|Natural History and Geology
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
|Aboriginal political history|
A brief history of Australia
In the Triassic period, about 225 million years ago, Australia was still part of Gondwanaland, the supercontinent which combined all present-day continents. About 45 million years ago, the ancient continent of Sahul, consisting of mainland Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea, separated from Gondwanaland. During the Oligocene period, about 40 million years ago, the Australian landmass experienced widespread volcanic activity. By the Miocene period, the land bridge with Papua New Guinea was cut, and mammals appeared on the Australian continent. The Pliocene era saw the emergence of primitive people in Africa, and the continued development of marsupials and distinc
The Nullarbor Plain of South and
Western Australia dates from a sea in the Cainozoic Era, as do
the Simpson Desert as far south as Lake Eyre and much of the
Murray-Darling River basin. Much of northern Western Australia,
the Kimberley and Arnhem Land are Precambrian, the interior
northern Great Sandy Desert and central Northern Territory south
of the Barkly Tablelands is Palaeozoic.
The land mass was last connected to Antarctica in the early Tertiary Era. Except as island hopping, there has been no access to African or South American biomes for over 150 million years. Even then they were at quite a distance across Gondwana. Australia separated from Antarctica to begin chasing the Southeast Asian Plate at about the same time that North America started separating from Europe about 60 million years ago. Indigenous conifers predate this split. An example of these, touted as the world's oldest still extant tree species, has recently been found in the Wollemi National Park near the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney.
Reduced sea level during the late Pliocene and Quaternary ice ages did facilitate colonisation of the continent indirectly from southeast Asia. Although there were no land bridges during this time, introductions during this period included palms, humans and, about 5000 years ago, dogs.
The Western Plateau covers nearly two thirds of the continent and is comprised of four major deserts rimmed by escarpments. It averages about 300m above sea level and rests on ancient rock shield. The plateau is marked by the Hamersley and Kimberley Ranges in the north west, three east–west oriented mountain ranges (MacDonnell, Musgrave and Petermann) in its centre and the Nullarbor Plain and coastal Bight in the south.
The Central Plain extends from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Nullarbor. It includes the Lake Eyre drainage basin, the Murray-Darling river system, and the Gulf of Carpentaria drainage. Except for the Murray-Darling, the interior river systems in this area generally have seasonally intermittent flow.
The Eastern Highlands, locally called the Great Dividing Range, extend from Cape York Peninsula to the Bass Strait and include Tasmania. The northern portions are low and broad, the central portion becomes increasingly mountainous. Dating from the Palaeozoic period, these highlands have risen at the same rate as they were eroded.
Climatically, Australia sits across and to the south of the horse latitudes, currently referred to as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). In the north, southeast trade winds descend to well south of the Tropic of Capricorn, bringing the northwest monsoon to the northern regions (Top End). This summer (December to February) pattern causes heavy thunderstorm. To the south, westerly tradewinds push counter clockwise moving fronts formed over the Great Southern Ocean. These bring periodic winter rains once the ITCZ moves north.
The resulting rainfall patterns interact with geology to cause a number of Australia's ecological features. The central desert is possible because the eastern highlands remove water from the South East Trade Winds. Further, these winds limit the southern advance of the monsoon. The monsoon fills the flood plains of Kakadu and Arnhem Land annually. That which falls over the tablelands of western Queensland flows inland, occasionally filling Lake Eyre, but generally simply seeping into the artesian basin.
During ‘The Dry’, the interior is arid from the west coast well into the central eastern lowlands. Perth, Adelaide and the south coast can be described as Mediterranean in that they receive winter rains.
Because of the prevailing southeasterly trade winds, the eastern coastal mountains have temperate rain forests. Only in the highest and southernmost mountains of the Eastern Highlands does the temperature fall below freezing in winter, although the desert will be quite cool at night in winter. In contrast to the northern hemisphere, low pressure systems circulate clockwise and highs circulate anti-clockwise.
Vegetation and soils are a matter of combining the effects of geology and climate. The true deserts of the interior, from eastern Western Australia extending into northwest South Australia and the southwest of the Northern Territory and adjacent central South Australia, are well vegetated relative to the Old World and North American deserts. They tend towards loose stone (called ‘gibber’), red and red-brown desert loams. Their sand dunes form extensive longitudinal ridges. Characteristic vegetation is saltbush or, in slightly better soils, hummock grasses like spinifex.
Surrounding the desert is a semi-arid area of grey and brown soils with increasing grass and thinly wooded acacia or eucalypt scrub. The mallee, a low growing, multi-stemmed eucalypt, extends as a band from the coast of Western Australia through the Nullarbor. The name of the plant also refers to the region in which it grows. During the era of sea travel, ships’ passengers describe knowing they were nearly to South Australia because they could smell the acacia blossoming in these alkaline soils long before land was sighted. The semi-arid conditions in the central eastern regions often suffer from drought.
The southwestern and southeastern regions are marked by a succession of humid to sub-humid areas of eucalypt forest and tall woodlands. In the wettest areas of the eastern coastal mountains and western Tasmania, dense rainforests with trees 30m high dominate, with extensive undergrowth of ferns, orchids and palms in the north. In fact, across the top end of the continent are warm eucalypt forests growing in soils of low fertility and mangroves on the coastal flats.
With the exception of noble efforts to preserve large tracts as national parks and also the establishment of World Heritage sites, there has been little conservation on a local level. Some progress is being made now that it has been recognised that rising salinity in the agricultural soils in the Murray-Darling River Basin in New South Wales and Victoria is an effect of deforestation and erosion. Further, the economic damage of opportunistic forestry (particularly clear cutting for wood-chip export) and the appreciation of the economic benefits of ecological tourism are among the factors leading to the protection of local natural sites.
The weather in Australia is remarkably consistent. Across the north of the continent, as mentioned, frequent thundershowers in the monsoonal summer (November and December) alternate with a cooler, dry period (April to August). The region’s most uncomfortable period is during the oppressive humidity and heat which eventually results in the monsoonal summer rains.
The southern portions of the continent can expect generally dry and warm summers. During winter (May to July) the South Ocean lows from the ‘roaring 40s’ latitudes migrate north. These lows bring cool, wet weather across from the southeast. Then a trailing high pressure front brings cooler, drier days. Occasionally, a northwest cloud band from the tropics will cross the continent, bringing rain to the centre and increasing the wet weather already associated with low fronts affecting the southeastern capital cities. In any event, this intermittent wet weather generally lasts a couple of days, to be repeated every five or six days.
The bracing to brisk line of water temperature proceeds from central New South Wales to Victoria from mid-summer to early autumn, but depends, of course, on the sun’s heat and ocean currents.
Australia is not particularly interested in the official implementation of emblematic flora and fauna, although the wattle flower is the country’s official floral emblem. Inexplicably, this beautiful symbol appeared on none of the popularly nominated Republican flag designs recently displayed for future consideration, even though it could be as distinctive an emblem as Canada’s maple leaf. The states and other organisations are represented, however, by semi-official emblems of flora and fauna: the ACT Parks and Gardens have a parrot, the gang gang cockatoo; Tasmania has become known for the Tasmanian devil; New South Wales takes the remarkable blossoms of the waratah; Western Australia has the kangaroo paw plant; South Australia’s Sturt’s desert pea and the rifle bird emblems seem a bit confusing, since the desert pea is more frequently noted in northern Western Australia, and the rifle bird is better known on the extreme northeastern coast of the continent. No one has claimed one of the most prevalent birds, the galah, despite its pleasant pink head and calm grey body.
The acacia (in Australia known as the wattle), casuarina and eucalypts (usually called ‘gums’) are the most significant indigenous flora. No pines grew here before their introduction by Europeans, although there are a few native conifer species; all deciduous trees are introduced. Acacia comprises some 1000 species of low trees with ball-shaped blossoms tending to be bright yellow to yellow-green with a characteristic scent. Many people claim that wattle cause allergic reactions. However, its pollen is too large to have an effect. It is the grasses which blossom at the same time, i.e. late winter and early spring, which are more likely to be responsible. The brilliant yellow blossoms of many wattle varieties provide a spectacular display of colour along the roadsides and in the parks at the end of August.
Gold dust wattle
Leafless rock wattle
Casuarinas, sometimes called she-oaks, occur as stands along river courses. They are quite large trees with a cedar or conifer-like appearance. The seeds provide food for sturdy-beaked parrots.
The eucalypts produce 450 distinct species throughout the continent, having adapted to nearly every condition. Approximately 68 per cent of Australia’s forest trees and a large portion of woodlands and even tropical trees are eucalypts. They are sometimes magistic in stature and often have remarkable bark. They have been popular introductions in other similar climates and show remarkable variation dependent upon local conditions.
Red gum in Flinders Range
Blue gum trunk
Eucalypt in California
The blossoms can be white, red or pink
and attack honey bees
Tea trees, especially the species
Melaleuca alternifolia, are now widely cultivated for their
valuable medicinal oil. Tea trees often resemble forms of
eucalypt, although they are more likely to be shrub-like in
While the distribution of native grasses conforms to the degree of aridity, the area within a couple of hundred kilometres of Cloncurry in western Queensland offers nearly the complete range of habitats and grass types on the continent. Other indigenous and widely distributed floral species include banksias, grevilleas, and bottlebrushes (Callistemon spp.). Each present a surprising variety of forms and colours. If you keep track of such, the banksia and grevillea are in the Proteaceae family; the eucalypts, callistemon, and tea trees are in the Myrtaceae family.
Ornamental tea tree
The marsupial mammals, reptiles, and
parrots are similarly signal fauna for Australia. Serious
naturalists will find numerous descriptions of native species
throughout this text, but a summary is provided here for general
The indigenous mammals of Australia include two of the world’s three monotremes (of the order Monotremata, native to Australia and New Guinea), most of the marsupials, a few rodents, and bats. Of the monotremes, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), although a mammal with thick brown fur, lays eggs and has webbed feet; the adult male has a poisonous spur that is venomous enough to kill small animals. The other native monotreme is the echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), sometimes called erroneously the spiny anteater. The echidna’s body is covered in brown hair with quills on its back, some reaching a length of 6cm. Its defense is to tuck itself into a ball. The marsupials gestate outside the womb in a pouch or fold of skin where the infant suckles.
Kangaroos and wallabies can be found in most natural settings, although the kangaroo is most characteristically associated with fallow pastures and grasslands. They can be quite tame when hand-fed in enclosures. In the wild, the male leader of a ‘mob’ of kangaroos may attack following a display in which he tilts his head back while scratching his chest. However, this happens very rarely; usually when a mob is disturbed in the wild the leader will simply hop away. Wallabies are more elusive, though frequently encountered on trails in natural settings. There are some 48 different species of kangaroos and wallabies in Australia, some of them quite widespread and others now seriously endangered.
Eastern Wallaroo, Alice Springs
The famed koala (Phascolarctos
cinereus) is a quiet tree dweller with a strong characteristic
odour. Like most marsupials, koalas are nocturnal animals.
Spotting them in the wild in the daytime is not impossible for
someone with a trained eye as they sleep curled in the crotches
of tree limbs about 15m off the ground. Since becoming a
protected species in the 1920s, koala numbers have reached
stable proportions, although in some areas disease and
environmental changes pose a continuing threat to their
The wombat will not be widely recognised outside Australia. Its shape and weight is something like a badger with a blunt nose. It sleeps in a burrow, eats grasses and roots at night. Tales abound about its sole survival tactic which is to squash its pursuer between the flat base of its spine and the roof of its burrow.
Koala, Great Otway National Park
One of the most easily seen
marsupials is probably one of the many species of possum. The
name was given to this family of marsupials by Captain Cook’s
sailors, who thought they resembled the North American opossum.
The most widely distributed species is the common brushtail
possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), who often nest in suburban
backyards or in city parks. Possums can be a real nuisance if
they manage to establish themselves inside the eaves of houses
or office buildings. Other possums include the wonderful sugar
glider (Pteraurus breviceps), which can glide as far as 50m from
tree to tree, and lives off nectar, sap and insects; and the
tiny eastern pygmy possum (Cercartetus nanus) in eastern
Australia, also a nectar eater.
Australian bats, which are placental mammals, include a number of fruit bats ranging from flying foxes to blossom bats as small as moths. The grey-headed fruit bat is known for its southerly migration from central Queensland to Victoria following the orchard crop’s ripening. A 20,000-strong colony of these flying foxes exists in the Sydney suburb of Gordon, and fly across the city at dusk. Australians have been active in the rescue of wild animals. Most recently, bat rescue has become popular.
Fruit bat, also called flying fox
Mother and infant bats
The birds of Australia are for the
most part strikingly social: flocks of parrots, generations of
kookaburras, families of magpie and fairy wren; even the more
solitary bowerbird courts his mate most elaborately. The eastern
coast and mountain range, as well as the northern tropical
forests, offer an overwhelming variety of species peculiar to
Australia. Opportunities are increasing for birdwatchers due to
the trend towards native gardens and parklands and a more
protective attitude towards wilderness areas.
The birdlife of urban areas is surprisingly varied, and an unending delight for bird lovers unaccustomed to such brilliant plumage and diversity of bird calls in the neighbourhood garden. Several varieties of black-and-white birds and also parrots are among those which the visitor is most likely to see.
Of the black-and-white varieties, locally plentiful species include the mudlark, commonly called the Peewee; a dapper flycatcher with twitching tail called a willie wagtail; and larger birds like the mellifluous magpie; the yellow-eyed currawong; and the native raven with a call of mocking plaintive crying.
Magpie feeding fledgling
Among parrots, the ubiquitous grey-and-pink galah (Cacatua roseicapilla), pronounced ‘gul-AHH’, has a reputation for being stupid, hence the expression ‘dumb as galahs’. The sulphur-crested cockatoos are very raucous and will certainly awaken those unaccustomed to their early morning call-and-response. Parrots and their relatives are non-Passerines, i.e. not northern hemisphere songbirds. Rather they are mostly of the order Psittaciformes. They routinely show green, yellow, red and blue for accent. Smaller parrots and lorikeets are about 20cm long, rosellas 30cm, corellas 40cm and the varieties of cockatoos 40cm and more.
Sulphur-crested cockatoos at the Stonehouse Cafe
Crimson rosella at O'Reiley's Rainforst Retreat
Gang gang pair
Birds with noteworthy songs include bowerbirds, lyrebirds and ground-wrens for the imitative capacity of their elaborate songs. A variety of whip and bell birds, the kookaburra, with its staccato laugh, and its kingfisher relatives are commmon sounds in the bush, as well as in some urban areas.
Superb fairy wren pair
Some of the surprising varieties prevalent in Queensland and the Northern Territory do have relatives in function or structure in other regions. The cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) and emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are a case in point. Cassowarys are ostrich-like omnivorous browsers, important or essential to the seed dispersal of about 100 fruiting or seed-bearing species. Up to two metres tall, with a distinctive helmet, a blue head, red nape and wattle and black body, they frequent stream beds and clearings on Cape York’s western rain forests. They are reputedly dangerous, attacking if cornered or harassed. Emu are ostrich-shaped birds. Although they look shaggy and charred or smutty, their feathers are delicate. Common throughout Australian grasslands and deserts, they are omnivores and surprisingly opportunistic feeders in picnic areas, and to leave a laden table or grilling meat unattended where emu are about is tantamount to feeding the wildlife. Unlike the cassowary, they are not dangerous to chase off, though it is wise to be careful when approaching creatures kept in enclosures.
Australia’s equivalent to a crane is
the brolga (Grus rubicundus), prevalent only in the northeastern
corner of the continent. Standing nearly 1.5m tall, it has a
reddish mask and a nondescript grey body. Cranes are noted for
their social displays and for soaring on air thermals. In
somewhat drier grassy habitats, the male Australian or Kori
bustard has a remarkable courtship display. The normally quiet
bird roars and extends a white throat sack to the ground while
stepping from side to side.
Among those birds making unusual nests are the mound-building Australian brush turkey (Alectura lathami), scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) and mallee fowl (Leipoa ocellata). All mate for life and build mounds of vegetation in which they incubate their eggs. Frequenting rainforests and wetter open forests along the northern and eastern coast, the brush turkey’s head is bare of feathers and is red with a yellow ruffled collar. The mallee fowl inhabits the dry inland scrub along the southern portion of the continent. The scrubfowl is native to the rainforests and monsoon forests of the north. The lyrebird (Meura ssp.) builds a small domed nest on the ground but broods rather than buries its eggs in it.
Brush turkey mound
Satin bower bird
Bower bird's bower
Other nest-builders of note are the
paradise rifle-bird (Ptiloris paraliseus) and bower birds
(Ptilorhynchis spp.). The former builds a cup-shaped nest, often
draping cast-off snake skins around their nest’s rim. Their
courtship display, like that of the related paradise birds in
New Guinea, involves opening their wings and sometimes bobbing
or waving their heads. Because their primary feathers have
adapted to this display, the birds can frequently be spotted due
to the rustling sound they make during flight. Bowerbirds are
quite common. They build elaborate nests or clear courtyards and
decorate either with items of bright colour, often preferring
blue. They are known to steal blue clothes-pegs off the line, as
well as backyard blue containers or straws. The males spend much
of their time calling for mates from their decorated nest. They
generally mate in early to mid-summer, but their bowers remain
throughout the year.
Australian birds have associated geological regions. The central desert spinifex regions host the spinifex pigeon and a variety of grass wrens; the shrub-lands host chats and pipits; the semi-arid mallee support ringneck parrots and mound-building mallee fowl. The eucalypt woodlands and the mulga regions of Queensland offer a diverse range of both parrots and passerine birds, notably the crimson rosella, lyrebird and scarlet robin. The interspersed wetland areas, especially in the Murray-Darling River Basin, will attract pelicans and the famous black swans (Cygnus atratus), faunal emblem of Western Australia. Mount Kosciuszko, along with the Torres Strait Islands, are credited with the largest concentration of bird species.
Lizards play a prominent role in the
Australian imagination despite a modest representation of
species (450 of the world’s 4000) and families. Geckoes,
dragons, skinks, goannas and legless lizards are frequently
The small, shiny lizards found in gardens are usually skinks. A much larger skink, the blue-tongued lizard (Tiliqua multifasciata) also frequents gardens. Not particularly pleasant looking, they are prized for eating snails and other garden pests, but are easily injured by handling.
Blue-tongued lizard with a normal tail
Geckoes are more likely to be
encountered in the ground litter and bark of forested areas, or
hanging from the ceilings of hotel-rooms in tropical areas. The
largest gecko grows to c 25cm in length. Forests are also the
habitat of goannas, which routinely grow to more than a metre in
length. Gould’s goanna is frequently seen in dry forests.
Surprisingly large at as much as 1.5m, it will lie still if
discovered but can run at speed, even charging at those who
disturb it. Some goannas can be spotted climbing trees, and they
often make a barking sound like a dog.
The dragons (a number of whose representatives take up residence at the botanic garden in Canberra each summer) include the desert-dwelling frilly-necked lizard (Chlamydisaurus kingii) often featured in wildlife documentaries because of its defensive posture and hind-legged run.
Crocodiles are of two sorts, fresh
and salt water. Both are encountered in tropical regions, salt
water crocodiles being by far the more dangerous. Most
dangerous water courses have warning signs posted, but consider
all tropical waters to dangerous unless told otherwise by local
Snakes are common in rural and natural areas. Many have striking beauty; all deserve respect and protection. Except for the large carpet python and the diamond snake (Morelia spilotes), one can assume that any snake is venomous. The degree of danger they may present varies. The handsome green tree snake (Dendrelophia punctulatus) or the yellow bellied sea snake (Pelamis platurus), for instance, are not likely to bite humans unless provoked by rough handling. The red bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus), while venomous and common, is not particularly dangerous. On the other hand, a number of frequently seen brown snake species (Pseudonaja spp.) and the tiger snake (Demansia carinata) have dangerous bites. The fabled death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) and taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) are deadly but not frequently encountered and rarely bite humans. All cases of snake bite should be attended to. Antivenins are held at hospitals for such emergencies.
Large-eyed green tree snake
Despite the mosquitoes, insects offer
considerable entertainment in Australia. The awakening of the
ants in the cooler regions signals the end of winter’s wet
weather. Australia has over 1500 species of ant, or 10 per cent
of the world’s total. The bull ant can be as long as 3cm. These
red or black beasts are aggressive and have a powerful and
unforgettable sting. (The sting starts wearing off in minutes,
subsiding much like extreme chills.) Popular belief insists that
these feisty creatures will actually go after anyone disturbing
Most of the other stinging ants are brightly coloured with an iridescent violet sheen. Certainly, most of Australia’s ants are innocuous. Some are comical. Disturbed ‘silly ants’, a favourite of school-age children, will spin rapidly in place with their thorax held aloft. Other species are interesting because of their biology or habits. The honey ants store nectar in their abdomen. Meat ants are reddish black, swarm when their large pebbly nests are disturbed and measure about 5mm in length. Birds are seen rubbing these stingless ants against their feathers. According to experts such as David Attenborough, no one knows why brids do this.
Red bull ant
Green tree ants
Travellers notice termites due to those species which build above ground nests. These mounds will be found on nearly every ramble in the bush. Curiously devoid of vegetation, they often appear to be a fresh pile of dirt until closer inspection reveals the mound to be nearly rock hard. The magnetic termites build tall, narrow mounds with ends pointing north and south.
The majority of noxious and poisonous
fauna are snakes, but, fortunately, they tend to be shy. A few
species of jelly fish and spined fish are to be avoided.
Well-known to fishing or bathing residents they include a
blue-ringed octopus, red-backed and funnel-web spiders (both
reclusive) and the spur of an enraged male platypus. Some of the
ants will give a hurtful sting.
As frequently mentioned throughout this book, beware mosquito bites, especially in the tropical north where they may carry Ross River Fever. Any number of repellents are widely available. These preparations also work against leeches, which are prevalent in the warmer rainforests and inflict similarly itchy symptoms.
Virtually none of the deadly Australian species, except perhaps the salt water crocodile, are frequent killers. In reality, some circumspection and prompt treatment results in few serious problems. The saying in Australia is ‘Swim between the flags’. This dictum applies to supervised bush walking as well as to supervised ocean swimming. A particularly good example is the stinging tree of tropical Queensland. Touching it is painful and results in swelling. The reaction is similar to stinging nettles, hence the name. It is well known, readily identifiable and is routinely disposed of in frequented areas. Get someone to point the tree out to you if you are walking in Queensland, and be sure to stay on marked paths.
Stinging tree, its cilia can itch for months
For many visitors, the night sky in
the southern hemisphere is a revelation. Unlike the northern
hemisphere, Polaris is missing as are the Big and Little
Dippers, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Instead, the predominant
celestial features are the clearly visible Milky Way, with a
stark, black hole near its centre, and our neighbouring galaxy
the Large Magellanic Cloud. Find the Southern Cross (Crux) and
its two pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri and you should be able
to locate the Large Magellanic Cloud (the LMC in astromonical
circles). If the Cross is at 12:00, the cloud will be at about
3:30. (There is a Small MC at about 5:30.) Alpha Centauri, our
nearest neighbour, is the third most brilliant star in the
heavens and is, in fact, a binary star with a third star
orbiting the pair at some distance.
Another star not seen in the farther reaches of the northern hemisphere but visible here is Canopus. The second most brilliant star, it sits at the end of Argo’s prophetic keel. The star Canopus was mentioned by Babylonian astronomers as well.
Of course, the most astonishing celestial sight is the unfamiliar geography of the moon and the related upside down orientation of the constellations shared with the northern hemisphere. The bull Taurus is going in the opposite direction down under, and ‘the man in the moon’ is upside
The popular newspaper magazine Good Weekend presents this
call for reconciliation by Ninjali Josie Lawford, a storyteller
of increasing recognition. Her mother was a Wangkatjungka and
her father was taken from his tribe as a child and, like
Lawford, raised on a Kimberley district cattle station. Of
course her instructions for Australians suits any traveller in a
novel situation. Anyone who wishes to meet and get to know
someone from Australia’s Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island
communities must simply make the effort.
Although Australia’s indigenous population has suffered much since European colonisation, systematic land confiscation, murder, confinement, starvation, rape and child kidnapping and enslavement are no longer routinely practised in Australia. This situation is relatively new, however. The removal of children from their families and placement in an institution or foster home was practised until the early 1970s; the Aboriginal population was fully enfranchised to vote in 1962; the High Court ruling on land rights (referred to as the Mabo Decision, 1992) allows access to government owned pastoral land for traditional practices as long as this access does not interfere with the current use of the land. Although Aboriginal deaths in custody continue to be frequent, some pressure is being exerted by political bodies and activist groups to change this situation; Amnesty International has identified this situation as a significant example of human rights violation. Similarly, the general dearth of health services in Aboriginal communities is under attack from the Australian Medical Association and some branches of government. Most importantly, the indigenous groups in Australia have uniformly called on the general population for reconciliation.
One important consideration when discussing contemporary Aboriginal culture is that there is no such thing as a single Aboriginal culture, language or world-view. At present, the indigenous population stands at approximately 303,000, or 1.7 per cent of the Australian population. There are an estimated 1385 indigenous communities in the country, with 81 per cent in remote areas. New South Wales has the largest Aboriginal population, with 80,400 people of indigenous descent living here. At the time of first contact in 1788, estimates indicate about 600 to 700 Aboriginal ‘groups’ speaking some 250 distinct languages. Today, only about 30 languages are still spoken. In the northern regions of Australia, Aboriginal groups have also developed Kriol, a mixture of English and native language which in some cases is becoming a ‘lingua franca’ among Aborigines themselves.
The visitor might best begin an understanding of the lives of Aborigines with a description cast in religious terms. The people to whom they are related are recognised first as family members but with religious affiliations. Their art, their property, their stories are set in theology. Tourists are generally surprised by the extent to which religion, art, social relations, and property are integrated.
As with any religion, aboriginal theology is described in myth and enacted in ritual. Unlike European religion, however, not all of the content of this theological structure is freely available to everyone. Some aspects can be revealed openly, others are sacred and may only be revealed to the initiated, those who share participation in the realm of the particular sacred knowledge. Straightforward rules govern initiation into age/experience-related groups in the local community. Levels of understanding and, more importantly, interpretations associated with events portrayed in myth are provided to the initiates. Familiarity with mythic, totemic or ritual knowledge beyond one’s station or capacity can be considered spiritually or even physically dangerous.
The myths are accounts of the ‘Dreamtime’, or more properly ‘the Dreaming’, which is primarily the mythic era before the present world took shape: spirit beings moved about the world shaping the land and creating people, arranging totemic affiliations, and instituting rituals. But the Dreaming is also current. Prior to conception and following death, an individual resides in Dreamtime. Celebrants of the most secret and sacred of rituals re-enact events which occurred in Dreamtime and are themselves in Dreamtime. In fact, creation continues because these participants are involved in Dreaming it.
The songs, dances and stories for their ceremonies and art are attributed to the performers’ ancestors or to spirits with whom the performers have some affinity. Rather than being authored, they are conveyed to the artist during sleep, periods of isolation or illness. Should someone deserve the right to use a song or motif, the living owner can pass it on. Upon death, the performer continues this process, conveying the art work to members of the subsequent generation. This often occurs after a period of mourning and a mortuary ritual which releases the spirit to travel to the place of other ancestral spirits. Prior to this ritual and often for a considerable time afterwards, the names of the deceased are not spoken. This observance must be kept in mind by the larger community when an Aboriginal artist dies whose work appears in national or international collections. Depending on the traditions and feelings of the artist’s tribe and family, it may be necessary to remove photographs and identifying labels naming the deceased person.
The Aboriginal people have struggled to arrive at a safe and appropriate means of presenting to outsiders their myths and associated art, music, dance and property rights. Some traditional art, whether painting or ceremonial, is inherently more secular. The most well-known of Aboriginal rituals are commonly referred to as corroborees. Those which are performed for the benefit of tourists are quite like religious rites in that body painting, dance movements and music describe mythic affiliations and dreamtime events. Musical instruments are extremely simple and likely to include didgeridoos—a painted wooden tube played like a trumpet but without caesura for breath—percussive sticks or rocks, and a folded leaf which acts as a double reed when held between the first knuckle and pad of the thumbs. The dance movements are evocative of animals associated with the myths. The body painting will relate to the associated animals through ornament identifying totemic clan affiliations. In some instances this information is considered sacred and a variation on the decoration is presented instead.
The first Western music performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people came from Christian missionaries. The London Missionary Society introduced this form of worship to Torres Strait Islanders and Cape York Aboriginal communities late in the 19C following its success in the Pacific Islands. Christian musical performances are often marked by traditional instrumentation (clapping, striking boomerang tips or clapsticks) and dancing, but not body painting.
Rock and reggae styles of music are also performed by some Aboriginal people. Again, the northern regions have been the origin for acceptance and dissemination of modern popular music within the Aboriginal community. Music by the Aboriginal band Knuckles from Broome was the basis for Jimmy Chi’s reggae opera Bran Nue Dae which premiered at the Perth Festival in 1990. The first truly Aboriginal international rock band is arguably Yothu Yindi from northeast Arnhem Land, the creation of Yolngu tribal members of the Yunupingu family. Lead singer Mandawuy Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year in 1993.
When talking to an Aboriginal painter about a particular work, he or she will first of all tell the visitor (as far as the constraints of religious secrecy allow) about the tjukurrpa (Dreaming), which is the painting’s source. He or she will describe the specific interpretation which the symbols assume in this story. The artist will point to the tract of country in which the story takes place, often naming the sites in great detail, and he will talk about the custodianship of the area where the story is centred, naming both specific contemporary custodians and the particular subsection of the kin system through whom ownership is generally passed down. For the artists, this is the essential background information to the proper understanding and appreciation of their work. A painting not informed by a Dreaming (if such a thing were seriously possible) would be nothing more than frivolous decoration; simply not art.
Aboriginal art is first and foremost
representational. Many of its conventions are recognisable to
the viewer. Several fish of diverse species are shown caught in
a large fish trap or a kangaroo is presented in x-ray style,
showing its major organs and skeleton. With a bit of assistance
the viewer recognises the half doughnut shapes and bisected
angles in dot paintings as camp sites and emu tracks. Warmun
community artist Rover Thomas’s depiction of Cyclone Tracy, a
black path through coloured landscape, is easily recognised once
its significance is explained.
Beyond shared conventions, Aboriginal art in every region continues to be representational in its ornament. In many areas the cross-hatch designs and colours represent totemic or kin groups associated with stewardship of a particular site. They can represent special relationships with the species or event depicted. Just as one learns representational conventions in order to interpret a painting, there are associated stories and observations learned by Aboriginal initiates. The extent of esoteric knowledge conveyed by the art, a painting for instance, depends upon the status of the observers. Still, a considerable amount of information about a painting is secular. We recognise the fish as a barramundi, for instance, and are told about the fishing techniques. The meaning of the cross-hatches, on the other hand, is not explained; they seem simply decorative to the uninitiated observer, while to the initiated and those skilled in looking, these signs take on additional representational and symbolic significance.
The rock art of the Kakadu region provides an interesting insight into the process in which the convention of artistic styles develop. Prior to the end of the last ice age, rock art in Kakadu presented human and animal figures in animated poses. At the same time as these depictions became stylised and abstracted, mythic figures of the yam and Rainbow Snake Being are represented. By the time the sea levels rose to what they are now and the monsoonal climatic pattern became established about 1500 years ago, Namarrgon, the lightning man figure, appears, as do x-ray style depictions. The depictions are still realistic but have changed in both subject and style to portray new ideas about how the world works.
While the relative permanence of rock art makes it an important means of dating the introduction of motifs and styles, it was not the most frequently used medium. Painting the bodies of celebrants in initiation and similar rites, desert sand paintings not unlike horizontal frescos and painted slabs of bark for the interior of dwellings were from early days the most favoured media. Most of the motifs found in bark and canvas paintings are secular variations on the motifs in the consciously ephemeral body and sand paintings.
The cross-hatching and x-ray style of the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory is quite distinct from the styles of the Central Desert. In the desert communities, dot paintings and stark in-fill are more likely. Until quite recently, these were generally religious and ephemeral, the work being done as ground (sand) paintings, body decoration or constructions. Public awareness of the forms in the desert depended upon photographs by ethnographers, which were first taken in the early 20C, or rock art and more transportable decorations on implements seen by visitors to the region willing to brave difficult travel. Although some small carved and decorated pieces were produced for sale, little of the art was publicly available until the 1960s and later.
The introduction of acrylic paints to replace ground ochres and other naturally occurring materials began in the early 1970s at the Papunya School in central Australia. Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher at the school, asked senior Aboriginal men in the community for permission and advice on the Honey Ant Dreaming for a mural at the school. Following considerable discussion about the propriety of depicting sacred knowledge in a secular setting, Papunya elder Old Tom Onion Tjapangati, who owned Honey Ant Dreaming, gave permission to a number of local men to paint the mural. At about the same time, Bardon provided artist board and paints and with the help of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, one of the mural painters who had used modern materials, the Papunya men began painting in acrylic on board. Initially, respect for ceremonial proprieties caused more naturalistic depictions to replace the sacred iconography. Eventually, recognition that conventional motifs could be described without revealing sacred secrets allowed a return to traditional style. Art board was quickly replaced by the more portable unstretched canvas.
A similar series of events brought the art of the Warlpiri artists of the Northern Territory to the public arena. In this instance, Terry Davis, principal of the Yuendumu school asked senior men to paint the doors of the community’s school in 1983. The Warlpiri were quite aware of the issues at hand. In fact, the women of the area had been producing decorated implements for a couple of decades for anthropologists. The work would be public, and would be the basis for subsequent, saleable art which would not be ephemeral but would be purchased and would permanently leave the community. In 1985, arrangements for the secularisation of the art were made in Yuendumu through the Warlukurlangu Artists Association, one of the first Aboriginal-run organisations to benefit from commercial sales of traditional artworks. In 1989, six Yuendumu artists installed a Yam Dreaming painting in the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. This exhibition marked a significant point in the recognition of Aboriginal art abroad, and in a ‘high art’ context rather than as ethnographic artefact.
Bark painting began to be sold in the early 1960s. However, in this case the impetus was from outstation missionaries who attempted unsuccessfully to introduce watercolours. While the watercolours were somewhat similar to the charcoal, ochre and other naturally occurring substances, acrylic paints and sized canvas or canvas board were preferred by the artists.
So, in effect, Aboriginal art has been available to the wider public since the 1960s. Of course, a number of anthropological and gallery exhibits pre-date this by a century and more; German and Swiss anthropological collections, such as the ethnographic museum in Basle, were important archives of early Aboriginal artefacts in Europe. The most important inaugural exhibition in Australia was arguably the 1929 National Museum of Victoria’s ‘Primitive Art’ show, which included an anthropologist display of director Baldwin Spencer’s collection of bark paintings acquired in 1912. Not until 1959 did an Australian art gallery begin to collect Aboriginal work as art rather than ethnographic artefacts, when the Art Gallery of New South Wales under artist and curator Tony Tuckson began to display works by artists from Tiwi and Arnhem Land cultures.
The state and national galleries now have collections on continuous display. Their material tends to date from this post-1950s period. A number of private galleries and Aboriginal artists’ cooperatives provide the opportunity both to see and purchase art. In the best circumstances, the artist may be available to describe the painting’s details. This information is routinely provided by the agent as well.
The most frequently mentioned
Aboriginal community-based arts organisations include
Buku Larrngay Arts, Yirrkala, NT
Bula’Bula Arts, Ramingining, NT
Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre, Maningrida, NT
Maruku Arts, Uluru, NT
Mimi Arts and Crafts Gallery, Katherine, NT
Papunya Tula Artists, Alice Springs, NT
Tiwi Designs, Bathurst Island, NT
Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu, NT
Waringarri Arts, Kununurra, WA
Warlayirti Artists Aboriginal Corporation, Halls Creek, WA
Ernabella Arts, Ernabella, SA
Descriptions of several of these
community-based organisations reveal a consistent pattern.
European techniques or material are adopted by local people,
often following success in selling crafts to tourists. The
success of modest early sales leads to greater community
involvement and eventual control. International recognition,
based on sales through local galleries and exhibition at
national and international exhibitions, follows shortly
The Ernabella Arts group began in 1949 as handicrafts produced by women on this mission cattle station. Initially, they spun and wove station-grown wool, but the women soon found batik to their liking as well. Similarly, the Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre began as production of a variety of artefacts made for tourists in the 1950s. It was established as a community-based enterprise in 1968.
Warlukurlangu Artists was formed in 1985 after senior Yuendumu women purchased a four-wheel drive vehicle with money they had saved from the sale of painted artefacts and canvas board. Their international recognition came upon the production of a 10 x 5m ground painting at the ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition in 1989 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Papunya Tula Artists began after the introduction of mural painting at the Papunya community school by teacher Geoffrey Bardon. International recognition increased following the 1988 Dreaming exhibition at the Asia Society Galleries in New York City.
Tiwi Designs was established in 1969 by Melville Island artists Bede Tungutalum and Giovanni Tipungwuti who initially applied screen and block printing techniques to cotton fabric.
These and other north central
Australian Aboriginal artist communities are represented by AboriginalArt.org.
gallery you wish to visit prior to travel. These
communities guard their privacy and may turn away undocumented
Of course, you can visit private galleries in each metropolitan area which specialize in Aboriginal art. Awareness of the going prices of Aboriginal art in the communities and contemporary agreements among gallery owners are the principal factors that act to control an earlier tendancy to take unfair financial advantage of the artists.
The colonial period marked the
seizure of most of the arable land in Australia by British
pastoralists. Although the indigenous population had been
decimated by European illnesses, sufficient numbers remained to
mount some opposition to this dispossession. Not surprisingly,
prompt retribution from colonial authorities followed each
instance of violent resistance.
Named massacres include the Risdon Massacre (1804, Tasmania, slaughter), the Battle of Pinjarra (1834, Western Australia, punitive), Murdering Gully Massacre (1839, Victoria, punitive), Fighting Hills Massacre (1840, Victoria, slaughter), Fighting Waterholes Massacre (1840, Victoria, slaughter), Lubra Creek Massacre (1842, Victoria, murders), Hornet Bank Massacre (1857, Queensland, vigilante), the Coppermine Murders (1884, Northern Territory, vigilante), Forrest River Massacre (1926, Western Australia, punitive), Coniston Massacre (1928, Northern Territory, punitive).
Government protection boards eradicated Aborigines in the 19C and 20C more effectively than the armed groups had earlier. Ironically, these protectors were installed in response to public concern for the conditions in which Aboriginal people were living. The efforts of these protectors were marked by paternalism, segregation and sometimes enslavement in the name of assimilation, or, as one contemporary phrase put it, ‘to soothe the dying pillow’. In most cases among colonial officials, Aborigines were seen as an inevitably ‘dying race’, with assimilation the only logical and desirable solution.
Initially able to suppress calls for equitable treatment of their wards, their powers were curtailed once the public came to recognise these state entities as detrimental. Beginning in the 1920s, Independent Progressive Leagues controlled by politically engaged Aboriginal people used high levels of publicity and well-planned events to present the plight of Aboriginal people to the Australian public. The result of this 50-year-long process has been a thorough re-evaluation of the place indigenous people might have in society and their worth to the nation. This re-evaluation has taken the term ‘reconciliation’ as its banner cry, although, as poet Judith Wright asserts, such a term implies that the two groups were at some time friends.
The modern social ethic is so far removed from that of the 19C and early 20C that we have a temptation to dismiss the missionaries, settlers and government functionaries as inhuman brutes. A more productive approach may be to concentrate on the efforts of the humane participants to establish an attitude of acceptance and assistance.
During the 19C, a number of settlers lamented the plight of the Aboriginal population. At the time social welfare efforts were largely organised by the churches. They established missions to instil Christian beliefs and provide basic sustenance. Although most of these missions were simply gulags, some did offer training in basic literacy and rural job skills. The missions at New Norcia, Western Australia (Benedictine Catholic), Poonindie, South Australia (Anglican), Hermannsburg, Northern Territory (Lutheran) and several later in Arnhem Land (Methodist) were noteworthy successes.
The earliest of these Christian societies was the British Aborigines Protection Society formed by Quaker anatomist Thomas Hodgkin. Not to be confused with the odious subsequent ‘government protectors’ of Aborigines, the society sought to prevent oppression of indigenous people in the British colonies. Their greatest success in Australia was the formation of an Aboriginal reserve, the Port Phillip Protectorate, which kept the area’s settlers at bay and left the Aborigines largely to their own devices during the 1840s.
Later in the century Daniel Matthews formed a similar civil society in 1878, the Aborigines Protection Association. In addition to furthering the Maloga and Warangesda Missions and criticising the New South Wales protector of Aborigines, the association advocated compensation for dispossessed land and acceptance of Aborigines in responsible positions.
Real political and social advances for Australia’s indigenous population began in the late 1920s and 1930s when Aborigines began forming their own political associations. Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard (1879–1944), in a letter to the Aboriginal Protection Boards, eloquently stated the politically engaged concern of reconciliation:
I wish to make perfectly clear on behalf of our people, that we wish to accept no condition of inferiority as compared with European people. Two distinct civilisations are represented by the respective races... That the European people by the arts of war destroyed our more ancient civilisation is freely admitted and that by their vices and diseases our people have been decimated is also patent, but neither of these facts are evidence of superiority. Quite the contrary is the case.
Fred Maynard formed the Australian
Aboriginal Progressive Association in 1926. In Melbourne,
William Cooper and Bill Onus formed the Australian Aborigines
League in 1932. William Ferguson and John Patten formed the
Aboriginal Progressive Association in Dubbo in 1937. The two
latter associations cooperated to stage ‘A Day of Mourning’ in
Sydney on Australia’s sesquicentenary (150th anniversary), 26
January 1938, and presented the Prime Minister at that time with
a list of ten objectives. The central concerns advocated federal
control of Aboriginal affairs and granting Aborigines
This theme re-emerged in 1958 upon the establishment of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders following a meeting in Adelaide of representatives from Aboriginal advancement organisations, church bodies, trade unions and social welfare groups. Among a variety of social measures, constitutional issues became their central effort. In 1967 they presented the issues as a constitutional referendum, to be voted on by the Australian people. The referendum amended the constitution so that it could no longer disallow the federal parliament from enacting laws which would apply to Aboriginal people or from counting them in the national census enumeration. Of 42 referenda presented to Australian voters since Federation in 1901, this was one of nine which have been passed; it received a 90 per cent ‘yes’ vote.
Contrary to the popular impression that the referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in federal elections, they had actually had this right since 1962. The central effect of the referendum was recognition of traditional law regarding ownership of land; the results of this recognition culminated in the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976. Following this recognition, regional land councils came to the fore as cooperative managers of a variety of land rights ceded to them. Shortly, these councils will have increased power over intellectual property as well. Tourists apply to these land councils for permission to enter Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island land.
Of greatest significance for Aboriginal rights in recent years has been the so-called Mabo Decision and the Native Title Act of 1993. Eddie Mabo was a Murray Island native who in 1982 began proceedings against the state of Queensland, seeking recognition of the rights of the Island’s traditional land. Mabo’s case eventually came to the Australian High Court, where the vexed issue of terra nullius—the colonial assertion that Australia was uninhabited and unowned, and therefore land could be taken for the Crown or by any settler who wanted it—was ruled invalid. This recognition of traditional ownership of the land, that indigenous people had indeed occupied the continent at the time of white settlement, led to the historic High Court decision resulting in the Native Title Act 1993, ensuring clarification of all land titles throughout Australia and ensuring equality before the law. The conservative government under John Howard, together with pastoral and mining interests, is seeking to extinguish native title in relation to a related High Court decision concerning the Wik people of Queensland. This effort is leading to increased divisiveness and setbacks to the cause of reconciliation.
Not unexpectedly, as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have taken control of their social and legal resources, their lot has begun to improve. Further, they have begun calling for rapprochement between Indigenous and newer arrivals. The reconciliation process formally began in 1991 upon the investiture of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. While the council itself has an honour roll membership, its best work has been due to the optimistic, community-based efforts of those espousing its intentions.
Discovery and habitation of Australia dates to at least 60,000 years ago, the period established for the earliest remains found of an Aboriginal population. Recent evidence, in rock art, suggests that Aborigines may have been on the continent much earlier. Like the late-coming Europeans, these people appear to have come by sea after island-hopping along the northern coast. Evidence of the earliest occupation in the central areas of the country dates to 22,000 years ago. The dingo probably accompanied Aboriginal settlers about 12,000 years ago, well after ocean levels separated Tasmania from the mainland for the last time. Mega-fauna (giant marsupials) became extinct perhaps due to Aboriginal hunting in the late Pleistocene Era; brush burning as a hunting strategy established the predominance of open sclerophyll woodlands and steppe grassland at about this same time. On this isolated continent the Aborigines remained undisturbed, living a nomadic existence, developing an elaborate kinship system and a complex aesthetic and theological world view. Their relatively small numbers and the fact that the harsh landscape necessitated movement over long distances prevented the development of any substantial settlements or elaborate material culture.
In more recent history, legends about
‘Terra Australis Incognita’, the Great South Land, have existed
both in Europe and Asia since ancient times. In 350 BC the Greek
Theopompus wrote of a Utopia in the south, ‘a continent or
parcel of dry land which in greatness is infinite...’; the
Indians of the sub-continent spoke of a Golden City under a
banyan-tree found by sailing south; and the Chinese explorer
Ch’eng Ho may have reached Australian shores as early as 1405,
although no substantiated evidence remains.
Malay fishermen are known to have camped seasonally from at least the 16C on the Australian northern coast while harvesting sea slugs (beche de mer or trepang) for Chinese trade; and Islamic merchants who entered Java in the 11C seemed to have had some knowledge that a great land, wildly fantastical, existed in the south. Similarly, the Portuguese probably knew something of Australia shortly after they colonised East Timor in 1516; Spanish documents seem to indicate some knowledge of the existence of a southern land, following their settlement of the Philippines in 1565. By the time of the great era of European naval exploration, from the 16C to 18C, the fabled southern continent was a firmly entrenched myth, as demonstrated by its appearance on Ortelius’s map of 1577, where it covers the entire southern end of the globe.
In reality, scientific exploration yielded piecemeal disclosures of the real nature of the Australian landmass; it was not until 1803 that the continent was fully circumnavigated and its true dimensions established. Spanish and Portuguese exploration in the region was frustrated due to the seasonally strong westerly winds and the maze of reefs among the islands to the north, where they, along with the Dutch, claimed land and established colonies for the purposes of commercial trade in the late 16C. It seems likely that the Portuguese landed at Cape York as early as the 1530s, but found little to encourage further investigation. In the 1590s, Spaniards Pedro Fernandez de Quiros and Luis Vaez de Torres discovered the New Hebrides and, believing it to be The Great South Land, named it ‘Australia del Espiritu Santo’; Torres’ name lives on in the Strait through which the adventurers passed.
Early navigators who did land on Australian soil found it so wanting in any commodities for trade that they simply ignored it for many years. In the early 1600s the Dutch discovered and began charting Australia’s western coasts; in 1616, Dirck Hartog in the Eendracht left a tin plate on the island given his name. They had taken an eastward route to the south seas, striking directly from the Cape of Good Hope at a southern latitude. While the Dutch explorations were sufficient to name the continent ‘New Holland’, the Dutch captain’s assessment of the country and its inhabitants prompted no interest in settlement. Carstensz’ description of Cape York Peninsula in 1623 will suffice as an example:
We have not seen a fruit-bearing tree, nor anything that man could make use of; there are no mountains or even hills... this is the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on earth; the inhabitants, too, are the most wretched and poorest creatures that I have seen.
In the early 1640s, as preparation to
subvert Spanish interests in Chile and Peru, the Dutch captain
Abel Tasman proceeded farther into southern latitudes than his
predecessors. He discovered Tasmania, which he named Van
Diemen’s Land, after the Batavian governor-general who proposed
the expedition. Tasman did not know whether the place was an
island or part of a large mainland. Failing to find his way
expeditiously to the Solomon Islands, the Netherlands’ hoped-for
equivalent to the Spanish Philippines, Tasman was ordered to
take a more northern route. This voyage completed the Dutch map
of the continent from the tip of the Carpentaria Peninsula to
central South Australia in 1644, but without any knowledge of
the eastern coastline.
The Dutch were not alone in describing the continent and its inhabitants negatively. The English pirate William Dampier visited the northeast and western coasts in 1688 and 1699–1700 respectively. He described the land and inhabitants so critically (the overwhelming number of flies seems to have been the biggest deterrent) that ‘terra australis incognita’ was left alone even by the British until Captain James Cook’s voyages in the 1770s. Dampier’s most enduring contribution was as a source for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in which he places Lilliput ‘within the confines of modern Australia and its adjoining seas.’
The French also made forays into this part of the South Seas from the 17C. Indeed, it was fear of French expansion in the Pacific that partially prompted Cook’s voyage so far south.
Cook’s first voyage was ostensibly undertaken to examine the transit of Venus in the Southern Hemisphere; but Cook was also commanded to chart unknown territory and claim new discoveries in the name of the Crown. Cook’s immense navigational achievements were enhanced by the fact that all three of his voyages carried first-rate scientists and artists to record and collect. Most significant was the presence on the first voyage of the great naturalist Joseph Banks, who would play an important part in Australia’s subsequent settlement. Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour resulted in the discovery, in April 1770, of Cape Everard and, further north, Botany Bay, named by Banks because of the number of botanical specimens he was able to find there.
Despite shipwreck at present-day Cape Tribulation in Queensland, Cook successfully navigated the entire coastline; on 21 August of that year, at Possession Island, he formally claimed the eastern coast of New Holland for Britain, naming the land New South Wales.
These voyagers established the European vision of Australia as an inverted world in which all natural phenomena, flora and fauna, were contrary to scientific expectations. As Banks wrote, ‘All things in this land seemed quaint and opposite’, and Cook’s flabbergasted descriptions of a kangaroo (‘It was unlike any European Animal I ever saw’) set the standard for considering Australia a scientific and geographic anomaly. At least Cook was kinder in his descriptions of the Aborigines, countering Dampier’s ‘miserablest people in the world... who have no houses and skin garments’ with a more romanticised idea of the ‘noble savage’:
They may appear to some to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far happier than Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe.
After Cook’s and Banks’ return to
England and their enthusiastic accounts of the wonders of the
continent, much of the myth of Australia incognita was put to
rest, although great geographical gaps remained until Matthew
Flinders’ explorations at the end of the 18C. In his leaky boat
1801–03, Flinders circumnavigated Australia. At this stage and
upon Flinders’ suggestion in his book of 1814, Australia became
the preferred name rather than New Holland. Flinders had
established that the continent was a single landmass.
The British inclination to settle Australia has been variously ascribed to hopes to open trade with Asian markets, to find a source of masts and similar naval stores, to prevent French colonisation or even to further understanding of natural history. In fact, the initial means of settlement was through the transport of criminals, burgeoning numbers of whom had been housed on floating hulks in the Thames and along the coast of England. In 1786, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Lord Sydney, entrusted the first fleet of ships bearing prisoners to Captain Arthur Phillip, a heretofore lacklustre naval officer of German-English parentage. The ‘First Fleet’ departed England in May 1787, consisting of 11 ships transporting 750 convicts, about a quarter of them women, and about 250 marine guards. Due to Phillip’s care, the passengers arrived after the eight-month journey in relatively good health, and very few deaths had occurred on the voyage, an unprecedented feat in naval history. Rather than establish the colony at Botany Bay, as Banks had suggested, its poor soil, inadequate water and poor anchorage prompted Phillip to search further north. He entered Port Jackson, a brilliant natural harbour, named though not explored by Cook.
Back at Botany Bay, the awaiting crew and passengers were astonished to encounter French ships commanded by Comte La Perouse, who had landed to make repairs, further motivation for the British to establish territorial rights. On 26 January 1788, Sydney Cove became the site of the new penal settlement, a day still celebrated as Australia’s founding (and, for Aborigines, the day of invasion).
The difficulties Governor Phillip faced included refusal of the marine garrison to take responsibility for guarding the convicts, a dearth of useful skills among the convicts, uncertain supplies from Britain and relatively poor soil and fresh water. The first years were ones of isolation and tremendous hardship, with starvation a constant threat, as the colonists confronted a hostile and unfamiliar environment. The Second Fleet, with another 750 convicts, did not arrive until 1790; more appeared the next year, by which time arable land had been found at Parramatta, and the crude beginnings of a British colony gained some solidity.
Once the colony was established, transported criminals found colonial life less harsh than it might have been. Convicts were employed by the government or assigned to land owners, and for the most part were not incarcerated at night. Once crops and livestock were well-established, convicts and workers ate better here than they would have back in England. Tickets of leave and pardons were often granted to those who proved useful to the government, and as early as 1793 free settlers began arriving. By the turn of the century, the first church, theatre, printing press and brewery had been established in Sydney.
Indeed, the French expedition under Baudin, upon visiting Sydney in 1800, reported: ‘Europeans whom events at sea or particular reasons bring to Port Jackson cannot help but be surprised at the state of ease and prosperity to which this colony has risen since the time of its establishment.’ Baudin’s crew member Peron was even more insightful: ‘The population of the colony amazed us. Settled there were frightful brigands who had long lost the terror of the government. Most of them, obliged to interest themselves in the maintenance of law and justice, had re-entered the ranks of honest citizens. The same revolutionary change had taken place among the women... Wretched prostitutes are today intelligent and hardworking mothers of families.’ Within 14 years, the colony was fairly settled and civilised; just as Australian flora and fauna had upset the Linnean system of scientific order, the phenomenon of early Australian society was a refutation of commonly-held notions about the criminal classes. The peculiar circumstances surrounding the establishment of such a colony, and the common experience of a new land, led to a levelling of classes, a distrust of authority, and a democratic sense of giving everyone a ‘fair go’ that still marks the Australian character.
The early economy was based largely on imported rum and other provisions, establishing Australia’s long-standing habit of looking to Britain as ‘home’ and the source of all material goods. By the turn of the century, the New South Wales Corps through the rum trade controlled the labour force of the colony. This situation led to the Rum Rebellion of 1808, when Governor William Bligh (1754–1817), previously of Bounty fame, tried to thwart the military monopoly. John Macarthur (1766–1834), the most powerful officer of the Corps, managed to depose Bligh, but was himself finally arrested and banished from the colony. Macarthur, however, had already brought Merino sheep to the colony, establishing Australia’s wool industry at Camden Park, where he would return in 1817. He and his extraordinary wife Elizabeth (1769–1850) remained powerful figures in Australian life, as its first traders and agricultural pioneers. In the meantime, Bligh was recalled and the Home Office, recognising the anarchic state of the colony, appointed a new Governor, the Scotsman and experienced career officer Lachlan Macquarie (1762–1824), to bring order to the situation.
The confrontation of white man with indigenous Australians was from the beginning fraught with the tension of two conflicting sets of values and expectations. As the First Fleet chroniclers David Collins and Watkin Tench make clear in their accounts, the new settlers’ desire to make order out of the new landscape came into immediate conflict with the ‘hard primitivism’ of the Aborigines who, seemingly without a sense of ownership or material values, were seen by the whites to have no claim to the land they inhabited, and, in the worst of attitudes, to be hardly human at all. This idea led to the lamentable concept of Australia as a terra nullius, an uninhabited land, a misconception that has forever tainted interactions with the native people and has had sweeping consequences to the present day.
The arrival of the ambitious
Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth in December 1809 saw a move
away from the idea of Australia as solely a penal colony.
Macquarie supported emancipists, encouraged the rehabilitation
of convicts, and subdued the power of the military
establishment. He set out to give the colony all the trappings
of British civilisation, through massive public works programmes
and the implementation of banking and cultural institutions.
With the convict-architect Francis Greenway (1777–1837),
Macquarie created substantial public monuments and churches, and
established new towns along the newly discovered Hawkesbury
River. He set up the first school for Aborigines, officially
recognised Roman Catholicism, and established Sydney’s Botanic
Gardens. He travelled to Van Diemen’s Land, laying out the town
of Hobart, and bestowing his name on places throughout the
country. During his administration, the Blue Mountains were
finally crossed in 1813, allowing expansion into the fertile
parts of the inland and establishing a more positive vision of
Australia as a livable country.
Macquarie’s ambitions were too grandiose for the Home Office, and his encouragement of emancipist settlement brought him into conflict with the burgeoning numbers of free settlers. In 1819, Commissioner J. Bigge was sent out to Sydney to report on Macquarie’s activities and the state of the colony, which by this time had been transformed from a place of punishment to one of civilised prosperity, eliminating the threat of transportation to Australia as a supposed deterrent to criminals in England. Bigge’s negative assessment of public spending and political organisation led to Macquarie’s resignation in 1821, as England vacillated in its opinion of Australia’s value to the Empire. Further penal settlements were seen as necessary to instil fear, leading in the late 1820s to the establishment of Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur, Port Macquarie, and Moreton Bay on the Brisbane River.
Free settlement nonetheless continued
to grow, leading to the declaration of colonies throughout the
continent: in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land became a separate colony,
in 1826 Western Australia was founded, followed by Melbourne in
1835 and South Australia, proud of having no convict taint, in
1836. These all became self-governing colonies within the
By the 1840s, exploration of the continent’s vast expanses by Charles Sturt, E.J. Eyre, Ludwig Leichhardt, Burke and Wills, and others completed the Australian map, dashing hopes of a fertile inland as the extent of its dry and barren centre was substantiated. The settlements by the sea flourished, establishing the still-persistent custom by the populace of clinging to the coastline; today over 80 per cent of Australians live in six coastal cities, and nearly 90 per cent can be classified as urban dwellers. Convict transportation ended in New South Wales in 1840, and throughout Australia by 1853. Opportunistic adventurers, in most cases British men of means, took up huge tracts of land at the edges of the explored regions, claiming ownership by virtue of settlement and developing a ‘squattocracy’ that would dominate as Australia’s landed gentry to the present day. The population remained overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic in composition and values, while the increase in native-born Australians led to a growing sense of national identity, especially among the working class.
It was the gold rush of the 1850s,
both in New South Wales and the newly-proclaimed colony of
Victoria, that significantly transformed the demographic
structure of the country, as vast numbers of middle-class
migrants and skilled artisans from all over the world joined the
ranks of those locals who clambered to the gold fields. For the
first time Australia became the focus of international
attention. The results of so much immigration and the subsequent
development of an industrial and cultural infrastructure to
support them led to a more complex and self-conscious Australian
society. The phenomenon of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, developing in
one decade to a cosmopolitan city of stature and for a time the
wealthiest place within the British Empire, is the most
startling example of the rapid transformation made possible by
In the 1880s, while Melbourne grandiosely expanded its cultural institutions and architectural monuments, development of Australian heavy industry accompanied the discovery of enormous mineral lodes at Broken Hill in western New South Wales. These discoveries were an important step, leading to an industrial ethos within Australian society. Still, vigorous trade-unionism in the country grew initially out of the activities of shearers and pastoral workers, leading by the 1850s to the first eight-hour-working-day legislation in the world.
By the 1890s, as gold-engendered
prosperity collapsed and economic depression permeated society,
the strength of the trade unions encouraged nationalistic
sentiments among Australian workers. Similarly, in art and
literature, ambitious attempts were made to hone a specifically
Australian world-view and cultural contribution. Artists of the
Heidelberg School and writers such as Joseph Furphy, with his
novel Such is Life (written 1895), forged a style using themes
of the Australian landscape and the Australian vernacular idiom.
The nationalist sentiment of Banjo Paterson’s Man From Snowy
River (1890) is unmistakable. The establishment of John
Archibald’s newspaper The Bulletin in 1880 promoted national
issues and an Australian style of writing and humour.
The move towards federation of the separate Australian colonies into a single nation gained its strongest impetus after a speech by venerable politician Sir Henry Parkes at Tenterfield, New South Wales, in 1889. Popular opinion for federation was led by the Australian Natives’ Association (native-born white settlers) and the Federal League, and by the end of the century a popular referendum accepted a constitution, which was enacted as a statute by the British Parliament. Australia was officially proclaimed a nation within the British Commonwealth on 1 January 1901, making the six colonies six states.
The period from Federation until the First World War saw a coalescence of national outlook, including the selection in 1913 of a new national capital, removed from inter-state rivalries, to be built at Canberra. The seat of government was Melbourne until 1927, when Canberra’s Parliament House was finally opened. Australia remained overwhelmingly British in cultural and political attitudes. The government established consisted of a two-tier parliamentary system, presided over by a Prime Minister; each state had a premier and its own governor-general, and the entire system was overseen by a Governor-General nominally appointed by the British Monarch.
One of the first acts of the infant government was the Immigration Act, establishing the White Australia policy in an attempt to ensure a European, preferably British, population. While directed at the fear of the ‘Asian hordes’ to the north, the policy also effectively marginalised indigenous Australians, who were for the most part confined to mission stations.
The opening of the Commonwealth Bank in 1912 and the coining of separate currency in 1910 established an economy not entirely dependent on Britain’s. Progressive measures adopted included universal suffrage in 1902, and, with the rise of the Australian Labor Party, an acceptance of a minimum wage law by 1907. Culturally, the ‘Mother Country’ was still the destination of all home-grown talent, whether in medicine, the arts, or higher learning. Only in the field of sports, especially cricket, rugby, and swimming, did Australia begin to nurture local teams and individual ability; it is one of the few countries to be represented at every modern Olympics Games. Exploits in aviation and exploration, especially Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica 1911–14 and Kingsford Smith’s trans-Pacific flight of 1928, produced local heroes and major achievements that were hailed as Australian, not British, accomplishments.
The First World War brought Australia
on to the international stage as a separate nation. While
conscription was defeated by popular vote at home, despite the
efforts of xenophobic Prime Minister Billy Hughes (1864–1952),
thousands of Australians signed up to fight with the British
forces, both in the Middle East and in Europe. Australia also
took over the governing of German New Guinea, its first foray
into extraterritorial administration. The disastrous events in
1915 at Gallipoli in Turkey, in which the troops of the
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) sustained
enormous losses, served as a ‘crucible of nationhood’,
establishing a sense of national pride and a questioning of
total dependence on British power. ANZAC Day, on 25 April,
remains the most patriotic and Australian of occasions
throughout the country.
In 1918, Australia’s population reached five million. Returning soldiers found Australia in the 1920s increasingly divided between the growing urban population and the concerns of farmers and pastoralists. Immigration from other European countries grew as the United States closed its doors to most migrants in 1921. Labor Party versus anti-Labor battles determined government policies at all levels, becoming a persistent feature of Australian political life.
Modern technology brought Australia into the 20C by decreasing the geographical and social distances on the continent and increased the country’s connections to the outside world. Significant developments include the establishment in 1920 of QANTAS (The Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services) and The Flying Doctors’ Service in the Outback, the arrival of telegraph, telephone and radio services, and improved shipping.
The building of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge between 1923 and 1932 was hailed as a major engineering feat as well as an emblem of Australia’s modernity. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was formed in 1932, offering a venue for local production and support of Australian artists. Artists by the 1930s still overwhelmingly went abroad to pursue culture, but literature and art created at home became more vigorous, with efforts such as the Angry Penguins movement in Melbourne and the arrival of European-trained immigrants in all the capital cities.
The Great Depression of the 1930s had as devastating a social impact on Australia as elsewhere; here economic collapse led to a restructuring of the banks, with increased tensions caused by the continued dependence on British financial policy and institutions. Nowhere is Australian obsession with and domination of sport against the ‘Mother Country’ more symbolically demonstrated than in the infamous ‘Bodyline’ controversy of 1932. Indefatigable cricketer Don Bradman (b. 1908), the pride of all Australia, was deliberately abused by British bowlers in a test match; Australia at the time was desperately seeking a loan from the Bank of England, a loan that was made contingent upon Australian authorities dropping their protests against the British cricket team. On the playing field, allegiance to England was eschewed in favour of loyalty to the nation long before any political distancing occurred.
The Second World War again brought
Australia into global affairs, this time with more recognition
of the country’s place in the Pacific realm: primary attention
was given to the defence of Australia against Asian forces,
although Australians still fought under British command.
Australian troops were particularly effective in the early North
African desert campaigns such as Tobruk and El Alamein. With the
fall of Singapore in 1942, during which Australian troops were
seen to be abandoned by the British, and with the entry of the
United States into the war after Pearl Harbour, the Prime
Minister, Labor stalwart John Curtin (1885–1945), shifted
Australian efforts to the Pacific and established closer
political alliance with the United States. General Douglas
Macarthur used Australia as a base for coordinating Pacific
operations, bringing large numbers of American troops to
Australian shores for the first time.
In 1942, the Japanese bombed Darwin, a Japanese submarine entered Sydney Harbour, and Japanese troops invaded New Guinea. On every front, Australian troops were present, playing a decisive role along with the US Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea and halting Japanese advances in New Guinea. Australia also played a leading role in the post-war establishment of the United Nations; Dr H.V. Evatt was the organisation’s first President of the General Assembly.
After the war, Australia, acutely
aware of its isolated position as an underpopulated European
nation at the southern end of Asia, responded with massive
assisted-immigration programmes, initiated by Labor leaders Ben
Chifley (1885–1951) and Arthur Calwell (1896–1973). These
programmes saw the arrival in Australia not only of British
migrants, but for the first time large numbers from
non-English-speaking countries. These ‘New Australians’ began
the transformation of the country into the multicultural society
it is today. Asians were still effectively banned from
immigration well into the 1970s. The need for a more independent
and vigorous economy also led to the implementation of
large-scale engineering projects, most notably the Snowy
Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, an unprecedented technological
programme to harness water for irrigation and supply electricity
to New South Wales. The ‘Snowy’s’ work force was comprised of
people from 35 countries, many of whom remained to become
The 1950s brought to power the newly organised Liberal Party, conservative in policy, under Robert Menzies (1894–1978), who would dominate Australian politics into the 1960s. Menzies oversaw the period of post-war prosperity of full employment and material growth, maintaining a staunchly pro-British view while involving the country in prevalent Cold War policies. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, the first visit by Australia’s monarch, generated overwhelming excitement; over 70 per cent of Australia’s population made an effort to see her in person. Australian troops were sent to Korea in 1950. Communism was seen as a threat at home and abroad, and the British were allowed to test atomic bombs in the desert regions of Maralinga and Emu Junction. Under Menzies, literary censorship still banned books such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and schoolchildren used textbooks that referred to their near-northern neighbours as ‘The Far East’. Aboriginal children were still removed from their families, and they were not granted citizenship until 1967. Television was first introduced in 1956, not coincidentally the year of Australia’s international debut as the host of the Melbourne Olympic Games.
Menzies sent advisors to Vietnam as early as 1962 and introduced conscription. His successor Harold Holt (1908–67) continued the commitment to Vietnam, coining the phrase ‘all the way with LBJ’ after the visit by US President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. By 1971, public sentiment against Australian involvement in an Asian-American conflict was so strong that most troops were recalled; in all, 500 Australians died in Vietnam and 2400 were wounded. Culturally, the period was still one of expatriation, both to Europe and America, but the so-called ‘cultural cringe’ (a term coined in 1950 by writer A.A. Phillips began to diminish, as new galleries and learned institutions opened, and writers and artists began to explore the peculiarities of the Australian cultural condition.
Prime Minister Holt’s death by drowning in 1967 paved the way for Labor’s win in 1972 led by a visionary Gough Whitlam (b. 1916). The time was right for change, and Whitlam set about implementing these changes. He ended conscription and recalled troops in Vietnam even before he was sworn in. He granted independence to Papua New Guinea, and initiated free higher education and health care. He strongly supported the arts, abandoning stringent censorship laws and subsidising the Australian film industry. Whitlam was instrumental in the purchase in 1973 of the controversial Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles for an enormous sum, Australia’s first venture into the world of art politics. In the same year, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Sydney Opera House; her trip generated far less fanfare than the first one. Whitlam also extended Aboriginal rights and returned land to them, infuriating pastoralists and mining interests.
Burdened with a conservative Senate, which refused to approve Labor’s budget, and an unfriendly Governor-General, Whitlam’s government was doomed. Governor-General John Kerr dismissed the government on 11 November 1975; while such powers were theoretically at the Governor-General’s disposal, no representative of the Crown had previously taken such a step. The move effectively began a viable Republican movement which questioned Australia’s continued allegiance to the British Crown, a debate that continues in earnest today.
The 1970s also saw the official end of the ‘White Australia’ policy, and Asian immigration began. The first Vietnamese boat people arrived in 1976, adding another dimension to the country’s growing ethnic communities. Australian literature gained international attention: in 1971, Germaine Greer, while resident in London, published The Female Eunuch and in 1973, Patrick White became the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The environmental movement came into being, and remains a powerful if beleaguered force today.
The 1980s saw the election of popular Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke (b. 1929), who would serve until 1991, when his power was usurped by his former treasurer Paul Keating (b. 1944). Labor, however, lost the support of its traditional unionist and working-class constituency, as it became increasingly right-wing in policy.
The 1980s is already being termed the ‘decade of greed’, as entrepreneurs took advantage of world-wide economic conditions to create lavish financial empires, only to see them collapse by the end of the decade. Figures such as Alan Bond and Christopher Skase became international celebrities; indeed, it was Bond’s Australia II that won the America’s Cup in 1983, an event that caused national celebration. Australian domination in international sports such as cricket and rugby, and media successes such as Crocodile Dundee in 1985 increased the country’s international standing; indeed, the media paved the way for global moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. The Bicentennial celebrations of 1988 symbolised the country’s status, as major public events such as the Tall Ships Parade highlighted white Australian achievement, and Aboriginal demonstrations spoke to the continuing inequality of indigenous people.
Today, Australia is a multicultural
society with a global outlook. Advanced communications has
finally allowed the continent to overcome its ‘tyranny of
distance’, with major cultural and scientific achievements
created locally. Australia produced the first successful frozen
embryo fertilisation in 1984, and Australian scientists made the
most significant breakthroughs in the process of gene-shearing.
Australian Peter Doherty won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Medicine,
for research initially carried out at the John Curtin School of
Medicine in Canberra. Culturally, the arts, architecture, and
cinema are as sophisticated and complex as anywhere in the
world; the ‘cultural cringe’ has been put to rest, although
international recognition still seems necessary for public
approbation. While xenophobic racism occasionally rears its
head, and the continued neglect of Aborigines causes world-wide
concern, multicultural integration is admirably successful, and
is perhaps Australia’s greatest contribution to contemporary
The most significant event of the 1990s has been the Mabo decision, by which the High Court in 1992 legally overturned the concept of terra nullius, leading to Native Title legislation to ensure Aboriginal land rights; the decision has world-wide implications and will be a major test of Australian democratic institutions.
A new Liberal-National Party coalition government (that is, conservative) led by John Howard, elected in 1996, seems intent on economic rationalisation in step with Thatcher-Reagan policies, decimating many of the social programmes of the last twenty years. The government was nonetheless instrumental in introducing stringent gun controls precipitated by the Port Arthur tragedy of April 1996. The Republican debate continues, and the public recognises the symbolic significance of the upcoming Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Australia will again be the centre of world attention.
|Australian Art||Australian cinema||Australian literature|
The history of Western art in Australia began with the navigational records and drawings by those accompanying the first explorations of the South Pacific. The brilliant naturalist Joseph Banks (1743–1820) saw to it that Captain Cook’s voyages included excellent naturalists and draughtsmen: Daniel Solander (1736–82) and Sydney Parkinson (c 1745–71) on the first voyage in the Endeavour; William Hodges (1744–97) and German-born George Forster (1754–94) on the second; and John Webber (1752–93) on the third. All of them collected natural specimens and eventually published numerous images of natural wonders, geographical settings, and native peoples that would determine the European vision of the Pacific for many years. Equally significant were the depictions from the French voyages of the late 18C and early 19C: the fascinating prints of Tasmanian Aborigines made on Baudin’s 1800 voyage by François Peron (1775–1846) and Nicolas Petit (1777–1804), and the elegant interpretations of sea-life and native fauna completed by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1778–1846). Lesueur’s enchanting depiction of a wombat, one of the first published in Europe, is still widely reproduced.
The earliest depictions after
colonial settlement exhibit the amateurs’ fascination with
antipodean difference, and style of draughtsmanship learned by
naval officers of the day. They are most interesting for their
attitude to the natives they encountered. The Port Jackson
Painter (fl. 1790s) portrays them in The ‘Hunted Rushcutter’
(1790) as playfully aggressive, while his Wounded native (c
1790), in a pose like the Roman sculpture of Dying Gaul,
embodies connotations of the ‘noble savage’. Governor Hunter’s
(1737–1821) delightful notebook of native flora and fauna,
produced during his tenure as governor in the 1790s, expresses
the simple joy of discovery of new birds and plants (Hunter’s
entire journal has been reprinted by the National Library of
Australia, 1989). The Austrian Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826)
accompanied Flinder’s circumnavigation of the continent in
1802–03, and produced the most exquisite natural illustrations
ever created, some of them published by the artist in 1813 as Illustrationes Florae Novae
Hollandiae. In contrast, Flinders’ landscape artist,
William Westall (1781–1850), was disappointed by the lack of the
sublime or exotic in the Australian countryside; despite some
insightful renditions of Aborigines, most of his landscapes
demonstrate the prevailing early perception of Australia as a
barren and uninteresting place.
In most cases, these early works mimicked modes of 18C British painting. Convict Thomas Watling’s (b. c 1762) views of Sydney in 1800 are exemplary, in which his dismay about the ‘otherness’ of the Australian landscape led to a combination of picturesque motifs learned at home, and emphasised the civilising effect of the British presence on the land itself. The first panoramic views of the new colony by John Eyre (b. 1777) and others appealed to the home audience when exhibited there, and began the rage for ‘traveller’s views’ of the Australian landscape and native life that led to substantial production of prints and illustrated books for London society.
Naturalist-artist John Lewin (1770–1819), accompanying Governor Macquarie on his crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1815, created watercolours that successfully depicted the Australian bush, correctly delineating eucalyptus trees that defied rendering through standard pictorial technique. Lewin made the first known drawing of a koala, and his painting of fish done in 1813 is considered to be the first oil painting completed in the colony. It is Lewin’s image of the kangaroo that provided the iconographic prototype of the animal that became a metaphor of antipodean oddity. In the 1820s, Joseph Lycett’s (c 1775–1828) prints in his Views of Australia (1824) presented the Aborigines in Arcadian landscapes, practising their traditional way of life and in possession of their land.
By the 1830s, Australia had become a destination for settlers, as well as adventurer-explorers. The artist Augustus Earle (1793– 1838) represented the latter, visiting the continent while travelling the world, then returning to England to produce sympathetic depictions of Aborigines already marginalised by European settlement, as well as adventurous narrative works such as Wentworth Falls (1830) and the picaresque rendering of a night-time camp in newly explored territory, A Bivouac of Travellers in a Cabbage-Tree Forest (c 1838). In contrast, John Glover (1767–1849), already a well-known landscape artist in England, settled in Tasmania permanently at the age of 64 in 1831. While he created some fanciful images of Aborigines in the bush, Glover’s main concentration in works such as My Harvest Home (1835) and A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land (1835) emphasises the creation of familiar Englishness in this fertile new country. Glover nonetheless made great efforts to depict the Australian bush with accuracy, one of the defining characteristics of early colonial art being the correct rendering of a gum tree.
Australia’s coming of age as an independent settler colony is mirrored in the more ambitious paintings of the 1840s and 1850s. Conrad Martens’ (1801– 78) romantic views of Sydney continued a British painterly tradition influenced by Turner, with a concentration on the harbour’s water and atmosphere and more grandiose renderings of the virgin landscape. Even Martens’ late work of the Zig Zag Railway near Lithgow (1872), a wonder of engineering, stressed the majesty of the landscape rather than technology’s scarring of the land.
In Melbourne, the gold rush of the 1850s saw the arrival of several Europeans who brought German and French landscape traditions to the fore. Louis Buvelot (1814–88), a Swiss painter, domesticated the Australian landscape, with his plein-air technique learned from the French Barbizon School. As Christopher Allen states in his Art in Australia (1997), Buvelot’s great contribution was as an influence on local artistic practices. Similarly, the Austrian Eugen von Guerard (1811–1901) applied elements of the Germanic landscape style in his sublime views of the Victorian countryside and, most notably, in his North-East View from the Northern Top of Mount Kosckiuszko (1863), a fine combination of geographical accuracy and romantic sentiment.
Increasing cultural aspirations
accompanied the growth of the cosmopolitan centres of Melbourne
and Sydney at the end of the century. Most ambitious young
artists travelled to Europe for training and acquired stylistic
self-consciousness. As Australia began to formulate a distinct
national identity in the 1880s, several artists who began
painting together outdoors in the Melbourne countryside around
Heidelberg (thus known as the Heidelberg School) sought to
create a national style, focussing on depictions of Australian
sunlight and images of the bush. The central figures of the
groups were Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Charles Conder (1868–1909),
Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), and Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917).
Paintings such as Roberts’ Shearing the Rams (1890), Streeton’s
Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889), and McCubbin’s The Pioneer
(1904) still stand as aesthetic icons and have become some of
the most reproduced images in Australian art. These artists’
approach to the landscape and Australian life represent the
greatest artistic achievements of the 19C; their interpretations
determined the directions Australian art would take into the
20C. Landscape painting of the bush became the most accessible
mode for portraying Australianness, as the works of popular
painter Hans Heysen (1877–1968) and Arthur Streeton’s later Land
of the Golden Fleece (1926) attest.
By the turn of the century, most Australian artists still needed to become expatriates to be taken seriously. Some stayed in Europe so long that it is difficult to consider them Australian painters: Rupert Bunny (1864–1947) gained an international reputation for his large-scale paintings of elegant women in a decorative French style, while John Russell (1858–1931) emulated the work of his friend Vincent Van Gogh. George Lambert (1873–1930) also established himself as a successful English society painter before the First World War led to his appointment as an official Australian war artist.
It is significant that some of the greatest artistic achievements in these formative years were in the field of illustration. The most ambitious publishing achievement of the time was the massive Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (1885), coordinated by Sydney artist Julian Ashton (1851–1942) and including lithographs and engravings by the colony’s best artists. The illustrators of The Bulletin of the 1880s and 1890s, initially editorial cartoonists, developed ‘The Black and White School’, creating memorable images that became part of the national psyche. Norman Lindsay (1879–1969), the most well-known member of the prolifically artistic Lindsay family, caused a scandal with his many prints and paintings of voluptuous nudes, but is perhaps most famous for his delightful children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918), with his characters Bunyip Bluegum and Uncle Wattleberry. Similarly, May Gibbs (1877–1969) created the most enduring and beloved childhood creatures in her Gum-Nut Babies (1916) and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918). In design, the period immediately following Federation in 1901 saw the application of Arts-and-Crafts ideas and Art Nouveau style to every medium, most notably using Australian flora and fauna as motifs in stained glass, furniture, and tilework.
The First World War marked a real
watershed in cultural areas. Many Australian artists worked for
the war effort; some returned from Europe, some stayed in
England indefinitely. After the war, the battle lines concerning
modern art were firmly entrenched. In Melbourne, Max Meldrum’s
(1875–1955) tonal school fought vehemently against the most
modern intrusions, while in Sydney, the most advanced efforts
were being made by women artists, many gaining knowledge of
modernist ideas and stylistic methods through reproductions,
design and graphic arts. Adelaide-born Margaret Preston
(1875–1963) produced stunningly modern examples of colour and
form, and was one of the first artists to incorporate Aboriginal
elements and themes into her paintings and prints; Thea
Proctor’s (1879–1966) graphics epitomised 1920s fashionable
modernism; and Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984) created
Post-Impressionist masterpieces often focussing on urban scenes
and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Post-Impressionist colour theory
was introduced by artists Roland Wakelin (1887–1971) and Roy de
Maistre (1894–1968), further examples of designers who made the
first breakthroughs into modern modes. The efforts of Sydney
publisher Sydney Ure Smith (1887–1949) encouraged in his
publications more contemporary aesthetic modes and the
development of an art-literate public.
The 1930s saw the arrival of European émigrés, many of whom brought an understanding of the most advanced cultural ideas and artistic styles. In Melbourne, the Russian-born painter Danila Vassilief (1897–1958) was influential, both as a painter and as a disseminator of modern aesthetic philosophy. Increased awareness of modernist ideas coincided with the appearance of several ambitious young artists encouraged by the patronage of John and Sunday Reed and centred around their home, Heide, in suburban Melbourne. Certainly Heide has a legitimate claim as being the real birthplace of Australian modernism. Aligned with the ideas expressed in John Reed and Max Harris’ literary magazine Angry Penguins, artists such as Sidney Nolan (1917–92), Albert Tucker (b. 1914), John Perceval (b. 1923), Joy Hester (1920–60), and Arthur Boyd (b. 1920) began to create distinctly Australian brands of Expressionism and Surrealism. Social Realist directions also became an important trend, with figures such as Noel Counihan (1913–86), Josl Bergner (b. 1920) and Russell Drysdale (1912–81) concentrating on grim images of real people in difficult conditions, an art with a social conscience. A truly original contribution to Surrealist art appeared in the work of James Gleeson (b. 1915), who also published some of the period’s best art criticism.
In the 1930s, art photography also gained status, with figures such as the Sydney photographers Max Dupain (1911–92) and Olive Cotton (b. 1911), inspired by German photography that they discovered in contemporary art journals and books. Dupain’s most famous work, Sunbaker (1937), was actually taken at this time, but did not become a national icon until its reproduction in the 1960s. The Second World War brought to prominence Damien Parer (1912–44), probably Australia’s best-known photographer; his film Jungle Warfare on the Kokoda Front (1942), a documentary on the Australian fighting in New Guinea, won an Oscar in 1942. The next generation of photographers, most notably David Moore (b. 1927), were particularly influenced by documentary modes promulgated by British filmmaker John Grierson and the American photographer Walker Evans. Significantly, Moore, along with Laurence LeGuay, were the only Australian contributors to Edward Steichen’s famous photographic exhibition, The Family of Man (1955).
The first modern art exhibition—that
is, one in which works of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and
Cubism were seen in Australia—was the Sydney Herald exhibition
of 1939, still staunchly opposed by the academic artists and
institutions that dominated art politics. The Menzies government
in 1937 even organised an Australian Academy of Art in an
attempt to control artistic directions. But many young artists
were already taking up the modernist call. Along with those of
the Reed circle in Melbourne, figures such as George Bell
(1876–1966) vigorously opposed government intrusion into the
realm of artistic expression, implementing The Contemporary Art
Society as a response to the ‘official’ Academy. The absurdity
of such attempts to limit the acceptable boundaries of artistic
expression was dramatically highlighted in 1944, when portrait
painter William Dobell’s (1899–1970) Archibald Prize-winning
portrait of Joshua Smith was declared by conservative artists to
be a caricature and therefore not eligible for the prize. The
debate reached the Supreme Court, prompting the first legal
consideration of any artistic topic in Australia; Dobell won.
Intriguingly, Australia at this time had the greatest number of
lucrative art prizes in the world, albeit for quite conservative
modes of artistic expression. The art-prize trend continues
In the 1950s, most artists continued to travel abroad for study and inspiration. But several Australian artists made distinctly Australian contributions: Sidney Nolan began in the 1940s his famous series of paintings of that quintessentially Australian hero, Ned Kelly, and continued to produce interpretations of Australian lore and landscape. Albert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series (1943–46) used Surrealist forms to comment on the degradation of human relations in wartime. Arthur Boyd continued his mythological and Biblical visions, at times incorporating Aboriginal themes, and devising splendid renderings of the Australian landscape.
The tragic figure of Albert Namatjira (1902–59) came to prominence in the mid-1950s. An Arrente Aborigine raised near a mission school in the Central Desert, Namatjira learned watercolour painting from South Australian Rex Batterbee and painted complex landscapes in a Western style that initially brought him fame and some fortune; he was the first full-blood Aborigine to be granted citizenship, in 1957. Eventually he was imprisoned for providing alcohol to his Aboriginal relatives, and died in obscurity soon after he was released.
The battle of abstraction versus figurative art was especially prolonged in Australia. By 1959, a group of Melbourne artists, including Charles Blackman (b. 1928), Arthur Boyd, and John Brack (b. 1920), formed The Antipodeans, a group opposed to non-figurative art; their Antipodean Manifesto, written by art historian Bernard Smith (b. 1916), focussed on the necessity of the image and the concentration on social realities in art. At the same time, many painters took up the abstract cause, evident most notably in Fred Williams’ (1927–82) brilliant interpretations of Australian hillsides; John Olsen’s (b. 1928) abstraction inspired by the European CoBrA movement; Ian Fairweather’s (1891–74) zen-like calligraphic canvases; and Tony Tuckson’s (1921–73) paintings and sculptures, inspired by Aboriginal and Tiwi motifs.
The 1960s in Australia as elsewhere was dominated by abstract expressionism, at least on the art market level. Colour-field painting made a brief splurge after The Field exhibition of 1968 in Melbourne, when many artists took to hard-edge and op art styles. A self-conscious construction of art aligned with alternative culture identified the most ambitious achievements of the 1970s. This was the era of the ‘hippie trail’ through Asia and Europe, the famous OZ Magazine trial in London, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations—all vectors of artistic activity in Australia. The constant interchange with European and American youth culture and artistic events led to further integration of Australian art into international directions. Mike Parr (b. 1945) carried out Dadaist performances and installation pieces, while the Bulgarian-French artist Christo came to Australia to wrap the rocks of Little Bay in Sydney in 1969. Martin Sharp (b. 1942), who had been part of the Oz Magazine group, set up the Pop Art-inspired Yellow House in Sydney in 1970–72; Richard Larter (b. 1929) produced sexually provocative canvases; and Jeffrey Smart (b. 1921) ventured into hip Super Realism. The Sydney painter Brett Whiteley (1939–92) embodied the tortured ‘artist-genius’, first coming to prominence while living in London in the late 1960s. His early works were quite masterful abstract paintings, while he later moved into a mixture of mediums, both figurative and decorative. His alternative and drug-induced lifestyle epitomised 70s cultural attitudes, gaining for him more aesthetic status than his later art-works warranted.
The establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1974 indicates the growing recognition of photography as a major form of artistic expression in the 1970s. Indeed, many of the most exciting directions of the period, especially the vibrant contributions of feminist artists such as Carol Jerrems (1949–80), Mickey Allen (b. 1944), Sue Ford (b. 1943), and Aboriginal artist Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960), involved photographic experimentation.
In the last two decades, the ‘discovery’ of Aboriginal art, along with Australia’s increasing interaction with international trends, has led to an explosion of post-modern and ‘post-colonial’ considerations in all artistic fields. The most exemplary painter of the 1980s was Peter Booth (b. 1940), who early in his career experimented with colour-field abstraction, but finally developed an allegorical style that stands on the cusp of modernist and post-modernist concerns, with some mythic and apocalyptic overtones.
Contemporary Australian art has lost
all vestiges of provincialism, as it participates equally on a
global scene. Of singular importance has been the recognition
and encouragement of the production on canvas in acrylic paint
by traditional Aboriginal artists of the Utopia group, most
notably Emily Kame Kngwarreye (since her death in 1996, called
out of respect to her family the substitute name of Kwementyai,
or ‘no name,’ and her skin name, Kngwarreye). Kngwarreye’s works
have entered major collections around the world, and her
paintings were selected to represent Australia at the 47th
Venice Biennale in 1997. Both contemporary Aboriginal artists,
such as Sally Morgan (b. 1951), Robert Campbell Jr, Tracey
Moffatt, Judy Watson, Lin Onus (1948–96) and Gordon Bennett (b.
1955), and non-Aboriginal artists such as Imants Tillers (b.
1950) have now begun to incorporate traditional Aboriginal
motifs and iconic elements of colonial painting into their
canvases and multi-media presentations as a means of exploring
Australian cultural and racial attitudes.
Finally, photography and video, in a variety of manipulations, continues to offer creative possibilities for interpretations of post-modernist society, exemplified by the romantic and disturbing tableaux of Bill Henson (b. 1955) and the feminist explorations of Anne Ferran (b. 1949). On a popular level, one cannot dismiss the immense iconographic power of the images of artist Reg Mombassa (b. 1951), with his surfie-culture ‘Mambo’-philosophy t-shirts and books; and the poignant sentiments expressed by cartoonist Michael Leunig (b. 1945), printed in many newspapers and as books. It would be nearly impossible to miss the decorative designs and paintings of Ken Done (b. 1940), whose bright and cheerful scenes of Sydney and the sea adorn everything from murals to tea-towels and placemats. Done is actually a serious painter as well, who has no qualms about putting his artistic talents to the most profitable use, to the great enjoyment of tourists to the continent.
No doubt many visitors to Australia
gained their first idea of Australia and Australians, whether
fanciful or not, from images appearing in the recent spate of
internationally-acclaimed Australian films. Indeed, cinema has
played a major role in defining Australian cultural life since
the invention of the medium. In 1894, the Edison ‘Kinetoscope’
was introduced in Sydney. The enthusiastic reception that
greeted this new entertainment was a portent of things to come;
by the 1930s, Australians were the most frequent moviegoers in
the world. Certainly film has contributed more than any other
factor to the disappearance of Australia’s isolation from the
rest of the world. In August 1896, the French film pioneers, the
Lumière Brothers, had already sent their agent, Marius Sestier,
to the country. Sestier shot several local scenes and events,
including, quite appropriately, footage of the 1896 Melbourne
Cup, which survives today as Australia’s oldest film.
Australia’s film industry originated in a seemingly unlikely source. The Salvation Army, recognising film’s great persuasive power, established in Melbourne in August 1897 its Limelight Department, intent on producing morally uplifting moving pictures. Its Soldier of the Cross of 1900, interspersed with lantern slides and live evangelical sermons, can be considered one of the world’s first ‘story’ films.
Most early filmmakers had less lofty moral intentions; they looked instead to Australia’s recent past, and especially to the legendary accounts of its bushrangers and outlaws, for stories easily translated into cinematic entertainment. In 1906, Melbourne’s Tait Brothers chose the most popular legend of all for their film The Story of the Kelly Gang, shooting it on location throughout Victoria where the Kelly Gang had actually operated only thirty years before. At 4000 feet of film and more than an hour long (five reels), the Kelly Gang can make legitimate claim to being the world’s first full-length feature film. (The still existing parts have been conserved and can be viewed at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.)
Indeed, between 1906 and 1911, Australia produced more feature-length films than any country; in 1907, versions of Eureka Stockade and ‘Rolf Boldrewood’s popular tale Robbery Under Arms appeared, and by 1908 the first of many film versions of Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life was produced. In terms of audiences, Melbourne in 1910 had a purpose-built cinema that would seat 5000, mostly catered to by local production. This period before the First World War is generally considered the golden age of Australian film, although very few of these productions survive today in their entirety.
Raymond Longford (1878–1959) was Australia’s first great film director. Beginning as a film actor, Longford directed his first film, The Fatal Wedding, in 1911. Longford was associated throughout his life with actress and co-director Lottie Lyell (1890–1925), who starred in his greatest work, The Sentimental Bloke (1919), the definitive film version of C.J. Dennis’s beloved vernacular poem. Filmed in Sydney and mostly outdoors, the Bloke is still hugely entertaining and a remarkable document of Australian popular culture. Of Longford’s many productions, only this film and his version of another Australian standard, On Our Selection (1920), have survived. The Australian film industry that Longford helped establish was essentially overwhelmed by the appearance of Hollywood films; by the end of the 1920s, Longford was forced to abandon film directing, ending his days as a night watchman.
Australians were also among the first to produce serious documentary film, known as ‘actuality filmmaking’. The pioneer in this field was Frank Hurley 1885–1962), also a famous still photographer. Hurley accompanied Mawson and Shackleton on their Antarctic expeditions of 1911–13 and 1914–16, producing extraordinary documentation of this unknown continent. During the First World War, he was an official war photographer, filming battles in Europe and the Middle East. After the war, he produced a full-length documentary on The Ross Smith Flight (1920), the record-breaking aeroplane flight from England to Australia. During the 1930s, Hurley was cinematographer on such films as The Squatter’s Daughter (1933), a remarkable example of ideological filmmaking, glorifying the established ‘squattocracy’ and British imperial values. Hurley was a tremendous inspiration for later documentary filmmakers, including Damien Parer (1912–44), whose filming along with the Australian troops during the Second World War in New Guinea, Kokoda Front Line (1942), received Australia’s first US Academy Award.
The 1920s were in Australia as
elsewhere the era of grand movie houses, and those built in most
Australian cities were as elaborate as the Hollywood palaces;
Sydney’s extravagant State Theatre, built in 1929, was hailed as
‘the Empire’s greatest theatre’, and the Capital Theatre in
Melbourne was completed by American architect Walter Burley
Griffin. One of the most original architects of this period was
Western Australian William Thomas Leighton (1905–90), who
specialised in theatres and cinemas with streamlined design.
Australians became the most frequent moviegoers in the world; in a nation with a population of six million in 1927, there were at least 2.25 million movie admissions a week. But most of the films shown were American or British; the local industry found it difficult to compete with overseas products, particularly after sound films became standard. Australian Talkies Ltd. was established in 1930, but full-scale sound production did not occur until entrepreneur and theatre owner Frank W. Thring put his own money into the sound venture. Soon another company, Cinesound, would also commence sound production. In both cases, emphasis was first on shorts and, most significantly, the production of newsreels for the movie-houses: Cinesound produced news footage from 1932 until 1956, the year of television’s arrival.
Most of the locally-produced films of the 1930s attempted to appeal to homegrown audiences with rehashes of standard Australian stories and films featuring popular comedians and vaudeville performers. Thring’s company, Efftee, brought to the screen the popular stage comedian George Wallace in such lightweight farces as His Royal Highness (1932). Cinesound produced the only film featuring the stage and radio character Roy Rene (1891–1954) in his comic role as ‘Mo’ in Strike Me Lucky (1934), a peculiar mixture of Jewish humour and Australian stereotypes. Cinesound was also responsible for the continuing sagas of the ‘Dad and Dave’ characters from Steele Rudd’s beloved tales, which had become popularised even further in radio drama. The 1932 version of On Our Selection was most notable for its ‘Bushland Symphony’, one of the first attempts in a film to emphasise the sounds of native birds accompanying scenes of Australian countryside.
Despite the paucity of opportunities for serious local filmmaking during this period, some distinctly Australian successes did occur, all of them the work of Charles Chauvel (1897–1959) and his wife Elsa (1898–1983). Chauvel’s first film as a director, In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), was actually filmed on Pitcairn Island in a semi-documentary style; evidence of Chauvel’s understanding of the Hollywood movie business, this work became the first Australian sound feature to have an American release. The film also launched the career of Tasmanian actor Errol Flynn—the first of many Australian film stars to journey on to international fame in Hollywood. The Chauvels were responsible for producing the most important Australian films of the 1940s: Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), with Chips Rafferty, a rousing war story of ANZAC triumph; and The Rats of Tobruk (1944), another near-documentary account of Australians in battle, again starring Chips Rafferty, and a very young Peter Finch. The Chauvels’ most extraordinary film, however, was Charles’s last: Jedda, produced on location in 1955, presents a tragic story of contemporary Aboriginal culture, centring on the torments of an Aboriginal girl torn between her ‘traditional’ life and white civilisation. Although the film now appears ludicrously dated and uncomfortably stereotyped, it was in the 1950s quite ahead of its time and indicative of Chauvel’s heartfelt desire to confront distinctly Australian issues and characters. Jedda stands as one of the only truly Australian films made in the 1950s.
The period after the Second World War and into the 1960s represents the nadir of local Australian filmmaking; most of the films produced during the 1950s involved overseas companies choosing Australia as an exotic location. In 1946, the British documentary filmmaker Harry Watt scored an international success with The Overlanders (1946), a dramatic re-enactment of outback cattle drovers’ adventures, filmed on location in the Northern Territory; once again, Chips Rafferty had the central role, this time as the typical Australian bushman. Watts’ success convinced England’s Ealing Studios to become the first overseas company to produce films regularly in Australia; such foreign productions became the norm. No government support of the film industry was forthcoming during the Menzies era, and the Prime Minister’s cultural attachment to all things British made any alliance with American film companies difficult. Some visiting American productions, using local technicians and some actors, were nonetheless successful: On The Beach in 1959, directed by Stanley Kramer, was filmed in Victoria; and Fred Zinneman’s The Sundowners (1960), with Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov, was shot on locations throughout New South Wales.
The ‘rebirth’ of Australian cinema
began with They’re a Weird Mob (1966), financed by a British
company, but based on the best-selling comedy novel by ‘Nino
Culotta’ (John O’Grady) about an Italian immigrant’s adjustments
to Australian life. The movie was an immense success, especially
in Sydney, proving that there was indeed an enthusiastic
audience for locally produced films with local talent and in
Australian locations. Still, visiting productions, such as Tony
Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1971) with Mick Jagger, and Nicholas
Roeg’s infinitely more satisfying Walkabout (1971), set in
central Australia and including Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil,
continued to be the only serious films made in Australia. A more
riveting example of co-production was Wake in Fright (1971; also
known as Outback), financed by US, Canadian and Australian
money, directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, and with stunning
performances by Jack Thompson and Chips Rafferty. A dark tale of
one man(s personal disintegration in the aggressive and violent
atmosphere of an isolated outback town, this grimly realistic
slice of life received rave reviews abroad (it was Australia(s
official entry for the Cannes Film Festival), but could not draw
Australian audiences, still unprepared for serious( Australian
The 1970s saw great change, with a resurgence of Australianproduced films, largely the result of government support, especially under Gough Whitlam, of Australian filmmakers and all the arts. The Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) was established in 1971 to find investors for locally produced films, and in 1973, the Australian Film School (actually, the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School) opened, nurturing a generation of filmmakers to the highest standards. This resurgence coincided with the emergence of a youth counterculture; consequently, some of the first efforts to come out of this era were created primarily to challenge conservative censorship laws. Tim Burstall's sexual romps Stork (1971) and Alvin Purple (1973) are noteworthy only for their unabashed male cheekiness and as proof that enough local talent and technical skills existed to sustain a national cinema. Similarly, one of the bestknown productions of the early AFDC days was Bruce Beresford. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), a broadly drawn and anarchic caricature of Australian ockerdom in Britain that introduced Barry Humphries -- Edna Everage to an international audience. Significantly, the film marked the first big break for director Beresford, who would, like Philip Noyce, Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir, go on to Hollywood and international acclaim. This situation, of acquiring local training and support, then moving offshore to greater fame and larger film budgets, became a familiar pattern in Australia, especially for directors and cinematographers.
Australian cinema in the last 20 years has produced a significant number of films acclaimed internationally, while at the same time revealing distinctly Australian stories and specifically Australian characters. The themes chosen by Australian directors and writers most often deal with concepts of national identity, whether through setting or historical reference. On another level, however, their topics take on broader issues that say much about the Australian psyche: coming of age dilemmas as in John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke (1987) or Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979); perseverance in the face of adversity as in Henri Safran's Storm Boy (1976) or Stephen Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994); stoicism despite human brutality as in George Miller's Mad Max series (1979-85); decidedly black humour as in Jane Campion's Sweetie (1989) or P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding (1994); and confrontations with strange landscapes and the other as in Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) or Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
Of greatest significance is the number of women directors who have made major contributions in Australian film, not pigeonholed into any genre, and certainly eschewing the predictably feminine topics of light romantic comedies (a theme that Australians do not film well). One need only consider the work of these leading directors to recognise a distinctly Australian approach to film, evident even when these same directors gain recognition abroad and begin to make films in Hollywood. Consider the following international names:
Peter Weir (b. 1944) began his career with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), a black comedy about an Australian town that makes money from car accidents; his next work, the one that brought him international fame, was the hauntingly imagistic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The Last Wave (1978) dealt with the confrontation of Aboriginal spirituality and Western materialism, while Gallipoli (1981) was a powerful indictment of war's futility through the enactment of Australia(s most important historical event (the latter greatly aided by playwright David Williamson's script). Such recognised achievements brought Weir to America, where his films included Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), and Fearless (1993), all of them dealing in some way with people outside mainstream culture and surviving in unusual circumstances.
Similarly, Bruce Beresford (b. 1940) made such Australian classics as The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Breaker Morant (1980), before making it big in Hollywood with Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). In Australia, Fred Schepisi (b. 1939) directed The Devil's Playground (1976), a grim depiction of life in a Catholic boys college, and a brilliantly radical version of Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), before making the American-financed production based on Australia's famous Lindy Chamberlain trial, Evil Angels (in the US, A Cry in the Dark; 1988).
Philip Noyce's nostalgic rendition of competition between Australian movie newsreel companies, Newsfront (1978), was made just before he went to America and directed Tom Clancy thrillers to international boxoffice success. Gillian Armstrong (b. 1950), the best known of Australia's many women directors, made as her first feature film the distinctly Australian My Brilliant Career (1979), and has since gone on to direct such international hits as Little Women (1994) and Oscar and Lucinda (1997). All of these directors now work and live primarily in America.
On an even more popular level is the success of George Miller (often referred to as Dr George Miller, to distinguish him from George Miller, director of the immensely popular The Man from Snowy River ) and his Mad Max trilogy (1979-85), the films that brought AustralianAmerican Mel Gibson international recognition and a ticket out of Australia. Miller has subsequently produced such Australian( films as The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Philip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989), while directing in Hollywood Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Lorenzo's Oil (1992). Miller's backing of the smash hit Babe (1995) is a good example of the current situation in the Australian film industry: while filmed in Australia with some Australian actors and technicians, the financing was international, and every attempt was made to make the film appear universal. The phenomenon of Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee (1985), the first blockbuster-Australian hit, remains an isolated incident (Hogan, too, has gone on to Hollywood).
A more substantial and varied
industry exists today, one that is really part of global cinema.
The question now is what constitutes Australian( cinema: does it
include only films made here, or can films made by Australians
elsewhere be gathered into the nationalistic fold? One need only
consider two recent examples to see how complicated this
question has become. New Zealand-born Jane Campion, who began
her film work at the Australian Film School and completed her
dark tragicomedy Sweetie (1989) in Sydney, went on to win the
Academy Award for original screenplay for The Piano in 1994. The
film was touted as an Australian film by many, although it had a
New Zealand director, an Australian producer, New Zealand
locations, American cast, French coproduction, and American
The case of Baz Luhrmann is even more telling. His first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992), told a lighthearted story of Australian multiculturalism and became an international success. On the basis of that film, Luhrmann went to Hollywood to produce the overwhelmingly popular modernday phantasmagoria of Romeo + Juliet (1996). He now commutes between Australia and America, creating innovative productions in both places.
Global filmmaking seems to be the direction determining Australia's vigorous industry today; most of the best work will be snatched up for international distribution, although you can still see some good films here that may never make it elsewhere. A film such as firsttime director Scott Hicks( Shine (1996), gained attention, and an Oscar for actor Geoffrey Rush, because it was first shown and lauded at the Sundance Film Festival in the US. Other local gems, such as the hilarious The Castle (1997) by Rob Sitch, Jane Kennedy, and Santo Cilauro, and such earlier films as Nadia Tass(s Malcolm (1985), Paul Cox's Lonely Hearts (1981) and Gillian Armstrong's Last Days at Chez Nous (1991) are worth seeking out in art cinemas or on video.
Australia's dependence on English cultural precedents is particularly evident in the style and production of literature during its colonial period; most books and journals were sent from home, and from 1788 to 1830, only 28 works of literature of any kind other than newspapers were published in Australia itself. Imported British works stood as the main source of literature throughout the century. Still, an Australian literary voice, grounded in the stylistic richness of English prose and poetry, began to develop almost immediately; by the end of the 19C, Australian writers had become instrumental in establishing a national idiom and were well on the way to defining a specific cultural identity. In style and theme, Australian writers today, in a vibrant literary culture supported by a strong publishing industry and an enthusiastic reading public, continue to explore those ideas of national identity and the complexities of the Australian psyche.
As with the beginnings of Australian art, literature about Australia originated in the official reports and accounts of exploration and early British settlement. Most notable among these records are the published works of two members of the First Fleet, Marine Lieutenant David Collins' An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1798, 1802) and Marine Watkin Tench's A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789) and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales (1793). Tench's account, recently republished, is particularly lively, and fascinating for its sympathetic portrayal of the indigenous people encountered.
The first book of general literature published in Australia appeared in Hobart in 1818: Thomas Wells's Michael Howe, the Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen's Land, dealt with the popular themes of adventure and lawlessness, ideas that would engage Australian writers of all stripes for the next 150 years. Convict Henry Savery's Quintus Servinton (1831), also published in Hobart and generally considered to be the first Australian novel, also presents an enduring theme in colonial literature: the moral effects of crime and punishment.
Aspirations towards loftier romantic sentiment, drawing on the experience of life in this new country, appeared at about the same time. Judge Barron Field (1786(1846) produced the first book of poetry, First Fruits of Australian Poetry, in 1819, filled with whimsical and at times critical reflections on Australian flora and fauna, such as The Kangaroo( (much ironic criticism of Field's writing has centred on his apt yet unfortunate name. The first novel printed in Sydney appeared in 1838, published anonymously with the mysterious title of The Guardian: A Tale, By An Australian. Intriguingly, the author was later revealed to be a woman, a genteel pastoralist's widow -- early evidence of the importance of women authors in Australian literary life.
Charles Harpur (1813-68) most eloquently epitomises the struggle faced by early nativeborn writers who longed to forge a true Australian literary style. He was the son of emancipists, a currency lad, and completely committed to Australia as his own country. Writing often under the pseudonym A Hawkesbury Lad, Harpur applied traditional poetic techniques of the era, ornate and ponderous, to themes and settings based on local conditions and experience. His nature and narrative poems, such as Genius Lost( (c 1845) and The Creek of the Four Graves' (1853), about the murder of settlers by Aborigines in the Hawkesbury region, demonstrate the best of colonial stylistic efforts. Despite his patriotic attempts to be acknowledged as the first ‘Muse of Australia’, Harpur’s works gained little audience in his lifetime; only in recent times has his originality and talent been recognised.
The growth of a native-born
population in the 1830s–1840s and the societal upheavals caused
by the gold rushes of the 1850s–1860s led to an increasing
self-awareness and conscious consideration of Australia as
place. Transient visitors wrote about Australia from a variety
of perspectives, from travellers’ tales to social commentary;
but those who were born here or chose to stay permanently made
the greatest literary contribution in attempting to define the
country’s geographical and human peculiarities. Henry Kingsley
(1830–76) exemplifies the former; brother of English novelist
Charles Kingsley, he arrived in Australia in 1853 and
experienced the Victorian goldrush, then returned to England in
1859, where he wrote The
Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), along with
other novels and stories incorporating Australian themes and
descriptions of the landscape. As a romantic tale of pastoral
Australia before the gold rushes, Recollections is considered
the first significant novel to capture some of the vernacular
speech and to include vivid descriptions of the character of the
Australian ‘bush’. While later criticised as unrealistic in its
views of bush life, the book established a colonial romantic
idiom that would influence many subsequent Australian writers.
The concept of ‘the bush’, examined metaphorically in poetic and prose form, became the most powerful and identifiably Australian literary device for those writers who gained prominence on the local scene in the second half of the 19C. The Australian landscape and outback life provided a central focus for writers’ ambivalent attitudes about the country itself, from Marcus Clarke’s description of its ‘weird melancholy’ in 1876, to Rosa Praed’s reminiscence in her My Australian Girlhood: Sketches and Impressions of Bushlife (1902): ‘I never smell the pungent aromatic scent [of gum trees]...without falling again under the grim spell of the bush’.
Such ruminations determined in various modes the work of those authors who found favour with a new audience for Australian writing, both at home and abroad. The tremendous popularity of the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–70) rests largely on his narrative celebrations of bushlife, despite the fact that the majority of his works were conventional verses having more to do with his educated English background. Gordon’s fame was certainly enhanced by the romantic saga of his reckless life; he committed suicide the day after the publication of his most popular collection, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes (1870). The volume included his most famous poem, ‘The Sick Stockrider’, considered by many to have established the distinctively Australian ballad form, championing the idea of mateship and the acceptance of bushlife’s harsh challenges. Gordon’s posthumous fame was so great that his bust was added to the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in 1934, the only Australian so honoured.
A more lyrical ideal of the Australian landscape appeared in the poems of another tragic figure of the period, Henry Kendall (1839–82). His Leaves from Australian Forests (1869) included his most famous landscape poems, ‘Bell-Birds’ (1867), ‘September in Australia’, and ‘Araluen’ (1870), melodic evocations of the lush and cool fern-gullies of his native Illawarra district. His life ended at the age of 43, a victim of alcoholism and physical neglect. Unlike Gordon, Kendall’s work was well-received in his lifetime and largely forgotten afterwards, except as favoured recitation pieces in Australian school-books.
Despite the conscious efforts of mid-century Australians to distance themselves from the country’s penal origins, the convict experience inevitably provided obvious themes for literary exploration. It is not surprising that the first Australian novel to gain enduring stature was Marcus Clarke’s melodramatic consideration of the convict ‘System’, For the Term of his Natural Life (1874) (originally titled simply His Natural Life). Clarke (1846–81), of good English family, arrived in Melbourne at 17 and began his career as a journalist. He soon established himself as an influential cultural figure in the colony. His Old Tales of a Young Country (1871) compiled studies of old Australian characters and contributed to a romantic image of the young country’s past. On a trip to Tasmania to research convict history for a Melbourne journal, Clarke gained documentary material that would contribute to his sensational masterpiece. His Natural Life is a pessimistic and detailed condemnation of the horrific penal system supported by convict transportation, upholding a popular view that convicts were more ‘sinn’d against than sinning’. On a more fundamental level, the book is an examination of human capacity for evil. The melodramatic twists of the plot contributed greatly to its continuing popularity; his main character, Rufus Dawes, became Australia’s first literary ‘hero’.
Despite the growth of cosmopolitan urban centres in the second half of the 19C, Australia’s population was still too small to sustain abundant literary patronage or any vigorous publishing industry of its own. In such a society, it is not surprising that literary achievement was often dependent on publication in local newspapers and journals rather than books. Many important writers began their careers in journalism, and major contributions to Australian literature first occurred through serialisation of stories in popular magazines, of which many long-standing and short-lived ones were established in the 1850s and 60s. Such was the case with ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ (Thomas Alexander Browne; 1826–1915), son of English-born ‘squatters’, who arrived in Australia as a child in 1831. Browne led an adventurous life, establishing pastoral properties in Victoria, breeding livestock, serving as a police magistrate on the goldfields, and retiring as a gentleman farmer in Melbourne. Throughout, as ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ (a name taken from his favourite author, Sir Walter Scott), he published stories in Sydney and Melbourne journals based on his experiences of pastoralist life and the adventures of bushrangers in the Victorian countryside. His immensely popular Robbery Under Arms (1888) first appeared as a serial in the Sydney Mail in 1882 and was published by Macmillan as a book in 1889. Described by some as the ‘first Australian Western’, the story is a still-readable adventure yarn, with lively and diverse characters, and, most significantly, a sense of place and vernacular language which would become defining characteristics of the literary achievements of the end of the century.
The last two decades of the 19C were
ones of growing cultural consciousness, tied firmly to
nationalistic sentiment. Nowhere are the ideals and incipient
mythology of ‘Australianness’ more accurately articulated and,
indeed, formulated than in the pages of The Bulletin, a weekly
periodical founded in 1885 in Sydney by J.F. Archibald and W.H.
Traill. While chiefly a journal of political and editorial
commentary, nurturing vehemently Republican, pro-Federation, and
anti-Asian views, The Bulletin’s greatest accomplishment was its
support, especially in the 1890s, of local literary talent; the
journal promoted the writers who would become the most popular
voices of the bush ethos and the Australian idiom. As cultural
critic Geoffrey Serle states, the journal became ‘the forum for
The decade’s main literary battle of romanticism versus realism was most characteristically defined by two of The Bulletin’s most famous contributors, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864–1941) and Henry Lawson (1867–1922). Universally described as the ‘chief folk poet of Australia’, Paterson grew up on the land and personally experienced bush life. He was educated in Sydney in law and was an accomplished horseman and gentleman athlete. He took the nickname of ‘Banjo’ when he began to write for The Bulletin in 1889, with his characteristic long verse, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’. Paterson gained rapturous celebrity with the publication of his most famous bush-ballad The Man from Snowy River in 1895. The first printing sold out in a week, and it instantly became the most recognisable example of the Australian ballad form; to this day, nearly every Australian knows the opening lines of the poem, ‘There was movement at the station/ for the word had got around/ that the colt from Old Regret had got away.’ He extended the popularity of his vision with other narrative poems, such as ‘The Man from Ironbark’ (1892) and ‘Mulga Bill’ (1902). Paterson achieved international fame as the author (in 1896) of the lyrics to ‘Waltzing Matilda’, Australia’s most famous song. His lyrical evocations of an Australian Arcadia, filled with horses and colourful bush characters, established the legend of the Australian folk, separate from the realities of the society’s increasingly urbanised existence.
Henry Lawson, whom historian Manning Clark dramatically described as ‘Australia writ large’, epitomised all the radical nationalistic fervour of the period and maintained that his version of the bush and Australian life was a more realistic, less mythologised, one than Paterson’s popular image; at one point, he and Paterson engaged in a lengthy debate on this topic, in verse form, in The Bulletin. Lawson came from radical goldfield background, the son of a Norwegian miner and a politically engaged mother; he maintained his fervent Republican and socialist attitudes throughout his life and in his political writings. He was in Sydney by 1885, and began to publish verse, both character studies of the bush and such politically motivated works as ‘A Song to the Republic’ (1887), first published in The Bulletin. While Lawson occupies nearly legendary status today as Australia’s great literary figure, his verse especially was uneven, degenerating eventually into near-doggerel as he himself deteriorated through alcoholism and mental illness. His short stories, however, are enduring embodiments of the concepts of mateship, larrikinism (hooliganism), and stoic acceptance of the hardships of bush life. His ‘Drover’s Wife’ (1892), a ruthless portrayal of a pioneer woman of the outback, is a model of stylistic realism; and ‘The Loaded Dog’ (1900) is a comic classic by any standard. So great was his popular status in his lifetime that upon his death in 1922, he was the first Australian writer granted a state funeral.
The publishing activities of The Bulletin at the turn of the century under the editorship of the learned A.G. Stephens(1865–1933) continued to nurture local writers and extend a particular vision of Australian life. In 1899, the journal saw to the first publication in book form of Steele Rudd’s memorable stories of a Queensland pioneer farmer family, On Our Selection. ‘Rudd’ was the pseudonym of Arthur Hoey Davis (1868–1935); the Rudd family in his many character sketches were based on semi-autobiographical reminiscences of his own childhood on a small pastoral ‘selection’. His well-developed characters, especially the increasingly caricatured figures of ‘Dad and Dave’, appeared throughout the 20C in stories, plays, radio series, and film, epitomising the battlers of Australian rural life.
Stephens’ greatest achievement as an
editor was the recognition and publication in 1903 of the novel,
Such is Life, an immensely idiosyncratic tome by Joseph Furphy
(1843–1912), alias ‘Tom Collins’. Furphy was a self-taught
labourer from Shepparton, Victoria, who set out in grandiose
fashion to write a realistic tale of rural life, ‘temper,
democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. The opening line of
this extraordinary book is ‘Unemployed at last!’—a good
indication of its anti-authoritarian stance. Episodic yet
ambitiously philosophical in tone, the book displays Furphy’s
complicated considerations of free will, fate, and class
struggle, couched in very Australian story-lines about
‘squatters’ and toilers on the land. Largely ignored for years,
Such is Life was rediscovered by literary critics in the 1940s
as representing an important turning-point in Australian
fiction, and remains today a widely-unread but highly-touted
Australia’s masculinist ethos is belied by the emergence in the early 20C of major literary achievements by women, most of them autobiographical in tone and noticeably ambivalent about Australian society. ‘Henry Handel Richardson’, pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Robertson (1870–1946), produced the most accomplished and thoughtful literature of the period, all of it written after she had moved to Europe, never to return to Australia. In The Getting of Wisdom (1910), she relied on her own experiences as a boarder at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne to present a popular ‘coming of age’ novel. Richardson’s greatest work was her dramatic trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917–29), based emotionally on the trials of her family’s life in Victoria, as her physician father, model for the novel’s protagonist, descended into madness; cultural alienation is the real theme of the books. Rich in details of the Victorian landscape and societal conditions, Richardson’s volumes were, significantly, hailed in England as stylistically sophisticated while remaining relatively unknown in Australia. The author, like so many Australian writers after her, faced the dilemma of all ‘cultural émigrés’, becoming more correctly an English-language writer using Australian experience as themes for her novels.
More clearly Australian and feminist in outlook were the popular writings of Miles Franklin (1879–1954), whose stunning début novel was the autobiographical My Brilliant Career (1901), a forthright assertion of a woman’s right to self-fulfilment. She, too, spent much time abroad, mostly in the United States. She returned permanently to Sydney in the 1930s, where she was fêted as an influential cultural figure and published many affectionate recollections of her early life on the Monaro Plains of New South Wales.
The period after Federation in 1901 until the 1920s saw little production of serious literature. Surprisingly, the events of the First World War itself, so devastating to the Australian psyche, offered little inspiration to local writers, and the ideal of the bush had lost its impetus in a more cosmopolitan society.
The only significant work engendered by the war was C.E.W. Bean’sThe Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, which began publication of its eventual twelve volumes in 1921. Lauded as an excellent example of analytical military history, the work was also one of the first substantial efforts devoted to Australian history itself; Bean was largely responsible for cultivating the legend of the ANZAC ‘digger’. Popularly, the most enthusiastic contribution of the time was Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) by C.J. Dennis(1876–1938). Beloved among the ANZAC soldiers during the war, the vernacular poem tells the story of a city larrikin transformed by love, and the escapades of his mate Ginger Mick. While criticised for its over-exaggerated use of street idiom, Sentimental Bloke was the source for Australia’s best silent film in 1919 and caused Dennis to be proclaimed unofficial poet laureate in the 1920s.
In a similarly popular direction, Australians made endearing contributions in the field of children’s literature. Ethel Turner’s (1870–1958) Seven Little Australians, first published in 1894, became an international success, translated into several languages. While the bacchanalian figure of artist-writer Norman Lindsay (1879–1969) wrote amatory novels that were long banned in his own country (Redheap ), his greatest audience as a writer resulted from his delightful illustrated children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918). May Gibbs (1877–1969) also contributed at this time to books for young readers with her near-iconic stories of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie (1918).
While expatriation, mainly to England, continued to be the usual choice for those with serious cultural aspirations, Australia in the 1920s and 30s began to develop a home-grown cosmopolitanism which could sustain some significant literary life. Vance Palmer (1885–1959) was probably the most intellectual figure of the period, worldly and stylistically rigorous. Along with his wife Nettie (1885–1964), an important cultural commentator in her own right, Palmer as a journalist and later author firmly promoted a literature that embodied an ‘Australia of the Spirit’. While he published essays, short stories, novels and plays from the 1920s—his collected stories Sea and Spinifex (1934) and his panoramic trilogy Golconda (1948) are exemplary—his most significant contribution was The Legend of the Nineties (1954), a critical examination of that pivotal decade in the development of an Australian ‘inner life’.
Two poets of distinction emerge during this period, both linked in divergent ways to Bohemian Sydney. Mary Gilmore (1862–1962) was from the beginning tied to radical causes, even participating in the utopian Australian settlement in Paraguay under socialist William Lane in the 1890s. Her poetry was lyrical and short, her best work appearing in her last book, Fourteen Men (1954), when she was nearly ninety. Kenneth Slessor (1901–71) was initially inspired by the pantheistic Romanticism of the Norman Lindsay circle, but his finest poem, ‘Five Bells’ (1939), commemorating the drowning of his friend Joe Lynch, presents a very modernist contemplation of art, life and death.
A radicalised sense of the ‘spirit of the people’ also informs the work of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883–1969). A founding member of the Communist Party in Western Australia, Prichard’s politics informed most of her novels: Black Opal (1921) was a story of the opal-mining communities’ struggle with mining companies; her most controversial work, Coonardoo (1929), is considered the first novel to give a realistic depiction of a contemporary Aborigine and black-white relations.
The most ambitious novel completed in this period was the work of another Western Australian, Xavier Herbert (1901–84). His Capricornia (1938) is a sprawling story of settlement in the Northern Territory, covering some 50 years and including some 100 characters. Radical in outlook, Anglophobic in tone, it is a savage indictment of the treatment of Aborigines by white settlers, and a love song to the beauty of the Australian frontier. Herbert expanded on these themes in his enormous Poor Fellow My Country (1975), at 850,000 words the longest novel ever published in Australia. The story culminates with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942, the flight of white settlers, and a prophetically pessimistic appraisal of continued destruction of Aboriginal society. On a less grandiose scale but with similar concerns is the work of Eleanor Dark (1901–85), whose psychological portrayals were both serious and widely read. She was best known for her trilogy The Timeless Land (1941), historical fiction about the early years of white settlement. Dark, too, is sympathetic to the Aboriginal plight and presents a heartfelt examination of their spiritual attachment to the land.
The problems facing expatriate authors and their subsequent recognition in Australia is most clearly seen in the case of Christina Stead (1902–83), one of the most stylistically original novelists of her time. Raised in Sydney, Stead left for England in 1928, married Marxist and writer William Blake, eked out a meagre existence in Europe and America, and only returned to live in Australia in old age. She crafted exquisite and unconventional prose throughout. Her Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) was firmly set in Australia, but, more meditative in presentation of characters than narrative, it was considered outside the mainstream of Australian literary concerns. Her most recognised masterpiece was The Man Who Loved Children (1941), supposedly placed in America, but drawing on her own childhood for inspiration. Essentially a ruthless exploration of a dysfunctional family, the book was praised by American writer Randall Jarrell as one of the greatest works of 20C fiction. As with Stead’s other novels, The Man Who Loved Children was not published in Australia until 1965, by which time there were still debates about whether Stead could be considered an Australian writer at all, since she had been away so long and because she wrote about larger themes than the Australian experience. Recent reprints and comprehensive critical studies have now reclaimed Stead for the Australian canon.
Greater literary self-consciousness
and the arrival of modernist ideas led in the 1930s and 40s to
the establishment of many literary journals that supported local
writers and cultural discourse. Meanjin, founded in Brisbane in
1940 by Clem Christesen as a poetry review, evolved into the
most important liberal-humanist organ; it is still published at
the University of Melbourne. In 1950, the more right-wing,
avowedly anti-Communist Quadrant began publication.
One-time Quadrant editor, poet James McAuley (1917–76), played a major part in the greatest literary scandal in Australian history, the famous ‘Ern Malley’ hoax carried out in the modernist journal This quarterly publication was founded in 1940 in Adelaide by John Reed (1901–81) and Max Harris (1921–96) and quickly became the focus for avant-garde cultural interests in the country. McAuley and his fellow poet Harold Stewart (b. 1916), as traditionalist lyricists, decided to expose what they saw as the decadence and lack of craftsmanship of modernist writing by concocting verses from a variety of incongruous sources. They submitted these poems, created in an afternoon, to Angry Penguins, presenting them as the posthumous works of a mechanic/salesman ‘Ern Malley’. The poems were published in the journal in 1944, and acclaimed by many for their stylistic vigour. When McAuley and Stewart identified themselves as the authors, the ensuing debates, which gained world-wide attention, signalled the end of Angry Penguins and its championing of modernism, although the movement in its artistic form continued to resonate in the circle around John Reed and his wife at their home in Melbourne. Many today still consider the ‘Ern Malley’ poems to be among the authors’ best works; the supposedly absurd phrase from one of the poems, ‘The Black Swan of Trespass’, served as the title for Humphrey McQueen’s examination of Australian modernism in 1979.
In terms of popular literature, the
period from the Depression to the end of the Second World War
saw the emergence of several significant writers whose works
combined personal experience with historical characters and an
admirable depiction of the Australian landscape. Ion Idriess
(1889–1979) drew upon his own adventures in the outback and ‘Up
North’ to produce such wildly popular adventure stories as
Lasseter’s Last Ride (1931), an account of the ill-fated
gold-mining expedition of Harold Lasseter to Central Australia;
and Flynn of the Inland (1932), based on the story of John
Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Frank Clune (1893–1971) was from the 1940s one of Australia’s best-selling authors, with adventurous works of historical fiction, adventure, autobiography and travel (respectively, Dig  about Burke and Wills, The Red Heart , Try Anything Once  and Tobruk to Turkey ). Clune popularised through his writings and radio broadcasts the legends of Australia’s bushrangers and other heroes.
Another adventurer who became a best-selling author was ‘Nevil Shute’ 1899–1960), pseudonym of Nevil Shute Norway, a British pilot who settled in Australia in 1950. His fast-paced narrative novels A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1959) became international favourites; the latter, about the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, was made into a big-budget Hollywood film.
One of the most enduring and internationally recognised Australian writers of the time was Arthur Upfield (1892–1964), who in 1929 introduced his famous character, the half-Aboriginal Queensland detective, Napoleon Bonaparte, in The Barrakee Mystery. His immensely readable ‘Bony’ mysteries, including Death of a Lake (1954), Murder Must Wait (1953), and The Man of Two Tribes (1956), combined bush-lore, outback characters, and brilliant depictions of the Australian landscape with the intriguing presence of his main protagonist; most of his novels are still in print and many have been made into less-than-successful television series. Upfield’s works were particularly popular in the US, where the author became the first foreign writer admitted to the Mystery Writers’ Guild of America.
The stultifyingly conservative
atmosphere of 1950s Australia, with literary censorship and
suppression of political opposition by the Menzies government,
was nonetheless a fruitful period for local writers. A strand of
political dissension is most clearly apparent in writings by
members of Australia’s then still-vigorous Communist Party, most
notably Frank Hardy (1917–94), and Judah Waten (1911–85).
Hardy’s immense tome, Power Without Glory (1950), a
thinly-disguised ‘fictionalisation’ of the corrupt life of
Melbourne millionaire John Wren (1871–1953), caused explosive
controversy when it was published. The book led to a famous
libel trial against Hardy, which had more to do with his
political beliefs than anything he wrote. Waten’s works also
expressed his left-wing political views—his Shares in Murder
(1957) deals with human corruption and the power of the
police—but his most memorable writing appears in his
autobiographical short stories about a European Jewish migrant
family; these were collected under the title Alien Son (1952).
The towering figure of the post-War years in Australia, at least in hindsight, was Patrick White (1912–90), who in 1973 became the first (and so far, the only) Australian writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. White represents in many ways the conquest of Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’, or at least an honest confrontation of the ambivalent feelings of those Australians who wanted to create a cultural life on Australian soil in a less than encouraging society. Born in London, he was brought to Australia as an infant, then was sent to English boarding school at 13. He returned to Australia briefly in 1929, then went to Cambridge and remained in London throughout the 1930s, publishing his first novel, Happy Valley, set in Australia, in 1939. After war service with the RAF, he decided to return home, ‘to the stimulus of time remembered’. On the voyage back, he wrote The Aunt’s Story (1948), the first example of his unpredictable and original style, a tale of visionary individualism and perceptions of madness. When his novel The Tree of Man (1955) gained international acclaim, White began to receive critical if still ambivalent attention at home. Of his complex imagery and characters, he stated that he wanted ‘to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and poetry which could alone make bearable the lives of such people.’ He became increasingly reclusive, appearing occasionally to criticise national policies on the Vietnam War, environmental issues, and treatment of the Aborigines. Indeed, he became a kind of cantankerous moral conscience within Australian society. His novel Voss (1957) is arguably his most ambitious and best-known work. Based loosely on the 1840s desert expedition of the German Ludwig Leichhardt, the book is a philosophical exploration of spiritual journeys, tied to details of the unforgiving landscape and the ambiguities of physical existence. White received the Nobel Prize specifically for The Eye of the Storm (1973), a rumination on spiritual being and memory as explored through the eyes of a dying Sydney socialite.
Several women authors made enduring contributions to the literature of the period, extending the range of acceptable subject matter and focussing specifically on their own experiences of aspects of Australian culture as inspiration. New Zealand-born Ruth Park (b. 1922) married the writer D’Arcy Niland (1919–67; he wrote the popular The Shiralee  and The Big Smoke [1959) and lived in working-class Sydney. Her memories of this time among the Irish poor inspired her to write The Harp in the South (1948), an evocative rendering of the slum-dwellers of the city and their sometimes tragic situations. At the time it was published, many were shocked at Park’s choice of topics, which included abortion; today, The Harp in the South and its sequel Poor Man’s Orange (1949) are considered classics of the genre. Park has written several fascinating volumes of autobiography, the most interesting of which, Fishing in the Styx (1993), deals with her life with Niland in Surry Hills.
Dymphna Cusack (1902–81), author of several novels, made the biggest splash with her Come in Spinner (1951), a gritty story of the arrival of American servicemen in Sydney during the Second World War and their impact on a varied group of women. The title derives from an Australian idiom used in the popular game of two-up.
A vast outback station in the Kimberleys served as the setting for Mary Durack’s (b. 1913) Keep Him My Country (1950), a metaphorical tale of the relationship of a white pastoralist and an Aboriginal girl. Larger questions of good and evil, corruption and power, inform the psychological dramas of Elizabeth Harrower (b. 1928). Her settings in such works as Down in the City (1957) and The Watch Tower (1966) were industrial and suburban, demonstrating the increasing recognition of the real living conditions of most Australians.
Despite the increased concentration on decidedly Australian subjects and attitudes in much of the literature of the post-War period, the dualities of Australian allegiance to European, especially English, culture continued to determine the achievements of many of the country’s best writers. Martin Boyd (1893–1972), son of the distinguished Boyd family of artists and writers, explored in graceful historical fiction the effects of inherited tradition on Australian characters; his semi-autobiographical saga of the Langton family, presented in five novels, is a finely detailed study of aristocratic ideals and social conflicts in Victorian Melbourne. The middle volumes of these novels, A Difficult Young Man (1955) and An Outbreak of Love (1957), are perhaps the most complex and representative of Boyd’s style.
Hal Porter (1911–84) also developed a rather self-conscious style, eloquently used in his well-crafted short stories and novels. His most evocative works were his autobiographical novels, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (1963), a re-creation of his childhood and youth, and The Paper Chase (1966), covering the years 1929–49.
The vexing problems of expatriation can be seen in the case of George Johnston (1912–70), a Melbourne-born writer who worked first as a journalist and war correspondent. The traumatic experiences of the war and his disillusionment with life back in Australia led him, with his wife, author Charmian Clift, to leave first for London and then to the Greek Islands, where they tried to support themselves and their family entirely by writing; they did not return to Australia until 1964. While many of his novels were historical and travel ‘potboilers’, Johnston’s great achievement was My Brother Jack (1964), a semi-autobiographical account of life in Melbourne between the wars. This successful exploration of mood and the texture of the city was followed by Clean Straw for Nothing (1969), a continuation of his own journey, through life abroad and a returning home.
That all of these authors felt the need to use a personal voice to define the Australian experience speaks to the increasing self-consciousness of Australia as a separate nation and culture. The decades of the 1950s and 60s saw many writers seeking to explain the specific nature of Australian identity. Donald Horne’s (b. 1921) Lucky Country (1964) and Geoffrey Blainey’s (b. 1930) Tyranny of Distance (1966) were milestones of cultural critique that are still quoted today; the titles of their books, in fact, have become part of the Australian idiom. Even the humorous best-seller, They’re a Weird Mob (1957) by ‘Nino Culotta’, was a perceptive consideration of Australian customs and language. ‘Culotta’, supposedly an Italian immigrant bewildered by the mores of his adopted country, was actually John O’Grady (1907–81), a Sydney writer. Australia’s fraught relationship with its British roots even affected the writing of history; when Manning Clark (1915–91) began to publish his seminal History of Australia (1962–87), he was roundly criticised for emphasising the country’s development as distinct from British imperialist achievements. That Australia could have its own intellectual life, separate from English academe, was still a controversial consideration.
Australian drama also came to maturity in this period. One of the first landmarks was the 1948 production of Rusty Bugles (1948), a comic denunciation of war rich in vernacular language, written by Sumner Locke Elliott (1917–91). By the time it was produced, Elliott had already moved to the USA, where he became a successful television playwright, with such classics as ‘The Grey Nurse Said Nothing’ (1959); he did not return to Australia until 1974, by which time his other plays, such as Careful He Might Hear You (1963), had gained international recognition.
The play that is still considered as the ‘beginning of the Australian national theatre’ was Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler (b. 1921), first produced in Melbourne in 1955. A complex examination of such cultural myths as mateship and outback stereotypes, the play was immensely popular for its ability to capture Australian vernacular speech. It was produced successfully overseas, was restaged many times, and has been made into a film and, most recently, an opera by Richard Mills.
The 1960s saw an explosion of dramatic endeavours, encouraged by the emergence of alternative ‘street theatre’ and new venues such as La Mama and the Pram Factory in Melbourne. Out of this environment came some enduring talents, most notably Jack Hibberd (b. 1940) and the most popular playwright of the last few decades, David Williamson (b. 1942). Hibberd’s Dimboola (1969), a comic send-up of country life and customs, was the most popular production of all, and has become the most performed Australian play. Williamson’s many satirical portrayals of Australian society have become theatrical standards: Don’s Party (1971), an hilarious commentary on The Sixties Generation and Labor voters; The Club (1977), about the politics of ‘footy’; Emerald City (1987), a satirical story of Melbourne-Sydney rivalries and the film industry; and Brilliant Lies (1993), an insightful study of sexual harassment. Williamson has also scripted several films, including Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). One of the leading theatrical voices today is Louis Nowra (b. 1950), writing such black comedies as Così (1992), about an opera production in a mental institution, and Black Rock (1995), based on the murder of a Newcastle teenager.
Somewhat surprisingly, Australian
poets have continued to sustain a sizeable following and have
produced significant contributions to literary culture. One of
the most admired figures is Judith Wright (b. 1915), whose first
volume The Moving Image (1946) was greeted with great excitement
by the literary world. Her poems of nature, the transience of
time, and the quest for self-knowledge are prolific, enhanced by
her active support of Aboriginal and environmental causes.
Wright beautifully summarises the current desire for
‘reconciliation’ in a statement made in 1981: ‘Those two
strands—the love of the land we have invaded and the guilt of
the invasion—have become part of me. We owe it repentance and
such amends as we can...’
Christopher Wallace-Crabbe (b. 1934) is a poet firmly based in Melbourne academic and suburban life, with reflections both joyous and sombre on the state of modern existence; such amusing titles as The Amorous Cannibal (1985) give an indication of his free-ranging wit and romantic concerns.
A.D. Hope(b. 1907) was also an academic, writing verse rich in mythological and Biblical allusions (see ‘Death of a Bird’ and ‘Meditation on a Bone’). The most popular poet of the last few decades has been Les Murray b. 1938), described by Wallace-Crabbe as ‘Oscar Wilde in moleskins [Australian working trousers]’, for his lyrical championing of the old bush imagery and exuberant Australianness. In such collections as The Vernacular Republic (1976) and The Daylight Moon (1987), Murray writes accessible verse about the wonders of the Australian landscape and its people.
Aboriginal writers also began to gain
recognition from the 1960s. The first Aborigine to publish a
literary work was David Unaipon (1872–1967), whose Native
Legends appeared in 1929; Unaipon now features on the Australian
$50 note. Significantly, the first novel by an Aborigine did not
appear until 1965, when the-then Colin Johnson (b. 1939)
published Wild Cat Falling; Johnson is now known by his
Aboriginal name, Mudrooroo. Mudrooroo suffered the typical fate
of many indigenous people: raised in an orphanage, incarcerated
for minor offences, he struggled to gain some foothold in the
white world. Eventually Mudrooroo continued his studies,
travelled widely and even lived in a Buddhist monastery in
India. His first book is a ruthlessly honest depiction of this
struggle. His later Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring
the Ending of the World (1983) takes as its central theme the
story of G.A. Robinson and the Tasmanian Aborigines; the tone,
however, demonstrates Mudrooroo’s own spiritual and
philosophical vision, imbued with Aboriginal and Eastern
Protest poet Kath Walker (1920–93) also became better known by her Aboriginal name, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, which she adopted in 1988 in opposition to the Bicentenary celebrations of white settlement. Her first volume of poetry, We Are Going (1964), was a warning to whites that Aboriginal people would endure. Her delightful Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972) is a collection of traditional Aboriginal stories based on her childhood memories on an island near Brisbane.
Kevin Gilbert (1933–93) was an extraordinary figure in the Aboriginal protest movement; while in prison, he learned to read, and developed a great talent not only for writing, but for painting and photography. Gilbert was instrumental in the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, while producing poetry and, in 1988, the important anthology, Inside Black Australia. In 1988, he received the Human Rights Award for literature, which he declined until his people were granted such rights.
Particularly poignant and significant for contemporary Australians was the publication of My Place (1987) by Sally Morgan (b. 1951), a Western Australian whose Aboriginal heritage was hidden from her until she was an adult; the book documents her coming to terms with her sense of belonging and her desire to gain an understanding of her people’s cultural traditions and art.
Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (b. 1943), sometimes called ‘Australia’s own Angela Davis’, is a black activist and academic, born in Queensland and deceived by her own mother about her mixed parentage (she is probably part African-American). She was the first ‘black Australian’ to graduate from Harvard University. She has just published the first of a projected three-volume autobiography, Snake Cradle (1997), a harrowing and at times painful story of racist violence and personal endurance.
While many ambitious artists and
writers still felt compelled as late as the 1960s to
emigrate—most notably, of course, Germaine Greer (b. 1939; The
Female Eunuch ), Clive James (b. 1939; Unreliable Memoirs
), and Barry Humphries (b. 1934; My Gorgeous Life
)—many more decided to stay to be part of Australia’s
multicultural transformation of the last 20 years. Literary
themes broadened substantially beyond the confines of strictly
Australian experience, and increased interactions with global
cultural events determined the directions that literature, both
serious and popular, would take.
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) is a good example of a novelist who straddles the line between popular and serious fiction, and who has gained as much international as domestic success. His first well-received work was Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), based on Watkin Tench’s accounts of early Sydney; and his Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), a grimly humorous re-creation of a true story of Aboriginal-White conflict, gained him an international reputation, especially after its successful filming in 1978. But Keneally’s subject-matter extends beyond Australian history, most notably in Schindler’s Ark (1982), the story of Holocaust survivors and their rescuer, Oskar Schindler; the book was the source for Stephen Spielberg’s renowned film, Schindler’s List (1993).
A more journalistic voice, in the spirit of the American Tom Wolfe, is Frank Moorhouse (b. 1938), widely associated in the 1960s and 70s with the intellectual atmosphere of Sydney’s Balmain. His collection of stories, The Americans, Baby (1972) and The Coca Cola Kid (1985), offer humorous insights into the Americanisation of Australian urban life.
Helen Garner (b. 1942) continues to write austere considerations of the moral dilemmas of everyday life, such as her first novel Monkey Grip (1977) and the screenplay for the film, Last Days at Chez Nous (1992). Her most recent book, The First Stone (1994), was a controversial editorial on the issues arising from a case of sexual harassment at the University of Melbourne, infuriating feminists and conservatives alike. Feminist convictions certainly inform the fiction of Kate Grenville (b. 1950) in intriguing books such as Lilian’s Story (1985), based on the life of Sydney eccentric Bea Miles, and Joan Makes History (1988), an alternative history centred on an Australian everywoman.
Perhaps the most diverse author of the present period is David Malouf (b. 1934), a Queenslander of Lebanese background who divides his time between Australia and Tuscany. Firmly grounded in European tradition, Malouf ranges across a broad spectrum of themes, from autobiographical reminiscences of wartime Brisbane in Johnno (1975) to the more epic events of early Queensland settlement in Remembering Babylon (1993) and short stories and poems about place and childhood experience. Malouf presented the 1998 Boyer Lecturers for ABC Radio, in which he considered ‘the nature of Australians’; these have been published as A Spirit of Play (1998).
Peter Carey (b. 1943) is another Australian who, while living in the USA, still draws most of his inspiration from Australian history and characters. Described as a fabulist in the spirit of Garcia Marquez and Donald Bartheleme, Carey’s works appeal to a broad public. His most popular novels, imagistic and historical at the same time, include Bliss (1981), based on Mark Twain’s assertion that Australian history is ‘like the most beautiful lies’; the picaresque Illywhacker (1985); and Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which won the prestigious Booker Prize and has been made into a film.
An enduring presence in Australian literary life today is Elizabeth Jolley (b. 1923), British-born who migrated to Western Australia with her husband in 1959. The characters in her many novels and short stories are invariably life’s misfits, lonely, eccentric and often deviant; as she states, ‘no one comes out on top in my fiction...’ Her novels are especially favoured in the USA, especially Mr Scobie’s Riddle (1983) and Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983). Jolley’s Milk and Honey (1984) is her most poetic and metaphysical novel, combining everyday characters with grand literary allusions. She continues to extend her dark vision of the world with delicate, sometimes disturbing, examinations of societal losers and ‘others’.
The most extraordinary event in recent years was the publication in 1981 of A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey (1894–1982). A simple man with no formal education, Facey wrote his life’s story with no ambition at publication; it was submitted to a publisher by his son, who simply wanted a few copies for the family. Its unpretentious and matter-of-fact presentation of the unbelievable hardships of one man’s life gained an immediate world-wide audience. Anyone who wants to understand the roots of a distinctly Australian world-view should read A Fortunate Life, the purest form of autobiography.
That many of the best writers of the last 30 years have had their fiction turned into film and television series simply indicates the media-driven directions of contemporary culture. Reaching a broader audience through film has certainly been the experience of Australia’s most popular writers, in many cases making them international celebrities. Morris West (b. 1916) is probably the biggest-selling author born in Australia. His novels The Devil’s Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), dealt with religious themes and were produced as major Hollywood films.
Colleen McCullough (b. 1937) also gained enormous international recognition after the televised version of her book The Thorn Birds (1977), a family saga of religion, sex and violence. McCullough has gone on to tackle the historical blockbuster, creating so far three volumes of a proposed six about Ancient Rome (The First Man in Rome ). She now lives on Norfolk Island and is still famous as Australia’s wealthiest author.
Film versions have also played a role in the success of Peter Corris’s (b. 1942) Cliff Hardy series of crime stories, and, more indirectly, his hilarious re-creations of 1940s Hollywood through the Errol Flynn-inspired character of Richard ‘Box Office’ Browning. Corris’s mysteries are probably the best example of the crime fiction genre in contemporary Australia, a field that has grown enormously in the last decade.
Another popular phenomenon was the publication in 1979 of Puberty Blues by Gabrielle Carey (b. 1959) and Kathy Lette (b. 1958). Carey and Lette had performed a screamingly popular cabaret act as ‘The Salami Sisters’. Their co-authored book was a startling semi-autobiographical account of Cronulla ‘surfie culture’ from the girls’ point of view. While enormously touted as a comic masterpiece and made into a popular film in 1981, the book has a nasty-edged bite that says much about the anxiety-ridden war of the sexes, beach-style.
The Australian authors who seem to
have gained the most praise and produced the most original work
recently have been writers of fiction for children. While
children’s literature is not a new phenomenon in Australia, the
level and standard of production in recent years seems
particularly stellar. Colin Thiele (b. 1920), of course,
produced the children’s classics Storm Boy (1963) and Blue Fin
(1969) in the 1960s, and gained an international audience when
these stories of the sea and lonely children were filmed in the
Currently, Paul Jennings (b. 1943) is Australia’s most prolific and successful author; his quirky, magical short stories, both in the series Round the Twist and in books with titles such as Unbelievable! and Uncanny! appeal especially to children between six and 12. Most significant are the ambitious, thoughtful and complex productions of two authors for older children: Victor Kelleher (b. 1939) and John Marsden (b. 1950). Kelleher, who also writes adult fiction, specialises in tales of adventure-fantasy and sinister events, such as The Hunting of Shadroth (1981), The Red King (1989) and Parkland (1994). Marsden’s immensely suspenseful series, centred on a group of children’s response to foreign invasion and nuclear war, began with Tomorrow, When the World Began (1993), and will culminate after seven adventurous volumes, in October 1999. If these admirable contributions to intelligent and complex fiction for young people are not known abroad, then be sure to buy them here.
Current literary trends in Australia represent all the cutting-edge concerns of global culture: post-modernism, gay culture, feminist performance art, computer-generated poetry, television-inspired comedy, punk and grunge. Many critics maintain that Sydney especially is the quintessential post-modernist city, the voice of the twenty-first century; the alternative literary scene, with poetry readings in pubs, internet journals, and multi-media presentations, tends to support this claim. In a recent ABC television production about ‘Bohemian Australia,’ a grunge-poet named Edward Berridge (he created a poetry volume called Lives of the Saints) asserts, as a proclamation against the supposed dominance of Sixties-generated ideas, that he and his ilk ‘will be determining the intellectual agenda of Australia for the next twenty-five years, so you better get used to it.’ Go for it, Edward!
General guide books are often convenient for their local maps and listings of popular entertainments. The better ones for Australia are Explore Australia, Claremont Penguin; Australia, Rough Guides; and the numerous Lonely Planet guides.
Andrews, Graeme. Ferries of Sydney. Sydney,
Oxford University Press, 1994.
Barker, Sue et al. Explore the Barossa. Netland, SA, South Australia State, 1991.
Blair's guide: travel guide to Victoria & Melbourne. Hawthorne, Victoria, Universal, 6th ed. 1994.
Cronin, Leonard. Key guide to Australia's national parks. Carlton, Victoria, Reed New Holland, 1998.
Coasting: Dirk Flinthart's real guide to the east coast of Australia. Potts Point, NSW, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996.
Emmett, E.T. Tasmania by road and track. Parkville, Melbourne University, 1962.
Gunter, John. Sydney by ferry & foot (Heritage Field Guide). Kenthurst, NSW, Kangaroo Press, 1983.
Huié, Jacqueline. Untourist Sydney. Balmain, UnTourist, 1995.
Lawrence, Joan. Sydney good walks guide. Crows Nest, NSW, Kingsclear Books, 1991.
Odgers, Sally Farrell. Tasmania-—a guide (Heritage Field Guide). Kenthurst, NSW, Kangaroo Press, 1991.
Park, Ruth. The companion guide to Sydney. Sydney, Collins, 1973, revised ed. 1999.
Rennie, Chris. The surfer's travel guide. Doncaster, Victoria, Liquid Addictions, 1998.
Starling, Steve. Fishing hot spots. Mills Point, New South Wales, Random House, 1998.
Numerous field guides and key guides
will be familiar to professional scientists. Unfortunately, the
best popular books on Australian flora and fauna, the Encyclopedia of Australian
wildlife and the Complete
book of Australian birds, both by Reader’s Digest, are
too heavy to travel with easily.
Davey, Keith. A photographic guide to seashore life of Australia. Sydney, New Holland, 1998.
Haddon, Frank. Australia's outback: environmental field guide to flora and fauna. Roseville, NSW, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Laseron, Charles Francis. The face of Australia: the shaping of a continent. Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1953.
Pizzey, Graham. Field guide to the birds of Australia. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1997.
Puffin book of Australian spiders. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989. (Note: One of an informative series for children.)
Simpson, Ken and Day, Nicolas. Field guide to the birds of Australia. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989.
von Hügel, Charles. New Holland Journal, November 1833–October 1834. (Dymphna Clark, trans.) Carlton, Victoria, Melbourne University, 1994.
Watts, Peter, et al. An exquisite eye: the Australian flora & fauna drawings of Ferdinand Bauer, 1801–1820. Glebe, NSW, Historic Houses, 1998.
White, Mary E. The greening of Gondwana: the 400 million year story of Australian plants. East Roseville, New South Wales, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Caruana, Wally. Aboriginal art. London,
Thames & Hudson, 1993.
Edwards, W.H., ed. Traditional Aboriginal society. South Yarra, Victoria, Macmillan, 1998.
Horton, David, ed. The encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. 2 vols. Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994.
Morphy, Howard. Aboriginal art. London, Phaidon, 1998.
Ryan, Judith. Spirit in land: bark paintings from Arnhem Land. Melbourne, National Gallery.
West, Margaret. The inspired dream: life as art in Aboriginal Australia. South Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, 1988.
Freeland, J.M. Architecture in Australia.
Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1968.
Jahn, Graham. Sydney architecture. Sydney, Watermark Press, 1997.
Kerr, Joan. The dictionary of Australian artists: painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Maitland, Barry and Stafford, David. Architecture Newcastle: a guide. RAIA, Newcastle, 1987. (Note: There are a number of Royal Australian Institute of Architects publications in this city specific series.)
Marsden, Susan. Heritage of the city of Adelaide: an illustrated guide. Adelaide, City, 1990.
Sabine, James. A century of Australian cinema. Port Melbourne, Reed, 1995.
Shirley, Graham and Adams, Brian. Australian cinema: the first eighty years. Sydney, Currency Press, revised ed., 1989.
Smith, Bernard, ed. Documents on art and taste in Australia, 1770–1914. Melbourne, Oxford, 1975.
Smith, Bernard. European vision and the South Pacific. Melbourne, Oxford, 1989.
Smith, Bernard and Smith, Terry. Australian painting, 1788–1990. Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1991.
Baker, Sidney. The Australian language.
Sydney, Currawong, 1966.
Bassett, Jan, ed. Great Southern landings: an anthology of antipodean travel. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Harman, Kaye. Australia brought to book: responses to Australia by visiting writers, 1836–1939. Balgowlah, NSW, BooBook, 1985.
Hergenhan, Laurie. New literary history of Australia. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1988.
Pierce, Peter, ed. The Oxford literary guide to Australia. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Wilde, William, et al. The Oxford companion to Australian literature. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2d ed., 1994.
Wilson, Barbara. The illustrated treasury of Australian stories & verse for children. Melbourne, Nelson, 1987.
Clune, Frank. Saga of Sydney: the birth, growth,
and maturity of the mother city of Australia. Sydney,
Davidson, Graeme. The Oxford companion to Australian History. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Flannery, Tim, ed. Watkin Tench: 1788. Melbourne, Text, 1996.
Haskell, Arnold L. Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia. London, A & C Black, 2nd ed., 1941.
Hughes, Robert. The fatal shore. New York, Knopf, 1987.
Karskens, Grace. The Rocks: life in early Sydney. Melbourne University, 1997.
Luck, Peter. A time to remember. Port Melbourne, Mandarin, 1988.
Morris, Jan. Sydney. London, Viking, 1992.
Palmer, Vance. The legend of the nineties. Melbourne, Melbourne University, 1963.
Ripe, Cherry. Goodbye, Culinary Cringe! St Leonard's, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1993.
Serle, Geoffrey. The Creative spirit in Australia: A cultural history. Richmond, Victoria, William Heinemann, 1987.
Sharp, Ilsa. Culture shock!: a guide to customs and etiquette. Singapore, Times, 1992.
Statham, Pamela, ed. The origins of Australia's capital cities. Cambridge, Cambridge, 1989.
Venturini, V.G., ed. Australia: a survey. (Schriften des Instituts für Asienkunde in Hamburg; vol. 27) Wiesbaden, O. Harrassowitz, 1970.