Inside Story

Distance and destiny

Published fifty years ago, The Tyranny of Distance changed the way we see Australia, writes Graeme Davison

Graeme Davison 28 July 2016 3168 words

Mind-changer: detail from Brian Sadgrove’s cover design for the first edition of The Tyranny of Distance. Sun Books/Brian Sadgrove

The Tyranny of Distance changed our map of the Australian past. It was a bestseller and a mind-changer. Unusually for such a groundbreaking book, it appeared first as a paperback from a new Australian publisher rather than as a hardback from a prestigious university press. It has sold over 180,000 copies and its title has entered the language. Few books on Australia have been as popular and influential.

Like Keith Hancock’s famous book Australia (1930) and Manning Clark’s A Short History of Australia (1963), The Tyranny of Distance belongs to a long line of short books that have changed our view of Australian history. Its purpose, according to the blurb, was to provoke thought about the “problems and possibilities” of the nation. Yet it looked far beyond Australia’s shores and paid little attention to formal politics. To find similar national histories you would have to look afar, to the French Annales historians, for example, but in 1966 their works had mostly still not appeared in English. The Tyranny of Distance was very much an Australian book, a product of benign distance and a homegrown author.

The job of the national historian is to tell us who we are. He therefore concentrates on the parts of the past that anticipate the present. Like a self-made man who forgets the friends who helped him on his way, he tends to neglect the role of people, industries and movements that hastened the nation’s progress but exhausted themselves in the process. In 1966 Australia ran on petroleum oil, but it had largely forgotten its reliance, just 150 years earlier, on the oil extracted from the whales that then abounded in the seas around Australia. Geoffrey Blainey challenged that habit of thought. In one of the most memorable chapters of his book, he explains how distance, climate and economics shaped the lives of the whalemen. Here, with his customary vividness, he describes an emigrant ship approaching the Australian coastline at night:

On a thousand nights in those waters a sailor keeping watch on the masthead heard only the dark procession of waves slapping the ship and saw only the sleeping decks below. But in the 1830s there were nights when for an instant he saw a faint flame lick the sea, then fade. If he was an experienced sailor he knew that not far away the furnaces on the deck of a whaling ship were boiling the blubber of a captured whale. If in the first daylight his ship chanced to be closer to the whaler, he perhaps saw its grimy sails. If the wind was blowing his way, he sniffed the blood and blubber.

In approaching Australia from the sea, Blainey inverts our landlubber’s perspective. He pictures the oceans as highways rather than barriers, and the Australian settlements as limpets clinging to the hull of the continent rather than as gateways to rich hinterlands. On that map, Sydney is closer to Hobart than Bathurst, and both are closer to New England in the United States than to New England in northern New South Wales. Only when the whalemen had established a precarious toehold on the continent could the pastoralists follow. “Ironically,” Blainey writes, “Britain claimed the whole continent simply in order to claim a few isolated harbours astride trade routes. It was like a speculator who, buying a huge wasteland flanking a highway because it had a few fine sites for road cafes and filling stations, found later that much of the land was fertile and productive.”

In 1966, when the book first appeared, road cafes and filling stations were going up all over inland Australia. Blainey’s theme appealed to readers adjusting to the world of mass motoring, telephones, television and jet travel. When I bought my copy I had just returned from England on a British Airways Boeing 707, a journey of one-and-a-half days. Two years earlier, the outward journey had taken me four-and-a-half weeks by a P&O liner that stopped at Fremantle, Colombo, Bombay, Aden, Suez, Port Said and Naples. News, as well as people, could now travel more quickly. “With luck,” Blainey noted towards the end of his book, “someone who posted a letter on Sunday could receive from London a letter in reply by the end of the same week.” Alas, my luck was out and the airmail letter I wrote from Oxford a week or so earlier announcing my time of arrival did not drop into my parents’ letterbox until I had already stepped onto the tarmac at Essendon airport.

As the blurb of The Tyranny of Distance reminds us, thirty-five-year-old Geoffrey Blainey was already the author of seven books, many of them about a subject that he had made uniquely his own, the history of mining. He had won the most prestigious prize for Australian and New Zealand History for his first book, The Peaks of Lyell, when he was in his mid-twenties. His most recent book, The Rush That Never Ended (1963), showed how a deeper understanding of mining could overturn conventional views of Australian history. In explaining the Eureka Stockade, most historians asked what ideas were in the air. Blainey asked instead what the miners were doing under the ground. He was interested in the effects of vertical distance as well as horizontal. I had had a preview of his thinking in 1961 when he gave a memorable guest lecture to my Australian history class. Afterwards, my classmate John Ritchie asked him for advice on the tour of the goldfields we planned to make during the vacation. In John’s red Volkswagen we followed Geoff’s itinerary through Castlemaine, Maldon, Talbot and Clunes, never imagining that these quiet ghost towns would one day draw a rush of tourists to music festivals, gold museums, health spas and book fairs.

I doubt that even an attentive reader of The Rush That Never Ended would have predicted the bigger leap he would take in The Tyranny of Distance. Yet with hindsight, the steps of his run-up are visible in the books he wrote over the previous decade. In 1951, when his classmates in Max Crawford’s Honours School of History were preparing to board the P&O steamer for Oxford, Geoffrey took the Bass Strait steamer to Devonport and the Emu Bay Railway to Queenstown, a small town in the remote northwest of Tasmania. He had been employed on a very small salary to research the history of the Mount Lyell Mining Company.

Life in Mt Lyell was a lesson in the tyranny of distance. Blainey lived in a boarding house and walked just about everywhere; few of the locals had cars in those days, he explains. He talked to old-timers, like Jimmy Beattie. Jimmy’s world may seem small to us. “Hobart!” he exclaimed when Blainey returned from a trip to the state capital. “You do get around!” At least sixty-five years had passed since Jimmy had made the same trip. Yet Queenstown’s fortunes depended on events far beyond Hobart, or even Australia. As he read the company’s letter books the historian began to discern the complex relationships between depth, distance, time and cost that governed the decisions of the engineers, metallurgists and accountants who ran it. The contest to carry the mine’s products between the Emu Bay Railway, with its long connection to Bass Strait, and the Mount Lyell tramway, with its short steep connection to the more hazardous west coast port at Strahan, demonstrated that miles were no reliable gauge of distance.

In one of his next books, Mines in Spinifex, Blainey explained how Mount Isa, one of the most isolated towns in Australia, located in the middle of a desert and almost a thousand kilometres from the nearest port, had become one of the most prosperous mines in Australia. In The Rise of Broken Hill, he noted that in the mid 1880s the arduous overland journey from Sydney cost almost as much as a second-class berth on the fastest steamer to London. Gradually he was drawing a new map of the continent – not the map of states and territories that children studied in their school atlases, but one based on timetables, ledger books, freight rates and balance sheets. His teachers were not professors, with their heads in the clouds, but businessmen, with their eye on costs and profit margins. They carried in their minds algorithms as complex as those now built into many computers.

Blainey became an expert in what Michel Foucault calls “the unconscious of history,” the things the men and women of the past knew but seldom made explicit. This is one of the secrets of his popular appeal: his insight into the far-reaching significance of apparently ordinary things. He surprises and delights his readers with insights into the commonplace. “Ah-ha,” they will say. “So it worked like that!”

The Tyranny of Distance was an inspired title, just one of the many memorable phrases he coins in the book. (“Limpet ports,” “restaurant ports,” “boomerang coast,” “the art of abduction” are some of the others.) He had pondered a number of alternative titles, such as “Distance and Destiny,” before hitting on “The Tyranny of Distance” only shortly before the book went to press. “Australians have always recognised that distance or isolation was one of the moulds which shaped their history,” he wrote in the preface. Intriguingly, a few previous writers, conscious of the same reality, independently hit on the same phrase. “We are living in a day when fast ocean greyhounds have broken the tyranny of distance, when the wireless has annihilated space,” the Presbyterian cleric J.L. Rentoul declared in 1918. Distance is more likely, perhaps, to seem tyrannical when liberation is in sight, or when we have already freed ourselves from its grip, than when it was an unalterable fact of life.

“Distance – was it a tyrant?” asked historian John Hirst in a long critique of the book in 1975. Surely what was notable about nineteenth-century Australia, he suggested, was not the tyranny of distance but rather its rapid conquest. Was a country where stage coaches, telegraphs and railways were adopted so quickly, where pastoral labourers travelled long distances between colonies, and where the reach of central government was so wide, really tyrannised by distance? Hirst was a South Australian whose first book described the close bonds between Adelaide and the surrounding country. If he had researched the history of Mount Lyell and Geoffrey Blainey had researched the history of South Australia, I wonder if they would each have looked at distance differently? Geoffrey Bolton, a staunch Western Australian, thought that distance could actually be liberating. He looked, sometimes enviously, towards the concentration of economic activity and academic talent in the “Boomerang Coast” but considered that distance, in enabling the west to develop in its own way, more than compensated for its disadvantages.

As the debate continued, the critics edged towards a conclusion that Blainey insisted was there throughout his book. Distance, everyone agreed, was relative, not absolute. It could be powerful but unpredictable. If Geoffrey had adopted his original title for the book, “Distance and Destiny,” he might have avoided some misunderstandings. But historical understanding, and the Australian language, would have been poorer.

The Tyranny of Distance was an instant bestseller. More than any other title, it established the reputation of Sun Books, the new and self-consciously Australian publishing house established by Brian Stonier, Max Harris and Geoffrey Dutton. The first reviews, in the national press, were almost unanimously ecstatic. None of the later academic reviews were tepid, but some mixed praise and criticism. Everyone praised the author’s narrative skill – “vivid,” “sparkling,” brilliant,” persuasive,” “superb” were some of their adjectives – but in assessing the book’s central argument they were sometimes reserved, and occasionally hostile: it was “unbalanced,” “misleading,” “provocative” and – worst of all – “ingenious.”

The critics concentrated their fire on the first two chapters of the book, on the origins of British settlement. So astonished were some that they seem to have read no further. Generations of Australian school children had been taught that the British government decided to found a settlement in New South Wales in order to dump surplus convicts. The English jails were full. The loss of the American colonies meant that they could no longer be sent there, so an expedition was to be sent to create a new jail in Australia. Australian patriots might wish for a more glorious beginning, like the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, but by the 1960s they had largely accustomed themselves to their convict origins, and even rejoiced in them.

At first sight, this was a plausible explanation but, as Blainey pointed out, its logic was faulty. Yes, the British government needed a new place to dump convicts, but why choose a place as far away and as costly to get to as New South Wales? Surely, he argued, there must be something else to explain its decision. You didn’t need to go far to find to find it, for there, in Lord Sydney’s “Heads of a Plan” – the blueprint for the new settlement – were instructions for the governor of the new settlement to investigate the cultivation of flax – the material for making sails – and the harvesting of tall Norfolk Island pines for making ships’ masts. If you took account of the growing rivalry between the European powers in the East, another motive for the settlement could be discerned – the need to guard British strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific.

You might have expected other Australian historians to welcome a more respectable lineage for the nation, but their investment in the traditional dumping ground explanation was heavy. “I found [it] hard to swallow,” confessed Geoffrey Bolton, an expert in late eighteenth-century English politics. He wanted to refute Blainey’s errors before they misled students in schools and universities. “I was perturbed by the argument put forward by Mr Geoffrey Blainey,” agreed Professor Allan Shaw, reprimanding him for his “extremely arbitrary use of historical evidence.”

But the view Shaw rebutted, Blainey insisted, was not one that he had actually advanced: “Having set up a private windmill to tilt at, he gains height for the assault by unconscious errors, and dubious assumptions that infringe most of the rules of evidence which he invokes in his article.” He had never contended that convicts were not part of the explanation for settlement; only that they were not everything. As newly appointed professors, with archival experience in London, Bolton and Shaw seemed intent on defending historical orthodoxy against an unorthodox practitioner who had only recently re-entered the academy. One of the key debating points, indeed, was about how to read the key documents. While the traditionalists expected them to reveal their meaning explicitly, Blainey was more interested in what the writers assumed but did not say, and in the logic of the situation in which they found themselves.

To a casual spectator, it sometimes looked as though a lone rifleman was up against some heavy but inaccurate artillery fire. The rifleman soon departed, but the debate rumbled on in the pages of learned journals for another twenty years. When Alan Frost, the most diligent student of the topic, exhaustively searched the archives in London, much of what he found vindicated Blainey’s arguments. Was it luck that the unseen records corroborated his reasoning? Or did it show that in questioning conventional wisdom, and reading documents for what they assumed but did not say, the historian could sometimes see beyond the horizon?

In the broad church of history, there is always room for critics as well as builders, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether Australian historians could have done more to build on the insights of The Tyranny of Distance rather than contesting its conclusions. Geoffrey built on them himself. Even before his book was out, he had departed on a long train journey to Europe across China and Russia. In Across a Red World, he speculated on the effects of distance on the political structures of those two great nations. Later, in Triumph of the Nomads, he considered the effects of distance on Aboriginal Australia. In A Land Half Won, he turned to another environmental constraint, climate. Space and time are related concepts, and in Tin Kettle and Full Moon he explored the history of time and time-telling, a theme I also took up in a book, partly inspired by him, called The Unforgiving Minute.

When I first read The Tyranny of Distance, I was stimulated by its revisionist arguments and captivated by its prose, but its most enduring impact was its angle of approach; its way of looking for the “unconscious of history.” Australia was a land not only of sweeping plains, but also of sprawling suburbs, so the distance that interested me, as an urban historian, was the long commute and its taming by the cable tram, the family car and the freeway. In Car Wars, I expanded a theme Geoffrey develops in his chapter on “The Horseless Carriage.” The effort to tame urban distance, like the effort to beat time, might succeed for a while, but it was never-ending. A new freeway is no sooner opened than it becomes clogged with traffic. Geoffrey’s book led me to ask: can distance ever be truly conquered? Are all our efforts to master it self-defeating?

In 1966, Britain, the distant land on which Australia had long depended, was debating whether to join the Common Market. In his final chapter, “Antipodes Adrift,” Blainey pondered the implications of Australia’s strategic position in that new post-imperial world. In the half-century that has passed since 1966, the conquest of distance has proceeded far beyond anything we could then have anticipated. “The annihilation of space by time,” as Marx called it, has become an everyday reality. Thanks to the jumbo jet, we can be almost anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours, although as time goes by the destinations we reach begin to seem more and more like the place we left. As Jimmy Beattie might have said, we do get around – but to what purpose?

In the twenty-first century, the “tyranny of distance” has been replaced by the paradox of proximity. Thanks to email, Skype and Facebook we are more or less constantly in each other’s presence. The borderless world that brings us trade liberalisation and twenty-four-hour news also gives us global pandemics, people smuggling, international paedophile rings and Islamic State. The resurgence of atavistic politics across the Western democracies is, at least in part, a sign that the world has shrunk too fast for people’s capacity to comprehend or accept. The political divisions that now define Australian, as well as British and American, politics are no longer the conventional ones between capital and labour, or between rich and poor, but between those who welcome the defeat of distance and those who regret it. •

This is the text of a talk during Melbourne Rare Book Week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Tyranny of Distance.