NO HIDING PLACE
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
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”.