Three new books con­sol­i­date the case that com­plex indige­nous so­ci­eties ex­isted be­fore the ar­rival of white set­tlers and, con­trary to re­ceived think­ing, did not van­ish overnight, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Fam­ily his­to­ries have be­come the hottest thing in re­cent years — eclipsed in pop­u­lar­ity in the on­line space only by gar­den­ing and pornog­ra­phy, or so it’s said — but they carry a spe­cial weight for indige­nous Aus­tralia. There they’re not just a hobby. They’re about doc­u­ment­ing sur­vival.

A new his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of black and white Aus­tralia is re­mak­ing the way we think about our past. The re­peated slaugh­ters on which the na­tion was built are slowly be­ing un­picked, the ac­counts of their al­most ca­sual brutality mul­ti­ply­ing. But along with that work also come some oc­ca­sion­ally counter-in­tu­itive con­clu­sions.

The re­ceived wis­dom, for in­stance, that 1788 was a calamity from which pre-ex­ist­ing so­ci­eties could never re­cover is crum­bling at the edges, with grow­ing ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of a cul­tural so­phis­ti­ca­tion and re­silience that took a body blow but re­fused to give up.

To be cer­tain, it can too of­ten feel like a case of one step for­ward, two steps back. The fraught ne­go­ti­a­tion over mean­ing­ful indige­nous con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion, af­ter much pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion and re­ports that are of­ten re­ferred to but rarely acted on, is a case in point.

Next week’s an­nual Garma cul­tural fes­ti­val, on the Gove Penin­sula in north­east Arn­hem Land, will have as its sin­gle pri­or­ity the re­cent dec­la­ra­tion of the Uluru State­ment from the Heart — a con­sen­sus of Abo­rig­i­nal and Torres Strait Is­lander Aus­tralia on the way ahead — and the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil re­port that fol­lowed it.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, as well as amend­ing the na­tional birth cer­tifi­cate to al­low an indige­nous “voice” to par­lia­ment, these doc­u­ments call for a truth-and-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. Much of this will be painful for all in­volved, but just as with Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apol­ogy for the Stolen Generations — a cruel so­cial phe­nom­e­non di­rectly re­sult­ing from white Aus­tralia’s bru­tal ori­gins — it will be a nec­es­sary cathar­sis. Hid­den in Plain View: The Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ple of Coastal Syd­ney By Paul Ir­ish NewSouth, 240pp, $34.99 Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agri­cul­ture or Ac­ci­dent? By Bruce Pas­coe Maga­bala Books, $176pp, $35 The Van­de­mo­nian War: The Se­cret His­tory of Bri­tain’s Tas­ma­nian In­va­sion By Nick Brodie Hardie Grant, 422pp, $29.99

But with indige­nous Aus­tralia’s num­bers ex­pected to hit a mil­lion in lit­tle more than a decade, the old nar­ra­tive that deaths by disease, de­pri­va­tion and straight-up mur­der­ous in­tent were sim­ply the end of the story for en­tire com­mu­ni­ties, start­ing with the Syd­ney Basin, needs re­think­ing.

In 1834, for in­stance, a vis­it­ing English­man and three friends, along with four Abo­rig­i­nal men and an­other Euro­pean, spent their morn­ing fish­ing from a row­boat out­side the Syd­ney Heads, catch­ing snap­per, king­fish, a small shark and dozens of red bream.

Re­turn­ing to cook and break­fast on their catch at Camp Cove, just in­side the har­bour’s south­ern en­trance — these days part of the city’s mon­eyed and over­built east­ern sub­urbs, but 50 years af­ter the First Fleet’s ar­rival still a dis­tant out­post of Syd­ney town — the English­man, Wil­liam Proc­tor, found a sight that as­ton­ished him.

Along­side a large la­goon was a set­tle­ment of about 100 Abo­rig­i­nal men, women and chil­dren, in fam­ily groups, each with their own gun­yah or bark-and-bough shel­ter, a fire out the front, and their dogs. Half a cen­tury af­ter white in­va­sion, that is, here was a thriv­ing Syd­ney Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity, pre­sum­ably in­ter­act­ing with the in­vaders but liv­ing on its own terms.

His­to­rian Paul Ir­ish uses this in­ci­dent to lay out, in his im­por­tant and grip­ping new book Hid­den in Plain View, a cen­tral para­dox of early colo­nial Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory. We know there was a vi­brant pop­u­la­tion in what Ir­ish de­scribes as “coastal Syd­ney” at the time of Arthur Phillip’s ar­rival, prob­a­bly equal in num­ber to the 1500odd souls the NSW gover­nor-des­ig­nate brought with him. And we know that from the early 20th cen­tury on there was a grow­ing and vis­i­ble Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion in the city. But what, Ir­ish won­ders, be­came of its 19th-cen­tury Abo­rig­ines, who seem to have been writ­ten out of his­tory, or de­picted as hav­ing been sup­planted decades later by indige­nous ar­rivals from else­where? The an­swer, he finds, is hid­den in plain view. Syd­ney’s Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple did not dis­ap­pear to be re­placed by Abo­rig­i­nal mi­grants … but ev­i­dence of their on­go­ing pres­ence is less ob­vi­ous than the vast gal­leries of rock en­grav­ings, the early colo­nial de­scrip­tions and draw­ings of their an­ces­tors, or the ac­tiv­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties that catch the pub­lic’s eye.

In fact it has re­mained hid­den, Ir­ish ar­gues, pre­cisely be­cause of the “wide­spread be­lief that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple died out or dis­ap­peared from Syd­ney by the mid-19th cen­tury, and that any Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in Syd­ney af­ter this time were ei­ther from some­where else or had lost any cul­tural at­tach­ment to the area”.

None of this will be news to any of the city’s con­tem­po­rary indige­nous pop­u­la­tion and those from else­where, many of whom have grown up know­ing ex­actly what their Eora de­scent is: 230 years is barely a dozen generations among a peo­ple whose lineage goes back thou­sands.

In­deed the lat­est sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of an un­bro­ken habi­ta­tion of the con­ti­nent pushes its beginnings back even fur­ther than was pre­vi­ously proven, to an ori­gin point of about 65,000 years ago.

But Ir­ish’s ge­nius is in trac­ing the his­tor­i­cal record to demon­strate pre­cisely how the sur­vivors of the small­pox epi­demic that rav­aged the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion soon af­ter the Bri­tish ar­rival were the ba­sis of a re­group­ing that fash­ioned a con­tin­u­ing ex­is­tence on land they con­sid­ered, rightly, never to have ceded.

This may only have been dozens of peo­ple, he ad­mits, “rather than the many hun­dreds that there could have been”, with the knock-on ef­fect of los­ing “the thou­sands upon thou­sands of Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren who would never feel the soft sands of Syd­ney’s beaches un­der their feet over the next two cen­turies”.

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