Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - access to an Aboriginal past

It is very important in writing history, if sometimes a little dispiriting, to recognise that what seems like a bright new idea to you is not bright and new at all!

My current obsessive digging down into New England history, something that I fear makes me a very dull read from a general blogging perspective, means that I have been mainly stuck in the period from about 1800 to 1850. This fifty years covers the main period of initial colonisation.

In Invasion, massacre, murder and just death in battle I talked about the way in which a change in the use of words can lead to unexpected changes in thinking. A little later in Belshaw's jottings - 27 May 2009 I used the device of a Daingatti man who was twenty when the first fleet arrived as a way of penetrating, however imperfectly, to the Aboriginal perspective.

I wonder what people think of me sitting in the train?

There they are with their ear plugs or, sometimes, just dozing. There am I with my glasses stuck on the end on my nose, briefcase on knee, flicking between book and spiral bound writer's diary as I read and write furiously. Every so often I lift my head up, take my glasses off and chew the end and then look around. Usually I have a thought niggling away and actually need to let it sit for a moment.

For those who know Sydney trains, I usually aim to sit at the end of the carriage where there are bench seats on each side. This just gives me a little more room. When I suddenly look up, it is not unusual to to have a quarter of the compartment looking at me!

Anyway, this time when I looked up I had been thinking that one device I might use to further explain what happened in a simple and interesting way was to use the techniques of military history to explain the moving frontier. Of course, it's been done.

In The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838, John Connor explores the moving frontier from a military perspective. In his review of this book Alan Atkinson, one of Australia's best current historians, made the point that it cut through the fog of history (my words) created by  Henry Reynolds on one side, Keith Windschuttle on the other. He wrote:   

Thinking in this way about frontiers means stepping into the intellectual jungle of multiculturalism. Black and white are held in balance - their aspirations seem equally complex and equally interesting. Connor chooses to hold the balance by leaving out stories of massacres, which imply the helplessness of indigenous people. He works instead with the conviction that along the Australian frontier, "at certain times in certain places there was sustained conflict that can only be defined as 'war'."

This makes the Aboriginal response into a matching of wits for the sake of survival. "Frontier warfare", by Connor's definition, involved a level playing field, at least for the moment and in the imagination of those who took up arms on either side.

Alan's review concludes:

This is military history, and the Aborigines are military tacticians. The methods of the British troops are compared with their methods elsewhere in the Empire, and the indigenous response is described in the same carefully comparative fashion. Their new techniques included attacks on introduced crops and livestock, a type of economic warfare which frequently held back settlement.

Previously, Aboriginal wars had been interrupted by hunting, but now warriors could live on food taken from their enemies, and that too changed the way they operated. Alliances were formed, between the Dharawal and the Gandangara in Macquarie's time, and among Tasmanians in the 1820s. This might mean a sense of Aboriginal solidarity unknown before the arrival of the British.

Connor doesn't overstate his case. As he says, Aboriginal achievements were necessarily limited without hierarchical methods of command. The book is itself the work of a cool-headed tactician, who knows how far his resources will stretch and with a first-class control of the field he has chosen to make his own.

As so often happens, there is another New England connection in all this.

If my memory serves me correctly, Alan's dad was a station manager for the Wrights. His brother was in my class at school, the twins in brother David's. Now Alan is professor of history at the University of New England.

The wheel turns. Alan would not be there and writing in the way he does without the history I am writing about. As always, the present stands on the shoulders of the past.

One of the things I want to do in writing is to draw out the streams in New England thought. These varied in many often subtle ways from those presented as mainstream by Australia's metro dominated historians.

Yes, I am back on one of my hobby horses. However, I still think that it's interesting.

Remaining with the Aborigines, the continued presence of relatively large Aboriginal populations in New England long after they became an irrelevancy in Sydney or Melbourne made for racism at local level. But it also made New England very important in terms of changing responses to Aboriginal people.

If I understand my history correctly, and I have a lot of work to do, many of the Aborigines in inner Sydney first came from New England and especially the Daingatti. They are very different from the Lapa (La Perouse) mob.

More importantly perhaps, a number of key flashpoints that changed relationships actually happened in what I call New England. I want to tease this out.

The personal element in all this remains very important.

  When I am called bro or brother, I cannot respond in kind. I say mate as an alternative. I am not Aboriginal and I feel very uncomfortable using language that does not reflect my own history.

There is a big post here that I should write at some point. For the present, what I can do is to give a group of Aboriginal people better access to their own past. 

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