Stanner gave the Boyer Lectures — a watershed moment for Australian history. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
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His lectures profoundly influenced historians partly because of the image he captured: for a practice based on documentation, archiving and storytelling, silence is a compelling idea. In the wake of his lectures, influential Australian historians conceived of their own historical awakening in these same terms. And a colleague and friend recently recounted visiting Myall Creek as part of a Sunday school picnic in the s: no-one mentioned its dark history as the site of an infamous Aboriginal massacre in While these books and pamphlets are largely observational, they also frequently present historical narratives and interpretation.
Have a look at this description of the Myall Creek massacre from Godfrey Charles Mundy in his travelogue, Our Australian Antipodes , published in The white savages then chopped in pieces their victims, and threw them, some yet living, on a large fire; a detachment of the stockmen remaining for several days on the spot to complete the destruction of the bodies.
Reprisals [against Aboriginal people] are undertaken on a large scale — a scale that either never reaches the ears of the Government, which is bound to protect alike the white and the black subject; or, if it reaches them at all, finds them conveniently deaf. West was an abolitionist, and a tone of historical injustice inflects his writing about the Tasmanian Aborigines in volume 2.
And this one, where he mourns the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal society in only two generations:. At length the secret comes out: the tribe which welcomed the first settler with shouts and dancing, or at worst looked on with indifference, has ceased to live.
We came upon them as evil genii, and blasted them with the breath of our presence. We broke up their home circles. We arrested their laughing corrobory. We turned their song into weeping, and their mirth to sadness. Bonwick also reveals the ease with which colonial discourse accounted for murder. In the introduction to his history and in an talk to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, he gives a more detailed explanation of that approach. It was not a hunt through blue books [government records], that provided the source material for his research, he explains. Rather, it was conversation and hearsay, from sly-grog sellers, ex-bushrangers and colonial gentry alike, that furnish his historical narrative.
Alongside those histories was a humanitarian public discourse that anguished over frontier violence. Media commentary, public debates and lectures, as well as letters to the editor from the frontier that related specific episodes of violence, are explored in detail by Henry Reynolds in This Whispering in Our Hearts.
Likewise, poetry such as The Aboriginal Mother by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop reveals a form of popular and creative history-making in response to colonisation that can be seen in the work of writers such as Judith Wright and Eleanor Dark a century later. So why was that reverberation replaced with euphemism and omission? Partly the silence was a fear of punishment, as Bain Attwood argues in a recent essay on historical denial. Especially after the successful prosecution of the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators, colonial front lines and allegiances became a little murkier.
He writes:. Dreadful tales of cold-blooded carnage have found their way into print, or are whispered about in the provinces. And although there be Crown land commissioners, police magistrates, and settlers of mark, who deny, qualify, or ignore these wholesale massacres of the black population, there can be no real doubt their extirpation from the land is rapidly going on. The historians Stanner named in his lectures such as M.
Barnard Eldershaw, Hartley Grattan, Max Crawford and Brian Fitzpatrick were largely silent on Aboriginal policy and history in their midth-century histories — despite being written after the s, a decade that Stanner notes for its influence in shapeshifting on Aboriginal policy. Yet this form of history writing had begun in the late 19th century. At a time when Australian nationhood and national identity were being formed around Federation, the historical discipline was moving into a particular form of narrative writing oriented towards non-Indigenous Australian exceptionalism based on democratic and economic progress.
Education departments commissioned history texts and universities appointed history professors. Garrett, Cameryn C.
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