White Lie Number Ten

Nicholas Jose

  • Race Matters: Indigenous Australians and ‘Our’ Society edited by Gillian Cowlishaw and Barry Morris
    Aboriginal Studies Press, 295 pp, AUS $29.95, March 1998, ISBN 0 85575 294 7
  • Aboriginal Sovereignty: Reflections on Race, State and Nation by Henry Reynolds
    Allen and Unwin, 221 pp, AUS $17.95, July 1996, ISBN 1 86373 969 6

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.

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