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Jack Cross, Great central state: the foundation of the Northern Territory.

Jack Cross, Great central state: the foundation of the Northern Territory, Wakefield Press, Kent Town SA, 2011, xii + 403 pages; ISBN 978 1 86254 877 0.

Jack Cross, a retired South Australian academic, worked on Great central state for more than 40 years. Dealing with the early stages of South Australia's administration of the Northern Territory, its more than 400 pages are based on very extensive research of primary sources. Cross argues that South Australia used the Territory in a failed bid to become Australia's premier colony through developing the north Australian coast as part of South-East Asia. Great central state is 'several histories wrapped into one' (p xi). It is the story of the Northern Territory's foundation years and of South Australia's attempt to replicate its own planned colonisation in the Territory.

The book begins with a detailed account of the context in which South Australia was given responsibility for the Territory in 1863, suggesting that what kept the 'northern issue' alive was a preoccupation with an 'unlimited Asian market'. It moves on to the ill-fated attempt to establish a settlement at Escape Cliffs before considering the more successful establishment of an outpost at Port Darwin, the impact of the overland telegraph line's construction, the discovery of gold and the coming of the Chinese. The bizarre plans to promote religious migration to the Territory and the beginnings of its pastoral industry are then dealt with.

The final chapter sketches some developments between the 1880s and the early 20th century that led to South Australia relinquishing its control of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth of Australia in 1911. A short epilogue observes that what makes the book's story memorable 'is the application of a certain grand style based in part on a belief in progress and liberal optimism ... to perhaps the most resistant environment in Australia' (p 375).

Particular attention is given throughout to colourful individuals, such as Boyle Travers Finniss, who proved so incapable of making the Escape Cliffs settlement work, and James Penn Boucaut, who tried to save the Northern Territory by introducing 40,000 refugees there from Russia.

Cross's monumental study has many virtues. The depth of his research of contemporary sources is especially admirable. The book is logically organised. As the prize-winning historian Philip Jones correctly notes on the back cover, Great central state sorts 'folly from foresight' and identifies 'pioneers and villains, opportunists and adventurers'.

Its accessible and fluent prose should appeal to general readers. It is also attractively produced, with a clear text and well-placed illustrations that are an essential component of the evidence presented. The use of footnotes rather than endnotes means that readers do not have to move backwards and forwards through the text to find source references. The index is excellent.

A major weakness, however, is that Cross only rarely and very briefly engages with other historians. Most publications on Northern Territory history before 1911 do not appear in his text or footnotes. While this may be unintended, he often gives the incorrect impression that he is the first historian to deal with the issues that he discusses. Nowhere does he acknowledge that Great central state, although more detailed, covers similar ground to Peter Donovan's well-researched A land full of possibilities: a history of South Australia's Northern Territory (1981). He appears unaware of numerous other relevant secondary sources, including Journal of Northern Territory History articles and Northern Territory University/Charles Darwin University research degree theses.

He acknowledges his failure to analyse the Aboriginal response to the invasion of their land 'except at the most empirical descriptive level' (p 382) yet had he used scholarly studies on Aboriginal-European relations in the Northern Territory such as those of Tony Austin, Samantha Wells and the Indigenous historian Sue Stanton, he could have overcome this difficulty, at least partly. There are no references at all to websites. Cross's coverage of what other historians see as crucial developments from the early 1880s until 1911 is curiously perfunctory.

Great central state is an important work. Its author's comprehensive assessment of aspects of South Australia's involvement in the Northern Territory is invaluable, as is his attention to the wider international setting. All those wanting to understand the history of South Australia's Northern Territory need to read the book. It is, then, a pity that Cross does not sufficiently take into account other historians' findings and interpretations.

David Carment

Emeritus Professor of History

Charles Darwin University
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Author:Carment, David
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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