This post continues a sequence that began on Green Path with Where did we come from? and People in Australia before Europeans arrived. Those two, covering the evolution of Homo sapiens from ape-like ancestors to the beginnings of modern history, fitted well enough in an environmental blog. This one, continuing the Australian story from 1788, is primarily social and political history. As such, it is a better fit here on Words & Images.
Much of the “new” history is disturbing but, as Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell tells us, we have to come to terms with it so that we can move out from beneath its shadow.
Why Weren’t We Told?
It has gradually become clear that the Australian history we learned in school fifty years ago, and more recently, obscured, more or less deliberately, much of the truth about the colonisation of the country by Europeans. The indigenous inhabitants were more numerous and far more settled into permanent communities than we were told, while border wars and massacres were far bloodier and more frequent than we were told, and “terra nullius” was a self-serving fiction from the outset.
Historian Henry Reynolds wrote a very personal book, Why weren’t we told? (1999) reflecting on his own journey of discovery of the Aboriginal history of Australia. Its title is the key question which came to him as he began to discern its outlines.
The same question occurred to me a generation later. Like him, I grew up in southern Australia (Tasmania for him, country Victoria for me), ignorant of indigenous people and their history, only to be confronted by the very different realities of North Queensland on moving to Townsville as an adult. It was a culture shock to me in 1990, as I said in Singing the Coast; it was far worse when he arrived, twenty-five years earlier.
His answer, as a professional historian, was that the frontier wars had been systematically written out of our history texts. The subject couldn’t be taught in schools because the teachers couldn’t learn it in university because the historians had burked it. His response was to initiate the research and write the books himself.
My answer, as someone trying to make sense of a community which was only a couple of generations away from the pioneers (settlers, colonisers) was that the answers would have been too painful both to my generation, asking the questions, and to the older generation, answering them. It’s far easier now that the pioneers and nearly all of their children have passed away.
I believe both of our answers are correct.
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014) is one of the key works in our rethinking of this history. I knew about it for some years before I finally found the time and courage to read it recently. I had avoided it because I really didn’t want to read yet another account of white injustice and brutality, but I needn’t have worried: the book is not confronting in that way but is primarily about pre-contact indigenous life.
Tom Griffiths writes about Pascoe and his books at insidestory.org.au and places Dark Emu in the context of the ongoing academic revision of our history by “scholars such as Norman Tindale, Harry Allen, John Blay, Beth Gott, Jeannette Hope, Tim Allen, Rupert Gerritsen, Bill Gammage, Rhys Jones, Jim Bowler, Tim Flannery, Ian McNiven, Dick Kimber, Peter Latz, Deborah Rose, Harry Lourandos, Lynette Russell, Paul Memmott and Eric Rolls.” I encourage everyone to read both the essay and the book.
- Somerville & Perkins Singing the Coast
- Nicholas Rothwell: Journeys to the Interior and more
- Tony Roberts: Frontier Justice – a short history of the Gulfcountry to 1900
- Chloe Hooper: The Tall Man – death and life on Palm Island (2008)
- Books and authors recommended by Tom Griffiths (above) and David (in a comment on Singing the Coast)
- Mudrooroo Nyoongah (Colin Johnson): Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World (1983)
- Alan Garner: Strandloper (1996)
Border wars and massacres
An Australian-first project, led by University of Newcastle historian Lyndall Ryan, has been mapping massacre sites across the country for several years. …
During what has become known as the ‘Frontier Wars’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and tribes fought to defend themselves and their country, with many violently murdered in the clashes with white settlers. Now, ground-breaking research into the scale of the violence during that time suggests the massacres of Aboriginal people became “larger, more organised and ruthless” as the decades went on. …
Researchers now estimate more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in 403 massacres, higher than the team’s previous estimate of 8,400 in 302 massacres. By comparison, it’s estimated that 168 non-Aboriginal people were killed in 13 frontier massacres.
Website, map and full details at https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/introduction.php
During our visit to Bladensburg National Park we learned that ‘Skull Hole’ was so called because it was a massacre site. That’s all we learned from signage at the park, but according to the Colonial Frontier Massacres Project a settler party attacked local people in 1877, killing about 200 of them in response to the death of one of the settlers’ stockmen (more details).
The 1967 referendum
The reasons for the previous and explicit exclusion of Aboriginal people by sections 51 (xxvi) and 127 of the Constitution are not entirely clear. However, the effect of this exclusion was the implementation by the states of policies that could broadly be termed ‘assimilationist’, and laws that resulted in Aboriginal peoples’ dispossession, oppression and alienation.
Following longstanding calls for greater Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs, in the 1960s the pressure for change built rapidly. In the face of evidence that assimilationist policies had failed, and with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists drawing attention to the denial of civil rights and discrimination that these policies entailed, the plight of Aboriginal people became a significant political issue. … [This led to the] 1967 Referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.