Ian Paisley: from demagogue to democrat

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

My earliest memory of Ian Paisley is on the news of a black and white television set. It was the early seventies, the height of Northern Ireland’s war, conveniently rebadged for public consumption as the “troubles”. Paisley was one of the chief trouble-makers and a daily presence on the screens of Irish news. Grainy footage would show him appearing in front of a  of union flag waving protestants. Paisley wthrongould grab the mic and with a lantern jaw, rosy-red cheeks and forbidding glasses shout out with unerring steeliness and swagger in a sharp Ulster accent: “No surrender! No Surrender!”  His simple negative but rhythmic message, spoke at a visceral level to an ancient sense of threatened privilege and was greeted with huge cheers and a dogged sense of resolve by his working class Protestant audience.

To my young eyes Paisley was incomprehensibly strange. His ever-present dog collar marked him out as a man of god, but he didn’t talk like any preacher I knew. Nor were many Catholic priests backed up by a well armed paramilitary force. While I found Paisley’s fierce emnity to Ireland and Catholicism unfathomable, I wasn’t afraid of him – it was just television after all. But if this was the rapturous reception his dour Ulster Scottish presbytarianism and hatred of all things Catholic and Nationalist got in Belfast, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Paisleyites and their part of Ireland. I tended instinctively to agree with my paternal grandmother who wished a set of scissors would cut off troublesome Northern Ireland from the rest of the country and let it drift away as it pleased.

Over the years my ideas on the north changed as I understood more of its complex history and my opinion on Paisley himself softened. He may have remained a firebrand anti-popish folk devil but that was also making him a sour figure of fun. His ultra-Calvinistic “Wee Free” Presbyterian domination (which he co-founded in 1951, aged 29) seemed a Pythonesque puritan outcrop of an increasingly pointless religion dedicated to keeping gays illegal and pubs and playgrounds closed on Sundays. His steadfast hardline Unionist politics was also irrelevant to me as my own sense of Irish nationalism diminished.

While Paisley’s mix of religion and politics seemed silly in the semi-secular 1970s and 1980s, it was arguably prescient. The Ayatollah Khomeini would show in 1979 how to be a politically successful theocrat. Back in Ireland, Paisley kept up the rhetoric as years passed to decades and.he was a thorn in the side of English as well as Irish leaders. He successfully sabotaged Ted Heath’s Sunningdale Agreement in the 1970s, brought down Thatcher’s Anglo Irish Agreements in the 1980s, opposed Tony Blair’s Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s and was deeply suspicious of the IRA’s truce in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But despite his obstructionism there was evidence the public tirade was increasingly a charade. Behind the scenes, there was a different man. The private Paisley was a charming man to all creeds and he and his wife Eileen would entertain Northern nationalist leader John Hume and his wife for dinner.

This news would have been disquieting to his supporters if they ever found out. They preferred the bluff blustery Paisley and “No Surrender” was a simple and effective message to sell to worried Protestants. But behind the scenes, it was clear Paisley might indeed consider some form of surrender when the time was ripe. While always personally popular, he initially struggled to command a majority with his own Democratic Unionist Party over the more moderate Official Unionist Party. But Northern Irish opinions hardened on both sides as the ballot box replaced the bullet in the late 1990s. Hume’s peace-talking SDLP was replaced by Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein while Protestant seats fell to the DUP. By the mid 2000s Adams and Paisley were dominant, and the time was ripe for talks on Paisley’s terms.

Paisley was 80 years old by the St Andrews Agreement of October 2006 but still the dominant force in Loyalist politics. The Agreement was an astonishing document of compromise which put forward new models for government, the police and the courts. Two sworn enemies would form a Coalition government. The Unionists led by Paisley would be major partners with the erstwhile “terrorists” Sinn Fein who were the front for the IRA. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was a bridge too far, having served years in Belfast’s The Maze prison but crucially the Unionists decided they could work with Adams’ deputy Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was, like Adams, an IRA leader, but never served time in a Northern Irish prison. His two criminal convictions (for being near an explosive-loaded car and being a member of the illegal IRA) were both across the border in the Republic of Ireland. In those cases, McGuinness refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Irish court, a view possibly shared by Paisley himself. Paisley established a warm rapport with McGuinness just as he did with Hume. Always seen laughing together in public, they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

There was a serious side to the chuckling and both men seized a genuine change to effect devolution to Northern Ireland on their own terms. That McGuinness and Paisley’s ultimate aims were radically different didn’t matter, this was genuine power now and both men were determined to make it work. Paisley’s relentless negativity when in opposition, suddenly softened to something much more malleable when in government. Aged 81, he was Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, and like Mandela in South Africa in the 1990s he steered a path towards a workable democracy before retiring in 2010. The extent of Paisley’s success can be judged by the length of the government he set up. To this day, the DUP and Sinn Fein remain in unlikely partnership. Paisley was not an easy man to forgive for the way in which he destroyed hopes of peace for 20 years. But his eventual path from demagogue to democrat while astonishing in the exterior, shows a cunning calculation to determine a path of his choosing. It also shows a person of enormous calculation and imagination. I found myself surprisingly saddened to hear Ian Paisley had finally surrendered to his maker on Friday aged 88. His legacy is mixed but Northern Ireland has lost a giant of a man in many ways.  His bile was vile but the wisdom and spirit of his compromise was second to none.

September 14, 2014 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

On the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, near the border between NSW and Queensland, a small stream quickly gathers pace as it slithers down the mountains. It is an area of good rains and picks up lots of tributaries in the Dorrigo Plateau. By the time it reaches the valleys, it is a large and broad, the widest Australian river to enter the Pacific. At its estuary the river is a majestic one kilometre wide. The ferry from Yamba in the south to Iluka in the north takes 30 minutes to negotiate its dangerous channels, islands and sandbars. To the Yaegl and Bundjalung people (collectively known as Yaygirr) that lived in this valley the river was called the Ngunitiji. The Yaygirr had a good lifestyle for at least 6,000 years, so much so they could afford to set up roots and live in bark huts with woven vines. At nighttime they gathered around told the story of the old woman Dirrangan who was swept down the river during a flood holding on to a fig tree. But it was the Yaygirr who would eventually be swept away when newcomers coveted the river and its fertile land. These ghostly white people were initially slow to see its insignificance. Cook missed it on his 1770. Matthew Flinders did find the bark huts when he landed at the mouth of the Ngunitiji during his second voyage in 1799. He called the area Shoal Bay but was unimpressed by the shifting sandbars and failed to see he was at the mouth of a major flow calling it “a small opening like a river”. For the next 40 years, the river remained invisible to white eyes. John Oxley missed it in his discovery of the Tweed River in 1823 as did Henry Rous in the same area five years later. Rous would even called Oxley’s Tweed the ‘Clarance’ but that name didn’t stick. In the decade after Oxley, rumours persisted of a Big River in northern NSW especially after convicts started to escape south from Moreton Bay penal colony. In 1830 one escapee “Sheik” Jack Brown made it as far as Yaygirr country where he lived with locals for two years. When he finally returned to Moreton Bay he told of a great river which “abounds with fish.” Its land was abundant in “emus, kangaroos, and wild fowl in all directions” and “pine, oak, gum and other trees of use” were growing there. Brown excited the imagination of would-be settlers looking for easy pickings among the apparently friendly natives. Captain Alexander Butcher took the Eliza into the estuary and sailed 200km up the river, mapping it as he passed. It was his report that finally got Sydney’s attention. Explorer Joseph Hickey Grose decided to verify Butcher’s findings the following year and he reported back to deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry about “the future opening of the country on the banks of the river”. The schooner Susan also left Sydney in 1838 with a party of sawyers looking for cedar.  It was not a good wood for building houses or boats so the men lived in tent-huts, surviving on beef, flour, tea and sugar. Three times a year they went to the new settlement at what would become Grafton where there was complaints about their drunken behaviour. Though the cedar was quickly exhausted, many stayed to try their hand at farming. By now the Ngunitiji had a white name. The master of the ship King William, Captain Francis Griffin urged Governor Gipps in Sydney to name it “with a title somewhat more clear than the Big River.” Perhaps it was the name of Griffin’s ship as well as well as loyalty to the crown that caused Gipps to go with Rous’s name for the Tweed in honour of the recently deceased King William IV, previously known as the Duke of Clarence. As word spread in Sydney, there was a rush of cedar-cutters, squatters and selector farmers into the Clarence’s fertile valley. The Yaygirr people watched apprehensively as strangers poured into their territory. Initially there was cautious co-existence but the trickle of Europeans became a flood and took black lands and waterholes. Once they started locking up land for cane growing, the Yaygirr were forced to steal back to survive. They killed white stock and attacked isolated settlements. In 1847 Thomas Coutts took revenge as he poisoned 23 Gumbaynggir people with strychnine in their flour. Five died in agony but Coutts avoided prosecution as there was not enough evidence. There were two documented massacres, one at Green Hills near Red Rock where mounted native police drove natives off the headland, the other at Station Creek. Oral histories also tell of killings at Minnie Waters, Cassons Creek and Tyndale in the early 1840s. By the 1900s massacres and disease had weakened the black population and land dispossession was complete. There were few left who could speak the Yaygirr language.  Their journey back from the precipice of non-peoplehood began with the 1967 Referendum.  They were then remembered in the naming of the Yuraygir National Park declared in 1977. Though widely dispersed today, the area’s traditional owners still proudly call out their links to the region. The Bundjalong gave their name to the national park north of the Clarence. To the south, the Yaegl and the Gumbaingirr trace common descent through the female line. Their land councils and totems are important, indeed the Bundjalong won the first Aboriginal land grant in NSW in 1985 at Evans Head. But it is the mighty Clarence, the Big River, the Ngunitiji that still speaks loudest. The Europeans have moulded it in their own industrious image with breakwaters and ports. But the ghost of Dirrangan still haunts its wide waters.

September 7, 2014 at 8:52 pm Leave a comment

The news of the otherworld: Wrecking the RET

A sure sign the Warburton Review into the Renewable Energy Target was flawed was the lavish praise for it in yesterday’s editorial in the Weekend Australian. It was the second of two editorials with the main one bemoaning the lack of decision making in the “national interest” which in the Weekend Oz’s case is code for “Murdoch’s interest”. Murdoch’s interest applauds the Abbott Government for its foreign affairs stance, fiscal consolidation and market-based reforms but castigates it for the way it sells its economic messages, as well as taxing high earners, introducing a “gimicky” medical research fund and bringing back knights and dames. Rupert Murdoch, after all, remains doggedly republican.

It doesn’t mention climate scepticism but it is no secret Rupert is not convinced of the science. Like me, his pride and joy The Australian is now 50 years old – a month younger than me – and we are both seriously showing our age. I’m reasonably confident I’m still in control of my faculties but I’m not so sure about the Oz / Woz. This sorry excuse for a broadsheet is becoming more unhinged by the day, especially when it comes to dealing with climate science. Take, for example, the page 5 exclusive yesterday from “environment editor” Graham Lloyd. The quotes inside “Records detail heat that ‘didn’t happen'” are a giveaway that it is climate change the Oz headline writers think “didn’t happen”. The story itself is muddled junk which took forever to get to its debatable point the BOM are fudging their figures to over-egg increasing temperatures. Lloyd’s sole “proof” is old written records of the weather at Bourke in northern NSW. There is also a dubious-looking graph which show local temperatures are heading downwards over 150 years. The graph seems to ignore its own spikes in the last 20 years. The lede is buried in the last sentence from a man who rescued the old records: “At the moment they (BOM) are saying we have a warming climate but if the old figures are used we have a cooling climate”.

Lloyd didn’t interview anyone who might gainsay that remark. Instead his only expert quote is from another sceptic “Queensland researcher” Jennifer Marohasy who agreed temperatures were warmer earlier in the century. Lloyd doesn’t menion that Marohasy’s views are not widely shared. Lloyd has form with kooky climate theories and his employers are only too delighted to push them prominently. Dissenters to climate science interpretation like Marohasy and Bjorn Lomborg are always likely to get a good run in the op eds. Not so, those who push the need for climate change action. On Friday many such bodies and companies reacted negatively to the results of the RET review released a day ealier. Whether their complaints were legitimate or not, there were  completely absent from the Weekend Oz news pages. There was not a single article on RET nor was there any op eds, leaving the only discussion to His Master’s Voice in the editorial.

The editorial began by attacking fvourite enemy Christine Milne for her petulence in throwing the review in the bin ( I agree it was stupid amateur dramatics) before calming down calling the review a “balanced, rational assessment”. Those looking for proof of this would be disappointed to find that most of what followed was a direct copy and paste from the review itself. This did mean, however, that the Woz had to admit that the review was very positive about the RET. As Lenore Taylor emphasises, the RET did exactly what it was designed to do: it pushed investment from fossil fuels into renewables.

The Woz skirts around this problem by saying it was too expensive and heavy subsidies were ultimately lowering productivity and national income. But the key statement in the review was picked up by Peter Martin which was the RET was helping the “transfer of wealth among participants in the electricity market”. This line is pure Dick Warburton, who led the four-person review and a man of commerce who prefers the hands of the market to move invisibly.

Warburton was the perfect choice to lead the review to a particular outcome, a successful businessman who doesn’t think climate change was caused by humans. When appointed chair of the review in February, Warburton told the Australian’s Sid Maher he was not a climate sceptic. Because the Australian was willing to give him the balance of that doubt, we never find out if Warburton believes climate change is real and if so, what is causing it and what we should do about it. Either way, he would have been unlikely to have any sympathy to this particular kind of market intervention. As Taylor said, the result of the review only made sense if the intention was to deny the problem it was trying to solve.

The Australian quotes the review’s statement that the jobs the RET created were at the expense of other industries. It claimed removing “inefficient subsidies” would free up investment for research into more efficient renewable energy sources. But with no carbon tax or any other market mechanism to support it, it would just as likely lead to more investment in fossil fuels. The RET exceeded its 20% target, generated a large surplus of electricity and lowered prices which all sounds like good things but not if the Review and the Woz are to be believed.

The scheme would cost $22b to its end point in 2030 (less than $1.5b a year or about 15 Super hornet planes) which sounds like a small tax price to pay for for a good outcome. But the review didn’t see it that way. It was “distorting investment decisions” (again, doing what it was designed to do). the low prices were “artificial” while the cost of the scheme meant it was still adding 4% to those prices, though that figure was trending to negligible. By that logic the Warburton Review said it was not generating any new wealth just transferring it to other players in the market. As Martin picked up, the big losers are the mining companies who backed Abbott’s axeing of both taxes (carbon and mining).

The RET helps reduce carbon emissions by an additional 300 million tonnes by 2030, the equivalent of 100,000 cars taken off the road. But cars aren’t coming off the road, they are increasing as is the impatience of those who rely on them, paying an increased price in transport and electricity. Warburton said the cost of abatement was too high but that cannot be proven. The Government’s response the increasingly hollow sounding “Direct” action has no modelling or explanation how it might achieve its (low) targets. It is also unlikely to pass an increasingly feisty Senate that Abbott has managed to alienate, despite it containing many philosophical fellow travellers.

Abbott was able to “axe the (carbon) tax” but not do much else other than clear the cupboard. He dismantled the Climate and Science ministries, gutted CSIRO and abandoned the Climate Commission. Removing the hated RET is simply the next step in the ideological agenda that undersells the problem of climate change and leaves dim-witted Australia well behind the eight ball in solar, wind and geothermal research. Murdoch’s rags are only too willing to help to put the boot in as it calls in commercial and political favours. The Government meanwhile continues its brutal search and destroy mission of all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2013. If this is evidence of the “adults in charge” then for god sake bring back the children.

August 31, 2014 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

Three lives Part 3 – Pearson’s mission

By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own. Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, two years a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland.

A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers. Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people. But after Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar.

Pearson was beginning to understand the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun describing it as the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience. Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians. Pearson’s speeches speak to an ever-evolving sense of self, grounded by the dignity of his upbringing and his Aboriginality.

Bennelong, Bussamarai and Pearson are separated by time and circumstance but united by the need to take control of their lives. All faced massive challenges and all were scarred by proximity to colonialism. Bennelong was arguably Indigenous Australia’s first and only ambassador, but was discarded when Britain had no more use for him. By Bussamarai’s time colonisation was in full swing across Australia, a war on many fronts. His ‘opera’ was similar to Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip: the mark of a strategic thinker with a sense of drama.

Bussamarai was killed and victors wrote him out of the history. Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms.

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

July 19, 2014 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Three lives Part 2 – Bussamarai’s opera

Forty years after Bennelong’s death (see Part 1), equal terms between black and white were forgotten as white Australia pushed out from the coast. Encouraged by British demand for Australian wool, pastoralism provided the impetus for territorial expansion. Legally the justification was terra nullius. Chief Justice Forbes called Australia an ‘uninhabited country’ but it was the settlers who were making it uninhabitable for the blacks. Squatters, blinded by profits, simply stole the land and when Aborigines fought back they were killed. Their mere presence was enough for them to be shot or poisoned – men, women and children. This was true in southern Queensland’s Maranoa as elsewhere, but there a Mandandanji resistance leader would put on a show that was just as elaborate as Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip and just as meaningful.

In April 1850 white settlers near Surat were invited to a corroboree, what Gideon Lang would later call an ‘opera’. The conductor said Lang, was ‘Eaglehawk’ (Bussamarai) who sat behind a choir of black women while men on stage acted out an elaborate play. With astonishing mimicry the actors played cattle grazing in the fields. Next they became black warriors sneaking up to spear cattle. Then others playing ‘manufactured whites’ starting shooting the ‘blacks’. To the great joy of the mainly non-white audience, the ‘blacks’ overwhelmed the ‘whites’ at the end of the opera. Bussamarai’s message was he could combine five local tribes to drive the whites from the country. The lessons the whites drew was equally clear: bring in the native police.

The history is scant on Bussamarai/Eaglehawk, two of his four names along with Old Billy and Possum Murray (Bussamarai may simply be a backward formation from Possum Murray). The first squatters searched Mandandanji lands around 1842 when Finney Eldershaw and others scouted the Maranoa and Balonne Rivers. Thomas Mitchell came through in 1846 and he was a close friend of NSW parliamentary secretary and fellow Scot William Macpherson. William’s son Allan had a property in New England and Macpherson junior was excited by Mitchell’s diary entry for the Maranoa: ‘fine open country, and from the abundance of good pasturage around it, I named it Mt Abundance’.

Armed with Mitchell’s maps, Macpherson capitalised on a March 1847 Order in Council possibly drafted by his father which granted frontier squatters 14-year leases. Macpherson claimed 400,000 acres of ‘the most beautiful land that ever sheep’s eyes travelled over’. But within a week the blacks appeared, frightening his men ‘into convulsions’. The fear was mutual, the natives dreading Macpherson’s double-barrelled carbine and horse. While Macpherson was away, they killed two shepherds and stole a thousand sheep. Macpherson was forced out after two years of ‘sundry conflicts with the hostile blacks’ and while he believed the grass was no use to them, he admitted ‘they no doubt thought they had a better right to the land than we did’.

While Macpherson showed conscience, other quieter settlers who followed did not. These men like Thomas Hall, Henry Dangar, Robert Fitzgerald and Joseph Fleming were in the Gwydir wars, and a ‘social destructive group’ with a ‘single-minded quest for wealth and status’. Hardened by the Myall Creek massacre and subsequent hanging of seven whites, they had a new unwritten law: ‘death by stealth’. In 1859 drover William Telfer heard about the slaughter that occurred after Macpherson’s time. Telfer was a witness to the Waterloo Creek killings and Telfer’s Wallabadah manuscript describes several massacres in the Maranoa including a ‘fight’ on Fleming’s property with a ‘Cheif [sic] who was shot with about fifty others’.

Bussamarai was also active killing settlers at Dulacca until a posse tracked his mob down to the Grafton Ranges. There they captured “a powerful man”. Though later released, Bussamarai did not forget his humiliation and forced Blyth to evacuate his station in October 1848. The absentee Gwydir landlords allowed 20 or so ‘insubordinate and lawless white workers’ to kill 80 Mandandanji in two years. The elusive Bussamarai’s talents got grudging tribute. Hovenden Hely, in the Maranoa in 1852 to search for Leichhardt, described Bussamarai as ‘the head and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there’ but admitted he was a ‘chief of great repute’. However with squatters agitating for native troopers to come, his time was up. Native Police Sergeant Skelton recounted the end after a fight in November 1852 “they [Bussamarai and another] were both shot in the attempt to apprehend them”.

Bussamarai’s death was one of hundreds in the violent Maranoa frontier war from 1846 to 1856. It was a war that moved up from the Gwydir and across from the Darling Downs and would later move north towards the Dawson River. The ruthless competition for land that led to Bussamarai’s death was forgotten and buried under pioneer legends. Through storytelling, the frontier was transformed into a battle between (white) humans and nature. But until it is accepted the frontier was a war zone, reconciliation of the past with present will continue to be an elusive goal.

July 8, 2014 at 12:28 pm 1 comment

Three lives: Part 1 – Bennelong time

bennelongHuman dignity has always played a key role in political action. It is a central tenet of Christianity yet Protestant England and Catholic France both established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. Aboriginal dignity was rated lowest yet is grounded in culture and religion. For two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”

The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.

There was no talk of treaties when Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong on all three counts.  Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and how they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ – Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788 networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left plenty of time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.

Britain’s conquest of Australia was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.

Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong who stayed for five months and would become a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape after 5 months  was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly beach was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to eventually formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to the bewilderment of the British. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.

Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.

On his return Bennelong’s fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.

June 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm 2 comments

Franz Ferdinand and the end of the 19th century: a time for thought

Archduke FerdinandYesterday 100th anniversary of the death in Sarajevo of the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne Franz Ferdinand provides an apt moment to consider the turning points of history. His death effectively ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer up on the ABC on who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was, why he was killed and why his death was so important to history.  It contains a quote from Britain’s Duke of Portland of which I was unaware. Ferdinand was visiting Portland in November 1913 and the pair were shooting pheasant on the latter’s estate. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidently discharged the guns narrowly missing the two dukes. Portland later said, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

Portland musings make for a delightful counterfactual but as even his own ‘postponed’ clause hints, the First World War was always coming and Franz Ferdinand’s death was merely the excuse, not its cause. German militarism had been on the rise for 20 years, the delicate European balance of power was tottering and individual leaders were reckless and stupid. There was also the rising demon of European nationalism which the great powers could no longer control, to which Franz Ferdinand, as an imposed Hapsburg leader of a patchwork of Slav nations, was especially vulnerable. There were six assassins waiting for him in Bosnia on the day of his death. They almost failed that day, but sooner or later, some Slav nationalist would take their grievances to him or another Hapsburg. And the inevitable consequences would be that the delicate house of cards European monarchs built to spread the colonial largesse evenly would coming crashing down.

It was fitting that an Austrian’s death would bring the 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. European was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s wars and his attempt to become a European hegemon. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on European battlefields. As Europe industrialised and a growing middle class became prosperous, the patchwork peace enabled the major powers to concentrate on building colonial empires in other parts of the world.  Occasionally those powers would get together again in genteel surrounds as they did in Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust the borders of the world on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of that Berlin Treaty. Still a de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the major powers agreed it would be de facto part of the Austria-Hungary Empire which occupied and administered Sarajevo. Bosnian Slavs were unhappy to have their masters changed without their say, especially as the Treaty also recognised the independence of next door Serbia. For its part Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, conscious of its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared its independence in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary moved to formally annex Bosnia. But as the Ottomans displayed more symptoms of the Sick Man of Europe, the Balkan powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end the empire’s interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for what would have been an earlier start to a World War but the German generals on whom they relied said they were not ready to be mobilised until the summer of 1914.

So it was inevitable that the Balkan region of the Austria-Hungarian empire would be where the match for war would be lit. However, Fukuyama wrote of another “intangible but crucial factor”, the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro Austrian demonstrations in Berlin despite Germany’s lack of skin in the game. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring captured the mood in Europe in the summer of 1914 and Eckstein quoted a worker in the Berlin crowds who said they were all seized by one earnest emotion “War, war and a sense of togetherness”. Eckstein quotes anti-war German law student who was drafted when hostilities broke out in September. The war was “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded and in every sense destructive,” the student said. Yet he willingly enlisted, understanding duty as a moral imperative regardless of the dubious reasons. “The decisive issue,” he said, ” is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.” This notion of “Pficht” was echoed across Europe and across British dominions around the world as a sense of duty and excitement for action proved a potent brew.

If the Archduke’s death was the end of the 19th century, then the First World War was a bloody interregnum, where as Churchill wrote, the life-energy of the greatest nations were poured in wrath and slaughter. The 20th century, as Hobsbawm argues, began with the 1917 Russian Revolution and ended with the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it could also be argued it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty just as cynical and plundering of the world’s riches as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch accurately summed up Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Similar hopes for the end of all wars were held in 1946 and institutions like Bretton-Woods seemed to keep an entente cordiale at least in the western world. Then when the Wall fell, hopes again rose of ending all wars.

Writing in 1991 Fukuyama following Hegel and Marx, hailed what he called “the end of history”, a period where the dignity of democracy would rule triumphant. The real history shows the ‘new world order’ didn’t last long at all. China and Russia adopted capitalism without the democratic trimmings while Versailles creations like Iraq began to fracture. Bosnia and the Balkan map looks familiar again to Franz Ferdinand while 1930s style ultra-nationalism has returned to a frightened and lost Europe. Religious zealotry has made many parts of Asia and Africa no go zones for moderates. Now more than ever it is crucial to seek answers from the past, to understand our present. Arnold Toynbee may be right in saying history was ‘one damn thing after another’ but that is no reason not to understand its consequences.  Anniversaries like Franz Ferdinand’s death provide a time for thought we should not miss.

June 29, 2014 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

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