Keneally, Thomas: Australia Vol I

Thomas Keneally

Australia: Origins to Eureka: Volume 1, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010; first published 2009

Novelist and historian Keneally ‘tells the stories of a number of Australians from the Pleistocene Age to 1860. The people whose tales are told here exemplify the major aspects and dynamisms of the Australian story.’ By describing sometimes unfamiliar people and stories he hopes ‘to cast light on at least some of the mysteries of the Australian soul’.

The story Keneally writes is roughly chronological but wanders up byways and contemplates microcosms, as some of the early chapter sub-headings indicate: ‘Island of innocence’ (Norfolk); ‘Who gave the Eora the smallpox?’; ‘”Juliana”; The face of shame’ (The Second Fleet); ‘A governor longs for home’ (Phillip). Great to read in combination with a more conventional narrative history although it has a timeline to 1860 and extensive bibliographical notes, suggesting that the author or his researchers have done the necessary devilling. Reviews are here and here.

The author gives the Eureka incident a twenty-page section, introducing it, perhaps slightly tongue in cheek, as a ‘little delayed’ reflection of the 1848 revolutions in Europe and ending it with Peter Lalor’s remark a year later that ‘he was “free to confess that it was a rash act” he had taken part in at Eureka’. He notes that the unrest at Eureka was dealt with relatively smoothly in the courts afterwards.

For Australia now seemed to the vast majority of its people – other than indigenes – a forum where crises could be resolved by constitutional and moral means … So that was Australia now, at the end of the 1850s, a country where most demands seemed to many people … to have been met; and where the penal past had been transmuted into a diverse future, in which Australians would bravely attempt to live down the origins of their society.

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