Living with Our History

What a messy business history seems to have become.

History is such a subjective study that it is amenable to the self-serving interpretation of many stakeholders.

We have had recent news reports of some disgruntled people wanting to defile the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park in Sydney who claim Cook is a symbolic figure whose coming caused to be initiated atrocities against the original inhabitants of Australia. An impartial reading of Cook’s diaries, however, shows that he did his best not to antagonise native Australians and tried to reconcile with those he met along Australia’s east coast.

Cook is a formidable personage in Australia’s history and indeed in world history. He was certainly the European discoverer of eastern Australia and the first European to map Australia’s eastern shores. He was courageous and an exemplary leader. His expeditions of discovery enhanced our knowledge of astronomy, biology and geography like none before. It is doubtless that his navigational skills and discoveries influencing many disciplines had a vast impact on the history of the world.

There has been some resentment from various quarters in the indigenous community regarding the celebration of Cook and the later colonial figures. It is natural that indigenous people might resent the colonisation of Australia and protest that their ancestors were unfairly treated as a result.

My ancestors resented the Hanover accession to the British crown and longed for the return of the Stuarts. They supported the Jacobite Revolution and the rightful restoration of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonny Prince Charlie”) to the British Crown. Charles led an unsuccessful uprising in 1745 and was beaten by the British forces at the Battle of Culloden. The battle was a disaster for the Scots who lost almost 2,000 fighters whilst the loyalists suffered only 300 casualties. The battle is commonly viewed as a low point in Scottish history.

You might ask why I should draw this point of history to your attention. The principal reason I do so is that it is almost contemporaneous with Cook’s “discovery” of Australia. It also is concerned with the question of sovereignty. The Scots were determined to maintain their sovereignty and not surrender it to the Hanovers, just as the indigenous peoples of Australia were determined to defend their land against the incursions of the British.

Where do we stand now, some two hundred years after these historical interventions? Well the Scots, while protesting the historical injustices that they endured, are largely reconciled with British society. Yet some Australian indigenous people are still protesting that the indignities they were subjected to by colonialisation at a similar time in history and subsequently, are still thwarting their opportunities for economic and social development.

Now it has been suggested that in the spirit of reconciliation if we keep our historic reminders of colonisation, it might be sensible to promote a greater recognition of our indigenous history as well. I am very supportive of that notion. It is a fact of some considerable consequence that indigenous people, of one form or another, inhabited our continent for maybe 60,000 years prior to European settlement.

(You might wonder why I qualify my statement above by writing “of one form or another”. The reason of course is that our indigenous people are not of a uniform race and Australia was probably occupied in prehistoric times by at least three waves of migration. In this respect ancestors of our current indigenous population were, in fact, invaders themselves.)

But survival in the inhospitable Australian environment over these long eons of time was in itself no mean feat. As the historian D J Mulvaney wrote:

The dispersal of the Aboriginals throughout this vast land, their responses and adjustments to the challenges of its harsh environment, and their economical utilisation of its niggardly resources, are stimulating testimony to the achievements of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

As our early European explorers of Australia found to their great dismay, Australian aborigines survived and managed to sustain a basic tribal life in circumstances that proved fatal to the Europeans. That they were able to do so deserves our respect for their hardiness and ingenuity in dealing with such hostile environments.

Paying historical tribute to our indigenous people by erecting a tribute to a significant person however is rendered difficult because they were a disparate people.

There is no doubt that the sense of indigenous loss has been aggravated by romanticising the past. As much as we might want to think of the indigenous peoples who inhabited Australia prior to European colonisation as “noble savages” evidence suggests that the majority lived short and difficult lives. This was the mistake made by H C (“Nugget) Coombs who was the prime mover in establishing the remote communities in order to restore indigenous people to their traditional tribal lives and to “minimise assimilationist tendencies”. This initiative has of course proved to be an unmitigated disaster and resulted in thousands of indigenous people living in third world conditions.

But let us look again at the indigenous folk who occupied Australia at the time of European colonisation. Estimates vary, but it seems some 300 tribes occupied Australia at the time of European settlement, varying in size from less than a hundred in the most arid regions to several thousand where conditions were more favourable. Their long separation resulted in many languages and differing customs. These differentiations seem to remain important to indigenous people as discussions about Native Title rights seem to attest. Consequently it is difficult to single out indigenous people to recognise that all other indigenous people might accept.

It would be appropriate, of course, to give recognition to someone like Eddie Mabo whose struggle for land rights brought benefits to all indigenous people.

But if we are to advance the cause of indigenous people we need to avoid the tokenism trap that we have often fallen into. I can’t begin to tell you how much I cringe when at some important event Aunty Gladys or Uncle Fred is trotted out to perform a “welcome to country” ceremony. This is unadulterated, paternalistic rubbish that does the indigenous cause no good but is largely designed to assuage the guilt of white Australians.

The lack of written language has meant that indigenous history and customs are largely known to us from oral sources which are notoriously unreliable.

Kenan Malik on a recent visit to Australia remarked:

Today’s indigenous Australians no more have the same relationship to the spiritual tradition of Dreamtime stories as did those first inhabitants than modern Greeks relate to The Iliad in the way their ancient forbears did.

It is likely that the best records of indigenous culture that we have access to are the written records of the early European settlers.

The more racist of our early settlers formed a notion that indigenous Australians were primitive peoples incapable of development. Unfortunately this is a sentiment still held by a small minority of Australians. It is a conclusion that might be easily drawn if an observer concentrated on reading only the press reports emanating from the dysfunctional remote Aboriginal communities. What you don’t hear so much about are the indigenous people who are prospering in mainstream Australian society. There are more and more indigenous people graduating from university, joining the professions and taking up important roles in modern Australia. While we are being appalled and distracted by the behaviour of a minority of indigenous people who choose to cut themselves off from society and the family, civil and legal responsibilities that the rest of us largely adhere to, we often overlook the indigenous people who have in fact integrated well into our society and conform to the societal expectations that most of us try to adhere to.

They have taken up the challenge of buying into the legacy that James Cook and those that subsequently colonised Australia provided us and are benefitting from the lifestyle of a modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist society.

But in understanding the Australia of today it is also a mistake to confine our discussions to indigenous history and the history of the British colonists. Australia benefitted immensely from migration from Western Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century and then after the demise of the White Australia Policy from Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. These latter day settlers have also contributed in a significant way to the evolving nature of our nation.

Prior to the Cook statue controversy, we had similar controversies in the USA regarding statues of Confederate Generals and in the UK regarding the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. In response to the latter controversy the Chancellor of Oxford University warned:

Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary view and prejudice.

And that is indeed true. By any account Captain James Cook warrants a statue in Hyde Park and any attempt to rewrite the plaque is being somewhat pedantic. By all means let us honour those indigenous persons that have made significant contributions to our history as well, but any attempts to demean Cook’s achievements in the process are merely churlish.

But what about we Scots? Well we try to put Culloden Field out of mind and celebrate our antecedents in our own peculiar way. We take a wee dram, celebrate Hogmanay, and moan about the British Monarchy. We take pride in our marvellous Scottish inventions like the haggis, tartans and sporrans. Where would the world be without them? And then, in our own dour way, we just get on with things.


3 Replies to “Living with Our History”

  1. Ted, thanks for another thoughtful and balanced essay on an issue that concerns (or should concern) all of us.

    I am in virtually complete agreement with you, emphasizing the need to find the means to develop the inclusiveness necessary to get the best outcome for all.

    I have had recent discussions with a mutual friend in Hobart on this matter and will send you by separate email my dissertation on the broader scope of the issue.


  2. Good work Ted, your analogy with the Scots can be replicated of course in almost any country and any time, even back to the famous Roman Empire from which all Western culture is derived…… I note that you didn’t touch on the purity/impurity of the indigenous blodline – virtually no one is pure Scot or English or Italian or indigenous so the claim to be so is a fabrication at best and a dream at best…… Congratulations on your 401st article Ted, a mammoth achievement!… Yours Jack

  3. Ted
    Thanks for a thoughtful essay on a complex topic. I totally agree. History has shown that almost every country in the globe has been invaded and colonised by someone…. and it continues today. No society today is of pure origin. As you correctly point out there were at least three waves of migration into Australia before todays Aborigines and Europeans.

    Unfortunately many people today hang on to their cultures, religions and heritage to the extent they become huge millstones around their necks, impeding them from moving forward. We need to focus on the future and where we want to be rather than where our ancestors have been and what happened to them. You cant rewrite history. Just learn from our mistakes and move on.

    My success or failures in life have nothing to do with what my ancestors had inflicted on them or what they did. I must make my own path and accept responsibility for my own future.

    Celebrate the past but focus on where we need to be.

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