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Backwards to go forwards


We are not happy campers in the Land of Oz. A grumpy Australia views its fellows with suspicion and bitterness, licking our wounds over a polarising referendum. Collectively, instead of looking to the distractions of bread and circuses – annual holidays, Christmas repasts, concerts and beaches – I think it’s timely to re-visit ‘us’ a little. I invite you to venture back to a time before our present; a setting bereft of modernity and the ethical and cerebral calisthenics of postmodernity. Before Contentment, so to speak.

Presaging our luxuries of 24-hour businesses, refrigeration, air-conditioning, wi-fi and electricity. Before an eight-hour working day, paid holidays, emergency services, legal protection and empowerment of women, children, minorities and those with disabilities. Before the snug embrace of technology, and unadulterated food and water, hitherto the numbing mindlessness of sitcoms, reality TV and your sporting empire of choice. Consider it a thought experiment if you like. A mental school trip to yesteryear, or an indulgent caress of generations who sweated to build the society we recline in. Who knows? We may even feel a slight frisson of gratitude. Or an awareness of the debts we owe.

We start with this axiom: we took this place and claimed it as a dumping ground for Great Britain’s penal overflow. The land was not ours. It was not ceded by treaty. It was not taken in a formally declared war.

Australia was dragged from other people’s hands, re-purposed for our use and pleasure, mile by mile, stretch by stretch, billabong by billabong, corpse by corpse. Spears and clubs lost ground to swords and rifles. Atrocities and justifications, wailings and stolen lives, reprisals and pseudo-scientific rationales soaked into our soil.

Many of us hid from that unpleasant history. Many of us do so still. It’s certainly not a pretty, rosy view, looking back at the European incursion into the Antipodes. But not all truths are palatable, and not all views cheer the eye.

Life was tough for 18th and 19th century white Australians, in the burly days before Federation. Your last breath could come as quick as a coronary, or sped by snakebite; it could be malingering, gasping from septic wounds, or rattled out feebly from bodies broken by arduous years of clearing tree roots.


'There are many chapters in this Australian tale that reveal kindness and courage, resilience and solidarity, inspiration and compassion, innovation and generosity, grace and progress. Most of us tend to dwell on those flattering chapters, skimming or ignoring the tales that don’t bring us joy.'


Society was unforgiving. There was no welfare system. No safety net. Poverty was shameful and sometimes mistakenly seen as a sign of God’s displeasure. The infant mortality rate was high, women were playthings of their men, and married women were expected to be absent from the workforce, instead working their guts out at home in the kitchen and elsewhere.

Single women, post-convict times, were judged harshly if they had relationships outside of marriage. Woe betide a woman caught having an affair (though men seemed to escape the stigma, a double standard that no longer flies to the same extent). A ‘Jezebel’ would be snubbed and scorned for life and children born outside of marriage grew up with a stigma that could and did last for years. A convict past, a teenage pregnancy or a divergent sexual orientation were skeletons you kept firmly in your closet. Any sign of human frailty, any error or moral failing could see you branded as a reprobate.

News was sporadic, education was rudimentary, science was dodgy, governments were as suspect as they are now, medicine was not up to scratch, and work was physically demanding and sometimes scarce. People depended on their families, their friends, fellow employees and sometimes their fellow church members for friendship and support. That support was conditional on conforming to societal expectations and conventions. People were respectable, or they were not accepted. You ruled or you were ruled.

The social conditions and systemic injustices led to dispossession and theft, fear and hatred, poverty and cruelty. Still, tentative voices were raised for justice and parity, stemming from shearer’s sheds, pulpits and printing presses. Societies and unions were formed. Political parties were forged. All the while, corporal and capital punishment held the line for the wealthy and the virtuous.

We were not yet a nation. We reaped and profited from land that was not ours. We built and bred and created and innovated and despoiled. We viewed the changes and profits we had wrought as a blessing; a sign of God’s favour. We included and excluded, we punished, banished and executed. And Deakin’s White Australia Policy of the 20th century was to set the dimly-lit way to national progress – through wars and fires and tragedies and miracles – until kinder angels prevailed in the 1970s.

Our ruthlessness was practised on our own, but it was especially true of how we treated the original inhabitants of these lands, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who were driven from their lands by the coming of the Europeans. They were exploited, exterminated, killed, poisoned, raped, stereotyped. Traduced. And in many parts of the country there were still instances of conflict with Indigenous Australians leading into the 20th century. In 1928, in the Northern Territory, several hundred Warlpiri, Anmatyere and Kaytetye people were killed in reprisal for killing a dingo trapper. 

Dismissing our predecessors as a dying race, pushed onto missions and hidden from view amid attempt to ‘breed’ out Aboriginal heritage, Australian society provided some care to its own, through churches and philanthropic charitable organisations. But compassion was conditional, and it came at a behavioural cost. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge the hypocrisy and brutal aspects of our past. That discomfort is a healthy thing.

Viewing the past through the framework of the present always gives a distorted view. It’s called revisionism; judging yesterday’s events and choices through the prism of today’s comprehension. No matter how satisfying hindsight may feel, it’s not a fair way to view the past. That said, there are some universal truths to be pursued; some things are always wrong, and some things are always right. Prejudice and kindness, discrimination and compassion, chauvinism and empathy are found intermingled as pages of our story.

The choice to ignore our history is not that simple for the past few generations, who have been exposed in their education and worldview to the realities of genocide and land clearance by sharp-eyed historians and authors; writers labelled as ‘black armband’ wearers by former PMs John Howard and Tony Abbott. Some voices, such as that of Keith Windschuttle, went so far as to describe some  massacres of Aboriginal Australians as myths. The counter-challenge, of donning ‘white blindfolds’, appealed to those who wished to hold the line of righteous settlers.

For every Joseph Jacobs, Geoffrey Dutton, Manning Clarke, or Geoffrey Blainey, there is now a Henry Reynolds, or a Bruce Pascoe, or a Rachel Perkins. Voices drown each other out in the throes of storytelling; perspectives re-visit old ground and turn up new truths. We elect to listen to some voices and ignore the others. In turn, our guiding lights impact our mindsets, our voting choices, our charitable actions; the dictates of our conscience.

There are many chapters in this Australian tale that reveal kindness and courage, resilience and solidarity, inspiration and compassion, innovation and generosity, grace and progress. Most of us tend to dwell on those flattering chapters, skimming or ignoring the tales that don’t bring us joy. The hard stories. Doing so does not further the writing of our next chapter.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration. 

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Indigenous, First Nations, History



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Existing comments

What a great overview of our European history in Australia.

Steve Sinn | 16 November 2023  

Thought-provoking and sensitive, Barry. Sometimes, our first reaction to such fine writing is the one we should articulate. And I thought of the outstanding artistic endeavours of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Artists, writers, film-makers, singers, actors, dancers: the list is impressive. We must be mindful of our past and welcome the future.

Pam | 17 November 2023  

I think the ill prepared, hopelessly mismanaged, failed Voice campaign has been instrumental in destroying much interracial goodwill in this country. That failure goes right to the top and the Prime Minister bears a lot of the responsibility for its failure. Where to from here? The situation is a bit like Humpty Dumpty after his fall. Care for the genuinely disadvantaged, respect for other views and genuinely talking to others, not screaming abuse at them, may be a start. Australia seems awash with hatred and contention - not just on Indigenous issues - at the moment. We are at a crucial stage in our national history. I hope it will proceed well from here.

Edward Fido | 18 November 2023  

The past can not be undone. The current living generations (the 'we' and the 'I') are not responsible for the appalling aspects of society generally in the western world during the last three centuries which were the stage settings for colonisation and perceived Eurocentric superiority above all other peoples. Sadly, there are those remnants who have not grown up and perpetuate attitudes that are, despite their denying pleadings, simply racist. That is never going to change when herding together in tribes, guarding a domain, and violently opposing foreign intruders is perhaps the outstanding characteristic of the human being in the realm of animal life - a trait that most animal groups possess to varying degrees. I'm buggered if I can understand why God made it so but suppose it is but another moral hurdle that has to be cleared on the way to be accepted by the Creator. Why on earth he didn't create us without our many flaws escapes me when we are all reportedly created in his own image and he loves us all dearly - particularly when there are many who are patently unlovable. Rather sad that the referendum showed that in this country at least half of the population have not risen above the level of the instinctive herding animal and thus fall short of the ideals of true humanity. I suspect I've given the archangel Gabrielle something to do with this post in that I have kept him busy putting the red crosses alongside my name in the big book that the keeper of the pearly gates consults in assessing one's entry credentials!

John Frawley | 19 November 2023  
Show Responses

'Why on earth he didn't create us without our many flaws escapes me when we are all reportedly created in his own image and he loves us all dearly'

Because he wants us to put our minds to choosing one nature over another?

And if, like me, and probably most men, it is very easy to dive into a murder mystery (book or film) while finding it impossible to enjoy a rom com (also dismissively known as a chick flick), you'll know that nature can always be overcome but that to do so may require a use of will that is unpalatable when the nature (in its movement from choice to habit to character) must, because of its characteristics, come from the world, the flesh and the devil.

Do any crime novelists get to heaven? One would hope so, but it is unlikely that the consumer taste for crime novels, which is pimped for profit by said novelists and their publishers and book reviewers, comes from there.

roy chen yee | 23 November 2023  

You have asked a deep philosophical question, John Frawley. Human beings have a sort of moral ambiguity about them which the Church terms Original Sin. If you look at the long-term history of any place on earth, you will see a history of war, murder and the extinction of any enemy considered a threat. In Australia's case I am sure that Neo-Darwinian pseudo-scientific racism played a major role in the appalling history of the treatment of Indigenous peoples. On the recent failed referendum, I think it was ill-designed and badly sold. It was lost in the multicultural outer suburbs. If the referendum were better designed, it may well have passed. It was a political failure.

Edward Fido | 25 November 2023  

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