Stolen Generations / True Stories

I. Current Affairs

It’s been a tough week for reading the news. It was bad enough reading the likes of ABC’s reports (here and here, for example) on the Coalition’s attempts to undermine Rudd’s forthcoming apology on February 13 by insisting that the term “Stolen Generations” be replaced by a euphemism. Reading the comments left on the site was worse.

Then The Australian had to bring back Keith Windschuttle with a column entitled “Don’t let facts spoil the day,” (February 9). He takes fear-mongering, selective examination of the evidence, and creative misinterpretation to new heights. He implies that the apology is meaningless without compensation–certainly a position he would be horrified to witness come true–and then calculates the cost of such compensation on the basis of a single case. A South Australian court’s decision to award Bruce Trevorrow $500,000 in compensation for false imprisonment would in Windschuttle’s arithmetic automatically translate into a $50 billion settlement for the nation as a whole. 

But of course, that wouldn’t be necessary, as Windschuttle goes on to argue that the Stolen Generations never really existed, largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence from New South Wales, where assimilation was old news by the time A. O. Neville championed breeding out the black in Western Australia in the 1930s. Windschuttle also notes that that it was Labor governments that passed all the laws that allowed for the removal of children. So it didn’t happen, but if it had happened, it would have been Labor’s fault. Thus Rudd’s apology becomes even more hypocritical. Right?

When he finally gets around to acknowledging that things were indeed quite different in the Northern Territory and, under Neville’s leadership, in Western Australia, he dismisses Neville’s program of “biological absorption” as essentially irrelevant. It was after all, about marriage and cohabitation, Windschuttle says (and presumably not at all concerned with the usual result of marriage or cohabitation, right?), and anyway, Neville was so inept that his programs were failures.

The only successful program from this era was the NSW Aboriginal apprenticeship system, which operated from the 1880s to the 1940s. It provided real jobs and skills and gave young Aborigines a way out of the alcohol-soaked, handout-dominated camps and reserves of their parents. Indeed, it is a policy that could well be revived today to rescue children from the sexual assault and substance abuse prevalent in the remote communities.

Perhaps the Liberals’ suggestion that the “Stolen” Generations be referred to as the “Separated” Generations could be discarded in favor of the “Apprenticed” Generations.

II. Reading History

Luckily, I had an alternative to The Australian to occupy my reading hours this week, in the form of a small paperback, the published record of Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures, entitled True Stories. Although the raw material of Clendinnen’s lectures is rarely uplifting, the diligence of her investigation, the generous heart with which she examines and interprets the human record, and her faith in the uniquely compassionate spirit of her fellow Australians make her review of settler-Indigenous relations somehow inspiring rather than depressing.

Clendinnen’s lectures were (I believe) her first significant published musings on Australian history. The major focus of her career to that point had been the history of Aztec civilization and its conquest by the Spaniards. When a life-threatening illness, memorably recounted in the Tiger’s Eye: a memoir (Text Publishing, 2000), curtailed her ability to continue that vein of historical research, she turned her attention to an examination of aspects of modern European history, published as Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Common to both these areas of study, however, was a quest to understand the wellsprings and mechanics of human cruelty. She extends that curiosity to Australia in True Stories.

The reflections Clendinnen presents in her lectures were shaped in part by the controversies that have become known as the History Wars, and the Howard-inspired attempt to celebrate a grand narrative of Australian history. Steeped as she is in decades of study of the complexity of human motivation, Clendinnen admits to a mistrust of simple narratives. In other respects, however, she applauds facets of Howard’s desire to instill a sense of the nation’s history into its citizens. She endorses his desire to see the history of immigration taught, so that each generation of incomers can understand its place in that story. In another section, her reflections on the unique character of Anzac Day and the sense of Australian history it embodies are among the most profoundly moving exercises in national pride I have ever read.

Still, the essays that comprise True Stories treat of incidents in Australian contact history from Cape York to Cape Leeuwin and from Arthur Philip to Noel Pearson. Perhaps they are just what the nation needs to be reminded of right now. They broaden the shape of the narrative and give context to the history that Rudd is about to make in Parliament next Wednesday.

Many of the stories she tells are familiar; some were new to me, despite the immersion in Indigenous history I’ve undertaken over the past decade. The genius of this slim volume depends in part on Clendinnen’s humanity, but to a great degree it depends also on the simplicity of the individual stories she tells and that contribute the complex narrative she seeks to establish. 

She begins her history of misunderstandings and unequal contests with a simple and moving story extracted from a letter written by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin in 1801. In it he describes the French scientific exploration party’s encounter with a lone, terrified, and pregnant young Aboriginal woman on a beach in the extreme southwestern corner of the continent. The French first attempt to placate the young woman’s fear with beads and mirrors, and then lift her bodily from the sand on which she cowers, the better to examine her physique. In her examination of Baudin’s recounting of the story, Clendinnen concludes that the French surely intended no harm, and just as surely inflicted it.

Further tales of encounters feature George Augustus Robinson, the nineteenth century Protector who mediated between the races in Tasmania and Victoria, and Donald Thomson, who witnessed and attempted to ameliorate the cruelties of missionaries and police in Cape York and Arnhem Land in the 1920s before turning his attention to investigating the health of the Pintupi during the droughts of the 1950s. She retells stories gathered variously from the missions of Queensland and the stations of WA, and from the anthropological investigations of W. E. H. Stanner and Catherine Berndt.

But the most affecting, the most pertinent stories Clendinnen elected to retell nearly a decade ago are shocking in the relevance to what is happening today as the controversy over the Stolen Generation re-ignites for the moment and entwines itself once more with the stories of social collapse that have given rise to the Intervention. These are the histories of the settlements at Coranderrk and Cumeragunja in Victoria. Like the stories of the Stolen Generations from Western Australia and the Territory, these are epics that unfold over decades of misery. It would be hard to improve on Clendinnen’s rendition, so I offer them only slighted condensed.

Coranderrk was established in 1863 for the remnant tribes of central Victoria, where you will remember there had been a catastrophic population collapse–eighty-five per cent over the first twenty-five years of contact. The new settlement had the luck of an excellent manager, John Green, a man who acted on the radical principle that the best way to manage Aborigines was to let them manage themselves

The people endured the usual hard lot of pioneer settlers, clearing land, stringing fences, building houses, and in time developed a flourishing, frugal community. The wages of the men, most of them seasonal workers, were supplemented with home-grown milk and vegetables, a small cottage industry in artefacts, and later a cash crop of hops.

So it went for a decade. At the end of the decade the community sustained many non-producers–old people, orphan children–was snugly housed, and close to self-supporting. … A visitor remarked that their houses ‘were equal to those of English workingmen and superior to those of many selectors in the district’, while the children ‘had a better education than most of the [white] farmers’ children’.

That was Coranderrk. Then the Victorian Aboriginal Protection Board began to siphon off the profits from the hop-growing into its general funds, ‘agricultural advisers’ were moved in, John Green was sacked, and for the next decade the residents fought the Board’s plans to remove them and to sell the land, which, now improved, was seriously profitable. (Does that sound familiar?)

The Coranderrk people fought hard and by the white man’s rules, with appeals to the press, strikes, and petitions. And they won: a Royal Commission in 1877 and a Parliamentary Enquiry in 1881 both recommend that necessary repairs be carried out and the reserve be made fully self-supporting. It was also proclaimed a ‘preserved reservation’, a status which could be reversed only by Parliament. For the moment, the land was safe.

But not the people. In 1886 the Victorian Aborigines Act was passed. Since the 1850s, there had been powerful disapproval of half-castes and full-blooded Aborigines living together. In its 1861 report, the Victorian Aboriginal Protection Board expressed its naive racism along with its intention ‘to interfere to prevent [half-caste children] growing up amongst us with the habits of the savage, as they posses the instincts, powers of mind, and altogether different constitution of the white man’. … ‘Absorption’ was now the official policy (pp 79-80) .

Within three decades the population of Coranderrk was reduced to six old people. The remainder was dispersed, some to the mission at Maloga in New South Wales, and thence to Cumeragunja Mission. Clendinnen continues the story:

Cumeragunja was to follow much the same trajectory as Coranderrk–hard work, improvement of land, including this time private enterprise: the clearing and cropping of twenty farm lots, each of forty acres, by individual Aboriginal farmers. Painfully, a stable community of close to four hundred people, largely self-supporting, politically sophisticated, was built–to be destroyed by the remorseless hands of white administrators. In 1907 the Aboriginal Protection Board resumed some of the improved blocks because in time of drought they had been rented out as pasture, which in time of drought happens to be correct farming practice, and in 1909 the Aborigines Protection Act for New South Wales was passed, allowing the removal of ‘any Aboriginal person who … in the opinion of the Board should be living away from the reserve’. Those who had protested at the resumption of their land, the land created by their labour, found themselves expelled.

During the 1920s, more blocks were resumed and leased to whites, and half-caste children were taken and put to work for whites (p.82).

And so here is a story of official policies that separated Indigenous children from their families. It is a story that began not seventy years ago, but seventy years after the colony’s founding.

But Clendinnen was not taking aim at Stolen Generation denialists when she wrote these lectures in 1999. In those days before the march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the notion of Reconciliation had yet to succumb to the manipulation and maneuverings of the Coalition. The shock of Bringing Them Home was still new and keen.

Clendinnen’s argument is that Australian history–all history–is complex, multi-threaded, as diverse and messy as the daily life we all know, and that history once was. For history to be “true stories” it must encompass many stories. The removal of Aboriginal children from their parents is one such thread, and the reasons for it must always pale before Keating’s judgment at Redfern:

It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?

Clendinnen’s Boyer Lectures, almost ten years old now, give substance and particulars to what Keating referred to at Redfern. She speaks not generally of dispossession, but of a terrified woman, crouching face down in the sand on a beach in western Australia. She writes not abstractly of murder but tells of a young white woman in Victoria whose letters to her fiance in the Murchison district of WA urge him to desist from taking part again in the “nigger hunts” he has written to her about. Her stories are not of children taken from their mothers but of a family with two young girls that George Robinson encountered in Victoria in 1841: girls whose English consisted solely of the obscene articulations of sexual satisfaction they had learned from the white man who had been violating them.

Clendinnen wants to recognize the Australian achievement:

The settlers, despite their loneliness and fear, despite their cruelties, built a society where the centuries-old shackles of class were struck off in a generation. Egalitarianism was their achievement, not as an aspiration, but as a social fact….

But there remains a scar on the face of the country, a birthstain of injustice and exclusion directed against that people who could so easily provide the core of our sense of ourselves as a nation…. That is why I have tugged you through all this history. We need history: not Black Armband history and not triumphalist white-out history, but good history, true stories of the making of this present land, none of them simple, some of them painful, all of them part of our own individual histories (pp. 102-103).

If nothing else, the apology that Kevin Rudd offers next Wednesday will once again publicly acknowledge some of those true stories. Perhaps it can point the way beyond them as well.

Transcripts of Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 True Stories are available on the ABC Radio National Boyer Lectures website.

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