Book review: Truth-Telling by Henry Reynolds

Published in 2021, Reynolds latest book on our Aboriginal history provides an excellent backdrop into the current national conversation on “The Voice”. Like Reynolds, many Australians have not heard details of the actual possession of the Australian continent. His research into early documents from the time of James Cook, provides the answers to what actually took place.

Unlike other conquests, Britain made 900 treaties with indigenous people of what is now North America and in Aotearoa NZ about 300.

So, why the neglect of treaties in the colonial history of Australia? Reynolds puts forward some suggestions- firstly Terra Nullius, no one was here, which was flagrantly untrue. Also, that advice from the British Government to the early Governors that no land was to be stolen from the natives. Reynolds keeps reminding us that on the one hand Aboriginals were/are British citizens, but on the other, that they were naked, had no recognizable territory, did not till the land nor erect dwellings, that treaty making was not a possibility- in the sense that they understood Treaties.

Especially in the atrocities conducted in Northern Australia, he says regretfully that making Treaties would have been difficult, but there would have been less bloodshed.

The AIATSIS map is an excellent resource, containing some 360+ separate nations – each with their own culture, customs, language and laws. “Country” is the term used to describe the land, waterways and seas to which they are connected. It contains complex ideas about law, place, custom, languages, cultural practice, spiritual belief, material substance, family and identity.

The colonial practices of the past 200 + years have seen destruction of much of indigenous identity and their ancient sovereignty. The 1967 referendum allowed the census to begin counting Aboriginal peoples. Legal requests to the High Court were dismissed – using Lord Watson’s 1889 assertion that there was no land law in Australia. Only since Mabo in 1992 and Wik in 1996 are some Land Rights in place, and soon hopefully a Voice to Parliament.

During the 19th Century anti-slavery movements, Christian thinking challenged the killing of Aboriginals – and one theory was that they were not fully human, so restrains about homicide could be cast aside – or that they would die out naturally.

1901 saw Federation in Melbourne, but in far away northern Australia, white men had barely been seen- with deserts, wetlands and rugged country stopping their progress. This was unlike British occupation in Africa, India, Canada etc, where their laws and administration were in place.

In 1926 three propositions were put forward by MF Lindley regarding the sovereignty of lands inhabited by native people. Unlike in other countries, the proposition that native peoples did possess sovereignty could not be established. This is defined as the will and the ability to exclude others from their homelands. There were discussions on natural vs political societies – the latter meaning obedience to the laws and customs of that place. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that some began to understand that traditional customs were followed rigorously  and that Aboriginal peoples had the habit of obedience to these. Justice Burton and his fellow judges dismissed these claims.

A dawning appreciation commenced with the Bicentennial Celebrations in 1988- 200 years of white occupation stirred consciences as to the legality and morality of our treatment of First Nations. Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty Dance” rose to top the charts in 1991. We were aware of NZ’s Treaty of Waitangi but could not see its applicability here.

Who would Australians make a treaty with? This exercised minds which shattered “The Great Australian Silence”. Early negotiations might have provided tea, sugar and flour in return for peace from violence, but it quickly moved into dispossession where black people were turned into submissive and biddable servants- on low or no wages. Treaties could have been made by the power of the state, but this was never done – unlike in Canada. The failure to use a treaty mechanism meant a lack of respect for First Nations peoples which still prevails today.

The Australia Day holiday on 26 January is only recently contentious. As Indigenous voices and those of their supporters become louder, calling it Invasion Day. Some Councils have changed the date of when they celebrate Citizenship Ceremonies from 26 January.

Locke’s philosophy was that the three natural rights were for “life, liberty and property” and that no government could take away these rights without consent. These were ignored by the British on entering Australia – called “Settlement”– which was not consensual and not in any way settled the issues. In 1979 Justice Lionel Murphy described the idea of a peaceful settlement as a convenient falsehood.

Reynolds describes the differences between internal and external sovereignty. The latter is the relationship of a nation with other nation states. The frontier wars are all about internal sovereignty. These can never be forgotten by Indigenous peoples but are almost unknown by the rest of us. Almost all of Arnhem Land is now under traditional law. Burial poles and works of art are in all our Galleries. In the 1880s the conflicts and the high slaughter rates were well reported. Reynolds describes our current lack of information as a “great forgetting” with other stories such as ANZAC, Gallipoli etc taking place as our national stories.

Reynolds could uncover little in his teaching of history about our violent frontiers. But he found in The Queenslander writing in 1880 “The way we civilize,” reports of the killing times and a hard-bitten realism that violence was inescapable in colonizing. The British government created conditions under which violence was unavoidable. Aboriginals were British subjects but did not come under the protection of the law. White officers were instructed to “disperse” large Aboriginal gatherings, ie to shoot to kill.

We can now see that our advancement into the heart of Australia was enabled by Aboriginal guides who knew the bush, then by becoming competent stockmen and women domestics. Children were taken from their families. We can use truth telling to make our story as a nation much richer and more complex. Aboriginal resistance to an invading enemy could be re-described as great valour and patriotism. The Canberra War memorial which exhibits our involvement in overseas wars could be expanded to show a more truthful story of our nationhood.

There is a stirring in the nation with the desecration of statues of early white leaders. The example of early leaders being commemorated, e.g. Griffith who oversaw great bloodshed, can be reexamined.  Reynolds suggests that funding for research into Griffith’s role could be undertaken by Griffith University and annual Griffith lectures renamed. Truth telling is the ultimate gesture of respect- needing a willingness to listen and to learn and to incorporate these stories into our nation. These are stories of warfare- unknown by us, and yet in the US they list all of their wars to include little known Indian frontier wars. Now 32% of our continent has been returned to traditional owners, with over 1,000 outstations occupied permanently or on a part time basis. Redress needs to be ongoing and a new dawn to arise on this continent.

Truth-Telling by Henry Reynolds, published by New South Books, February 2001, ISBN 9781742236940

Valerie Joy, Queensland Regional Meeting

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