The best books about the history of Australia

Peter Grose Author Of Ten Rogues: The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen's Land to Chile
By Peter Grose

The Books I Picked & Why

The Fatal Shore

By Robert Hughes

Book cover of The Fatal Shore

Why this book?

I used to say of The Fatal Shore that any Australian who hadn’t read it should have his or her passport confiscated and should not be allowed to vote. When I was taught history in school in Australia, we were endlessly told that the first colonists were on the brink of starvation. In The Fatal Shore, Bob marvels at all this. The blacks looked on incredulous at the starving settlers. Here were people surrounded by plenty: edible meat, edible fish, and edible native plants. Yet they would rather starve and yearn for a regular British diet than sample the natural riches around them.

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The Commonwealth of Thieves

By Thomas Keneally

Book cover of The Commonwealth of Thieves

Why this book?

Tom is an old mate, and a magician with words. He is also a prodigious researcher. Books: yes. The bibliography in The Commonwealth of Thieves runs to seven tight-packed pages, divided between primary sources (three pages) and secondary sources. The bibliography is underpinned by no fewer than 27 pages of notes. The Australian history I was taught at school was hogwash. Tom has set it straight in this brilliantly researched and off-the-wall history of our early days.

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Behind Bamboo: Hell on the Burma Railway

By Rohan Rivett

Book cover of Behind Bamboo: Hell on the Burma Railway

Why this book?

I was five years old when this book first appeared (in 1946) but I must have been about 12 when I first read it, and the memory has stayed with me ever since. Rohan Rivett was a fine Australian journalist. He was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in February 1942, and stayed as a prisoner-of-war for the duration. It has stuck in my memory ever since, a simple and modest account of the horrors faced by Allied prisoners held by the Japanese.

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Cooper's Creek: Tragedy and Adventure in the Australian Outback

By Alan Moorehead

Book cover of Cooper's Creek: Tragedy and Adventure in the Australian Outback

Why this book?

Over the years Australia has produced a succession of superb journalists, of whom Alan Moorehead was one of the most distinguished, both as a war correspondent and as a writer of non-fiction books. Cooper’s Creek tells the story of the Burke and Wills 1860 expedition, which set out to cross Australia from south to north. It is a tale of heroism, tenacity, and sheer, rotten luck. Almost everybody perished, some when rescue was literally hours away.

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The Singing Line

By Alice Thomson

Book cover of The Singing Line

Why this book?

This really is quite an extraordinary book, published on 1 January 1999. Alice Thomson is a British journalist who came to Australia to write a history of the overland telegraph line connecting Darwin to Adelaide. The line was built by her great-grandfather Charles Todd, a young English engineer. It is partly a touching love story, part a great historical narrative, and part a fascinating travel book. To do her research, Alice Thomson and her husband came to Australia and drove the length of the old telegraph line, picking up anecdotes and atmosphere along the way. As an aside, I mention that a seamless line of women in Alice Thomson’s family have borne the name Alice. Alice Springs was named after Charles Todd’s young wife Alice. The dry river that runs through Alice Springs is called the Todd River.

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