Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Colony: A History Of Early Sydney

With recently renewed discussion about the history and occupation of Australia Grace Karskens' newly released "The Colony: A History Of Early Sydney" is a fresh and timely account of the origins of Sydney. Grace Karskens brings a personal touch to the book that I also found to be helpful.

Karskens, who worked as the Project Historian for the Cumberland Gloucester Street Archaeological Project, has produced a multidisciplinary book. This is one of the strengths of The Colony - besides using traditional historical and political accounts, Karskens addresses social history (including the history of women and convicts), environmental concerns, Aboriginal history and archaeology. It also sets Sydney Town in its context of being the center of surrounding settlements spread out across the Cumberland Plains. Drawing on Inga Clendinnen's earlier research, Karskens account of the indigenous experience of the British invasion and continued settlement is especially worth reading. Karskens herself is well aware that what she offers isn't the Aboriginal history of 1788, but it does go along way towards that.

The Colony also some way towards busting several myths that have arisen about the foundation of Sydney. The narrative presented by Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore is well and truly in her sights. Karskens also spends sometime dealing with the 'foundational orgy' story and also the continued presence of Eora people in Sydney for several decades after 1788. Of particular note is Karskens reconstruction of the Minto massacre in 1816 of Aboriginal, elderly men, women and children.

My main gripe with it is the absence of religion in The Colony. Neither the religious beliefs of the Eora or the British were adequately dealt with. This doesn't mean that it isn't mentioned. On one occasion Karskens point to the Evangelical motives some officers had in educating Aboriginal children. But that's about it. Religion floats across the pages, but for a multidisciplinary work religion remains ungrounded. The Church of England clergy are presented only as farmers and country squires. As Meredith Lake has pointed out elsewhere, "there are...important questions about how post-christian Australians try to make sense (or not) of our Christian past."

Overall, I found the The Colony to be an insightful and read. It left me wanting to know more about Sydney's past, and was for me an extremely useful introduction to the Eora's experience of the invasion. If you only read one historical book each year, you should strongly consider this one.


meredith said...

thanks a lot for this review matt - I am really looking forward to reading this book (I'd been scouting around for a free copy to review for a journal or something, but it seems that i will have to go to a bookshop and pay - oh well!)

I've had a quick look at the book, though, and at its references to Johnson. even from that little survey it was easy to tell that karskens doesn't engage much with religion.

I accept that christianity was not at the forefront of everyone's minds in early sydney, and that most early colonists were not really committed to practicing traditional christianity (though they did hold a variety of spiritual beliefs).

but i still think that christianity was one of the major intellectual influences on the thought and culture of the time - and that its roll in shaping the early colony is very important. notions about cultivation and improvement, for example, were profoundly shaped by biblical stories and ideas. yes, enlightenment thought was key too, but it intertwined with christian thought in complex and important ways. so for karskens to comment on johnson as a farmer without linking it to his religious worldview is, i think, to miss an important part of the picture.

it was double disappointing for me, as my PhD thesis explored all this stuff. And even though i sent her a chapter i thought would be of interest to her, she apparently declined to engage with these ideas. oh well. i guess thats what it means to be at the bottom of the food-chain academically!

meredith said...

... a question. How do you think Karskens' book compares with Inga Clendinnen's 'Dancing with Strangers'?

Matthew Moffitt said...

I hope you get to do a review of The Colony Meredith. There were points where I was reading it and I wondered what you would think of where Karskens went with some points.

I haven't completely read Clendinnen's book yet...I'm working on that now.