THE FRONTIER FALLEN
In the heat of debate over the number of Aboriginal dead on the Australian frontier we neglect more fruitful ways of gathering evidence.
A war of words about Australias frontier has been declared. Historians are exhuming bodies from the archives and counting them. What was the nature of the violence between Aborigines and settlers? How many Aboriginal people were shot or poisoned during the European occupation of the continent?
Over the last few years Keith Windschuttle has accused a generation of historians, in particular Henry Reynolds, of grossly exaggerating the number of Aborigines killed by Europeans in the occupation of the continent. He has been especially critical of the historiography of massacres and of Reynolds estimate that 20,000 Aboriginal people died in frontier conflict.1
I believe Reynolds estimate is conservative, and a reasonable and intelligent quantification that will continue to be revised but can never be definitive. Windschuttles challengeto count the dead with scepticismhas elicited detailed responses from other scholars, including Reynolds himself.2 I am interested here in the politics, psychology and language of his scepticism. Debates about the number of dead, I shall argue, continually founder on fundamental disagreements about the nature of history and memory, and also the language and idea of war.
The killing of history
Windschuttles 1994 book, The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists, expressed his anxiety and anger over the impact of postmodernism, deconstructionism and other forms of critical theory on the discipline of history. His concerna common one since the 1980swas that the distinctions between history and fiction were being dissolved and the past had been deemed unknowable. More fundamentally, Windschuttles book was a defence of the idea of history as an objective science and a privileged product of western society. A number of those scholars he chose to attackGreg Dening, Inga Clendinnen, Paul Carter and Anne Salmondwere among those who have tried to step outside the imperial, European view of the past in order to embrace a cross-cultural history.
Windschuttle was unsettled by the relativism that discarded the notion of unilinear, directional time and placed Indigenous perspectives on equal terms with Western ones. He affirmed his belief that there is such a thing as History and not a multiplicity of histories. History was not just written by the winners; it helped put Western culture at the top of the social evolutionary ladder; it was one of the gifts of civilisation and one of the tools of colonisation. The substitution of history for myth was one of the triumphs of European civilisation, and it spiritually paved the way for the occupation of the New World. Europeans had a history and were continually making it, whereas primitive peoples were the timeless subjects of a different form of analysis, anthropology. In the 19th century, history became scientific by being accurate and factual, by revering the official documents of the new nation states, and by championing a discriminating concern with the primary source. Such a view of historyas the triumph of the West, the end and the meansmakes one contemptuous of history from the other side of the frontier.3
Windschuttles argument that much frontier violence has been fabricated is, therefore, partly a campaign for a simpler empiricism, one that privileges counting, figures of authority and legal conventions, and one in which a reliable figure of clandestine violence is achievable. This amounts to a rejection of the insights of histories that are cross-cultural in both subject and method. He resents the fact that Indigenous memory and forms of history have been given serious attention by the western tradition. Much of the oral evidence among Aboriginal people of violence on the frontier is mistaken, mistaken because their knowledge is less scientific, emotive and parochial.4
When, as historians, we get close to the frontier, we often find it evaporating either into intimacy or distance. Early European collectors of Aboriginal artefacts, for example, might be thought to be primary sources on Aboriginal culture because they dealt in the raw material of cross-cultural exchange. In a recent study of ethnographic collectors in South Australia, Philip Jones has portrayed the frontier as less a line which separated than a zone which unified and as a source of new and potent forms of culture. But collecting could also be an act of distancing, a way of keeping the frontier at bay, a means of denying the vitality and continuity of the other culture. In other words, the frontier messes mischievously with that conventional division between primary and secondary sources, between contemporary and reminiscent ones, between eyewitnesses and hearsay, between presence and absence. The frontier is a phenomenon supremely designed to undermine the rule of law and the legal method. Thus, a historical method that applies these distinctions too slavishly is prey to comic error and serious oversight.5
The construction of silence
In his 1980 Boyer Lectures entitled The Spectre of Truganini, Bernard Smith suggested Australian culture is haunted by the dispossession and violence done to Aborigines. It is a nightmare to be thrust out of mind, he wrote. Yet like the traumatic experiences of childhood it continues to haunt our dreams. Bernard Smith and W.E.H. Stanner (in his earlier series of Boyer Lectures) urged their fellow Australians to interrogate the Great Australian Silence about Aborigines, not only to reveal suppressed facts about the frontier but also as part of an essential exploration of the white Australian psyche. For the Great Australian Silence was often white noise: it sometimes consisted of an obscuring and overlaying din of history-making. But the denial was often unconscious, or only half-conscious, for it was embedded in metaphor and language and in habits of commemoration. Silences are not just absences, though they can be manifested in that way. Silences are often discernible and palpable; they shape conversation and writing; they are enacted and constructed. We need to pay them as much attention as we pay official white noise. And analysing the uneasy language of conflict helps us discern the emotional and political slippagethe distinctive dissonanceat the heart of the Australian frontier experience.6
The euphemisms of the frontier, laconic and sharp, entered the Australian language. Aborigines were civilised or dispersed or pacified; white settlers went on a spree and boasted of the black crows they had shot. The land itself received new namessuch as Murdering Creek and the Convincing Groundthat mapped the unofficial violence. The word-play was conscious and mischievous. A quiet tongue was said to be a qualification for a frontier policeman, and the infamous W.H. Willshire boasted that it was his carbines that were talking English. These forms of language and description slip in and out of recognising the violence of the frontier. They reveal that many colonists accepted murder in their midst; but they reveal, too, their awareness that it could not be openly discussed. There were good reasons to be silent, especially after Myall Creek. Describing the organised shooting of Aborigines in Gippsland in the 1840s, F.J. Meyrick noted: these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging. Even those who were appalled by what was happening found themselves forced into impotence and silence. Meyrick commented in 1846: If I could remedy these things I would speak loudly though it cost me all I am worth in the world, but as I cannot I will keep aloof and know nothing and say nothing.7
As an example of the construction of silence, let me introduce you briefly to Alfred Kenyon, the leading writer of Victorian pastoral history in the first half of the 20th century. The greatest romance in Australian history, reflected Kenyon, is the rise of the sheep breeder or pastoralist ... [T]he finest example of mans mastery over the opposing forces of nature, of his justification of his position at the head of the organic world, is ... the breeding of fine wool. Through an account of the pastoralist, Kenyon told the story of what he called the peopling of the continental spaces or the filling up of Victorias vacant corners. He and R.V. Billis produced a much used map of squatting runs in Victoria which represented pastoral holdings as discrete, bounded territories (rather like Aboriginal tribal areas) that pieced together into a jigsaw claiming the whole of the state. Kenyon disparaged the possibility of Aboriginal antiquity and yet was a keen collector of Aboriginal artefacts. He removed thousands of stone tools from the landscape of south-eastern Australia, and in their place he erected stone cairns marking the paths of European explorers. Australias occupation by Europeans was simple, he claimed, because of the absence of any coloured race worthy of consideration. He described it as [a]n occupation where the dispossessors and the possessors lay down in amity side by side like the lion and the lamb, with the usual result to the lamb.8
Kenyon went out of his way to excuse the squatter of any violence towards Aborigines. The old-time mission station has more to answer for than the squatters station, he explained. His was a class history, of wealth versus labour. Any frontier violence, said Kenyon, hedging his bets, was perpetrated by the lower classes and was unsanctioned and regrettable. He repeatedly scoffed at the tales of massacres and poisoned flour, while admitting that the rumours were widespread. In fact his continual slapping down of these stories reveals that a strong current of oral testimony of frontier violence did exist, and that Kenyon and others sought to control and suppress it. Kenyon was not inhabiting a silence, he was creating it. He was confronting a cacophony of undisciplined voices. Noise there was, and he sought to overwhelm it. Kenyons carefully constructed white noise was in response to an unruly babble of whispers.9
In the language of conflict there is a constant conflict over language. In 1998 in the Kimberley I discovered someone had carefully scratched out three words on a recently erected government interpretation sign about Aboriginalsettler relations. One of the words removed was a local Aboriginal name, Malngarri, implying the existence of a distinct language and people; another was the word religious, implying an alternative belief system; and the final word scratched out was invasion, invoking the possibility of war and land rights. Recognition of Aboriginal culture, religion and country constituted the offensive language of this sign. The Great Australian Silence continues to work in quiet ways.
The sinews of settler memory
For over five years in the 1980s I officially ministered to popular anxieties about the changing boundaries between public and private in Australian history. I was employed as Field Officer for the State Library of Victoria, a job that involved the acquisition of historic manuscripts and pictures for the Librarys Australiana research collections. It was known as the cup of tea job, for it took one into the lounge rooms of Victoria to discuss the future of family papers and the likely public uses of quite personal pasts. That work exposed me to the politics of the past, to the dilemmas of collection, possession and preservation.
It was a time when the political and scholarly revolution in Aboriginal Studies was making its mark on the history and commemoration of the Australian frontier. Victorias sesquicentenary in 198485 prompted the controversial memorialisation of conflict between Aborigines and settlers, even on official plaques. Descendants of pioneering settlers were unsettled, and wondered what historians might find in family papers donated to libraries. The transformation of family history into national heritage could seem, in these circumstances, a dangerous honour.
Libraries attract unusual popular faith and esteem. It is, I believe, because they have a recognised role as the generators and custodians of stories. From the experience of my cup of tea job, I can tell you an immensely heartening thing: people generally give private papers to libraries not to make money or to become famous, but to connect withand to discoverstories in their culture. They believe, rightly, that once family things pass over to a public institution, they enter a world of popular and scholarly conversation that draws out unexpected meanings and understandings. In other words, people give to a library to learnto learn about themselves as well as their society. Libraries and museums link people and things to the world of storytelling and scholarship. Donors of archives therefore warily monitor the fashions of research. There is a tense, symbiotic relationship between what they choose to make public and how history is told.
Of course, historical records are constantly lost and destroyed, randomly and carelessly, without purpose or import. But what is kept is kept with purpose, and what is made public has import. And therefore the gaps and silences in the public record might also signify. A fascinating graph might be sketched of the cycles of preservation and destruction and their relationship to the fashions and politics of scholarship.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there might have been an increase in the burning of early pastoral diaries and letters. As an official collector of such records, I heard stories that this was so. The reasons for such culling could be defensive or constructive. One descendant of both settlers and Aborigines (and a supporter of Native Title) told me that he had once destroyed a stations records to protect people from an explosive political situation and in the hope that it might clear the air for a fairer future. He described how and where he set the evidence of massacre to flame. He regrets doing it now. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. I hope I dont burn in Hell for it. It is possible that the sense of alarm created by conservative pressure groups in the wake of the High Courts 1996 Wik decision has led to the suppression of evidence of another kind, this time evidence not so much of conflict as of sharing and negotiation.
When records are officially preserved, they often leave the locality of their origin, go to the city, become institutionalised and thereby become subject to local suspicion. For anyone schooled in the professional discipline of history it is a shock to encounter the proud oral culture of rural Australia. In a small community, oral sources of history are often regarded as the pre-eminent means of access to the local past. Academic historical tradition, founded as it was on the craft of documentary scholarship, has often viewed oral history with distrust. But on the local scene the tables are turned. There, history is a possession of the towns elders, the approved custodians of the past, sometimes the oldest resident. They are people who have earned the right to pass on and interpret their towns inherited wisdom. Knowledge gains authority from its genealogy. Residents view with scepticism any alternative, outside avenues of access to that past, especially if they are literary, official or urban.
Because of their attention to particular places, local and colonial historians were always more alert to the Aboriginal past than were academic historians, who were overwhelmingly concerned with establishing their discipline through the writing of national history. Even as Aboriginal people were excluded by national histories, they found a place in local histories. The recent rediscovery of the Aboriginal past has as much to do with a new academic valuing of the local and the oral as it does with cross-cultural insights.
In the year following the High Courts 1992 Mabo judgment, David Roberts explored the knowledge of the New South Wales country town of Sofala and found a resilient oral tradition of a local massacre (at Bells Falls Gorge), telling of a large number of Aboriginal people who were shot or pushed off a cliff. Most residents, reported Roberts, maintained that the story is not just a yarn or a myth but a "local knowledge", not requiring the details and tangible proofs that historians use as the foundation of their work. Although surviving documents tell of the declaration of martial law in late 1824, of reprisal parties sent out against the Aborigines, and of several incidents of multiple murder, no contemporary written evidence precisely confirms the oral tradition. Pages of letters are missing, and official reports were not filed or have not survived. The discrepancies and uncertainties surrounding the massacre story prompted Roberts to reflect on the politics, past and present, that lead people to suppress or exaggerate violence. The community Roberts visited and questioned in 1993 clung to the oral tradition of violence but also seemed averse to discussing Aboriginal association with the area in any detail. Residents declined to recognise registered Aboriginal sites in the region at the same time as they memorialised the place of a remembered massacre. There were stories that, because of fear of land claims, farmers may have destroyed large collections of bones, presumed to be Aboriginal, which they uncovered on their properties. People kept quiet about local discoveries of Aboriginal relics. The proprietor of Sofalas museum declared: you tend not to want to find Aboriginal stuff for obvious reasons. Youre asking for trouble. The local massacre may well have happened, and written evidence suggests its likelihood; but the story may also have focused the memory of widespread violence onto one dramatic feature of local topography, concentrating diffuse conflict into a conclusive parable. What of the local Aborigines? asked Roberts at Sofalas Royal Hotel. Theyre all killed mate, replied the bush storyteller. And so the story of the massacre could have served a similar purpose to the last of the tribe monuments erected across Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such forms of commemoration, even where they were sympathetic to Aboriginal people or angry about their suffering, served mostly to reinforce a sense of inevitability about what happened, and gave a misleading sharpness to the notion of frontier.10
In the 1970s and 1980s there emerged a new scholarly and popular interest in stories of frontier conflict, and Roberts explains how Bells Falls Massacre became enshrined in regional and national histories, the nation now believing what many small rural communities have long known. The politics of reconciliation, suggests Roberts, sometimes means that plausible speculation has given way to sensationalism, and the oral tradition has been elaborated in print and given wider prominence, blurring the boundaries between the local and national, oral and written, popular and scholarly.
The importance of this study is that, unlike Windschuttles work, it considers the motivations for both the suppression and exaggeration of violence and assesses oral culture with seriousness as well as scepticism. The sinews of settler memory are palpable and strong, and historians have to wrestle with them. The Australian frontier reveals its character through memory and history-making as well as through recorded contemporary experience. We need history because some things cannot be recognised as they happen.
The history of killing
At the heart of the frontier conflict debateand of the concern with the number of deadis the language and idea of war. It was a frustration to many colonists that the constant domestic tension and sporadic conflict of the Australian frontier did not fit their image of a war, though they often used that term. In 1913 Western Australians even inscribed the phrase Lest We Forget on a monument to explorers killed by Aborigines.11 But the experience of settlers was generally not of public violence against a respected foe, but more frequently a private drama of betrayal, fear, suspicion and disdain. Deep down, wrote poet Les Murray in 1975, we scorn the Aborigines for not having provided us with the romantic vision of a remembered war. A proper war would have dignified the settlers violence, brought it out in the open and allowed them the romance of heroes and campaigns. But warmuch as it might have offered psychological reliefwas legally and politically unacceptable.12
War was also culturally imagined as occurring elsewhere. In 19th- and early 20th-century Australia, there was a curious conflation of a vision of pastoral peace and a keen anticipation of war. Colonists yearned for the sort of blooding on an international stage that would prove their racial vigour and exorcise their convict inheritance. At the same time as they celebrated the peaceful occupation of their new land and projected sunny images of patrician pastures and woolly flocks, they hungered for wara real warthat would baptise their nationhood. So denial of war on the Australian frontier underpinned nationalist yearnings. And a powerful silence was cemented at the core of an emerging Australian identity.
War is a word that Windschuttle is keen to avoid. It is because he is bending over backwards to hang on to that word murder. Concerned above all to demonstrate that colonists embraced British law and justice, he finds it easier to recognise murder than war. Constant, sporadic and personal violence is less disturbing to the state than slaughter. Massacre is an ambiguous word because it uncomfortably slips between the categories: it describes organised, mass killing that is nevertheless unequal and illegal. The Myall Creek massacre of 1838 is Windschuttles favourite example because it is one of the few massacres officially described as murder. And so Windschuttle concludes, as if it were a new insight, that most Aborigines were not killed in massacres, but in ones or twos. He appears to find civic relief in this.
Reynolds sees settlers defending newly won land. Windschuttle sees legitimate police operations. Police were doing their duty he tells us again and again, clinging innocently to that word. But what was their duty? Was it civil or military or something uncomfortably in between? Did the violence take place within the civic frontier, that is, within the effective embrace of British law and justice, or did it take place on the other side of the frontier, in a war zone? Or was it neither completely one nor the other? Windschuttle turns away from the most interesting dimensions of frontier historythe gaps between expectation and reality, and between experience and language. It is in these dissonances that we find the distinctive character of the Australian frontierand the origins of the unease at its heart.
Henry Reynolds is the historian most identified with the rediscovery of frontier conflict. Reynolds is a strange target for Windschuttle because his work embodies empiricism and empire in some of the ways that Windschuttle wants. As Peter Cochrane noted in a perceptive critique of Reynolds work published in Eureka Street (1998), he piles up his evidence, indulges in relentless documentation and writes with a morally charged positivism. Reynolds casts imperial restraint on colonists in the most positive terms, downplays home-grown humanitarianism, and resists the Australian nationalist narrative that equates self-government with democracy and fairness. His history gives the high moral ground to the common lawwhich was ignored or defied or misunderstood by settlerswith a consequence that he writes, as one commentator put it, the kind of history that the law can take notice of.13 Reynolds is therefore particularly infuriating to his conservative critics, argues Cochrane, because he has defeated them on their own ground.
Windschuttle and other critics have branded Reynolds a separatist, arguing that the invention of widespread frontier violence, now and in the past, has been in the service of a politics of separatism that aims to isolate Aboriginal people from white society. Separatists of every era, argues Windschuttlefrom the missionaries of the 19th century to the likes of Reynolds todayexaggerate frontier violence to justify protective reserves, land rights or a separate Aboriginal state. The language of war certainly makes conflict political and links violence to land and nation. There is a clear political lineage, and one pursued in Reynolds work, that moves from frontier conflict to war to land rights to sovereignty. But labelling Reynolds a separatist completely misunderstands his work.
Reynolds oeuvre is daring for the very reason that it attempts nothing less than the integration of Aboriginal history into one of the great themes of Australian settler nationhood. He has explicitly contrasted the forgotten Aboriginal dead with the revered fallen warriors of Australias overseas wars. All over the continent, he argued,
Fell is an immensely powerful and symbolic word here, as Ken Inglis has noted in his book Sacred Places. It is an impressive appropriation of the imperial language of war. And putting a number on the dead enables Reynolds to bring this whole arena of Australian history and memory into the conventions of military commemoration.14
Reynolds began his research by enumerating the whites killed by blacks with the aim of demonstrating that settlement was not peaceful but contested and at times uncertain. The numbers of fallen whites became a measure of the challenge of occupation and also established Aborigines as agents and not just victims, as enemies and not just subjects. Then Reynolds took seriously the far more difficult task of estimating black deaths. A conservative estimate of the casualties (20,000) enabled him to compare its significant size with the numbers of Australias overseas sacrifices. Another reason to countor at least to trywas to recognise, as our culture does in war, that each individual life lost in such a cause was heroic, a death to be honoured in its uniqueness, another sacrifice without a genuine grave.
Reynolds work might be placed in that great 20th-century tradition of historiography about the Anzac Legend, a lineage that includes C.E.W. Bean, Geoffrey Serle, Bill Gammage and Ken Inglis. Many historians have acknowledged frontier conflict and have now travelled to the other side of the frontier, but no-one other than Reynolds has so tenaciously championed Aborigines as Anzacs.
We know just how controversial this strategy is from the response to Ken Inglis suggestion in 1998, at the launch of Sacred Places, that the Australian War Memorial should represent warlike encounters between black and white.15 Inglis proposal came out of his lifelong study of the settlers culture of commemoration, and in a book steeped in intelligent sympathy for the rituals of war. It wasnt a war, wrote his critics. And even if it was a war, then it wasnt an officially declared war and both sides didnt wear uniforms. And even if it still rated somehow as a real war, then Aborigines were the other side, and they were the losers, and victors dont put up monuments to the losers. Aborigines are not Us. Here speaks the real politics of separatism in Australia today.
In focusing on frontier violence, Windschuttle takes us back to the beginnings of the modern historiographical revolution that was unfolding as Henry Reynolds commenced his work. The renewed revelation of frontier violence soon led to more serious treatment of other aspects of cross-cultural relations in Australia, and many scholars, including Reynolds, went on to develop more subtle and varied analyses of the frontier. They argued that the frontier was more intimate and personal than previously allowed, that there was as much sharing and accommodation between black and white cultures as there was confrontation and violence. Historians became critical of the limitations of what was called massacre history. It was white history, they said, and it diverted attention from personal and institutional forms of violence.
It is interesting to remind ourselves of the critical reception of Roger Milliss book, Waterloo Creek, published in 1992a book Windschuttle describes as having been reviewed with universal favour when it appeared. Although there was widespread admiration for Milliss archival tenacity, and the book won several literary prizes, historians found aspects of it disappointing. By the early 1990s, there was a strong feeling among people researching Aboriginal history that a narrow obsession with violence and white guilt ignored more subtle and complex understandings of the frontier. Historians criticised Milliss for contributing to a simplified and uncomplicated morality, for perpetuating a fixation with overt violence, for returning to a concept of a purely oppositional frontier, for overlooking the Aboriginal experience, and for failing to interrogate the silences.16 Peter Read summed up the situation with these words: Waterloo Creek would have been state-of-the-art in 1970, it would have been in the mainstream in 1980. In 1992 it is dated in conception and analysis.17
Windschuttles critique of frontier history, by affirming the effectiveness of the rule of law, might be seen as part of the recent academic willingness to explore the range of non-violent interactions on the frontier. But by denying a whole dimension of violent interactions and the complexity of their evidentiary legacy, he has provoked a necessary revival of massacre history, ignored more vital and subtle analyses of cross-cultural relations, and returned us to an old language of conflict.
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