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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 manylivelyconsideredresponses – 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.
Another 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.”
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 it chose was the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of WA. 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”.
Incredibly, without bothering to consult 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 quickly 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. Instead 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”. Closer to the scene, sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, many of which were scooped up and cooked. Only a day later did the captain get orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many of their families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned that 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 on from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they have to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what goes 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 proceeded to take 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 one Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed. As at Monte Bello, soldiers were forced 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.
Although the Queensland newspapers of 1895 agreed with Archibald Meston’s Proposed System to manage Aboriginal people, Colonial Secretary Horace Tozer initially did nothing. An impatient Meston wrote to Tozer chastising him for lack of action, threatening to run again for parliament at the next election. Tozer was worried it would become a large social welfare system at the government’s expense. Stalling for time, he called for another report. He ordered Meston to survey Aboriginal missions and inquire into the troubles on the Cape York frontier.
Meston was pleased to be finally on the government payroll and set off north in 1896 in a long, slow trawl of Cape York indigenous communities, visiting missions at Yarrabah and Mappoon. He was particularly impressed by Cape Bedford where Lutheran missionaries spoke the local language and gained Indigenous respect. Meston concluded the tribes should stay together in reserves where they could be transformed into Christians. That meant three reserves in Queensland (not the two he originally asked for) in the north, centre and south. He followed Gideon Lang, calling for the abolition of the native police and recommended the end of Aboriginal slave labour in the pearling and trepanning industries.
This earned the ire of northern newspapers but Meston was confident when he presented his report to Tozer in October 1896. However under-secretary and police commissioner William Parry-Okeden took exception to the criticism of the native police. Tozer asked Parry-Okeden to improve police strategy in his own tour of north Queensland. At Normanton Parry-Okeden met the government’s medical officer in the north, Dr Walter Roth. Roth impressed him and he urged Tozer to support Roth’s research.
In Parry-Okeden’s February 1897 report, he called for the continuation of a strong, well-officered native police. He said friendly relations between the races could only be established by “affording equal protection and dealing out even-handed justice.” Tozer took Parry-Okeden’s suggestions to restructure the force to Premier Hugh Nelson though it was only a temporary reprieve. This notorious “machine for murder” as 19th century historian William Rusden called the native police, finally petered out by 1900 replaced by white constables assisted by trackers.
Meanwhile Meston’s system of reserves took shape in 1897. He earmarked Lukin’s Fraser Island site as the southern reserve and 50 blacks were “rounded up” from Maryborough and removed to the island. Meston went west and reported on Aborigines at Charleville, Mitchell and Roma, where many were addicted to opium and destroyed by syphilis. Tozer authorised their removal to a new reserve at Durundur, near Woodford. Meston’s report also proposed a draft bill for parliament based on American precedents for reserves under the authority of the Home Secretary, administered by protectors.
The bill gave control of every area of Aboriginal lives to protectors who could withhold wages and keep them on reserves. There would be strict penalties against alcohol and opium and employers had to give police details of Aboriginal employees. Tozer took Meston’s suggestion to divide the state but also took Parry-Okeden’s advice to give the northern section to the commissioner of police.
The bill passed through parliament without drama, the only debate being a definition of “half-caste”. Tozer told parliament it was “the offspring of an aboriginal mother and other than an aboriginal father” (No one could contemplate a white woman having sex with an aboriginal male). When it was pointed out many half-caste males had important roles of responsibility managing white men and cattle, Tozer made the half-caste rule apply only to females. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Bill received Royal Assent on December 10, 1897. It was Tozer’s last major piece of legislation, he retired in 1898.
Tozer appointed Parry-Okeden as Chief Protector for Queensland, with Meston named southern division protector and Roth northern division protector. In 1899 Parry-Okeden was removed from his role with Meston and Roth reporting directly to the Home Secretary. Roth had the extra ethnological task of collecting information about Aborigines in the north. He reported he was being “rushed” by applicants for permits to employ local blacks. Roth’s hope to end slavery in the pearling trade ran into squatter opposition and the commissioner of police told him not to take “too drastic action”.
In the south Meston claimed to have wiped out the opium trade by 1900. He estimated the total number of Aboriginal people below the 22nd parallel (between Sarina and Rockhampton) as 3500 of which 2300 were employed, 800 were dependent on those, and 400 were “finding for themselves”. Meston removed 300 Aboriginal people to reserves at Fraser Island, Durundur and Deebing Creek (near Ipswich). Another 50 “half-caste” girls were placed in institutions like Wooloowin’s Magdalen Asylum and St Vincent’s Catholic orphanage at Nudgee. Removals at the reserves came from every part of Queensland and Meston proudly boasted he had practiced “severe economy”.
Meston and his son Harold managed Fraser Island like a penal colony with discipline sternly applied and inmates “encouraged” to hunt food for themselves. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions and debilitation brought disease and a high death rate. The government, hearing about violence at the camp, took management from the Mestons and gave it to the Anglican Church. Queensland’s indigenous population was so large, a third protector, Alexander Gordon, was appointed to manage the west from Boulia. However proposals to establish a western reserve were ruled out as too expensive. The furthest settlement west was Taroom in the Upper Dawson, created in 1911 but closed down within 10 years. Barambah (later Cherbourg) established in 1904 became the main reserve in the south after the closure of Durundur and Fraser Island.
Gordon was not particularly active and Meston complained that he never left Boulia. Meston roamed southern and western Queensland arranging to remove local blacks over the protests of local station managers. He supported an amendment to the 1897 Act introduced in 1901 to prevent Aboriginal marriages without the protector’s permit saying he had a “strong aversion to the admixture of black and white races”. That act remained on Queensland statutes until 1972.
Meston’s self-appointed role as “expert on Aborigines” had mixed success. In 1907, he stood for election again in the Cape York seat of Cook but was soundly defeated. Three years later he was appointed director of the Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau in Sydney. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of chief protector of Aborigines in the NT. He eventually died of tetanus infection at home in Brisbane in 1924, aged 72.
His legacy was the principle of compulsory segregation which dominated Queensland’s Aboriginal policies in the 20th century. Meston was inspired by a desire to help Aboriginal people. But as Gordon Reid says, his rigid idealisation would not allow him to accept their ability to adapt to new circumstances. Queensland’s inflexible protection system held Aboriginal people in a historical vacuum, “unchanging in a changing world”.
Meston’s Proposal was advanced for its time, though it brought together ingredients brewing in Queensland for half a century. It ended the gruesome reign of the native police and genuinely tried to help Aboriginal people. Its great fault, as Reid said, was it lasted long after its need passed. Queensland would spend more on Aboriginal health and housing than other Australian government. But it also cleared people from their land, provided a cheap labour pool and severely restricted personal freedoms.
These aims of protection, removal and exploitation were too contradictory. Power over concentration camps at Cherbourg, Woorabinda and Palm Island was something premier Bjelke-Petersen was reluctant to concede in the 1970s. “We want them set aside in black man’s country – we want them to live exactly like we do”. Joh’s paternalism was a direct link to Archibald Meston. It took the threat of an African boycott of Brisbane’s beloved Commonwealth games to scrap the last vestige of legal protection in 1982. Queensland’s Indigenous people were finally free.
I was halfway through writing this post when I saw an article from Paul Daley in the Guardian which expresses my opinion more eloquently than I could hope for. To understand the Adam Goodes booing, you have to understand Australia’s history. The matter did not begin on a football field, but in our attitudes, Daley said and cultural sensitivity was never white Australia’s strong point. Many prefer not to know the problem.
That was brought home to me in a vox pop on ABC’s Brisbane local radio station yesterday. There was a wide mix of opinions but the one that stood out was the lady who said in an exasperated tone she was sick of the subject and wished it would go away. When pressed to say was the booing “racist” she said flatly no, it wasn’t. It is a common view that Australia does not a problem with race and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.
But others do want to talk about it. Some defend the booing forcefully. The “whiny, needy, bullshit” as Guy Rundle called it of the arguments of convicted racist Andrew Bolt and others is “usurper’s complex”: victim blaming. Those who take power unlawfully must justify their acts – to themselves and others. It was Cecil the Lion’s fault for ruining the life of the man who killed him and the helicopter’s fault for thrashing Bronwyn Bishop’s reputation. So it is Adam Goodes who must change not the people doing the booing.
Like every great player in every team sport, Goodes was always the subject of “special attention” from opposition fans, little to do with his indigenous background. But the sustained booing he gets now dates to last year when as Australian of the Year status he urged people to see John Pilger’s Utopia. Pilger enrages many on the right because he puts himself into the argument. In my view, Utopia is flawed and does not give enough credence to the problems of de-colonisation. But Pilger’s subject matter deserves a voice and Goodes was right to recommend the film for its confronting approach to Australian history. This action enraged the right which attacked Goodes for his recommendation more than Pilger for his film. John Howard’s wish of a people “relaxed and comfortable” about their history could only exist on the notion of not telling the truth about that history.
The truth is we would be more comfortable with the real history. While Britain’s intervention came at enormous cost to the indigenous people it is a history that pre-dates racism. The British who arrived in 1788 felt superior to the Australians (likely the same was true of the Eora’s feelings of the British). However the newcomers preferred to explain the difference on cultural and environmental grounds. The marine Watkin Tench believed British education and enlightened thinking was all that separated them from the “savages” they saw in Botany Bay. There was no innate difference. “Untaught, unaccommodated man is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales,” Tench wrote.
The Creationist view of the 7000-year-old world underpinned the idea that Aboriginal people had only recently fallen from grace, and could and should be changed. Governor Lachlan Macquarie took this notion to its logical conclusion and formed Australia’s first mission in 1814 to civilise the native population and “render their Habits more domesticated and industrious”. Macquarie’s Native Institution failed but the idea of missionaries took hold from optimistic clergy who used “Gospel motives” to transform Aboriginal people. They all failed. Indigenous people remained disinterested and suspicious. They stayed only as long as they were fed.
The rise of science and European rage for classifying the world led to a new way of explaining human difference. In his 1775 book The Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Blumenbach came up with a system of five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American and Malay. The existence of Australia Aboriginal people was an awkward fact that did not fit the classifications. But by the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Caucasian superiority had taken root. Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) argued the other “races” were vestiges of past forms. Charles Lyell had proved the world was far older than 7000 years, rocking the biblical certainty of Adam and Eve. The pseudo-science of phrenology claimed Native Americans and Africans had no ability for civilisation while Darwin, following Lyell, assumed the Australian Aboriginal “variety of man” was becoming extinct when faced with “stronger” forms.
While books were slow to reach Australia’s frontier, the idea of racial inferiority began to supplement and eventually replace the original notion of Aboriginal “savagery”. The publicity around the death of Pallawah woman Trugernanna led to inaccurate reports of the “last Tasmanian” and lent credence to the idea Australia’s native population was doomed. Inferiority and inevitable extinction were convenient crutches to explain what otherwise was the theft of an entire continent and wholesale ethnic cleansing.
Racial superiority was a core philosophy of the new nation of Australia in 1901 and dominated its first half-century. As historian Richard Broome said, it took the abominations of the Nazis for the world to formally reject notions of race as wrong and unscientific. Hair, eye and skin colour and the shape of facial features are a tiny component of our genetics and have no biological explanatory function. The 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice reminded the world humans are a “single species and are descended from common stock”.
By 1978, racism was on the wane in Australia. It remained strong in country areas, especially with large mixed populations, but government policy was empowering Aboriginal people. It got to the point that by the 1990s, reactionists like Pauline Hanson could campaign against Aboriginal “privilege”. The Nationals could also find outrage against native title while in the 2000s large populations could be still be painted as full of paedophiles, drug addicts and rapists. Race does not exist any more, but racism remains rife. It must tread carefully but still finds voice in Bolt critiques, Hansonism, “boong” jokes and other forms. Booing is a handy way of publicly being racist while retaining plausible deniability.
Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour by calling it out. Now, as Paul Daley says, Australia must confront the demons of its past and embrace Aboriginal culture. New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty should be the template. Without a treaty it is hard to imagine the entire cohort of an Australian school doing as a New Zealand school did, and conduct an indigenous war cry to farewell a much-loved indigenous teacher. It will never happen here until we accept the consequences of our history.
Following his involvement in resolving the “Wild Australia tour” affair, Horace Tozer was another unlikely key figure in the fate of Queensland Aborigines. Born at Port Macquarie and educated in Newcastle and Sydney, the young Tozer went north to the new colony to become an articled clerk in Brisbane, before being admitted to the bar. At Gympie he became a member of the mining court and began to invest in mines. Though elected as member for Wide Bay in 1871 he immediately stood aside by prior arrangement to allow H.E. King to take the seat in a by-election. Tozer became an authority on mining law and a Gympie alderman. He stood again for Wide Bay in 1888, this time holding the seat for 10 years.
Tozer joined the “Griffilwaith” government as Colonial Secretary in 1890 where Aboriginal affairs came under his remit. Busy putting down the shearers’ strike at Barcaldine, Tozer was slow to react when the manager of Glenormiston west of Boulia complained Purcell had kidnapped blacks from the station. Archibald Meston told Tozer they had let that mob free and instead obtained another group of blacks from NT. With the blacks still stranded in Sydney, Meston vigorously defended his role saying he was left penniless calling it a “sad and disastrous termination of the tour”,
Tozer stepped in, agreeing for the Queensland Government to meet the cost of their return plus their food and accommodation debts in Sydney. When they returned, Meston had changed his story about Purcell not kidnapping blacks. After interviewing them, Meston said the NT mob had been “chained half the way from Boulia to Cloncurry and taken forcibly against their wishes”. Though Tozer turned down Meston’s request for an inquiry, he was becoming embroiled in indigenous issues with the people of Taroom threatening to shoot Aboriginal people over their consumption of opium in the town. Tozer urged the townsfolk to deal with the matter kindly.
Reports of opium addiction were starting to reach Brisbane from all quarters of the colony. Police and magistrates queried whether they could use the Poisons Act or confiscate pipes to which Tozer said that only fines could be imposed. In the far north, there were reports Aborigines were still being “hunted like dingoes” while in the Wide Bay region the press reported the “abject and miserable condition of the blacks”. Like Meston, Tozer was slowly coming to the conclusion of bringing the blacks together in one spot to house the very old and very young and also those struggling for employment. However he believed local communities should pay for it and the Aborigines should be encouraged to work. “The duty is not upon the government but upon the people,” he wrote.
In 1895 Meston outlined his scheme to Tozer in an address he called “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation”. Meston’s opening sentence outlined the problem while toadying to Tozer. “To you, Sir, a friend of the aboriginals, I submit this carefully considered plan for the improvement and preservation from extinction of that unhappy race.” The address gathered all the ideas of the previous 60 years from GA Robinson in the 1830s to George Lukin in 1893 (who revived the idea of a Fraser Island mission). Meston’s one addition was to add the concept of “preservation”. Tozer was impressed enough to print the document and distribute it to parliament.
Meston’s Proposed System said there were 200,000 Aboriginal people in Queensland at white occupation now there was less than 30,000 and they were heading towards “ultimate annihilation”. He noted the treaties of Pennsylvania and New Zealand and the lack of compensation for land in Australia. All religious missions had failed but now Queensland, Meston told Tozer, could preserve the Aboriginal people “in a manner to the eternal honour of herself and our common humanity”.
Meston’s system proposed complete isolation from the whites. The reserves must be at remote places, one in northern Queensland and another in the south, and would eventually provide a pool of ready labour. They would be fed and young blacks would be taught agriculture, horsemanship, blacksmithing and other trades. No whites would be allowed on the reserve without permission. Up to 5,000 blacks would be brought to each reserve, which would be run by a “protector”, an honorary role to be filled by a “white gentleman”.
If this document seems ludicrous and racist in the extreme today, Gordon Reid said it was a realistic and humanitarian statement when judged against the standards of the 1890s. Tozer and his fellow parliamentarians saw it as a way of solving the “Aboriginal problem” and a way of avoiding the extinction most whites believed was the Aboriginal fate. Meston’s system accepted Aboriginal people as human beings whose customs and beliefs were worth saving, within the framework of the European economic system. The system’s deepest flaw was that it was a solution imposed from above and its authoritarianism would blight Queensland’s indigenous people for much of the 20th century. The reserves they created became Australian concentration camps.