Book Reviews, July 2006

I spent a good part of July immersed in a book I made reference to in an earlier post, C. D. Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (Australian National University Press, 1970). I’m not usually much for straight-out history, but this volume has been sitting on my shelves for a long time, and all the recent news stories about proposals to dismantle remote communities, do away with cultural education in favor of the “three R’s,” and generally get serious about a governmental policy of assimilation again made me feel it was time to undertake a serious reading of it. It’s extremely instructive reading.

The trilogy of which this book forms the first volume grew out of the Aborigines Project of the Social Sciences Research Council of Australia (1964-7), which Rowley describes in his Preface as “the first independently financed and controlled survey of Aborigines throughout Australia,” whose impetus lay in the fact that 

By that time it was becoming clear that their situation posed basic political and moral questions. The governments responsible were maintaining administrative structures and making pronouncements which illustrated the long-standing concentration on tuition and authoritarian management and administration. If these had not proved very effective in the period from first settlement, even greater effort along the lines which offered no threat to the old inter-racial adjustment seemed called for; and so did greater expenditure, for the country could afford a more tender conscience in government–expenditure on training schemes, bigger and better settlements, and the like, with the eventual and distant goal of assimilation.


Plus ca change…. With its prescient anticipation of the first President Bush’s “kinder, gentler” nation and its foreshadowing of the Whitlam government’s attempts to establish the infrastructure for self-determination, the Preface mocks us now in a moment when the “Howard intellectuals” are calling once again for tuition, authoritarian management, but sadly, not greater expenditures. The tender conscience has yielded to the Shared Responsibility Agreement and to threats to withhold funds which come without the means of ensuring their expenditure anyway.

Rowley’s history, which spans the period from first contact through the end of the Second World War focuses, like many later works, on the frontier as the defining arena of indigenous-settler relations. The first part, “The Failure of Colonial Administration,” argues that initial attempts at managing interracial relations (for that is how they were essentially defined) were in large part well-intentioned by the standards of their times. Aboriginal people were to be considered British subjects and as such protected by Crown Law as well as held to its standards. Colonial governments were stymied in Australia, however, by their confrontation with a social organization unlike those of the village-dwelling peoples they had encountered in Africa or North America. However hard they tried–and the attempt was by no means universal or always earnest–they failed in their attempts to assimilate the colonized people of Australia through a failure to grasp the cultural basis of political and social organization among the Aborigines. 

One of the most vivid examples Rowley cites in the story of the failure to enable effective legislation and equal treatment under the (Crown) law is the simple problem of Aboriginal evidence in the courtroom. For most of the first century of settlement, Aboriginal evidence could not be admitted for the simple reason that the Aboriginal people were not Christians, and could not therefore be sworn (presumably on a Bible) and give evidence under oath. 

But the real problem, as amplified in the book’s second half, “The Destruction of Aboriginal Society,” was that Crown Law could only operate in the centers of settlement, while the defining action was occurring at settlement’s edges, on the frontier, far away from the effective control of law. Thus the first contact was often lawless and brutal in nature; laws designed to protect the indigenous inhabitants were unenforceable. When there was a chance at enforcement, the law was often ignored in the face of demands from the pastoralists or miners pr police, upon whom the very growth of the nation depended. It was never an equal fight, in any sense. Rowley references, for example, the infamous proceedings of the Tuckiar affair, in which the unfortunate man’s defense might have lain in his assertion that he speared Constable McColl upon discovering that the policeman had “interfered” with his wife. Justice Wells refused to admit such statements on the grounds that they would besmirch the memory of McColl’s character: the dead man’s ghostly reputation was deemed more valuable than justice for the living.

The books ends on a more hopeful note in its history of the first sustained, humane treatment that Aboriginal people met with, during the Second World War, when many men in the Northern Territory worked for the Army, received fair wages, were able to care for their families without recourse to traditional hunting and gathering activities, and were seen to contribute to a truly national effort. It’s the only moment in the whole story when the concept of a “fair go” seems to flicker into life. But the legacy of nearly two centuries of refusal to engage with the indigenous people, of the “problem” of the “half-caste,” and of the utter destruction of the economic basis of Aboriginal life by the pastoral industry–topics to be explored in the succeeding volumes, makes this flicker of hope a truly faint and unsteady one.

My second adventure this month was with Frank Gillen, as told in Gillen’s Diary: the Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia 1901-1902 (Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968). The material gathered on this expedition, during the travels of Spencer and Gillen from Alice Springs north to Borooloola, was first published as The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (Macmillan and Co., 1904), and retold by Baldwin Spender himself in Across Australia (Macmillan and Co., 1912). Both of the latter volumes are enhanced by the numerous photographs of ceremonies and drawings of artifacts and sacred designs that the authors produced in the course of the expedition. But Gillen’s diary tells the story in a way that is far more engaging, peppered as it is with Gillen’s enthusiasm, honesty, and humor. 

One of the interesting things about this diary is the almost complete absence of Spencer from its pages. Gillen is faithful in recording each day’s mundane details–temperature, weather conditions, barometric pressure, all of which were relevant scientific data for the expedition–as well as the day’s work. Spencer appears in short asides, as Gillen records him working at enlarging photographs, writing the series of articles for the Age that helped to finance the trip, or skinning birds for preservation in the Melbourne Museum. Spencer, too, must have been present at most of the ceremonies described in the book. But it is Gillen who engages the natives, who records his efforts to build elementary vocabularies of their language, who bemoans the smell of men who have greased themselves with the spoiled butter stores of the expedition, and who sits day after day listening to and recording the legends of creation that he succeeds in drawing out from his informants.

At every stop along the way, the natives are waiting for the white men’s arrival with eagerness. Word of their progress always seems to proceed them; each time they endure a few days of difficult travel through mulga scrub or spinifex, when they arrive at their chosen camping site, the parleys begin immediately. Great ceremonies that take days to complete are organized for their benefit, and Gillen more than once complains of the tedium, or of being awakened in the small hours of the morning to witness yet another chapter of a ritual. He more frequently ends his descriptions, though, by saying that they have witnessed an event that will remain in their memories as long as they live. Gillen seems to take all this attention, indeed friendliness for granted, and no doubt the tobacco, flour, and other gifts that the expedition lavished on their informants accounts for much of the enthusiasm and dedication displayed by the Anmatyerre, Warramungu, and Gnadji. But on at least one occasion Gillen remarks on the importance of treating the stories and ceremonies respectfully, for should he not, he knows he will lose his chance to hear and see them.

In the official record, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, this vast body of material is organized, classified, and presented in a neutrally voiced compilation that is excellent if one wishes to consult a reference book of scientific authority. Gillen’s accounts come piecemeal as facts are presented to him, and thus he allows the reader to participate in the sense of discovery and illumination. He occasionally indulges in a flight of what now appears the most ludicrous fantasy. Working among the Warramunga at Tennants Creek, Gillen speculates records the extraordinary ability of the people, especially the women to communicate entirely by means of a silent, gestural language. (Widows are forbidden from speaking for an extended period after their husband’s death.) Gillen speculates that this astounding facility derives from an Ur-language brought over to Australia by the first migrants, who at the time possessed no spoken language! Having reached the Central Desert and settled at some distance from one another, they then began to speak: this theory alone in Gillen’s view, accounts for the astonishing variety of languages in the relatively small geographical area they are passing through on their expedition.

But more the most part, Gillen simply records the stories faithfully, without comment, and certainly without derision. Though he still believes the Aboriginal people to be vestiges of the earliest forms of civilization, farther down the evolutionary ladder than white men, his unfeigned delight in learning their customs and beliefs, and his appreciation for the complexities of their thought, mark him as an uncommon character in the contact stories of the Central Desert. He may have been the first white man who listened.

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