Reading 10: Why were we not told?

Why weren't we told

PWhy were we never told? Why didn't we know? I have been asked these questions by many people, over many years, in all parts of Australia - after political meetings, after public forums, lectures, book readings, interviews. It hasn't mattered where I spoke, what size the audience, what the occasion or the> actual topic dealt with.

Why didn't we know? Why were we never told?

Why do the same questions recur so frequently as though many people, at different times and in different places, were reading from one script?

Why do so many people ask the same questions of them¬selves, of me, of their education, their heritage, of the whole of Australian society?

In the rushed, much-interrupted conversations which take place at the end of lectures or forums, neither questions nor answers can be detailed or deeply considered. But I think what my many interrogators suggest is that they found the things I said personally significant to them. More to the point, they felt that they should have known these things themselves, and didn't. They wished they had known them before. They believed their education should have provided the knowledge, the information, and hadn't done so. They felt let down, cheated, sold short.

Why were they never told? Why didn't they know?

In answering these questions it seemed necessary to turn the question around. How was it that I had the knowledge, the infor-mation, the necessary insights? How had I come by them? The fact that I was an academic, a professional historian, that I was paid to write, research and question, would be an easy but inadequate answer. Why had I chosen to spend so many years researching the relations between indigenous and immigrant Australians? What was the cause of my obsession? My education had been quite con¬ventional - no doubt similar to that of many in my audiences. I had a standard state-school education in Tasmania - primary school from 1944 to 1949, secondary school during 1950 to 1954. I suspect it might have been slightly better than average, but not by all that much. I was certainly not taught about any of those things which now seem so important - matters relating to race, ethnicity, indigenous Australia, land rights, self-determination, multicultur-alism. There were great gaps in what I was taught. It seems from today's perspective that I learnt very little about Australia itself, certainly not enough to prepare me to be an adequate citizen, a well-informed voter and a participant in public life.

The extent of that deficiency was not apparent to me at the time. My education seemed appropriate; appeared adequate. Obviously some teachers were much better, more inspiring, than others. Some subjects provided me with skills or knowledge or insight that has gone on being useful or relevant to life. heard about from others. I knew little about the history of Abori-ginal-European relations, nothing about contact and conflict on the frontier. I had no idea there had been massacres and punitive expeditions. I was ignorant about protective and repressive legis-lation and of the ideology and practice of white racism beyond a highly generalised view that 'we' had treated 'them' rather badly in the past. It was a view that at least had the right orientation but it was ill-informed, sentimental and of little depth.

I can't even remember having discussed such questions with anyone in all the hundreds of hours of student discourse and disputation. I had some awareness of the agitation to repeal the White Australia Policy. I was in favour of reform and had actually argued that way in a university debating competition. But I don't think it was a matter that concerned me all that much.

So in answering the oft-asked questions: Why were we never told? Why didn't we know? I explain that I too didn't know, that I wasn't told, but came to an understanding of race relations in Australia as a result of living in North Queensland and spending years of research in libraries and archives all around Australia and overseas.

This book, then, is written for those Australians who feel they were never told and wish they had been, for those who don't realise they were never told and may not want to know anyway, and for those, mainly younger, Australians who have been told much more but who can't understand the attitudes of those who weren't given their opportunities.

As well as explaining how I have arrived at certain conclusions and adopted particular points of view, I will discuss what I currently think about a range of questions of national significance. It is a book of opinions. Many may also find it opinionated. In my own defence I can say that my views are based on things I have seen and heard, as much as they are on reading and research, and that many of them have changed and evolved over long periods of time. They have not come easily or quickly.

Some of these opinions are about Australian history' - about frontier violence and Aboriginal resistance, about pioneering and the Aboriginal contribution to Australian development. Some are about important contemporary political and legal questions like the Mabo and Wik cases, self-determination and sovereignty. Others relate to what can be broadly called cultural politics ¬issues such as white racism, guilt and shame, national identity and belonging, political correctness and the black-armband version of history.

I should begin my story with an incident, still vividly remem-bered, which occurred in the late 1960s soon after my arrival in North Queensland. It took place on Palm Island, a large Abori¬ginal settlement about 40 kilometres offshore from Townsville.

Why Weren't We Told?
A personal search for the truth about our history
Henry Reynolds
Penguin Books, 2000



An Unforgettable Incident

The prison was a small concrete building, bare and featureless. It stood on its own, surrounded by open ground. It could have been a fort or a blockhouse.

'Can we see inside?' my companion Senator Jim Keefe asked the Superintendent who was conducting us on a tour of Palm Island. Without speaking he unlocked the door and we followed him into a dark vestibule. Like the outside it was bare, rough concrete. Coming in from the harsh summer sunlight we found it dark and cool. It smelt of urine. There were two doors, one in front of us, one on the right-hand side.

'There is no-one in that cell,' the Superintendent said, nod¬ding towards the door in front of us. He turned to his right, unlocked the second door and threw it open. The walls were bare, with light coming in from a barred window. The glass on the inside of the bars had been broken and shards of it were scattered on the floor. There was a plastic bucket in the far right-hand corner. Along the wall facing the window was an old, dirty mattress flat on the concrete floor.

Sitting on the mattress were two small girls. One may have been about thirteen, the other smaller and perhaps younger. They were dressed in ill-fitting print dresses several sizes too large for them.

The Superintendent told them to stand up. They looked aghast at being seen in such a situation by visiting migloos, or whitefellas. The bigger of the two girls had one hand and lower arm bandaged. Blood had seeped through and spread on the sur¬face of the bandage. The Superintendent explained that she had a short time before smashed the window with her fist.

'Why are they here?' Jim asked incredulously. The Super-intendent explained that they had sworn at their teacher. They were spending the day in prison as a consequence. The situation and the answer were both so unexpected that we stood for a few moments in stunned silence before following the Superintendent out of the cell and back into the intense sunlight.

It happened just over thirty years ago. We were only in the prison for a few minutes but I still have a vivid memory of the incident although it was not the only disturbing or shocking thing I saw or heard on that first visit to Palm Island. But there was something about the imprisoned children which impressed itself deeply on . my mind.

It was, to begin with, so unexpected. There was such a dis- parity between the offence and the punishment, between the locks, reinforced door, bars and thick concrete walls and the little thin girls. It was so grossly disproportionate. Having just recently taught children of a similar age in both Tasmania and England I found the punishment deeply shocking. What misuse of arbitrary power! What could the teacher have been thinking of? Did the teacher or the Superintendent or the other members of the white staff wonder what the long-term consequences of their actions would be? The Superintendent had looked a little uneasy when he was asked to open the jail - but only a little. His l'esponse suggested that the incarceration of children for minor offences was not unusual. He didn't suggest the two girls were especially difficult or hardened or were repeat offenders. Their punishment was apparently within the parameters of what was thought normal on the island.

To me it seemed so utterly out of place in the modern Aus¬tralia I knew about. It wasn't the nineteenth century. It wasn't the . Queensland of the wild and violent frontier. It was the year after the referendum which had been seen as a massive community endorsement of equality and the removal of discrimination.

The incident shook my belief that Australia was a society that valued equality above all other virtues and was committed to a fair go for all. It didn't fit easily into any of my assumptions about my own society. If such manifest injustice could flourish in 1968, whatever had been done in the past? If this could be done to chil-dren, whatever punishments were meted out to adults?

Why didn't I know? Why hadn't I been told?

In retrospect I realise that my reaction to things seen and heard in the north had been repeated many times over in the past, when Australians from the cities had come face to face with the continuing legacy of colonialism and either came to accept that what they saw was just the way things were done 'up north', or on the other hand refused to conform and railed against the fron¬tier and all its works. My' upbringing and education in Tasmania ensured that I would adopt the second course of action.

Why Weren't We Told?
A personal search for the truth about our history
Henry Reynolds
Penguin Books, 2000


Aboriginal and immigrant Australians have shared this continent for 200 years. Throughout that period their histories have been closely interwoven. The Aboriginal presence has been a central feature of white Australian historical experience since the beginning of settle¬ment. Like the land, the indigenous people resisted the ready im¬position of European culture and economy and in so doing have helped define Australian experience as something more than an extension of the old world. Nineteenth century writers were aware of the importance of the Aboriginal presence. Travellers, pioneers, explorers, all wrote about them. Their audience at home in Europe hungered for the exotic, the vicarious thrill of contact with 'wild' landscapes, 'primitive' people and 'savage' customs.

But when in the late 19th century the colonists began to write their own history the Aborigines were gradually eased out of the story. Frontier conflict was an embarrassment for writers who sought to highlight the peaceful nature of Australian settlement. The struggle with the land was far more appealing than conflict with the indigenous people for the land. Both scientific and popular opinion asserted that the Aborigines were a dying race, condemned to extinction by the iron laws of evolution. With an insignificant role in the past and none in the future it mattered little if they were overlooked in works which celebrated the triumph of progress and the emergence of a new nation. Some historians believed that there was no place at all for the Aborigines in Australian historical works. Walter Murdoch, one of the great literary figures of the first half of the 20th century, explained his standpoint in a school textbook:

When people talk about 'the history of Australia' they mean the history of the white people who have lived in Australia. There is a good reason why we should not stretch that term to make it include the story of the dark-skinned wandering tribes who hurled boomerangs and ate snakes in their native land for long ages before the arrival of the first intruders from Europe ... He [the historian] is concerned with Australia only as the dwelling place of white men and women, settlers from overseas. It is his business to tell us how these white folk found the land, how they settled in it, how they explored it, and how they gradually made it the Australia we know today.'

Historical neglect of the Aborigines persisted until the 1960s. In 1968 the celebrated anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner used his Boyer lectures on the ABC to berate the country's historians for their responsibility for what he dubbed 'the great Australian silence'. It was, he declared,

a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale."

By the time that Stanner spoke change was already underway. All over the country historians, archaeologists, and scholars in other disciplines were engaged in research that was to transform our picture of the role of the Aborigines in our history. Since the early 1970s increasing numbers of specialist studies have appeared concentrating on the relations of white and black. The journal Aboriginal History has flourished since it first appeared in 1977. General histories of nation, state, region and shire now deal seriously and sensitively with the Aboriginal experience. Gradually but inexorably our view of the past, our perception of ourselves and our place in the world has been transformed.

The editor's Aborigines and Settlers: The Australian Experience, 1788-1939,3 was the first of a number of books of documents published in the early 1970s and dealing with white-Aboriginal relations. In 1988, it had been out of print for some years and it was decided that a new edition should be published. However as the work proceeded it became apparent that many of the original documents should be replaced or amended. The chapters were reorganized and eventually so much new material was included that the end product was a new book, rather than a fresh edition of an old one. But some features of the original book survived. The bulk of the documents still come from 19th and early 20th century sources. The emphasis is on the colonial heritage. However where the chosen themes have persisted into the contemporary period the documents chart the relevant developments, although not in a comprehensive manner.

Most of the documents deal with events which occurred beyond the reach of living memory and therefore fall outside the scope of the numerous books of personal reminiscences which have appeared over the past ten years. Of necessity the documents are practically all written by Europeans, but they range across a wide spectrum of opinion and belief. Many of them have provided raw material for three books published in the past six years-The Other Side of the Frontier, Penguin, 1982; Frontier, Allen & Unwin, 1987; The Law of the Land, Penguin, 1987. On reading the documents again in the course of selection for the present publication I was struck by the richness of ideas, the vigour of argument, the depth of moral concern which they display. Even in cases where parts of a docu¬ment had been previously used it was obvious that the full extract had an importance in its own right. A few sentences, wrenched from their context, were invaluable props to an argument advanced elsewhere, but they often simplified a complex situation, or left out qualifications found in the original, or failed to fully display the intelligence or moral concerns of the author. Compiling this collection has, therefore, renewed my belief in the value of docu¬mentary collections. In this book our forebears speak for themselves and speak in many voices. Comments by the editor have been restricted to those which place documents in perspective and link together themes and chapters. All in all the reader will find a complex and fascinating picture of the way in which the European settlers and their Australian born descendants endeavoured to come to terms=-emotionally, morally and intellectually-with the prior owners of the continent, the victims of the dispossession.

Why Weren't We Told?
A personal search for the truth about our history
Henry Reynolds
Penguin Books, 2000