Henry Reynolds’ new book explores the dark history of Australia’s Frontier Wars and finds that Australian history is in denial.
Let’s go fishing. With E.H.Carr. It was Carr, the celebrated relativist historiographer, who wrote in his circuit-breaking “What is History”, “(Historical facts) are like fish swimming in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he (sic) chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”
Along with EH, we sit here fishing in a tinny on Lake Weyba, near Noosa, a place I know pretty well. Nearby is a sign that reads “Murdering Creek Road.” Local lore has it that the name refers to an ambush and massacre in the 1860′s of a party of a fatally curious indigenous fishing party by eight white settlers, who shot the group in premeditated cold blood. No-one seems to know what happened after that, but what is clear is that the name is an anomaly, an example of how common culture occasionally supplants the national agenda.
Because the national agenda, as Henry Reynolds makes clear in his new book, is not about to throw a spotlight on the Murdering Creeks of this world. The Frontier Wars, the conflict between white settlers and indigenous fighters that occurred mainly pre-Federation, are not part of the national psyche. If they’re memorialised at all, it’s in the sort of bizarrely insensitive names given to the symbols of the the banal vanity of the victorious; another road name, a lookout, a tourist attraction, a hill on a farm.
The importance of Reynolds’ history is the fact that it seeks to rewrite our very foundations as a nation. The bucolic visions of Arcadia in the antipodes, inhabited by noble savages keen to yield to the better brains and brawn of the newbies from across the sea has held this country in its thrall for 200 years or more. Previous attempts to examine it more closely – such the culture wars of the 1990′s – have drawn talk-to-the-hand responses from political leaders, epitomised by John Howard’s spin on it, as “the black armband view of history.”
As a winner, Howard and his ilk were allowed the gift of writing a form of history they liked. Stability and intellectual dullness discourage diversions from the mainstream approach to history and so, the extraordinary story of black v white warfare, upon which Reynolds argues Australia has been founded has remained, largely, a fish that’s never caught on the fishing lines of conventional history.
There are some heavy concepts thrown around in Reynolds’ history; warfare, murder, genocide, terrorism. None sit well with the school history book version of our founding. And, there are no questions that it all happened. It’s just a question of interpretation, as EH Carr well knows. Says Reynolds in a scathing summation of the reality, “If there was no war, then thousands of Aborigines were murdered in a century-long , continent-wide crime wave tolerated by government. There seems to be no other option. It must be one or the other.”
Must be, but isn’t, for standard history denies or ignores it. Yet, the ghosts of all those dead – “upwards to 30,000 and beyond, perhaps well beyond” – goad us to not forget. It wasn’t outright slaughter, so its difficult to assign these wars to rogue elements or to the harsh violence of a frontier society. There was an agenda. This was about the economic possession of the country, with unlocking the land for settlers, pastoralists and investors. The Aborigines were simply an obstacle that had to be removed, and if they couldn’t or wouldn’t allow themselves to be shifted, then they had to be eliminated.
Importantly, the Aborigines fought back, a point Reynolds has emphasised in previous books. Reynolds estimates some 5000 settlers were killed. Not all were combatants as the indigenous warriors resorted to guerilla tactics and terror, attacking homesteads and killing families if it would gain them time and space. Indigenous leaders like Tongerlongeter and Monpeliatta during The Black Wars in Tasmania in 1826 had an agenda too. They were fighting for Australia. A different Australia perhaps but they were defending the land we call ours from foreign invasion. A noble calling, even if the tactics, as noted above, were occasionally heinous.
And they were the attacked. The friendly dalliances between black and white “Australians” around Sydney Cove – as captured by Watkin Tench among others – may have marked the initial period of engagement. But that didn’t last and as the economic pressures mounted, and the indigenous population became an economic problem.
Reynolds uses the facts of the “forgotten war” to launch into a critique of the modern obsession with war. He notes there are up to 5000 memorials around Australia to remember combatants who did not return from conflicts overseas. But, there are just a handful to recall the Frontier Wars. Whether that includes the Murdering Creek Roads of this world is not clear.
When asked about the Australian War Memorial’s stance on this while speaking at the National Press Club earlier this month, and more specifically about the great void in any official commemoration of the Frontier Wars, the AWM’s director Brendan Nelson responded that formal memory doesn’t extend to internal wars. What that means is that no government has yet gone fishing for that particular catch.
Here is perhaps the most troubling angle on the hidden history on which Reynolds skilfully extemporises: it skews our thinking even today and allows various falsehoods and untruths to permeate our national historic culture. And, when lies become official policy, we are all on the bus for an extended holiday in Shitsville.
With the Abbott government commendably relaunching the Indigenous Affairs ministry as a single entity, under NT senator Nigel Scullion, there is an opportunity to address such gaps in our history. But, the government that brings us “Border Security” and which introduced the NT intervention in a previous incarnation doesn’t look to have much chops on either history or indigenous narratives.
For not just the new government, but for all those Australians who have chosen not to be culturally lobotomised by the official view, Reynold’s concluding remarks should be read and re-read: “The process of reconciliation may have brought some people closer together, but white history and black history are as far apart as ever.”
Time perhaps to go fishing.
Title: Forgotten War
Author: Henry Reynolds
Publishers: New South
Couch Time: 280 pages (incl. index)
Highlight: Questions history and provides answers
Lowlight: Lacking balance, might have been good to get some views from those who have created this historic view
T2T’s Dust Jacket Blurb: Henry Reynolds has revealed a gaping hole in Australian history which should have us all crowding around and wondering how it got there.