Sir Guy Green gave this speech at the launch of the book version of The Companion to Tasmanian History, at the writers' festival which was part of Ten Days on the Island, April 2005. The launch was held in the specially erected Pacific Crystal Palace in Hobart.
This writers' festival is an important component of Ten Days on the Island. With the Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize, the Tasmania Prize, book launches, conversations and other events presented in this magnificent Pacific Crystal Palace the writers' festival epitomises the diversity and excitement of the festival as a whole. As part of that programme I am delighted to have been asked to launch this splendid work, The Companion to Tasmanian History.
It is especially appropriate that we should be launching this book in this particular venue. If you look up the entry entitled 'Exhibitions' in the Companion you will find reference to the fact that Van Diemen's Land made the most notable contributions in the British Empire to the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851; and now history is repeating itself by the launch in this magnificent twenty-first century Crystal Palace of an equally notable product of Tasmanian skill and creativity.
The work comprises 1073 entries and 18 thematic articles written by 418 of Tasmania's most experienced historians or specialists in particular fields. The diversity of the topics covered is extraordinary; I wrestled with trying to devise graphic lists to illustrate that diversity but eventually gave up in favor of simply reciting some entries from those appearing under just one letter: radio, ragged schools, railways, roads, recreational fishing, Red Cross, Rotary, the RSL, Richmond, rowing and restaurants; not to mention Eric Reece, referendums, refugees, regattas, royal visits, Russians, rutile and the Rosny Children's choir. And that is just a few from just one letter of the alphabet.
The Companion will be a most valuable resource. Its comprehensive coverage of topics relating to every aspect of Tasmania – many of which have never been studied before – provides a readily available source of information which will enable the reader to find out virtually anything about the history of Tasmania; and by providing an overview and further reading lists about each topic it will also be a valuable start point for historians doing further research.
As well as being a source of information about individual topics, this work viewed as a whole can also be regarded as a history of Tasmania in itself. And as such the Companion has some special qualities which distinguish it from conventional histories. Histories written by individuals which involve interpretation or the coherent treatment of events or themes greatly inform our understanding of the past. But it is not disparaging of historians to accept Lloyd Robson's conclusion that '(such) histories reflect the experience and assumptions of the writer' and that they are not always detached or dispassionate.
In contrast the Companion has been written by a large number of authors who have approached their subject from a variety of points of view and treated it in a variety of ways. As well, in some especially contentious areas authors were asked to write entries or articles from different sides of the debate. The result is a work which comprises as detached, dispassionate and comprehensive a history of Tasmania as it is practically possible to create.
In the sense of its size, substance and enduring significance this is truly a monumental work. But it is by no means monumental in the sense of being ponderous or dull; indeed it is so fascinating and eminently readable a work that it should contain a health warning: dipping into this seductive book will seriously divert you from any other activity for a dangerously long time.
I was delighted to realise that the Companion can also be used by those of us who like to indulge in the exercise, made famous by James Burke in his essays on science and technology, of finding chains of connections between apparently disparate things. This too can be a dangerously seductive exercise but let me give one example from the Companion.
We start with the entry on an outstanding mid nineteenth-century Tasmanian educationist John Richard Buckland; Buckland's uncle was Dr Arnold of Rugby who was a friend of the Governor of Van Diemen's Land Sir John Franklin who had sailed in the Investigator with Matthew Flinders who had served with Captain William Bligh whose limited HR management skills led to the mutiny on the Bounty which inspired a classic film which starred Errol Flynn who had been a student at the Hutchins school whose first headmaster was the man we started with: John Richard Buckland.
This work was not designed to present Tasmania in any particular light. But out of its pages emerges a wonderfully inspiring portrait of Tasmania as a creative, diverse, civilised society with an extraordinary history of achievement.
In a thoughtful article the opinion is expressed that while '(Tasmanians) express their affectionate identification with the Island .... (their) patriotism (is) of geography rather than history. They rarely celebrate political or social achievements and the creation of an accomplished and admirable society'. While that may have been the case in the past I think that attitudes are rapidly changing and that Tasmanians today are increasingly appreciating the richness of their cultural and intellectual heritage and are beginning to celebrate their political and social achievements and the creation of an accomplished and admirable society. The Companion to Tasmanian History will admirably serve to reinforce and accelerate that process.
Many people and organisations contributed to this fine work. They are identified in the Acknowledgments section but I would like to mention in particular all the authors, the members of the editorial committee, the School of History and Classics at the University of Tasmania and of course the editor Alison Alexander who also heroically wrote dozens of the entries herself. Dr Alexander's considerable skills as an historian, author, editor, administrator and diplomat have all been fully drawn upon in bringing this work into being. We, as will generations to come, owe Dr Alexander and all the others a considerable debt for what they have achieved.
It is with great pleasure that I launch The Companion to Tasmanian History.