In the corridor where the Australian Dictionary of Biography team does its work at the Australian National University in Canberra, there is a gallery of photographs of those who have led the project since 1962. The first is of Douglas Pike (general editor, 1962–73)—rouseabout, shearer, teacher, clergyman and historian. Pike, the son of missionaries to China, looks squarely at the camera, pipe in mouth: a stereotype of the academic.
The gallery continues with Bede Nairn (1973–84), historian of the NSW Labor Party. Nairn—with a neat moustache that makes him look like a retired army colonel—wears a tweed jacket and paisley tie, posing with an open copy of a volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
We then move on to Geoffrey Serle (1973–87), New Guinea war veteran, Rhodes Scholar, radical nationalist, historian of colonial Victoria and of Australian literature and the arts, biographer of John Monash and Robin Boyd, middle-class Melbourne to his boot heels. Serle stares off to his right, wistfully perhaps, as if oblivious to the camera. The effect is stylish, even arty in the 1970s kind of way. And there’s another pipe: this time, at the bottom of the picture, with only the mouthpiece visible.
Nairn and Serle shared the editorship for more than a decade. They were followed by John Ritchie (1988–2002), an ANU academic who had recently established his reputation in biography with a study of Lachlan Macquarie. Ritchie, a product of Melbourne’s working-class north and a brilliant athlete in his youth, smiles warmly into the camera, informally dressed, hands folded. There is a photo of a footballer partly visible on the right: it is the legendary Carlton ruckman John Nicholls. No pipe here—Ritchie smoked cigarettes, lots of them—and there is a hint of awkwardness in the slightly stiff pose; a man trying too hard to look at ease.
Now a change of key: Diane Langmore (2001–08), an accomplished historian and biographer whose work encompassed Australia and Papua New Guinea. Unlike any of the men appointed general editor, she had previously been a member of the dictionary’s staff. She is dressed in an elegant jacket and wearing a brooch and there is none of the paraphernalia of academic scholarship lying about. The photo evokes a professional woman—she could just as easily be a public servant or magazine editor—quietly, dutifully going about her business.
The last of the photos is smaller and, unlike the others, in colour. It is of the current general editor, Melanie Nolan. She is younger than any of the others and a member of the female minority who have led the project. Like Nairn, a labour historian, she is also a New Zealander, but has a PhD in Australian history from the Australian National University, gained in the late 1980s before she returned to work in New Zealand. She has been general editor since 2008.
The tale told by these photos would be a familiar one in many professions, and it reflects broader changes in the world of academic history. The founding fathers of the postwar professions filled most of the senior roles in the expanding universities. The ADB, located in the Australian National University as a contribution by the social sciences to postwar nation-building, reflected the wider dynamics of postwar academia.
Men ruled the roost. Sir Keith Hancock, a founder of the ANU but not one of its foundation professors—he did not take up a post until 1957—did the political heavy-lifting required to line up institutional backing. The early history of the ADB reveals a project in which the male heavy-hitters of the era—Hancock, Manning Clark, John La Nauze, Malcolm Ellis—battled it out among themselves.
It was not a blokes-only affair. Ann Mozley (now Moyal) was appointed a research fellow and has been acclaimed the dictionary’s ‘Founding Mother’, but women were otherwise relegated to a secondary role, their contributions barely acknowledged.1 Often armed with an honours or master’s degree but limited prospects for academic employment, women had from the earliest years occupied the ADB’s engine-room. They did so in the decades that followed as researchers and editors; rather as in academic departments, women were secretaries, research assistants, tutors or junior lecturers, but rarely senior lecturers or readers, and never professors.
The ADB, the greatest and longest-running Australian project in the humanities and social sciences, now comprises 18 volumes. The earliest appeared in 1966, published by Melbourne University Press, the most recent in 2012. Articles are now published online on a yearly schedule according to when the subjects died, providing easy access to anyone with an internet connection. In contrast, the Dictionary of National Biography in Britain requires a paid subscription.
Open access provides the ADB with extraordinary reach; there are 70 million hits each year. Staff can usually tell if there has been a popular television program on a prominent Australian; large numbers of hits almost immediately follow. The dictionary is clearly popular with students completing school projects, too. The major entries—on figures such as Ned Kelly and Caroline Chisholm—would be among the most widely read historical texts in the country. Wikipedia entries frequently rely on information already available via the ADB.
You probably don’t want to get into the ADB yourself; not yet anyway, because you have to be dead. For the first 12 volumes, the dictionary followed the floruit principle. Individuals were selected for each volume on the basis of the period during which they had flourished. Since then, individuals have been selected for inclusion on the basis of when they died. The entries now being prepared are mainly of people who died in the 1990s; so Don Bradman doesn’t yet have an entry, even though he flourished in the 1930s and 1940s.
A large army of volunteers have written most of the articles over the life of the project. For young historians, writing an ADB entry might be part of one’s historical apprenticeship. Entries vary in length from 400 or 500 words for relative unknowns through to as many as 8000 for a major figure, such as a prime minister.
There is a working party for the Commonwealth, for each state, and for particular themes or groups: for military service, for instance, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They decide who should be covered, and try to match subjects to authors. The dictionary seeks balance by ensuring adequate representation according to state, gender and ethnicity, but women, Indigenous people and non-English-speaking migrants remain underrepresented. With Indigenous historian Shino Konishi of the University of Western Australia, the ADB has an Australian Research Council–funded project to commission and publish new entries on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Under Nolan, the dictionary is decolonising, and it is becoming more representative of the past and present diversity of Australian society.
This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about how we understand our history. The earliest volumes of the dictionary announced their period as 1788–1850. At the time they first appeared, it was widely believed that Aboriginal people had occupied Australia for just a few thousand years. Before long, the revolution in carbon dating meant that the human history of Australia was pushed back tens of thousands of years. Mainstream Australian history responded to these changes via books such as Geoffrey Blainey’s Triumph of the Nomads (1975). But the implications for biography were less obvious. Could one write a biography of an Aboriginal man or woman who had lived 30 000 or 40 000 years ago? The ADB has now definitively answered the question in the affirmative. An entry will shortly be published on Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, who lived about 42 000 years ago.
Producing new entries on Indigenous people from both long ago and the more recent past is one task. Another—no less difficult—is revising those that are already there. The ADB has attracted some media criticism in recent years on the grounds that many entries on the early-colonial period do not adequately register the injustice done to Indigenous people. The entry on Governor Lachlan Macquarie has been cited as a case in point:
Macquarie’s policy concerning the Aboriginals was an expression of the same humanitarian conscience. He organized the Native Institution (a school for Aboriginal children), a village at Elizabeth Bay for the Sydney tribe, an Aboriginal farm at George’s Head and a sort of annual durbar for them at Parramatta. Orders of merit and even an old general’s uniform were bestowed on deserving chiefs. The results of this naive policy were not very encouraging and in 1816, when the natives showed signs of ungrateful hostility, he organized a military drive to chasten them. But no other governor since Phillip had shown them so much sympathy.
It is hard to recognise here the governor who in 1816 ordered troops, if they happened to kill adult Aboriginal men in clashes with them, to hang them up ‘on Trees in Conspicuous Situations, to Strike the Survivors with the greater terror’.2
The ADB entry in question was not written by an old Tory over his afternoon sherry in the Melbourne Club. The author was Noel McLachlan, a former journalist and lecturer at Melbourne University, and a man of the left. But it was published in 1967, at a time when the revolution in white Australian consciousness of the wrongs done to Indigenous people was at a formative stage. It was indeed the year of the referendum that was widely understood as bringing Indigenous people closer to full membership of the political nation. But McLachlan’s portrayal was entirely in keeping with the dominant understanding of the day that still saw their dispossession as of marginal interest or importance.
It’s worth glancing at the books of the early ADB editors to reinforce this point, in case it should be thought there is something idiosyncratic about the Macquarie entry. Pike and Serle were among the most accomplished historians of their day. Neither was lacking in either insight or creativity.
In the very year he was appointed general editor, 1962, Pike published with Cambridge University Press a book with the title Australia: The Quiet Continent. ‘[S]heltered and remote’, Pike said of colonial Australia, ‘the Australian communities took shape as peaceful outposts of British civilization.’3
Aboriginal people are not ignored. On the very first page, Pike remarks that as ‘the old world progressed, the sea guarded the mystery of the southern continent and held its native people in stone-age bondage’. There are a handful of references to Aboriginal people elsewhere in the text. ‘Governors’ policies were humane,’ he explained, ‘but primitive food-gatherers were no match for the white invader. The native had to change his ways or fight for his sacred lands. Whether he chose dependence or clash, the end was death, lingering or sudden.’ To be fair, Indigenous people are at least given some agency here, but their role is to be pushed aside in the scramble for land.4
Geoffrey Serle was also publishing by this time; his The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1851–1861 appeared in 1963 and is still the standard work on the Victorian gold rushes. There are just two references to Aboriginal people in a book of almost 400 pages. On the second page, Serle explains that by 1850, Aboriginal people ‘were no longer a serious problem to the squatters’. He has Aboriginal people dying ‘of white men’s diseases’. He has them ‘blindly’—the word choice suggesting something less than rational agency—retaliating ‘against dispossession of tribal lands, violation of scared places, and interference with their women, and had fallen to white men’s guns; a few were shot or poisoned in cold blood’.5 An even later book by Serle, The Rush to be Rich: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1883–1889 (1971), contains not a single index entry on Aboriginal people.
What is striking about these two ADB general editors is not that they were unusual, wilfully blind or notably conservative but that they were typical, if very gifted, historians of their day. To say as much is not to excuse; it is to explain. For as long as outdated entries published in the 1960s remained in reference books that most people could only consult in libraries, there was limited interest in the existence of a problem, and the ADB simply pressed on with producing new volumes.
Things changed when the dictionary appeared online in 2006. Now, every school student could read an entry at the click of a button. The entries make it clear when they were first published, but there is something about the nature of the web that seems to demand constant revision; an item is either up to date or redundant, if not downright offensive. It’s as if old entries are being published again each and every day. And with each day that Macquarie is still being acclaimed a humanitarian, and Indigenous people dismissed as ungrateful, the ADB is complicit in the presentation of fake history, the perpetuation of past injustice in present consciousness.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement, and its Australian echoes, have sharpened these kinds of claims. A number of scholars, such as Clinton Fernandes, have recently typed names from Australia’s colonial history into University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership database.6 Here is research in the twenty-first century: work that might once have taken months in archives can be done from one’s personal computer thanks to diligent researchers at UCL and the generosity of British research councils. And it turns out that some Australian colonial fortunes depended, in small or large part, on compensation paid to slave-owners and others with connections to slave ownership on the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s. At another click of a button, the same researchers have also found that ADB entries—usually published in the 1960s—often fail to register links with Caribbean slavery, or do so in an evasive way.7
It may be that researchers of that time working on some ADB entries did avoid slavery as a subject that would upset their story of hardy and enterprising pioneers. But historians also ask new questions as times change. The very existence of the UCL database can be seen as a response to changing British sensibilities about the legacy of slavery, an aspect of Britain’s imperial history that looms larger now than a generation ago. It’s naive to imagine that getting history right is simply a matter of being sufficiently woke. Or that sources simply fall out of trees at the historian’s command.
For the ADB when confronted by new evidence of this kind, the problem is that revision is far from straightforward. Some early entries need to be totally rewritten or replaced; others require substantial revision. The scale of work required would be a multimillion dollar project, at a time when cultural institutions such as the ADB are a long way from being showered with funding.8 Nor is this revisionism the kind of work that can be crowd-sourced in the way that Wikipedia is constantly being revised. The whole point of the ADB is that it is meant to be something more than a presentation of facts; it is a dictionary of biography, a scholarly enterprise that is about interpretation and not just reporting.
Biography demands assessment, a weighing up of evidence, the shaping of narrative—and not a mere setting out of the anodyne list of the landmarks in an individual’s life. The entries do require balance, defined according to the professional standards of the day, which is why all of those who edit them, and many of the volunteers who write them, are trained historians. But balance is not the same as neutrality.
My own most recent entry—I have written eight over about 25 years—was on the 1980s fraudster John Friedrich. While there are still some uncertainties, the basic facts of Friedrich’s fraud—the National Safety Council of Victoria he led owed about a quarter of a billion dollars when he was arrested in 1989—are largely accepted. But my entry still required assessment: the application of my imagination and judgement to the known facts about Friedrich’s life. The scandal, I said:
resulted from inadequate government regulation, reckless bank lending, and the influence of a charismatic and driven man. A deeply flawed visionary, Friedrich had immense intelligence and energy, matched by dishonesty and a talent for self-promotion. He did not act out of a desire for personal monetary benefit but to build up the organisation to which he had tied his own reputation and identity.
I would stand by this appraisal, but it needn’t be the last word on Friedrich. Similarly, my idea of balance, in a historical assessment of Governor Macquarie, will be different from McLachlan’s of more than half a century ago. There has been a historiographical revolution since 1967; the violence of the frontier, as well as the range of other kinds of encounter between settlers and Indigenous people, are no longer at the margins of our historiography. And there has been a political transformation along with it: Indigenous people are not at the distant margins of politics.
Race is not the only issue at stake here. If the ADB were to be taken as a reflection of the lived reality of Australian history, one of the earliest homosexuals would have been the Seventh Earl Beauchamp, governor of New South Wales (1899–1901). Cameron Hazlehurst’s entry on him, published in 1979, appears to have been the first time a subject had been so identified. To place this in the perspective of modern Australian history, the article was published in the year after the first Mardi Gras, and with sodomy still a criminal offence in New South Wales (as it would be until 1984).
In more recent years, the issue of paedophilia has been an increasingly troubling one for the ADB as it contemplates existing biographical entries. The theme appears from time to time in already published volumes. Ian Britain, in a memorable 1996 entry on the aggressively heterosexual Australian actor Peter Finch, noted that in his involvement as a youth in the Theosophical Society, from Dr Annie Besant, Finch ‘had lessons in meditation; ‘Bishop’ [Charles] Leadbeater was more noted for his lessons in masturbation’.
The entry on Donald Friend, by art historian Anne Gray, has been altered recently in light of Friend’s own admissions in his diary of sex with underage boys. Both the original and revised Friend entries can be viewed via the ADB online. To the original entry, which declared that Friend’s ‘figure drawings reveal a sensuality that reflects his attraction to young men’ was added ‘and boys’. The original entry ended: ‘The National Library of Australia has published his diaries’, to which was appended: ‘his self-acknowledged paedophilia shocked many readers’.
This is minor surgery to an entry, although with large consequences for reputation. But most subjects do not provide such compelling, self-incriminating evidence in their own writings. When should an entry be altered in this way? What about an accusation made before a royal commission, possibly about a deceased clergyman, which is never tested in a court of law? Must the verdict of a court be the final word on such a matter—or indeed, any matter? If so, Robert Preston could not have written his recent history of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, A Very British Scandal, nor could there have been a fine television series made of a fine book. Thorpe, British Liberal Party leader in the 1970s, was never convicted of conspiracy to murder, yet there is now widespread acceptance that he was as guilty as sin; even at the time, Peter Cook caused great hilarity with a brilliant satire on the biases of the judge.
Work of the painstaking kind done by the ADB can seem arcane in the digital age. Isn’t it all on the web? Isn’t biography itself a rather old-fashioned enterprise, like portraiture in painting? And what of all that time and effort that goes into checking every entry, the hours online and in libraries and archives spent following up this dubious claim and that dodgy-looking date? In an age when public figures lie on an industrial scale, how can such minutiae still matter, how can it be a good use of public resources? There is an answer to these objections. The late John Molony, a man closely associated with the ADB until his death in 2018, puts it well in his biography of Ned Kelly:
The historian, like a lawyer, holds a brief but his is for the dead whose lips are sealed. He is not compelled to pick up that brief but, once done, his task takes on its own sacredness.9 •
Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University and is the author of The Sex Lives of Australians: A History and The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia.
- Ann Moyal, ‘Sir Keith Hancock: Laying the Foundations, 1959–1962’, in Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon (eds), The ADB’s Story, Australian National University E Press, Canberra, 2013, p. 73.
- Paul Daley, ‘Lachlan Macquarie was no humanitarian: His own words show he was a terrorist’, Guardian, 5 April 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/postcolonial-blog/2016/apr/05/lachlan-macquarie-was-no-humanitarian-his-own-words-show-he-was-a-terrorist>, consulted 3 March 2019.
- Douglas Pike, Australia: The Quiet Continent, Cambridge University Press, London, 1962, p. 3.
- Pike, Australia, pp. 1, 36.
- Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1851–1861, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1977 , p. 2.
- See <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/>.
- Clinton Fernandes, Island off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Vic., 2018, pp. 13–15. See also Paul Daley, ‘Colonial Australia’s foundation is stained with the profits of British slavery’, Guardian, 21 September 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/21/colonial-australias-foundation-is-stained-with-the-profits-of-british-slavery>, consulted 3 March 2019.
- Paul Daley, ‘Decolonising the dictionary: Reclaiming Australian history for the forgotten’, Guardian,
17 February 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/17/decolonising-the-dictionary-reclaiming-history-for-the-forgotten>.
- John Molony, Ned Kelly, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1989 , p. xv. My thanks to Nicholas Brown for pointing this quotation out to me.