At our Annual General Meeting on 8th October, 2011 we had the pleasure of hearing a talk by The Honourable Bob Carr
“He knows nothing of Australia who knows only Australia.”
This was his text for Bob Carr’s address on Saturday in Sydney’s Town Hall to the City of Sydney Historical Association. Bob Carr started by looking at some of the global changes that have defined how the world has developed its present social structure. In particular, he cited the expansion of Western Europe into the Americas and into Africa as the most fundamental changes. As a keen student of American history, he drew parallels between the settlement of Australia and that of America, starting with the English separatists 150 years earlier. In both cases, that settlement involved annexing land which had been inhabited by an indigenous people. But the individual stories were different. He spoke about the echoes with American history, and in particular about the Ken Burns series The West.
“It had a revelation for me – that history comprises many narratives and you don’t have to settle on one. Burns showed the slaughter of 250 Lakota men women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890 when the military fired shells into tepees. It was a horrific slaughter and the viewer was profoundly shocked. Then, portraying arching Wyoming skies, Burns the film maker switched to the story of an idealistic young teacher, Ethel Waxman, arriving with her degree at a one teacher school. She is wooed by John Love, a rugged sheep rancher. It’s a classic pioneer tale. They survive floods, blizzards, market forces. Their story – this white settler history – coexists with the anguish of Indian blood in the snow at Wounded Knee. Ken made the point that the West comprised many histories, not just one. And this, as I’ve recently argued, is a key to Australian history.”
Recent History produces many Stories
From there he moved to a more modern example of Australian history, describing the way in which the fall of Singapore in the Second World War produced many different stories, including that of General Gordon Bennett. He outlined the story of General Gordon Bennett, who despite the personal bravery he demonstrated at Gallipoli, abandoned his men to flee back to Australia. This was seen by most as having overtones of weakness but more probably was based on defensible motives. Bennett aspired to lead the Australian army in World War Two. Bennett decided that it was his duty to escape from Singapore rather than surrender. He handed over command of the 8th Division to Brigadier Cecil Callaghan.
With a few junior officers and some local Europeans, Bennett commandeered a sampan at gunpoint and crossed the Strait of Malacca to the east coast of Sumatra. There they transferred to a launch in which they sailed up the Jambi River. They then proceeded on foot to Padang, on the west coast of Sumatra. From there Bennett flew to Java and then to Australia. Bennett was never to survive th public antipathy, and a post war army inquiry found against his actions. Yet when he stood on the wharf to greet returning POWs he was cheered by them. There’s a fascinating Australian story here, but one that has not been fully told. But it is only one of the stories from the fall of Singapore in which Australia lost an army of 20,000 men, plus nurses, and perhaps one of the most dramatic in our country’s history. Many of those captured endured the prison camps and forced labour but returned as different people. Others did not survive. It was a huge loss that touched every town and suburb in the country. These are the stories that need to be told and each is different. They and all the other stories and all the other stories define the history of our country.