The Country That Lost Its Memory

Australia has amnesia. When Veronica Gorrie won two book awards she did what all literature prize-winners do here—she abused the country, kept the money, and misremembered the past: “I find it ironic that the Victorian State Government are awarding me, considering they were the ones that committed past atrocities on my ancestors … I forgive you.” Nobody reminded her that no Victorian state government ever committed atrocities on Aborigines or any of her other forebears, and that no government massacres of Aborigines occurred in the history of the Colony of Victoria. The period of violence between her Aboriginal ancestors and her white ancestors, often beginning with the killing and mutilation of the latter by the former, occurred during the period when the territory of conflict was loosely administered from Sydney between 1836 and 1851 as the Port Phillip District. It was also a period when her Aboriginal ancestors were still killing other Aborigines as they had always done.

Gorrie’s book Black and Blue: A Memoir of Racism and Resilience won the Victorian Prize for Literature ($100,000) and the Prize for Indigenous Writing ($25,000). The equally forgetful judges wrote, “It challenges us to think about power and society, and the possibility of changing the world we live in.”

An SBS article presented the prize-winning author recalling her time as a Queensland police officer:

During foot chases involving black people, Gorrie says police would call out, “Stop running, ya little black c***!” “Black this and black that … Police not only brutalise people with excessive force, but they are racist, too. If they weren’t racist prior to joining the force, in my experience, it seemed that they quickly became so,” she writes.

SBS did not ask her to share any equally disturbing memories of anti-white racism by Aborigines. I can. I remember being abused by a racist Aborigine as “ya white c***!” in the centre of Flinders Street Mall, Townsville. I also remember being on a crowded and delayed Magnetic Island ferry one early morning as an Aboriginal man walked along the jetty—behind him came a very small boy unable to keep up. As we waited for them, the man paused to turn back and shout at the boy, “Hurry up ya little c***!” No one on the ferry spoke out or commented among ourselves. We did not want to appear racist. It was a picture Bill Leak could have drawn.

In the late 1990s the essays Keith Windschuttle published on Van Diemen’s Land history in Quadrant were some of the most exciting and challenging Australian history writing I had ever read. I was working on a doctorate on colonial history at the time and my enthusiasm was little shared. When the first volume of Fabrication appeared, the work of criticism and challenging new sources was buried under denial—and when his later volume on the Stolen Generations appeared it was greeted by silence. It was a book of memories, often of the mistreatment of neglected children in Aboriginal families and communities and the help they received which has sometimes been appallingly repaid with twisted recollections and misunderstanding by their descendants.

Windschuttle’s influence was limited, for the academics he examined and criticised were teachers who controlled the learning of history. Later, when Henry Reynolds turned on me in the Monthly, he snobbishly asked where I had learnt history. I wanted to reply, but the magazine would not allow me to respond that history is an intellectual discipline dependent on reading, not learning propaganda lessons. Incidentally, at the University of Tasmania the customary response to a problem regarding Aboriginal history was “ask Henry”, not “read the sources”. The value of what Windschuttle has done is the importance he places on reading archival memories and transmitting them truthfully and showing up the work of those who have betrayed their responsibilities to truth-telling. My Quadrant article “Who’s Afraid of William Buckley?” (June 2021) illustrated the problems a single acclaimed historian had in simply relaying to his readers what William Buckley had revealed about Aboriginal life. The country has lost its memory, for historians have not passed on all the evidence of the archives.

Now, in a recent series of Quadrant essays, Professor William D. Rubinstein reads the past to remind moderns of what our forebears knew of Aboriginal cannibalism and infanticide. How could we, and modern Aborigines, have forgotten? Why did the historians not tell us what they found in the archives? And if you follow Rubinstein’s trail you will find modern academics who use what they dislike in the witness statements of our forebears to turn matters around so that cannibalism and child killing become fantasies of racist whites and not the observed or experienced realities of Aboriginal life.

Our lost memories have been replaced by fantasy. Reality has been perverted. Every year the country burns. Every year a photograph of a blistered and flame-tortured koala passes around the world to exhibit the tragedy of the fires, or now, climate change + colonisation. Tears are shed for the suffering animal, traditional Aboriginal bush burning practices are praised. Yet killing animals was the whole purpose of firestick hunting. Fire was the means, the burnt animals the objective. How could we forget?

Traditional (and present day?) Aboriginal cruelty to animals is never spoken about. In 1969 the anthropologist Richard Gould described two young desert boys occupied with a lizard they had caught:

They seem like two children at play anywhere in the world. Suddenly Nuni seizes the live lizard and tears off a leg. Ngampakatju grabs it and does the same and for a few minutes the two children giggle with delight as they tear the animal to pieces. Their mothers and other children find this hilarious. I smile weakly but admit to myself that I will probably never become accustomed to such sudden manifestations of cruelty among these otherwise gentle people. There is nothing unusual about small children anywhere treating animals in this way, but it is disconcerting to see adults take such delight in it, too.

In March 1772 the French expedition led by Marion Dufresne made contact with Van Diemen’s Land Aborigines and presented them with two unfortunate birds. As a member of the crew reported:

They took them with a certain indifference and from snatching the hen from one another they had soon torn it to pieces. The duck provided them with amusement for a long time; they threw it into the sea and hurled their spears at it.

Early settler anger and violence against Aborigines was often a response to the massacre of individuals and the appalling mutilation of bodies. Sometimes this reaction was triggered by the pointless and cruel torturing of livestock. Historians, like Richard Broome, hide the truth when talking of sheep who had had their legs broken and were left to die: “Since the blacks had no way of preserving their meat, this was their common method of keeping it fresh until they could return to eat it.” Foster Fyans, a Crown Lands Commissioner, actually saw the brutality when hundreds of sheep were involved. It was not food preservation but cruelty:

Thousands and thousands have been left on the ground with broken legs for the wild dogs to feast on. In Australia Felix, many flocks have been taken away by the native tribes into the hills, breaking their legs. Corroborees and feasting surrounded by the miserable mutilated flocks, for days went on until the place became intolerable from the dead carcasses that the natives could not remain any longer.

We don’t remember slavery. Traditional Aboriginal society was a slave society—the women were the slave property of the males. They were exploited as food gatherers, sexual objects and child-rearers. The coming of the whites released Aboriginal women from centuries of slavery. When Aboriginal men and white men fought over Aboriginal women the blacks were fighting for the possession and use of their owned property. The continuing mistreatment of women in Aboriginal communities is a direct connection with traditional life. The sacred may have been abandoned but not the broken bones and bodies of the women.

In the history of the Port Phillip District violence between black and white was often the result of black aggression and white retaliation. On the University of Newcastle Massacre Map is a massacre at Mount Cottrell near Werribee in Victoria. In the Newcastle academic world of plagiarism and error only Aborigines are victims. The Massacre Map claims ten black victims were killed, supposedly in retaliation for the killing and mutilation of two white men, who have maliciously been classified as the “attackers” in the event: “Attackers killed … Charles Franks and Thomas Flinders (Killed 09/07/1836) Mutilated bodies found.” The only contemporary evidence they cite is a colonial newspaper, and their other details are drawn from untrustworthy modern sources. This anonymous newspaper article, which does not record Aborigines killed, notes that the murder of the two men brought the number of recent deaths of settlers at the hands of Aborigines, using metal tomahawks given them by whites, to five. This memory of Aboriginal violence is ignored by the Massacre Map.

When Aborigines killed there was no mercy or respect—again, read William Buckley and not the historians who misuse his testimony. If the fights between settlers and blacks constituted a war, as old historians teach, then Aborigines were also guilty of war crimes: The Maria massacre, of twenty-six unarmed people killed by Aborigines, is described by the Massacre Map as being “the largest group of colonists killed by Aboriginal people in one operation”. And the brutal casual murder of isolated shepherds and stockman is ignored by historians or casually excluded from our sympathy, for they were “intruders” on Aboriginal land—forget Welcome to Country.

Forget also how often the attacks on individual whites occurred without warning or reason. We have forgotten that there is a reason the word treacherous so often appears in colonial accounts of black brutality. It had a lot to do with the weapons they used to bludgeon victims to death, for it was necessary to get up close for these to be effective. A show of friendship was an Aboriginal weapon—useful only until the killing started. In 1801 the first British visitors to Port Phillip had every reason to write of the “treachery and unprovoked attack” they encountered in a moment of seeming shared friendship. The event foretold a prospect of violence as this Aboriginal attack led to “its just punishment and at the same time taught us a useful lesson to be more cautious in future”.

Caution was wise, for the meeting of black and white in the Victorian Western District was enacted in terms of traditional Aboriginal culture. Strangers were killed and robbed. The cruelty and violence of traditional life were turned against the newcomers—who could retaliate with superior violence for brutality suffered. The newcomers also had something the Aborigines did not, apart from their weapons—they had superior notions and means of defence.

Traditionally Aborigines fought in stage-managed battles where bands of warriors opposed each other in a formal confrontation, or they attacked in sudden, unexpected forays, often in frightening and bloody night attacks. Strong on offensive movements, they lacked a traditional form of defensive positional warfare. The hunter-gatherers had neither the means nor the idea of creating a fortified defensive position from which to withstand an attack or a prolonged siege. In the bush the first concern of pastoralists was to prepare a defensive barrier which would protect them from Aboriginal aggressors. In descriptions of hoax Pascoe-villages there is not a word about the shelters being constructed as a means of defence. A hut with an entrance which could be barricaded in times of danger and sturdy walls to keep out enemies, or even sheltering battlements from which stones and spears could be thrown down on enemies, was beyond the experience of the black traditionalists.

Colonial artworks which show violence between Aborigines and whites typically represent Aborigines attacking a defended position as whites fire from protective cover, or mounted whites surprising an Aboriginal camp—where seemingly not even guards have been placed to warn of approaching men and horses. In William Buckley’s account of life with the Aborigines he describes formalised battles between two groups or surprise attacks. Of defence, he only tells of people running away and hiding when outnumbered by attackers. The idea of a siege was completely alien. Hunter-gatherers could not fortify a tactical position and stock it with food and water to resist a surrounding enemy over a period.

The different ideas of fighting are evidenced in an event when armed Aborigines attacked defenceless whalers over possession of a beached whale near Portland in the late 1830s. The whalers withdrew, armed themselves and returned. There was a struggle and the Aborigines, in the words of the settler Edward Henty, “did not go away but got behind trees and threw spears and stones”. Protecting themselves, they used the natural shelter as a shield to maintain their offensive—if attacked here they would have retreated further into the bush. This was not warfare. The Aborigines were a raiding party intent on taking possession of the whale. Possibly some of their women were living with the whalers during the fishing season. Those whites who were attacked were working men concerned with harvesting the whale they had hunted. Once they drove the Aborigines away they did their work and departed, leaving what was left to their assailants. The Aborigines were not being hunted and massacred, they were driven away when they became a dangerous impediment to the work of the whalers. They were a nuisance, not objects for genocide. Many Aborigines understood this and would join the productive workers and earn, rather than steal, the objects of colonial trade they desired.

Aborigines responded to the coming of strangers with disorganised violence. When the outsiders were weak and unprotected they might be killed: if they were many and protected, relations could be cordial.

The newcomers brought previously unimaginable riches. Black customs were undermined by the attraction and availability of blankets, sugar and tea, flour, tobacco, alcohol and sex. They also brought enticing new lifestyles that must have made the old ways of hunter-gathering seem repetitious, unrewarding and boring.

In southern Australia the end of Aboriginal culture was marked by decisions not to kill light-skinned babies. Paternal lines of descent that had existed for thousands of years vanished. Sexual attraction between black women and white men destroyed Aboriginal patriarchy. Skin colour was a uniting bond of Aboriginality which was challenged by the acceptance of light-skinned offspring—the children of white men.

In the Western District, traditional Aboriginal violence was sporadically turned against the white settlers and their livestock for a period of about fifteen years, from 1836 to 1851. Those who used it were generally unprepared for the retaliatory response they triggered, and the violence occurred between a very small number of people. Colonial authorities in the Port Phillip District acted to restrain bloodshed. In a letter to Quadrant, the historian Marie Fels wrote:

[Superintendent] La Trobe’s obituary for [Native Police Commandant Henry] Dana gives his considered view on the Native Police—they were of benefit to Aborigines because they taught them that if they took and killed sheep, the police could and would track them. If they put up a fight, they were likely to be killed; if captured, gaol was inevitable.

Aborigines of mixed descent are the evidence of the historical sexual attractions of their black and white forebears. They owe their lives, their parents’ lives and their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives to the colonial revolution that both created them and saved them from customary infanticide. They, and not statues, are the representation of colonialism—the ebbing tide of Aboriginality and the vibrant stream of white ancestry is evidenced in their DNA.

Historian and activist Michael Cannon’s 1990 book asked Who Killed the Koories? His study of frontier violence dealt with the Port Phillip District in the 1840s. Uncertain of the Aboriginal population of the region at the time of white settlement—while citing estimates of between 7500 and 11,500—he looked at the first national census after Federation and noted that “an unknown number of mixed-blood people had merged into the general population. Only 271 full-blood Aboriginals remained alive in Victoria” and asserted that genocide had taken place. Today there are 20,000 Aborigines (of mixed descent) living in Victoria. Perhaps his book title was a mistake. The Koories weren’t killed—they were there all the time but he could not see them, and black–white relations had also been much more affectionate than his provocative book title allowed.

Australia has lost its memory—and learns only hatred. Its true recollections have been replaced with race fantasies inciting anti-white anger and intolerance—created by people of mixed black and white ancestry. Veronica Gorrie is the proud mother of an adult child (writer, actor and maker of children’s television) who appeared on the ABC’s Q&A in 2019 and looked into the near future with eagerness and desire: “I wonder what our kind of tipping point in Australia’s going to be when people will start burning stuff? I look forward to it.”

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