Lest we remember?

It’s that time of year again when Australians engage in our annual culture war about the war we don’t admit happened. For many, national identity is tied to a foundation myth associated with a war in which we invaded a peninsula on the other side of the world. We know little or nothing about the war for possession on our own soil.

Lest we remember, our leaders provide plentiful distraction. Hence our Prime Minister fired the first shot this year by declaring that, from 2020, local councils would be required to have citizenship ceremonies on 26 January and to enforce a dress code. A week or so later he was back with a bizarre announcement about the proposed circumnavigation of Australia by a replica Endeavour to commemorate the voyage of James Cook along the east coast. The implication, in speaking of a reenactment, that Cook had circumnavigated Australia was later corrected but the damage had been done. More recently still a small group of conservative LNP members has emerged in support of legislating to fix Australia Day on 26 January.

The ALP is not prepared to risk being on the wrong side of any debate about the date, preferring to be seen to be as one with the Prime Minister on that issue. Meanwhile indigenous Australians, while understandably saddened by the memories conjured by 26 January, differ about any proposal to change the date. Warren Mundine, the PM’s pick for the seat of Gilmore, is on the record as favouring a change of date and has not backed away from that position but does not suggest it is a priority. Other indigenous voices have observed appropriately that changing the date will be of no value unless we first change the country to redress the dispossession and disadvantage that began on 26 January, 1788 and continues to the present day.

I’d like to think we Australians are not naturally or universally a mean spirited people but I think we are mostly too little aware of our national history, especially the less savoury parts. What little Australian history many of us learned in school tended to concentrate on the positive achievements of the British beginning in 1788 with essentially nothing about life prior to 1788 or what happened to those living here when the British arrived. Efforts in recent decades to include more about indigenous Australia have sometimes not been favourably received by segments of the community. We need to do better in our schools and more broadly in the community to redress the lack of awareness.

Composite image of 5 book covers
5 books

Not entirely by chance, my reading over the past six months has broadened my perspective, though I am sure I have much more yet to learn. Early last year I posted about my intention to write more here in retirement. Other than recording intermittent progress on my bucket list that mostly did not happen. I did record some of our travels elsewhere but, despite good intentions it has been a long time since I recorded thoughts about my reading. This seems like an appropriate time to record some thoughts about five books that opened my eyes to some of our national history.

Cover of A Long Way from Home

I loaded Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home on my iPad at the end of August as we were preparing to travel in the USA. I’d heard about it from an interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live and thought it would be a good extension to my previously completed bucket list commitment to read a novel. The interview had made mention of an indigenous connection but that was a more significant element than I had expected to find in a story about the iconic Redex trials of the 1950s. The determination of a husband and wife in Bacchus Marsh to compete in the round Australia rally as a step toward business success provides the context but the story ultimately lands elsewhere. Their next door neighbour turned navigator had been raised as the son of a missionary without knowledge of his true identity. As the truth is revealed the reader is confronted by the awful history of indigenous dispossession, racial abuse, and stolen children. The damage flows down through generations and I wonder what can be done to heal the effects.

Stan Grant’s Talking to my Country also landed on my reading list via Phillip Adams and Late Night Live. It is a powerful reflection about growing up indigenous in Australia. Opportunity, talent and hard work enabled Stan Grant to build a successful career in Australia and around the world but his memories of life growing up on the margins of society are strong. The pain of loss, personal and communal, resonates on every page. He writes clearly about the struggles of previous generations of his family and is able to make direct connections to historical figures and places involved in the bloody struggle for possession of the land. I finished it with increased understanding of the impacts of dispossession and marginalisation on whole generations.

Warrior is a more academic book, complete with footnoted sources, but also a gripping narrative of events that are relatively close in time and space. I’d been aware of it since it was launched in Toowoomba and Majella bought and read a copy at the time but I had not found time out of work to read it. Libby Connors traces the story of Dundalli, an indigenous warrior from the region north of Brisbane. Her account describes the effects of intertribal alliances and rivalries, suggesting that at times indigenous leaders may have been attempting to use the newly arrived whites and their weaponry to pursue their own ends. Within a few years initial hospitality turned to bitter struggle as the new arrivals sought to expand sole possession of the land. The descriptions of indigenous society, including sophisticated political interactions and management of resources, run counter to the commonly accepted picture of primitive hunter-gatherer existence.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu added further weight to counter the conventional view of indigenous Australians as primitive hunter-gatherers living in crude temporary shelters. Basing his argument on extracts from the records of European explorers in Australia, he builds a compelling picture of a much more settled indigenous society than we have been led to believe existed. The observational evidence from the explorers depicts a society in which people sowed seed and harvested grains, lived in settled communities with permanent housing, and managed animal sources of food through technologies such as fish traps and nets or the strategic use of fire to manage pastures on which they hunted. Production was often sufficient to support storage to facilitate large regional gatherings. At times the description is of an almost idyllic lifestyle with ample time to engage in cultural activities. There is solid evidence that the images we have been given of indigenous people living hand to mouth in uncomfortable settings are far from the truth. The tragedy is that what had been productive cropping or grazing land quickly degenerated when subjected to overgrazing by sheep and cattle. We are living with the consequences now but seldom recognise the damage that has been caused by imposing European agricultural practices on a different landscape.

As we live through another summer of mounting fire disasters it is interesting to reflect on the indigenous use of fire to shape the country as described in The Biggest Estate on Earth. Bill Gammage uses written and visual records of the Australian landscape to support an account of indigenous land management practices honed over tens of thousands of years. The park-like open woodlands and pastures encountered by Europeans as they arrived and spread across the continent were neither natural nor random. They were the result of sophisticated application of fire to shape and manage patterns of vegetation that supported indigenous life. As European animals and farming practices took over and indigenous land management was curtailed, in some cases by extermination, the land deteriorated. As argued by Charles Massy in Call of the Reed Warbler, many of our problems with degradation of land and streams could be remedied by a return to the more enlightened management practices of the indigenous peoples.

I might have written separately and at more length about each of these books but reflecting on them together on the eve of Australia Day with its inevitable contention about our history seems appropriate. They have each shifted my thinking about our national history. The question I have to wonder about then is why all this has been hidden from me for upwards of sixty years. It is high time we addressed our national amnesia and acknowledged the truth of our history. There are some hard truths to be faced but there are also knowledge and wisdom that can enable us all to live in harmony with each other and the country on which we live. We do need to change both the national mindset and the date. The first step toward that is necessarily to face the truth as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart that was rejected without due consideration by our government. We can and must do better.