Saturday, October 08, 2005

History 101 redux: Australia's violent colonial past

Australia has a violent, racist colonial past. How many white intellectuals does it take to say what generations of Aboriginal people have said? The 'Comment' piece in October's The Monthly by author Kate Grenville is the latest commentary on the European invasion of Australia. She particularly looks at the language slight of hands that disguised or 'tidied-up' the messy, brutal job of hunting down and killing Aboriginal people. Her essay is quite compelling.

I don't want to hang shit on Grenville. She is doing something quite powerful, and risky. I wonder if Grenville, who's latest novel,
The Secret River, looks at the 'encounter' between the earliest settlers and Aboriginal people, will face the same apologist backlash from the Winshuttles of Australia that previous participants in the 'History Wars' faced in previous years.

Some of the language on colonial violence was pretty plain, as shown from this quote from a Captain Tench, acting on orders from Governor Phillip to go capture some 'natives' as retribution for the killing of a white man (a convict):

"we were to cut off and bring in the heads of the slain: for which purpose hatchets and bags would be furnished".

It's from a historical document Grenville examined.

I find it strange that Australia is only now having this discussion about its history of colonial violence – and of how that history had been submerged under the obfuscation of official, judicial and pompous colonial language. So many other peoples and nations who were colonised by the European powers in the 18th–20th Centuries have been exposing Europe's violent, despotic and brutal colonial history.

The stories of how the peoples of Africa, the Americas, Oceania and Asia suffered under Europe's empires has been going since at least the anti-colonial movements of the 1940s–50s, or sooner if we count the work by Mahatma Ghandi in South Africa and India before the independence movements blossomed, or sooner if we look at the anti-slavery movements of the 18–19 Centuries.

The thing is, Aboriginal people in Australia have been talking about the colonial horror of European invasion of Australia. It's only now that whites are talking about it too, and listening to each other. I wonder if that is because these are middle class, well-educated whites. And whites listen to each other before blackfellas.


At October 08, 2005 12:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I really enjoyed your Blog and will definitely be back for more.


Adam Hunter

At October 10, 2005 4:32 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Mark, I just saw "The Proposition" last week - definately not a political flick - but then found out afterwards that it was the first ever filmatic depiction of indigenous australian massacres. Not pretty, but interesting. How long can popular mindsets in this country stay in such denial? Why can't people in australia accept self evident truth?

I'll keep checking out your blog now I've started...

Liam Thomas

At October 20, 2005 9:34 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Hi Liam, nice to see your comment. I haven't seen Proposition – don't really have the stomach for the level of violence in it.

I guess people can't accept 'self evident truth' because it isn't evident to them. There was so much argument over the 'evidence' during the recent 'History war' that some people's sense of truth is out of whack.

This is especially the case, I think, when commentators and pollies like Howard tell them that the 'black arm-band' view of history and the historians who publish on the colonial wars should be questioned as biased.

White Australia doesn't want to be told that its national pride is misplaced because it was built on colonial violence and racism – which still has repurcussions to this day.


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