Sunday, July 26, 2009

What if?

Historians seem to enjoy imagining history as it might have been, and it's this 'what if' theme that is taken up by prominent Australian historians, in a collection of counterfactual histories edited by Sean Scalmer and Stuart McIntyre called What if: Australian History as it might have been.

In Stuart McIntyre's counterfactual, Australia's entry into the First World War is pre-empted by a Pearl Harbour-like attack on Australian troop ships in the Cocos Islands, well before they reach Gallipoli. In the shock that follows, Billy Hughes stubbornly rallies his nation to the cause of empire.

On the other hand, Helen Irving imagines what might have happened if Australia's initial attempt at Federation did not win British approval, and was therefore deferred until 1910. Rather than Alfred Deakin, Irving has the irracible Billy Hughes bring Australia together as a nation. Greater confidence in nationhood leads to a less obstructionist senate, paving the way for Australia to become a republic by 1980.

What If has the consequence of essentialising history, creating an opposition between what really happened and what writers imagine might have happened.

Australia is still at heart a speculative enterprise.