The Past Through a Distorted Lens
I received an email from a neighbour last week that unfortunately failed to indicate his pronouns. However, it did include the following useful information as part of his email signature: ‘Australia – Is, was and always will be Aboriginal land.’ Delighted to be informed of my neighbour’s woke credentials, and without even asking, I was nevertheless concerned that his particular patch of Aboriginal land was thus being illegally occupied.
I am aware of his address, so I ran a quick title search on his property to discover that he and his apparently non-Aboriginal partner hold full Torrens title on a pretty Paddington terrace. I am now considering which course of action might the most appropriate, perhaps it could begin with a report to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to inform them of their interest in the property. I will know this strategy has been successful if a mob from out beyond Walgett way sets up a couch on his front veranda and spends the night carousing while dogs roam the neighbourhood and kids ride aimlessly up and down the street on BMX bikes.
I realise the preceding paragraph may be offensive to many fine men, women and children of Aboriginal descent who work hard and make a contribution to this country; however, it serves no purpose to ignore the significant subset who do not.
According to the Yoorrook Justice Commission, recently established in the Democratic Republic of Victoria, the dysfunctional nature of many Aboriginal communities derives from the “grave historic wrongs and past and ongoing injustices and intergenerational trauma.” Established by the Victorian State Government with the powers of a royal commission, the Yoorrook Justice Commission has been awarded a budget of $44.45 million to conduct an inquiry, with a final report due by June 30, 2024. According to Commission’s founding patent,
Hearing First People’s stories and acknowledging the truth about their experiences is essential for healing and justice for First Peoples. It will also contribute significantly to a public dialogue, providing a foundation for new and positive relationships between First Peoples, non-Aboriginal Victorians and the State of Victoria.
In Reconciliation Week, just gone past, we were encouraged to “learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”. In its own Web site Acknowledgement, Reconciliation Australia “pays respect to the past, present and future Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation and the continuation of cultural, spiritual and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” In order to learn about these “cultural, spiritual and educational practices”, those which we are all supposedly keen to see continued, it is helpful to turn to documentary evidence provided by some of the Second Peoples of this nation.
One of these, for at least a short time, was Charles Darwin, who spent a brief time in Australia on a visit in 1836, well before publication of On the Origination of Species. He recorded some observations on the Aboriginal population, although largely derived from second-hand knowledge.
It is said that from the wandering life of these people, great numbers of their children die in very early infancy. When the difficulty in procuring food is increased, of course the population must be repressed in a manner almost instantaneous as compared to what takes place in civilized life, where the father may add to his labor (sic) without destroying his offspring.
In their own arts they are admirable; a cap being fixed at thirty yards distance, they transfixed it with the spear delivered by the throwing stick, with the rapidity of an arrow from the bow of a practised Archer; in tracking animals & men they show most wonderful sagacity & I heard many of their remarks, which manifested considerable acuteness. — They will not however cultivate the ground, or even take the trouble of keeping flocks of sheep which have been offered them; or build houses & remain stationary.
A HANDY firsthand resource is also provided in the book Old Colonials by A.J. Boyd, first published in 1882 in London (ISBN 0 424 06900). The Sydney University Press edition, published in 1974, features an introduction from legendary Emeritus Professor Gerald Wilkes (whom I was fortunate enough to experience lecturing at the Wallace Theatre when studying English Literature in the early 1980s). Wilkes sadly passed away in 2020 at the ripe old age of 96. He is described as “a powerhouse of literature in Australia” in his obituary on the Sydney University Web site, which also notes, “Imposing also in stature and manner, he was nonetheless light-hearted. He had a very dry wit and sense of humour. People were often taken aback by his wittiness.” No doubt this was why he took such joy in introducing a reprint of Boyd’s Old Colonials, which is filled with delightful character sketches and anecdotes. Individual chapters profile the legendary characters of the Australian frontier: The Stockman, The Shepherd, The Drover, The Cockatoo Farmer and many more, including The Noble Savage. Wilkes essay observes
While the colonial Australia ‘before the gold’ has become quite remote from us, the concept which replaced it in the 1890s lives on, fostered by the nationalist sentiment of the twentieth century and satisfying the need of an urban society for a ‘frontier’ culture to look back upon. Yet it depends for its existence to a surprising degree on fictional or imaginative sources, like Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ or Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and ‘Macquarie’s Mate’. One particular value of Old Colonials is to supply a documentary record of the same period … Old Colonials is the work of a keen observer, an educated man who also worked with his hands, and had acquired some of the skills of a journalist. Yet his book has been out of print for over 80 years and the usual reference works have little to say about its author.
Over 30 individual chapters of Old Colonials were originally submitted as articles to The Queenslander from 1875 to 1876 covering Boyd’s time as inspector of schools in Queensland’s extreme northern district. In his introduction, Wilkes says,
Boyd travelled so extensively in those years that Old Colonials becomes a record of life in Northern Queensland at the time. It was the time of the gold discoveries on the Etheridge and Palmer rivers; of the massacre by blacks of the Conn family at Cardwell, with the reprisals that followed. Of the influx of the Chinese; of the proliferation of the grog shanty and the vogue of the ‘Tambaroora muster’.
The book is no hagiography, with the iconic figures of The Larrikin and The Swagman each coming in for a blistering rebuke.
The Larrikin: Pass down any street of a colonial city at night. Hordes of ruffian boys (many past the age when the word boy will apply) troop along the footpaths jostling the passers-by, insulting unprotected females, throwing stones, careless who is injured, howling and shouting defiance at anyone who interrupts their game.
The Swagman: He is too lazy to work; he is too mean to mix with other men. He is insolent when chance give him the opportunity to be anything but cringing and hypocritical. He is a thief by inclination, and a liar of the most stupendous magnitude. He tramps across the country ostensibly looking for work, and at the same time praying Heaven that he may not find it. In his person he is filthy; his clothes are merely the cast-off apparel of some nobler individual of the genus homo.
Wilkes notes, “The chapter on ‘The Noble Savage’ (some extracts below) is equally severe on the Australian black, but in this it is not unrepresentative of the period.” It also contributes to some understanding of the ‘culture’ that we pay our respect to in so many welcomes to country.
Laziness is a mild term to apply to the complete want of energy which characterizes the Australian savages when a fortunate hunt or haul of fish has supplied them with food for a few days. On such occasions they will lie and sleep off their gluttony, as a replete boa-constrictor would do after he had gorged himself. Or, if not sleeping, they will sit for hours in the sun, crooning some ‘corrobboree’ to themselves, keeping time by beating a couple of boomerangs together….
… Their manner of treating their women is, as before remarked, most barbarous. Only a few hours ago I was an eye-witness of the semi-murder (if there be such an offence) of a gin, within twenty yards of my own house. A blackfellow, after bandying high words with his gin, deliberately raised his tomahawk and cracked her skull with the utmost coolness. About a dozen other blacks were standing round, and the only remark was, “My word, budgeree hit ‘im that fellow.” The gin dropped like a log, drenched with blood, and was removed to the camp…
I PICKED up my copy of Old Colonials at Christmas while browsing the stacks at the excellent Berkelouw Book Barn in Bowral, filled with all manner of second-hand gems. There is a copy available online for $20 at the Berkelouw Rare Books Department. Sadly, it seems to have been expunged from the records of Sydney University Press, as a search on the title at https://sydneyuniversitypress.com.au returns no results. The website’s mandatory Acknowledgement of Country notes that “as part of the University of Sydney Library, we are also guided by the Library’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Protocols, which were adopted in 2021.” These protocols include what sounds like a reason to purge of the archives: “The Protocols aim to guide Library staff in promoting culturally safe practices across services, spaces and resources.” Were copies of Old Colonials thrown on a Quadrangle bonfire, whose purifying flames no doubt burned for days?
A search on the title at Fisher Library does reveal a copy is held at the Rare Books & Special Collections, which can be requested with two business days’ advanced notice. Although this, too, could be problematic after the library announced new protocols that “offer First Nations communities a ‘right of reply’ to historically inaccurate texts under changes aimed at making it less Eurocentric.”
According to a Sydney Morning Herald report,
The protocols also require the library to audit its collection to check for sensitive material that should not be accessed without permission from communities.
Dr Antonia Mocatta, the university library’s director of central services, said while work was underway it would take at least four years to fully implement the protocols.
No doubt it will take some time for a team of qualified engineers to insert the necessary pneumatic tubes between different floors at Fisher Library. This will allow titles to be screened according to the protocols and marked as ‘accessible’ or ‘non-accessible’ before being placed into the appropriate tube by a qualified employee working in the Records Department of the
Ministry of Truth University of Sydney Library.
There is a copy of Old Colonials held in the National Library of Australia and able to be viewed in the Main Reading Room. If you need a reason to visit the nation’s capital in mid-winter, apart from watching Ricky’s Canberra Raiders disappoint their fans once again, then this may be it.
It is difficult to write or even reflect on a culture of which one has no direct knowledge. My own experiences mostly rely largely on various trips through the (almost) Outback and interrogating local inhabitants (as my daughter laughingly mocks the adventures of an amateur anthropologist).
I did have a Torres Islander workmate at one stage, a delightful fellow with a large appetite for life. I have not seen him for some years, although Don still shows up at another fellow workmate’s Fitzroy house every few years with a bag of dugong flesh and tales of his latest escapade.
I confidently expect he would react to the tale of the tomahawk-wielding fellow from Old Colonials with the same repugnance I do. I celebrate many aspects of the culture I have inherited from my forebears and am glad of progress in others. Can we not expect the same of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters? And why the need to reconcile with an imperfect and largely irrelevant past, when we all must live in the today?
Walter Waverley is the pseudonym of a Sydney journalist and businessman who prefers anonymity to grief from his woke neighbours, friends and clients