Susannah Brindle. Victoria Regional Meeting.

Aboriginal people have taught me more about Australian history than ever I learnt at school or university. The real history, not the nationhood stories the media feeds us. Privately sceptical about the extent of the sufferings they told of–surely nothing could be that bad in this country–I went to whitefella literature to seek the truth and discovered that things had been that bad and, indeed, had been far worse. David Carline advised me to look into my family tree. “We know where we come from, but do you?” he challenged.

My family wasn’t unique. They were part of the early colonial history we like to tell each other with wonder and pride at the way they faced hardships and met the challenges of taming the wilderness they encountered. They covered up their convict stain with backbreaking hard work and respectable living, to become pioneer farmers, doctors, public servants, lawyers, and teachers and so on. They “helped to make Australia what it is today”.

They were the progenitors of the Second Nation Peoples that supplanted the First by virtue of a sort of evolutionary “right-ordering”. One of my great great grand uncles, a well-respected explorer of the upper Hunter Valley right through to Moreton Bay, systematically killed blackfellas in order to ensure sufficient pasturelands to feed the burgeoning colony. His brother, a hearty good-natured fellow, gave a string of horses to the young ringleader of the Myall Creek massacre, John Fleming, to make good his escape from justice. These brothers’ brother-in-law, my great great grandfather, helped raise the costs of legal representation for the others involved in the massacre.

My family and the Flemings had not only been neighbours on the Hawkesbury but were also connected by marriage. Helping each other out of a tight spot was what colonists did in those days. Fleming, a bounty on his head, galloped across the rugged sandstone country to the bosom of his family, lying low until the immediate brouhaha had subsided. Within a year his whereabouts were public knowledge but who with any sense would again stir the possum of whitefella conscience!

The bounty was never lifted but Fleming died, aged 78, a pillar of his community and church.

My family and their settler neighbours were as unremarkable in their everyday morality as they were in having “confused consciences”. The man whose legal services my great great grandfather took around the hat to pay for was Richard Windeyer, another Hunter Valley landowner. Regarded as highly principled and a learned barrister, Windeyer spared no effort in defending the Myall Creek murderers yet, barely four months after the trial, he helped found a colonial branch of the British-based Aboriginal Protection Society, the mandate of which was to create protective law reform for Indigenous peoples. Windeyer was strongly opposed to the notion that Aboriginal peoples had any right to land so it was with shocking self-disclosure that this eloquently persuasive speaker should conclude his public lecture On the Rights of the Aborigines in Australia with the now famous words:

How is it that our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?

This whispering in the bottom of my own heart grew louder recently when Dale Hess introduced me to an Aboriginal woman Elder and churchwoman who told me, in detail, about the iniquities of the Northern Territory Intervention and the proposed amendments to the Australian Constitution via a referendum scheduled for 2013. Like many whitefellas who have given themselves a sabbatical from uncomfortable Indigenous politics (something Aboriginal people can never do), I felt both ignorant and confused, so I did what I usually do in such instances and sought guidance from white literature. Victorian Friend Chris Hughes came to my aid with his copy of Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt which addresses “this whispering” head on.

Helpfully, and unavoidably confrontational, Sarah identifies “this whispering” as “collective guilt”, that profoundly uncomfortable feeling of being responsible for a wrong, a feeling which we prefer to deny, avoid and reject rather than experience and accept. She spares no effort in detailing the areas in which this unacknowledged guilt lurks, ready to paralyse our minds and warp our good intentions.

The wrong we whitefellas are in the presence of, of course, is that old chestnut–stolen Aboriginal land and the consequent illegitimacy of our nation. Our law is clear about theft: all stolen property remains stolen property no matter how long ago it was taken and all those who knowingly handle such property are legally responsible for returning it. There is, however, a single exception–the one that permits the Original Sin of our nation’s beginnings and sanctifies it because it happened two centuries ago. This inconsistency doesn’t seem to worry us.

I found Sarah’s point that “invasion is structure, not an event” and the words of Oodgeroo Noonuccal,

Let no one say the past is dead.

The past is all about us and within.

quoted at the beginning of her book, chillingly potent. Sarah shows how our past “casts a long shadow” and creates inescapable moral obligations for the present. Facing up to our collective guilt means examining the extent to which we feel solidarity with the crime (and with the society of settler-criminals like my ancestors) and accept as our moral right the stolen riches bequeathed to us by our colonial forbears.

This is a question for all non-Indigenes now–not just those whose ancestors number among the first wave of boat people, but those and the descendants of those who have, over the past two centuries, sought a new life in this country.

One of our much used excuses for not accepting our present responsibility to right past wrongs is that the moral understanding of yesteryear was different from that of the present. Sarah points out in her book that “morality” isn’t necessarily associated with “good”. The morality of my Hunter Valley ancestors and their contemporaries that has passed down to the present generation was one that presumed the superiority of western “civilisation” and underpinned the whole colonial project. It was a morality that encouraged “dispossession, forced migration, the chilling acceptance that Aboriginal people were a dying race and the callousness of policies of child removal”. It was a morality “psychically deformed”. It was, in fact, a genocidal morality and, by excusing it, we tacitly identify with it.

Sarah shows how our unacknowledged guilt will continue to cause us collectively (and individually) to look to government policies–like Intervention and expunging the racist bits in the Australian Constitution (to make us whitefellas feel better about ourselves?)–in the hope that they will fix up Aboriginal lives.

However, because we have not addressed the root cause of our guilt–our nation’s illegitimacy–any and all of our well-meaning attempts to better the lot of Indigenous peoples will founder as surely as they always have. I cannot escape the truth that we are now the knowing handlers of stolen property, and that our nation–my own “good deeds” and the hard work of my pioneer ancestors notwithstanding–is “rotten at root”; and that excusing any of our shameful history is something that, in the words of W.E.H. Stanner (1969), “sticks out like a foot from a shallow grave”.1

Sarah wrote her book in the hope that non-Indigenous Australians will focus less upon stories of the past and “think beyond the possible” into how we may make the history of tomorrow, today. She calls this “adaptive work” and suggests that we begin it by acknowledging Aboriginal Sovereignty which “does not need to be argued or proved, it just is…a constant, unavoidable and undeniable fact”. As long as we deny Aboriginal Sovereignty, we will continue to do damage to Indigenous peoples, and the genocidal crimes of the past will be perpetuated as the genocidal crimes we, as a generation, commit now.

Sarah grew up in white middle-class suburban ignorance as did I, so I felt she was conversing with me rather than accusing me. She came to her knowledge the hard way, through accepting her white guilt and living it with until it showed her how to act. Her passionate book is filled with the irrefutable–what is actually obvious to the Blind Freddy in all of us, had we the courage and honesty to admit to it.

Every moment of our life in this country presents us with the challenge to examine who we think we are in relation to what we now know about our “black” history. If we have the humility to engage in the adaptive work Sarah speaks of, I believe we can reenergise our souls and, who knows, create an as yet unimagined future for the world. In “this whispering in the bottom of our hearts” we may, indeed, come to recognise the voice of the Spirit.


W.E.H Stanner, After the Dreaming, Boyer Lectures, 1968.

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