By Alan AtkinsonNon-fictionNewSouth

The Europeans in Australia: Volume Three: Nation

Nation is the third and final instalment in Alan Atkinson’s landmark history of Australia, told from the point of view of settlers from Europe; it spans from the 1870s to the end of World War I.

As a whole, the trilogy covers one and a quarter centuries, from the beginning of British settlement, when the invaders were Europeans in Australia, to World War I, when they became Australians in Europe, ‘themselves beating back invasion’. And it considers the past in the light of contemporary concerns, uncovering what our history says about our present and our future.

The question of ‘moral community’ is one that recurs across the three volumes. ‘Sometimes it is a matter of Black and White, but more often it is a matter of wondering about the idea itself, within an Australian landscape,’ writes Atkinson, who says that question is ‘often a failed one’.

In the period covered here, the settlers began to grasp the vastness of the continent and to think of it as their own. There was a massive funding of education, and the intellectual reach of men and women was suddenly expanded. Women began to shape public imagination as they had not done before. At the same time, worship of mere ideas had its victims, most obviously the Aboriginal people, and the war itself proved what tragedies it could unleash.

Reviewing the second volume of this trilogy in the Australian, fellow historian Mark McKenna wrote: ‘Guided by a searching imagination and a moral compass that refuses to write “detached and objective” history, Europeans in Australia opens a window onto a colonial past that we have never gazed on before in quite the same way.’

Portrait of Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson was born in Sydney and grew up in southern Queensland. This is his tenth book. Others include Camden: Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales (1988), which helped to introduce new forms of social history to Australia, and The Commonwealth of Speech (2002), an argument about history writing in the twenty-first century and about the links between the national past and present. From 1981 to 2008 he was employed at the University of New England, New South Wales, a university with distinctive teaching traditions, and more recently as senior tutor at St Paul’s College, University of Sydney. He has been a Fulbright scholar and a visiting fellow at the universities of Cambridge, London and Melbourne, and at the Australian National University. He is married to Catherine Pound, with three adult children.

Judges’ report

Alan Atkinson’s trilogy The Europeans in Australia is destined be a landmark work in Australian historiography, as significant in its way as Manning Clark’s History of Australia. It climaxes in this accomplished panorama of continent’s self-transformation into a nation, full of sharp observation, agile leaps, startling connections, magisterial sweeps and granular detail - a history not so much of events as of Australia’s changing ideas about itself. More than this, it also provides a vivid sense of the historical agency of womanhood as well as manhood, households as well as federal conventions, deep broodings as well spectacular events. ‘Running through the whole,’ Atkinson observes, ‘there is the slow-moving generational turnover of habit, thought and attachment to the continent.’


Joseph Furphy, one of Australia’s greatest writers, spoke at this moment of a national wealth waiting to be tapped, of an ‘unconfined, ungauged potentiality of resource’. He could see the land yielding something of its secrets, material and spiritual, to anyone who could read the ‘ideographic prophecy’ written on its surface. There were already, by 1880, various ways of using natural wells. TK Abbott reported that water from the well at Garrawilla was dammed and then pumped to ‘one of the most extensive sheep-washing establishments in the Colony’. At three or four places windmills drew the water from beneath the surface, but primitive ‘whips’ were more common. That is to say, a forked stick was set in the ground and a long pole balanced on it, with a weight at one end and a rope and bucket on the other. Elsewhere, there were horse-powered ‘whims’, originally meant for draining mines. Abbott was sure that much more might be done with proper drilling and encased bores. He was hopeful, he told HC Russell, that ‘[t]here are rivers in the earth’. It ought to be possible to trace them, measure their depth and make them useful.

Russell must have received Abbott’s report with mixed feelings, because it did not demonstrate exactly how ingenuity could be applied to the problem of water shortage. Russell himself was one of the most ingenious Australians of his time. Born in the Hunter Valley in 1836, he had spent his working life in Sydney and at fifty had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the most distinguished association in the scientific world. As New South Wales government astronomer from 1870 to 1904 he was a leader on the charting of the southern skies. He made his earliest mark in international circles with his photographs of the transit of Venus in 1874, taken from his observatory at Dawes Point, in Sydney. He was especially interested in double stars, and 500 new ones were spotted from Dawes Point while he was in charge. But it was his work with the weather that made him most important for generations to come.

The best educated Europeans were just starting to wonder about the deep interconnectedness of the natural world. Russell was one of the first anywhere to think carefully about meteorology as something global, partly because he wanted to make his knowledge of the southern hemisphere fit with European understandings. He was also a pioneer in asking questions with a vertical perspective. That is, he was convinced of what he called ‘the intimate relations which subsist between the earth’s atmosphere and the sun’s surroundings’, and, at a lower level, between events in the atmosphere and events below the surface of the earth.

He worked with teams of both amateurs and professionals. As an astronomer, he needed expensive equipment, which was available mainly in Sydney. But as a meteorologist, he spread his net far afield, and his sources of information included a host of untrained and semi-trained people throughout New South Wales. ‘[K]nowing what important questions could only be answered by statistics about rain, rivers and evaporation’, he said, ‘I began at once to collect them and educate the people to keep rain records’. The process depended on two vital items of technology, the rain gauge and the telegraph. Gauges made of copper or glass and with inch markings down the side could now be bought by anyone over the counter, though at first their dimensions varied by as much as 10 per cent. By 1881 Russell was using 290 amateur observers throughout New South Wales, each equipped with a gauge and sending in regular reports. By 1898 he had 1600 – and by this time all their gauges measured a standard 8 inches (20 centimetres) around.

Every colony except Tasmania had a government astronomer whose duties involved keeping weather records. From a meteorological point of view, Russell in Sydney and Robert Ellery in Melbourne were the leading figures. With Charles Todd in Adelaide, they started a three-point system of weather telegrams that allowed them to assemble large maps of weather movement – not only patterns of dryness and moisture, which were critical to life itself, but also temperature and wind movement. Their approach depended on gathering information, but also on distributing it – accurately, systematically and as widely as possible. They imprinted larger patterns of thought about the weather among all kinds of men and women.

This was knowledge democratised, a defining project of the age. It was based on a rich combination of writing and speech, on high literacy and a massive increase in all sorts of publications, but also copious human traffic, steam driven, which meant wider travel and interaction. It was a project going back to the seventeenth century and to Sir Francis Bacon, but never so close to reality as now. As the Melbourne poet Bernard O’Dowd put it, it was a project ‘gradually but surely transferring political power, art, literature, knowledge, amusement, and all the things that go to make up life in the larger sense, from the possession of the privileged classes to that of the mass of people’. As later chapters show, on this foundation and in various parts of the world including Australia, there was built something utterly new, which HG Wells called ‘organised intelligence’, an engine of thought going beyond the education of the individual. Interconnected and self-nourishing, almost organic, driven by unfamiliar efficiencies in communication, this collective effort created and recreated nations. It had a mighty impact on Australia and it explains the Federation of the six colonies in 1901.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist