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The Australian National University

Kynan Gentry - Exploration and the Australian settlement narrative—a comparative study

Burke's TreeIn colonial societies the exploits of ‘great men’—explorers and pioneers—typically dominated the early historical imagination. Some countries gave pride of place to ‘founders’, while others venerated explorers above all others. Drawing heavily upon published period sources, this paper presents a comparative analysis of the place of explorers and exploration narratives in the historical consciousness of Australia, New Zealand and the United States (with some consideration of colonial Africa) from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

Charles Sturt MemorialBroadly speaking, there is a clear demarcation in the narratives historically presented in these countries; foundation narratives in the United States and New Zealand gave almost exclusive emphasis to ‘founders’ and ‘pioneers’, while in Australia and colonial Africa greater attention was given to explorers and exploration narratives. From the closing years of the nineteenth century the United States also invested heavily in Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’, which argued that the essence of American identity was created at the juncture between the civilisation of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The significance of the racial frontier in New Zealand saw it similarly adopt something of a frontier narrative—one that by the early twentieth century was being directly compared to the American experience. Most dominant in the New Zealand experience, however, was the Wakefieldian-inspired narrative of New Zealand exceptionalism and the myth of ‘Better Britain’. The weakness of the exploration narrative in New Zealand was also due to the relative familiarity and less formidable nature of the settler experience of landscape.

Cook’s Cottage, Fitzroy Gardens, MelbourneTurneresque emphasis on ‘the frontier’ also play a part in the Australian and African narratives, but rather than the racial frontier, primacy here was given to environmental frontiers, in which it was the landscape above all else that was seen to pose the greatest threat. In the Australian instance the stigma of convict association—with the ‘first fleets’ all predominantly being made up of convicts—meant that ‘foundation’ origins divided colonial historical consciousness. Outside of this, and emblematic of the individual’s confrontation with a menacing unknown landscape, the explorer was a naturally heroic character—something certainly played upon in the many published exploration narratives of the time which proved hugely popular in the British market. The canonisation of Charles Sturt is one example; his most famous ‘discovery’, the confluence of the Murray, occurred during a period where drought and a difficulty in getting sufficient water was proving a major obstacle to the further opening up of the continent.


Ky GentryKynan Gentry is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History at the Australian National University, Canberra. Gentry obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne with his thesis ‘Associations Make Identities: the origins and evolution of historic preservation in New Zealand 1890–1955’. Prior to this he held a political research fellowship at Ruskin College, Oxford, and worked for a number of years as an historian for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in New Zealand. He also has a professional background as a heritage consultant and archivist.

Gentry’s primary area of research centres on the history of heritage and the ‘use and abuse’ of historical narrative in colonial society, on which he has published a number of books and articles. He is currently completing a book manuscript Heritage and Colonialism, forthcoming in 2012 with Manchester University Press as part of their prestigious Studies in Imperialism series.

His primary research project at the ANU is a history of the heritage movement in Australia—a study that explores the emergence of historical consciousness and interest in preserving the material remnants of history in Australia from the earliest colonial times through to the present. Building upon his Oxford work, he is also working on a body of material on public history and the wider place of heritage in the western consciousness. Most notably within this is an exploration of the place of the socialism of John Ruskin and William Morris in the origins of heritage preservation in the British world, and a collection of essays on the British socialist historian and heritage theorist Raphael Samuel.

Updated:  14 January 2012/Responsible Officer:  Webmaster/Page Contact:  Webmaster