Compelling tale of a continent and its neighbourhood
Australia & the Pacific: A history
By Ian Hoskins
NewSouth Books, 476pp,
Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
Author of a brilliant book about Sydney Harbour, Ian Hoskins has now considerably widened his gaze to write a captivating general history of Australia viewed in a Pacific context.
To do so, he effectively has plundered the huge Pacific collections housed at the State Library of New South Wales. As well, Hoskins has conducted extensive research at the State Library of Queensland, the National Library of Australia and the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, all of which allowed him to reproduce a tranche of illuminating images which grace this lucid book.
In many ways, Australia & the Pacific is a ground-breaking analysis. Focusing at first on shifting continents, the arrival of our indigenous peoples at least 65,000 years ago, and the search of European and English navigators for ‘the great south land’, it reveals that Australia’s genesis and our economic, strategic and cultural development is intimately connected to the Pacific. Indeed the Pacific Ocean has “washed, scoured and thumped” our coast for over five million years. By then, the continent had, writes Hoskins, “nearly reached its present position on the Ocean’s edge, having parted with Gondwana some 40 million years beforehand.” During that time, the Pacific’s waters “have risen and fallen repeatedly and the continent has been shaped and reshaped accordingly.”
And in two sentences that may give contemporary doomsayers pause, Hoskins states: “Each expansion and contraction accompanied exposure and inundation so that reefs and ecologies have come and gone and been rebuilt. The climate, too, was affected.”
Told in chronological order, this unique story of Australia also explores the attempts of European colonists to harness the riches of the land and sea while at the same time dispossessing, by various forms of violence, many Aboriginal clans. Hoskins helpfully outlines the racist hypocrisy of influential Europeans who in the 19th and early 20th century aimed to keep ‘white Australia’ separate from the Asians, Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians who surrounded them, while at the same time exploiting Pacific Island labour – a nefarious practice often known as ‘blackbirding’.
It is difficult to do justice to this meaty book. But in key chapters, Hoskins stresses the importance of the creation of the United Nations after World War Two and usefully reveals how a focus on human rights is fundamentally changing Australia.
In particular, Australia & the Pacific explores our intimate relationships with our near neighbours, including Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. Hoskins especially outlines our complex ties with a relatively stable Japan, a rising and aggressive China and the United States led by Democrat President Joe Biden who replaced the hugely divisive Donald Trump.
Finally, Hoskins canvasses current polarised debates over the offshore detention of asylum seekers, and Australia’s regional responsibilities towards our economically and environmentally threatened neighbours. Stressing what he regards as “the urgency of global warming”, he draws special attention to the shrinking atolls of Tuvalu and to the destruction of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati whose land and freshwater resources are rapidly disappearing. Yet at the same time as highlighting the environmental devastation wrought on many islands, he acknowledges that Earth previously has suffered catastrophic examples of climate change.
Hoskins’ compelling, meticulously researched, and well-crafted account of Australia’s place in the Pacific certainly deserves a very wide readership.
It is pleasing to report that in this fine book Hoskins repudiates the spurious scholarship of Bruce Pascoe’s now largely discredited rewriting of Aboriginal history in his once highly praised polemic Dark Emu. Hoskins rightly argues that dispensing with the term ‘hunter-gatherer’ is problematic because “it obscures the diversity of cultures among Aboriginal peoples who occupied environments as disparate as rainforest, desert and coast.” In fact, “there are few, if any, within Australian academic and professional circles who would still equate hunting and gathering with primitivism.”
In contrast, Hoskins singles out for praise the evocative Australian-oriented poetry of James McAuley and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific. First published in 1960, this remarkable book not only influenced Hoskins’ writing, but was the catalyst prompting him to consider how the Pacific has shaped our history.
It is also pleasing to note that Hoskins makes good use of the memoirs of Australia’s first ambassador to Communist China, Stephen FitzGerald, with whom I have sometimes been mistaken to my great advantage.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 42 books, most recently a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey (Hybrid).
The Australian, 12 August, 2021, Bookshelf, p 10.