Standing on the Wharf, Weeping

Greg Dening

  • The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia by John Gascoigne
    Cambridge, 233 pp, £45.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 521 80343 8
  • Looking for Blackfella’s Point: An Australian History of Place by Mark McKenna
    New South Wales, 268 pp, £14.50, August 2002, ISBN 0 86840 644 9
  • Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths
    New South Wales, 253 pp, £15.50, October 2001, ISBN 0 86840 628 7
  • The Land Is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia edited by Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges and Jane Simpson
    Pandanus, 304 pp, AUS $39.95, October 2002, ISBN 1 74076 020 4

Earlier this year, bushfires engulfed the east coast of Australia. In Canberra, where I work, five hundred houses were lost. The National University was in a state of shock. Mount Stromlo, an icon of Australian astronomy since Federation, is gone, with all its telescopes and research data. In Melbourne, where I live, the air was thick with smoke from fires 300 km away. The stench frightened us all day. In the mountains to the north and on the high plains to the north-east, there were fires along a 350 km front. The temperature was 44 °C; the winds were blowing at up to 100 km an hour. The land, with its extremes of fire, drought and flood – and its beauty – is always in our faces.

Among those who were safe from it all, there was a lot of talk: letters to the editor; talk-back radio; ugly, snapping, extravagant talk – about punishing arsonists, incompetent bureaucrats and irresponsible conservationists. And much spin: from the Government, political parties, churches, emergency services, utility companies. The haze of the spin hangs over us like the bushfire smoke.

Perhaps, then, this isn’t the time to write of the ways the human spirit has imprinted itself on the continent. It could seem irrelevant or, worse, romantic. But then again, maybe this is just how it does imprint itself, with assuring and conflicting stories; with creative art and destructive development. The past is as kaleidoscopic as the present, and the authors of these four studies make a case for writing new sorts of history of a polymorphic Australian past in which the simplifying polarities of race and culture are confronted with the humanity common to both.

The first people on this continent reached its southernmost point, the south-western tip of what we now call Tasmania, forty thousand years ago. In their creation myths, ancestral spirits breathed life into the land, a life that was celebrated in stories, songs, sand sculpture, ochre paint. Every rock, river, mountain, hill, camp, track and ritual spot on the continent has had many names in its time, so that even the most deserted place has a history. The imprint of the first inhabitants has been overlaid: in the last two hundred years, all parts of the continent have been renamed.

A little over a year ago, two historical items were put on the Memory of the World Register (the list of documentary heritage launched in 1997): James Cook’s journal of the Endeavour, written in his own hand; and the Edward Koiki Mabo Papers, the record of Eddie Mabo’s landmark case before the High Court, which gave legal recognition to the fact that indigenous land ownership existed before European settlement and was not, in some cases, extinguished by the Crown.

The Endeavour journal is catalogued ‘MS 1’: in number and sentiment the foundation document of our National Library. I have used it in my own work, and I confess to the awe with which I turned pages written on that most extraordinary voyage around the world to Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and up the eastern coast of what Cook calls ‘New South Wales’. I have no difficulty identifying with all Cook’s doubts, contradictions and impossible choices.

The Mabo papers are something else. They represent a struggle for justice, and tell the sorts of story that must be told when deep time enters the present. Memory joins us to a past, whereas history, especially legal history, sometimes keeps us distant from the past. There are paradoxes and contradictions in memory, certainty and uncertainty. Memory reaches deep into our personal and social selves. The Mabo papers are a triumph for a land imprinted with memory.

John Gascoigne’s The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia is concerned with the imprint of a ‘European’ spirit on Australia between 1788 and 1850. There is a difficulty, however, in describing this transposed culture, which ceases to be ‘European’ or ‘British’ the moment Australia begins to exert its influence. Gascoigne’s book, which is exhaustively researched and gracefully written, investigates the systems of thought that provided the basis for political and social order in a society as bastard as a convict settlement. It is a masterly study of how the ideas of Locke, Bentham and Paine suffused the institutions of the colony. Gascoigne’s real subject, however, is the creation story of this new society, how rational thought improved human nature and made the soil productive. The land in Australia was seen as terra nullius – unused agriculturally and pastorally, unmanaged, not ordered. In this respect, however, the Enlightenment was tragically unenlightened: Gascoigne calls it ‘devoid of ecological humility’.

When James Cook approached the eastern coast of Australia in April 1770, the first sign of human habitation he saw was the smoke of bushfires. He wasn’t to know that he was witnessing the indigenous art of land management. He also experienced the Aboriginal use of fire as a weapon. On the Endeavour River, where the Endeavour was careened after striking reefs, Cook’s men killed a turtle that belonged to one of the clans on the river. To punish the sailors, the Aborigines set the grass alight, nearly engulfing them.

Fire belonged to an indigenous enlightenment: the ‘First People’ improved the land by using fire to create grasslands where their animals could graze, and at the same time protected themselves against the wildfire that would rage on uncleared undergrowth. The Australian continent was geared towards a pastoral economy, already ‘capitalised’, we might say. According to Mark McKenna, in Looking for Blackfella’s Point, ‘the Aborigines’ tracks laid the basis of the road networks, their campsites became homesteads and towns, their yam grounds became arable fields, and all their hunting grounds, so carefully tended by fire, became ideal pastures for sheep.’ This was, as Eric Rolls has reminded us, a land unmarked by wheels, leather heels or cloven hoofs. ‘Hopping kangaroos moved in scattered company, not in damaging single file like sheep and cattle . . . Every grass eating mammal had two sets of sharp teeth to make a clean bite. No other land had been treated so gently.’ It would take only two hundred years for this earth to be pounded into dust.

Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths are among Australia’s most creative historians. Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (1996) has become the most quoted work of Australian history in new research, and Bonyhady’s The Colonial Earth (2000) is a masterpiece of visual, scientific, literary and historical sensitivity. In Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia, they have collected a group of like-minded scholars who believe that the old templates of Australian history, geography and politics have long since ceased to be useful. The collection is an attempt to chart the ‘deep maps’ of the land, by listening to the stories told about it. ‘I am a lexical cartographer,’ Jay Arthur writes. ‘I “map” through language, through the words that have accumulated about particular places. These “maps” are the conjunctions of the physical world and the imagination, a way of seeing a landscape, or, more precisely, a collection of ways of seeing.’ Heather Goodall quotes the phrase: ‘The river runs backwards, you know, when they turn on the pump,’ and says that ‘sooner or later these words are heard whenever townspeople, graziers or Aboriginal residents around Bourke are asked by outsiders to describe the impact of irrigated cotton . . . It always sounds the same, spoken in a worried, uneasy tone, or with a disgusted shrug. This is no admiring boast of the power of modern technology.’ For Kirsty Douglas,

the signs of water are everywhere evident to the observer who walks, drives or flies across the semi-arid landscapes of south-eastern Australia. From the dry channels and huge fossil meander belts of the Riverine Plain . . . to the salt that has been there for millions and millions of years and does not want to go away, water is central to visions of the dry land.

When the historian Michael Cathcart, then a student, asked a university research committee for a Land Rover to do ‘fieldwork’, he was asked by those who thought the vehicle should be used for more scientific purposes: ‘What are you collecting?’ ‘Adjectives,’ Cathcart replied. All the authors in Words for Country go collecting – verbs, nouns, phrases, as well as adjectives and adverbs.

These days, many of us who are engaged in academic debates about first peoples and settler history will usually begin our lectures with some acknowledgment that no Australian history is so modern that it is not shaped in some way by the deep time of the island-continent. Usually this means an honouring of the first people of the locality: Wurundjeri (in Melbourne), Wajuk (in Perth), Kaurna (in Adelaide), Tharawal (in Sydney), Yuggera (in Brisbane), Ngunawal (in Canberra). In 1968, W.E.H. (‘Bill’) Stanner denounced what he had called a ‘cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’. Even now, most Australians know something of the Apaches or the Mohawks but are unable to name a koori or murri tribe (these are the current preferred terms for Aboriginal peoples).

All this may sound politically correct, but the fact is that words empower and disempower. Maybe such protocols of acknowledgment work, maybe they don’t. If they work, it is because of a slow cultural osmosis. If they don’t, it’s because they have run dry with formalism. Which is why history needs to engage emotions as well as the mind.

Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges and Jane Simpson, the editors of The Land Is a Map, represent a new generation of young scholars skilled in indigenous languages. Their work is a sort of archaeological toponymy: placenames are like artefacts in surface archaeology. In their introduction, they offer strategies for describing the strata of Australian placenames. The essays that follow explore indigenous notions of place, the transparency of placenames (the meanings that can be seen in them), translatability, and changes in placenames through time. The process of discovering the ‘real’ name of a place, then to whom such a name belongs, and then again finding a way of renaming it, can be highly political. Bizarre errors in name attribution have been used as weapons against the First People in their struggle for recognition.

The potential for such complexities is illustrated by the case of Eden, on the New South Wales coast. Its inhabitants have, since the town’s establishment in the 1840s, made creation myths out of the town’s paradisal setting on the edge of the beautiful Twofold Bay. The toponymy of the name Eden is more prosaic: the town was named for George Eden, Baron Auckland, former Governor-General of India. Eden is at the heart of the Eden-Monaro district about which Mark McKenna writes. The town, he says, has another creation myth – that the first peoples there just ‘died away’ after ‘contact with the whites’, passive victims of the diseases that overwhelmed them.

Last year, Henry Reynolds, the acknowledged pioneer of encounter studies, was denounced by a soi-disant historiographer, Keith Windschuttle, in a book called The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. There is high politics in this denunciation. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has criticised what he calls ‘black-armband historians’ and the ‘Chardonnay classes’ who side with them. McKenna reviewed Windschuttle’s work in the Age in January: ‘Shrill in tone, juridical in expression, culturally chauvinist, impoverished in its understanding of history and malicious in its tendency to ascribe sinister motives to many historians, the book plays its intended role of bolstering the political and cultural ascendancy of conservative forces in contemporary Australia’ – a view that I share.

McKenna’s book, however, is not written with Windschuttle directly in mind. It targets the new and old myths of both the Left and Right, ‘namely that historical understanding is achieved by testing the past against the language of contemporary politics . . . By constantly pushing our interpretation of the past through the narrow prism of words such as “genocide” and “stolen generation”, we seem to be asking: does history fit?’ What McKenna wants to do in Looking for Blackfella’s Point is principally to ‘show how the history . . . of one region of Australia reflected the tensions and struggle in the national story’. ‘What,’ he asks, ‘happened to the Aboriginal people when the Europeans arrived? What was the nature of relations between the settlers and Aboriginal people? How did Aboriginal people resist the invasion of their soil? How did dispossession take place?’

Eden-Monaro broadly encompasses the region between the Australian Capital Territory around Canberra and the NSW South Coast. This covers the land of a mountain people, the Bemeringal, a coastal plains people, the Pyender, and three fishing peoples, the Kurregal Kurial, Guyangal and Kunnerkwell Kudingal. The movement and the interconnectedness of these people is striking, as is their easy access to food. They moved in the summer months to the High Plains, to trade weapons, tools, baskets and possum skins, and to feast on Bogong moths. They made tracks that long outlasted them. Killer whales would herd pods of whales and shoals of fish into Twofold Bay; the Aborigines would feast on what was left after the killings.

McKenna tells of Aboriginal resistance. But his main concern is the time of forgetfulness: nearly two hundred years after the settlers’ arrival, the First People discovered that they have a memory. This is not so much a historical memory as a memory of the metaphors that made them who they are. The metaphors of their relationship to the land and to one another gave a national dimension to their identity, of which they had never conceived: in the diaspora of their local groupings they discovered networks of relationships spanning the nation. They know who they are as koori and murri across the whole continent, and this gives them political strength.

There are settlers’ stories, too. Within a decade of their arrival in Twofold Bay in 1832, the Imlay brothers held nearly a million acres of coastal land. Baron Charles von Hügel visited Dr George Imlay’s hut at the end of a path lined with arched whale bones:

The bark hut somewhat astonished me. I found it difficult to understand how a man used to a life of comfort, such as that enjoyed by ships’ surgeons, could bring himself to spend part of his life in such quarters, purely for the sake of getting rich quick. The large sheets of bark appeared to be merely [leaning against the frame]; you could poke your hand into the interior wherever they met. The floor was one created by nature. On a table in a corner stood the larder of provisions to be consumed over the next few weeks, on hanging shelves by the wall were about a hundred books and in a corner stood the bed, which never needed to be remade.

Imlay wasn’t at home in this land – perhaps that is what the bark hut revealed. One day in 1847, he left the hut and went into the bush. There he lay down, tied the trigger of his gun to his spurs, and shot himself.

McKenna’s settlers’ stories span the time of forgetfulness. The people of Bega, a town thriving on lush Aboriginal land, feel it is they who are forgotten. As they confront their rejection of Aboriginal families coming to live in their town, they believe they are the victims, not the oppressors. They are the ones losing out under any reform, of the environment or of social welfare. Their canneries are closed, their logging stopped. They are victimised by the city (Sydney), by the state (NSW), by the Federal Government, and by all who spring to the defence of the Aboriginal people.

While memory gives a sense of identity and a political spirit to the First People, and they continue to confront racial and cultural prejudice in the dominant society, only inclusive history will bridge the divisions, McKenna concludes. If both sides see who they are in contradistinction to the other, then the praxis of reconciliation will turn on how bound together they are in retrieving and understanding the past. In 1988, when the ‘First Fleet’ re-enacting the arrival of the convicts and their jailers in Australia in 1788 came to Melbourne – where, of course, the original First Fleet never came – crowds assembled on the wharves. There was more interest in the replica vessels and those who sailed them than excitement at the triumphant rhetoric. But one tabloid newspaper had a full page photograph of a group of elderly Aboriginal women standing on the wharf, weeping. There was much inclusive history in that photograph. The community knew in an instant what it meant.