History Wars

Don’t Like the Past? Invent a New One

As January 26 approached last year some youths of indeterminate ethnicity sternly demanded that a bloke I know here in Melbourne paste an “Invasion Day” poster on his inner-city fence.  The would-be poster demanded not only that the date of Australia Day be changed but  that “the children be handed back” and the jails closed.

My friend  politely declined. Predictably, they called  him a racist. He protested  that one of his great-grandmothers was an Aborigine.  He was a coconut – white on the inside – they yelled angrily as they departed.

This was one of the more extravagant Aboriginal grievance  episodes of the last Australia Day season but the “we wuz robbed” story keeps growing and seems to be hardening into a cohesive ideology amounting to an alternative history of  Australia. It will be instructive to see how far it has grown and if this year will see any challenge to it. There was not much questioning a year ago. With panellists on ABC TV’s The Drum, for example, the typically inane reaction to Aboriginal claims was “we’ve moved on from the brutality of the past and the White Australia Policy and now we have a vibrant  multi-cultural society.”

Other media has not been so different. This past year I listened, viewed and read more systematically than usual, concluding much has been claimed but not much questioned. The elite in their public discourse seem embarrassed by Australian history; they seem to know little about it and to have given it less thought. Thus when a travesty of history comes along in the form of Bruce Pascoe’s work of fiction, Dark Emu, they embrace it, endorse it, refuse to countenance any questions at all about its veracity and the parody of genuine scholarship that it is.

The developing revisionist  history is now not so much that whites should not have come at all but that it should have been done better, with  more respect for the Indigenous people and their “65,000 year-old civilisation, the oldest continuing culture on  Earth”. There should have  been a treaty at the time, it is argued –  part of the case for wanting one now.

In this version, Captain Cook, of the daubed statue, was the evil architect by taking possession of eastern Australia for the British Crown in 1770. It will be interesting to see how the  militants treat the 250th anniversary of his visit in April.  At the Arnhem Land Australia Day Sunrise festivity on Australia Day in 2019, the vigour of Aboriginal orators  denouncing Cook reminded me of communist union leaders railing against Menzies during the Cold War. Six months later at the Garma festival there  an orator said the problem was not so much that Cook came as that “we should have  been asked”.

Then and on many other occasions and in the media, Aborigines and their spokesmen and supporters identify as the other great evil “the rotten doctrine of Terra Nullius, that there was nobody here”. The uninvited 1788 “invasion” at Sydney followed, with the “heroic warrior”  Pemulwuy having the guts to stand up. Countless indignities, massacres and other disasters followed on  “stolen land”, including no citizenship or vote until 1967  and legions of stolen children. It’s exciting stuff, right for the zeitgeist, with under-explored potential for  more years of protests, films, media articles, books, comment and documentaries, for  school lessons and specialist tertiary university courses.

The trouble is that the story is wrong.

It has developed over the past fifty years,  from  untested Aboriginal stories, hugely built upon by sympathetic academics and lawyers, careless journalists, international “First Nations theory” and ideological mission creep.  

At the risk of being racist or worse, some comment  and potted context follows.

There is much to regret about the past 232 years, and much needs to be done,  but there is no  over-arching,  big picture original sin and never was.  It is hard  to see what good this new creative version of history can do, other than make Aborigines feel even more aggrieved about the distant past and increase the armchair indignation of those for whom it is a lifestylre. In particular, it is surely dangerous to feed the myths of endless victimhood to young mixed race people feeling unsure of their place in society and tempted to anti-social behaviour.  It also takes attention away from the  many more – and usually more justified – smaller picture grievances.

The heavily forested planet of the 1780s had about one billion people, compared with 7.7 billion now. Empires were the millennia-old way of organising the world. For better or worse, the more developed culture took over the less developed; the nation state was still being invented. There were few restrictions other than force on people visiting or moving to other lands. Travel anywhere was possible only by foot, horse-drawn vehicles or sail. 

The long-accepted way of staking out apparently undeveloped new land for empire was to officially claim it, much the same principle as with  a mining right. If after a long delay, there was no further development the claim lapsed. Land that was already farmed and, especially, developed for a town was usually left alone.

The indigenous population of Australia around 1780 was about 500,000 to 750,000, according to recent estimates, but that was unknown then. We know now that it comprised about 600 language groups,  many spoken by those who lethally loathed their neighbours and often engaged in deadly feuds.  Foreigners, other than  Indonesian fishermen, had visited the continent perhaps half a dozen times in the  millennia of history, and then only briefly.

In the world of the 1780s, it was perfectly normal to select a bit of  lightly populated land and start a port town,   as Governor Arthur Phillip did in Sydney. That was the way many of the world’s cities had been founded. Rome gave birth to London, the Dutch to New York; it was the way of world back then.  The whole Sydney region had what is estimated to have been anindigenous population of about 5000 in 1788, with 1200 in the Harbour districts. Most seem to have had no problem with the English settlement. The now-lionised Pemulwuy was a rebellious sort, a Ned Kelly or Robin Hood figure, and a nuisance to the settlement. Today he serves as a reminder that not all Aborigines are the same, a fact today’s peddlers of racial grievance and identity politics would do well to remember.

How either Phillip or Cook could have negotiated a written treaty of any value strains the mind, but Phillip did – patiently  and successfully – negotiate unwritten arrangements with the locals.  Neither Cook nor Phillip nor the likes of Dampier thought for a minute there was nobody here; they all wrote about the Aborigines, as did  their London bureaucrats. It is unlikely, too, that any of them had heard of terra  nullius, then an  obscure old legal doctrine referring to land without organised government. Cook famously praised the apparent happiness of the Cape York Aborigines.

Phillip’s instruction from London called on the infant colony to “conciliate the affections of the natives”, treat them with “amity and kindness” and protect them from harm.  They were British subjects from 1788 and automatically Australian citizens when that category commenced in 1948. The principle that the settlers  should live in harmony with the Aborigines has more or less dominated government policies since. There have  been few, if any instances of racial oppression by governments, allowing for the usual mistakes, bad apples, cheese-paring and inattention of any government.

It is not clear how well  Drum and Garma commentators would have handled integrating a then-modern settler society into a hunter-gatherer world little changed from the Stone Age.

Not much land was “stolen”. Very little of Australia was alienated to private ownership until after the gold rush of the 1850s – about enough to feed the small but growing population. More than half the continent is still leased public land. The squatters who took up most of south-eastern Australia between 1820 and 1850 had only licences to graze livestock on what was Crown land.  After 1847, when the southern squatting rush was ending,  most settlers had defined leases. The new British legislation of that year required these leases to be shared with local Aborigines. The Aboriginal customary ownership of land,  archaically rigid, unwritten and unchanging, would not have allowed any new development.

The squatters  dominated because they, like the ancient Romans, were products of a technologically dominant culture. They had metal to develop the land and build better dwellings. They had sheep and wool and customers for their fleeces. On the positive side, the newcomers could offer Aborigines a more varied and secure diet, help with defence against hostile local enemies. Christianity eased the grip of  superstition and rigid domination of tribal elders, especially of women. The alcohol, sugar and tobacco were welcome, but less helpful. Much more disastrous was disease.

Official (white) records suggest perhaps twenty-five per cent of Australia settled by early graziers experienced  significant, tragic but usually brief, frontier conflict between the 1790s and 1928,  more severe in the north  than the south. (That is an illustrative, not a definitive figure). Little violence is recorded for the main period of southern mainland grazing expansion, from the late 1820s to 1837. There was more between 1838 and the mid-1840s, for a  number of reasons, and little after that. The tropical north is more complicated, but racial conflict was rare where most Australians now live. Most squatters seem to have settled fairly peacefully. Published numbers of Aborigines killed are at best very rough guesstimates.

The  background of these “massacres”, where understood at all, is often complicated, involving for example local Indigenous tribal politics, misunderstandings, bad behaviour by individuals on both sides. Aborigines taking cattle and sheep was usually the spark. Policing, when  available, usually improved things.

Nobody today really know what Aborigines two hundred years ago thought about whites coming,  except that it seemed to vary. Little reliable information has survived about the early grazing period but the more common  picture is of Aborigines “coming in” to station homesteads “on country” to camp and work there. We know little about conditions there.  Aboriginal reactions to the squatters varied, but there is not  much evidence to suggest they were “fighting to defend  country” except in a few parts of the far north.

The “stolen generation” story is obviously a deeply sensitive one for Aborigines, but the Bringing Them Home report  of 1996, on which Kevin Rudd  based his eloquent apology, is a worthless document (read it), with a sensational introduction and no substance, especially in regard to numbers taken or the reasons for taking them. It has done more harm than good.

The Commonwealth extended the vote to ”Aborigines” in 1962 as part of the now derided “assimilation” developed over the previous few years under Territories Minister Paul Hasluck. But most “Aborigines” already had it, either through the colonial franchise, war service or as part-European. The 1902 exclusion came about, in part, because Labour,  which held the cross bench at the time, feared outback squatters would make  illiterate Aborigines vote anti-Labour. Later governments thought remote Aborigines should be segregated from mainstream  society to keep them healthy and alive. The Aboriginal population was then declining towards  extinction, mainly due  disease from outside and  stabilised only in the 1930s.   

The charge that the Constitution, a stolid  book of rules, was “racist” was unknown until recent years, as was the claim that pre-1788 society was a “civilisation”; it just did not have the towns and written laws to qualify, though it had its good points. “Post-colonial trauma”, now blamed for all unhelpful behaviour, is a fancy expression for the old “caught between two worlds”. There is  no evidence I know of for the much repeated claim that authorities before 1967 treated Aborigines as “fauna and flora”, another hackney rallying cry of those whose stock-in-trade is division, grievance and acrimony.

 “Genocide” and “slavery” get brief unspecific mentions in the new and entirely  ideological “history”,  hinting at creeping  international or American “First Nations” ideas  blending into the mix of genuine, if sometimes misguided  Aboriginal oral traditions and copious academic additions.

Surely the  real disaster for Australian Aborigines was the fall in population, from perhaps 750,00 in 1780 to a low point of 74,000 in 1933 (excluding many part-Europeans). The usual explanation is  that calamitous smallpox epidemics in the 1780s and 1820s were the main cause. There is  evidence that visiting Indonesian fishermen brought the smallpox. The subsequent  high death and low birth rates caused or exacerbated by illness  can be traced much more, though not entirely,  to white settlement. Neither terrible calamity gets a  mention in the new version of history which,  in the usual way of ideology,  finds room only for goodies and baddies,  conspicuously oppressed Aborigines and oppressing whites.

Enjoy today’s celebration of the First Fleet’s arrival. Like the truth about our nation and its origins, the notion that the holiday is for all Australians — black, white, new arrivals and convict descendants — seems to be fading fast.

Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia – A Short History (Rosenberg)

10 comments
  • lloveday

    Some eye-witness accounts of the state of the “65,000 year-old civilisation” at the time of “Invasion Day”
    .
    First Fleeter Watkin Tench noticed a young woman’s head “covered by contusions, and mangled by scars”. She also had a spear wound above the left knee caused by a man who dragged her from her home to rape her. Tench wrote, “They are in all respects treated with savage barbarity; condemned not only to carry the children, but all other burthens, they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks and every other mark of brutality.”
    .
    He also wrote, “When an Indian [sic] is provoked by a woman, he either spears her, or knocks her down on the spot; on this occasion he always strikes on the head, using indiscriminately a hatchet, a club, or any other weapon, which may chance to be in his hand.”
    .
    Marine Lt. William Collins wrote, “We have seen some of these unfortunate beings with more scars upon their shorn heads, cut in every direction, than could be well distinguished or counted.”
    .
    Edward John Eyre, who was very sympathetic towards Aborigines, nevertheless recorded:
    “Women are often sadly ill-treated by their husbands and friends…they are frequently beaten about the head , with waddies, in the most dreadful manner, or speared in the limbs for the most trivial offences… “Few women will be found, upon examination, to be free from frightful scars upon the head, or the marks of spear wounds about the body. I have seen a young woman, who, from the number of these marks, appeared to have been almost riddled with spear wounds.”

  • Alistair

    Nice article. I have a small library of perhaps 50 first contact, and early anthropological, books which people seem desperate to ignore. There is abundant information available for anyone who bothers to look for it. And it sure is much more interesting that the half-baked neoculture that Aborigines are currently being taught. I find it strange that the same people who rail against the loss of Aboriginal culture (assimilation) have no qualms about integrating American Indian and Maori, First Nations culture into the mix. I mean “farming”! Really?

  • Peter OBrien

    In the Tele yesterday, a very pregnant Jesinta Franklin, wife of AFL star Buddy Franklin tells why she can’t celebrate Australia Day. She writes:

    “I have seen my husband well up when talking about his mum and how she used to have to run away with her siblings when they knew the government trucks were coming to take them away from their parents.
    Or when his sisters have shared stories of their grandparents, who were born into a world that considered them flora and fauna.”

    It seems you can’t kill the old Flora and Fauna Act myth with a stick, or the trucks coming to take kids away – an image straight out of movie The Sapphires,

    At the age of 15, Buddy Franklin won a sports scholarship and boarded at Wesley College. I wonder, when his child is born – let’s call him Archie for want of a better name – will he inherit the full grievance package or could it be discounted, just a little, on account of the extra generational remove and the life of privilege he will undoubtedly enjoy?

  • Stephen Due

    The heading of this article could equally well be “Hopelessly ignorant of the past? Invent one that suits your grievance narrative”. Certainly the idea of a Stone Age civilization is a bold stroke of inventive genius.

  • PT

    As I’ve said before, if you can’t respect someone (or people) for who they are and what they achieved, and have to make up some list of doubtful to completely false “facts” about them, it means you actually don’t respect them at all!

  • Tricone

    Surely the most destructive thing you can do to a hunter gatherer culture is set up safe settlements with guaranteed food supply in their midst?

  • sirtony

    There seems to be a push to want to have ever longer Aboriginal “history” and any scientific findings of early humans are welcomed as extending this into the deep past. There seems to be evidence of human habitation in parts of Australia dating to 60-70,000 years B.P. but the earliest human remains we have uncovered (Mungo Man) date to around 45,000 B.P. This was discovered in the 1970s and before that the supposition was that modern humans arrived around 20-25,000 B.P. These discoveries of early man do not add up to evidence for the claimed “60,000 years of history.
    Each of these discoveries is taken to “prove” some unbroken culture which is held to be a good thing. However, when large scale genotyping of aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, island Southeast Asians and Indians was undertaken it found ancient associations between these groups with divergence times estimated at about 36,000 years ago. Further there is evidence of substantial gene flow between the Indian population and Australia well before European contact, estimated to have occurred during the Holocene about 4,200 years ago. This is also approximately when changes in tool technology, food processing, and the dingo appear in the Australian archaeological record, suggesting that these may be related to the migration from India.
    There is nothing intrinsically worthy of an Aboriginal population cut off from the rest of the world for millennia. We respect the Maori aboriginal population of New Zealand who arrived some time between 1250 and 1300 C.E. We don’t need to keep this assumption of an unbroken and unchanged culture stretching back to the earliest humans in Australia to validate concerns for the welfare of any group in modern Australia.

  • DG

    Every time this matter comes up I’m reminded of the Life of Brian scene “what have the Romans done for us?”.

  • lhackett01

    There is a growing movement towards creating a privileged Aboriginal voice to Parliament, changing the Australian Flag and Anthem, rewriting the Australian Constitution, and adopting Aboriginal culture as the basis for Australian identity, all because activists believe Aboriginal culture should be pre-eminent.

    It is time to be honest about Aborigines and their culture, particularly their culture at the time of British Settlement in 1788, as well as thereafter.

    The many Aboriginal cultures across Australia at the time of Settlement were probably the oldest surviving cultures in the world. All were primitive, being predominantly hunter-gatherer societies. There was no “iron age”, “bronze age”, pottery or wheels.

    A number of cultural practises within some Aboriginal groups included infanticide, cannibalism, and the sexual exploitation of women. Violence was, and seemingly remains endemic, as was clearly noted by William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived amongst Aboriginal groups for thirty years. Recently, the Aboriginal woman, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has confirmed Buckley’s observations and revealed that cultural violence remains widespread.

    Aboriginal culture has virtually nothing to offer that would benefit Australia, the Australian Constitution, or Australians generally. We should stop pandering to “progressives” in society.

  • jimriddell

    lhackett01 I agree. Their vaunted understanding of astronomy, aerodynamics, physics, agriculture, etc. should be tested. Did they know the earth went around the sun? What is the difference between a natural yam, seed, etc, and the improved aboriginal one? How did they administer an Australia wide democracy? What common laws did they adjudicate?
    This modern notion of the richness and sophistication of Aboriginal culture is not supported. After reading many the journals of early settlers and explorers my understanding is that pre 1788 Australia was extremely primitive, with very little to offer the modern world. The colonisers were most humane, but frustrated by the difficulty of “improving” the blacks. Macquarie gave up his attempts to teach agriculture!
    The reinvention of colonial history is supporting a grievance industry that will just keep growing. And there is very little Aboriginal blood in many of those grieving, eg. Pascoe.
    Unfortunately it is being supported by the ABC, SBS, and a lot of other tax payer money.
    Most explorers’ and early settlers’ journals are available freely on line. EM Curr’s “The Australian Race” 1888, Vols 1-3, gives a tribe by tribe account. A cursory read of this will shock many.
    There is a list of whites killed by blacks on the “Australian History – Truth Matters” website. I bet a government grant was not available for this!!

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