Monday, August 28, 2017

Grant, monuments and the study of Australian history

Unveiled on 25 February 1879, this statue in Sydney's Hyde Park of Captain James Cook has become the latest symbol in Australia's dispute over Aboriginal history The inscription on the statue reads "Discovered this Territory 1770".
On 18 August, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Indigenous Affairs Editor Stan Grant published an opinion piece entitled America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours. Mr Grant is a highly respected reporter. Passionately written, it used the Captain Cook statue as an entry point with its inscription, arguing that while the US was recognising its racist past with the campaign against monuments, the great silence still reigned in Australia.

The piece came at a time when there had been debate about monuments  (a statue of Governor Macquarie was vandalised earlier in the year) and about the date of Australia Day. As part of the second and immediately before Mr Grant's piece, two inner Melbourne councils decided that they would not celebrate the Day in its current form. As a consequence, the Federal Government withdrew their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies.

Following Mr Grant's piece there were further calls on one side for monuments to be removed, of support for Mr Grant's position, responses of outrage on the other side from the centre-right wing press in reporting and commentary. "Aussie Taliban", proclaimed the Sydney Daily Telegraph."PC vandals bid to tear down out history." Mr Grant responded with another ABC piece on 21 August, Stan Grant: It is a 'damaging myth' that Captain Cook discovered Australia and then a more nuanced piece on 25 August Between catastrophe and survival: The real journey Captain Cook set us on. Meantime, what appears to have been a lone vandal vandalised three statues in Hyde Park over the date of Australia Day, the Cook statue plus one of Macquarie, another of Queen Victoria, actions that Mr Grant strongly condemned.

To some degree at least, the net effect of all this is a rise in temperature without much light. a continuation of what were called the history wars. Different issues are mixed together into stylized positions. For that reason, I want to make a brief comments on a few of the issues as I see them.

The Reconciliation Debate

On 20 June, The Referendum Council handed in in its report on how to best recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution. The report was finalised following a national meeting of Aboriginal peoples at Uluru. You will find a copy of the report here. It includes the Uluru Declaration released after the Uluru national gathering. .

The original proposal to recognise Australia's First Nations in the preamble has been rejected as too tokenistic. Instead, the focus is on a representative Aboriginal body to be recognised in the constitution. Its powers would be decided by legislation, but its existence would be constitutionally protected. In addition, discussions should proceed on a makarrata or treaty.

It has been a slow and complex process gaining a measure of agreement among Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples on the approach to be adopted. It is likely to be just as complex gaining agreement in the broader community both on the proposals and their implementation.

I regard this as the single most important agenda item, although I have no clear idea as to how it might all work out. Current disputes are not helpful to the process of bringing either constitutional recognition or makarrata to a successful conclusion.

Australia Day

The 26 January date, the date at which the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson, has long been a difficult date from the perspective of many Aboriginal people. This is reflected in the use of the phase Invasion Day as an alternative to Australia Day.

I am no great supporter of Australia Day in a general sense, it's become far too nationalistsic for my taste, although like all Australians  I like an excuse for a party. I have previously indicated that I would support a change in date, although I also thought that a change in date might not be in the interest of Aboriginal activists in that it would remove a major platform for expression of Aboriginal views.  

For the present, retention of the existing date appears to be supported by a large majority of Australians. Wikipedia (link above) reports that in 2004, a Newspoll that asked if the date of Australia Day should be moved to one that is not associated with European settlement found 79% of respondents favoured no change, 15% favoured change, and 6% were uncommitted.

The position appears much the same today. A January 2017 poll conducted for The Guardian revealed that only 15% of Australians supported changing the date of Australia Day, with 83% supporting keeping the name "Australia Day". The poll also found that the majority (68%) felt positive about Australia Day, 19% were indifferent and 7% had mixed feelings, with 6% of people feeling negative about Australia Day. Among Indigenous Australians, however, only 23% felt positive about Australia Day, 31% were negative and 30% had mixed feelings, while 54% favoured a change of date.

Outside the Aboriginal community, the pressure for change in the date appears to come especially from elements of local government. While there is little support for date or indeed name change in the broader community, the form of Australia Day celebrations continues to evolve, something that is likely to continue. To a degree, the use of Australia Day as a protest platform, the broader inclusion of and recognition of Indigenous views, has become institutionalized, built into the Day itself. This process is likely to continue.

Meantime, the agitation over Australia day and especially the actions of the inner Melbourne councils of Darebin and  Yarra in deciding to ditch Australia Day is generating a backlash that doesn't aid the broader debate.

The Great Australian Silence

Mr Grant suggested that the great Australian silence still prevailed when it came to Aboriginal history  under the heading We ignore our history, he wrote in part:
America cannot avoid the legacy of racism. We find it all too easy to avoid. 
If America seeks to find what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature", we vanish into the "Great Australian Silence". 
Anthropologist Bill Stanner coined that phrase in the 1960s to describe what he said was "a cult of forgetting practiced on a national scale". 
We have chosen to ignore our heritage. So much history here remains untold.
Stanner coined the terms the Great Australian Silence in his 1968 Boyer Lectures After the Dreaming, which reflected on the silence on Indigenous Australians in Australian history. What Stanner said was certainly true in 1968, although even then the explosion in Aboriginal Studies had begun. It is not true today.  We are deluged in material.

Leave aside the political reporting and much of the policy discussion which often focuses on problems and has something of a swamping effect. There are a variety of specialist historical journals and research bodies, an ever growing range of thesis and popular histories. I stand to be corrected, but in terms of volume, Aboriginal history probably ranks second after war in terms of aggregate output. The new discoveries in prehistory including DNA results that have (among other things) pushed back the date of Aboriginal occupation of the continent and placed the Aborigines in a new global context are widely reported in the main stream media.

Most streams of cultural life now include specific and widely reported Aboriginal components. If you look at local government web sites or wikipedia sites on specific places you will nearly always find a section on Aboriginal history. And so it goes on.

Not all this material is especially good. I have argued before that the focus on invasion and on black-white relations has tended to twist research and writing on Aboriginal history. This comment has nothing to do with this research as such, nor the importance of the topic. Rather, the overwhelming focus has tended to squeeze out other research, including the history of Aboriginal peoples in the period after the ending of the frontier wars.

To the degree that the Great Australian Silence still holds, it is found especially in the history of the Aboriginal peoples after the frontier moved on and is arguably most pronounced when you move from topics to specific areas and language groups. At least so far as published work is concerned, we know more about the frontier period in Northern NSW, for example, than we do about the subsequent 150 years. It can be hard to find integrated material about particular communities or language groups.

The quantity of material is increasing, but it is still patchy and not readily available to the general reader, Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal, .I think that this is partly why Paul Irish's Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney made such an impact.

Recognising continuing gaps, if I am correct in my earlier conclusion that we are deluged with material, it is a legitimate question to ask why some of the story is not better known. I ask this in particular because I have been struck by the way that things that I thought had been settled years before, in some cases decades before, are regularly presented as new discoveries.

I think that the reason for this is fairly simple. This is contested space. The contest is not so much about the history itself, but the way this should be interpreted and presented in a current context. In the hubbub, the general audience does absorb particular messages but a lot of people just turn off, while the protagonists represent old material as well as new to support their positions.

The Vexed Question of Monuments and "a new history"

In his first piece, Mr Grant wrote in part:
America is tearing down its old monuments; it is hard and it is painful. 
Captain Cook's statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed. 
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation. 
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he "discovered" this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook. 
This was not an empty land. 
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians. 
If he is serious then what could be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?

Context is important in history. Events including the construction of monuments have to be put in the context of their time. Then there is the modern context, the way the moving present reinterprets the past including monuments.

Captain James Cook died in 1779. The statue was erected in 1879, funded by public subscription to mark 100 years since his death. The inscription on the statue reads "Discovered this Territory 1770" not, as repeated several times by Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National and repeated by Opposition Leader Shorten, "discovered Australia".

As worded, the inscription is factually correct. In 1770 Cook did discover the territory that would become NSW then through separation Victoria and Queensland as well. Overlaying this, is that from the viewpoint of those who funded the statue, Cook's discovery of a new land had laid the base for the establishment of their colony

It is also factually correct that Aboriginal peoples had occupied the land that would become the continent of Australia for at least 60,000 years. Overlaying this, is the more recent narrative of occupation and dispossession. So we have two different world views, one from 1879, one from 2017, held by different groups of peoples.

The question of what you do with names, statues or other symbols when views change is a complicated one, for those who want to replace one view with another often want to expunge the past. The Taliban destroyed monuments, ISIS destroyed ancient monuments including ancient cities on religious grounds. There are many similar examples from Christendom. Roman Emperors removed symbols of their predecessors. As the Soviet Union fell, communist statues were pulled to the ground and destroyed. In Iraq, statues of Saddam Hussein were expunged. In the US, confederate statues are being removed.

We humans are always inconsistent. Tourists flock to ruins and monuments created by or for people or regimes that were, by all accounts, guilty of gross barbarisms. We leer over the remaining symbols of or ruins or relics relating to the Emperor Nero. We celebrate the raids of the Vikings, a blood thirsty lot, with festivals and a stream of new monuments.

I must say that I find all of this very difficult to work though at a professional and personal level. For example, I'm inclined to support the German government's decision to turn Hitler's bunker into a car park to avoid creating a symbol, although as an historian I think that the bunker should have been preserved and also suspect that the decision itself creates a new form of symbol.

I oppose the wholesale removal of confederate monuments in the United States because I actually think its disrespectful to the past. But what do you do, as seems to be the case, about confederate monuments whose historical context is erection during the civil rights struggle in opposition to that struggle. Are they historical artifacts or current symbols of a still current struggle and therefore worthy of removal.?

In all this, there are a few things that I think are important. History is not, as Stan Grant, suggested, a matter of choice. History just is. Historiography, the study of the writing of history and of written histories.or
the writing of history, is. Choice determines, to again use his words, the stories we tell ourselves. Our history is alive in us.

This has led to calls for a new history, one more attuned to the twenty first century. This is really a call for a new historiography, of new interpretations of the past. In this sense, it is a political statement. When artist Ben Quilty stated in an op-ed piece that it's time to acknowledge our colonial terrorism,  he was making a current political statement and value judgment supported by bits of history.

The thing that I cling to in this debate is that the role of the historian is to analyse the evidence and go where that  leads. Of course, the topics selected and indeed sometimes the evidence selected is influenced by the historian's preoccupations and values, but if the work is properly done others can then question, challenge and put forward new interpretations. Sometimes this approach is unpleasant and even dangerous when it challenges preconceptions, but (to my mind at least) it is central to the profession.

This brings me to my final point. I have absolutely no problem in the creation of new monuments or adding explanatory material to explain existing monuments. I do have problems with destroying existing monuments or physically altering them to support particular current views.


Written over several days against a background of shifting discussion, this post attempts to clarify issues that I find quite complicated. They are not easy issues.              

No comments: