Archive for September, 2014

FORGOTTEN WAR by HENRY REYNOLDS

 

forgotten war This is perhaps the most important book one can read as an Australian.

The subject of the frontier conflict between the white colonists and the Aboriginal nations of Australia is directly relevant to the life chances afforded their descendants. So much so that it is probably necessary for those Australians, people like me, to make a declaration of interest prior to commencing any comment.

I am from northern NSW. My ancestors mostly came from England and Ireland, mostly arriving in Sydney and Newcastle in the 1840s and 50s. Both sides of the family then arrived in the north of NSW in the first two decades of the 20th century. One side as small business operators in what was then a small coastal country town, and the other as wannabe farmers.

I have often wondered what interaction they had with the local Aboriginal people. Based on the timetables outlined in this book it seems likely that they arrived several decades after the Frontier War in that region. They were mostly therefore direct beneficiaries of the war, because their businesses were based on property acquired from it, though perhaps not direct participants.

The exceptions are the families of my paternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather.

My grandmother’s family were in far west NSW in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this means they were present at the frontier, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. She seems to have left that area as a young woman, and with nothing in the way of assets, so perhaps it can be said that she and her descendants did not benefit financially.

The family of my grandfather’s mother were on the far south coast of NSW from somewhere in the 1850s onwards. So again, they may have been present towards the end of the Frontier War, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. However, in their case they were farmers, so whether they were involved or not, they were direct beneficiaries. Therefore, it could be the case that the benefits that the family gained from the frontier improved the life chances of my great grandmother and her sisters, and this my have somehow in one or more indirect ways benefitted my grandfather, my mother and me in turn.

And so to the book.

Reynolds begins by reminding us of the history wars that raged in the Australian media in the 90s and 2000s. He observes that during this time all sides of the debate, which was about how to talk about the colonisation of Australia, agreed on the importance of reconciliation, but none of them said what we needed to be reconciled to. It is hard to disagree with him. It does seem strange that we were silent on why there was a need for reconciliation even though we were happy to agree there was a need.

After this he returns to the familiar ground of the history wars in order to settle the key issue that was disputed at that time – what should we call the violence that occurred on the Australian frontier. Inside the first 50-60 pages he provides so many direct quotes from the highest British and colonial officials possible, one governor after another, that any doubt about whether the colonists thought they were at war is removed.  I had expected Reynolds tot go through the massacres one by one or detail deaths region by region, perhaps because this has been done elsewhere, so much so that it can now be accessed on wikipedia.

It’s clear they considered it a war. One that was unfortunate, but necessary in their view to bring violence to a swift end rather than prolong it. The governors also supported this view with all the legal, military, political and logistical measures they could manage at the far end of the empire.

The result was the Aboriginal peoples resisted occupation violently, as any people would, but we’re defeated by a more numerous, better armed, and better organized opponent.

From a white perspective I think it’s hard, though disturbing, not to conclude this approach was a huge success. It allowed waves of migrants to fill the nation up and exploit it’s resources, in the very effective way that capitalism does. They built a modern successful multi-cultural nation. If not the best in the world, very close to it.

However all that came after the Frontier War, and relied on perhaps Reynolds chief target in book. It relied on forgetting. It relied on a nation’s worth of energetic optimistic migrants, in search of a better life, to fill the place up with their energy, dreams and desires. An easier task if property is handed to you as sole vacant possession, rather than as tenants in common with people traumatized by decades of officially sanctioned violence. Violence sanctioned by the same institutions, if not the same people, now encouraging migrants to make the most of this large, and supposedly empty, land of opportunity.

From this perspective the logic of what Reynolds calls a national cult of forgetting is compelling. He draws attention to many examples of the effect of this cult. The one he seems particularly upset about is the Australian War Memorial. For example, he points out that the War Memorial is is recording the name of every known person who died during a time of war since 1885, regardless of the location of the death, or whether it was from combat, accident or disease (p45). This means Aboriginal and Islander families are encouraged to remember those who fought for the British Empire but expected to forget those who fought against it, in defence of their own land (p46).

Towards the end of the book he returns to the issue of commemoration. He spends a lot of time on it, which I initially found frustrating, but ultimately found rewarding, so I will also return to that issue at the end of this piece.

Most of the book from Chapter 3 onwards can be seen as a way of explaining to us – denizens of the cosmopolitan 21st century – what the Frontier War was like for the people involved, white and black, and how and why they could have done what they did.

He first tackles this challenge by using quotes from sources written at the time describing the state of mind of whites on the frontier. They seem to be as you might imagine people today in Gaza or Syria – constantly stressed  and in fear of their lives; never sure if or when attacks might come. As a result they fight back with overwhelming force – a reaction common in present day conflict zones, from the better armed side.

A question Reynolds does not really address was ‘why stay?’. If it was so dangerous why did they persist. They were the invaders why not go back? Particularly those who had brought wives and families – why not send them back? This makes you think they thought victory was certain, and it would be swift, they just needed to get through it. Alternatively perhaps where they came from was just as bad?

Apart from this issue, I found this first account of the frontier quite satisfying.

However Reynolds goes on to give an alternative. In this one, also based on quotes from officials of the time, the blacks or savages as they called them, were seen as having a “wanton and savage spirit’, that was ‘impelling them to mischief and cruelty’ (p102).

As Reynolds points out this is consistent with global colonial attitudes at the time and got reinforced throughout the 19th century by the rise of ‘scientific racism ‘.

I was pleased to see on page 167 that he also acknowledges ‘they were fully conscious of the fact they were invaders, and proud of it, believing they were participants in a crusade that was thrusting outwards the borders both of the Empire and of civilisation’.

As a young man I had always thought the British Empire was a massive exercise of arrogant acquisitive racism.  However when I went to Westminster Cathedral it became clear that at one level people of the day did think it was the right thing to do, because it was spreading god and ‘civilization’. Obviously this is a convenient self justification from our modern perspective, but to them it probably was real at some level. This really fits into the second version of the story that Reynolds tells about the people of the times – they saw the Frontier War as an unfortunate but necessary evil.

In chapter 5 he introduces a third version of the story. In this legal interpretation of events the key turning point is British claims in the earliest days of the colony that the continent was unoccupied. This resulted in the continent as a whole being claimed as property of the Crown, and meant the process of settlement proceeded in a different way from other colonies in the Empire where purchases and negotiations took place along with wars and killing.

The difficulty for modern Australians, which Reynolds points out on page 135, is that we no longer have this ‘armory of ideas that protected colonial Australians from irritating introspection’ the ‘whispering in our hearts’. Science has declared ‘scientific racism’ dead, god and the empire are dead, and the courts have declared terra nullius dead.

The interpretation of the Frontier War story that Reynolds does not tell, understandably I think given how much controversy he went through during the history wars, is one that I think is true everywhere in history and around the world. It is that in times times of war and lawlessness a certain type of men (it is always men) often become prominent and take control. The situation that I’m most familiar with was Northern Ireland towards the end of the troubles, as that conflict was called.

At that time people in Northern Ireland commonly described the paramilitary on both sides as gangsters, rather than as politicians. They used to describe it to me as a self-perpetuating wave of crime, where the para-militaries on both sides were effectively running protection rackets for the money.

It’s easy to imagine that in the Australian frontier environment that Reynolds describes its men such as these gangsters that would have flourished, perhaps with the tacit approval of more respectable folks back in the city. Once they had done their work they moved further out to the next frontier and the more respectable types took over, and they could reasonably claim they did not take part in or know a lot about what happened.

Towards the end of the book Reynolds spends a lot of time on what seems to be a semantic debate about whether the frontier violence was war, and on complaining about the War Memorial not commemorating it. I initially thought this was sidetracking, a diversion from the key issue as I see it – the killing, acknowledging what actually happened, not what you call it or how you commemorate it.

However on page 235 he makes the case that over the last 20 years the Australian Government has funded a campaign to memorialize overseas wars that ‘is designed to replace two other versions of history while appearing to be innocent crusade of remembrance”.

The older of the two alternative stories he is referring to is the bush workers, and the other one is the so called black arm band view of history. It is easy to see the political importance to the conservative side of Australian politics, which has been in power almost throughout that time, of refuting both these views. So In the end I was persuaded that this discussion was useful not just semantic.

However what was even more persuasive, and important, for me was the last few pages of book. In these pages he gives us a vision of two sides fighting for all the grand things that men (to the cost of women) have always fought for – freedom, nationhood, land, resources, a future, and family. Clearly the Aboriginal fighters had a noble cause, defending their nations, and the whites were invaders stealing the livelihood of those nations for their own benefit. But like all wars Reynolds points out that it is also possible to see a more complicated picture. No doubt there would have been some cruelty on the Aboriginal side – innocent whites killed and maimed. Likewise some nobility on the white side – those who sought to reduce the violence, those who, however wrongly, thought they were bringing civilisation, and those trying to escape violence and poverty where they came from.

In many ways it’s an actual real world for example of exactly what is so often portrayed, and glorified, in popular entertainment like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. A complicated mix of good and evil characters on both sides fighting for enormous stakes – in this case a whole continent. Some of these characters are fighting for the survival of their family, history, culture and nation; some for money; some for power; and some just because they like fighting.

And so what next? It seems clear there was a consensus on killing in the 19th century, among the ruling class at least, and that there has been a consensus on forgetting in the 20th. What should the next consensus be?

Strangely perhaps Reynolds points to his key target, the Australian War Memorial, for a way forward.  He points out that its two key slogans are equally, if not more so, relevant to the Frontier War than the overseas wars to which they refer.

The first slogan is ‘lest we forget’. It is perfectly appropriate for the Frontier War. The second is “here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they love, and here we guard the record which they themselves made’. It is hard to think of a better line with which to commemorate the black dead of the Frontier War.

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September 2, 2014 at 7:39 am 1 comment


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