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Friday essay: on listening to new national storytellers

Does this rock painting, featuring a long, white gun, depict first contact? Is it a work of history? Author provided

Friday essay: on listening to new national storytellers

Does this rock painting, featuring a long, white gun, depict first contact? Is it a work of history? Author provided

A few years ago, I saw a series of Aboriginal paintings on a sandstone cliff face in the Northern Territory. There were characteristic crosshatched images of fat barramundi and turtles, as well as sprayed handprints and several human figures with spears. Next to them was a long gun, painted with white ochre, an unmistakable image of the colonisers. Was this an Indigenous rendering of contact? A work of history, no less?

I research historiography, the study of history writing. And just like that shaky rifle, painted onto a cave in northern Australia, each piece of history has a message and context that depends on who wrote it and when. As the US historian, Carl Becker, explained in his 1932 Presidential address to the American Historical Association, history

cannot be precisely the same for all at any given time, or the same for one generation as another.

You don’t need to go far to see Becker’s comments play out. Just think how Australian history has swirled and contorted over the years. The discipline continues to be hotly disputed, as historians, politicians and pundits of various persuasions stake a claim on the national narrative.

Should Australia Day be observed as a moment of celebration or survival? Should the Australian War Memorial include commemoration of the frontier wars? Should “invasion” be used to describe British colonisation? Taken together, these so-called “history wars” confirm the contested politics of collective memory.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attend a Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial earlier this year. Should the Memorial commemorate the frontier wars? AAP/Mick Tsikas

Such disputes also hint at powerful historiographical shifts across generations. Debates over Australian history aren’t simply ideological, but also disciplinary, and reflect the historical challenges wrought by changing approaches to the past. Take this passage from Ernest Favenc’s 1888 history of Australian exploration:

The white man, when he came, looked upon the country as he would upon uninhabited land.

Or this, from GV Portus, in his ubiquitous text for Australian schoolchildren, Australia Since 1606, first published in 1932:

From 1644 to 1770 the story of Australian discovery is dark night, broken only by one faint gleam.

History isn’t just about understanding what happened and why. It’s also a powerful discipline that reflects the persuasions, politics and prejudices of its authors.

Challenging the silence

Each iteration of Australia’s national story reveals not only the past in question, but also the guiding concerns and perceptions of each generation of history makers.

Historiography reveals the historical process as a “hermeneutic and dialogic enterprise”, writes Bain Attwood, an interpretative relationship that is up for review with each historical reading. That constant urge of historical revision is “an attempt to find a deeper contemporary meaning in the past”, adds Don Watson.

Favenc and Portus’s early historical readings can be clearly dated by the era of their writing and publication. While the idea that Australia was effectively without history prior to European “discovery” has been well and truly replaced, the sense that history-writing should document a nation’s inexorable progress was dominant from the mid-19th century until about the 1960s.

An illustration titled ‘Native Habitation’ in the 1846 book Discoveries in Australia. wikimedia commons

In fact, that period of Australian historiography has come to be defined by its lens of national advancement, where Australia was located in an affirming arc of British Imperialism. That narrative content was further bolstered by the methods and infrastructure of the history discipline, which privileged the written record and were consequently located in archives, libraries and universities (themselves imperial institutions).

For a settler-colonial society founded on the dispossession of Indigenous people, their omission was a telling oversight. Dispossessed from their country, Indigenous people were in turn dispossessed from Australian historiography. It was, in the words of the anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, our “Great Australian Silence”, and his phrase has come to characterise the nation’s own historiographical “dark ages”.

Since Stanner’s famous 1968 Boyer Lectures, the question of how to respond to that infamous historical silence has been approached in various ways. Historians such as Henry Reynolds tried to see the Other Side of the Frontier (1981).

Others, such as Peter Read, Lyndall Ryan and Raymond Evans wrote histories confirming what Indigenous people already understood, that settler-colonialism was far from the simple story of progress and advancement. And part of their historical method – the recognition of Indigenous testimony and oral history sources – was a challenge to traditional historical research methods, which depended on written primary sources.

More recently, Nicholas Clements literally divided his history of the Tasmanian Black War in two, in an ambitious attempt to reconstruct in writing the intractable “contact zone” of the Australian colonial frontier. Such research has been amplified by the work of Indigenous historians, such as Steve Kinnane, Noel Pearson and Larissa Behrendt, who have pressed for the inclusion of new historical lenses to read between the lines of colonial sources.

The influence of these historians’ research cannot be underestimated. Even in the 1950s, Portus’s book for young Australians was still the go-to text for thousands of schoolchildren around the country. There wasn’t an Indigenous perspective in sight.

Yet over the course of barely one generation, Australian history texts went from the casual inclusion of Aboriginal people as “stone age” snapshots to a concerted acknowledgement of Indigenous perspectives. It was a wholesale historiographical reimagining of Australia’s national story.

Different stories

The question I’m increasingly puzzling over, however, is whether that earlier silence extended beyond the academy? Historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might have been actively erasing the impact of settler-colonial society on Indigenous people in Australia – but what about different national storytellers? Were there other, metaphorical guns, like that one on the rock face in Kakadu, historians were missing?

Certainly, the sound of colonial violence and Aboriginal dispossession was ringing loud and clear in Judith Wright’s poem Nigger’s Leap, New England. Published in 1945, it’s based on the story of an Aboriginal massacre told to Wright by her father, and is a powerful antidote to Australian historiography of the time. She writes:

Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull/that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff/and then were silent, waiting for the flies.

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,/and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?

Her words are a stark contrast to the ebullient nationalist text of Russell Ward’s Australian Legend, published thirteen years later.

Eleanor Dark’s novel, The Timeless Land (1941), is another powerful example. In it, Dark tries to capture the cultural clash between the Eora people and the British colonisers in early Sydney. This is historical fiction to be sure, but as Tom Griffiths has argued in his stunning collection of essays on Australian history The Art of Time Travel, Dark deserves recognition as a historian for the work she did, and her impact on Australians’ historical consciousness.

That doesn’t mean historians should be freewheeling away from the conventions of truth-seeking and critical inquiry. But as Griffiths intimates in his recent book, the relationship between history and fiction is surely more a dance than a clash, despite the heated debate over Kate Grenville’s historical novel, The Secret River. And historians who ignore the potential of fiction to imagine their way into some of those undocumented encounters diminish their own historical imaginations, he concludes.

Cast members in the 2013 Sydney Theatre Company production of The Secret River. AAP/Heidrun Lohr

Consider the Indigenous writer Mudrooroo’s famous inversion of the journals of the Aboriginal Protector, G.A. Robinson. His fictionalised account of colonisation in Tasmania is grounded in the archive, yet written from the perspective of an Aboriginal Tasmanian, Dr Wooreddy. It was an imaginative leap reminiscent of Eleanor Dark’s, made all the more powerful by its Aboriginal authorship.

And if we extend our historical reading beyond the written word, what about the power of protest to mobilise new historical narratives, such as the 1938 Day of Mourning? While the rest of Sydney honoured the sesquicentenary of British colonisation, this dignified demonstration at Australia Hall on Elizabeth Street was a reminder that many Indigenous people had nothing to celebrate.

The last walkers come off the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 2000 Sorry Walk. AAP/Dave Hunt

These historical “moments” have the capacity to shift the tenor of Australia’s national story, as Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park speech and the Sorry Day Walk across the Harbour Bridge in 2000 attest. I wonder if they can also constitute a kind of history – not written, to be sure – of Australia’s past?

Testing the boundaries

Working outside the cultural economy of the canon opens up new possibilities for historical engagement. This isn’t a new idea, by any means. Feminist and postcolonial scholars have demonstrated that the past can be embodied on its own subjects. Histories of motherhood, the Holocaust, migration, colonisation, sexuality, and slavery play out corporeally. Environmental historians and archeologists have further argued that the archives aren’t simply buildings with microfilm readers, but are all around us.

I will never forget the sight of that painted gun, or the piercing gaze of a Jawoyn figure looking out from a cave across a remote valley near Nitmiluk Gorge. They were historical reminders of the providence of Indigenous stories of those places more affecting than any history text. Yet the question of whether rock art or fiction can enter the corpus of Australian historiography remains hotly contested.

The cave on the Jatbula Trail, near Nitmiluk Gorge. author provided

International studies have increasingly recognised the need to broaden our conception of historiography to reflect the many ways we make history, and consume it. German historian Stefan Berger notes

the importance of other genres to the evolution and shaping of national narratives.

The influential German historical philosopher, Jörn Rüsen, similarly advocates a much wider definition of historical practice: “History is much more than only a matter of historical studies”, he maintains. “It is an essential cultural factor in everybody’s life.”

I argue that there is a similar need in Australia to expand and reconceptualise our understanding of historiography in order to recognise that history is frequently captured and made outside the academy ­– in fiction, poetry, art and even beyond the public domain altogether, such as local and family histories.

The rock painting, complete with painted gun, in full. Author provided

A recent project on Australians’ historical consciousness confirmed that ordinary people aren’t all that interested in reading the latest scholarly works. International research also shows that most people get their history from familial and popular sources such as Who Do You Think You Are? or DNA Nation, as well as family and local history groups.

I think my partner learnt more about Australia’s colonial history watching the ABC mini-series of Grenville’s Secret River than he had ever read in the pages of a history book. Judging by the sales of the book and the reception of its serialisation, I’m sure he’s not alone.

Given that, there is an obligation on historians to try and understand the methods and contexts of these colloquial histories and to contemplate their influence.

The ethical implications for testing the boundaries of the history discipline are also implicit in this project. The act of “silencing” pushed Indigenous perspectives between the lines of Australian history-writing until the second half of the twentieth century, but these narratives were kept alive in Indigenous communities through stories, material culture and oral history.

While the sources of these narratives were frequently humble, intimate and far removed from any written archive, they fundamentally changed Australian history when they finally gained wider scholarly recognition from the 1970s.

If the incorporation of everyday Indigenous narratives into the canon of historiography interrupts the Great Australian Silence invoked by Stanner and others, what other assumptions about Australian history might be broken down by expanding its disciplinary boundaries?

Obviously, not all quotidian historical discourses can be included in this thing we call historiography: as the late US historian Michael Kammen reminds us, not every act of nostalgia or remembrance is an act of history-making.

Nevertheless, recognising the potential of those historical readings to bridge some of the gaps in our historical canon is surely a conversation that historians need to have. To do so requires recognition of the complex relationship between scholarship, public histories and vernacular history-making in any historiographical analysis.

The question is how? How to extend Australian historiography into the fields of public memory and popular histories alongside academic and official public narratives? How to include sites of silence and absence with the historical record? How to recognise the impact of local and family narratives on the national narrative?

These questions might shake up our understandings of how Australian history is made and consumed, but they don’t mean foregoing the practice of scholarly, archival research. I’m not advocating that we need to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. That would only add unhelpful fuel to an already unhelpful history war. Instead, I’m interested in what vernacular epistemologies of history can add both to our understanding of the past and the discipline itself.

New South Wales History Week will run from tomorrow until September 11. This year’s theme is Neighbours.