Upper Canadian society showed a propensity to produce or adopt contentious public figures who have attracted the attention of historians, but the great majority of Upper Canadians were from the very beginning engaged in the more mundane business of developing the resources which the province had to offer- engaged in other words in the business of making a living, and wherever possible, in making a profit, a fact of Upper Canadian life which has been rightly stressed in historical writing. If historians of Upper Canada can be said to have created an overall view of any kind it is of a society generally concerned with its own (mainly economic) betterment but in some dispute about the best ways of achieving that goal (p. ix)
Now actually that he mentions it, I had noticed that much of the history I’ve read of Upper Canada has a strong economic history focus. I don’t really think that Australian history has the same emphasis. There’s Shann’s old Economic History of Australia written in 1948, and the Butlins whom I’ve written about here who also write economic histories. Blainey’s work, especially The Tyranny of Distance makes an argument with strong economic strands, but it doesn’t have the tables and figures that mark so much of the Upper Canadian material I have read (which is, to be fair, often chapters and articles). Nonetheless I’d be hard pressed to think of a recent general book about Australian history that has a really strong economic focus.
Johnson’s justification for the emphasis on economic history among Ontarian historians would hold just as true for Port Phillip which was likewise established by people wanting to make money. But again, I don’t think that this is the case. A.G.L. Shaw’s A History of the Port Phillip District is a narrative history that includes a strong economic analysis, but it is just one strand among several. Likewise the three volume Priestley/Broome/Dingle series published for Victoria’s 150th anniversary- the economic story is there, running steadily underneath, but not the main focus.
I can really only think of one academic on staff whom I would characterize as an “economic historian” and only one of my fellow postgraduates has written an overtly economic thesis. Several of my colleagues are writing environmental histories, but they are of a different hue.
I’m aware that historical specialisations wax and wane, and that some institutions attract particular schools of historians. But I’m wondering if there’s some cultural influence at play here too- a variation of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ perhaps?