Why Australia needs to admit to a frontier war and sign a makarrata
“Why not send asylum seekers to Australia? It sounds like an awful country, would be a great deterrent,” a Twitter response to Rudd’s PNG announcement on Friday.
Reading Henry Reynold’s Forgotten War is an instructive experience about Kevin Rudd’s new boat people policy. It reminds me Australia is a settler country with a massive insecurity complex. Today’s European-Australians like to be able to tell people from other countries they can or cannot live here. But white Australia has never properly recognised how the land was won in the first place. The history of what happened as a result of the white invasion is everywhere. I found it easily when I went looking for local history for a “150 years of Roma” book we did last year. I also found the bloody story of the Maranoa conquest was not unique. The history of Queensland is one of continual black oppression and it is a tale repeated across the country whenever the British took possession of the land. The evidence, said Reynolds, spilt from the record “like blood from an open wound”.
Yet that evidence is mostly dismissed as either unimportant or contested. Our history is painted as a peaceful occupation of the continent and it is difficult to look at the canvas any other way. However while we are blinkered, white people living through the era knew it as a time of conflict. This gap between what happened and what was recorded has meant white “ownership” of Australia has always been a fragile flower. It is assertive but fearful. It is brash but insecure. It craves relevance and demands acceptance. This complex attitude found voice in Rudd’s ban on boat people without visas. It brought John Howard’s Tampa moment up to date with a repetitive thud and equally definitive terms and conditions for living here. Giving boat arrivals a lifetime ban for breaking the visa rule was not aimed at keeping refugees out of Australia forever. It was more aimed at winning an election by neutralising the silly but powerful slogan ‘stop the boats’. Rudd will banish refugees to our poor neighbours to the north forever out of sight and out of mind. As left-wing commentator Tad Tietze says, Rudd is implementing this policy not because he is a racist but because it addresses an irrational fear in his electorate. They are worried of “invasion” by asylum seekers.
This fear Rudd is tapping into has been part and parcel of the psyche of European settlement since its own invasion of Australia. The British were uninvited guests in 1788 and over the next 140 years they came in large numbers, fighting wars to the death with their hosts. These hosts defended their land with vigour, as any people would. But in European eyes they were “wild blacks” who had be tamed to make way for the towns and the farms and the sheep and the cattle. The Europeans also wanted to stop any other invasion coming in after them. They rushed through legislation to stop the Chinese from sharing in the gold rush and they also kept Kanaka cane-workers indentured for decades until they were packed off home again. Their piece de resistance was the White Australia Policy that openly told the world, the newly federated nation was open for Anglo-Celts only. Feeling vulnerable at the bottom of Asia, Australia’s white people needed to be constantly re-assured their of their own validity by worshiping the global power in residence and taking part in their wars.
According to the Australian War Memorial, our Australian military history started in 1885 with Britain’s colonial expedition to save General Gordon in Sudan. Australia achieved nothing in this war other than a handful of soldiers dying of disease. In choosing to start in the late 19th century, the War Museum ignores a far more substantive and critical conflict on our own shores that was already 90 years old and still had a long way to go. Six generations between 1790 and 1930 lived through border skirmishes cost many thousands of lives as the Europeans wrestled control from the blacks in a slow rolling contest for resources across Australia.
It took a short while for that war to gain momentum. When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 they added just 1373 people to a black population of between 300,000 and a million already there. The new arrivals had no idea of the exact numbers of the blacks and they never bothered to find out. They never realised every part of Australia had local tribes and they didn’t care. Phillip relied on Aboriginal help but he remained wedded to the idea the land was ownerless and therefore available for whatever European power got there first. They got their legal and moral justification for this blatant theft from the concept of ‘terra nullius’ (land which belongs to no one).
Britain’s Royal Navy understood the importance of possession and it showed in the names of the places where they laid claim to Australia. The island of Bedanug in the Torres Island was renamed Possession Island after Captain James Cook laid claim to all of eastern Australia there in August 1770. Another British naval sailor George Vancouver named a spot on the south-west corner of Western Australia “Possession Point” as he laid claim to the western side of the continent 21 years later. These claims were extravagant statements of intent aimed at discouraging other European claimants. Together they counted for five percent of the world’s landmass but it left the people who actually owned the landmass none the wiser they were dispossessed.
Cook’s statement of possession ignored the countless palls of smoke he saw from the deck of the Endeavour as he sailed up the east coast. Nine years later his naturalist Joseph Banks showed equal cognitive dissonance when he told a 1779 House of Commons Inquiry Botany Bay would be a good site for a penal settlement because it had scant populations. But Banks knew New South Wales was a dangerous place. His 1770 diary recalls his first experience of warriors on the rocks as “threatening and menacing with their pikes and swords.”
Australia may or may not have seemed threatening to British lawmakers but it was an unknown quantity. It remained easier to ship criminals off to North America. Matters changed later in the decade after Britain lost the US and with it an outlet to take the prisoners overflowing British jails. London was on the verge of anarchy with hundreds of rotting hulks incarcerating thousands in the Thames and other rivers and ports. Britain urgently needed a new dump for its riff-raff and Banks’s proposal was dusted off. Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet was given orders to set sail to the end of the world without any idea what would await it.
In 1788 Phillip landed in Botany Bay and found it did not match Cook’s and Banks’ glowing descriptions. While he despaired over the landscape Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse arrived in the same day four days after him. It was critical more than ever to get a toehold on the continent. Writing about the history of British Colonial Policy in 1928 Edward Jenks said there was some justification for saying England “won” Australia by just six days. It was true but also a Eurocentric exaggeration. The Aborigines would have fought French colonists just as tenaciously and for just as long as they did the British.
Phillip had respect for the natives but he still had his orders. On moving the settlement up to Sydney Cove, he reiterated Cook’s claim for sovereignty. He was to be ‘captain general and governor in chief’ over lands that stretched from Cape York in the north to the southern tip of Tasmania and that spread east to the centre of Australia. With the Fleet clinging to Sydney and starving to death, this commission was a fantasy. But it was also a signal of ambition as well as God’s writ that no court would dare challenge. In 1913, Australian High Court chief justice Isaac Isaacs called Phillip’s commission an “unquestionable position” and it remains so today.
According to English law, Cook and Phillip’s affirmations meant every action that followed should be treated as a police matter rather than an act of war. If the whites brought their cattle and sheep onto Aboriginal country and the natives reacted by spearing a beast, then they should be prosecuted under British law for a crime against ownership. If they went further and killed a white, then it should be treated as murder. If a white person then took revenge and killed a black, then that too was murder and he or she could also expect to feel the force of the law.
This was easier said than done on Australia’s vast frontier where civilised trappings like police, courts, priests and papers were all non-existent. People on the ground knew it was war not a police action and behaved accordingly. They were either petrified or they took the law into their own hands and killed the blacks with impugnity. The one time the law did try to enforce native rights, it backfired. In 1838 NSW Governor George Gipps re-tried and hanged seven white stockmen for the deaths of Aborigines at Myall Creek after a jury initially found them not guilty. The whites was outraged their own people were executed for doing what they and Gipps knew they had to do: kill or be killed. The lesson the settlers learned was not to stop killing but not to tell anyone about it.
The Government’s wishful thinking extended to the impact of white farming. While promoting the cultivation of the land, Whitehall said colonial pastoral leases should not interfere with native hunting rights. In 1848, Secretary of State Earl Grey ordered NSW Governor Charles Fitzroy to give only “the exclusive right of pasturage in the runs, not the exclusive occupation of the Land, as against Natives using it for the ordinary purposes”. But pasturage was an exclusive occupation. Everywhere they settled, whites displaced Aboriginals from their camps, hunting grounds, sacred sites and water. The Aborigines, weakened by European illnesses, retreated into guerrilla warfare using the knowledge of the land to pick off easy prey at the edges. The outraged whites responded with ever-increasingly ferocity and modern weapons. It was pointless trying to arrest a suspect; it was far easier to launch punitive expeditions.
The settlers admitted what the lawmakers would not. This was a war and there could only be one winner. The war was never formally declared but the newspapers which supported settler rights screamed it out loud and clear. In 1870 the Rockhampton Bulletin could justify as a “deplorable necessity” the death of Aborigines whenever they attacked European life and property. “They should be treated as enemies of the state,” the paper warned, “and shot down with as little compunction as soldiers shoot each other in battles among civilised men”. Meanwhile the Queenslander newspaper could tell its readers in 1884 that whenever a black person was seen by a white person, he was “brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. There were scores of such remorseless deaths across Australia as the frontier conflict rolled on.
Queensland had the highest death toll of any colony thanks to the efficiency of the Native Police. White officers led “tamed” blacks from other regions on outings of what became known as “dispersals”. In the dictionary, dispersing means ‘distributing over a wide area’ and no doubt that was one consequence of what happened to the black population. But it was primarily euphemistic language that predated the Nazis by almost a hundred years. Dispersal meant exactly what the Rockhampton Bulletin and the Queenslander newspaper wanted it to mean: killing as many of a dangerous enemy as possible, without remorse and without telling anybody about it.
Without writing of their own, the indigenous people were gradually pushed to the edge of the Australian story and forgotten about. Australian history was re-written as a story of a peaceful and productive takeover of land which belonged to no one. Aboriginal status as non-people was confirmed at federation when the 1901 Constitution said “natives shall not be counted”. It sat next to the White Australia Policy which kept out foreign brown people to go with the native blacks. Aborigines were so low in the scale of social organisation that in 1911 the Privy Council thought it was “idle to impute to [them] some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.” In any case Social Darwinism predicted they would soon completely die out.
Many whites did their best to accelerate that prediction. In 1928 the battle for control of Central Australia ended in the Coniston Massacre where many deaths took place in a wide area of south-western Northern Territory. It started when Kamalyarrpa “Bullfrog” Japanangka murdered dingo trapper Fred Brooks for stealing his wife. Bullfrog acted according to native law, spearing Brooks then cutting his throat with a traditional stone knife made of chert flakes. The obvious Aboriginal style of killing caused outrage. Spears and knifes were potent weapons but no match for a reprisal party armed with 1920 Lee Enfield rifles. That party “dispersed” up to 60 people in at least 10 engagements across the territory in revenge for Brooks. In this group punishment, they missed Bullfrog. Many years later his granddaughter later admitted why he committed the first murder.
Coniston descended into silence and despite a board of inquiry neither Bullfrog nor any of the revenge party were ever charged for murder. The complicity of history’s silence helped Governments implement paternalistic assimilation policies that tore black families apart. Those that didn’t live in shanties at the edge of towns were sent to internment camps like Woorabinda and Barambah while others were farmed off to white families or donated as slave labour to church and other institutions. An entire “Stolen Generation” spent their remaining days try to put back together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives.
By the 1960s the worldwide anti-colonial movement was starting to approach Australian shores. The Aborigines had not died off as everyone supposed they would and many tapped into the worldwide black consciousness. The White Australia Policy was gradually ditched and the 1967 referendum meant blacks would finally be counted. The softening continued in the seventies and eighties under Whitlam, Fraser and then Hawke. But it hid the fact that Aborigines still lived on the margins and Australia had never apologised for its position or admitted there was a war.
In 1979 a committee was set up to promote the idea of a treaty to the white population and after three years they took a list of demands to the Government. What they wanted was a makarrata, a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations”. A makarrata was a covenant aimed at protecting indigenous culture, restoring land rights, getting access to mining royalties and having the right to control their own affairs. However the Government resisted compensation requirements and would not budge on land rights. The makarrata was rejected. It took the 1992 High Court Mabo decision to set the ball rolling by overturning terra nullius and giving retrospective validity to traditional land tenure. The courts left the politicians scrambling to catch up.
Paul Keating’s Redfern speech that year remains the closest an Australian prime minister has come to an admission of dispossession. His speech celebrating the coming year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993 talked about a test “which so far we have always failed.” Keating said Europeans had failed to bring much more than devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia and their plight affected everyone. He recognised it was whites who did the dispossessing and it was their germs and their culture that killed Aboriginal Australia. Yet while he diagnosed what happened, he didn’t say how it happened. Keating mentioned ‘war’ only three times in the speech and each reference was about a European conflict not the Australian one he came so close to defining.
His successor John Howard was not prepared to take the risk people would make the association between dispossession and war. He didn’t want to talk about the subject at all. Howard wanted a (white) Australia that was relaxed and comfortable and he openly rejected the idea of a state of war with blacks. By making Australia’s story seem shameful, Howard said, it would only make people apprehensive and despairing about the future. He only would admit to a few “black marks” in an otherwise happy history.
It was Howard however who had to deal with the fallout from the 1997 Wik Judgement. While neither Mabo nor Wik would tackle Cook’s statement of possession, the two landmark court cases swept away 200 years of domination of white pastoral leases over native title. These leases covered nearly half the country, much of it National party heartland. Facing insurrection from his own Coalition supporters with pastoral leases, he came up with a ten point plan compromise that allowed ‘pastoral activities’ to continue without interference from native title.
Howard was also convulsed by the response to the Bringing them Home report. People held “Sorry ceremonies” across the nation and expressed regret for the Stolen Generation though Howard steadfastly refused to join in. He preferred what he called ‘practical reconciliation’ that led to the NT Intervention.
Kevin Rudd made a big deal of his sorry speech but like Keating and Howard, he couldn’t mention the war. His focus was narrowly on the child-removal policies and he said nothing about years of violent dispossession. All Rudd wanted was a truce in the history wars not a war treaty. In 2009 introducing Thomas Keneally’s Australians: Origins to Eureka, Rudd said he rejected the view Australian history lacked sufficient colour, movement and drama despite having “no revolution, civil war and ‘rivers of blood’”. Rudd’s truce was to pretend the war never happened.
The anger these many failures cause remains palpable in black Australians who see the rich irony in the refugee debate. In June this year Michael Anderson of Sovereign Union said assimilation projects were still alive and well. Anderson compared Aboriginal imprisonment in Mission Stations with the ‘illegal immigrants’ locked away today in detention centres. Like the immigrants in Christmas Island and elsewhere, Anderson said the Aborigines were fed, but “all our civil and political rights were taken away.”
Many people are outraged Rudd has further eroded those rights for people coming here from other countries. But few have made the obvious comparison with black Australia. Rudd’s immigration solution is the flipside of 220 years of oppression to Aborigines. We will never feel safe about our borders until we properly acknowledge the damage done within our realm. Australia needs a makarrata to formally end the dispute of a war blacks have not forgotten.
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