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)