Bain Attwood

bain-profileBorn and raised in New Zealand, Bain Attwood has studied, worked and lived in Australia since 1981. He was educated at the University of Waikato (BSocSc), the University of Auckland (MPhil) and La Trobe University (PhD). He joined the School of History at Monash University in 1985, was elected FAHA in 2006, and promoted to Professor in 2007. He held a senior research fellowship in the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, The Australian National University, 2001−03, and a Smuts Fellowship in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge, 2007−08. He held the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University during 2014−15.

Research expertise: History of colonialism; indigenous history.


Attwood has published extensively on the history of colonialism, including book chapters and refereed journal articles and occasional newspaper opinion pieces on indigenous history. For details of his many publications go to

As author/co-author

Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History (2009); The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution (2007) (with Andrew Markus); Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History (2005); Rights for Aborigines (2003); A Life Together, a Life Apart: A History of Relations between Europeans and Aborigines (1994); The Making of the Aborigines (1989)

As editor

Frontier, Race, Nation: Henry Reynolds and the History of Australia (2009) (with Tom Griffiths); The Public Life of History, a special issue of Public Culture, vol. 20, no. 1 (2008) (with Dipesh Chakrabarty and Claudio Lomnitz); Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience (2003) (with S.G. Foster); Telling Stories: Indigenous History and Memory in Australia and New Zealand (2001) (with Fiona Magowan); In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia (1996); Power, Knowledge and Aborigines (1992) (with John Arnold)

Documentary collections (with Andrew Markus)

Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League (2004); The Struggle for Rights for Aborigines: A Documentary Collection (1999)

Ann Curthoys has commented that ‘Popular understandings of the place of Aboriginal history in Australian history remain unsettled and deeply divided’ (2001: 5). Within the fraught arena of contact history, Attwood has created thoroughly researched but ‘very readable’ narratives that are variously described as ‘learned but accessible, quiet but forceful’, and praised for being both ‘independent and reflective’ (for example, by Mark Finnane). A Life Together, a Life Apart was greeted by Bob Reece as ‘a useful corrective to more polarised views of Aboriginal-European interaction in Australian history’ (1994: 75). Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History was one of three books nominated to The Age by prize-winning novelist Kate Grenville as having kept her reading in 2005, remarking that ‘Bain Attwood’s Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History is about understanding, not polemic. It is an excellent overview of how you may come at history and where it’s up to in Australia, in the kind of clear, cordial language we non-historians welcome.’


Ann Curthoys, ‘Aboriginal history’, Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 3−5; Mark Finnane, ‘Review of Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History’, The Age, 23 December 2005; Bob Reece, ‘Review of A Life Together, a Life Apart’, Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (1994): 74−5.

The Making of the Aborigines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989, xii, 181p.

Before 1788 the indigenous peoples of the country now called Australia did not consider themselves as ‘Aborigines’. They only became the Aborigines in the wake of the British invasion. In this original study Bain Attwood revealed how the relationship between the indigenous people and the British colonisers led to a new consciousness among the indigenous people so that they came to understand themselves as members of a common group.

Substantively focussed on the colonial world created for Aborigines by Christian missionaries on Ramahyuck mission in Gippsland, Victoria, the book addresses the social and political processes associated with colonisation that created an idea of a pan-Aboriginal identity from the disparate indigenous groupings that previously occupied the country. Attwood acknowledges the shaping influence of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and Marxist historian E.P. Thompson and the latter’s notion of a group or class of people being ‘made’ by their historical experience. Aborigines were also ‘made’ in another sense, by the onslaught of missionaries and other agents of European ‘civilisation’ who sought to alter Aboriginal consciousness, and make their minds and hearts anew (Curthoys 2001: 5). Reviewer C. C. Macknight (1988: 212) found the book to be ‘beautifully written’, noting that its ‘outstanding quality … is its breadth of sympathy’. It includes numerous contemporary photographs with long, analytical captions.

This book was the co-winner of the 1990 W.K. Hancock Prize, awarded for the best first book published in 1988 and 1989 by an Australian historian; and was short-listed for the 1990 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for 1990 (A.A. Phillips Prize for Australian Studies).

Reviews: Oceania 61/3 (March 1991): 279−82 (Barry Morris); Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (1990): 78−80 (Richard Baker); Aboriginal History 12/2 (1988): 211−12 (C.C. Macknight).

Rights for Aborigines, Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003, xiv, 410p.

In this ground-breaking work, ‘the first national history’ of its subject (McKenna 2003), Bain Attwood charted a century-long struggle for rights for Aborigines in Australia. He tracked the ever-shifting perceptions of race and history and their impact on the ideals and goals of campaigners for rights for indigenous people, considered prominent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal campaigners and what prompted their involvement in key incidents and movements, and investigated how they found sufficient common ground to fight together for justice and equality for Aboriginal people.

Key case studies, ordered chronologically and generously illustrated, are selected as representative of indigenous engagement with white ideas of justice, equality and fairness, and white activism, for example, Coranderrk (1870s), the 1938 Day of Mourning, the Wave Hill Strike (1966) the 1967 referendum, and the 1972 Tent Embassy. The result is a ‘radical historicisation of rights:…the rights that have been claimed by or on behalf of the Aborigines, the political and other calculations involved in the making of these claims, and how the content of these rights and the cases made for them have changed over time’ (Hindess 2004: 103).

Reviewers noted the author’s success in achieving his declared aim of finding a balance between his ‘commitment to addressing the wrongs the colonial past has bequeathed to our present’ and his belief that history is a discipline that requires ‘distancing and objectifying’ (Hindess 2004: 105; Griffiths 2004). ‘[The book] is engaged and fair-minded. It is passionate and rigorous. It is a sophisticated exploration of the relationship between experience, history and memory’ (Griffiths 2004: 10). McKenna (2003) characterised the book as ‘scholarly history in the best sense—meticulously researched, innovative and intellectually stimulating … a history of depth and subtlety that deserves to be read widely’. Nonetheless, Attwood has ‘opened a chink in liberal Western certainties’ (Genovese 2005: 248). In Chesterman’s opinion (2004: 251), two central themes make the book an important contribution to the way in which both Aboriginal history and Australian history more generally will continue to be written and conceived. ‘The first concerns the respective role played by Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists in the search for justice for Indigenous people. The second concerns the relationship between the search for civil (or equal) rights and the search for the recognition of the more radical Indigenous rights (primarily the recognition of rights to the land).’

This book won the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards’ State Records Prize, and was short-listed for the 2004 Ernest Scott Prize and the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (Best History Book Award).

Reviews: ‘The struggle to survive’, Mark McKenna, The Age, 19 July 2003,; Australian Financial Review, 8 April 2004: 10 (Review section) (Tom Griffiths); Australian Aboriginal Studies 1 (2004): 102−05 (Barry Hindess); Aboriginal History 28 (2004): 250−3 (John Chesterman); Labour History 89 (November 2005): 246-8 (Ann Genovese).

Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History, Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 2009, xv, 415p.

In this book Bain Attwood tells the fascinating story of the only treaty made between settlers and Aboriginal people in Australia. It contemplates why some white settlers, led by John Batman, forged this agreement, how the Aboriginal people understood its terms, why government repudiated it, and how whites claimed to be the rightful owners of the land. It also considers the way that settler society has endeavoured to make good its possession of the land by creating histories that have recalled or repressed the memory of Batman, the treaty, and the destruction and dispossession of the Aboriginal people, and charts how Aboriginal people have unsettled these histories through their own remembering. The book contains 89 illustrations, including full-colour reproductions of many historical paintings, whose significance is discussed.

The book is about both the treaty and the way it has been remembered. The first part consists of a ‘wonderfully nuanced and contextualised account of the treaty itself’ (Banner 2012: 210) in which the author reconstructs how the transaction of the treaty would have been understood by both parties. The book’s many illustrations particularly complement the author’s purpose in the second part, which shows how the ‘legend’ of Batman was constructed in Victoria between 1850 and 1930 and how Batman himself was depicted in paintings, lithographs and monuments. In the third part, as Aborigines re-enter colonial history in the second half of the twentieth century, memories of Batman darken and views of the treaty become more ambivalent.

Tim Rowse commented on Attwood’s ‘fruitful preoccupation’ with settler Australia’s hunger ‘for self-validating foundation myths’ (Rowse, 2009: 207) and Rani Kerin describes the book as ‘meticulously researched, beautifully written and superbly presented’ (Kerin 2012: 171).

This book won the 2010 Ernest Scott Prize for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or colonial history; the 2010 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards, Australian History Prize; and the 2010 Victorian Community History Awards 175th Anniversary Prize; and was short-listed for the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (Best History Book Award).

Reviews: The Monthly (August 2009): 66−7 (Alan Atkinson); Australian Book Review (September 2009): 14−15 (Robert Kenny); Labour History 97 (November 2009): 206−07 (Tim Rowse); Aboriginal History 33 (2009) 245−6 (Marie Fels); American Historical Review 115/1 (February 2010): 209−10 (Stuart Banner); Journal of Pacific History 45/1 (June 2010): 170−2 (Rani Kerin); New Zealand Journal of History 44/2 (2010): 218−19 (Michael Belgrave); Agora 48/1 (February 2013): 11−15; Scott Prize News 2010.


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