The Time Police
Making Australian History
by Anna Clark
Published February 2022
Tony Birch can remember the words of a policeman, written in 1913. He was in an undergraduate history class and they were reading an archived report on the living conditions in the terrace slums of Melbourne’s north. The report’s author, a policeman, had paid a visit to a single-story terrace row at 56 Atherton Street, Fitzroy, and duly logged its squalor: rats and bedbugs, sour floorboards, ceilings yielding with old rain. ‘I lived in the same house’, Birch realised suddenly. It had been his home from 1959 until 1966, when 56 Atherton Street was bulldozed by the Victorian Housing Commission. But what struck Birch was not this coincidence so much as a continuity: ‘the conditions described in 1913 had not changed at all more than 50 years later’. When he later came to write a PhD thesis on social welfare and policing in Fitzroy, it was this ‘experience of history’ that he sought to channel.
Birch was at the University of Melbourne at a strange and significant time in the history of Australian history – a time when the discipline became a proxy for broader cultural and political struggles. Birch began his studies in 1988, the year that the Australian nation marked the bicentenary of white settlement with grand and expensive pageantry. It was also a year of momentous First Nations protest. Crowds of unprecedented size marched through Sydney, demanding Indigenous land rights, while, on the other side of the world, Woiworrung and Yorta Yorta actor and activist Burnum Burnum claimed Aboriginal possession of England with a flag at Dover beach. Looking back, the scenes of contested observance in Australia’s streets seem to anticipate the years to come. The bicentenary was followed in 1992 by the Mabo judgment, one of the most consequential legal decisions in Australian history, in which the High Court ruled in favour of the Meriam people’s native title claim to the Torres Strait islands of Mer, Dauer, and Waier. In terms that the judges acknowledged might seem ‘unusually emotive’ to some, they defied the triumphant narratives of the bicentenary and wrote of Australia’s settlement that ‘the conflagration of oppression and conflict … spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal people and leave a legacy of unutterable shame’. Mabo provided the immediate context for Paul Keating’s Redfern Park oration in 1992, but also for John Howard’s landslide victory in the elections of 1996. Where Keating had spoken for the collective guilt of settler Australia (‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life’), Howard’s rhetoric transformed settler anxieties about Indigenous sovereignty into a posture of aggrieved defiance. ‘I do not take the black armband view of Australian history’, he told the Parliament, only months after his election. ‘I believe that the balance sheet of Australian history is overwhelmingly positive’.
The struggle over how to remember and commemorate Australia’s colonial past (and, by extension, what its implications might be for Australia’s present and future) had immediate consequences for the discipline of history. It ignited Australia’s so-called ‘History Wars’, a series of impassioned disputes in the late 1990s and early 2000s over the extent, as Anna Clark puts it, ‘of colonial violence on the Australian frontier, and the function of History in contemporary Australian society’. Birch, who was by that point teaching history at the University of Melbourne, found himself at the centre of these debates, and was troubled by what he saw. The attempt of Howard’s allies to control the historical narrative, along with its institutional dissemination in schools and museums, didn’t surprise him particularly. What concerned him was the response of a certain group of historians ‘safely embedded behind the sandstone fortresses of Australia’s older universities’, those he refers to as the ‘left aristocracy of the History profession’. That they had used their authority to challenge Howard’s rewriting of history was laudable, but Birch was bothered by how quickly the debate morphed into one about the nature of disciplinary authority itself. It seemed that what these historians really wanted was a way to better police the discipline, to discriminate between what did and didn’t count as valid historical knowledge; that ‘war’ no longer referred to Australia’s frontier violence, but had been transformed by some legerdemain into a metaphor for a methodological disagreement. Birch purposefully plays with the talk of ‘history wars’ and ‘verbal violence’. He speaks of the ‘salvos of a war’ being ‘hurled across the discipline’, of the ‘battlefields’ and ‘trenches of history departments across Australia’. But watching this metaphorical conflict play out at a conference in 2001, he felt a powerful sense of unease: ‘It was a day that I remember with great lucidity, as it was while I was sitting in the theatre that I came to the realisation that I no longer wanted to teach history’.
Birch later wrote a response, but not one that would easily register as historical research in its disciplinary sense. ‘Footnote to a “History War” (Archive Box – No. 2)’ (2004) is a poem ‘lifted directly from the archive’. Birch assembled it from letters that had been exchanged ‘between Aboriginal people living on reserves and missions and the relevant authorities within the Victorian government’. He arranged these archival cuttings into a structure of ‘call and response’, alternating, stanza by stanza, between the ‘voice of the archive’ and the ‘voice of Aboriginal people’. The result is a disquieting non-conversation, an address unheard by the addressee:
my colour debars me
my child is dead
& I am lost
we are broken into parts
our home left in the wind
& it grows colder here
my wife is aborigine
I am half caste
and I am, Sir, dutifully yours
I await your response
he wears a suit [issue no. 6]
hat [issue no. 7] & possesses
one pair of blankets
she has on loan
one mullet net &
two perch nets
their children are gone:
‘Footnote to a “History War” (Archive Box – No. 2)’ is more than a creative response to the History Wars. It is also Birch’s way of doing history in a moment defined by what he felt were the failures of history as a discipline. But what was it about poetry that should have appealed to him as a medium of historical expression?
‘Footnote to a “History War” (Archive Box – No. 2)’ is part of a larger ‘Archive Box’ series, but in this poem Birch achieves something special. By reframing archival materials as poetry, even the impersonal aspects of these documents become charged with the power of address. Recall Birch’s poetic response to the History Wars itself takes the form of a call and response. The ‘voice of the archive’ appears first, which should make it the call, but these truncated gobbets of bureaucratese and mission hymnbook phraseology are hardly ‘calling’. Instead of addressing the ‘voice of Aboriginal people’, the archive’s call is speaking to itself, unaware that it can be overheard, and unable to hear the response speaking back to it. It is the failure of these two interlocking soliloquies to become a true call and response that gives Birch’s poem its pathos, and delivers a subtle comment on the History Wars. In a debate about the ‘sanctity of the footnote’, Birch’s poem seems to say that historians failed to recognise the footnote addressing them too.
Historians sometimes speak of an anachronistic sympathy, an empathetic identification with people from the past. But it is only in rare and transgressive moments that the past can speak intimately with them in particular and them alone (I am thinking of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s ‘Monologue with Freud’, where the historian addresses his deepest, unverifiable intuitions directly to the historical subject who cannot hear him). In such moments, the past speaks like poetry, with the force of address. It says: see this ‘living hand, now warm and capable … I hold it towards you’. Suddenly the words a policeman never intended to address the tenants of a Fitzroy slum speak across a barrier of fifty years to someone who dwelled in that very building. Poetry is properly a footnote in the history of history, but poetry is also capable of exposing the reader to the full force of words like those – pulled from an archive – that conclude Birch’s poem: ‘I seek only this from you’.
‘Footnote to a “History War” (Archive Box – No. 2)’ is one of many examples of ‘history-making’ centred in Anna Clark’s rich and illuminating new book Making Australian History. Clark’s book is ‘a history of Australian History’, what she modestly describes as ‘a book for a general readership that provide[s] insights into what Australian History is, as well as how it has been understood and made over time’. I approach Clark’s book as a member of this general readership, a disciplinary outsider intrigued by the use she finds in literature. But Making Australian History is more than a work of public history; it is also an expansive and searching enquiry into the epistemological and ethical problems that have confronted Australia’s historians over time. What does it mean to write history in Australia when the discipline itself arrived with the settler-colonial project? Which perspectives have historians forgotten, disregarded, and silenced? And what can we learn about Australian society in the present from the struggles over how to understand its past? These are problems that Clark has been puzzling over, in one way or another, for several decades. Like Birch, she was studying at the University of Melbourne at the height the History Wars, and though she may not have resolved to give up history, she also experienced a sense of disciplinary crisis that was formative and acute. ‘Most of my professional life’, as she puts it, ‘has been spent studying what these disputes mean’.
It seems fitting then that the writing of Making Australian History was stalled by conceptual challenges before it had even begun. There are even problems in the question: where to begin? At one stage in the book’s gestation, Clark imagined she would follow ‘a strict chronology’. But for all chronology’s power as a structuring device, it posed problems: she was concerned by an implicit temporal chauvinism. ‘Thinking about the thousands of generations of babies birthed and deaths marked, the thousands of years of Country learnt and sung, produces’, she says, ‘the same slightly overwhelming wave of belief I feel when reading about the size of the universe’. The continent now known as Australia was historied for tens of thousands of years by First Nations people, and yet chronologically structured narratives typically truncate this period into a mere preamble to modern Australia’s settlement and nationhood. Even the best chronological histories of Australia find it difficult to escape this problem: in the late Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia (now in its fifth edition, published in 2020), a single chapter of roughly twenty pages covers more than 50,000 years.
The problem of where to begin is even more fraught when it is framed in terms of the history of Australian history. For almost two centuries, Australian historians conceived of First Nations history in Australia as the temporal equivalent to terra nullius. Historians saw Australia as a timeless land, and history as something that had happened elsewhere. In 1852, Godfrey Charles Munday wrote of Australia as ‘a country without yesterday’. Almost a century later, Australia’s first professor of history, George Arnold Wood, referred to the period before settlement as the ‘dateless backward of History’. In time, it became conventional for historians to treat this period as Australia’s ‘pre-history’, which concisely airs the limitations of the discipline as they saw it. For how could they write history in the absence of written records? As Pitjantjatjara elder Nganyinytja once said: ‘We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. The hills and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us’. Nganyinytja here evokes one of the defining problems of modern Australian historiography; in Clark’s words: ‘Does History – the Western, empirical, chronologically ordered discipline – have the capacity to incorporate Indigenous expressions of time?’ Or are historians no better than ‘the time police’, as Brewarrina knowledge holder Brad Steadman tells Clark with ‘more than a hint of exasperation in his voice’? Can history overcome its exclusions, or would it be better to fall silent in the face of something its methods cannot comprehend?
Clark doesn’t solve these problems in Making Australian History, but she dwells on them in insistent and zetetic ways. The form of her book is itself a kind of response. She opts for a thematic rather than chronological organisation and constructs Making Australian History out of a series of interlinked essays on subjects such as ‘Beginnings’, ‘Protest’, ‘Silence’, ‘Gender’, ‘Imagination’, and ‘Time’. Each of these chapters attempts to enact historiographical commentary by providing a close reading of a particular historical ‘text’. In her selection of texts, Clark is again mindful of the past exclusions of disciplinary history. To define a ‘text’ as a written document would be to collude with the silences of the archive, and effectively render non-textual forms of remembrance irrelevant to historical understanding. Instead, she takes inspiration from the methodological insights of the ‘New History’, ‘that groundswell of revision framed by Indigenous, women’s and labour histories, which sought to include previously overlooked … perspectives’. So, for Clark, a ‘text’ is an encompassing thing: it is any practice of ‘history-making’, which is to say, virtually anything that can be made intelligible as an object of historical interpretation. Even a convict’s tattoo can be a text, an ‘important window into their values and the stories they told themselves’. There are no tattoos in Making Australian History and some of its texts are canonical historical monographs, such as Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance (1966). But the vast majority of examples of ‘history-making’ in Clark’s book are what she calls ‘more everyday forms’: a black-and-white photograph of the Day of Mourning protesters in 1930s Sydney, contact art in the Nangulurwurr Gallery at Burrungkuy, a family memoir, a popular convict ballad, the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps.
One surprisingly persistent theme in Making Australian History is the historical significance of literature, and in particular poetry. Can a poem ‘know’ something, ‘think’ something that history cannot? At times Clark seems to think so. This doesn’t mean she thinks historians should be writing poems, though she does pause at one stage to consider some dubious poetic offerings from Australia’s nineteenth-century historians, finding most of it ‘appalling’, ‘gushing’, and – in the case of Ernest Favenc’s paean to the central Australian desert – ‘oozing’. Clark is content to leave the writing of poetry to poets, and yet historians, she thinks, can still access a kind of knowledge through poetry – what she describes, at one point, as ‘fuller meaning’. Put like this, poetic insight has an air of mystery, but when Clark spells it out she makes sure to strip literature of any special epistemic privileges. Much like ‘histories from the deep past, oral histories … heritage tourism and family histories’, literary works are an alternative source available to historians eager to challenge the myopia and silences of their discipline. There is nothing unique about poetry here; it’s just one of many possible source materials. Literary works, Clark says, ‘might not be fixtures of scholarly historical training and expertise, but they have extended Australian History and historical understanding’. Nevertheless, when Making Australian History turns to particular poems the stakes feel higher than these remarks suggest. To return to ‘Footnote to a “History War” (Archive Box – No. 2)’, Birch’s poem is not simply another perspective on the History Wars. The poem is, Clark maintains, ‘one of the best pieces of history-making’ she has come across.
There are two kinds of historical knowledge that Clark looks for in poetry. The first appears in her chapter on ‘The Great Australian Silence’. In his celebrated 1968 Boyer Lecture series, the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner decried ‘a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale’, by which he meant the deliberate and systematic exclusion of Indigenous people from the conventional narratives of Australian history. Stanner’s Boyer Lectures are the ‘text’ in Clark’s chapter ‘Silence’; like many historians, she considers them a watershed moment in the history of twentieth century Australian history. And yet, Clark also notes how this silence was peculiar to the discipline of history in the early twentieth century (there was, for example, no comparable silence about the frontier wars in nineteenth century Australian history). The poet Ian Mudie argued as much in a letter he sent to Stanner in 1968. He claimed that the Great Australian Silence ‘overlooked the so-called creative writers, among whom was to be found probably the most vocal group of the period on the subject of the treatment of aborigines’. Poetry’s ‘knowledge’ here is not something we could isolate by reading particular poems. It lies in the contrast between history and poetry: that poets felt compelled to bear witness in a time when historians did not. This is not to say that poetry is history’s conscience or that history should act like testimony. Rather, it is to maintain that there is an epistemic significance in the insistence of poets that certain questions matter, even if these questions may seem irrelevant and illegitimate to disciplinary history. One of Clark’s pivotal examples here is Judith Wright, a poet she credits as being able ‘to go where History couldn’t, or wouldn’t’. In a 1945 poem, Wright draws on something she heard from her father while they were out walking on New England’s escarpments. He told her about a massacre that had happened there, ‘the driving of an Aboriginal group suspected of killing cattle, over the cliffs opposite’. In the words of Wright’s poem: ‘Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers, / and the black dust our crops ate was their dust’? Wright’s poem confronts the reader with the refusal of knowledge. The question is not so much ‘did we not know’, but why not?
Clark considers Wright’s poem ‘a powerful antidote to Australian historiography of the time’. Yet at other times, Making Australian History turns to poetry not for antidotes, but for something more like alchemy. Could poetry transmute the voice of someone from the past into a form intelligible to historians? Could it help ‘restore historical subjectivity’? The desire for poetry to play this role emerges most provocatively in Clark’s analysis of Frank the Poet, who is the centrepiece of her chapter ‘Convicts’. In 1832, a court in Kilkenny, Ireland, sentenced Francis McNamara to seven years’ transportation for stealing plaid. He was to spend the better part of his life in some of the most infamous prisons of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales. We can glean something of McNamara’s exploits and tribulations from the colonial records: there are inventories of his many punishments (lashes, solitary confinement, stints of hard labour in shackles) and misdemeanours (obscene language, absconding, insubordination). We know this because ‘white Australia is’, as Rob Pascoe puts it, ‘one of the most heavily documented societies ever to have existed’. From the colonial archive, the historian can find details not only of crimes and punishments, but also, as Clark points out, ‘what time prisoners were woken up, the rations of food and clothing they received and the sermons they heard, as well as who they married, the children they had and when they died’. What they can’t establish from these archives, however, is the thing that many historians would most like to know: ‘how convicts viewed their own place in history’. It is here that Clark turns to poetry for a kind of compensation.
McNamara is best known by his folksy epithet ‘Frank the Poet’. He is the author of one of the most significant bodies of poetic work produced by a convict in Australia’s penal system. The vast majority of the poems attributed to him are in ballad form and describe the grotesque injustices that convicts experienced. They are poems that course with anger, and yet they have a distinctive wit, levity, and humour which is all the more remarkable in a poet for whom ‘fetters’ were not the metaphorical constraints of poetic form (a conceit taken apart in Andrea Brady’s superb book Poetry and Bondage), but literal incarceration. In his homespun Inferno, ‘A Convict’s Tour to Hell’ (1839), Satan is surprised to find Frank rapping on hell’s gate, hell being no place for poor convicts (who naturally ‘soar to Heaven in droves and legions’), but a prison designed for ‘the grandees of the land’. All the same, Satan lets Frank take a look around at all the colonial officials combusting there, including two figures bound together on a single stake: ‘Cook who discovered New South Wales / And he that first invented gaols’. In ‘Moreton Bay’, the poet surveys the ‘excessive tyranny’ of a Queensland penal settlement –
For three long years I’ve been beastly treated;
Heavy irons each day I wore,
My poor back from flogging has been lacerated,
And oftimes painted with crimson gore.
– and gleefully relates the demise of its sadistic commandant, Captain Patrick Logan. Passed down through memory and frequently set to music, ‘Moreton Bay’ is among the best known of Frank’s poems. In fact, it may not even be his poem. Like many ballads, there can be no final word on its authorship. Frank’s poetic work belongs to those who have remembered over the centuries – a community of working class Irish Catholics, radicals, and unionists that would even include the bushranger Ned Kelly, who recites from ‘Moreton Bay’ in his Jerilderie Letter (1879).
Clark also admires Frank’s ‘searing wit’ and ‘fierce, caustic rage’, but as a historian she comes to his poetry with a distinct agenda. She treats it as history from below, a ‘powerful commentary on how the convict system was felt and experienced by those within it’. But more than that, Clark seeks to reconstruct something from Frank’s poetry that eludes even the monstrous archives of the Australian penal system: a mysterious quality of subjectivity, the convict voice. ‘From his poems and songs, we get a sense of Frank himself’, she contends, which means that Frank the Poet might also, in some sense, be ‘Frank the Historian’. I imagine that an historian might interject here that there is no such thing as the convict voice, because there is no single convict experience. Frank, they might add, was not particularly representative. Not only did he arrive in Australia at an inopportune moment, just after the prospects of emancipated convicts receiving land had been radically curtailed, but he was also in a select category – a ‘recidivist’ in the language of the carceral system – who was exposed to the penal colony’s cruellest extremities. I have a different rejoinder, however.
Clark’s search for a voice lost to the historical past is an instructive moment in Making Australian History because here we encounter a desire that has been vital to the discipline. It is a desire that Yerushalmi captures vividly when, in the conclusion to his historiographical lectures Zakhor (1982), he describes history’s will to knowledge, its inexhaustible gathering, its effort to apprehend the unknown. Historians would even write the history of forgetting if you let them, but they cannot, he cautions, ‘tell us what should be forgotten’. It is true that we can learn about Frank from both his ballads and the imprints he left on the colonial records. But there is something dissatisfying about this: both rhyming ballad quatrains and archives are impersonal, just in different ways. The ‘I’ of a poem like ‘Moreton Bay’ (‘I have been a prisoner at Port Macquarie / At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains…’) is not the voice of authentic self-expression, but a pronoun anyone can occupy, a kind of commons. So, comparing poetry and archival records, we might aim for ‘fuller meaning’, but something is still being lost. And what is lost is perhaps the thing we were searching for – the mind of the other in history, Frank himself.
In her moments of self-scrutiny, Clark paces on a threshold. She returns the task of the historian as set out by Inga Clendinnen: ‘understand’ – in Clark’s summary – ‘what you can’t know and don’t go there. That’s the historical contract’. But what about those times, Clark counters, when ‘the historical contract feels broken? What if even the most imaginative History still marginalises certain knowledges and perspectives?’ In these times, could the ‘impulse to reach beyond History’s disciplinary limitations’ be an ethical imperative? Clark makes a similar complaint against Geoffrey Blainey. Punning on his Tyranny of Distance, she critiques the lack of imaginative proximity he takes towards his historical subjects: ‘Australian History meant something quite different to those for whom historical distancing, rather than distance itself, was the tyranny to be overcome’. But there are times when Clark isn’t so sure. They mostly arrive late in the book, in her discussion of Indigenous conceptions of ‘Country’ and ‘Time’. At her most hopeful, she imagines that history could at once ‘reach into the unknown and acknowledge the unknowable’; that it could extend ‘into Deep Time without colonising it’ and use its recognition of Indigenous knowledges ‘to critique and expand its own structures and practice’. But this hope mingles with uncertainty and disquiet, and Clark soon wonders whether intimacy and empathy could become forms of epistemological trespass; whether there are kinds of historical distance that cannot be traversed. ‘Maybe History … won’t ever truly see, hear and write about Country in its Indigenous sense’; maybe it is now the task of historians to ‘surrender authority and understand that the discipline does not, cannot, and should not make sense of it all’. Clark’s history of Australian history ends at this juncture. She leaves historians to think about ‘knowledge they cannot know’ (to borrow the words of a philosopher). A small consolation for the time being: knowledge of a discipline’s limits is still knowledge of sorts.
Thank you very much to those who read and gave feedback on draft versions of this essay. I would like to give a special note of thanks to Kyle Kohinga for sharing expertise on Frank the Poet. Any mistakes in this piece are my own. In the early section of this essay, I am drawing on the narrative of History Wars presented in Birch’s essays and interviews (such as ‘The Trouble with History’, his podcast interview for Archive Fever, and ‘“I Could Feel It In My Body”: War on a History War’), as well as leaning on Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia and Macintyre and Clark’s The History Wars. The quote attributed to a philosopher in my final paragraph is a reworked version of a claim from Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History (1963).