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Talking History

October 10, 2011

He knows nothing of Australia who knows only Australia. This was my text for an address on Saturday in Sydney’s Town Hall to the City of Sydney Historical Association.

I spoke about the echoes with American history and in particular about the Ken Burns series The West. It had a revelation for me – that history comprises many narratives and you don’t have to settle on one. Burns showed the slaughter of 250 Lakota men women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890 when the military fired shells into tepees. It was a horrific slaughter and the viewer was profoundly shocked. Then, portraying arching Wyoming skies, Burns the film maker switched to the story of an idealistic young teacher, Ethel Waxman, arriving with her degree at a one teacher school. She is wooed by John Love, a rugged sheep rancher. It’s a classic pioneer tale. They survive floods, blizzards, market forces. Their story – this white settler history – coexists with the anguish of Indian blood in the snow at Wounded Knee.

Ken made the point that the West comprised many histories, not just one. And this, as I’ve recently argued, is a key to Australian history.

General Gordon Bennett

I spoke about the fall of Singapore in which Australia lost an army of 20,000 men, plus nurses, as perhaps the most dramatic in our story. A huge loss that touched every town and suburb in the country. I spoke about the story of General Gordon Bennett, who despite the personal bravery he demonstrated at Gallipoli, abandoned his men to flee back to Australia but probably with defensible motives: he aspired to lead the Australian army in World War Two. He was never to survive the public antipathy, and a post war army inquiry found against his actions. Yet when he stood on the wharf to greet returning POWs he was cheered by them. There’s a fascinating Australian story here, but one that has not been fully told.

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