Off the Beaten Track


History, according to our Prime Minister is a clear chronological sequence of ‘key’ events, a shining highway across the nation conveying us speedily to a known destination with no distractions or deviations. The deviations, to borrow his mixed metaphor, are a ‘fragmented stew’ of themes and issues. Drive off the highway and you experience the delights of a country road at your peril. And please resist any desire to get out of the car and amble through the bush!

The notion of coherent history is the same as the notion of objective journalism. Both imply unobstructed paths and clear directions. The notion of objective journalism suggests (as Claud Cockburn wrote in 1967) that journalists find ‘facts’ lying about like pieces of ore on the Yukon gold fields. And coherent history implies there is only one story to be told and primary sources are as reliable as the ‘facts’ on the goldfield.



The separation of the discipline of history from other fields seems foolhardy. Fiction, for example, can provide one of those diversions off the highway contesting the accepted truisms of traditional historical texts as well as providing an opportunity to present voices excluded from official master narratives . We all know that, too often, primary sources are not robust enough to be conclusive, and it is at this point that historians themselves become novelists constructing a particular sequence of events to form their narratives.

The Canadian writer Margaret Attwood, who spent 30 years researching the historical basis for her novel Alias Grace, came to the conclusion that the written accounts surrounding the real Grace’s crime were so contradictory that ‘few facts emerge as unequivocally known.’

With a background of writing six nonfiction books and 15 years as a journalist, I spent 10 years researching my first novel The Curer of Souls, set in Van Diemen’s Land. I collected plenty of ‘facts,’ but as the years went by, I realised the gaps and silences in the primary sources were too large to tell a nonfiction narrative. If I had solely drawn upon the traditional historical texts, I might have created a vastly different world to the one that exists in the novel. But does that mean the world I am presenting is wholly fictional?

Tasmania’s colonial remnants line up on display along the Heritage Highway, yet in spite of such overt symbols of its White past, the stories of the men who laboured in chains on so many of these buildings, lie largely dormant. For the curious eyes of the tourists, all too often, the pockmarks from their picks on the sandstone walls remain the only legacy of the convicts’ existence . How many, for example, know of the subversive message contained in the convict carvings on the Ross Bridge?

The emphasis in places like the former penal settlement of Port Arthur is on those who survived the system, not those who were failed by it in the same way as the Indigenous genocide practised by the first White settlers is buried in the tourist discourse.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

The silences between the primary records have no place in John Howard’s version of history. In the traditional telling of my novel there would be no paedophilia at Point Puer the first-known boys prison in the Western world, and only recently opened to visitors. In this prison, convicts supervised the boys’ wellbeing and ‘certain very revolting offences’ were committed that were too shocking to relate in any more detail in the diary of the Commandant, Charles O’Hara Booth.

Transported across the seas some as young as 10 years old these boys are marginalised voices in the traditional history texts. Instead, their place in history is reduced to lists of rations, duties and punishments. Even physical reminders of their presence have disappeared. The rotted timber of the buildings they once occupied have disintegrated and only a few artefacts such as a hollowed out, half-built aqueduct leading nowhere in the middle of the bush, and a square, sandstone pond filled with rainwater remain.

There are whispers to be found in the history annals such as the note from Benjamin Horne, headmaster at Point Puer, that among the more serious crimes committed by the boys included a crime ‘which a Christian should scarcely mention an unnatural crime.’ Local historian Peter MacFie, a former historian at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement in the 1980s, wrote in the journal, Tasmanian Historical Studies: ‘While the sexual practices of the boys were rarely reported it seems likely that sex was yet another commodity traded on the black economy. There can be little doubt, however, that many sexual encounters were far from consensual.’

Homosexuality, which was not even invented as a word in the 1830s the period in which my novel is set has also been largely ignored in the accepted histories, yet the perceived practising of it was one of the reasons that the convict coal mines on the Tasman Peninsula, now a tourist attraction, were closed.

Primary sources are often unreliable as a form of ‘truth.’ The 19th century diaries (by Lady Jane Franklin, storekeeper Thomas Lempriere, and the Commandant, Charles O’Hara Booth) from which I drew three of my characters, contained many gaps.

Apart from the gaps in these primary sources, what place do these historical figures have in the ‘traditional’ nationalistic fervour behind the push for the sequential history being proposed by Howard and Education Minister Julie Bishop during their recent history summit?

If the telling of history can be controlled by the purse strings by the Federal Government refusing to fund schools that do not teach the preferred curriculum what does that tell future generations of Australians studying history? That there is only one way the story can be told?

Perhaps then students may turn to novels to counterbalance the spin. As Aristotle said in his Poetics (350 BC), ‘ it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.’

Whether the new regime of history can cope with that kind of doubt on the highway to knowledge remains to be seen.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.