A Shorter History Of Australia, by Geoffrey Blainey, read by Humphrey Bower
Admittedly, Australian history is not something I consider myself to be particularly knowledgeable about beyond the general details of aboriginal settling and isolation, British settlement, and Australia’s simultaneous attempt to assert itself within the British and American imperial systems and also their cringing attitude towards more dominant nations. That said, after listening to 11 hours of a reading of Australia’s history, I can say that this general understanding did in fact capture a great deal of the history of the country. And while the author claims a desire to talk about the social history that he views as more important than the political history or the (very limited) military history of Australia, a great deal of the time here is spent in talking about political leaders like Menzies and Howard and the way that political realities shaped the behavior of those who were in office as much as political leaders shaped the times in which they lived. And while I can say that after listening to this book that I feel I understand Australia’s history a bit better, I cannot say that I feel myself impressed by the history itself although the author’s attempt to balance various concerns and present an even-handed approach to a contentious history is admirable.
This book is, for the most part, a fairly conventional chronologically-told history of Australia. It begins with a discussion of the decidedly non-anthropogenic climate change that isolated the aborigines on the island when the seas rose and prevented the spread of agriculture (which the author refers to as gardening) to the continent. In general, the author appears ambivalent about the losses suffered by the aboriginal people but also points out that neither the past nor the present offer any easy answers about how it is that isolated stone age populations are to dwell in harmony with advanced Westerners. Throughout the book the author offers a variety of specific details about travels, business dealings, and political leadership that shows the way that Australia benefited from the actions taken by other people, and how in times like World War I and World War II and Korea and Vietnam Australia leveraged its young male population of fighting age for influence in the diplomatic affairs of the 20th century world. Overall the book tells a story of boom and bust cycles and of a political culture that is simultaneously rebellious as well as loyal, which is a de facto republic but one that is (at least currently) happy to remain part of the empires of various nations in different ways.
After having listened to this book I think it is easy to say that Australia is easy to be somewhat pitied. Despite always having been a fairly well-off area thanks to the culture of the British inhabitants, post-settlement Australia has essentially always been an export-driven area that sought to profit off of its resources, such as they were, rather than engage in the difficult practice of internal development that one sees in the United States. Whether it was in subsidizing British (and other European) settlers or seeking to exploit mineral wealth in trading with China and Japan, Australia has always seemed to be a country that seems to have avoided the difficult work of creating those interior connections and ties that help to make a nation cohesive and resilient. Its achievements are certainly notable, but its climate and location definitely place some strong limits on how many people it can support even in the best of circumstances and also give it a vulnerability that has always led it to seek the protection of others who are more powerful. There are worse things to be than a wealthy and ambivalent client state, but one gets the sense that the author wants a more glorious story to tell.