Race Matters: Indigenous Australians and ‘Our’ Society 
edited by Gillian Cowlishaw and Barry Morris.
Aboriginal Studies Press, 295 pp., AUS $29.95, March 1998, 0 85575 294 7
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Aboriginal Sovereignty: Reflections on Race, State and Nation 
by Henry Reynolds.
Allen and Unwin, 221 pp., AUS $17.95, July 1996, 1 86373 969 6
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Australia’s first Government House, built for Captain Arthur Phillip when he arrived with the first fleet of convicts and settlers in 1788, was demolished in 1846 to make way for the grander Neoclassical architecture that befitted a burgeoning colony. Today the site is the forecourt of the new Museum of Sydney, with the ghostly floor-plan of the original residence picked out in white on the granite flagstones. At its perimeter, adjoining a row of Victorian terraces once used for Customs and Immigration, stand 29 pillars of sandstone, steel, I-beam and hacked, charred wood. One is inscribed with the few known names of local Aborigines – the Eora people; others with Latin and Eora names for local botanical species. Several are inset with organic materials – ash, bone, shell, resin and human hair – that evoke the Eora’s world of fishing and feasting and its transformation (its holocaust) when white men came. As you walk among the pillars, you can hear taped Aboriginal voices, eerily disembodied, recite the placenames where the vanished Sydney clans once lived.

The title of this absorbing work by the indigenous artist Fiona Foley and her collaborator Janet Laurence (whom we must describe as ‘non-indigenous’) is Edge of Trees. It represents the line of vegetation at the top of the beach through which the first gaggle of British colonists looked for the natives who Sir Joseph Banks, urging the settlement, had said would not pose much of a problem. That line, across which black Australia stared back, was a threshold between visibility and invisibility: the Eora could see the First Fleeters, but the First Fleeters, peering into the immense unknown of the continent, could not see them. As the frontier extended, the line was carved deep into law, politics, culture and the national psyche.

Rather than declare war, Britain justified her claim to sovereignty over Australia by the doctrine of terra nullius. It was a case of first come, first served for the European powers, especially when the native inhabitants proved insufficiently organised (not recognisably human enough) to treat with. That they were not seen only made them more feared in the remote early settlements at Sydney Cove and elsewhere. Just what claims to humanity or justice those original occupants might have is a question that remains to be answered.

Henry Reynolds, in his books The Other Side of the Frontier (1981) and Frontier (1987), argues that war, though undeclared, was indeed waged. For both sides, Aboriginal invisibility was a key, rendering white atrocities unaccountable but also hiding the guerrilla tactics that evolved to ensure, against the odds, that the Aborigines survived in their own land. Massacres, disease, dislocation, deprivation and forced assimilation, by methods as crude as officially endorsed baby snatching, have not caused the Aboriginal people to die out. Two centuries later, Aboriginality, as a hybrid descendant of those indigenous nations, is probably more powerful than ever.

The guerrilla war continues, of legal and political battles consequent on the High Court’s recognition of native title to traditional land in its Mabo judgment of 1992. The even more controversial Wik judgment of 1996 allowed native title to exist, or co-exist, on land currently held under long-term Crown lease for pastoral, and, by extension, mining activities. An area reckoned at perhaps half the Australian landmass now seems to be up for grabs. In seeking to have native title extinguished once and for all, cattle farmers and miners see an opportunity to upgrade their leases to freehold, significantly enhancing property values.

To understand how this risks becoming the final Aboriginal defeat, we need to look at the history of black opposition to land-grabbing in Australia. While it is a political battle, with much at stake, the weapons are historiographical, ethical and emotional as much as legal. Reconciliation, the official term for recognising Aboriginal rights, has become a means of therapy for middle-class Australia. Maybe this provides the most hopeful of the ‘Any Means Possible’ which the new generation of Aboriginal leaders – Fanonist warriors turned long-suffering sages – must attempt. If they succeed, it will also mean the unlikely triumph across nearly two centuries of a frail flicker of Clapham Sect humanitarianism.

Governor George Gipps, portrayed with careful scholarship and a novelist’s empathy by Roger Millis in his monumental Water-loo Creek (1992), arrived in Sydney in 1838 wielding the report of a House of Commons committee chaired by the Quaker anti-slavery campaigner and philanthropist Thomas Fowell Buxton. The report was scathing about the treatment of Aborigines in the Australian colonies:

It might be presumed that the native inhabitants of any land have an incontrovertible right to their own soil; a plain and sacred right, however, which seems not to have been understood. Europeans have entered their borders uninvited, and, when there, have not only acted as if they were undoubted lords of the soil, but have punished the natives as aggressors if they have evinced a disposition to live in their own country.

The New South Wales Treasury, meanwhile, was making large sums of money from land sales to those squatters – officers, gentlemen, settlers, ex-convicts – who moved out into new territory to establish grazing runs. Yet, Buxton said, ‘in the recollection of many living men every part of this territory was the undisputed property of the Aborigines.’ Recognising the occupation as a fait accompli, however, he argued that some fraction of the land revenues should be spent on protecting and civilising the blacks.

Such proposals arose from the reforming ideals that Buxton shared with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, and the Colonial Under-Secretary James Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s grandfather), with his Clapham Sect faith in the brotherhood of man. In the words of the historian Manning Clark, Stephen had come to the conclusion that ‘convicts and their descendants were corrupting, degrading and tormenting the least of God’s creatures – the Australian Aborigine’. Taking it as granted that Her Majesty’s sovereignty extended over the whole of New Holland – precisely how and when this prodigious legal fiction was devised was not explained – Glenelg issued instructions to the effect that the Aborigines had the same basic rights as other British subjects, including the right of inquest into a black’s death at the hands of a white. This insistence soon brought Governor Gipps into collision with the colony’s military establishment over an incident in the outback, at a place later known as ‘Waterloo Creek’, where a large number of Aborigines – two hundred or more, according to rumour – were killed by a party of troopers under the command of a senior officer. Gipps demanded a public enquiry, but his advisers urged him not to antagonise the increasingly powerful and independent-minded colonists with philanthropic dictates from the Colonial Office.

‘A Whig of the first water’, Gipps had been given the Governorship of New South Wales as a reward for managing rebellious French settlers in Canada a couple of years earlier. Ultimately, no one in the Imperial administration wanted a Boston Tea Party in Sydney Harbour, even if it meant diluting Whig liberalism to appease the locals. Gipps had, it seems, a more than dutiful commitment to the cause of blacks. On an earlier posting to the West Indies he had proposed a scheme for the emancipation of black slaves out of concern for ‘the lost Rights of their Race’. He had also taken a black slave as his mistress and attempted to purchase her freedom when she became pregnant with his child. Only when the deal fell through did Gipps return to England and marry.

As newly-rich New South Wales landholders threatened to take the law into their own hands if troubled by blacks, Gipps prepared a powerful declaration of the equality and rights of Aborigines before the law. ‘As the original possessors of the soil ... they have a right to be secured in the enjoyment of their personal liberty, and even in the continuance of their own ancient usages, wherever these do not interfere with the rights or safety of their more civilised Fellow Subjects.’ Before he could issue his Notice, word came of another massacre up north, at Myall Creek, in which 28 Aborigines died at the hands of 12 convict stockmen. Gipps had seven of the perpetrators tried and eventually hanged – the first time whites had been executed for killing blacks. But in the furore surrounding the trials, his larger mission was defeated. There was a ‘murderous spirit abroad’, thirsting for Aboriginal blood.

The colonial squatters, who had their land on cheap yearly licences, offered to fund a force of their own to police the outlying regions, in return for ‘undisturbed possession’ of the land. Hoping this police force might be used to protect the blacks, too, Gipps made concessions that merely entrenched the landholders. The fierce debate in the local press went to the heart of the moral and legal dilemma posed by European conquest. Who really owned Australia, and by what authority? The humanitarians argued that the Aborigines deserved compensation through welfare measures for their stolen sovereignty. The opposition argued that the land belonged to whoever was now on it, assuming the inherent legitimacy, under the law of (European) nations, of occupancy of land that was, in the words of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, otherwise ‘desert and uncultivated’. Did that mean, countered Gipps, that the whole vast continent had come into the possession of Captain Arthur Phillip and his band of convicts and settlers – a few hundred in all – when they stepped ashore in 1788?

At the same time there was colonial muscle-flexing about control of the locally generated land revenues, which the colonists wanted used solely to bring out new immigrants, now that transportation of convict labour was ending. Every penny spent on Aborigines was seen as a wasteful concession to a know-nothing government in Westminster. The Sydney Herald warned off Gipps with a reminder of Charles I’s fate.

Somewhere in all this an independent Australian nation was evolving, but at what cost? Gipps was forced to condone the whitewashing of the Waterloo Creek massacre. The remaining suspects in the Myall Creek massacre got off. The Governor’s stirring Notice on the Aborigines eventually appeared buried deep in the Government gazette. The new border police force was free to smash black resistance without questions being asked. Gipps continued to battle with the Legislative Council over the issue of fixity of tenure for squatters’ lands. He was recalled in 1846. In 1848 the new Whig Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, wrote to Gipps’s successor urging him to ensure that the system of landholding which gave the squatters most of what they wanted did not ‘deprive the natives of their former right to hunt over these Districts, or to wander over them in search of subsistence, in the manner to which they have been heretofore accustomed’. The new Governor failed to comply. Only the pious George Gawler, Governor of South Australia, implemented these recommendations in some measure, recognising limited rights of Aboriginal access in pastoral leases. Western Australia and the Northern Territory did the same some years later.

It is this legacy, especially the notion of the co-existence of different kinds of right, that weighs on Australia today. The terms of an animosity that dates from the 1830s are not much changed. In 1838 the Sydney Herald ran a letter from a correspondent denouncing Aborigines as ‘the most degenerate, despicable and brutal race of beings in existence ... their wives and children as often become a prey to cannibalism in the tribe to which they belong as another – gratitude have they none ... and have less affection for their children, than has a sow for its offspring’. These statements are echoed in the propaganda of the Independent MP Pauline Hanson, who last year published a book called The Truth, in which we read of cannibalistic blacks who ‘killed and ate their own women and children, and occasionally their men ... the older women were often killed for eating purposes like livestock.’ The objective is to abolish native title, Aboriginal benefits and self-determination, along with multiculturalism and immigration. In order to avert the ‘danger’ of Australia ‘being swamped with Asians’, an ancient blood libel is peddled once again, with a sensational lack of logic.

If native title is extinguished, Aboriginal people will be denied both the economic opportunities and the spiritual and cultural sustenance that come with connection to land. ‘Beyond choice, we see our loves/as indigenes see land,’ as Les Murray puts it in a recent poem. Lawyers contend that the extinction of a right pertaining to one particular racial group would contravene Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Other legal analysts are concerned by the uses to which history is being put in an argument that conceives these pastoral leases as ‘sui generis grants’, in the words of Jonathan Fulcher, ‘designed for Australia’s unique conditions’ and, to this extent, ‘instruments unknown to the common law’. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, some Aboriginal communities live in small fenced-off ‘excisions’ on large pastoral properties in order to maintain links with traditionally important sites. Ingress and egress, as well as access to related sites outside the excision, are policed by the absentee leaseholder’s representatives. People are still walking that line between visibility and invisibility.

Edge of Trees, the sculpture outside the Museum of Sydney, takes its name from a 1985 essay by the archaeologist Rhys Jones, in which he imagines the moment of first contact between ‘discoverers’ and indigenous people. For all the complaints about the way social scientists have dealt with Aborigines, anthropologists and prehistorians have found spectacular evidence of the lives of the first Australians. Arnhem Land rock art (10,000 BCE), the skeletal remains of Mungo Woman and Mungo Man (25-30,000 BCE), the Bradshaw Figures and Jinmium stone circles in the Kimberley (40,000 BCE), however their datings and meanings may be contested, have entered the Australian imagination, intensifying the almost redemptive durability with which Aboriginal culture taunts settler society.

The tourist industry has been quick to promote primordial Aboriginality as the major cultural attraction of the country, ironically all but effacing the visibility of non-indigenous artists. All share in the appropriation of Aboriginal culture for commercial, creative, even nationalist ends, which have in turn become strategies for its survival. Settler culture meanwhile has had to come to terms with its historical shame, even though the Prime Minister, John Howard, derides this as ‘black armband’ history and wishes it away.

How racism reproduces itself in contemporary Australia is the subject of Race Matters. The contributors give sardonic accounts of such topics as the attempt to re-assign Aboriginal names to tourist landmarks, the New Age movement’s designs on Uluru (Ayers Rock), the stereotype of the drunken Aborigine, the white supremacist whose knowledge of the country out-natives the native, and so on. Other chapters show how education and health systems work against the diverse circumstances of the Aboriginal people. Noel Pearson, one of today’s most compelling Aboriginal leaders, explores his North Queensland people’s complex relationship with their Lutheran and government protectors: ‘While paternalism in a fraternal context might be a natural relationship of affection,’ he writes, ‘when it concerned adults of different races it ... arose from a fundamental assumption of inferiority and superiority ... It was within the young hearts who contemplated this history that indignation burned, and it found resonance in the memories and secret, long-suppressed feelings of those who had endured it.’

Gillian Cowlishaw shows how anti-racist initiatives – schooling assistance, for example – can underline the inferiority they are supposed to redress. Andrew Lattas sees white settler Australians as internalising a sense of not being at home with themselves: ‘The experience of the self as lacking in subjectivity, as lacking in spiritual form, is one of the most powerful images of the self our society has produced.’ Lattas argues that ‘in opposition to whites, Aborigines are positioned not only as supremely spiritual beings (who inhabit the mythic space of Dreamtime), but also paradoxically as the beings who have most successfully adapted to the material requirements of their extreme environment.’ They embody ‘the realm of spirituality which white Australians lack’ and as such ‘are expected to provide a common sacred space capable of overcoming the potential ethnic and linguistic divisions created by immigration’.

Henry Reynolds’s latest book, Aboriginal Sovereignty, sifts colonial jurisprudence and legal precedents in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, and tackles the question that most Australian commentators have ruled out: was Aboriginal sovereignty ever actually lost? Reynolds’s argument amounts to saying, ‘it depends on what you mean by sovereignty.’ In this he offers hope to the Aboriginal cause and the prospect of a decent and lasting accommodation between rival conceptions of land ownership. He is encouraged by the rethinking of the concepts of nation, state and sovereignty which is part of our end-of-millennium atmosphere and quotes A.D. Smith, the historian of nationalist movements, to the effect that ‘the rise of federal and confederal states would make it possible to de-link ethnic and national aspirations from statehood and sovereignty.’ One State, Many Nations: the kind of rallying cry that may defy reason at present but suggests something of the constitutional and conceptual renewal needed in order to move forward.

Can a country undergo collective therapy? Australia was always intended as a place where an abusive past could be put away and the self made new. The possession of property has been the means to achieve the security denied its rejected children by the Old World. In 1838 the Presbyterian preacher John Dunmore Lang tartly identified the land grabbers’ ‘sordid interest’ as the cause of the Aborigines’ being put ‘on a footing of utter inferiority to their white invaders’, when ‘in point of both law and humanity, there is no more difference between New Hollanders and Europeans than between English and Scotch.’ For gentrification to feel real, you have to have someone to lord it over.

Hardly anyone in Australia knows the national anthem, as you can see at any naturalisation ceremony. It would be nice to think that was because in its appeal to a radiant future for ‘Australians all’ – updated from ‘Australia’s sons’ several years ago – the words of the song have no connection with real history or real experience:

Autralians all let us rejoice
For we are young and free
With golden soil and wealth for toil
Our home is girt by sea.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In hist’ry’s page let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.

The text reminds us that only European Australia is young, that golden soil is mined and shipped abroad, that wealth comes less from toil than real estate, that the sea serves to keep out the Asian hordes, that nature’s gifts abound chiefly to finders who were also determined to be keepers. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ echoes the immigration policy whose slogan was ‘White Australia’ (and which was dismantled only in the Sixties). I quote the national anthem from a 1995 studies guide where it appears under the rubric ‘Myth/white lie No. 10’.

White Australia was a policy aimed not so much at the Aborigines as at the Asians (primarily Chinese) whose arrival, in the form of cheap labour, would also mean moral and racial pollution, and the power of superior numbers. Chinese and Aborigines have got on quite well with each other, particularly in remote regions. Among the earliest Aboriginal artworks made for European consumption are Tommy McRae’s images from the 1860s, showing Aborigines chasing pigtailed Chinamen who look as though they’re scared of being eaten. That cannibalistic blacks preferred the sweeter flesh of the largely vegetarian Chinese to the saltier, mutton-chewing whites has been an enduring furphy linking the two groups of ‘aliens’. Last year Pauline Hanson wondered whether ‘the descendants of those blacks who cannibalised Chinese miners on the Palmer River in 1875’ would ‘be required to bear the guilt of their forefathers’, as non-Aboriginal Australians are now asked to acknowledge the suffering inflicted on Aborigines. The underlying connections between the threat of Asian invasion from without and the threat of Aboriginal resistance from within – in the latest census 350,000 people have been identified as Aboriginal – are not much analysed. The writer Mudrooroo adds an amusing Afterword to Race Matters in which he laments the way Post-Modern and post-colonial approaches have led to a demented policing of authenticity in matters of identity. He recalls the days when foster parents would advise their fair-enough-skinned Aboriginal children to ‘tell them you’re Indian’ if they could get away with it.

I cannot remember a time when public debate about race and the related issues of indigenous rights, immigration and multiculturalism has been so virulent. In a recent poll 95 per cent of the population wanted schoolchildren to be taught ‘the true history of Australia’. Yet that is the very thing the Prime Minister resists. It has the makings of a crisis less for John Howard than for the country as a whole, a sea-change reminiscent of what happened in 17th century Britain when the ancient Constitution was reinvented, as inviolable future rights were thrashed out.

Maybe I exaggerate the long-term effect of flickering philanthropy. Looking in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1925), compiled by my own forebear Arthur Wilberforce Jose, under the heading ‘Aborigines: Destiny’, I find the early anthropologist Baldwin Spencer writing that ‘the Aboriginal is of little interest to anyone but some benevolent societies and a few very ardent anthropologists.’ What we must add to that today is that Aboriginal Australians are of great interest to themselves – and everywhere visible.

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