‘The Historian’s Historian’ - Adjunct Professor Edward Duyker OAM FAHA
Professor Edward Duyker is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Australian Catholic University. As an independent historian and author, his work has spanned a diverse range of themes and has sought to redress what he calls “the Anglocentricism of Australian history”.
Described by the Australian Book Review as ‘the historian’s historian’, Professor Duyker has frequently drawn on his own European and Mauritian heritage to consider the lives of early explorers in Australia at the time of European settlement. He has also used his love of history to act as an advocate in campaigns to preserve and protect historic buildings, bushland and rivers close to his home in Sylvania, New South Wales.
Born to a Mauritian mother and Dutch father in Melbourne, Professor Duyker readily acknowledged the influence of growing up as the child of migrant parents and the impact this has had on his own work and research interests.
“It had a profound influence. It gave me a strong sense of being different. Australia in the fifties and sixties was more about assimilation rather than integration. It was frowned upon to speak another language on the tram. In my teenage years, however, I came to assert myself and admit that I didn’t have a homogenous identity.”
Initially educated at Catholic Schools and La Trobe University, Professor Duyker went on to undertake doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne. Whilst there, he learned Bengali and wrote his thesis on the participation of one of India’s largest tribes, the Santals, in the Maoist Naxalite insurgency; a conflict which began in the late 1960s and still continues today.
After completing his PhD, Professor Duyker worked at the Australian Department of Defence and the Joint Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. His role concentrated on South Asia, monitoring and providing analysis and advice to diplomats and ministers on the social, ethnic and religious trends in the region.
After several years of government service, Professor Duyker found he was keen to not restrict himself to South Asia and decided instead to concentrate on independent research and scholarship in a broader range of fields.
“I thought the world was too interesting to be confined to South Asia. I decided that I didn’t want to be a South Asia specialist at a university.”
As an independent author, Professor Duyker went on to produce many acclaimed biographies of European explorers in Australia which have been praised as making a significant contribution to the understanding of non-Anglo European exploration in Australia.
His biographies have included An Officer of the Blue, a biography of Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, the first explorer after Abel Tasman to reach Van Diemen’s Land, Nature’s Argonaut which focused on Daniel Solander, the first Swede to circumnavigate the globe and Citizen Labillardière, a study of the French naturalist Jacques Labillardière, which won the General History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards.
His wider work has also included several celebrated ethno-histories which reference his own heritage such as The Dutch in Australia and Of the Star and the Key: Mauritius, Mauritians and Australia. Professor Duyker also collaborated with his mother to translate the diary of Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, the eighteenth century French navigator who explored the coastline around Australia and New Zealand.
Describing the process of writing books as an “almost mystical experience”, Professor Duyker explained how his own family background had drawn him to discover more about the subjects of his work.
“I had a strong sense that Australian history was terribly Anglocentric. I wanted to write about my own heritage and seek a personal truth; I wanted to give my parents’ people a place in Australian history and gain a sense of my own space in history through this.”
Married, with two grown up sons, Professor Duyker acknowledged the support of his family who have encouraged him throughout his career, conceding rather ruefully that although his chosen profession was not the most lucrative, it had been tremendously rewarding and he wouldn’t chosen a different path. He also described his Adjunct Professorship with ACU as crucial to his work as a freelance historian, relating how he saw it as “a valuable interaction” with other forms of information and scholarship.
When asked if he could offer any advice to ACU students, who might be inspired to take their studies further, Professor Duyker commented simply that “Education is a wonderful opportunity. If you have the merit and the opportunity, take it.”
Professor Duyker is currently immersed in writing a biography of the nineteenth century French explorer, Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville, famed for bringing the Venus de Milo to the Louvre in Paris and for naming a particular kind of Antarctic penguin, the Adelie, after his wife.