Robert is an award-winning historian whose work on Australian colonial Indigenous-Settler relations and on the relationship between religion and science have been influential on both Australian and international scholarship. He sees himself primarily as a social historian of ideas, by which he means he is interested in how ideas operate in society no matter from where those ideas originate, that is, he does not believe that socially potent ideas are necessarily the product of “great thinkers”. His many awards include the 2008 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History for his groundbreaking The Lamb Enters the Dreaming. Robert received his PhD in History from La Trobe University in 2004. He has worked as a Research Fellow at La Trobe University, University of Melbourne, Mitchell Library, and at Deakin University. He was also a Visiting Fellow at Australian National University in 2011. He has researched extensively in archives throughout Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Germany. He has also published several volumes of poetry and literary prose. Robert lives in central Victoria with a dog and several goats on a ridge that forms the watershed between the Coliban and Campaspe Rivers.
Current Major Projects:
The Psychological Need for the Savage Mind: Anthropology, Psychology & the Search for the Modern Western Self.
This project looks at the interplay between the burgeoning disciplines of anthropology and psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as being in part a struggle to establish a new idea of the Western self as religious certainty collapsed in the wake of recognition of the “abyss of time”, and of Natural Selection, and of the experience of the indigenous peoples on the colonial frontiers. It emphasis how much the rise of psychology—particularly depth psychologies such as psychoanalysis— operated under the influence of the colonial imagination. The articles “Freud, Jung & Boas” and Robert’s contributions to special issue of Oceania (co-edited with Helen Gardner), listed under publications, relate to this project.
Incident at Barfold: the Conquest of North-central Victoria.
Beginning with an investigation of the settlement of the Coliban and Campaspe valleys of north-central Victoria in 1837-1840, this project is particularly concerned to look at the colonial violence as a clash of ontologies concerning the nature of being in the land and then concerned to see how these competing views of the environment have continued to impact Indigenous-Settler/migrant relationships to the present. In this context the project re-examines Aboriginal activism’s impact on Australian, both Indigenous and Settler/migrant, views of its pasts and its present being in the land. The book chapters “Broken Treaty” and “Filling the Australian Emptiness” listed under publications relate to this research.
2013. Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir, University of Western Australia Publishing, Perth. Described by Tom Griffiths as “a major contribution to our fire literature”. This book won the History Publications Award, Victorian Community History Awards
2007/2010. The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, first edition 2007. Second edition 2010. A multi-award winning work that examines the interplay of ideas of race, religion and science in the conversion of the 16 year old Wotjobaluk man in 1860.
Book Chapters and major research articles
2018. ‘Broken Treaty: Taungurung responses to the Settler Revolution in Colonial Victoria’, in Kate Fullagar & Michael McDonnell, eds, Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 214-235
2016. (with Helen Gardner, editing and introduction), Special Issue: ‘Before the Field: Colonial anthropology reassessed,’ Oceania 86:3, 218-224.
2016. ‘Why the Armchair in the first place? Then why get up from it,’ Oceania 86:3 2016, 225-243.
2015. ‘From Terra Incognita to Terra Nullius to the “Empty Heart”: Filling the Australian Emptiness’, book chapter, in Ulrich Niggemann & Matthias Asche, eds, Der Topos des leeren Landes als narratives Konstrukt in Einwanderergesellschaft, Franz-Steiner-Verlag, Stuttgart, 201-213.
2015. ‘Freud, Jung and Boas: The Psychoanalytic Engagement with Anthropology Revisited’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 69:2, 173-190.
2008. ‘Tricks or Treats?: the case for Kulin knowledge in Batman’s Treaty’, History Australia, Aug 2008, Vol. 5, No. 2.
2007. ‘From the Curse of Ham to the Curse of Nature: the Influence of Natural Selection on the Debate on Human Unity before the publication of The Descent of Man’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 40:3, September 2007, 367-388.
Selected other publications
2019. Freud: in his time and ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco (review), Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, 110:.3 2019, pp.629-630.
2015. ‘Inside Australian Culture: Legacies of Enlightenment Values’ (review), Australian Historical Studies, 46:3 485-486.
2013/14. ‘Searing Truths’, The Monthly, Summer Issue 2013/14, pp. 8-10.
2013. ‘Warming our toes: Forgetting the inevitability of fire’, Australian Book Review, November 2013, pp. 23-24.
2012. ‘Sunday 10 February, the day after’, Meanjin, 71:3, 174-177
2008. ‘The Apology and the Man at the Funeral’, Melbourne Historical Journal, 2008, 15- 21
Awards, fellowships and honours
2016. Short-listed Adelaide Festival Literature Award (non-fiction) for Gardens of Fire.
2014. Winner, History Publications Award, Victorian Community History Awards, for Gardens of Fire.
2014. Short-listed, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (non-fiction) for Gardens of Fire.
2008. Winner, Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World.
2008. Winner, Victorian Premier’s History Award for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World.
2008. Winner, The Australian Historical Association’s W. K. Hancock Prize for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World.
2008. Short-listed, Adelaide Festival Literature Award (non-fiction) for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World.
2008. Commended in the Victorian Community History Awards for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World.
2006. Winner, Peter Blazey Prize, Australian Centre, University of Melbourne for The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World (as a work in progress).
2012. New Works Grant, Literature Board, Australia Council.
2011. Visiting Fellowship, Research School For Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra
2008-2011. Australian Research Council APD Fellowship, host: School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University. Project: Psychoanalysis, Anthropology and the Pacific: the Revaluing of Myth in the Twentieth Century
2008. Religion, Church and Missions Fellowship, Mitchell Library, Sydney, to produce an annotated bibliography of the Religious, Church and Missions Collections of the library
2007. Peter Blazey Fellowship, Australian Centre, University of Melbourne
2006. Arts Victoria, Creative Development Grant
Media and public events
2014. with Liza Dale-Hallett (Museum Victoria), chair Ruth Morgan (Monash), ‘Remembering Black Saturday’, Public Histories Seminar, State Library of Victoria, 20 November.
2014. with Trevor Budge (La Trobe), ‘Face the Fire’, Bendigo Writers Festival, 10 August. Also in session with Sara James, Craig Sherborne, Sue Gillet, ‘Faith Comes in Many Forms’, 9 August, and in conversation with Michael Cathcart and Natasha Mitchell on RN broadcast 8 August.
2013. with Amanda Smith, ‘After the fire, part 2’, Off Track, Radio National, 23 November 2013.
2012. with Margaret Coffey ‘A Question of Culture – Indigenous and Christian encounters’, Encounter, Radio National, 10 March 2012.
In addition, Robert has been a guest on the ABC’s Conversation Hour, Late Night Live, The Spirit of Things and various local radio, and at the Brisbane and Sydney Writers’ Festivals.