Cross, Jack: Great Central State: The Foundation of the Northern Territory.
Great Central State: The Foundation of the Northern Territory
(Kent Town, S.A.: Wakefield Press, 2011)
xii, 403 p. | ISBN: 9781862548770 (pbk.) | RRP AUD 39.95
Jack Cross begins his definitive account of the colonisation of the Northern territory with an epigram from William Faulkner: 'the past is never dead. It's not even past'. This becomes a key theme of Cross' history, published to coincide with the 2011 centenary of the Territory's constitution. Both explicitly and implicitly, Cross shows the continuing themes of nineteenth-century Territorian history, and how echoes of these themes can still be heard today. One such important theme is that the Territory was to be South Australia's bridge to the unlimited markets of Asia. Consequently, this engaging history is as much about the Northern Territory as it is about the ambition of the Colony of South Australia--overall a colourful and entertaining read that draws on a vast amount of archival research.
The story of European settlement in the Northern Territory is a strange one that Cross paints as a series of fits and starts. The Northern Territory was the final frontier of Australian colonisation, and it was also the site of the only attempt by an Australian colony at large-scale colonisation of its own. The colony of South Australia was founded in 1835 on the principles of Systematic Colonisation set out by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and others. In the 1860s, the colony of South Australia determined to settle the land all the way to the Arafura Sea along these same principles. Among other things, these principles included that of colonial self-reliance and concentrated settlement--principles that had not worked fantastically well in South Australia (22-23). Manning Clark, in a famous line, said that the historian 'mustn't trivialise the human scene, he mustn't sneer, he mustn't mock'. Cross never stoops to sneering or mockery, although the southern attempts to colonise the north present ample scope for both. He manages to tell the story with wit and humour, but also with a detailed understanding of the reasons behind the fitful attempts at northern colonisation.
Great Central State is the result of forty years' research, and this is clearly visible throughout the book. The author's principal sources are South Australian parliamentary papers and debates, the letters and journals of the South Australians who were behind the various schemes, and the newspapers of the time. Cross, or perhaps his publisher, has thankfully eschewed the current trend towards endnotes, so his sources proclaim themselves unabashedly from the bottom of each page. Curiously, the footnoting in the book is continuous, resulting in a grand total of 977 footnotes. Constant reference to nineteenth-century sources allows Cross to bring his narrative to life, in part by borrowing the often overblown language of these sources. A newspaper account of the first expedition to the north in 1864 declared that the ship Henry Ellis was to carry 'not only Caesar and his fortune, but the fate of this new colonisation scheme' (51). Cross makes reference to Caesar in his text as well. There was also fun to be had in 1864, as the man likened to Caesar was B.T. Finiss, whose name gave rise to puns around the phrase finis coronat opus ('the end crowns the work'/'Finiss crowns the work') (45). It is with a wry humour that Cross tells this story, and he tells that story with support from strong documentary evidence.
The driving forces behind the narrative are the fortunes of the individuals involved in the various colonisation schemes. Since most of these were white men, and most of the sources were written by white men, this makes for a history of white men that generally avoids discussions of class or gender. Great Central State is a traditional narrative history, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. So few books have been written recently about the founding of the Northern Territory, and in this sense the book will form a basis for further research into these areas. Furthermore, the traditional narrative structure does not mean that the book is a positivist one, nor is it a triumphant march of progress. It is as the blurb has it: 'an extraordinary mixture of grand vision and folly', and Cross has as much time for the one as the other.
Indeed, Cross' interest in the history of ideas illuminates the text throughout. He continually returns to the particularly important idea of concentrated settlement, under which South Australia was founded in the 1830s. The South Australians in the 1860s wanted to colonise the Northern Territory along the same principles. These principles, and other contemporary ideas in colonising, are clearly explained and lead to a fuller understanding of the colonisation schemes proposed, and in some cases, of the reasons for their failure. Tracing these ideas and their paths, Cross does not lose track of the narrative, which is one of the reasons why the book is such an engaging read.
Great Central State discusses the issues of race in the nineteenth-century Territory from the perspectives of its white settlers. The Aborigines who experienced the first waves of settlement did not leave written records, and only occasionally are individual Aborigines fleshed out in the records of whites. Similarly, Chinese settlers in the settlements only come into the narrative through the records of white settlers. Cross writes what he can from these sources, and acknowledges the gaps. He does refer to a few interviews he conducted with present-day Aboriginal elders in the Territory, but concedes that a white historian cannot tell Aboriginal history in its entirety, and makes mention of looking forward to hearing Aboriginal Territorians tell their history (382). Regarding frontier violence, familiar problems confront the historian: some settlers were silent about the deaths of Aborigines in violent encounters, while some 'played up the massacres because they liked to see themselves as soldiers on the front line' (382). Stemming from Cross' penchant for examining how political and economic ideas were put into practice, there is an extended analysis of the struggle the South Australians had in getting northern courts and settlers to treat Aborigines as British subjects (227-236).
The book is laid out in a manner that lies between lavish and academic, to good effect. Numerous engravings, especially of the principal men behind the various schemes, illustrate the narrative well. A good spread of black and white photographs help set the scene for those of us who have never never been in the Territory. These photos illustrate the tenuous position the northern settlement held, and have sub-headings that fit the tone of the work well: 'The building materials--pugged poles driven into the ground and bark roofing--were much enjoyed by termites'. The one thing lacking was a map of the places named in the narrative, to help the reader trace settlements that appeared, disappeared, or were renamed over time. There are three maps (on pages 75, 204 and 351), but these do not include all the places named in the text, and I found the best map to be that on the front cover, which is partially obscured by the title. The map on 204 is of the Palmerston settlement only, while the last map is of nearly all of Southeast Asia, so the scope is too large to be of any use in pinpointing places in the Territory. A comprehensive map in the front or back papers of the book would have been an excellent addition to the work.
Great Central State is a book for anyone interested in the history of the colonisation of Australia, or indeed anyone looking for an insight into the way individual personalities shaped colonial Australia. This book will sit well on the shelves of Australian historians, academic or otherwise, as its sources are clear while not interrupting the at-times-incredible story that Cross tells.
the university of melbourne
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|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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