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Holistic history of early Sydney

Tony Smith |  21 August 2009

Grace Karskens: The Colony: a History of Early Sydney. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest. ISBN 978-1-74175-637-1. Online

Grace Karskens, The Colony ISBN 978-1-74175-637-1While Australians living in other states rightly insist they have unique identities arising from their own foundational stories, there is no doubt about the national influence of the English colony begun at Sydney in 1788.

There have been many histories of the early days of white settlement, so any new scholarly work must demonstrate that it is making a fresh contribution. In The Colony Grace Karskens provides clear evidence that a genuinely holistic approach is long overdue.

Karskens carefully avoids the 'pendulum' view of history. Too many studies of the early colony depict Sydney as either a living hell in which convicts were brutalised by tyrants or a place of natural beauty that provided the opportunity to create a new classless world.

Instead, she constructs a narrative that arises directly from contemporary evidence. The story generates excitement not by embellishment or the application of a single theoretical viewpoint, but by embracing reality even where it seems mundane.

Karskens' writing is comfortably atmospheric. She makes it easy for the reader to feel immersed, almost present, in those early years as the Europeans stretched their occupation of Aboriginal land. By providing a 'deep' history and geography of the land as it appeared to the First Fleeters, Karskens contextualises the settler experience.

By examining the soils of the Cumberland plain, for example, she is able to explain why some areas were considered more desirable than others for farming. By linking development to the main river systems, she is able to explain the difficult task faced by Governor Phillip as he sought to establish an antipodean yeomanry.

Rather than concentrate on official policies and pronouncements, Karskens includes the activities of those who put themselves beyond the reach of government, especially around the Hawkesbury area to the north-west.

This settler narrative does not obliterate the Aboriginal peoples of the Sydney area but includes their reactions and adaptations. While hostilities erupted further inland, there were 'soft' contacts between settlers and Aborigines, including friendly relationships between women.

Despite good intentions, however, the newcomers — the Berewalgal — inevitably disrupted and threatened Indigenous lives as they cleared the forests, appropriated lands, placed pressure on food resources and disrespected cultures. Reprisals became common and deepened the misunderstandings inevitable between peoples of such contrasting and competing interests.

The experience of Sydney reflects the tragedy of colonisation generally. The local people 'made some concessions to European ways, but these were superficial, polite gestures and not internalised. The Europeans wanted more than that; they wanted nothing less than complete transformation.'

Colonists obliterate the people they supplant by ensuring that history is written in their terms. Sydney's history has traditionally been interpreted through the artefacts of a people who are literate and industrial, that is, through documents and buildings. When the descendants of the Indigenous peoples celebrate their survival, they face the difficulty that their important sites are largely buried under layers of European occupation.

Unlike histories that take the easy option, The Colony persists in acknowledging the equal importance of the sparse traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Sydney area.

For this reason alone Karskens has produced a work that challenges scholars of all callings to help restore the balance that existed in 1788. Whether we like it or not, history is still being made and we all have some power to shape it. A reading of The Colony should encourage us all to exercise that power more responsibly.


Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney. 

 



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