No present without dark past
Australians should reconcile themselves to the reality that our history could not have been very different, writes John Hirst

11th March 2006

IN 1897 John Farrell, editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, wrote a poem to mark Queen Victoria's jubilee and sent it to Rudyard Kipling, hoping for praise and endorsement. Kipling lighted on the passage in which Farrell regretted the bloody excesses of the empire's conquests and took Farrell to task for his easy moralism. He declared: "A man might just as well accuse his father of a taste in fornication [citing his own birth as an instance] as a white man mourn over his land's savagery in the past."

The critic only exists because of the deed he criticises. Let us call this the hard realist view of Australia's origins. It avers that it is morally impossible for settler Australians to regret or apologise for the conquest on which colonial Australia was built. It is the view that I share.

By contrast, the liberal fantasy view of our origins avers that the colonial conquest of Australia could have been done nicely. This view is quite widespread and influential and warrants close examination.

Liberal fantasy is prominent in the judgments given in the Mabo case in the High Court. The court found that since 1788 the common law had not been properly interpreted: it should have respected the Aborigines' rights in their land. The court did not rule that the invasion itself was illegitimate. On the contrary, it legitimised the invasion by declaring that the British Crown's proclamation of sovereignty over Australia could not be questioned in an Australian court. The error of the Crown and the courts was to assume that sovereignty meant that Aborigines could be summarily dispossessed of their lands. Then justices William Deane and Mary Gaudron, in a famous passage, said: "The acts and events by which that dispossession in legal theory was carried into practical effect constitute the darkest aspect of the history of this nation. The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgment of, and retreat from, those past injustices."

This envisages that the nation could have come into being without a dark past. The darkness is only an aspect of our history; there could have been a nation without it. But even if the law had been as the High Court now declares it should have been, the desire of the white invaders for Aboriginal lands would have been no less. The clash between Aboriginal hunting and gathering and European pastoral pursuits would have been as stark. What would have happened if the Aborigines, on being fully appraised of the invaders' intentions, had refused to negotiate any of their land away? They would have been forced to negotiate. Even if each tribe had been persuaded to yield half their land, Aborigines would still have regarded the invaders' sheep as fair game and white shepherds would have misunderstood what was involved in their acceptance of Aboriginal women: two potent sources of conflict in the world as it really happened. It is very hard to envisage a settlement history without violence.

One may have thought that Henry Reynolds, the author of the classic work on Aboriginal resistance, The Other Side of the Frontier, would be proof against

the liberal fantasy. Yet it sustains one of his later books, This Whispering in Our Hearts, which deals with those few colonists who opposed the disruption and destruction of Aboriginal society. One or two of these dissenters thought the Aborigines could be saved only if the colonists left. Most thought that colonisation could and should proceed by "purchase, treaty and negotiation". This view Reynolds endorses without considering how this process would have been implemented and what difference it would have made. The dissenters were all opposed to punitive expeditions. Reynolds himself is very definite that punitive expeditions were "indiscriminate and disproportionate violence". So the historian who celebrated Aboriginal resistance and wanted their battles to protect their lands honoured in the War Memorial now thinks that milder measures - a bit of deft police work, perhaps - would have been enough to make the Aborigines give up the fight.

Worrying over the conquest; wishing it were peaceful; feeling that somehow it has to be rectified if settler Australia is to be at peace with itself: these are the products of the liberal imagination. Its decency knows no bounds or thought. Even one death is one too many. This mind-set has perverted Aboriginal policy during the past 30 years so that it has not been dealing with Aborigines as they are or may be and it raises expectations that cannot be met.

The Mabo judgment was a great offender in this. Having denounced settler atrocity and called for a retreat from past injustices, it then proceeded to legitimise the invasion and declared that native title had been extinguished on all freehold and leasehold land.

The liberal imagination, appalled at European violence on the frontier, tends to cast the Aborigines as victims merely and not fine practitioners of violence themselves. Violence was more central to their society, since its practice was not allotted to a professional caste of soldiers; all adult males were warriors. Aboriginal warfare was endemic, usually with a small number of deaths, but occasionally Aborigines massacred each other.

This is an account based on reports by the perpetrators: "Spears and boomerangs flew with deadly aim. Within a matter of minutes Ltjabakuk and his men were lying lifeless in their blood at their brush shelters. Then the warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children, and either speared or clubbed them to death. Finally ... they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die 'natural deaths'."

The writer is T.G.H. Strehlow, who grew up with the Aranda of the Centre. His life work was to record and translate their songs.

Of their warrior songs, he wrote that the "unbridled expression of blood lust was relished by old and young".

The pioneer settlers are not ourselves. Nor are the Aborigines whom the pioneers encountered the Aborigines of today. Settler Australians no longer hang and flog offenders or colonise other countries. Aboriginal Australians no longer abandon their old, kill their superfluous young and levy war against their neighbours. We are all a long way from 1788.

There is no place for settler Australians to stand to decry the conquest of this country. It all belonged to the Aborigines. The only honest approach is to recognise the conquest as conquest and not to give any utilitarian defence of it, such as that the land under European control was able to provide food and fibre to the rest of the world, a view advanced by Geoffrey Blainey. In the European world of the late 18th century, acquiring new territory was perfectly legitimate; what dispute there was concerned the treatment of the people already there.

A heroic moralist of today may say that the European conquests were wrong and attempt the impossibility of imagining world history without conquest. Better, if you must speak of right and wrong, to say that according to their lights the settlers were right to invade and the Aborigines were right to resist them. It is our common fate to live with the consequences of that conjunction.

There were two attacks on Aborigines. After the first attack - the taking of the land and the crushing of resistance - the Aborigines were more or less left alone. The time between the two attacks was as much as 100 years in the lands settled first in NSW.

The Aborigines, depleted in numbers more by disease than violence, remained on their own land. Unlike Native Americans, they did not have to be put on reserves to stop their resistance. Many took work in the pastoral industry, which until 1900 was much more important than farming and sat more lightly on the land. The boss who hired them might well a few years previously have been shooting at them. The more remote the property, the more reliant was the pastoralist on Aboriginal labour and the less likely the Aborigines were to be paid wages. But where the white presence was slight, Aborigines could retain more of their traditional life. As Ann McGrath wrote in Born in the Cattle, we can exaggerate the significance of the settlers to the Aborigines, ruthless and exploitative though the settlers were. As well as doing the regular work on the pastoral stations, Aborigines became drovers and shearers. The Shearers Union (later the AWU) was fanatical in its opposition to Chinese labour but allowed Aborigines (and Maoris) to be members. There were some reserves and missions, more important as refuges to the Aborigines where settlement was denser, but Aborigines were not confined to them; they were free to come and go.

Across the countryside Aborigines remained a presence. Some were ruined by drink and survived by begging and scrounging. Most made their own living and the good workers gained reputation and respect. On the missions Aborigines could be living in cottages as good or better than those of the working class. On the pastoral stations and near the towns they lived in humpies from which they might emerge in suits and hats. Aborigines were local notables and the giving of king plates to chiefs continued and the deaths of the last of the tribe were commemorated. The tide of general opinion was becoming more hostile towards the Aborigines as an inferior race, but settlers on the land had their experience of particular people to temper their attitudes.

After their homelands were taken from them, the Aborigines were, in the terms of the society that had overwhelmed them, a marginalised people, but in their own understanding they were, in a double sense, not a displaced people: they were on their own territory and what gave ultimate meaning to their life still continued. Their "sense of oneness with eternity", in Strehlow's words, "made them more kindly, tolerant and helpful towards their human fellows everywhere". In this way we can understand the lack of resentment towards the settlers and the willingness to be of service to them.

This is celebrated in the many stories of Aboriginal trackers finding lost children in the bush. Someone rides for the tracker, who briefly becomes the leader and instructor of the settlers before returning to the humpy from which he was fetched. The stories having become legendary are a continuing reminder of the laissez-faire times between the first and second attack on the Aborigines.

The second attack began in the decades about 1900. The Aborigines presented no new problem to white society except that they continued to exist. By processes that had little to do with the Aborigines, the new nation had formed its ideals in and through the slogan White Australia. Once the nation had given itself that racial identity, the Aborigines became an anomaly. Much indulgence had been shown to the Aborigines in the 19th century because they were expected to die out; now there were growing numbers of mixed-blood people. The white nation seemed likely to have a permanent group of people of "inferior" blood.

Two solutions were adopted. In the more closely settled areas, part-Aborigines were to be separated from their full-blood kin and encouraged to disappear into the wider community. This involved the shrinking and destruction of the Aboriginal communities on the reserves and missions and the removal of children from their parents. Where Aboriginal populations were larger, they were to be confined on reserves (as far as was compatible with the need for their labour) and their interbreeding with whites forbidden. To control, confine and manage Aborigines in this way their civil rights had to be removed.

The second attack on the Aborigines disturbs me much more than the first. I am not shocked at a settler riding out to shoot Aborigines. He acted in hot blood to protect what was close to him, the lives of himself and his workers and the survival of his highly risky enterprise. Nor am I shocked that settlers and their men sometimes rode out together hoping to kill enough Aborigines to give themselves finally the security they craved. But I cannot be calm at police arriving at settled communities to drag children away from their mothers. This was cold-blooded cruelty planned by a distant bureau in pursuit of the ideal of racial purity. Humankind has been very inventive in its cruelty, but cruelty of this sort did not appear until the early 20th century. We are still struggling to come to terms with it.

Concern for racial purity was then general in European civilisation; it had a peculiar intensity here because Australia happened to form its national ideal when racism was at its peak and it had experienced and disliked migration from Asia. Its ideals of a progressive, egalitarian and harmonious society became fully mixed with the racial poison. Now that they have been untangled, the nation should apologise to those who suffered, particularly to children forcibly taken from caring parents. I believe that more settler Australians would be ready to acknowledge this wrong and apologise for it if the proponents of apology did not urge apologies for everything.

So why does the second attack on the Aborigines warrant an apology and the first one not? Though the High Court judges in Mabo spoke of the Australian nation expropriating the Aborigines, this is not so. The settlers were English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands with the sanction of the British state. Only subsequently was the Australian nation formed by those settlers and their children. It is true that the nation was made possible only by this expropriation, which is why I consider it cannot be apologised for. Some may be tempted to point the finger at the British, but settler Australians are the beneficiaries of their deeds. The second attack on the Aborigines was an attack by the Australian nation (though the agents were the various state governments) in pursuit of a national ideal.

I accept what philosopher Rai Gaita has argued that if a nation can feel pride at its past achievements it can properly feel shame (though not guilt) for its past misdeeds. Forcibly removing Aboriginal children was undoubtedly a misdeed. What finally makes the case for apology compelling in this instance is that some of the victims are still alive.

This is an edited extract from How Sorry Can We Be? by John Hirst, which appears in his book of collected essays, Sense & Nonsense in Australian History (Black Inc, Agenda, $34.95).

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