Robert Kenny wins PM's History Prize

Robert Kenny wins PM's History Prize

10 Jul 2009

La Trobe University scholar Robert Kenny – who lost his house and all his possessions in the Black Saturday bushfires – has won the 2008 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History for a book that deals with the conversion to Christianity of the first tribal Aborigine in Victoria.



The book, titled The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World, was described by the judges as ‘truly original, surprising and profound’. (Dr Kenny is co-winner with Professor Tom Griffiths from the ANU.)

Dr Kenny receives his prize of $50,000 and a gold medallion at a ceremony in Canberra next week. After the destruction of his house in Redesdale, Victoria, he says the prize couldn’t be more timely. ‘Such recognition goes a long way to repairing the deep sense of loss one experiences with such an event.’

He competed with sixty-two other nominations for the award which demonstrates 'the exceptional strength of Australian historical research and the extent to which Australian history continues to inspire many of our talented writers, researchers and producers.'

‘I feel greatly honoured and gratified to receive this award,’ Dr Kenny says. ‘When an historian takes chances to understand the past and how that past still lives within us, there is always the fear of being unheard, or even lampooned.’

However, he says the reception of his book – culminating with the Prime Minister’s Prize – vindicates his approach as an important means by which ‘to touch again our troubling past.’  Last year the book won in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and gained the Hancock Prize from the Australian Historical Association. As a manuscript it was awarded the Peter Blazey Fellowship from the University of Melbourne.

Dr Kenny says Nathanael Pepper was a member of the Wotjobaluk tribe which inhabited the Wimmera when Moravian missionaries arrived from Germany. It took Dr Kenny seven years to reconstruct the tale and his version of the youth's conversion.

Dr Kenny pieced together his story from quoted conversations in diaries, letters by Pepper and documents in the headquarters of the church in Germany. 'It was a very odd thing,’ he says, ‘to be in a baroque German village covered in snow while reading about the Wimmera.’

He says the book is about the ideas and tensions operating in Pepper's conversion.

‘It represents a meeting of European and Aboriginal cosmologies and symbolic worlds. Part of my argument is that the Moravians were evangelical Christians and they believed just as much in an enchanted spirit-filled world as the Wotjobaluk people.’

Dr Kenny suggests that when Pepper and his people saw the Europeans arrive with their sheep, they perceived the animals as part of the spirit world. ‘They regarded the sheep in a

totemic way, as a European totem. And they were right. The Moravians' emblem was the Lamb of God, and passages in the Bible relating to the Good Shepherd impressed Pepper.’
The judges described the work as a ‘scholarly yet accessible book, elegantly written and powerfully argued. Meticulous in his use of sources, he also goes beyond that and shows how historical imagination is not the enemy of accuracy.’

Dr Kenny holds a PhD from La Trobe University and is an ARC Research Fellow in the School of European Historical Studies.

Dr Robert Kenny
Phone: 03 9479 1132




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