Ernest Scott Prize

This prestigious prize is awarded annually to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation.

Emily Scott established the Prize in memory of her husband, Emeritus Professor Sir Ernest Scott Knight Bachelor, Professor of History at the University from 1913 to 1936, to commemorate his interest in the development of Australian historical studies.

How to apply

2023 application dates will be provided later in 2023 on the Ernest Scott Prize application page.

Past winners

2021

Winner

Dr Hirini Kaa for Te Hāhi Mihinare - The Māori Anglican Church

Hirini Kaa has written a compelling book demonstrating the dynamic nature of Indigenous cultures and the agency of colonised peoples. Engagingly and dramatically written, Kaa carries the reader with him as he traces the complexities of Māori history as well as the intricacies of Anglican structure and liturgy. This is insider history – and indeed family history: Hirini Kaa has grown up within the Māori Anglican church, becoming a minister himself. Some of this history concerns the decisions which his father, Hone Kaa, took in his own role as an Anglican clergyman. This allows Hirini Kaa to bring the warm insight of his Māori community knowledge to the book, but he has made the decision to take a meticulous analytical approach to the archival and oral evidence. The result is a convincing study of Māori determination to remake Anglicanism into a faith consistent with the central values of Māori culture, while at the same time exploring new ways to be Māori within the changing political and cultural world of New Zealand today.

This book is enriched by its use of te reo Māori – the written form of Māori language – with Kaa’s insider translations allowing insights into Māori debates and innovations which have seldom been possible in comparable investigations in Australia. No longer can it be assumed that colonial missionaries determined the terms of conversion or the content of the new forms which emerged. Hirini Kaa’s book demands that the agency of colonised peoples is recognised as central to the emergence of new ways to understand faith.

Winner

Professor Grace Karskens for People of the River

People of the River is a beautifully written and moving book which offers a very new way to understand the complexities of Dyarrubin. Highly informed as Karskens is about the climate science, hydrology and geology shaping the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers, it is the people of these rivers who come most powerfully into view. Karskens rescues from erasure not only the local Aboriginal people  –  and indeed the river itself – but the convict and early emancipist farmers whose presence has so often been denigrated. She writes vividly about the material culture of the past, analysing both the deep time archaeology of the river and the objects of post-settlement working people’s popular spiritual beliefs, like pierced coins and burial grounds.

It is a crucial strength of this book that Karskens’ fundamental assumption in all her writing about Aboriginal people is that they were exercising agency: although undoubtedly mourning losses, they were at every point also making strategic decisions and taking action to survive.

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Shortlisted  authors

James Keating for Distant Sisters

This important book not only brings new perspectives to the interactions between Australia and New Zealand in the international arena of women’s suffrage but offers a methodology for comparative transnational analyses. Distant Sisters focuses on the Adelaide and Auckland branches of the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) over a period for which there has been little analysis – the decades from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War One. While Keating challenges more celebratory views of the early Australasian contribution to the international women’s movement, he does so constructively, offering a valuable approach to comparing Australian and New Zealand activism.

This book is important for the attention it gives to ethnocentrism – particularly in the Australian women’s organisation – but evident throughout this early suffrage movement, for which the comparative ‘layered network’ methodology is particularly valuable. Finally, the book is important in its meticulous analyses not only of the correspondence of individual activists, of Branch dynamics and of international conferences but of the women’s advocacy press across all suffrage organisations.

Kama Maclean for British India, White Australia

British India, White Australia brings the important perspective of the whole of Empire to the investigation of Australian history, rather than viewing Australia only as a ‘settler colony’. Despite the erasure of the presence of South Asians from Australian history, there had been significant numbers of Indians present from the very earliest days of British occupation. Kama Maclean’s familiarity with research into and interpretation of images underlie two of the great strengths of the book: first, the investigation of press cartoon imagery, invariably satirical and denigratory about Indians and, second and importantly, an extensive section on the everyday Australian photography of South Asian travelling hawkers in rural areas.

The extensive body of photographs show quite different relationships of familiarity and confidence – even occasionally of trust and friendship. Maclean uses images effectively to demonstrate the diversity of interactions between white Australians and South Asians, whatever the myths. Maclean’s work documents the views expressed within India as well as in Australia and charts the failure of successive Australian governments to respond. Her work offers an important challenge to today’s Australians about the urgency of listening.

Noah Riseman and Shirleene Robinson for Pride in Defence

Pride in Defence is a disturbing and powerful book, showing how conservative institutions work and change – especially those shaped on gendered ideologies in the midst of intense social pressure. It explains the process of change in such institutions which, although separate from their wider societies, are nevertheless regarded as emblematic and admirable. The authors draw meticulously on archival research and extensive oral history interviews with both men and women, officers and troops. Pride in Defence does not see the military as isolated from but as interacting with general culture and politics. So, as homosexuality became more visible and more tolerated in line with the growing public liberalisation during the 1970s-90s, military and political figures insisted that the military had adopted a policy of 'sympathy' and 'discretion'. Yet the result in practice was intensifying repression and stigmatising witch-hunts with demands to ‘name names’, all in the interests of ‘discretion’ or ‘sympathy’.

Change towards a more genuinely supportive policy has been halting and bumpy – led by courageous people inside the institutions. Yet those within the armed forces persisted with their demands for real change. Some of these people have been damaged as they persisted in their calls for respect; some have been damaged irreparably. In bringing their stories to light, Pride in Defence not only explains their tenacious demand for recognition, but it makes a valuable theoretical contribution to oral history methodology. By considering the silences in narratives, the authors are able to explore more deeply both the difficulties of change processes and the pain suffered by the narrators. The book demonstrates effectively the dissonances between documents and memory and draws analyses from what is remembered and what is forgotten or passes unnoticed by some.

Ian Smith for Pākehā Settlements in a Māori World

In this important book, Ian Smith combines his long and intensive involvement in archaeological research with his thoughtful, well-informed historical analyses to bring to life the first decades of interaction between Māori and Pākehā New Zealanders. Crucially, the book is set in the Māori world. Before 1860, Pākehā settlements were few and literally far between – scattered, precarious and struggling to survive. The book challenges the myths about the immediate impact of British settlers, despite the eventual destruction caused by colonial rule. The material evidence from these early decades, brought vividly into view in Smith’s writing and maps and his use of paintings and photographs, shows that Māori and Pākehā interacted and reshaped each other. He demonstrates how archaeology allows us to see how ordinary people lived day to day.

Just as important, the material evidence of the years before 1860 offers us ‘entangled objects’ which speak to the interactions between Māori and Pākehā. Smith brings to life not only daily practices but the relationships which emerged, using both archives and objects to show the shared lives that some Māori and Pākehā lived in marriages or common law partnerships. Smith confirms through the ‘entangled objects’ of the archaeological evidence the recent analyses of historians of gender and emotions like Angela Wanhalla, that such relationships were ‘a combination of love, comfort, politics and pragmatic need’. Ian Smith has brought to readers everywhere a very different basis on which to understand the relationships which underlie New Zealand today.

Judges

2020

Winner

Professor Michelle Arrow for The Seventies: The Personal, The Political and the Making of Modern Australia

In her intensely immediate and relevant history of the 1970s Michelle Arrow brings to light the astonishing politics of a remarkable decade. Using sources such as evidence to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships – an inquiry almost unthinkable in the contemporary political climate – Arrow illuminates how ‘the personal is political’ was a transformative and revolutionary catch-cry in Australian society. Far from nostalgia for an era of collective activism, Arrow reminds us of the achievements of those deeply committed to social change and does not shy away from the deeply painful, difficult and personal divisions of the identity politics of the time.

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Shortlisted authors

Bettina Bradbury for Caroline’s Dilemma: A Colonial Inheritance Saga

Bettina Bradbury brings career-long expertise in nineteenth-century women and the law to bear on Caroline Kearney: a woman about whom almost nothing would have been known had she not been married to a tyrant determined to govern her life from beyond the grave. Caroline’s Dilemma is two stories. One of an English child-immigrant who married a pastoralist, moving between colonies, bearing and raising her children before being widowed and finding herself the subject of dramatic demands laid out in her husband’s will. The second story is that of a historian and her craft in the face of a complete absence of sources produced by Caroline herself, and yet with a story that demanded to be told. The result is a compelling book.

Annabel Cooper for Filming the Colonial Past: The New Zealand Wars on Screen

Annabel Cooper’s wonderfully written and beautifully produced book guides the reader back and forth across time, illustrating deftly how the past remains alive in its re-telling. It is at once a history of a century of producing and watching cinema, television and music videos in New Zealand, a fascinating glimpse into Māori-Pākehā relations in the creative arts, and an illustration of the deep and still-visceral impact of the wars on iwi. A decade in the writing and well worth the wait, Cooper’s book prompts us to take popular culture seriously as a vehicle for history-making and history-knowing.

James Dunk for Bedlam at Botany Bay

It’s the history of New South Wales, but not as we know it. The names are familiar, as are the events – Macarthurs, Wentworths, Blaxland, Bligh, rebellion, inquiries, select committees – but by paying close attention to the ‘strong personalities’, ‘eccentricities’ and ‘unfortunate endings’, Dunk puts us in the mirror house, where all that was familiar now feels strange and illuminating of quite a different colony. This is more than a collective biography, a history of whitefella madness, or the bureaucratic and jurisdictional journey to self-government. Dunk’s book reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about how things turn out: this is a rare feat in history-writing.

Judges

2019

Winner

Billy Griffiths for Deep Time Dreaming

Australian archaeologists have been relatively slow to focus on home soil but Griffiths argues for the urgency of a policy review. The 'slow shift in national consciousness' has been provoked by the continuing assertion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and the new phenomena of an Australian interest in the subject. Beautifully and evocatively written it encourages the general reader to embrace their country anew.

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Roger Blackley for Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Maori World 1880-1910

Steeped in the knowledge of artistic practice feeding a domestic and imperial market, Blackley's work provides a powerful insight into a disturbing world. While artists and subjects often collaborated, collectors and exhibitors often did the opposite. Blackley's analysis is clear eyed and unromantic; a magnificent account of the era that set the foundation for the major galleries and museums of the modern era.

Judith Brett for The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

In an age when respect for politicians has been shredded by the politicians themselves, this is a compelling book. Deakin is such an unlikely head of state. Kind, learned, erudite, humorous at times and loving, his vision is the thing that carried him through the scrum of political life. Reading his views on Indigenous Australia shows the cruel limitation of that vision but Brett is such a compassionate witness and her prose so beautifully composed that the unfurling ribbon of the story draws the reader into the heart of the drama and an Australian political and social era.

Samia Khatun for Australianama, The South Asian Odyssey in Australia

Highly original, Khatun offers a new basis for storytelling, knowledge and history. Bringing together South Asian and 'Australian' histories in what she terms the 'knowledge relation' Australianama shines a brilliant light on desert, mosque, Aboriginal, South Asian and British peoples. What emerges is a beautifully crafted new stage for historical understanding, fresh actors and a wholly new language of vision.

Rebe Taylor for Into the Heart of Tasmania

Taylor stirred the possum of national conscience with her earlier book, Unearthed, which examined the Australian reluctance to accept anything but a 'settler' history. She writes beautifully and is a great storyteller, something rare in the territory of academic writing. This is a book for everyone, a gentle and lyrical reminder to resurrect curiosity and, maybe, empathy and justice. The book begins with the destruction of a cultural site to build an arguably unnecessary freeway at Launceston. The story then follows the work of two men, Plomley and Westlake, rare Tasmanians who showed an interest in the history of the island prior to the British invasion. The fascinating part of Taylor's book is how the author reveals that even these rare humanists were blinded by their assumed superiority over the subjects they studied. It is a flaw fundamental to Australian scholarship and Taylor’s revelation is a sobering reminder of how the victor writes history.

Judges

2018

Winner

Michael Belgrave for Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885

After its defeat in the Waikato War in 1864, the Kīngitanga, the Māori King movement, withdrew to the territory that settlers called the King Country. It was a de facto Māori state, and 'opening it up' to settlement was a longstanding goal of the colonial government. Michael Belgrave’s book traces the decades of negotiations between the crown’s agents and the Kīngitanga’s leaders. The extended, sophisticated arguments about land and power over many years are pieced together with insight and sensitivity. Belgrave reconstructs these negotiations from a wealth of source material in English and te reo Māori. The book's immediate sources are accounts of hui and court hearings recorded in official documents and recently digitised local newspapers, but the achievement of Dancing with the King also rests on decades of intimacy with New Zealand history.

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Shaunnagh Dorsett for Juridical Encounters: Māori and the Colonial Courts, 1840-1852

This is an outstanding work of legal history that illuminates the wider process of colonization. Its subject is Māori before the courts in New Zealand’s crown colony period (1840-1852). This is an important period in New Zealand history, and the experiments in legal pluralism that it gave rise to have made this moment in New Zealand history of significance to scholars of law and imperialism generally. Dorsett combines an authoritative grasp of the jurisprudence of jurisdiction with magnificent empirical research. Drawing on resident magistrates’ court records and fragmentary reports of cases in the early superior courts, Dorsett is able to present a comprehensive accounting of Māori appearances before the courts in this period. She uses this evidence to analyze Māori encounters with the colonial legal system, civil as well as criminal, and to make broader arguments about the relative legitimacy of British law and how its usefulness to Māori in certain circumstances helped establish the settler order at a time when the coercive powers of the state were weak.

Paul Irish for Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney

Paul Irish's book is a triumph of historical and archaeological research that brings into relief the enduring Aboriginal communities of the coast in and around Sydney. Hidden in Plain View challenges assumptions that few locally affiliated Aboriginal people continued to live around Sydney’s littoral after the first stages of colonisation, or that if they remained they no longer followed recognisably Aboriginal customs and ways of life. After the effective end of armed Aboriginal resistance in Sydney, Indigenous people continued to develop cross-cultural relationships with European individuals and families on their own terms. Irish vividly evokes the relations between Indigenous people, missionaries, and settlers along the coast, mapping Indigenous people's travels around the Sydney region and through the slums of the city as well as its rivers and beaches and showing how Aboriginal people forged ways of coexisting with the rapidly expanding city over the course of the nineteenth century.

Tim Rowse for Indigenous and Other Australians since 1901

This book's straightforward title is, remarkably, entirely accurate. A book of amazing scope, Indigenous and Other Australians since 1901 examines the place of Indigenous Australians in all the major aspects of the purported 'single field of life' (W. E. H. Stanner's phrase) that the Commonwealth sought to call into being from 1901 onwards. Tim Rowse examines not just policy, but also more or less ordinary people's experiences; he manages to combine informative overviews with arresting interpretations at the same time. This is a synthesis grounded in decades of deep research and a career of voracious, uncompromising reading, but it is much more than a survey. Indigenous and Other Australians since 1901 combines the conceptual and the concrete, and there is a real zest to Rowse's reflections, both on the past, and on present-day history. There is much in it to unsettle. This is a book that everyone working in twentieth-century Australian history should read and reckon with.

Judges

2017

Winner

Tom Griffiths for The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft

This wonderful meditation for historians is a beautifully written homage to the craft of writing history as a discipline and a passion. We are invited to join the author as he visits a selection of his most cherished predecessors and associates, a journey that tells us much about Australian historians and their craft, a community with a vibrant past and future. This book speaks also to anyone who is engaged in history research and who seeks to better understand the interplay of familiarity and otherness that shape the historian’s craft and the mysteries of time. This is a generous and important book.

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Shortlisted authors

Barbara Brookes for A History of New Zealand Women

In this splendidly illustrated and lively book, the author brings us a wonderful study of breadth and depth ranging from the famous to unknown. Its pages are filled with new insights into the lives of women in New Zealand and their many histories, skilfully combining an extraordinary range of complexities and interactions among a diversity of women of Indigenous and settler society. With great skill, she draws from feminism, gender studies, racial politics, domestic and affective relationships, medical history and migration to create a richly engaging history that asks us to reflect on how and why social change has occurred, and thus what it will take to continue into the future. Thoroughly researched and richly supported by photographic as well as other archival material, this tour de force is a resource for our times.

Penelope Edmonds for Settler Colonialism and (Re)conciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings

A moving and intelligent comparative study of settler colonial histories and their present that interrogates the politics of reconciliation shared among them. Through a compelling investigation of Indigenous performances of colonisation, the author uncovers acts of reframing by which key moments in foundational state histories of reconciliation are revealed at their limits. This timely study contrasts state-initiated reconciliation with the ongoing effects and experiences of colonial history performed through imaginative acts of resistance staged by Indigenous communities. Bringing together a range of these performative acts staged, the author draws our attention to the vital role that affective re-enactment can play in reconfiguring foundational settler colonial histories. This book sets a new agenda.

Hannah Robert, Paved with Good Intentions: Terra Nullius, Aboriginal Land Rights and Settler-Colonial Law

This study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the legal and moral history of colonization and alienation of Aboriginal Land. Paved with Good Intentions is a detailed, exceptionally clear analysis of historical discourses surrounding three interconnected themes—law, economics and humanitarianism. Very well structured in argument, this book builds on, yet is critical of, earlier analyses and the result is an engaging and intellectually rigorous study of South Australia and the Port Phillip settlement which challenges the reader to shift their lens regarding Indigenous concepts particularly in relation to land holding. Moreover, the author argues astutely that humanitarianism was part and parcel of the processes of colonisation taking place on the ground, rather than being external or compensatory to its workings.  A wonderful resource for teachers, legal scholars and the general readers alike, this study provides new insight into the abiding contradictions embedded within the settler colonial project in Australia.

Judges

2016

Winner

Stuart Macintyre for Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s

Stuart Macintyre’s account of Australia’s engagement with the prospects of post-war reconstruction through the 1940s is masterful in coverage and assured in the narrative. An account of complex policy formulation and political debates, the book remains driven by a close attention to the personal investments in, and experience of, the profound uncertainties of wartime and unprecedented opportunities to address entrenched social and economic concerns. Rising above the polarity of ‘ideals vs pragmatism’, Macintyre evokes a nation and a diverse corps of people – politicians, officials, business and community leaders, academics, populists among them – that would be tested by those prospects for reform as much as they would embrace or debate them. The central theme of leadership running through this book is treated with admirable subtlety and balance. That approach, in addition to a comprehensive account of the times, will be among the enduring contributions of Australia’s Boldest Experiment.

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Shortlisted authors

Tony Ballantyne for Entanglements of Empire

Entanglements of Empire is a smart, engaging and intelligent new work, which carefully blends New Zealand historical research with new theoretical readings inspired by international scholarship. Pushing disciplinary boundaries, its novel approach in reading the early Missionary-Maori dynamic in a new light makes this book a new spin on an ‘old’ topic. Employing new frames of reference, guided by a focus on spatial interaction and physical embodiment, this book will invite further re-readings of the early colonial encounter period in New Zealand. Elegantly written, grounded in solid primary research, Entanglements of Empire is focused on re-thinking the history of early colonial New Zealand.

Frank Bongiorno for The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia

This is a book of impressive range and judgement, and marks a fresh path for political history in Australia. Bongiorno moves deftly between broad themes of political transformation and an evocation of specific moments, personalities, styles, scandals and symbols. A tight political narrative is illuminated by passages of delicate observation and contrast. While the focus of his account is on the particularities of a decade, Bongiorno draws on a breadth of perspectives to underscore the significance of change and continuity. The synthesis that informs his account encompasses all areas of cultural production, celebrity, sport, sexuality and personal relationships, commentary and consumption, ceremony and emotion, always seeking connecting themes rather than imposing interpretations. This fusion of social, cultural and political history is a distinctively Australian contribution to ‘big histories’ that combine accessibility and scholarship.

Joy Damousi for Memory and Migration in the Shadow of War 

This book makes a vital contribution to re-energising the history of immigration in Australia, insisting on the multiple layers of politics in immigration and resettlement processes. Damousi explores the ways in which the conflicts of World War II not only shadowed the post-war immigration of Greeks but were actively lived long after their arrival. Oral histories are handled with a sensitivity to the gendered and generational dimensions of testimony and memory, and balanced by a fresh analysis of assimilationist advocacy, of the national and international institutional frameworks for Australia’s immigration program, and of the familial and community relationships. ‘Origins’ and ‘destinations’ are kept in a constant dialogue in this account, which also offers critical reflection on issues of historical judgement and method. Memory and Migration highlights the extent to which the trauma arising from displacement, war and political struggle must be incorporated into understandings of Australia as a nation of immigrants.

Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network

A beautifully written and comprehensively researched new history, this book throws light on the complex and little-known transnational labour networks across and around northern Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arguing that Indonesian-Indigenous labour was critical to the survival of the lucrative pearl industry, The Pearl Frontier traverses cross-national boundaries, showing that the success of the network was premised on solid labour systems, risky endeavour and the constant negotiation of cultural spaces. The book demonstrates that this frontier zone was fluid and dynamic, while challenging assumptions around notions of impermeable labour markets. This approach not only opens up new fields of study, but also ruptures our reliance on constructs like ‘nation’ and invites further re-readings of this porous and fluid encounter zone in a dynamic and under-studied part of Australian history.

Judges