Issue 11, March 2010 | Ann Curthoys


In his essay, “Permanent decline and fall or imaginable resurrection? The fate of History at UWA as viewed from the edge of retirement”, Richard Bosworth appears to see Australian historians generally as inwardly focussed, unable to “cut it” internationally, and as uninterested in international audiences.  In the course of making this case, he asserts that in my talk to the Australian Academy of Humanities in Canberra in November 2009, I was typical in resisting internationalization and seeking “protection” (a term I never used).[1]

It is hard to imagine how my talk could have been interpreted in this bizarre way. Richard turns my argument completely upside down. How did he get the impression that I was arguing against international approaches and awareness in the practice of history? Certainly, he could not have got it from the talk itself, which was so evidently and strongly arguing the opposite. I presented an argument for participating in the wider international conversations of historians, whilst not forgetting the importance of our location and local audience.

Nor could he have got the impression that I was arguing for a protected national history from any of my other work, given my own strenuous arguments to the contrary in a number of essays and books. I refer your readers to “Does Australian History Have a Future?” in 2002 and “Cultural History and the Nation”, in 2003, as just two examples.[2] Most importantly, I organised with Marilyn Lake a conference in 2004 at ANU on Transnational Histories, one result of which was a collection, co-edited with Marilyn, entitled Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective (ANU E Press, 2005), which has been widely reviewed and cited, both nationally and internationally. If I were so nationalist and uninterested in international publication, would I have co-edited with Mary Spongberg and Barbara Caine the highly successful and internationally focussed book, A Companion to Women’s Historical Writing, published by Palgrave in 2005? If I were so nationalist and uninterested in international publication, would I have written with John Docker “Defining Genocide”, the lead essay in the international collection edited by Dan Stone, The Historiography of Genocide?[3]

I trust it is clear that I believe passionately in history as an international enterprise, and have been arguing for and practising this approach for some considerable time. It was in this spirit that I co-wrote, with John Docker, Is History Fiction? (UNSW Press and University of Michigan Press, 2005). The last chapter ponders the influence of the growing trend towards transnational, international, global, comparative, world and other forms of supra-national history on the long-standing debates over truth and fiction in history. John and I have just completed for a revised edition of that book a new chapter entitled “Is a history of humanity possible?” Here, we consider questions of truth, fiction, and narration in relation to the developing fields of world and environmental history.

What concerns me most, however, is not Richard Bosworth’s misreading of my own argument, but his misrepresentation of the trajectories of Australian history in recent years. He seems to have missed the profound changes that have been happening under the influence of the desire for and interest in more transnational and comparative forms of history. Even a brief survey of the work of historians who have a primary focus on Australian history will reveal how extensive and productive this comparative and transnational turn has become. Historians are placing their work, and are reviewed, in international journals, and publish with international as well as local publishers. Think of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, or John Gascoigne, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia, or Julie Evans et al, Equal Subjects, Unequal Rights: Indigenous People in British Settler Colonies, 1830-1910. The list could go on. And on.

Finally, Richard Bosworth’s claim that in my paper I talked as though all historians in Australia do only Australian history is extremely odd. After outlining the globalizing and transnational developments in the discipline, I asked: “So, where does all this leave the nation? In particular, where does it leave the nation we live in, Australia, in our scholarship?” My discussion of Australian history was quite clearly an example of a more general issue, namely the relation between national and supra-national forms of historical work. I concluded the paper, and will conclude this rejoinder, as follows:

The moves towards transnational, comparative, imperial, world, and Big history, and the impact of Indigenous perspectives and writing, however, may mean that in future we do national history quite differently, so differently perhaps that it becomes unrecognisable. Where national history, for example, has so often been obsessed with trying to work out how a particular nation is distinct, perhaps the influence of these alternative forms of history will lead us, as Ian Tyrrell argued so influentially of American history and as Manning Clark advocated for Australian history, to emphasise the local manifestations of large universal human themes. 

[1] The full text of Professor Curthoys’ speech is available at  (Eds).

[2] Ann Curthoys, “Does Australian History Have a Future?”, in Australian Historical Studies, no. 118, 2002, pp.140-52; Ann Curthoys, “Cultural History and the Nation”, in Hsu-ming Teo and Richard White, eds, Cultural History in Australia, UNSW Press, 2003, pp.22-37.

[3] Ann Curthoys and John Docker, “Defining Genocide”, in Dan Stone, ed., The Historiography of Genocide, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp.9-41.