Island Nation: A History of Australians and the Sea

Article excerpt

Frank Broeze, Island Nation: a history of Australians and the sea, Allen & Unwin, St Leopards NSW (1998), 303 pp., A$24.95.

The 'revisionist' aim of this study is to investigate the maritime dimension of Australian development in place of the attention more frequently paid to the land and the cities. Although the extensive writing of Broeze himself, as well as of others he mentions, suggests that Australians already work regularly in this field, the unique feature of this study is its all-embracing coverage of social, economic, political and cultural matters maritime. The work is divided into three parts, dealing respectively with controlling sea space, taming distance, and living with the sea. The first addresses the role of the sea in foreign policy and security matters, from the earliest settlers, through British protection to more recent self-reliance. Part II looks at the development of trade, shipping and ports. Part III deals with work, culture and life style - more specifically, marine resources, Labour and pastimes.

While Broeze indicates the many ways in which the sea impinges on the lives of Australians he does not explicitly emphasise it as a critical factor in historical development but simply as an insufficiently recorded one. The strength of the book is the range of knowledge demonstrated by the author rather than any sustaining thesis or argument. However, one underlying theme to be drawn from the book, and of great relevance to contemporary debate in Australia, is that a stable, monocultural consensus never existed. Broeze indicates that many nations contributed to the historical development of Australia from earliest times, even if Britain has been the dominant foreign influence. Gaining a sufficient labour supply has been a challenge for much of Australian history and he shows us that contributors have included Chinese seamen, Melanesian 'coolies', Aboriginal pearl divers, and Italian and Greek fishermen. Matters of confrontation have included labour relations and land titles. The vexed contemporary issue of Australian relations with Asia is put into perspective by showing that while the focus of Australian outlook has moved increasingly towards Asia over the last quarter of a century, trading with the nations of that region goes back to the early days of European settlement. …