Magnifying glass focusing on Australia on a desk globe

Rethinking Australia in many languages

13 October 2021
A deeper look at Australia’s multilingual history
Understanding Australia requires more than knowledge of the English language. Professor Adrian Vickers highlights the wealth of non-English sources and cross-cultural exchanges that can reorient our perspective on the Australian story.

In 1817 when early explorer Admiral Phillip Parker King set out from Port Jackson on an expedition to explore northern Australia, he took with him two letters of introduction: one in Malay and the other in Javanese.

Approximately 150 years later, Professor Fritz van Naerssen, then-Chair of Indonesian and Malayan Studies at the University of Sydney, translated the Javanese letter before it found its way into its present home in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales. This is one of a vast set of non-English documents that date back to the early British colonisation of Australia.

View from Sims Island, Northern Territory with the Malay (Indonesian) fleet at the bay and the Indonesians whom Admiral King met in northern Australia. From the ‘Phillip Parker King album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902’ collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The necessity of multilingual research

My experience in becoming an historian of Indonesia has been multilingual: my writing of history began with the Indonesian language acquired in high school, to which I added varying abilities in Dutch, Balinese, Old Javanese and Javanese during my university studies. Yet, the writing of Australian history has assumed that English is enough.

The Australian newspapers published in more than 12 languages – Chinese, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Japanese and more – have remained largely unmined for what they tell us about the formation of modern Australia. French-Australian paper Le Courrier Australien, which is still in existence, began publishing in 1892. Its founder, Lithuanian-born Charles Wroblewski, also established the German-Australian paper Deutsch-Australische Post. He spoke Polish and Russian, and is one of many examples of the need for research that is equally multilingual.

There are neglected sources in a multitude of languages in Australian libraries, archives, museums and private collections that can tell us a lot more about Australia. They need to be unearthed and examined through our collective knowledge of languages.
Professor Adrian Vickers

Breaking down the Anglocentrism underlying historical research

Rather than assume ‘British-ness’ to be synonymous with our modern nation-state, there are warrants for new perspectives and perceptions of how Australia has been settled over the last 230-plus years. This includes questions about how its national and cultural boundaries have been determined, and how those living in Australia have experienced major conflicts like the two World Wars and the Cold War.

To make sense of these, we need to compare the stories and experiences of Chinese gold miners and German missionaries in the 19th century; what happened to Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian prisoners of war and internees in Australia; and the issues of the Australian intelligence observing Chinese, Greek and Italian community organisations during the 1950s.

Pictoral postcard of a man in a suit looking out at sea with a ship, palm trees and a kangaroo, with the German text which reads "Reise-Abenteuer eines braven Deutschen im lande der Kangaroo"

German language document from the German Concentration Camp, Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia (c. 1914–18), with text translated into English: “Travel adventure of a brave German in the land of kangaroos”. From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.

A different Australia emerges

By putting the stories together in multiple languages, we can reorient the story of Australia.

For example, tracing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia involves looking at Dutch and German sources on the colonial establishment borders among three parts of the island of Papua at the end of the 19th century. The story of these borders continues in Dutch and Indonesian claims to West Papua/Irian between 1950 and 1969, including its land border with the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea before 1975. Dutch and Indonesian archival and newspaper reports tell very different stories to the English-language narrative coming from Australia.

In the early 1960s while English speakers bemoaned about how Australia was a ‘cultural wilderness’, local Russian newspapers were reporting on gatherings in Sydney to discuss the finer points of Puskin’s works. Around the same time, state and federal politicians dismissed the growth of far-right organisations, but newspapers in German and Greek drew on their Australian readers’ experiences to warn about the consequences of allowing neo-Nazi organisations to take hold.

Rather than treating language groups as separate ‘ethnic’ communities, we can link and compare stories in which identification with being ‘British’ is not at the centre of being Australian.

Opening Australia's Multilingual Archive

Funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Opening Australia's Multilingual Archive Discovery Project aims to mobilise Australia’s considerable and under-utilised non-English language resources to rethink Australia’s migrant and settler history. With the largest grant awarded to the University of Sydney in its round, the ambitious project seeks to broaden Australia’s understanding of social, cultural and intellectual history of nation-building – with the intended outcome to create a new inclusiveness in identifying with Australia.

Adrian Vickers is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies. He is co-author of the 2015 book, The Pearl Frontier, which drew on Dutch and Indonesian sources to look at the pearl shell industry in eastern Indonesia and northern Australia. He is one of the Project Investigators for Opening Australia's Multilingual Archive (ARC Discovery Project DP210101981).

Front cover of In Many Voices, the School of Languages and Cultures's magazine

This article is adapted from In Many Voices (Issue 45, 2021), the magazine from School of Languages and Cultures. Subscribe to the mailing list to receive the next issue in your inbox.

Banner image by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

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