Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Bookending Australia's history


Cartoon by Chris Johnston

In manorial houses bookends were impressive in their own right, ready to bear the weight of expectation that was placed on their lords. The carvings, the shields and the embossing matched the conviction, embodied in the texts and documents housed between them, that this was no ordinary house, the history held between the bookends no ordinary history.

Modern Australian history is bookended by the arrival of white settlers in which Indigenous Australians were expelled to the margins, and by the arrival of people seeking protection who were themselves expelled to the margins on Manus Island and Nauru.

Between these bookends lie the events, the people, the relationships, the enterprises and the experiences that compose the story of Australia. They include acts of courage and cowardice, wisdom and stupidity, selfishness and generosity, nobility and barbarism. There are incidents that evoke shame and others that arouse pride.

There is a history of sin and a history of grace, and both intermingle in the story of what has mattered to Australians over more than two centuries.

The bookends themselves, though, are a bit shonky: four-by-two off-cuts nailed together. Not ideal for supporting proudly the heft of the history that lies between them. They are flawed pillars that question the order and the seriousness of the history they hold together. They need fixing.

The arrival of the first fleet was a masterly feat of organisation and initiative, followed by all the hardships, hard work and muddle involved in building and sustaining a colony. But its foundations were the dispossession of the original inhabitants and the disruption of their lives and cultures.

The inevitable conflict of interest between the Indigenous original inhabitants and the newcomers was seasoned by great acts of generosity on both sides, but was resolved in favour of the colonisers' interests. Violent resistance was crushed with overwhelming force and virtual impunity.

Eventually Indigenous Australians won some protection at the cost of free movement on their ancestral lands and vulnerability to catastrophic policies based on racial ideology. The disproportionate number of incarcerated Indigenous Australians is an emblem of this history. This bookend is made of wormwood.


"These two bookends need fixing because both involve a policy designed to advantage one group by treating another group brutally. This has corrupted Australian society and has had fatal consequences."


We Australians are still coming to terms with the consequences of invasion, settlement and exclusion of Indigenous Australians. Among the descendants of the later arrivals is a will for reconciliation, but not if it costs. Indigenous Australians desire recognition that they are the original Australians, but insist that it must be accompanied by measures that give them an assured voice in shaping the policies, laws and administrative regulations that affect their lives.

The first bookend leaves a double inheritance of the readiness to do what it takes in order to secure interests without respect for people who are in the way, and an uneasiness in the presence of Indigenous Australians that the nation was built at such a cost to them and to their cultures.

The second bookend is the way in which we have dealt with people who have come to us seeking protection from persecution. It displays the same readiness to do what it takes to secure perceived interests, and to inflict suffering on some in order to deter others. No excess of cruelty, it has seemed, could sate the cry to be tough on asylum seekers. Manus Island is the emblem of this policy. Australians respond to it with the same ambivalence they feel before Indigenous people, alternating between satisfaction that governments are doing what it takes and occasional shame when the whips and scars of the policy are seen close up. This bookend is made from the wood of the upas tree.

These two bookends need fixing because both involve a policy designed to advantage one group by treating another group brutally. This has corrupted Australian society and has had fatal consequences both for the persons affected and for the majority group.

In the case of Indigenous Australians it left behind discriminatory regulations, denial of freedoms and mixed defensiveness and shame. In the case of people seeking protection it has left a legacy of depriving minority groups of the protection of law and a fractured sense of community. Left unaddressed these poisons can leach further into Australian society.

To address them will be difficult. The first thing is to attend to the story of our relationships to Indigenous Australians and to refugees, not seeking condemnation or exoneration, but giving weight particularly to the human experience of the people who were participants and affected in this history. This will lead to apology, to reflection on how to make amends, and to the evolution of policies and administration that respect the humanity of those in Australia before our boats arrived and those who came by boat afterwards to seek protection. Then will our history be decently bookended.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC Week



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Andrew - put so clearly, so definitevely, so simply. If only everybody could all see it the same way.

Beth | 13 July 2017  

Thank you Andrew for such a powerful piece of writing. Book ends. Such a strong enalogy.

ted cullen | 13 July 2017  

Thanks Andy. What a clear mind you have & to be able to put your thoughts into readable, accessible language is a great gift for us

Gerard Mckernan | 13 July 2017  

Thanks Andy for this piece which resonates powerfully with George Megalogenis' Australia's Second Chance. He makes the point that economic growth has been linked to our acceptance of the foreigners in our population. We have gone from the richest country in the world in the 19th century to a kind of stagnation in the early 20th century and held back by the White Australia Policy. Fearmongering by second-rate politicians and compliant media commentators have not helped the cause of driving our country ahead.

Chris | 13 July 2017  

Bravo Andrew Hamilton. We need metaphors and images that can grasp the awful truth in unshrill tones. Even recently I was reported to my supervisor for "upsetting" a client by renaming Australia Day as Invasion Day. Some decendents/beneficiaries of the Invasion simply don't want to be discomforted by the truth. The more we hear the truth in diversity of metaphorical language the better we are all for it, Again I say : Bravo!

Peter Griffin | 13 July 2017  

Who was responsible for leaving such clean -cut stumps behind at the landing site of Captain Cook and his entourage depicted in the famous painting of the first landing? "Fake pictorial History", perhaps. As far as I am aware the aboriginal people didn't have access to tools like a cross-cut saw which I suspect would have been necessary in those days to produce the precision of the stumps depicted! I have a wall plate depiction of the same landing site in my study and it too has perfectly sawn tree stumps in the foreground - curious!

john frawley | 15 July 2017  

A wonderful article Andrew.

Sarah Cannon | 17 July 2017  

Your 'bookend' view of Australia's history is, like all historical 'patterns', a convenience, which may, or may not, be apt. Australia's colonial history is no worse, nor better than that of other British colonised countries. The parallel with Ireland of the Ascendancy is illuminating: conquest; genocide of the indigenous inhabitants (East Ulster) and their subjugation and replacement (the Plantations) as an 'inferior race' as well as deprivation from office in many institutions (Parliament; the Army; the Established Church) and being barred from many educational institutions. Most stereotypes of the Irish in 18th and 19th Century England were profoundly racist. Of course, the native Irish were never outnumbered by the settlers, whether Ulster Scots or Anglo-Irish. Therein lies the problem with ATSI people, they are not a majority. Up until fairly recently the prevalent Neodarwinian idea was that they would die out. Thank God they have not. Many white Australians whose ancestors have been here a few generations have a profound guilt about what was done to ATSI people. This can come out as a desire to help, or, in its Shadow projection, in a sort of One Nation approach. Sadly, given the profound problems many ATSI people have needs a really original approach. It needs action. Talkfests; sermonising; the blame game need to cease. We need to move on.

Edward Fido | 17 July 2017  

Thanks Andrew! We need to shift the more recent book-end by bringing the asylum-seekers on off-shore 'hell-holes' here to Australia.

Grant Allen | 19 July 2017  

Similar Articles

Is there an Asian Australian culture?

  • Tseen Khoo
  • 11 July 2017

The short answer is 'no'. There is no single Asian Australian culture, just as there is no single 'Australian culture'. As well as an unfortunate tendency to flatten differences, trying to talk about particular groups can serve a broader political and cultural project. I run a research network focused on Asian Australian Studies. The topics we cover strive to give depth and detail to otherwise stereotyped, shallow representations of Asians and Asian Australians that surround us.


Why 'white' isn't a racist slur

  • Sonia Nair
  • 13 July 2017

I hung out with a group of Indian-Australians while I was a university student who called themselves 'curries', but the unspoken camaraderie that ensued from this self-identification stood in stark contrast to that time I was called a 'f***ing curry' by a passing car full of white people. You often hear from white people that they can't be called 'white' because that too is racist language. This reflects a flawed assumption that societal structures advantage and disadvantage people in the exact same way.