Debates In Australian HIstory Essay Example

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How is the nation constructed through historical representation?

History, in all its forms, has been having significant impact in constructing nations. Historical representations shape national images implicitly by representing certain cultural fictions, arguments revolving around the same and debates – solved or unsolved – about Indigenous identities and their transition to the present date. This is also true about Australia as churning after churning has been done on the subject through articulation, contestation, and interrogation of the available views.

Historical representations, just like pictures, whether they are in the photographic or cinematographic form, always carry the burden of constructing reality. The construction of reality within the historical representations is understood through the way it is recorded, which, in turn, becomes a marker of culture as it traces the events backwards. Taken as cultural artifacts, history – in its written or oral form – puts the pieces together on a nation that was formed by a saga of events.

Historical representations put ‘images from the past’ together in such a compelling manner that when disseminated they act as strong narratives for audiences to the extent of involving them in the representation. Since the narratives are more active than passive, their validity is generally not questioned by common people, even if it may be by historians attempting to go deeper into the reality which is portrayed.

Australia has always been debated with respect to Aboriginal people, and the relevance they hold to the making of Australia as a nation is actually the image that historical representations have created of them

However, on an unfortunate note, it has been observed that whenever historical representations are cited, say, through allied media like films, Aboriginal characters are depicted as ‘figures of the imagination’ and far from reality; rendering them distorted (Langton, 1993). This further renders the making of the nation – which is wed to Aboriginality – distorted as what is being represented is not what was in reality but is what is found as acceptable by non-Aboriginal Australians.

Australia as a nation has often been constructed vis-a-vis Aboriginal identity, either by way of inclusion or exclusion through political or social debates resting sometimes on forced choices or false dichotomies (Hodge and Mishra, 1992) resulting in an cultural, intellectual and material construction of a hegemony, which is white dominant, and devoid of Aboriginality. These representations while distorting an inherent component of Australia as a nation, thus, reduce its past to just being alcoholic, victimized, fringed and slummy.

Historical accounts cannot be stand in isolation and without their social representations. Critical events as they have happened in the past across different ethnic groups form the center stage in the formation of nationhood. The onus lies on these historical representations to establish a correct relationship between national and ethnic identity. Social identity and self-categorization theories help evaluate this relationship (Turner, et al., 1987). As a result of this ethnic identity and national identity run parallel to each other or occur alternately exhibiting salience differently across different situation and time. Historians have argued that if a nation has to attain a cohesive sense, it is the national identity that has to be made more salient than the ethnic identity.

Australian historical representations are shown as radical ones post British settlements during 18th and 19th century, and being mostly depicted as European rule-dominated territory in which Indigenous people were grossly dislodged from their own culture and adopt the Western one. If history is to be viewed in the correct context, then Indigenous Australians are believed to have been around for an estimated 40000 years. There are, however, no conclusive accounts pertaining to this. At the time when European settlements took place, historical representation put the number of people inhabiting Australia between 315 000 and 750 000, most of them populated around Murray River valley. Colonisation, subsequently, either absorbed, or reduced or even turned these inhabitants away. Ironically, most of the historical representations leading a thread towards Australia’s nationhood refer widely to account post-colonisation and not before it. These are the accounts that are accepted by the audience and not questioned, but no serious attempt is made at understanding identity of the nation before that (Briscoe, G. & Smith, L. eds. 2002).

In order to collate the historical representations that have served important role in the making of Australia as a nation, National Museum of Australia (NMA) was opened in 2001; an initiative that is being seen as triggering a great deal of debate, introspection and assessment on history that has passed «orally» from generation to generation among people seeking answers for questions that have no documentary answers.

Since the museum has been invoking as much criticism as interest; the former has generally been targeting the anomaly existing between indigenous and non-indigenous background of the nation, aided further during last few decades by different historical interpretations pertaining to the traditional bases of nationalism and how it is being challenged while both the groups struggle to reconcile with and establish their relevance to the past. Particularly in the cultural and political arena issues of identity with regard to their depiction through history have gained momentum towards introspection. NMA was developed to answer this.

The question, ‘how is the nation constructed through historical representation?’, seems to be answered by numerous non-Indigenous galleries at NMA, and the exhibit that evokes considerable interest is by Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’, showing symbolic vocabulary and its relevance throughout a community (Anderson, 1983). Nation: Symbols of Australia, on the other hand, shows a number of symbols that are familiar to everyone and attempt to explore national identity and Australian nationhood. The curator of the museum believes that use of ‘symbols’ and the expressions they carry can be found in abundance through historical interpretation of aural, visual, and material culture of the nation. Symbols communicate history of an image, a practice, or an object and relevance it has had over time to Australia and it people (Hansen, 2001).

Symbols are physical testimonies of oral history; while the former are and can be retrieved through excavations from time to time, the latter is capable of changing the impact of the traditional history and concepts it promulgates in the development of a nation.

Ritchie (1995); Shopes (2008), Perks and Thompson (1998) believe that oral history has the capability to ‘bring down barriers’, ‘enliven communities’ and ‘give voices to the voiceless, all these attributes considered to be important for social groups and communities on whose shoulders nations are claimed to be made, but who still live in occlusion and away from historical representation. Oral history can help one recover past and plan future. What is astonishing is that histories pertaining to these people could not have been written by them, and their past maintains a status quo; if anything is changing persistently it is the history itself.

Recently, in explaining formation of nations, oral history has attained great magnificence, and as experts put it “oral testimony is vital to the creation of ‘Other’ world histories”. When the modern historical representations discuss formation of Australia as a nation, this “Other” refers to the Aborigines, who are often and intrinsically portrayed as different and negative. Historical representations of a nation, consequently, get influenced by stereotypical and hierarchical thinking. Oral history, when made a part of these representations, has the power to demolish these barriers by ‘empowering’ the “Other”.

Oral history can be bracketed as emerging from pre 1788 period or the ancient era, followed by the available written accounts of colonisation period from 1788 to 1900. Post federation period (1901 to 2000) can be found largely documented in historical representations. When talking of making a nation, it is generally this period that is referred to and not ones before it. Age of colonisation was marked by European explorers, convicts, gold, bushrangers and British settlements, while post federation period is replete with information on 20th century Australia, its involvement in The Great Depression, World Wars I & II.

In Australia, A.B.C. radio can largely be credited for highlighting the role and scope of oral history in portraying the making of a nation. That apart two books of notable mention that have brought oral history to public attention are The Immigrant, and Weevils in the Flour. An Oral Record of the 1930s Depression in Australia; the former was published in 1977 and the latter in 1978. Both were written by Wendy Lowenstein; the first one was coauthored with Morag Loh.

Oral histories travel from generation to generation with only minor distortions since those who relate it to the new generations are emotionally attached to their bit of past, and their past that has been disseminated to them carries a special meaning for them. Contemporary historical representations, on the other hand, have come under criticism for presenting distorted views on making of Australia as a nation, particularly on references on Indigenous people. There have been continuous debates on how historians should understand and interpret the past of a nation in a reliable, detached manner. Such debates, dubbed as history wars, have gained considerable momentum during the last two decades.

In a radio interview, Keith Windschuttle, author, once remarked that ‘the responsibility of the historian is not to be compassionate but to be dispassionate’, a statement argued by other historians, notable one among whom was Greg Dening, who said in order to represent the past fully, it is compassion that the historians must tick to. Bain Attwood, another historian, went a step further and urged historian to be all three at the same time – compassionate, passionate, and dispassionate.

Happy histories, goes the saying, makes happy nations. The type of history a nation has undergone – good or bad, strict or lenient – determines the type of culture the nation would have. This finds some relevance in anthropology when interpreted concurrently with historical representations. Anthropologists put this concept in a spectrum which is measured on a tightness-looseness scale. Historical, ecological or social threats that a country has passed through determine on which side of the scale the nation would fall as it grows. The practices, social norms, and institutions in the nation, thus, can be said to be an effect of this context, which further defines which type of function has the nation to adopt and under which circumstances.

So it can be said that historical representations make nations through a common or differing set of beliefs, primarily a common language, ancestry and culture – all of which keep people bound with each other. Knowing, reading and assimilating events from the past through historical representations strengthen feeling towards the nation, a proud attribute that is found in nationalism. In international politics however, this has a different connotation and a nation means it inhabitants governed by a common law in a given territory, and recognized by other neighboring or distant nations.

History, as it unfolds the past, and rolls the present through representations yields many socio-economic and political outcomes, which act as catalysts for positive or negative change and nation building. Historical events have been showing evidence of economic development of nations. Also previous misrule or slavery could be causes of under-development; Africa can be cited as a suitable example in this regard.

To establish the point Edmund Burke’s famous saying can be cited. He said that what society reflects now can be termed as a partnership between the living, the dead, and those who will be born. He further affirmed that these partnerships bind human beings in a nation and bring about changes that no one would have expected. People do not appreciate this because these qualities come from the ‘nature’ of a culture. Culture is something that despite going unnoticed passes through yesterday affecting today.


Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London,

Briscoe, G. & Smith, L. eds. (2002), How many people had lived in Australia before it was annexed by the English in 1788?, The Aboriginal Population Revisited : 70,000 years to the present, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press

Hodge, B & Mishra, V. (1991). Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Hansen, G. (2001). Symbols of Australia: Exploring national history at the National Museum of Australia, Unpublished paper presented to the Museums Australia conference, Australian National University, Canberra

Langton, M. (1993). Well I Heard it on the Radio and Saw it on the Television, Sydney: Australian Film Commission

Perks, R & Thompson, A. (1998)., The Oral History Reader, London

Ritchie, D.P. (1995). Doing Oral History, New York

Shopes, L. (2008). Oral History and Public Memories, Philadelphia

Turner, J.C. et al. (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell