Fri, Mar 14, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Conflicting narratives over colonial past

Henry Reynolds says the frontier war — his term for the violent dispossession of Australia’s Aborigines — raises questions of global importance about the sovereignty of an entire continent

By Paul Daley  /  The Guardian

It is a damning critique of his own profession, some of whose members continue to strike back at Reynolds and other historians of the left (not least Stuart Macintyre), whose scholarship is criticized by conservatives as typifying a “black armband” view of Australian history.

By “black armband” — a term coined by the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and later used by former Australian prime minister John Howard — the critics refer to a desire to place undue emphasis on unsavory and violent aspects of Australian history at the expense of the positives of European settlement.

In the late ’60s academics and students at Townsville began scrutinizing the colonial records and studying the Aboriginal oral histories of the frontier, but Reynolds says the big public awakening to the cultural narcolepsy on frontier violence and the censorship of Australian history came with the 1968 Boyer lectures of anthropologist Bill Stanner, titled “After the Dreaming.”

“He’s the one that said: ‘Look, there’s something completely wrong, there’s a conspiracy of silence among historians.’ I think as he put it: ‘They are looking out on the landscape through windows which have been carefully placed not to see this important part of Australian history,’” Reynolds said.

Regardless, the issue that was at the center of the so-called culture wars less than a decade ago is becoming (thanks to the academic work of Reynolds and others, including John Connor and Marilyn Lake, and a few journalists) a mainstream rather than marginal question that is central to Australian national identity.

Perhaps there is no clearer sign of this than the non-fiction award in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards that was bestowed on Reynolds in January for his book Forgotten War.

In that work he makes the strongest case yet that frontier violence constituted a war between European settlers and troops and the Aboriginal indigenous people.

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine described Forgotten War as “a very important book for Victorians and Australians.”

In it Reynolds strengthens the progressive argument that at least 2,000 to 3,000 settlers, police and soldiers, and 20,000 Aborigines, died in colonial conflict (these figures are, he writes, conservative).

The research of Reynolds and others leaves no doubt that the colonial governors and military subordinates considered their conflicts against the Aborigines part of a “war” (history is replete with stories of Aboriginal “warriors” who fought each other and the settlers).

While Forgotten War is the latest of Reynolds’ dozen or so books that explore relations between European settlers and Australia’s Aborigines, he does not regard bringing this important story to light as his life’s work.

“I see myself as an interpreter of Australian history, who was confronted with the realities of race as the great absence,” Reynolds said. “There’s still very deep arguments about why it [the violence] happened and how significant it was, and what we should do about it, but I think there is — even amongst those that try and oppose [acknowledging] it — there simply is such a large amount of information out there for anyone seeking it. There’s also been a lot of very good curriculum material for schools.”

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