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Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: a history.

Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: a history, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2009, 359 pages; ISBN 978 192141 016 1.

This is a fine book: comprehensively researched, fluently written and beautifully presented. It joins a number of excellent recent publications on the colonisation of Sydney, including Grace Karskens' The Colony and Thomas Keneally's Australians. The amazing story of the birth of Sydney as a penal colony in 1788, with its shocking confrontation between two cultures, is again told by Hoskins with clarity and sensitivity but with a new emphasis on the harbour as a site of travel, trade and cultural interaction.

The history is structured as a chronological account which begins with pre-historical times, given the harbour's tens of thousands of years of inhabitation by Aboriginal people. Then, among other stories, it tells of the hard days of colonisation by British convict authorities through its development as a commercial port and arrival place for trade and people; its long history of being polluted (and more recently cleaned up); its numerous defence preparations over two centuries, culminating in the attack by Japanese midget submarines in 1942; the dramas of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s-30s and the Sydney Opera House 1950s-70s; the post-war battles over natural and built heritage; up to the recent public debates around privatisation and the closing down of its 'working harbour' components.

The book concentrates on the inner harbour (as Hoskins defines it, 'from the Heads to the beginning of the Parramatta River at Balmain'). Perhaps because Hoskins is a public historian long employed by North Sydney Council, and thus familiar with issues arising from the body of water that laps against the southern shores of his workplace, there is an interesting emphasis on the history of the northern shore of the harbour as well as the southern (Central Business District) side.

The book also stretches its geographic focus in other directions; for example, nipping around the corner to Botany Bay to see what Captain Cook got up to in his brief visit in 1770; or following convict escapees William and Mary Bryant out of the heads and up to Dutch Timor; going out with the whalers into the southern oceans; and steaming backwards and forwards laden with cargo between Sydney and Europe.

Offering yet another dimension, Hoskins' book refers to numerous ideas of the harbour by drawing extensively on literary and especially visual images of it. Thus not only is it gorgeously illustrated for a history book, with many familiar and unfamiliar images in colour as well as black and white, but the images are carefully examined and discussed as sources of information in themselves. For example, Hoskins displays and compares two oil portraits by Augustus Earle in the 1820s, picturing the Aboriginal man Bungaree and the colonial gentleman Captain John Piper, both posed standing with the harbour in the background.

Hoskins notes that the portraits were painted virtually simultaneously. Bungaree, he observed, had taken to wearing a cast-off military tunic, trousers and cocked hat--in part a self-conscious reference to his status as a 'chief' and a mariner and also, perhaps, in mimicry of the Europeans. In this persona Bungaree became the subject of the colony's first lithographic print, and this image was included in a panorama of Sydney that toured England in 1829. With its many variations, Earle's representation of Bungaree became one of the iconic images of Sydney.

Earle also completed a version in oil, and the resonances between this and the Piper portrait are striking. Because they were painted within months of each other the formal similarities were probably intentional. Each uniformed subject stands with left foot forward. The gentle slope of Point Piper and Henrietta Villa have an equivalent in Bungaree's portrait in front of Bennelong Point and Fort Macquarie. Bungaree lifts his hat in greeting; Piper leans forward slightly in a gesture of patrician acknowledgement. The similarity is not surprising for both men were representative faces of the harbour, Piper in his capacity as naval officer collecting fees for the government and Bungaree as Aboriginal 'chief' asking for a few coins in the course of welcoming new arrivals 'to his country' (pp109-110).

This insight offers thoughtful comment about the historical and biographical content, form and reception of these images. This is typical of the way Hoskins' narrative deals seriously with its mass of different histories, issues and concerns, seamlessly moving between the specific and the general and attempting to give proper weight to varying points of view, which makes it both informative and a great pleasure to read.

Bronwyn Hanna

Heritage Branch

NSW Department of Planning
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Author:Hanna, Bronwyn
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
Words:768
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