Melbourne’s Batman

Photo: @norton_tim

An amusing photo was posted to Twitter this week of a giant billboard in suburban Melbourne captioned “Thank you Batman – David Feeney MP”. The tweet’s poster Tim Singleton Norton added “to those unaware of the name of the electorate, I’m guessing this billboard looks extremely odd.” When I appropriated the photo for my Facebook feed I added the comments “gratitude in Gotham City” and indeed, the humorous possibilities are endless. Batman, the popular DC Comics character, has been around since 1939 and transformed by television, cinema and video games, is now a cultural icon as probably the world’s most famous comic book superhero. Of course, David Feeney MP is not thanking the fictional Batman but the people of the Australian federal electorate of Batman, whose name predates the comic book figure.

The Division of Batman was created in 1906 and comprises mainly working class areas of north Melbourne, traditionally one of the safest Labor seats in the country. That almost changed in 2016 when Feeney survived a close challenge from the Greens. The hapless Feeney, already with an infamous reputation as one of the “Faceless Men” who unseated Kevin Rudd in 2010 did not help his own cause when he failed to declare $2.3m property on on the parliamentary register of interests. Then he was skewered in a car crash interview on Sky News, unable to answer questions on the $4.8b Schoolkids Bonus policy. The Greens beat Feeney on primary votes but with the help of Liberal preferences Feeney scraped over the line to retain the seat with a 51-49 2PP victory over the Greens. It was probably with much relief Feeney could take to the billboards proclaiming Thank You Batman oblivious to the irony of the other meaning.

Batman the electorate was named for John Batman (1801-1839), a native Vandiemenlander, and one of the original founders of white settlement in Melbourne in 1835. Batman had a mixed reputation as a likely killer of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before treating with Victorian Aborigines. Batman died of syphilis aged 38 and his early death meant there were no portraits of him in his lifetime.

The quaker version of John Batman.

Those that survive are based on William Penn, the English quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Penn was famous for his supposed peace treaty with Delaware natives in 1683 immortalised in a Benjamin West painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”. Batman was an important member of the Port Phillip Association, an informal group of well-connected Tasmanians. Their self-serving yet unique attempt to treat with the indigenous bands of Melbourne was influenced by stories of Penn’s Treaty with the Shackamaxon native Americans. The imaginary connection between the two would lead to the agreement the PPA struck with the Kulin people of Victoria being called “Batman’s Treaty“.

That was the Treaty Batman claimed he signed in 1835 with the Kulin to occupy hundreds of thousands of acres of their territory around what would become Melbourne and Geelong. According to Batman the Kulin consented to the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres in return for “the yearly rent or tribute of one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair of scissors and five tons flour.” Though white sealers and whalers had lived independently around Port Phillip Bay since the late 18th century, the PPA’s treaty was the first formal settlement proposal and a significant threat to the 19 counties Limits of Location the British government imposed in the Sydney hinterland of New South Wales.

The Treaty was initially respected around the Port Phillip area until complicated by the arrival of a rival settlement party from Tasmania in August 1835 led by John Fawkner. In the middle of the white men’s fight, life got dangerous for the original owners. New South Wales governor Richard Bourke was also alarmed, seeking legal advice before disavowing the Treaty. It was an awkward reminder the rest of Australia was being taken up without treaties. The British view was the land belonged to the crown since Cook’s statement of possession in 1770. Though absurd to the Kulin owners, that statement was a “matter of history” and could not be contested. The Treaty was abrogated but the flow of white settlers continued into Melbourne forcing the Kulin people off their land. The significance of events was not the Treaty but that the limits of location were smashed forever. The pace of colonisation of Australia increased dramatically in the decades that followed.

John Batman would have been forgotten given his early death, but for another Tasmanian, historian James Bonwick. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossesion of the Aboriginal people though he was more concerned by redeeming the sins of the British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He praised the short-lived Batman’s Treaty but accepted the government’s decision to abrogate it. He was more concerned about Batman’s reputation as a founder of Melbourne then he was about Kulin land claims.

Bonwick began a revisional process which saw Batman become a major historical figure, though those that promoted him glossed over the Treaty. What became more important was an entry in Batman’s diary about a trip up the river where Batman apparently exclaims “this will be a place for a village”. These words – taken out of context – would take on extraordinary significance in narratives about Melbourne. As the grandees of Melbourne celebrated the city’s 50th and then 100th birthday, they celebrated the extraordinary growth from a “village” to a great world city. For their purposes Batman took “unoccupied” lands; the Treaty forgotten as an awkward reminder the land had prior owners who were dispossessed without compensation or apology.

The First Settlers Discover Buckley

Yet Batman’s image offered a ghostly reminder of that treaty. Artist Frederick William Woodhouse re-enacted Penn’s Treaty with the Indians in his own painting The First Settlers Discover Buckley. William Buckley was the convict who escaped the short-lived Victorian settlement of 1803 and lived with Aboriginal people for 32 years until he met the new settlers in 1835. Batman was not in that meeting but Woodhouse imagined he was and influenced by Benjamin West painted him in a Penn-style quaker necktie and hat. The image stuck and was passed on to all future depictions of Batman.

The Treaty found a new political purpose in the late 1960s when Victorian Aboriginal people led by Pastor Doug Nichols appropriated it for their needs. “The importance of the Batman Treaty lies in its explicit recognition that Aborigines did, in fact, own the land,” a supporter, Barry Pittock, wrote to The Age. Though Batman’s Treaty is not explicitly mentioned, it is probably no coincidence the 2016 Victorian government is the first Australian administration to publicly back a Treaty. “We understand that it’s not for us to decide what treaty or self-determination should look like,” Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins said. “We know that action needs to come from the Victorian Aboriginal community.” Like Feeney, she might have added, Thank You Batman.

On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was that a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.

Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of the history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of the available texts and create a new history for Australia 50,000 years old not 230 years.

Over 10 years ago another geneticist Spencer Wells found proof humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (at a time when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence to suggest humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago).  The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent.Given we have seen rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is not unreasonable to believe the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread was aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artefacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are found in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He had gone on a scholarship in the 1950s to Cambridge to study pre-history and had urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. He carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia. 

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp in Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and had helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed their oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings.”Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

What Behrendt is talking about is the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbytes eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.





Big Things From Little Things Grow: The Gurindji Wave Hill walk off – 50 years on

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam

This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Northern Territory Wave Hill walk-off by the Gurindji People. It eventually led to one of the most iconic moments in Australian race relations: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand. The strike had massive consequences, positively for land rights and negatively for Aboriginal employment in the stock industry. The collapse of that employment led to profound consequences still being felt today.

In the early 1960s Indigenous people were the bedrock of the pastoral industry in northern Australia. They were cheap labour, governed under the Wards’ Employment Ordinance in Queensland and the NT. The Ordinance set low wages and poor living conditions and excluded Indigenous people from industrial awards.

Indigenous groups were pushing for equal pay for equal work, a move resisted by the pastoral industry. In September 1963 the ACTU adopted a comprehensive statement endorsing equal wages. The move targeted pastoral workers unions, the AWU and North Australian Workers’ Union, initially indifferent to the plight of Aboriginal workers.

The NT Cattle Producers Council appealed to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for a full bench hearing to keep the clause excluding Aboriginal workers. The NT Council for Aboriginal Rights said the cattle industry exploited their people on low wages for years and “kicked us, whipped us, shot us, and raped our fairest daughters”.

In 1964 a big Darwin rally increased pressure on NAWU. The newly-formed Australian newspaper under enlightened editor Adrian Deamer and the Melbourne Herald’s Douglas Lockwood lent publicity to the cause, highlighting appalling conditions at British company  Vesteys’ operations.

Cattle Producers Council lawyer John Kerr, later the Governor-General who sacked Whitlam, detailed evidence drawing on supposed racial knowledge over many decades to show cultural differences made Aboriginal people less useful workers. An Aboriginal stockmen loudly complained in court “you plenty liar” but Kerr’s case was not effectively countered and the Commission accepted it.

It was not until the full ruling in March 1966 the Commission embraced equal wages but in a compromise deferred it until December 1, 1968. The Commission accepted the employers’ argument that repeal of Wards’ Employment Ordinance would greatly increase costs and also lead to unemployment and displacement of workers and dependents.

In time this is exactly what happened.  However this was not the fault of the Indigenous workers.

Indigenous NAWU organiser Dexter Daniels complained about the delay. Daniels had been to Kenya in 1964 and seen how black people were winning rights from colonial masters. “Our people have been waiting more than 50 years, and they should get the award straight away,” he said. Daniels organised a strike of 80 Aboriginal workers at Newcastle Waters and wanted to spread it to Wave Hill a few hours away to the west. Wave Hill was a 16,000 sq km pastoral lease with 40,000 cattle and employed the largest number of Aboriginal people in NT.

The Wave Hill area was colonised in the 1880s and the station was bought around 1900 by British agribusiness Vesteys. At first, white cattle station owners killed many Aboriginals and ran others off the land; later they lured them with beef, flour and tea and exploited them as cheap labour.

Vesteys had a terrible reputation. Stan Davey from the Victorian Trades Council was shocked by conditions. “I have been astounded at the blatant continuation of a feudal type of control of Aborigines,” he said. “Their pay has been irregular and would appear to have frequently fallen short of the prescribed [wages]. People at Wave Hill were living structures no bigger than dog kennels. There were no sanitation provisions and no readily accessible water supply, People have been fed a slab of bread and a piece of salted beef three times a day.”

Wave Hill head stockman Vincent Lingiari, then 47, was in Darwin and Daniels arranged to meet him to see if he would join the strike. On August 22, 1966 Lingiari led 80 workers and 120 dependents in a walk-off to Wattie Creek. This was not the first strike at the station. They had walked off before in 1949, 1952 and 1955 but this was the first strike supported by a union.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union placed a black ban on Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill. In September unions and employers struck an agreement that “fully efficient” Aboriginal workers would get the full award rate, married men would get basic wage less keep and singles would get smaller increases and keep.  A publicity tour led by Gurindji stockman Captain Major to southern capitals raised considerable funds. “You can see I have a black skin, but I have a white heart. What I want is a fair go for my people,” Major told his audience.

The Gurindji refused to go back to Wave Hill. In October 1966 Labor MP Gordon Bryant read a Lingiari letter to parliament demanding the return of “tribal lands” belonging to “forefathers from time immemorial”.  Author and journalist Frank Hardy was on his way north on holiday when he heard about the strike and he rushed to Wave Hill.

Hardy later wrote about the struggle in his book The Unlucky Australians (1968).  It took Hardy a while to realise the dispute was more than about pay. Lingiari explained they ultimately wanted to replace Vesteys with Indigenous owners: “One day last year we talk about these things, about hidings, about living in dog kennels, about white men taking our women, about bad tucker, about no pay. We decide then we got to go. Make our own way. We can do these things.” Lingiari told Hardy: “I bin thinkin’ in my mind we can run Wave Hill, without Bestey mob”.

Once Hardy grasped the significance of Gurindji demands, he became their spokesperson. He drafted a letter to The Australian: “Vesteys do not own this land…The land is Crown Land controlled by the Federal Government but the rightful owners of it are the Aboriginal tribes of the Hooker Creek area who lived there for centuries before the white man came to pillage the land, despoil their women and reduce them to the status of slaves. Aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill …asked for equal pay with white stockmen and were ‘sacked’ from their own tribal and sacred lands for having the temerity to do so… The economic issue is equal pay but a more momentous issue lies at the heart of the matter. The moral issue of the plight of the native people, the monstrous and criminal indifference to their welfare, the cruel exploitation of them. Of course they must be granted equal pay.. and it should be granted now instead of three years as the Court has decided. But what of the wider issue. What about compensation from the cattle barons and the great mining companies who are raking great fortunes out of the north? And what about tenure of their own tribal lands?”

Lawyer Dick Ward advised Hardy it would be difficult to make a legal claim but a better bet would be a petition to parliament like the Yirrkala did in 1963 for their land near Gove. Hardy discussed the idea with Bryant who was keen to assist. The Petition signed by Lingiari and others represented claimants demanding their tribal land:

“We the leaders of the Gurindji people, write to you requesting that you bring before the Parliament of Australia the present position of our people, and our earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands…of which we were forcibly dispossessed in times past, and for which we received no recompense.  This land belonged to our forefathers from time immemorial, and many of our people have been killed trying to regain it. Therefore we feel that morally, if not legally the land is ours and should be returned to us. The very name by which you call us, ‘Aboriginal’, acknowledges our prior claim to this country in which we are now a depressed minority.”

They wanted a lease they could run co-operatively as a cattle station. Hardy said the legal question was whether land tenure began with white settlement or with the original owners. In late 1966 Major returned to his own country and claimed the name Lupgna Giari. Lingiari asked Giari to have “proper talk” with Hardy. They put together a new petition which outlined the Gurindji relationship to Wattie Creek and claimed the land. On Lionel Murphy’s advice, it was addressed to Governor-General. There was a new passage inserted: “our culture, myths, dreaming and sacred places have evolved in this land… We have never ceased to say amongst ourselves that Vesteys should go away and leave us to our land. On the attached map, we have marked out the boundaries of the sacred places of our dreaming…we have begun to build our own new homestead on the banks of beautiful Wattie Creek…This is the main place of our dreaming only a few miles from the Seal Gorge where we have kept the bones of our martyrs all these years since white men killed many of our people. On the walls of the sacred caves where these bones are kept, are the paintings of the totems of our tribe. We have already occupied a small area at Seal Yard…we will…build up a cattle station within the borders of this ancient Gurindji land.”

Hardy played a crucial role in marking the Aborigines as “Gurindji” a tribal marker that authenticated their claim to the land. They put up a sign at Wattie Creek which they saw as having extraordinary power. One elder told Hardy, “All them mob hab sign outside. Bestey’s got ’em sign outside, policemen got ’em sign outside. Welfare got ’em sign outside. We want ’em sign for Wattie Creek homestead. Can you write ’em sign?”

Hardy asked them what they wanted on the sign. “Put that Gurindji word there,”  they replied, “We never been see that word, only in we head.”

When they put up the sign which read “GURINDJI, mining lease and cattle station”, Peter Morris, Vesteys’ manager of Vesteys’ pastoral properties asked Lingiari what they were doing on Vesteys land and who had painted the sign. Lingiari replied “this belong to my grandfather…I asked that Frank Hardy to paint it. It’s our sign and we camp here.”

The Liberal Federal Government rejected the petition a few months later. But land rights was moving to the forefront of the reform agenda. Gurindji, Wave Hill, the Yolngu and Yirrkala would become major symbols of the battles that followed. The petition gathered 100,000 signatures by 1969 and when the Labor government was elected in 1972, Whitlam appointed Ted Woodward royal commissioner to consider how Aboriginal people could be granted land in NT. In 1975 Whitlam attended a ceremonial handover of Wattie Creek to Gurindji, widely regarded as an enormous achievement in Indigenous civil and land rights. But it took land rights legislation passed in 1976 to allow for valid claims on the basis of traditional association. The Gurindji 1976 claim for 3293 sq km of Daguraga Station was finally achieved in 1983.

The events were immortalised in Paul Kelly’s song Big Things From Little Things Grow and it was indeed a great success in land rights. But it came at a terrible price. Most stations sacked their Aboriginal workforce rather than grant equal pay. A huge influx of itinerant populations came into towns with no work and no prospects. Many lives descended into alcohol and violence as a result. The era of great Indigenous stockmen and women “born in the cattle” was over.

A day in Townsville

Townsville is the largest city in northern Queensland and although I’d passed through here on a number of occasions, I’d never stayed the night here before. The first time I was here was one Easter in the early 2000s when all accommodation was booked out (I can’t remember which year but the city was recovering from a cyclone). The next time I stayed on Magnetic Island and most recently I came driving through in the middle of the day and while I drove to the top of Castle Hill, I spent the night further up the coast. This time I was determined to walk up Castle Hill which was not too far from my motel.trip8.JPG

Castle Hill is a stunning pink granite monolith that dominates the city and the shoreline below. There is a 2.6km road to the summit but I was determined to walk up via the goat track from the centre of town. The walk was tough but the view from the top was its own reward. trip9.JPG

Below was the town squeezed between the rock, the river and the sea. Townsville was established as the need for a port north of the regularly flooding Burdekin River. Built on the traditional home of the Wulgurukaba people, the town was named in 1866 for merchant and entrepreneur Robert Towns.trip11.JPG

Straight across Cleveland Bay is Magnetic Island, both of which were named by James Cook in his 1770 voyage up the coast of eastern Australia. Cook said the island affected the compass aboard the Endeavour (“the compass would not travis well when near it”, he claimed) but no navigator since has observed any similar magnetic qualities of the island. It is magnetic to tourists (myself included) who flock there by boat for its beauty and peacefulness. The walk across the top of the island is awe-inspiring too.trip13.JPG

Once I was finished admiring the view from the top of Castle Hill I came back down to sea level and went for a walk along the Strand, beginning at the Breakwater Marina, a great sheltering spot for hundreds of boats.


Then it was a long walk north along the Strand and the beachfront. The cloudy and windy weather was unusual for May and it meant the beaches were deserted but the views out to Magnetic Island were still enchanting.trip15.JPG

There was another reason no one was in the water. It’s bad enough with sharks and crocodiles in the water waiting to kill you but November to May is marine stinger season. Stingers are box jellyfish found in Australian tropical waters which can cause potent toxic stings leading to serious illness and death in some cases. Most northern beaches have an emergency supply of vinegar nearby which kills the stinging cells. There is usually a small netted-area where you can swim free from threats of stingers.trip20.JPG

Further past the Strand is the hill which holds Kissing Point Fort. Constructed in 1889-91, it is significant as one of the few remaining fixed coastal defences constructed in Australia in the 19th century. Kissing Point Fort is significant in the initial phase of Australia assuming responsibility for its own defence after British land forces left in 1870. The Fort was erected against perceived threats of 19th century foreign invasion but played a role in a real 20th century invasion when Japanese planes strafed Townsville in 1942. Lights flashing from the Fort disoriented the invaders enough for them to drop most of their payload in Cleveland Bay. The Fort was left to decay after the war until the Army and local citizens carried out conservation works in 1979-80 and from 1980 part of the Fort became the North Queensland Military Museum. The old Jezzine Barracks had a $40m facelift a couple of years ago.


Beyond the Fort is a clifftop boardwalk celebrating the Indigenous heritage of Kissing Point, or Garabarra. The traditional owners of Garabarra are the Wulgurukaba and the Bindal peoples, who retain an enduring ‘connection to country’ despite the impact of non-Aboriginal settlement in the area. For thousands of years Garabarra was the centre of a common food foraging area for local Aboriginal people – an area with immeasurable cultural and spiritual values, commemorated in thoughtful sculptures along the coast. The connection is still strong today and in 2012 the Wulgurukaba won native title rights to part of Magnetic Island (which was once linked to the mainland via a spit).

Forget News Corp, remember the truth of Indigenous history

Aborigines cooking and eating beached whales, Newcastle, NSW c1817 (Joseph Lycett). NLA

The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.

There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up many lively considered responses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.

Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”

His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.

Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.

Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.

The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.

The Other Side of the Frontier

frontierAnother Australia Day has passed with the clamour growing for a change of date because of its pejorative connections for Indigenous Australians. I’ve written about this in the past. My view is simple: always make Australia Day the fourth Monday of January. It keeps the holiday at the end of summer and it removes the stigma of the connection with the British landing in Sydney in 1788, though it means Australia Day will still fall on January 26 once every seven years or so.

But the calls to remove the direct link are justified and those that cannot see that, are blind to Australia’s history. History may not be a popular subject in schools, but its resonance affects our lives in many ways and Australia’s continued failure to reach an accord with its Indigenous people remains the nation’s blackest stain.

I thought Australia Day was a good opportunity to revisit Henry Reynolds’ ground-breaking 1981 work The Other Side of the Frontier. The book was the first to systematically explore life on the other side of the frontier after the British arrived in Australia with the intention as Reynolds put it “to turn Australian history, not upside down, but inside out.” A lack of written evidence had always been used as an excuse not to use this approach to Australian history but Reynolds pored through official documents, first-hand accounts and oral testimony.

The book is “inescapably political” with profound conclusions still not fully accepted 35 years later. Reynolds destroyed the notion the Aboriginal people of Australia were passive in the face of the newcomers. It begins with the first contact with white explorers, ghostly figures who came on to country, usually carefully watched as they moved. They were often provided with local guides – as a courtesy, and also to ensure they moved on quickly. Trade routes criss-crossed Australia bringing news as quickly as it brought goods and explorers often found that European artefacts and animals had preceded them into indigenous lands. Knowledge of the mysterious and dangerous power of firearms was particularly quick to cross the continent. The invaders were greeted with a mix of curiosity and fear.

The biggest problem was how to include these newcomers in Indigenous cosmology. Many thought they were the pale ghosts of reincarnated ancestors so they could be absorbed into kinship networks, but the younger ones could see their behaviour made them all too human. Many white communities had their “foundations cemented in blood” as one Victorian protector of Aborigines put it. Violence led to resistance, which began in the early years of Sydney and fanned out through the continent as settlers moved in.  The period of warfare depended on the number of settlers and whether the local geography allowed the native population to hide easily and conduct guerrilla tactics.

Aboriginal people had sophisticated concepts of land ownership with strict laws on trespass, particularly related to sacred sites. Land use was complex with intermingling on territory and temporary hospitality based on the principle the visitors would eventually leave. The settlers, however, had no such intention. They ruthlessly asserted exclusive occupation, taking the flat, open land and monopolising the water. Private property allowed for no reciprocity. They also desecrated sacred sites and there was further conflict over lonely white men taking access to Aboriginal women. When Aboriginal men took revenge, they were denounced and attacked as villainous murderers. Conflict was driven by tension and misunderstanding, European possessiveness over land, competition for women and contrary concepts of personal property. Group punishment was common as was an ominous settler desire to end conflict “once and for all”.

Aboriginal civilisation was killed by a thousand cuts. Frontier conflict was “ragged, sporadic and uneven”. Indigenous people were courageous in the face of attack but there were only a handful of massed battles. Most large gatherings dispersed by use of armed police or arsenic poisoning such as at Kilcoy. When there was open confrontation such as in central Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal shields were useless against armed and mounted whites. By the time the frontier reached Cooktown, the natives were more cautious using the knowledge of their scrubby hinterland to keep the invaders at arm’s length. Native Police (usually from other parts of Australia under the direction of a white sergeant) used traditional bushcraft and knowledge of horses and guns to undermine resistance in Queensland.

With most of their land taken from them and on the verge of destitution, many Indigenous people came into the settlements. They ended up as cheap or slave labour or beggars living in fringe camps subject to disease, malnutrition, alcoholism and social disintegration. While disease was a major killer, Reynolds calculated the Aboriginal death toll in conflict as 20,000 across the continent. Queensland had the highest toll as its conquest coincided with developments in weaponry, use of the Native Police and a new colonial leadership with a vested interest in pastoral property on Aboriginal lands.

Reynolds said the evidence contradicted the widespread early 20th century view Aboriginal society was “pathetically helpless” to the European onslaught. Indigenous people were not passive objects of European charity or brutality. White explorers depended on them, early settlers feared them and it was only superior firepower and disease that eventually overcame them across the continent.

Reynolds asks when their dead will be accorded the same respect as the white Australian dead in overseas wars. Australian frontier violence was political violence and cannot be ignored because of its time and distance. It is something – as the Australia Day debate testifies – the nation has yet to come to terms with. “If we are unable to incorporate the black experience into our national heritage,” says Reynolds, “we will stand exposed as a people still emotionally chained to our 19th century British origins, ever the transplanted Europeans.”

Maralinga: The shame of Australian nuclear testing Part 1

Australia's first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.
Australia’s first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.

With the world remembering the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs in Japan, reading Frank Walker’s book Maralinga proved a timely reminder of Australia’s own nuclear shame. In the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies colluded with the British government to turn Australia into a giant nuclear experiment and its nine million people into guinea pigs.

Britain had been frozen out of the American nuclear testing program for good reason: many of its intelligence officers were double agents working for the Soviets. Britain needed a site for its post-war testing program and Australia’s remoteness, friendliness and utter compliance fitted the bill. The site chosen was the Monte Bello Islands off the WA coast. On September 16, 1950 British prime minister Clement Attlee cabled Menzies to see if Australia would agree to the testing and for British “experts” to conduct reconnaissance of the islands. They wanted to drop the bomb in October 1952, and expected winds would take the radioactive cloud out to sea. Attlee said the area would be contaminated for “three years”.

Without consulting anyone, Menzies responded with an enthusiastic yes. There was no Australian oversight and Britain had total control of safety. After winning an election in 1951, Menzies finally announced the news to the public in February 1952 saying there was no danger to the public, but did not say where it would happen. There was no debate, instead the mood was one of excitement and the press speculated on the likely site (most assumed it would be at Woomera rocket range in SA). Parliament passed a bill to deny Australians entry to huge zones of the country that might be used for testing.

Menzies painted a rosy picture of equal partnership but Australians provided labour and land only. There was a third secret use of Aussies: as lab rats for British nuclear experiments. Australia’s leading nuclear expert physicist Mark Oliphant was barred from the program for having the temerity to be publicly “appalled” at the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan. Australia’s head scientist was the Briton Ernest Titterton who helped developed the US bomb. Titterton was an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons and his biggest fear was they might be stopped.

The ageing British Navy frigate HMS Plym was donated to be the carrier of the first atomic bomb in Australia. It sailed from Britain with the frame of the bomb while the radioactive core was flown to Australia. WA newspapers had wind of something big happening at Monte Bello as British and Australians built buildings and structures for the test. The nearest mainland town, Onslow, became packed with journalists as the big day approached. The day itself depended on the wind conditions when it was blowing north-west towards Indonesia (which wasn’t a concern). At 8am on October 3, 1952, officers sent an electronic signal to spark the explosives around the plutonium core.

The 25 kiloton blast disintegrated the Plym and created a seven meter deep crater in the seabed. Witnesses saw a blinding electric blue light and many reported seeing the bones of their hands.  The 4km high cloud formed a Z shape rather than the more familiar mushroom cloud. While the wind initially took it west, it changed direction and took it back towards the mainland. Under the strictest secrecy, Australian and British soldiers were ordered into the blast area to pick up pieces of the Plym and put them into drums. They wore no protective gear and were not tested for radiation.

The bomb was front page news and it was all positive. The West Australian praised Britain’s skill in providing “a reliable shield for the Commonwealth”. Sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, many of which were scooped up and cooked. A day later the captain got orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned some degree of risk had to be run to get the full value of the test. Meanwhile fallout spread across northern Australia reaching Cairns and Townsville on the east coast.

Even before Monte Bello, Menzies approved further testing on the mainland. The area chosen was Emu Field, about 650km north-west of Woomera. The date set was 12 months from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they had to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what went on inside. They were told it might affect sterility and were offered the chance to turn it down. None did. When the bomb was detonated on the ground, the RAAF men were in the air 20km away and the explosion nearly tore the planes apart. They turned towards the mushroom cloud and took photos. When they went inside the cloud, it was like entering a tornado. They were “entering the gates of hell”, as one airman put it. Under British orders they were told to re-enter the cloud a second time.

When they finally landed, they were greeted by scientists in space suits breathing with oxygen bottles who wouldn’t come near the pilots. Instead they wanted the canisters attached to the planes and flew them direct to England. The pilots realised they were lab rats. They were forced to continue the mission to track the radioactive cloud across Australian which drifted east. One pilot said the cloud stayed over a Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed. As at Monte Bello, soldiers had to enter the bomb zone without protection to conduct clean-up operations while Geiger counters “went berserk”.

Northern SA is the home of the Yankunytjatjara people. Around 170km north-west of Emu Field, 11-year-old Yami Lester heard a huge bang in the distance. The following morning a big black cloud rolled in like a dust storm. Lester told the 1985 Royal Commission it frightened his people and he could feel sticky dirt from the black mist. People felt sick and had sore and watery eyes. Many died in the following days. Lester became blind but doctors dismissed a link with the bomb. It was an experience repeated across the north of the state. But Aboriginal people did not have a vote in 1953 and no one cared about their plight, nor the plight of Australian military personnel in harm’s way. Menzies hailed the bomb a great success. Progress was too important, as was Australian toadying to Britain.