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Aboriginal voices resist colonial history

  • 27 June 2008
Heiss, Anita (ed.), Minter, Peter (general ed.): The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Allen and Unwin, 2008, RRP $39.95, ISBN 9781741754984.

The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature is a 260-page introduction to Aboriginal writers who have, since the 18th century, been taking up the English language to make their presence felt in the face of an imposed history of colonisation.

The writing included is broader than the genres often included under 'literature', though the anthology as a whole suggests a national counter-narrative.

The early parts record Aboriginals experiencing European society from early in the history of contact. The first entry is a brief letter to Mr Philips from Bennelong, written in 1796. It is written with dignity, tolerance and formality as it describes a parlous life of reliance on handouts and rebuffs from his own people, including being abandoned by his wife.

Reading through these early letters, chronicles and petitions I was close to tears. Mary Anne Arthur in 1846 wrote from Flinders Island to the Colonial Secretary: 'I hope the Govr will not let Dr Jeanneret put us into Jail as he likes for nothing at all as he used he says he will do it & frightens us much with his big talk about our writing to the Queen he calls us liars ... I remain, Sir, Your humble Aborigine Child.'

Soon afterwards her husband, Walter, wrote again to the Secretary: '... I did nothing to make Doctor Jeanneret put me into Jail but because I was one of the people who signed the Letter for to be sent to the Governor and because my wife put her name down in it both Doctor Jeanneret and Mrs Jeanneret Called her a Villain ... All I now request of his Excellency is that he will have full Justice done to me the same as he would have done to a white man ...' The name, D. Jeanneret, worthy of a place in a Monty Python sketch, reverberates.

In 1927 Norman Harris wrote to demand from the WA premier 'one law for us all'. The 'Abo', he wrote, has 'not a fare go': 'He is not alowed in a Pub not to have a gun, not to camp on revers because squatters stock are there, he is not to have dogs near stock. He is not to grow grapes because he may make wine and get drunk. They