Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s Lost His­to­ries

Frank Bon­giorno on Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s Lost His­to­ries

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Frank Bon­giorno

It has been com­mon for a gen­er­a­tion, fol­low­ing Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard, to think of Aus­tralian his­to­ries as be­ing of ei­ther the “black arm­band” or the “three cheers” va­ri­ety. Such terms, of course, are sim­plis­tic, func­tion­ing at best as a form of short­hand. At worst, they are no more than fod­der for the horses in Australia’s his­tory wars.

But, if it is nec­es­sary to think in terms of such du­al­i­ties, a bet­ter way of di­vid­ing up his­to­ries might be to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the “pre-Mabo” and the “post-Mabo”. These groups are not en­tirely chrono­log­i­cal, since pre-Mabo his­to­ries still ap­pear reg­u­larly and sell well.

Pre-Mabo his­to­ries cel­e­brate the brav­ery of hardy ex­plor­ers and pi­o­neers, en­trepreneurs’ con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional pros­per­ity, and the ex­ploits of dar­ing An­zacs. They use terms such as “we”, “us” and “our”, ad­dress­ing an au­di­ence that shares a com­mon iden­tity with the sub­jects of the his­tory. They are pop­ulist, pa­tri­otic and mas­culin­ist. Na­tional stereo­types are cur­rency to be traded rather than false im­ages to be de­bunked. They in­vite their au­di­ence to re­lax, to make them­selves com­fort­able, to en­joy an easy con­science. The land is both a re­source to be ex­ploited and a place to make a home – for de­serv­ing white Aus­tralians, and for others ac­cept­able to them and pre­pared to ac­cept the terms they set for ad­mis­sion. Abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence might be con­sid­ered, but it is pe­riph­eral to the story of set­tler achieve­ment – a rem­nant of a past so­ci­ety rather than a liv­ing part of a present one.

Post-Mabo his­to­ries – and Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s Lost His­to­ries (Miegun­yah Press; $34.99) is a dis­tin­guished ex­am­ple – of­fer a more com­pli­cated story. Their nat­u­ral ori­en­ta­tion is to­wards the mi­cro­cosm rather than the panorama. They are ethno­graphic, cross-cul­tural and multi-per­spec­ti­val. The land is “sto­ried”, a place of many and con­tested mean­ings. They are scep­ti­cal about con­ven­tional ideas of na­tional jour­ney­ing and eco­nomic progress, and wary of ef­forts to make he­roes or saints out of colonis­ers. They adopt an in­sider-out­sider view – they are part of the na­tion yet also pro­fes­sional ap­prais­ers of it – and they as­sume their au­di­ence is ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with am­biva­lence. They un­set­tle and dis­turb rather than com­fort. Above all, they grap­ple with the moral co­nun­drum that is stu­diously avoided in pre-Mabo his­tory: how can all Aus­tralians feel at home to­gether in a coun­try taken from In­dige­nous peo­ple?

McKenna has long been one of Australia’s most ac­com­plished post-Mabo his­to­ri­ans. The au­thor of a de­fin­i­tive his­tory of Aus­tralian re­pub­li­can­ism and an ac­claimed bi­og­ra­phy of Manning Clark, he is also one of the coun­try’s most in­no­va­tive lo­cal his­to­ri­ans, or, as they are some­times more fash­ion­ably called these days, his­to­ri­ans of place. But his are not lo­cal his­to­ries writ­ten ac­cord­ing to the fa­mil­iar tem­plate of progress and devel­op­ment. McKenna has lit­tle in­ter­est in when street­lights came to town or the ac­com­plish­ments of a conga line of bearded may­ors.

Rather, one of McKenna’s achieve­ments has been to show how the grand­est of themes – the great con­flicts at the very heart of na­tional be­ing – can be un­der­stood afresh through the his­tory of place. In his award-win­ning Look­ing for Black­fel­las’ Point: An Aus­tralian His­tory of Place (2002), he ex­am­ined his own back­yard – quite lit­er­ally, the part of the NSW south coast where he lives – for its hid­den sto­ries of vi­o­lence, dis­pos­ses­sion, in­ti­macy and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. The re­sult was a most un­usual kind of lo­cal his­tory, one that shifted fre­quently between past and present, his­tory and mem­ory, Abo­rig­i­nal and set­tler, noise and si­lence.

The in­ter­play of lo­cal place and na­tional story is also at the heart of From the Edge. That we are deal­ing with a postMabo his­tory is clear from the out­set: “It is im­pos­si­ble to con­ceive of any place that is not em­bed­ded with In­dige­nous story. There are no empty places in Australia.”

Once again, McKenna is con­cerned with coast­lines – places on the fringe of the con­ti­nent as well as of na­tional con­scious­ness – and the book is based on four of them. The first is the set­ting for a dra­matic tale of ship­wreck in 1797. When the Syd­ney Cove, laden with goods from Cal­cutta and bound for Port Jackson, was caught in a wild storm as it made its way across Bass Strait, the sur­vivors – among them Las­car sea­men from Ben­gal – ar­rived on what is now known as Preser­va­tion Is­land. Hav­ing sal­vaged as much of their pre­cious cargo as they could, they de­cided to send one group of men in a long­boat to seek help. But the small boat was it­self wrecked on the Vic­to­rian coast, and its crew had to be­gin an ar­du­ous jour­ney to Syd­ney by foot.

Few of those who set out sur­vived the gru­elling 700-kilo­me­tre walk along the coast, but those who did were in­debted to the help they re­ceived from the In­dige­nous peo­ple, who treated them with kind­ness. It was only as the party ap­proached Syd­ney, and they en­coun­tered Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who were more fa­mil­iar with the death and dis­ease that had ac­com­pa­nied Bri­tish set­tle­ment at Port Jackson, that they re­ceived a less cor­dial wel­come. Even­tu­ally, the three re­main­ing men were picked up by a fish­ing boat not far from Syd­ney. In the sub­se­quent ef­fort

to re­trieve both the cargo and the men who had stayed on Preser­va­tion Is­land there were fur­ther ad­ven­tures, in­clud­ing yet another ship­wreck.

The story is a grip­ping one, and McKenna’s telling of it would be worth the price of ad­mis­sion even with­out his cre­ative read­ing of its wider mean­ing for na­tional his­tory. For McKenna, these events en­cap­su­late “the cen­tral, elu­sive drama of Aus­tralian his­tory it­self: the en­counter between Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and the strangers who came across the seas to claim their lands”. The men who made the over­land jour­ney de­bated among them­selves how best to man­age their re­la­tions with In­dige­nous peo­ple, a con­ver­sa­tion that would con­tinue across the cen­turies to the present day. And the record shows that al­most all the in­ter­ac­tions between the new­com­ers and the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were peace­ful; this is “a story of co­op­er­a­tion and hope” that McKenna sees as car­ry­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for the present.

The three other sto­ries have less of a rip­ping yarn char­ac­ter about them. There is firstly the tale of Port Ess­ing­ton on what is now the Cobourg Penin­sula in West Arn­hem Land. Set­tled in 1838 to fore­stall claims by a ri­val Euro­pean power, and in the hope that it might be­come a new Sin­ga­pore, Port Ess­ing­ton proved a folly, although one that the au­thor­i­ties man­aged to drag out for a decade. A vis­it­ing French naval of­fi­cer clearly had no im­pe­rial de­signs on the port: “You [Bri­tish] must have a ma­nia for colonies to drop one down in Port Ess­ing­ton.”

Yet here was another al­le­gory of the Aus­tralian colonis­ing process: white men and women – the lat­ter “clothed from head to toe” – in sti­fling heat, bat­tling malaria and cy­clones, and fruit­lessly seek­ing non-ex­is­tent com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties in a place where Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple had long lived suc­cess­fully. Again, the colonists soon found them­selves de­pen­dent on In­dige­nous help and knowl­edge, and again, whereas the ex­pe­ri­ence of con­tact with set­tlers im­printed it­self on the cul­ture of Arn­hem Land’s In­dige­nous peo­ple, the episode has been largely erased from white set­tler mem­ory.

The book’s other places are the Pil­bara, in Western Australia, and Cook­town, in north­ern Queens­land, each a site with res­o­nance in white set­tler con­scious­ness but with very dif­fer­ent mean­ings for In­dige­nous peo­ple. The

Pil­bara is to­day the re­sources in­dus­try’s promised land, but it has also been a vi­o­lent pas­toral and pearling fron­tier – es­sen­tially a place of war­fare – and it re­mains one of the coun­try’s great­est art gal­leries, with per­haps a mil­lion rock paint­ings. Lack­ing ad­e­quate her­itage pro­tec­tion, some have al­ready been de­stroyed, while others are at risk as the re­sources in­dus­try’s coloni­sa­tion of the re­gion con­tin­ues.

McKenna point­edly places Cook­town’s story, the one most ob­vi­ously about white Australia’s ori­gins, at the end of his book. In 1770 James Cook’s En­deav­our stayed for re­pairs for seven weeks, but in the white Aus­tralian his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness this place would for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with that brief visit. Like the Pil­bara, the re­gion be­came a zone of vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially af­ter min­ers look­ing for gold in­vaded the Palmer River in the 1870s. McKenna shows how an es­sen­tially white set­tler his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness has been trans­formed, as Gu­ugu Yimithirr his­to­ri­ans rein­ter­pret the events of 1770 through lo­cal re-en­act­ment and other rit­u­als.

As well as be­ing a for­mi­da­ble work of pro­fes­sional his­tory and an im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tion in de­bates about how In­dige­nous and set­tler Aus­tralians might live to­gether, this is a vivid and sen­su­ous book, based on a rich doc­u­men­tary record and McKenna’s vis­its to the places fea­tured. It is beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated, mainly with coloured pho­tographs taken by McKenna him­self. From the Edge re­minds us of the many ways in which the colo­nial past is not re­ally past; for even the re­sources in­dus­try – that great sym­bol of Aus­tralian moder­nity and source of pros­per­ity – is founded on a mea­sure of com­pla­cency about the cul­ture and her­itage of In­dige­nous Aus­tralians.

Photo by Mark McKenna

The Pil­bara, Western Australia

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