Thursday, 23 October 2014

Shaping a historiography: Ernest Scott and the Short History

A number of the historians may well have recoiled at any suggestion that their histories included elements of politicised myth-making. Influenced by von Ranke’s empiricism and intolerant of theory, Ernest Scott saw himself elaborating the facts into service to clarify the story of the Australian people.[1] Yet the Short History, the first significant history of Australia published in the twentieth century, outlined the mythic origins and character of the Australian people. Scott wanted to explain how British racial origins and the accompanying heritage of liberal ideals had flourished in Australia. Gifted with ‘the most liberal endowment of self-government that had ever been secured in the history of colonisation by dependencies from a mother-country’, the ‘thoroughly British’ Australian population had been left ‘free to work out their own destiny’.[2] Thus Australia became ‘…a field for the exercise of their racial genius for adaptation and for conquering difficulties.’[3] Scott was himself a product of this genius for adaptation: an emigrant of illegitimate birth from London without an academic degree, Scott had trained as a journalist and published several works on the exploration and settlement of Australia before becoming the chair of history at the University of Melbourne in 1913.[4]

Ernest Scott (left) c1916

Scott described a myth of progress and the formation of a unique national identity. His idealised vision was most potently expressed in his observations on the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli on the 25 April 1915. Britain found itself at war with Germany in August 1914 and the Australians ‘flew to arms on the instant’ in support of the Empire. The Anzac landings had occurred a year before the publication of Scott’s Short History, and although he could only offer a few remarks about the campaign in the concluding chapter, he made the most of his opportunity to elevate the campaign into myth. Scott asserted that Anzac and its sacrifices had been pre-destined by fate and prophesied in the poetry of Henry Lawson. Scott observed that poetry was that ancient and ‘Spartan’ art form of the Muses that could not only confer artistic inspiration, but also bestowed the gifts of memory and prophecy. The ‘Spartan spring’ had flowed ‘constantly and copiously’ in Australia, and poured ‘hot from the heart’ of Henry Lawson: ‘There are passages in his virile ‘Star of Australasia’ that ring like the authentic message of prophesy, written as this poem was nearly a quarter of a century before the name of Anzac blazed into being :

… I tell you the Star of the South shall rise – in the lurid clouds of war.[5]

Australians were fulfilling an ancient destiny by sacrificing themselves in war, to ‘fight for a Right or Great Mistake’.[6]

In his Short History, Scott sought to solve the contemporary problems of Australians: who they were and how their history might help them cope with the unprecedented sufferings posed by the First World War. In identifying shared British origins, Scott offered a reassuring sense of familiarity, enhanced by an account of how Australians had proved themselves worthy of their inherited traditions and faced the challenges of developing a new country. Scott defined and expressed this mythic history on behalf of the Australian people and the Short History became a standard reference for students and the general public selling 40,000 copies within a decade and appearing in a number of editions between 1916 and the outbreak of the Second World War.[7]

In Scott’s tale of progress and sacrifice, the first Australians were swept from sight by the relentless tide of European progress; he briefly described how the ‘fading out of the native race’ was grim, hateful and inevitable.[8] However, the sectarian and racial tensions between the Protestant English majority and the Irish Catholic minority went largely without comment. The fundamentally gendered nature of Scott’s celebration of the Australian character with the masculine conquest of the land and cult of military sacrifice on behalf of the feminised nation and the imperial motherland was simply taken for granted. In these omissions, Scott’s Short History established a familiar pattern for Australian historiography that persisted well into the twentieth century, sustaining the myth of racial and male superiority that defined white, British-Australian culture. The Short History provided a vital text for establishing Australian history as a legitimate area of historical enquiry, capable of being fashioned into a compelling narrative and worthy of further research. Yet it was not until 1926 that before Scott established the first course offered by an Australian university called ‘Australasian History’ that sought to place the study of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific in its imperial context but not structured along the lines of the nation building lessons that he had described in the Short History.[9]

‘Mateship’ at Gallipoli: the epitome of two ‘myths’

At the University of Sydney, George Arnold Wood had already begun to expand the research horizons of Australian historiography. Like Scott, Wood was a British immigrant, although formally trained as an historian at Balliol College. At Oxford he was influenced by von Ranke’s methods and encouraged to explore primary sources. Appointed to the chair of history in 1891, Wood, like many of his contemporaries, saw the study of history as a story of progress to be explained in essentially literary terms. He was an ardent liberal who believed history must illuminate the present and act as a moral force, shaping the values of future leaders and ‘much of Wood’s interest in history centred round the struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism.’[10] Overworked and sometimes at odds with the University of Sydney authorities because of his radical liberalism, Wood presided over a syllabus that privileged British and European history at the undergraduate level; he only once taught an undergraduate course in Australian history, in 1925. Amongst postgraduates, he encouraged research into Australian history, a field which opened up with the availability of primary sources at the State Library of New South Wales, opened in Sydney in 1910, and through his involvement in the project to publish The Historical Records of Australia between 1914 and 1925 that documented the early colonial period.[11]

In 1922, Wood published The Discovery of Australia, a pioneering account of the exploration of the continent and in the same year produced an influential article in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, then the only dedicated historical journal in the country, on white Australia’s origins as a convict settlement.[12] Wood took issue with the established tendency to avoid discussion of the shameful convict stain, considered an embarrassment by most respectable Australians. He argued that convicts, ‘generally criminals of a low rank’, had played a vital role in nation building after being transported by the state to protect the interests of a corrupt English aristocracy. ‘Is it not clearly a fact that the atrocious criminals remained in England, while their victims, innocent and manly, founded the Australian democracy?’ The convicts were equipped with both the qualities and the gender required for nation building. Australian sacrifice at Gallipoli and on the Western Front demonstrated that convict ancestry had produced Australians who had ‘proved themselves to be among the greatest and noblest souls who have ever grown among the British race.’ Wood cast back in time to find vindication of the liberal democratic nationalism that he championed.[13]


[1] Macintyre, Stuart, ‘The Making of A School’, in Crawford, R.M., Clark, Manning and Blainey, Geoffrey, (eds.), Making History, (McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books), 1985, p. 11.

[2] Ibid, Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, pp. 330-332.

[3] Ibid, Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, p. 336.

[4] Macintyre, Stuart, ‘Ernest Scott: ‘My History is a Romance’’, in Macintyre, Stuart and Thomas, Julian, (eds.), The Discovery of Australia, 1890-1939, (Melbourne University Press), 1995, pp. 71-75.

[5] Lawson, Henry, ‘The Star of Australasia’, In Days When the World Was Wide, And Other Verses, (Angus and Robertson, 1903), p. 116.

[6] Ibid, Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, pp. 336-340. See also, Cronin, Leonard, (ed.), A camp-fire yarn: Henry Lawson complete works 1885-1900, (Lansdowne), 1984, p. 459.

[7] Macintyre, Stuart, A History for a Nation, Ernest Scott and the Making of Australian History, (Melbourne University Press), 1994, p. 73.

[8] Ibid, Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, pp. 184-185.

[9] Ibid, Macintyre, Stuart, ‘Ernest Scott: ‘My History is a Romance’’, p. 85.

[10] Fletcher, Brian H., ‘History as a Moral Force: George Arnold Wood at Sydney University, 1891-1928’, in ibid, Macintyre, Stuart and Thomas, Julian, (eds.), The Discovery of Australia, 1890-1939, pp. 13-14.

[11] Fletcher, Brian H., ‘History as a Moral Force: George Arnold Wood at Sydney University, 1891-1928’, in ibid, Macintyre, Stuart and Thomas, Julian, (eds.), The Discovery of Australia, 1890-1939, pp. 18-19.

[12] Garden, Don, ‘Historical Societies’ in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 321.

[13] Wood, G. A., ‘Convicts’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. viii, (1922), pp. 187, 190 197.

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