Remember Vasco da Gama? If you’re under 45 that name should
bring back painful memories of endless hours of school history, spent
tracing the voyages of effing discovery, the spice routes and so on.
Why was it deemed necessary for us to know who rounded the Cape of Good
Hope, and where nutmeg comes from?

Because of Geoffrey Blainey, that’s why.

In 1966 Blainey published The Tyranny of Distance which
revolutionised Australian history. It argued that a key fact in
understanding our development and society was not what people thought
they were doing in founding Australia, but the material circumstances
in which they did it – chiefly, how bloody far away we were from
everything.

Gosh. Sounds a bit, well, thematic and Marxist doesn’t it? In fact it
is. Blainey was influenced by the French Marxist Annales’ school
of history, made famous by Fernand Braudel. Braudel argued that world
history had overlooked the importance of big and unchanging structures
– like the shape of continents and century-long economic cycles – in
explaining how things came to be.

The adoption of this approach in the 1960s meant that the old approach
as exemplified by the Victorian school readers – the study of the
unbroken history of the Anglo-Saxon race – was abandoned in favour of
looking at how the world economy came to be, how cultures encountered
each other, yadayada.

So, if Julie Bishop is going to start weeding out thematic history,
she’s going to have to reach pretty far back. If she’s looking for a
good base for a narrative history of Australia then she could of course
turn to the work of our most celebrated narrative historian – and
someone with little patience for the cross-section-style thematic
approach – the one and only Manning Clark.

Dear me. It’s a little more complicated than a radio soundbite, isn’t it?

Peter Fray

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