Renowned Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner identified, in his 1968 Boyer Lecture, what he termed “the Great Australian Silence”.
Addressing the structural racism and the violent settler-colonial history on which Australian society is built, Stanner explained that a “cult of disremembering” reduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to little more than a “melancholy footnote” in Australia’s history.
According to Stanner, the erasure from history of the violent colonial encounters –invasion, massacres, ethnic cleansing and resistance – between European settlers and the Indigenous population meant that there was “a cult forgetfulness practised on a national scale”.
Almost 50 years later, the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on 30 March revealed that many in the ruling class wish to reinstitute the Great Australian Silence. The paper claimed that the University of NSW is engaging in “a highly controversial rewriting of official Australian history”.
A cursory glance at the UNSW diversity kit, however, shows that it accurately reflects the historical facts. It states: “Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a ‘settlement’ attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.”
The invasion of Aboriginal lands in 1770 – and Aboriginal resistance to it – is well recorded by both James Cook and Joseph Banks, the British botanist who accompanied the Endeavour expedition. In his journals, copies of which have been reproduced on the State Library of NSW website, Banks recorded how Aboriginal warriors attempted to prevent the expedition from landing in Botany Bay.
He described Aboriginal warriors brandishing their weapons and motioning to the expedition to leave. Because they “remaind resolute” in their opposition to the British landing party, “a musquet was fird over them”, he noted. Despite their initial fright at the gunshot, the warriors quickly picked up their weapons and renewed their opposition to the landing party.
According to Banks, it was only after several more “musquet” shots were fired directly at the Aboriginal men, wounding at least one of them, that Cook and his men were able to land.
Cook similarly recorded the armed resistance to the British landing party, writing in his journal on 30 April 1770 that “all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone”.
British colonial settlement, which officially began in 1788, was far more violent. Hundreds of massacres were carried out against Aboriginal communities that resisted European encroachment.
One such massacre took place south of Sydney on 17 April 1816. It came as a direct result of orders from governor Lachlan Macquarie, who a week earlier had in effect declared war on the Aboriginal people of New South Wales.
On 9 April 1816, Macquarie secretly instructed crown troops to hunt down and massacre Aboriginal people. Writing in his journal the following day, Macquarie noted that he had “ordered three Separate Military Detachments to march into the Interior and remote parts of the Colony, for the purpose of Punishing the Hostile Natives, by clearing the Country of them entirely …”
He further recorded that he had “directed as many Natives as possible be made Prisoners” and that any resisters were to be killed and their bodies hung from trees “in order to strike the greatest terror in the Survivors”.
During Macquarie’s war, which continued until November, the bodies of slain warriors were decapitated and their heads sent to museums in Europe. Aboriginal “prisoners of war” were transported to penal colonies in Tasmania. Aboriginal children were removed from their families for “re-education”. And British settlers were granted permission to shoot and kill Aboriginal people who were deemed to have violated the various proclamations issued by the colonial government.
Why deny the truth?
These well-documented historical facts did not stop the Murdoch media breathlessly claiming that a “whitewash” was taking place at UNSW. The Daily Telegraph’s attack has very little to do with historical facts. It is a calculated attack by the Australian ruling class and its cultural warriors to push back against hard-won but limited gains made by Indigenous historians and activists and their supporters over the last five decades.
This was also the case with the “history wars” of the 1990s. It is no coincidence that those wars burst forth just five years after more than 40,000 people joined Indigenous-led protests in January 1988, which were held to coincide with the official bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation.
The protests demanded land rights, highlighted the poor Aboriginal health and educational attainment, and opposed the high level of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody. They also drew attention to the violence of European colonial settlement, which was ignored in the official bicentennial celebrations.
Unable to oppose explicitly the Aboriginal demands for equal political, social and economic rights, the ruling class push-back came in the form of the “history wars”. This was led by right wing cultural warriors aligned with the federal Liberal government, such as Gerard Henderson and Padraic McGuinness, who sought to challenge what right wing historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the black armband view of history”.
Blainey, who in the 1980s and 1990s railed against multiculturalism and Asian immigration, coined the term to refer to those historians who challenged the “three cheers view of Australian history”, which views European settlement as largely peaceful and successful. The campaign sought not only to deny the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the reality of the colonial frontier wars, but also to undermine the legal gains made by Indigenous people. These history and cultural wars are also used to distract the broader population from other social, economic and political attacks carried out by the ruling class.
While the history wars were largely successful in politically marginalising the struggle for Aboriginal rights on a range of levels, the Daily Telegraph’s ridiculous non-story should be viewed not only as an attempt to reassert ruling class ideology and further push back against the progressive gains made by Indigenous Australians and their supporters; it is also an attempt to distract from other attacks on the working class by the Turnbull government.
Kim Bullimore is a Murri activist from North Queensland. She is a long-time socialist, political activist and anti-racism campaigner.