The Story of Australia's People
The Rise and Rise of a New Australia
Talks / Lecture
As one of the country’s most significant and popular historians, Geoffrey Blainey’s traces our story from the gold rush to the present day.
Transcript of ‘The Story of Australia’s People with Geoffrey Blainey’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich(AMS), Geoffrey Blainey (GB)
Location: National Library of Australia
AMS: Distinguished guests and dear friends, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Library’s Director General. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we now are privileged to call home.
We are delighted to have your company this evening to hear from one of Australia’s most esteemed historians, Professor Geoffrey Blainey. Geoffrey Blainey has written 40 books, 4-0 including The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads, A Shorter History of Australia, Black Kettle and Full Moon, and the international bestseller, A Short History of the World. In 2000 Professor Blainey was the recipient of Australia’s highest honour receiving a Companion in the Order of Australia. He is listed by the National Trust as a living treasure. Professor Blainey began teaching economic history at the University of Melbourne, was appointed Professor in 1968 and received the Ernest Scott Chair in History in 1977.
Now a recital of his record of public community and academic achievements and service would mean that there would be no time for us to hear from him this evening so let me content myself by telling you that he served on the National Council for the Centenary of Federation from 1997 to 2002 and as Chairman of the Council of the Centenary Medal from 2001 to 2003. He was a member of the History Summit in Canberra in 2006 and of the Federal Committee set up in 2007 to recommend a national curriculum for teaching Australian history. Last year he was a joint winner of the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Australian history for his book, The Story of Australia’s People, the Rise and Rise of a New Australia. Tonight he will be discussing the second volume of The Story of Australia’s People which takes us from the gold rush to the present day. It is an unalloyed pleasure for me to welcome Professor Blainey to the National Library this evening.
GB: Anne-Marie, I’m a guest, thank you very much for the generous introduction, I’ve never before been called an unalloyed pleasure. You too deserve a special word of thanks, you’ve been one of the great librarians we’ve been privileged to have in Australia and I understand that your term here is soon coming to an end. In Victoria you did great things and you’ve done great things and one of the great changes in my lifetime, and I suppose the lifetime of most people here, is the enormous increase in the number of libraries, the standard of libraries, what they collect, how they treat their public and you’ve been foremost in that revolution.
If I may reminisce I first went to school in Leongatha and if there was a library in the town we didn’t know about it. I suppose it was a Mechanics’ Institute which of course were all – they’d long since passed the period of purchasing books. And then we went to Geelong and I don’t think we belonged to a library at Geelong but our Sunday school had a library of uplifting books. And then we – then went to Ballarat and I don’t think Ballarat had a really living public library but it had a Mechanics’ Institute, one of the great ones in Australia and my father and mother belonged and I used to go there sometimes after school and read. I used to read travel books; I had a great desire to travel. In those days you didn’t travel. One of the great events of my life was for the first time going interstate at the age of 17 and feeling as I left the train at Serviceton near Bordertown that I was in Paris or London. And now little children, I spoke at Coolgardie State School when the town had a centenary and it came question time and the students was asked would they like to ask me a question about Coolgardie’s history and the first question was from a little Aboriginal boy with a beanie and he said have you been to Bali? So presumably his family had been to Bali.
And I can remember the first time I was uplifted by a library in 1942 when the war was on, I was allowed to go from Ballarat down to Melbourne to see my grandfather and I went alone in the train and next morning he said what would you like to do? I said I didn’t know, I’d never been to Melbourne before with free time and it really was a wonderful day, he took me first to the public library and to see the Melbourne Public Library then with the huge dome and the books rising to such a height and the people everywhere crouched over their books, it really was a most compelling sight. And it’s remained with me always. We then went to Coles’ Cafeteria. That was in the days before restaurants and I remember we had a meat pie and jellied fruit. Jellied fruit has gone from the menu in these days of multiculturalism but the pleasure it gave to Australians in those days. And then we went to the football in Richmond and Bluey Truscott who was a war hero came back and was allowed to play one game for Melbourne. He was overweight and unfit but there he played and there was a great excitement in the crowd because he was a war hero. And he died not long afterwards in a plane crash, I think, near the Exmouth Gulf.
So the visit to the state library was one of the formative events of my life and you presided over that state library which is now a magnificent creation. I should – just now that I’m allowed one more reminiscing, I came to Canberra first in 1948. I had a great desire still to travel and I had a desire to go to Sydney which was then the ambition of all Melbourne people. They’re no longer so keen. And to earn money to go to Sydney a friend of mine, later a judge, we went to the employment service, the Commonwealth Employment Service, everyone was desperate for labour and we said we’d like to make quick money to go to Sydney, they said go to Mildura and pick fruit such was their sense of geography.
And we hitchhiked to Mildura and we picked fruit in Red Cliffs. It was all a cash economy, the money we made and we went to Sydney, hitchhiked, it took ages, it was petrol rationing and coming back we came to Canberra and Canberra was very small in February 1948. We had a swag each and we camped in a clump of bushes by Civic Centre. The swags, we left them there in the day, they were quite safe and being young and interested in politics we spend the two days in Parliament House and it was a great sight to see Mr Lang there, J T Lang who was briefly in the federal – Mr Menzies, Mr Chifley, Mr Curtin was dead and there was Billy Hughes crouched and with his hearing aid, it was wonderful, it was wonderful to see. Of course there was no lake then and nobody dreamed that there would be a Grand National library here and now here’s this huge metropolis from which most of you presumably come.
I had – I wrote these two books, the first one came out in 2015 and the last one came out at the end of last year. I don’t know why I did it but the publisher persuaded me to look at books I’d written previously and update them. This will become a great thing. You know you couldn’t update books 50 or 60 years ago, it was far too expensive. For one thing there had to be more demand for a new print run and in the days of metal type it was so expensive to make any alteration and if you wanted to take out a line you had to fit in a line, a new line that exactly took up the shape. And nowadays with cut and paste and revolution in printing the world has altered completely and these two books, a large proportion is completely new but the relics of old books are still there. Not all the relics because I cut out a lot, they’re outdated and some of them are wrong but in the future this will be done again and again, somebody will take a book he’s written or she’s written 30 or 40 years ago and completely rewrite it without great expense.
And publishing is now so quick. I finished this book – somebody says it’s a most un-Blainey-like cover. I didn’t choose the cover but I accepted it – I finished the book on the 20 – I think the 26th of October last year. Somebody – it was published by Penguin. My editor rang up from Penguin and said you’ve got another hour if you want to make any changes. And I had a lot of changes, too many to be accommodated in the hour. And then they printed it and it was printed in Adelaide and back in Melbourne by the 31st of October. Book all printed.
The first book I wrote in 1954. The book was in the printer I think for the best part of a year. And when it came out I didn’t know that it was out, I was surprised to see it in the shop window one day. They didn’t publicise books in those days, now it’s an industry.
So I wrote this book. The first volume went from the discovery of Australia 50 to 60,000 years ago up to the eve of the gold rushes in 1850 to 1851. I still have the view after completing volume 2 is that the great event in the human history of Australia – you may not agree – was the rising of the seas beginning say 17,000 years ago and halting say eight or 10,000 years ago. You know if you were in Canberra, if you were an Aboriginal in Canberra 15,000 years ago or 20,000 years ago, very late in the human history of Australia, you could walk to Tasmania. If you were an Aborigine here you could walk to Port Moresby. You could almost walk to the equator, to that part of northwest New Guinea which is almost on the verge of the equator. And then the seas began to rise and rising of course all over the world and Australia eventually was cut off from New Guinea, Torres Strait was formed, Australia was cut off from Tasmania – I’m using the language that Tasmanians love to use – and such was the change in the geography of Australia that every city which is now a capital city on the coast was for most of the human history of Australia a long way from the coast. Sydney was a long way from the coast, Melbourne was a long way from the coast. If you lived in Melbourne in most of Aboriginal history and you wanted to see the sea there was no Port Phillip Bay but the Yarra went down Port Phillip Bay.
There was no Port Phillip heads, there was no Bass Strait because you could follow this river, the Yarra where it was finally joined by the Barwon from Geelong, finally in the middle of what is now Bass Strait it was joined by the Tamar coming from Launceston. And the water coming from the highlands of Tasmania which was covered with ice and snow for a considerable part of the winter so that the Tamar was a much bigger river than the Yarra and the combined Tamar and Yarra flowed west until they reached the ocean west of King Island. And this enormous change in the geography of Australia, cutting off the Aboriginal people from the outside world, the cutting off being completed at the very time when the world was changing and going through the first great economic revolution in human history. That revolution beginning probably in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago was the domestication of plants and animals. In some ways that’s more important than the industrial revolution and historically more important than the digital or the communications revolution which we’re now passing through – well though we can’t estimate how important that is.
And here was this new way of life developing in the Middle East first and then extending to most of the world. The domestication of animals and plants is the domestication of people; it’s two-way, isn’t it? Once you domesticate wheat or a crop it domesticates you, you’ve got to look after it all the year, you’ve got to garden from pests, you’ve got to not only harvest it but you’ve got to hoard it so that you’ve got seed in 12 months’ time. And this revolution didn’t come to the Aborigines so here in 1788 came this meeting in Sydney Cove of two people as far apart as any peoples in the recorded history of the world, a nation that had just invented the industrial revolution, some of its representatives, not its best representatives living side by side on the shores of Sydney Harbour and the banks of the Hawkesbury with people who didn’t have pottery and so they didn’t boil water. Of course the Aboriginal way of life was enormously ingenious and skilful; it just didn’t have the kind of objects that you get with a society that ceases to travel. If you’re seminomadic objects are a burden, if you live like us objects are insatiable and they determine our lives, we collect them like books too, to the end of our days.
The Aborigines couldn’t go through that revolution largely because they were cut-off. It was possible but they were cut-off. So I still see that as a great event in the human history of Australia, more important than Governor Phillip coming, more important than gold rushes, more important than federation, more important than the First World War and the second world war and the thunder of other events.
I began this book in 1850s – I think it’s - if you’re a Victorian you’re excited by the gold rushes, if you’re a New South Welsh person they’re not so important in its history. You know in 1851 Melbourne was only a third of the size of Sydney but by 1860 Melbourne was far bigger than Sydney. Between 1851 and 1860 the population of Australia trebled. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Imagine Australia today with 24 million people and in 10 years’ time in 2027 we have 72 million people. We talk about lack of infrastructure today, what would we say if we faced that situation?
So here was this remarkable change in Australian history and Melbourne raced ahead of Sydney and of course the <inaudible> 16:25 the great - this is why Canberra is here, isn’t it? The rivalry of Sydney and Melbourne insoluble. In some ways today although much less important than it was in 1900.
It’s – the gold rushes of course meant that Australia was still a masculine society. This to me is one of the interesting facets of Australian history. It was in the European period very much a masculine society for a very long period. The first time in the European history of Australia that the number of males was equal to the number of females is I think 1916 when what, 300,000 or 350,000 Australian males were overseas. You know in 1830 or 1860 or 1890 the excess of males over females in the Australian population was on an enormous scale and since the children were roughly of the same number in the age group 18 to say 50 or 60, the excess of males over females was on an extremely large scale. I think some of the characteristics of Australian society have been influenced by that male dominance. My view – I could be wrong, I’m pretty sure it’s right is Australia is the first country in the world to become obsessed with spectator sport. Australia is the first country in the world to become obsessed with spectator sport. It’s partly I suppose because we were an urbanised society very early and close to all the cities was land – free land in large quantities.
Melbourne had the parklands, Sydney had the harbour which was the home of its great sports, and the great professional sport in Sydney in the late 19th century was professional sculling, rowing for money. You know the first all-time sporting hero in Australia was not a football or a cricket or a jockey, the first real national hero in sport was a sculler. His name was Edward Trickett and he won the International Sculling Championships that is rowing your boat for money, a mile or two miles. That was a spectator sport of unbelievable popularity because in the two mile or a three mile course you could fit 100,000 or 200,000 people on the banks of the Thames or on the Parramatta River and he was the first Australian hero and they say Edward Trickett, more than 6 feet tall when he came back to Sydney as the world champion in sculling in the mid-1870s they said a quarter of Sydney’s population was at Circular Quay or where his ship came in for him to come ashore.
In fact one of the disgraces of Melbourne in the 19th century was that the great Sydney sculling champion of a later era died in Melbourne on his way back to Sydney as a world sculling champion. His body was taken back to Sydney, he had the biggest funeral ever seen in Sydney to that time. He was buried on the northern rivers, the northern rivers between Sydney and the Gold Coast, that was the home of most of the great sculling champions in Australia. See there were no bridges there and people made their living by sculling. They’d scull the children to school on the other side, they’d scull the milk from the farms up to the butter factory further up.
So where we had – and of course Melbourne became for some reason the home of spectator sports but the main reason is that leisure was at a premium in 19th century Australian society. I think it’s partly due to the fact that single men once – and now were so important in the convict – once they reached a certain income level they thought well they don’t probably need more income, I would like more leisure. And so Melbourne was probably the first city in the world where a substantial proportion of the population had a free Saturday afternoon. You can’t have spectator sport on any scale until you have a free Saturday afternoon or a free Wednesday afternoon. There could be no sport on Sunday because we were Sabbatarian’s, weren’t we? We didn’t believe in spectator sport on a Sunday or if there was sport on public lands you couldn’t charge people to enter.
So here was this great home of spectator sport and it still absorbs a large section of the Australian population but it's curious that this land, and we tend to forget it, was also the land where in some ways the first wave of feminism had its greatest triumph. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in this male-dominated society feminism should be so triumphant. We know that in New Zealand – was it in 1894? Was the first country in the world where women had the vote but in New Zealand women didn’t have the right to stand for Parliament, not for quite a large number of years. South Australia was the first colony in this continent where women had the right to vote and that was achieved one year after New Zealand. Early in the history of the Commonwealth the Commonwealth Parliament passed the law that women could not only have the right to vote, they had the right to stand for Parliament. And the federal election was at 1903 here or 1904? Was the first one in the world where women could stand for Parliament and women also had the right to vote. It’s curious, isn’t it, in this country that you have these two powerful strands? A country which is so dominated in many ways by male preferences and yet a country where women achieve long before the United States or Britain or other parts of the world, the right to stand for Parliament as well as to vote.
I should say something about the northern part of Australia. It’s interesting, isn’t it, we’ve still got a massive population in the southern half of this continent and a very small population in the northern half of this continent. If you use the Tropic of Capricorn as the dividing line and four-tenths of Australian territory is north of the Tropic of Capricorn. There are no official statistics as far as I know annually for the population of tropical Australia and I don’t think it’s one million yet and we’ve got 23 million living south of Tropic of Capricorn. It’s a strange juxtaposition, isn’t it? One of the things that stands out and it’s now largely vanished, the 19th century Australians were fearful of the tropics. If you wanted to insure your life and the biggest life insurer in Australia was the AMP of Sydney, one of the great insurance companies of the world in the 19th century, and if you had a policy in the AMP and you lived in Queanbeyan or Yass and let’s say you were in a bank and the bank charged you to – moved you up to Rockhampton, it was a bit of a blow because the money you would have to pay to keep up your life insurance policy. It was believed that your life would be very much shortened if you lived in the tropics.
And of course in those days in the tropics – in the tropics in those days there was no air-conditioning, there were verandas, there were punkahs such as they brought out from India but the climate was very difficult in summer time. There was no refrigeration. A man at Geelong named Harrison was one of the first people in the world to successfully produce ice by mechanical means but ice was still very expensive as late as 1980 and – 1880 and any sizeable towns in Australia did not have an ice works. Many of you will remember as late as 1940 most Australian towns, most Australian households that had ice just had an ice chest, didn’t they? When I’ve seen figures for the number of refrigerators in Sydney by then the biggest city in Australia, I think in Sydney during the Second World War there were only 40,000 houses that had a refrigerator. The rest, the ice man called with ice in a bag over his shoulder two or three times a week. In Melbourne the ice man became the wood man in winter time, it was a good way you could juxtapose the two occupations. So the tropics were regarded as very dangerous and all kinds of commissions in the south said what can we do with the north? And it was very difficult to see what they could do, that’s why Chinese labour was tolerated in the north in such numbers.
Then the day came when it was decided that perhaps Europeans could work in the hot sun and the change of the Queensland sugar industry in the 1890s and the early 1900s from one dependent largely on Pacific Islanders to one largely dependent on European labour was one of the remarkable changes, not only in the history of Australia but in the history of the world. White people didn’t do manual labour in the tropics, they believed that it was much too dangerous. There was a famous American geographer named Huntington. He came to Australia in 1920 or 1923, his ambition was to go to Townsville. He said that was the biggest, largest town in the world where outdoor work was largely done by European labour rather than by Africans or Pacific Islanders and now we’ve got this change - there’s no doubt about it – that the population in tropical Australia is increasingly fairly rapidly and as tourism and resorts and so forth, the population will keep on growing. It may be that in a hundred years’ time as many people will live in the north as live in the south but we don’t know.
One of the interesting events in Australian history, we always say Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, they’re very different people, aren’t they? The Torres Strait Islanders were gardeners like the Maoris, like the New Guinean people. The Torres Strait Islanders were gardeners; their way of life was completely different to that of the Aborigines. A small population, of course. Now the number of Torres Strait Islanders is far larger than it ever was in the centuries before 1788 but there they lived in those relatively small islands ranging from Thursday Island to islands like Darnley and Murray Island much further to the east. They had a very different attitude. The great event in the history of Torres Strait Islanders for a long time took place in 1871 when the London Missionary Society arrived and quickly converted a high proportion of the Torres Strait Islanders to Christianity.
Do you know we call it in Sydney or many people call it Invasion Day, the 26th of January and this year as in many recent years it’s aroused controversy, what should it be called? Should it be celebrated? Do you know what the Torres Strait Islanders called it? They called it the coming of the light because Christianity came. And if you go to Thursday Island and you see what used to be a cathedral but it’s now just a parish church you’ll see a monument to the coming of the light and the profound effect it had on the lives of the Torres Strait Islanders.
Some of you will remember when they had the constitutional convention in Canberra in 1998 and the debate was should Australia become a republic and if so what kind of republic? It was held in the old Parliament House and it went on for a fortnight. I think there were about a dozen Aboriginal representatives, many of them distinguished and fine orators. There was one Torres Strait Islander and he was astonished when he was seated with the Aborigines because the Aborigines were republicans and when the Torres Strait Islander, George Mye, had to make his opening speech he said our culture would be so diminished if the Queen ceased to be the Queen of Australia and the Queen of the Torres Strait Islanders. Interesting, isn’t it? In the same continent.
Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands then Queensland decided that Torres Strait was strategic, they told the British Government that the Germans might take over part of New Guinea, they might control Torres Strait, one of the strategic seaways in the world. The British Government said not on your life, we don’t want any more colonies. Queensland annexed it and the annexation eventually went through. The New South Wales Government and the Victorian Government helped to support Queensland in maintaining the settlement in Papua. Eventually it became a Commonwealth activity. I suppose it would be – Queensland’s action now seems strange. It would have been very difficult for Australia if the Germans had all of eastern New Guinea and in the Second World War they had the other side of Torres Strait.
I must say something about Australia’s climate. It’s had a profound influence on our history and no matter what happens with climate change, and I’ve got no idea what will happen, what the world will be like in 50 or a hundred years’ time, I think one of the pities of the great concentration there is now in public discussion on climate change is that we overlook the important changes of climate that have taken place in Australia with profound effects in the last 20,000 years. One was the rising of the seas and when the rising of the seas cut off Australia from the outside world the seas rose by about 320 to 350 feet. That’s an enormous rise, isn’t it? A period of course of global warming at the same time Mt Kosciuszko, previously bleak and cold, became a much more manageable place and the Bogong moths rejoiced in it.
But they – we forget that even in relatively recent times this has only become known – I mention this in volume 1 – we are now beginning to discover that in Aboriginal times relatively recently there were terrible droughts. It was being discovered by Tasmanian climate scientists, they published it in 2015 that in the 12th century much of Australia was extremely dry. The 12th century AD when the crusades were taking place in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean it was a very dry century and in 1173 there began a drought in many parts of Australia that went on for 39 years. Imagine what a 39-year drought would do to a country where the people didn’t hoard food. The devastation on the wildlife, on the plant life must have been on an enormous scale and someday demographers will work out what probably happened to the population of Australia during that 39-year drought, it may be that it was halved or it may be that it was cut down by a third then of course it recovered. Climates had an enormous influence on the history of this land. Interestingly in 1974 or ’75 towards the end of the Whitlam Government’s reign a commission was appointed of leading climatologists to look at Australia’s climate.
At that time the evidence of global warming wasn’t particularly strong and this committee led by a world-famous climatologist, Dr C H B Priestly, said that he couldn’t see at that time any sign of global warming but he looked at the previous history of Australia and he said with his committee that the south-eastern quarter of Australia which then was far and away the most productive part of Australia, south-eastern quarter of Australia had between about 1840 and 1890 relatively favourable years. Between 1840 and 1890 in Adelaide or Queanbeyan or western New South Wales or Victoria or Tasmania or the southern part of Queensland, the seasons were very favourable. Droughts, yes but the droughts not prolonged. It was a wonderful season for stocking the country, a wonderful set of seasons then from about 1890 to about the late 1940s in that same important region of Australia the climate turned turtle and the number of dry years became far, far more numerous than in that previous period from about 1840 to 1890.
There were some terrible droughts in Victoria, in New South Wales in the 1930s and the early 1940s. The Second World War drought was a drought of great seriousness then somehow the climate in that most productive area of rural Australia changed and from the late ‘40s or the early ‘50s onwards we had about 30 years where the rainfall was more frequent, where the seasons for farmers were better. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why Mr Menzies in his coalition government had such a long reign. The Country Party was a radical party in the 1920s and 1930s because conditions on the land were so difficult, the climate often so hostile, prices of wool and wheat so low and then in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s prices were better and the climate was much more favourable. And the Country Party became much more a conservative than a radical party. You realise what the Country Party was like in the 1930s. In Victoria, then the greatest manufacturing state in Australia, Victoria was ruled for 10 years by the Country Party not with the support of the Liberals but with the support of the Labor Party because country conditions were so difficult. So we’ve got a lot to learn about our climate history, it’s had such a great effect on so many things that happened in Australia.
Here’s a little known statistic. The federation drought was terrible around 1900, not nationwide, no drought in Australia is nationwide but it was a terrible drought. We had a drought which we remember in the early 2000, a terrible drought which fortunately has come to an end. The rainfall statistics tell us that the two driest years in Australia since we’ve had nationwide rainfall records, we’ve only had nationwide rainfall records since 1900, we’ve only had enough weather stations scattered throughout Australia to have a national average. The two driest years in Australia as a whole are not in recent years, they’re 1902 and 1905 or 1906 which gives you some idea of the magnitude of the federation drought.
I must watch the time. I’ve written about Gallipoli, it’s astonishing the number of books there are about Gallipoli and the western front, many of them so moving. I would not have envisaged there would be such a flood of books, so many of them interesting about the First World War. I have the view, it’s a minority view, I don’t see Gallipoli as a defeat, I see it in sporting terms as a drawn match played away from home. I think you can’t call it a military defeat if the invading army retreats without loss and the Australians and the New Zealanders and the British, they left Gallipoli with virtually no loss. They retreated at their own time, at their own choice. I am inclined to the view that whereas now many historians say it was abortive and of course large numbers of people were killed and you know the tragedy in so many Australian households was obvious but as late as August 1915 when Gallipoli had been going for four months, as late as August 1915 the head of the German navy in his private correspondence said this is one of the crucial events in the history of the first world war and if the Turks are defeated it will be extremely bad news for Germany. Germany at that time was fighting the French and the British on the western front, they were fighting the Russians on the eastern front and of course the Russian economy was primitive and there were periods where the huge Russian army, the biggest in the world, had all these men but many of them had no boots.
In summertime and the shortage of munitions and the shortage of rifles was acute and as many of you know the aim of the Dardanelles or the Gallipoli campaign was to open up that seaway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea so that munitions and supplies could be sent from the west, from Britain and the United States to assist Russia in the east. And if that had happened and it had been successful the Russian army might or might not have been rejuvenated and put great pressure on the Germans everywhere. So I see Gallipoli as a much more hopeful venture, blunders, mis – bad mistakes in 1915 when they had the chance of surprising the Turks but lost it but nonetheless a very important facet in the history of the First World War.
The Second World War is a fascinating event and we’re still learning more about it. I don’t think it was until the 1990s that a historian from Japanese records realised the knowledge the Japanese had in 1941 and 1942 of Australia. In the week Darwin was bombed in February 1942 there was a very big Japanese submarine which appeared not far from the South Head Lighthouse in Sydney with a portable seaplane which it put together and the seaplane was put into the air and flew over Sydney observing all the shops in Sydney Harbour, a huge fleet by then in Sydney Harbour, the Americans already being in the war.
The seaplane landed in the darkness beside the submarine close to the Australian coast and the Sydney suburbs and the submarine next appeared off Cape Otway and the seaplane flew over Melbourne, the heart of the munitions industry in daylight and then flew down Port Phillip Bay and then down close to the Ocean Road to Cape Otway, pulled apart and put in the submarine and away it went. Same thing in Hobart, same thing in Auckland. It’s astonishing, isn’t it? How well prepared they were and what a near miss we had. The Japanese of course didn’t have any real intention of invading Australia but if the Japanese had won the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 they would have captured Port Moresby without a doubt and they would have controlled Torres Strait and they would have been easily able to bomb the Australian air installations in Townsville and all that area. The war for Australians might have been very different.
I wished I knew more about medical history. I’ve written something about it in this book. Some of the great things Australians did in the Second World War were in the medical field. This country used to be very innovative in agriculture and mining but it’s become one – for its population one of the great lands for medical research in the 20th century. It’s remarkable to think that in the early 1940s Professor Florey, Adelaide-born, was one of the inventors of penicillin which they used to call the wonder drug. It’s remarkable to think that the Australians did more than anybody to learn how to cope with malaria in the Second World War. Malaria was a powerful enemy and the Japanese losses through malaria in their campaigns in New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies were very heavy. When the Australians were defending New Guinea in 1942 the Australian losses through malaria were on a massive scale. In some areas where large Australian forces were the considerable proportion part of each month were indisposed because of malaria.
The great cure for malaria in 1940 was quinine. Quinine was largely a product of the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese captured the Dutch East Indies, there was no quinine and here in 1942 where all these Australian soldiers and later American soldiers fighting in New Guinea with the incidence of malaria so heavy. At first they didn’t realise what they should do and it was General Blamey who on advice said you must wear long sleeves after dark when you’re in malarial country. We must issue as many mosquito nets. They also began to use Atabrine, a German invention of the early 1930s, a drug which was most valuable in healing malaria.
There was a doctor, Dr Neil Fairly, who at Cairns in 1942, ’43 conducted one of the great experiments in medical history up to that time. He took 500 or 700 people – I forget the name – young men, some who’d had malaria, some who hadn’t and worked out what quantities of Atabrine they needed to be able to fight without falling down with malaria. He found out there was an exact dosage and the right times to take it and it made all the difference. That was one of the great events in the allied defence in Asia. In Burma when the allies began to recapture it under Slim the knowledge how to cope with malaria was invaluable and so much of it came from those experiments in Cairns.
I must conclude. To me one of the most interesting phases of Australian history, and I lived through it but I didn’t realise how interesting it was, is the period from 1945 to 1970. I don’t know whether you read in the newspaper or online this morning and the account was sufficiently detailed to be sure but it said that of young people – they call them the millennials – only 8% in Australia believe that they would be better off than their parents economically in their lifetime. Did I read it correctly? That was the impression it gave in the news, that these people in their – presumably they’re in their teens or their 20s – they believe that they will not be as well off as their parents. They’re thinking partly of housing affordability, of course but they’re making a general statement about how they see the world.
I imagine that if all Australian adults were questioned in 1945 they might have said we don’t think we will be any better off in 1970 than we are today and yet 1945 to 1970 in Australia and in many parts of the western world saw a transformation in daily life such as had probably never been seen before. In 1945 most Australians didn’t own a car and if you questioned them they wouldn’t be sure whether they would ever own a car and if they did it would be just a second-hand car. Most Australians we know in 1940 didn’t have the telephone, that’s why the phone boxes were everywhere. Most Australians in 1940 or 1945, they owned probably a pushbike but that was as far as it went. If you said will you ever travel? They would say well probably we won’t unless there’s a war and we’re in the armed services. And if they said where would you like to go? Melbourne people said they’d like to go to Sydney. I can remember when many of our neighbours, even my parents went to Sydney for the first time, the excitement in the 1940s, the planning that was required. Where would you stay? There were no motels and the country hotels were simple. You had to book accommodation in Sydney well in advance and when you got home the knocking at the back door, people asking how did you get on? What was Sydney like? People didn’t travel, did they? They just didn’t have the money to travel nor did they have the long holidays that makes travel possible.
If you asked – and some of you will know what household amenities there were in 1945 in a typical house, there would have been a carpet sweeper. The majority of houses I think did not have a vacuum cleaner. As I said they did not have a refrigerator. In the city they would have a gas stove and they would have an electric jug but amenities were incredibly simple. And then came the period 1945 to 1970 when the standard of living was transformed, the amenities, the prosperity, the wealth. Some of you’ll remember the 1950s when wool prices were high and the country towns were so prosperous that in Victoria a wealthy country town could attract the best footballers in the Victorian Football League because it could pay them much more money and they went, Brownlow medallists and <inaudible> 49:14 full forwards and finished their playing career at the height of their powers in the country. It was a remarkable period and it happened so quickly and so unexpectedly and now the present generation are slightly alarmed, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly at the world that’s facing them.
My belief, and many people will disagree, is that Australia for all its faults, for as many failures, the problems that still are insoluble, is one of the success stories of modern history. We’re reluctant to say this but I think the evidence is unmistakable that in the last hundred years or last 150 years by the standards of Europe or by the standards of almost every part of the world Australia is a success story. That’s why so many people want to come here, that’s why we have a border protection problem. So I’m – I differ rightly or wrongly from a large proportion of my fellow historians who believe that the successes in Australia are not sufficient to compensate for the failures and the failures of course are there for all to see, whether it's the mishandling or the inability to cope with the environment in many places or the inability to provide a way of life satisfactory for the Aborigines and I understand their viewpoint and there are strong arguments for it.
But we forget that in the last 30 years for the majority of people who declare themselves to be Aborigines their life has been transformed and now if you look carefully you can look for figures of home ownership and even in expensive Canberra I think more than 40% of Aborigines are buying their own houses. In New South Wales it’s close to 40%, in Tasmania where definitional problems arise it’s over 50%. The health of many Aborigines is appalling and there’s a great contrast between the Aborigines who live in cities and country towns and their way of life and the Aborigines who prefer to live in the homelands and that gap will probably continue for a long time because many numbers of Aborigines just prefer to live in the homelands with all their disadvantages. But even in health the improvements in Aboriginal health are remarkable. And when I was born and when most of you were born your life expectancy was far lower than it is for the typical Aborigine in New South Wales which has the largest number of Aborigines in Australia.
And if you go outback where conditions are often terrible and the health of so many Aborigines is poor and their expectation of life is low we’re still well above that of most of the third world countries. So so many things have gone wrong in relations between Europeans and Aborigines but we forget that so many things are actually going well and I think we do injustice to Aborigines and their capacity to achieve things if we ignore the success of perhaps two-thirds of the Aborigines of Australia today in having something like a mainstream life and giving to their children the hope that they will have all the promise and the excitement of what the 21st century can offer. The great tragedy of course is in the homelands in the far outback where the education system has broken down, where the children do not receive an education and if you don’t receive an education the 21st century is beyond you and that’s the dilemma we’re still facing. Are there questions?
AMS: I said at the beginning that Professor Blainey had written a short history of Australia. He’s also written a very short history of Australia and I think this evening we’ve had a very, very short history of Australia within the 50 minutes that he has spoken to us with such erudition, such a stimulating and panoramic lecture.
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