Shaping a historiography: beginning a ‘history war’

The only way to discover who people actually are is through their expressions, through their symbolic systems…ethnography takes an historian to the systematic and public expression of who people are – their rituals, their myths, their symbolic environments.[1]

In The Death of William Gooch Greg Dening addressed a paradox that in order to discovering who people actually are, we must explore their symbolic systems, we must find who they are through their myths. In the 1990s, Australian history has been preoccupied with defining the nation’s past and its identity in controversies surrounding the work and opinions of prominent historians and struggles over the disputed facts of indigenous history particularly over the extent of frontier violence and dispossession. Macintyre and Clark’s The History Wars is an account of these politicised histories. Plotting the debate, Macintyre and Clark’s narrative shades into the terrain of myth, as they follow where history has been summoned to serve the symbolic needs of Australian national discourse.

Macintyre and Clark note that Prime Minister Paul Keating and his speechwriter, the historian Don Watson, relied inspirationally on Manning Clark.[2] An outspoken public figure in his later years, Clark’s History of Australia was vilified by his own publisher, Peter Ryan, following Clark’s death in 1991, as factually-inaccurate propaganda. Clark, Ryan concluded, was a victim of his own myth. It was an ‘epic’ myth of a tragic Australia, struggling for independence from its British origins that Clark offered his readers: an epic that Watson and Keating embraced.[3] Clark helped Watson and Keating conceive a symbolic environment, a moral space that Labor politics could occupy and to expand the moral space of Australian public life through an emotionally charged invocation of significant stories or myths from the past. Watson was presented with an unprecedented opportunity to employ the historian’s craft in national politics and invest Keating’s speeches with the resonance of myth, invoking the Australian legend to commemorate the sacrifices of two world wars and the symbolically-charged fate of the Unknown Soldier.[4]

History could also be summoned to destroy what Clark might have described as the ‘comforting’ myths with which white Europeans had obscured their treatment of the indigenous. ‘We committed the murders’, Keating bluntly reminded white Australians in his Redfern Park speech, as he stood before a stunned and largely indigenous audience.[5] ‘We practiced discrimination and exclusion.’ The High Court of Australia’s 1992 Mabo judgement[6] that recognised native title and the historic connection of Australia’s indigenous people to the land would form the basis of ‘righting an historic wrong.’[7] Historians had also played a vital role in rethinking the nation’s relationship with its indigenous peoples and laying the intellectual framework for the Mabo Judgement and the Keating Government’s response. Rowley and Stanner’s work began the task of revision in both historiography and in wider public discourse.[8] Henry Reynold’s path-breaking The Other Side of the Frontier established that Aboriginal tribes resisted the European invasion of their lands, and estimated that up to 20,000 aborigines had died in frontier violence while his The Law of the Land documented the legal and political denial of indigenous land rights.[9] Reynold’s work was cited in the High Court judgement in support of the claims made by Eddie Mabo on behalf of the Murray Island people. Attwood expressed concern about the role historians should play in redefining national identity in the wake of Mabo; historians had to retain a critical distance from a tendency to ‘essentialise’ Aboriginal claims about the past, propagating a ‘delusion’ that the past can be repossessed as ‘it really was’. A ‘new history’ could

…examine the moments when the ideals and values of both settler Australians and Aborigines have been upheld such that all peoples have benefited, and so genuine human progress can be said to be achieved.[10]

[1] Dening, Greg, The Death of William Gooch, (Melbourne University Press), 1995, p. 157.

[2] Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars, (Melbourne University Press), 2004, p. 242; see also pp. 123-125.

[3] Ryan, Peter, Lines of Fire: Manning Clark & Other Writings, (Clarion Editions), 1997, pp. 177-234, Craven, Peter, ‘The Ryan Affair’ in Bridge, Carl, (ed.), Manning Clark, Essays on his Place in History, (Melbourne University Press), 1994, pp. 165-187.

[4] Ryan, Mark, (ed.), Advancing Australia, The Speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, (Big Picture Publications), 1995, pp. 279, 285, 287.

[5] On 10 December 1992, Keating gave a speech, written by Don Watson, on Aboriginal reconciliation addressing issues faced by indigenous Australians such as their land and children being taken away. This speech became known as ‘The Redfern Address’ and was given in Redfern Park to a crowd of predominantly indigenous people, and although it was not given a lot of media attention at the time it is now regarded by many to be one the greatest Australian speeches. Keating was the first Australian Prime minister publicly to acknowledge to Indigenous Australians that European settlers were responsible for the difficulties Australian Aboriginal communities continued to face: ‘We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice’.

[6] The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case inserted the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law. In recognising the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait, the Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to Cook’s Instructions and the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788. This decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia. The new doctrine of native title replaced a 17th century doctrine of terra nullius (no-one’s land) on which British claims to possession of Australia were based. The Mabo decision thus solved the problem posed by the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971, which followed the ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius. In recognising that indigenous people in Australia had a prior title to land taken by the Crown since Cook’s declaration of possession in 1770, the Court held that this title exists today in any portion of land where it has not legally been extinguished. On 20th May 1982, Eddie Koiki Mabo, Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice began their legal claim for ownership of their lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The High Court required the Supreme Court of Queensland to determine the facts on which the case was based but while the case was with the Queensland Court, the State Parliament passed the Torres Strait Islands Coastal Islands Act which stated ‘Any rights that Torres Strait Islanders had to land after the claim of sovereignty in 1879 is hereby extinguished without compensation’.

The challenge to this legislation was taken to the High Court and the decision in this case, known as Mabo No. 1, was that the Act was in conflict with the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and was thus invalid. It was not until 3 June 1992 that Mabo No. 2 was decided. By then, 10 years after the case opened, both Celuia Mapo Salee and Eddie Mabo had died. Six of the judges agreed that the Meriam people did have traditional ownership of their land, with Justice Dawson dissenting from the majority judgment. The judges held that British possession had not eliminated their title and that ‘the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands’. Following the High Court decision in Mabo No. 2, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Native Title Act in 1993, enabling indigenous people throughout Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.

[7] Ibid, Ryan, Mark, (ed.), Advancing Australia, The Speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, pp. 227, 232; Watson, Don, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, (Random House Australia), 2002, pp. 288-291.

[8] Rowley, C.D., The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, (Australian National University Press), 1970; Stanner, W.E.H., After the Dreaming: black and white Australians–an anthropologist’s view, (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 1969.

[9] Reynolds, Henry, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, (Penguin Books), 1981; The Law of the Land, (Penguin Books), 1987.

[10] Attwood, Bain, ‘The past as future: Aborigines, Australia and the (dis)course of History’, in Attwood, Bain, (ed.), In the Age of Mabo, (Allen and Unwin), 1996, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

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