Finding a way

Geoffrey Blainey’s recent article in The Weekend Australian (1–2 July) urged Australians to get the “facts in order” before voting on The Voice portrays the “Yes” campaign as historically unfounded and a misrepresention of Australian history before and after 1788. Personally, I like Blainey’s writing; he has a fine forensic mind, which has proved particularly useful in tearing down dodgy research and fanciful conclusions throughout his distinguished career. But despite styling his contribution as that of an informed and dispassionate observer looking down on the confused ideological melee of activists and politicians, the version of settlement his own argument postulates is far from neutral.

Blainey’s dismissal of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu thesis as “nonsensical” is simplistic; somewhere else fifty thousand years ago, Geoff’s ancestors were also hunting, grinding grasses and building fish traps. The first Agricultural Revolution was the product of a unique combination of circumstances. Roughly six thousand years ago, as the earth’s climate stabilised at the end of the last Ice Age, people in the Fertile Crescent and on the Pontic Slopes were able to domesticate hard grains and animals like horses, cattle, sheep and goats. Here in Australia, we did not have such hard grains or animals suitable for domestication. Neither did we acquire the things most histories of agricultural civilisation place in their wake: silos, taxation, urbanisation, writing, metal tools and weapons, soldiers, priests, kings, land-war, overpopulation and accelerated rates of transmissible disease. These things enabled that march of civilisation which reached Australia in 1788 and continues to threaten the existence of Aboriginal Australians.

Any argument that reduces the invasion of Australia to some kind of balance sheet in which the debit of genocide can be offset against the credit of technological convenience reveals the moral vacuum of the settler narrative. No-one experiences history like that, and the fact that Blainey, who is elsewhere such a sophisticated historical thinker, should adopt such reductive forms of argument here is telling. The comparison he draws with other examples of historical suffering is comparably specious; of course, the Battle of Hastings was traumatic for the Anglo-Saxons, but it does not make the moral claim on modern Australians that colonisation does, for obvious reasons.

Blainey differs from many conservative historians in recognising the cost of invasion; he even uses the word “warfare” in this piece, but he qualifies its effects with the historically incalculable effects of disease, alcohol and diet. While the impact of settlement was certainly complex, the catastrophic trauma of it has been significantly occluded by the narratology of settler history, as Bill Stanner and others have argued. The primary modern sense of the word “trauma” denotes a physical and psychological wound, but etymologically its Proto Indo-European root also means the tearing of the husk from the grain. The ecological and cultural impact of settlement on Sydney Harbour and its hinterlands was catastrophic. From the very beginning food was scarce. The settlers stripped the harbour of fish, and Aboriginal people were found starving (Historical Records 1914:65–67; Tench 1979:146). The Sirius was sent for supplies, and Aboriginal hostility mounted in the six months before her return. When the Sirius did return, in April 1789, smallpox had destroyed the local population and was working its way up the coast and into the Hawkesbury (Bradley 1969:172, 100; Hunter 1968:96). Phillip’s despatches are conspicuously uncurious about the cause of the outbreak. Watkin Tench, probably the most well-read and subversive of the First Fleet journalists (note his use of Milton’s Paradise Lost in his narrative), was the only contemporary to raise the possibility that it may have been deliberately released from samples of variolous matter transported by the surgeons, “a supposition so wild”, he claimed, “as to be unworthy of consideration”. The exaggeration of his rebuttal echoes Jonathon Swift’s ironic defence of English officials in Gulliver’s Travels as “the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside” (Swift, 1977:316). It is within this context that it becomes impossible to prove that smallpox was not deliberately released to save the colony from annihilation.

Here, on Dyarubbin, the river the settlers call the Nepean and the Hawkesbury, the fish traps, bird traps and yam beds along the river that fed Aboriginal people were destroyed by land clearing and by foraging pigs, the main source of protein for early settlers. Survivors were forced onto the farms — there was no choice in the matter.

To argue that there was no slavery in the colony is also problematic. Richard Atkins (nd:55) and David Collins (1974:55) document the enslavement of Aboriginal boys in February 1795. The Marsdens were repeat offenders in the ruinous practice of taking Aboriginal children into their family as experiments in social engineering (Marsden 1858:83–4). In 1814, Macquarie set up a Native Institute to civilise the “Ab-origines”, many of the children placed there being prisoners of war, taken in the 1816 expeditions (AONSW:149–168).

Blainey’s claim that in “every known part of the world the semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers had been deadly in their tribal warfare” is a deceptive hyperbole: some Indigenous peoples practiced warfare; others did not. The military historian John Keegan (1994:391–2) offers a more-nuanced approach to Indigenous conflict, in which convention and ritual restrict violence, contrasting it dramatically with the “civilised” model of Western warfare where technology and logistics make conflict real “deadly”. If the various accounts of Indigenous conflict such as those reported by William Buckley are true, I am inclined to think of them as manifestations of the contextual effect of invasion on Aboriginal society. There is nothing new in colonised peoples turning on themselves in a desperate struggle for survival; it still happens. And then, there is the darkly lens-shaping or self-fulfilling quality of the settler perspective. The Reverend William Walker was convinced that Aboriginal people were cannibals when two young Aboriginal men played a practical joke on him, pretending that the slabs of meat in their hands were from the body of someone they had killed (Gunson 1974:74). The settler lens is clouded by its own prejudices.

Blainey is quite correct in writing that there was no mythical “flora and fauna act” governing Aboriginal lives under settlement. However, from the very beginnings of contact — whether it be Dampier’s brutish comparisons, Cook’s distinction between “Man” and “the Natives”, Macquarie’s “Ab-origine”, or Barron Field’s lament that despite being taken in their infancy, “yet the woods have seduced them at maturity” (Dampier 1697; Wharton; Historical Records 1916:313; Field 1825:224–9)— settlers have long viewed Aboriginal people through the lens of a separate or pre-Adamite creation, which obfuscates the realities of settler history, absolving settler society of accountability, empowering settler sanctimony in smoothing their pillow.

Blainey is also correct to observe that Australia’s past is not well understood. While various colonies and states did count Aboriginal people prior to 1967, these measures were qualified by ideas of racial purity, and largely disappeared with Federation. Similarly, various colonies and states extended the franchise to Aboriginal people, but this was not consistent or uniform. For example, in 1965 I was collecting voter registration forms from the Walgett Post Office to register Aboriginal people living along the riverbank. At that time, Aboriginal people could vote, but it was not compulsory. Blainey’s assertion that Aboriginal people “had been counted in every federal census since 1901” raises the question of whether this was a self-identification process and to what effect? It must be placed in the context of the 1967 Referendum question “that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population”, which addressed Section 127 of the Constitution that excluded Aboriginal people from the census. It was not until the 1971 census that the Australian government had an accurate or consistent picture of Aboriginal numbers.

The Uluru Statement is not militant. Anyone who knows Black Fellow politics knows it is a conservative document, but if it helps Close the Gap, then that is a significant milestone in this shared journey. The claim that “Indigenous people … demand a truth-telling tribunal dominated by the Indigenous” is absurd; firstly, because we are an enormously fractured people, but far more importantly because articulating the difficult truth of settlement is not fundamentally a matter for Aboriginal people — we know it well already; it is writ large in our memories and our family trees. Uncovering this historical reality and thinking it through for themselves is White Fellow business.

Presumably, Blainey intends his comparisons to undermine the perception that Aboriginal people think of themselves as history’s only victims, but the lessons of wider historical suffering do not support his position. Many countries have murderous pasts of differing extents, and struggle with their unfolding legacies. The Jewish philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno returned to Germany in 1949 after fifteen years in exile, where he became an active participant in the work of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, recognising, remedying and moving on from the fascist past. In the essay “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), he criticises the defensive neuroses that can attend partially repressed collective guilt, emphasising a sense of defensiveness unmerited by attack, cold-blooded economic casuistries about the numbers of the dead, and a conspiratorial apportion of blame in the victims themselves:

The idiocy of all this is truly a sign of something that psychologically has not been mastered, a wound, although the idea of wounds would be rather more appropriate for the victims.

Without collapsing different historical traumas, the paranoiac and far-fetched feats of illogic currently reached by The Voice’s critics are indicative of an analogous process. For Adorno the “need to give voice to suffering is the condition of all truth” (1970:14), and this obligation encompasses not just the victim but the beneficiaries of invasion, those who suffer, articulately or otherwise, from the guilt of knowing that their privilege is built upon the suffering of others.

In sidestepping the Horror, Blainey and those like him seem to reflexively identify with the perpetrators of historical wrongs, but there are other roles in Australian history. We no longer know the identity of the settler who informed the authorities that his neighbours had tortured and killed an Aboriginal child on the Argyle Reach of the Hawkesbury River in 1795. John Macarthur carried out a superficial investigation, but David Collins, who had little respect for Macarthur, left a circumspect record in his account. A few years later in 1799, on the same part of the river, Mary Archer reported that her neighbours had hacked to death two Aboriginal boys, Little George and Little Jemmy. The killers went to trial, were found guilty and were pardoned. In 1838, William Hobbs, a Hawkesbury man and the manager of Dangar’s Myall Creek Run, rode down to report to the Governor that a massacre had taken place in the run’s stockyard. At the second Myall Creek murder trial, two local Hawkesbury men, Edward Hyland, a Richmond landholder, and William Johnston, a Pitt Town blacksmith, both served on the jury that led to the execution of seven of the massacre’s participants. To honour these people, as they deserve, is to confront the horror of the hacked and bloodied bodies as they did, and to ignore the disdain of their neighbours.

The facts become even more elusive when one contemplates the story of John Henry Fleming, the leader of the stockmen at Myall Creek. Possibly forewarned, he abandoned the stockmen and fled to the Hawkesbury and remained in hiding until the warrant for his arrest lapsed following the disappearance of the only witness in a proposed third trial. Fleming became respectable, marrying into the Dunstan family who were involved in the building of St John’s at Wilberforce. In later life Fleming became a magistrate and a church warden. He donated a stained-glass window to the church depicting the apocryphal story of St John casting the dragon out of the temple of Diana at Ephesus. This is a gesture which, given Diana’s status as  goddess of nature, can be read as an apologia for Myall Creek. Fleming and his wife lie buried in a vault at St John’s. Charlotte does not share her plaque with her husband, John, who died fourteen years before her in 1894. Charlotte’s plaque faces the rising sun, the traditional direction of Christian salvation. John Henry’s plaque faces the west and the setting sun. Perhaps Charlotte was telling us something.

At this late hour, it is indeed time to gather all of the facts and take the road less travelled by.


Works cited

Adorno, T 1970, Negative Dialectic, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

AONSW, Reel 6045, 4/1734.

Atkins, R, “The Journal of Richard Atkins during His Residence in NSW, 1791–1810”, fm3/585, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Bradley, W 1969, A Voyage to New South Wales, Ure Smith, Sydney.

Collins, D 1974, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Volume 1 [1802], AH & AW Reed, Sydney.

Dampier, W 1697,  A New Voyage Around the World.

Field, B (ed,) 1825, Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales, John Murray, London.

Gunson, N (ed) 1974, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE Threlkeld, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Historical Records of Australia, 1914, vol. 1, The Library Committee of the Parliament of Australia, Canberra.

Historical Records of Australia, 1916, vol. 8, The Library Committee of the Parliament of Australia, Canberra.

Hunter, J 1968, An Historical Journal of Events at Sydney and at Sea, J Bach (ed.), Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Keegan, J 1994, A History of Warfare, Pimlico, UK.

Marsden, JB (ed) 1858, Memoirs of the Life and Labours of the Rev. Samuel Marsden, of Paramatta, Senior Chaplain of New South Wales: and of His Early Connexion with the Missions to New Zealand and Tahiti, The Religious Tract Society, London.

Swift, J 1977, Gulliver’s Travels, Everyman, UK.

Tench, W 1979, Sydney’s First Four Years, Library of Australian History, Sydney.

Wharton, W (ed.) 1893, James Cook: Captain Cook’s Journal During His First Voyage Round the World, Eliot Stock, London.

Barry Corr

Barry Corr lives in the Hawkesbury and writes about the ways in which the Hawkesbury’s Frontier War is remembered, or not remembered. His writings on Aboriginal perspectives of settler-coloniality have been published in Meanjin, Overland and Honi Soit. His essay “Knowing Even as We Are Known” is published in Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory.

More by Barry Corr ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays