At writers’ festivals, Australian racism has become a career-building topic, and an opportunity to sell books. It also means money for the Guardian, which uses it in advertising: “The conversation on race is just getting started. The Guardian sees its role as to amplify it, to investigate injustice, listen to people from all communities, tell their stories.” It is taught in schools, and in Victoria it is the original-sin belief of an Orwellian Truth Commission setting out to lock our history-telling into a hateful one-sided and bloody narrative.
The “Independent Assessment Panel” which selected the five Justice Commissioners who will preside over the Truth Commission consisted of four un-independent people—two members of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria chosen by the Assembly; the Executive Director, Social Policy, Department of Premier and Cabinet chosen by the state government; the Executive Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice (which is based in New York) also chosen by themselves. This international organisation “works for justice in countries that have endured massive human rights abuses under repression and in conflict. We work with victims, civil society groups, national, and international organizations to ensure redress for victims and to help prevent atrocities from happening again.”
This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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Australiaphobia has got itself a Truth Commission, with the powers of a royal commission. This promising disaster was prepared by historians teaching division, massacre and genocide who deleted the violence and brutality of Aboriginal society before colonisation from their accounts of our history. The path to present racial hatreds is paved with their bad intentions.
Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Victorians (2005) is an influential text that will probably be referenced for the Commission’s view of the state’s black history. Though a poor choice, it is representative of the continuing malaise in academic history writing. Claiming to recount the history of the Aborigines since 1800, its treatment of William Buckley, an exceptional source for the period from 1803 to 1835, is dismal. He should be read, not read about.
Buckley, a convict runaway, lived for thirty-two years with Aborigines in the Bellarine Peninsula district. There are two sources for his adventuring years: a short text by George Langhorne assembled from conversations with Buckley in 1837, first published in the Argus on January 31, 1891, and the later book-length The Life and Adventures of William Buckley by John Morgan, written with the illiterate Buckley and published in 1852; a modern edition bringing together both texts has been edited by Tim Flannery. They are not in chronological order and Langhorne’s earlier and shorter text at the back of the book should be read first. As with Watkin Tench for the founding of New South Wales, Buckley’s testimony is essential for a glimpse of Aboriginal life on the cusp of the colonial intrusion.
The historians who soften the realities of Aboriginal life before the coming of the white settlers do so for truth-hiding political purposes, and they have been remarkably successful in creating the impression of an Arcadian black paradise torn apart by brutal white intruders. Though Buckley only slightly enters Broome’s narrative his onstage appearances show a historian using editorial touches to bend history in that desired direction. Leopold von Ranke’s ideal of history writing capturing “how things actually were” could be an antidote to modern judgmental and politicised rants which pass for history writing—but probably the now old-fashioned remedy will only be taken up by new voices when the current culture is shocked back into reality.
Here are six incidents in which Broome uses Buckley’s texts. In each case the historian has usurped the witness: the history is Broome’s, not the wild man’s.
1/ Introducing the escaped convict, Broome states that he was adopted by Aborigines who “believed him to be Murrangurk, a deceased relative”. Readers are not told that the “deceased relative” and his daughters had been murdered by other Aborigines. Surviving members of Buckley’s new family lived, while they could, in a society of extraordinary violence: men, women and children were slaughtered by other Aborigines all the time—repeat, all the time. Later in the story Buckley’s adopted kinfolk, for whom he had great love, were also murdered:
My old friend, and supposed brother-in-law, had a spear sent right through his body, and then they hunted out his wife and killed her dead on the spot.
The “savages” returned and beat the wounded man to death and also killed his son. They had been murdered because a young man had died of snakebite and his family believed Buckley’s friend had caused the death by sorcery. Following these killings his friend’s young blind son, who Buckley was shielding, was attacked:
they forced the poor blind boy away from me, and killed him on the spot … After this, they roasted the body in the usual manner …
In retaliation Buckley’s own friends sought out and “killed two of the children of their enemies”. Read Buckley and you become aware of how fearsome the Australian bush was for the Aborigines. The land is covered with blood. Night is terror. Night attacks are always feared. Outsiders are oppressors or victims. That is the native world Buckley inhabited but from which Broome shelters his readers by omission. Unfaithful to Buckley and the Aborigines he lived with, the historian’s text curries favour with modern race activists.
2/ The historian is misleadingly inventive when he writes, “Buckley recalled that Wathawurrung saw two Europeans brought ashore, tied to a tree and shot, which horrified them, as they generally punished in less fatal ways.” The Aborigines’ “horrified” reaction is Broome’s fabrication. This is Buckley:
During the period we were watching her, the natives told me another vessel had anchored nearly in the same place, a long time previous; from which vessel, two white men were brought ashore by four or five others, who tied them to trees, and shot them, leaving their bodies bound.
There is nothing about a horrified reaction, and Broome has not told his readers that it is part of a larger tale in which Buckley recounts that when a ship anchored in Port Phillip Bay his Aboriginal companions wanted him to lure the crew onshore, “to get them into our power, with the vessel, boats, and cargo also”. The lethal plan was not carried out because the ship changed its mooring after three Aborigines got on board and stole what they found on deck. The unhorrified Wathawurrung who told Buckley the story were themselves planning violence.
3/ In a discussion of smallpox and its effects on Aborigines, Broome cites Buckley, who spoke of:
a complaint which spread through the country, occasioning the loss of many lives, attacking generally the healthiest and strongest, whom it appeared to fix upon in preference to the more weakly. It was a dreadful swelling of the feet, so that they [the sufferers] were unable to move about, being also afflicted with ulcers of a very painful kind.
This is used by Broome in speculating a suitable though illogical conclusion: “Thus Buckley’s recollection of a ‘loss of many lives’, together with the ‘ulcers’ and his description of the state of the feet suggests smallpox.” It is faulty argument because the historian, who does not mention that Buckley was described as having a face marked by smallpox presumably acquired in England, had preceded those quoted words with an explicit statement which suggests he was not describing smallpox:
I never observed any European contagious disease prevalent, in the least degree, and this I thought strange.
Another reading of Buckley’s words would place those “ulcers” on the feet, preventing walking, and not body-covering pockmarks.
Also, Broome’s treatment ignores Buckley’s puzzlement as to why this mysterious illness chose “the healthiest and strongest” rather than the weakest or the whole population. Was it something they ate? There are many possibilities and it may be that they had been sickened by an animal-sourced illness. Presumably the “healthiest and strongest” included the hunters, who traditionally received the least appetising part of what they had caught when the food was shared out:
They are not at all nice about their food; all kind of beasts, and fish, and fowl, reptile, and creeping things—although when alive poisonous—being acceptable. It is quantity, not quality, with them.
4/ Broome refers to the settler John Wedge who, in 1835:
recorded the first brief ethnographic descriptions of Aboriginal Victorians, shaped more by his preconceived ideas of “savages” and Buckley’s information than by careful observation. Wedge claimed the Wathawurrung were slaves to the food search, made their women drudges, practised cannibalism (but only after warfare), and infanticide (due to the needs of extended breast-feeding of their young).
If Wedge was dependent on Buckley for these observations he had an excellent source—though those bracketed excuses for cannibalism and infanticide are not at all supported by the evidence of what Buckley saw. The list of criticisms attributed to Wedge are entirely supported by Buckley’s experiences, for the Aborigines were slaves to food searches, did treat women as drudges, were cannibals and did practise infanticide. Wedge, drawing on first-hand information from Buckley, is entirely acceptable—and he was also able to question his source.
5/ Broome consistently hides the facts of Aboriginal cannibalism. I give a further example in The Invention of Terra Nullius (2005). He selectively quotes Buckley, from George Langhorne’s short text of conversations in 1837, which he describes as Buckley speaking “in measured terms”. He queries whether he was telling the truth, and decides “his observation has a ring of moderation and sincerity”. He does not consider that Buckley may have been sheltering his friends and even himself from criticism as he sought to influence Langhorne’s attitudes towards the natives. If Broome had shared details from The Life and Adventures with his readers he could have cited far more graphic accounts, including this:
They have a brutal aversion to children who happen to be deformed at their birth. I saw the brains of one dashed out at a blow, and the boy belonging to the same woman made to eat the mangled remains. The act of cannibalism was accounted for in this way. The woman at particular seasons of the moon, was out of her senses; the moon—as they thought—having affected the child also; and, certainly, it had a very singular appearance. This caused her husband to deny his being the father, and the reason given for making the boy eat the child was, that some evil would befall him if he had not done so.
6/ Broome is critical of the use of Buckley’s evidence of widespread violence by other historians, notably Geoffrey Blainey, who have suggested that Aborigines killed more Aborigines in the hundred years before settlement than settlers killed in the hundred years after settlement:
However, this is based on the false premise that we can measure inter se death rates before whites arrived from post-contact sources—observations made in a changing Aboriginal world and framed by a notion of “savagery”—or from Buckley’s memories twenty years after re-entering European society.
Broome argues that those “death rates were managed and contained in traditional times and rose due to the presence of whites”. Having himself omitted to reveal to his readers the extent of the violence Buckley encountered, Broome is making a politically progressive and fashionably anti-colonial argument. Stephanie Jarrett in Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (Connor Court) noted that “White colonisation brought new triggers for violent conflict, including alcohol. But white law also led Aboriginal people to reduce the use and lethality of their violence.” Read Buckley and you understand what she means; read Richard Broome’s version of Buckley and you wonder what she is talking about.
William Buckley lived with Aborigines for about 11,680 days, and stayed alive. Other unfortunates who encountered Aborigines after enduring shipwrecks were murdered. As I grew up on the Bellarine Peninsula, the convict adventurer was part of the imaginative landscape around me, though his supposed cave at Point Lonsdale was disappointingly damp, dank and smelly, completely unlike what I thought a comfortable castaway cave should be like.
The tall, wild-looking, hairy, skin-wearing white man who appeared at Indented Head at precisely 2 p.m. on Sunday July 6, 1835, was about fifty-four years old. When he first encountered the local Aborigines he would have been impressively tall, strong and about twenty-three. When he came in to the European settlement Buckley was an ageing, lonely and completely despondent man—his closest Aboriginal family had been murdered and he would feel out of place and untrusted in the settler society.
To chatter of what he had experienced to his compatriots was to betray a way of life in which he had been passionately involved. Both Langhorne and Morgan had difficulties drawing words from Buckley—he was not forthcoming and, when Langhorne drew up the earlier account, was still having difficulties recovering the English language. To some he seemed just stupid and dull. An uneducated man, he was probably thrown into a deep depression when he left the Aboriginal world. He was so deeply associated with it that he could not speak of it without a sense of betrayal to people who simply had no sympathetic understanding of his savage friends.
Perhaps the rewriting Richard Broome still does not understand. It must have been difficult to admit to having been an accepted part of a society in which it was normal to kill people and eat them. And it must have been difficult to talk of bodies mutilated “in a shocking manner” or explain the fear he had felt so often on seeing an approaching group of natives who might either kill or corroboree, or do both. It must have been difficult to explain that it was normal to beat to death wounded enemies. And to explain to outsiders the reason the sexual diseases he had seen were present in adults and children. It must have been with great pain that he described the coating of young children in fat as stones were heated to cook the human flesh it came from. It must have been difficult to tell of the friendly society he lived in where killings occurred so often that “scarcely a month had passed without them being repeated”.
And when he talked of savagery and savages, what had been his own savage role in those events? The accounts he has left are a rich source for a view of Aboriginal life and death before colonisation—both for what they tell and for what they don’t. In Tim Flannery’s introduction he refers to a “charming vignette of how he [Buckley] spent his evenings” but another reading of the words he is referring to conjures up memories of a Michael Jackson interview:
As I always kept up at night the best fire and had the best Miam Miam in the camp (the Blacks not withstanding the cold often being too lazy to attend to their fires) the children would often prefer to sleep with me and I was a great favourite among them.
But not all in our past is quite so cheerless as Broome asserts: “The politics [sic] of consuming human flesh is packed with emotion and value judgments.” In 1855 the Victorian Legislative Council debated giving Buckley an annuity of eighty-eight pounds. John Pascoe Fawkner, characteristically abrupt and assertive, opposed the measure. He had been a child when he travelled to Port Phillip with his free mother and convict father on the same ship which carried Buckley and now, though his parent had been transported for theft, he objected to the generous gesture as “he believed Buckley had been a thief in his younger days”. He also did so because he believed that when Buckley had “bolted” he had eaten the three prisoners who escaped with him.
There was movement in the council room (as reported in the Launceston Examiner, April 7, 1855):
The Auditor General said the hon. Member for Talbot [Fawkner] stated that Buckley had rendered no service to the colony, but by the honorable member’s own account, Buckley had eaten three old lags. Now if every free man in the community had rendered such service, there would have been no necessity for the introduction of the Convicts’ Prevention Act; nor would the colony have been inundated with old lags from Van Diemen’s Land (roars of laughter). The vote was then assented to.
The Life and Adventures of William Buckley
edited and introduced by Tim Flannery
Text Classics, 2017, 256 pages, $12.95