Joint winners of the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize announced

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne is pleased to announce Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson and Dr Rachel Buchanan as joint winners of the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize.

Alan Atkinson and Rachel Buchanan

Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson and Dr Rachel Buchanan, winners of the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize. Photos by Veronika Sajova Photography (Atkinson) and Chelsea Harris (Buchanan).

The Ernest Scott Prize for History is awarded annually to a book (or books) based on original research judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation. This year, the prize was adjudicated by Professor Giselle Byrnes, Massey University and Professor Amanda Nettelbeck, Australian Catholic University, who selected the two winners from 65 submissions.

Elizabeth and John

In awarding the prize to Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson for his book Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm (New South Publishing, 2022) the judges said:

"In this meticulously researched book, Emeritus Professor Atkinson tells a rich and wide-ranging social history of colonial Australia through the biographical portraiture of one of early New South Wales’ most influential couples, Elizabeth and John Macarthur. Written with the author's signature capacity to range across a large historical canvas with seemingly effortless grace, this deeply scholarly work exemplifies how a close, contextualised reading of family history can illuminate a much larger history of settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession. In its intimate account of the Macarthurs’ lives – of the economic and social lives they sought to build in the settler colony, of the European Enlightenment sensibilities they brought with them, and of their only dimly-perceived consciousness of the Indigenous peoples they supplanted – this magisterial work asks us to see afresh how colonial culture was made in a particular time and place."

In accepting the prize, Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson said:

“The Ernest Scott is a great prize because it so obviously involves the historical profession reflecting on its own, and also because it's trans-Tasman.  It's a wonderful prize to win. Thanks to the judges, thanks to the Faculty of Arts at Melbourne and thanks to all who did so much for me at UNSW Press.”

Te Motunui Epa

Of Dr Rachel Buchanan’s winning book Te Motunui Epa (Bridget Williams Books, 2022), the judges said:

"This beautiful book explores the journey of the Te Motunui Epa carved wooden panels across time, the meanings that have been attached to them, and the cultural continuity they represent. Accessibly written and richly illustrated, the book tells an important story of colonial plunder and cultural restoration that will resonate in other geographical and cultural contexts. The story of the theft and then the repatriation of a set of precious panels, Te Motonui Epa also plays with conventional historical method; it gives voice to the taonga themselves to successfully weave a distinctly Māori approach to writing history alongside oral history and careful documentary analysis. This book is partly a detective story, partly a public history, and also a crime narrative. Most importantly, this book demonstrates a deep engagement with a Te Ao Māori worldview and challenges orthodox views of perspective, voice and the narrative form itself. This book is an exemplar of modern history writing in Aotearoa New Zealand; it is also elegant and sophisticated and a cracking good read."

Dr Buchanan said she was delighted and humbled to have been awarded the Ernest Scott Prize:

“This book is about a taonga (treasure) that was buried in the earth in Taranaki, my turangawaewae (ancestral homeland) but it was written and researched on the unceded lands of the Bunurong and Wurundjeri Peoples. I have been a manuhiri (guest) here for a long time and I am deeply grateful for the sustenance and support I have received from the land I am fortunate to live on, this special place now known as Melbourne.

I thank Professor Barry Judd, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of Melbourne and Director of Indigenous Studies for supporting the honorary research associate position I held at the University in 2020 and 2021. This affiliation was a lifeline for me during the Covid-19 pandemic when I was unable to travel to Aotearoa New Zealand as planned. It gave me access to the University’s library and databases. Librarians sent books to my home, exciting packages wrapped in brown paper that I was so grateful to receive. Then law librarian, Christina Ward, provided outstanding support to locate relevant case law and scholarly articles about the ‘Ortiz case’.

I further thank Professor Gaye Sculthorpe (then Curator and Section Head, Oceania, British Museum) who suggested I pitch my research about the Motunui Epa to Marc Fennell, host of Stuff the British Stole, a podcast produced by ABC Radio National. As a scholar working outside the university system, Marc’s interest in my work encouraged me to keep going during the many hard days of the pandemic.

My mentor, the Hon Mahara Okeroa, and I are humbled and delighted by the recognition of our work. We thank the judges for this honour.”

Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm and Te Motunui Epa were ultimately selected from among the following shortlisted books:

Shortlisted books (alphabetical order by author)

Dr Joel Stephen Birnie, My People’s Songs: How an Indigenous Family Survived Colonial Tasmania, (Monash University Publishing, 2022)

In this powerful work of historical biography, Joel Stephen Birnie weaves together the life stories of his ancestor Tarenootairer and her two daughters, Mary Ann Arthur and Fanny Cochrane Smith, to tell an often painful but continuous Indigenous account of the Tasmanian experience. Tracing the path of colonisation across the full nineteenth century through the lifespans of Tarenootairer and her daughters, Birnie’s book reframes the story of Indigenous Tasmania from a familiar one of colonial destruction to one of cultural survival. Methodologically innovative and profoundly moving, My People’s Songs foregrounds the interlocking stories of three women to reclaim the history of Tasmania through an Indigenous voice.

Professor Frank Bongiorno, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia, (Black Inc. Books, 2022)

An ambitious and astute political history of post-colonised settler Australia, Dreamers and Schemers offers a large-scale yet wonderfully seamless account of how politics has ‘made’ Australian history, and of how political thought, movements and activism have characterised the Australian experience. Encompassing a long sweep of time, from the colonial era of self-government to the present era of covid-19, Professor Frank Bongiorno skilfully brings into focus a rich and deeply human history of the people, political institutions and often competing social visions that have shaped Australia’s political domain over nearly two centuries. His flair for capturing the diverse voices of leaders, activists and intellectuals and their influence on political culture over time has produced a masterful account of Australian public life, and of the changes and continuities that link the past to the present.

Associate Professor Anna Clark, Making Australian History, (Penguin Random House Australia, 2022)

This work builds on and extends Associate Professor Anna Clark’s significant contributions to Australian history and historiography by demonstrating how each ‘moment’ in history has a context that can be unpacked, explored and interrogated. Working through a series of historical moments, signalled in key published texts including literary works and visual arts, along with documentary records, Associate Professor Clark offers a fresh history of Australia by showing how history is ‘made’ (and re-made) in practice. Making Australian History is a timely and thoughtful critique of the key themes, debates and tropes that characterise Australian scholarly history. With its innovative and fresh methodological approach, it will find a wide general readership, and particularly with scholars and students of Australian history.

Dr Ned Fletcher, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, (Bridget Williams Books, 2022)

This is undoubtedly an important and substantial book. An extensively researched work, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi is sure to become a landmark text in Treaty of Waitangi and international treaty scholarship. Focusing specifically on the English language version of the agreement signed between te iwi Māori and the Crown in February 1840, Fletcher employs a legal historical approach to posit that the Māori and English language versions were not worlds apart in purpose and intent and did not imagine contradictory futures for the Treaty partners. Taking a meticulous forensic approach to exploring the original purpose and intent of the English text, Fletcher maps out in detail the contextual conditions of mid-century colonial relations under which it was produced, its broader influence in the history of Crown dealings with Indigenous peoples, including Māori, and its ongoing meanings for contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand.

Find out more about the Ernest Scott Prize.

Full list of past winners.

More Information

Susanna Ling