Watermark

My family has a shack on the edge of Great Oyster Bay, on the east coast of Tasmania. One of the island’s Aboriginal tribes was known to the first whites as the Oyster Bay tribe. These may well have been the people who met the Protector of Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land, George Augustus Robinson, in 1830. They told Robinson their people had come to the island by foot and that the sea had closed behind them. They had carried that item of knowledge, correctly as it turned out, for 12,000 years. By the end of the 19th century, however, the official version, the scientific version, was that the Tasmanian blacks were Polynesian in origin, having come to the island by sea. This intellectual orthodoxy owed its origins to a speculative guess by Thomas Huxley based in part on the observation that the first Tasmanians had curly hair. Recently, I received an inquiry asking how many Aboriginal people were in
Tasmania at the time of white arrival. The honest answer is I don’t know. The best I can do is guess or quote the guesses of other people. To grow up in Tasmania, as I did, is to learn there is much about the past that you don’t know and probably never will. In the end, you have to learn to live with the absence of the sort of certainty demanded of those who engage in intellectual jousting.

Tasmania has been in the news of late with the so-called Windschuttle debate. I’ve had only the one argument over Windschuttle, the subject being whether I was obliged to read him. My friend inferred that Windschuttle had become a sort of intellectual roadblock barring me from pursuing a path I had been treading all my adult life, upon which I had written scores of articles, several books and now a play. All this work has proceeded from the premise that the truth of what happened in this country lies between the races, not on one side or the other, particularly not in one side’s official records and newspapers. Imagine the response if the Japanese government were to produce a pamphlet on the treatment of Allied prisoners-of-war during World War II based solely on Japanese Army records and Japanese newspapers of the day. Windschuttle, and other champions of the so-called empirical method, might at this point interrupt and say but there are also Allied records concerning those personnel and what they endured. But what if there weren’t? Does that mean an open and shut verdict can be delivered in their absence?

Windschuttle is no mere individual poking around in events which occurred, after all, 170 years ago. He is a figure of our times in the way that the Tampa, the World Trade Centre and Pauline Hanson are. One tabloid newspaper columnist in Melbourne grandly conceded in a recent column that Windschuttle may have been wrong in some of his ‘minor claims’. The columnist went on to say: ‘He (Windschuttle) went too far, for instance, in denying Tasmanian Aborigines felt any ownership of the land.’ Did the Tasmanian Aborigines consider their attitude to land to be a minor matter? I very much doubt it.


Tasmania has the memory of a great journalist, Henry Melville, author of A History of Van Diemen’s Land 1824–35. This was written from a condemned cell in a Hobart jail. Melville’s particular subject was the governorship of George Arthur, described by Robert Hughes as the closest thing to a totalitarian state that ever existed in the British Empire. But his history is a general one and deals with the Aboriginal issue and although his sensibility is not one we would equate with our own, he writes in a factual way and with an eye to principles of justice. He describes as a ‘farce’ and a ‘legal outrage’ trials in which Aboriginal men with only a few words of English and no defence counsel are convicted for  capital offences. Arguing from precedents in international law and scholars like Grotius, he even questions the legality of the laws being applied. He notes that blacks are hung for violence against whites but no white was even brought before a court for violence against blacks. He disagrees with Governor Arthur but thankfully records Arthur’s proposal to issue tribal leaders with passports to enable them to keep using their migratory paths. One marvels at the breadth of Melville’s grasp of every legal, rural, commercial, political and military issue which passed before his pen, and the consistency of his judgments across the various areas. I think it is fair to describe Henry Melville as a witness to his times, and a pretty impressive one. So why is it I never hear anyone say, if it’s early Tasmania you want to know about, you’re obliged to read Henry Melville? And if he were alive today, would he be heard? Would he be seen as possessing the ‘neutrality’ our government now demands of journalists? Would we hear him on our ABC?

My brother Richard recently had a telling experience with the ABC. He was contacted as one of a number of Australian writers and asked to read a passage from a favourite novel together with some comments about it. He chose James Joyce’s Ulysses and for his comment spoke of John Howard as the great fictionalist of our time, citing some of his statements during the children-overboard affair. The segment was recorded and agreed upon, then was broadcast with all reference to Howard missing. When Richard’s agent contacted the ABC, he was offered, by way of compensation, a place on a radio panel discussing disillusionment in contemporary Australia. There is an exquisite irony here. There is also what I would call a trade in beliefs. The citizen hands in his or her belief that their views matter and that they have some sort of right to be heard. In return, they are allowed to sit at the table of those publicly expressing their despair over their inability to alter or influence the world in which they now find themselves.    

Martin Flanagan is a journalist and writer. This is an edited version of an address given at the Watermark Writers’ Muster at Kendall in northern NSW.

 

 

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