A Concise History of Australia by Stuart Macintyre

Before writing any thoughts about this book, I would like to give a disclaimer. I don’t know much about Australian history and reading the book only made me aware of how much I didn’t know and didn’t understand. Nevertheless, having read the book, I have gained a feel of Australian culture and perspective. The book is quite concise, considering that it is a history book that covers a considerable period of time (from the 17th century to the 21st century). It is well written and quite interesting. There are places where I feel that the author was a little biased towards the political left, but otherwise, it is quite an unbiased book that narrates history as it was.

The first half of the book mainly deals with the colonial past of Australia, from the time of the Europeans’ arrival until World War 2. There is one chapter dedicated to the Aboriginal history of Australia pre-1600, but it is pretty limited. This is because there aren’t many records of what happened before Europeans landed on the continent. Once the Europeans landed, however, they took detailed notes, which is why history is much more well-defined. Nevertheless, this first chapter delves into Aboriginal culture and archaeological findings. It establishes the incredibly long history of homo sapiens in Australia, which probably stretches to more than 40,000 years ago.

The most striking feature I found in the book’s first half was the tragic undertone in the writing. It narrates events around the colonisation of Australia by the British military and convicts and the consequent displacement of the native aborigines from the land. The book describes the conflict between the two and how the British slowly pushed out the aborigines and settled the land for cultivation and pastures. Until the present day, Australian identity seems to struggle to assimilate its aborigine past into its culture and traditions.

Australia, unlike America, was also dependent on Britain for a long time for economic benefits. In the beginning, it depended on British trade for basic supplies, and as the settlement grew, Australia became a major export hub for products to Britain and the European continent. It seemed to be a quasi-military settlement with Military personnel to overlook the convicts. Eventually, convicts stopped being sent, and there was mostly voluntary emigration of British people to expand the settlement. The people deeply valued their British culture, and there was not much Nationalistic sentiment for a long time during the colonial period. Australia participated enthusiastically in World War 1 and was quite proud of its contribution during the war. They have fables about their war contributions in defeating the Ottoman Empire. World War 2 was the first time their strategic interests severely strained their relationship with Britain. Australian defence policy was naturally more concerned about Japanese expansionism into Sout East Asia, whereas British interests lay in defeating Germany. The end of World War 2 brought Australia independence and brought the USA as its primary ally. The pivot to the United States had already happened during World War 2 to combat the Japanese.

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One interesting aspect I found about Australia was that it always seemed to have Socialist leanings. For most of its history, there was a large public initiative towards establishing industry. They had a history of the welfare state. Post-independence, they started to liberalise their economy to make their industry more competitive, but the welfare state mostly remained. Due to history, it also had highly preferential immigration policies. A large part of its population increase was due to immigration. In the beginning, this immigration occurred from Britain and then expanded to other European non-English speaking states. Nevertheless, this was mostly an immigration of white people. This was to ensure the preservation of Western values and culture. Towards the second half of the 20th century, the country expanded its immigration policies to the rest of the world, due to which immigrants started arriving from China, India and Southeast Asia. This was coupled with an end to discriminatory practices due to race. Today, Australia has quite a sizeable Hindu and Muslim population. Due to its small population and extensive coastline, Australia has a complicated problem of illegal immigration. If the response to it is too lax, it encourages more illegal immigration; if the reaction is too stringent, it leans towards human rights abuse.

On the Strategic front, Australia has had two major alliances; one with Britain pre-WW2 and one with the United States post-WW2. In both cases, it has burnt its fingers when it has needed to follow its allies into armed confrontations. It happened with Britain because of WW2 when it was sucked into an armed conflict in Europe. With the United States, this occurred during the Vietnam war, where they were sucked into a war against communism, where America eventually lost. Australia lost its own troops in this war, which caused anti-war protests. In the process of losing the war, the USA also committed war atrocities on the people of Vietnam, which is something Australia would not have wanted to be associated with.

The author covers all of these events, including Australia’s internal politics, in more detail. There is quite a bit of detail about the Australian economy. It is an interesting read and a good book to learn about the basic contours of Australian culture and thought process.


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