Essay

Done and dusted

Please forget the past.
The future looks bright ahead.
[i]
– Otis Blackwell, ‘Don't Be Cruel'

FOR MY SINS, I was educated entirely in Queensland – or, as the authorities in my day preferred to call it, publicly instructed. This went on for seventeen years – from 1949 until 1965 – and I have beautiful handwriting to show for it. But not once in all that time, as far as I can recall, was I taught anything substantive about Queensland itself. Now doesn't that seem strange? In more than three thousand hands-on days of intense institutional instruction, nothing particularly penetrative or self-referential was ever said about the place, the state or the society that was, at the same time, busily intent on moulding me into one of it citizens.

I do, of course, exaggerate a little here. There was that one time, at Bardon Infants' School in 1949, when I – as a new chum Welsh boy – was taken outside by the teacher, with the entire class in tow, to be proudly shown a kookaburra. 'This is a laughing jackass,' she said. And there was that high school assignment, a decade later in the state's centenary year, to write an essay entitled, 'Queensland. One Hundred Years of Progress'. (Nothing pre-determined about that little task, of course.) Nor can I remember any crash course in local historiography preceding the exercise. Obviously, we students had no need for this – for wasn't it all self-evident? Look around: this certainly was Queensland and there, indeed, was progress. Such commonplaces were simply absorbed, as if by osmosis.

I began the essay – rather enterprisingly I thought for a novice – with Captain Cook on the deck of the stricken Endeavour in 1770, cursing the Barrier Reef and its adjacent land-mass merely for being there, little knowing that 'the land he was condemning would develop into the wonderful state it is today'. Unfazed by how this introduction subverted the entire centenary chronology, I went on to lavishly praise the railway network, mineral extraction (including 'the most important of all, uranium'), population growth, the incredible 'free education' system and the advent of television. I ended with a flourish about Queenslanders' fabled hospitality and a panoramic paeon to 'a land of fertile fields, cattle runs and sheep stations, rich mines, factories, busy ports and far-flung railways'. 'This year,' I concluded, 'is a year for looking back over the last hundred years of our standing as a state with satisfaction and thankfulness, and for looking ahead into the years to come, years of peace and prosperity, with hope and courage for a free and wonderful future.'[ii]

I was unquestionably sure of all this – somewhat like any local politician today. And my parents always said I had a way with words. It was all callow public relations bluster of course – the kind produced from an infinitesimal knowledge base. I got an A-minus for it: I had misspelt Gympie. It was, after all, an English essay, not history. We didn't 'do' Queensland History. History and Queensland did not compute.

Considered in retrospect, my 1959 essay is reminiscent of 'Edna's Hymn', a song written by Barry Humphries about Australian suburbia in the 1960s, with 'picture windows open wide'. 'In the land where nothing happens,' Dame Edna intones, 'there's nothing much to hide.'[iii]

 

CERTAIN WRITERS TODAY still adhere to this dictum, and some even fancy themselves as historians. Towards the close of his massive, self-published diatribe against so-called 'black armband' historians (of whom, apparently, I am one), The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Macleay Press, 2002), Keith Windschuttle attempts to tie it all together by proposing that the struggles of Australia's past were all essentially inconsequential ones – the verbal mirages of blowhards, fantasists and fabricators. Everything that unfolded earth-shakingly elsewhere was somehow resolved here 'without much fuss'. The convict system methodically and painlessly transformed convicted criminals into useful, law-abiding citizens. Protestantism, Catholicism and secularism always subsisted 'in harmony'. The Eureka Rebellion was merely an exercise in petit-bourgeois self-interest. Ned Kelly was a small-time rural thug. All the epochal democratic struggles were waged elsewhere. Women were given the vote, without agitation, by sensitive conservative males. Class conflict evaporates in a puff of smoke – and we all know what that writer thinks about race conflict. 'The difficulty of accomplishing grand, dramatic narratives in Australia,' Windschuttle believes, is that 'the history of this country has been so uneventful...As a result, in the writing of history the most publicly successful Australian authors have been those who could cook up something dramatic from the most meagre ingredients.'

One of Windschuttle's numerous media backers, Michael Duffy, thinks similarly. These black-armband types who talk about 'genocide' and so on, he charged in a Courier-Mail column of November 2003, concoct arresting Antipodean scenarios simply to dispel 'the tedium of living in one of the most peaceful and suburban societies in history': 'Picture-windows open wide' and all that.[iv] Duffy's more substantial 2003 foray into Australian History, A Man of Honour: John McArthur (Macmillan, 2003) is rich in such reassuring plums. Australia's story is simply about the smooth delivery of 'vibrant democracy'. Convictism, hailed for its efficacy by Windschuttle, is here reduced to 'an aberration' with no lasting effects on society whatsoever (though it persisted, in one place or another, for more than eighty years). Convict and colonial women were only advantaged by being vastly outnumbered by men. The European class system began to vanish 'the moment the boats landed at Botany Bay' – a marvellous 'success story' ensuring the creation of 'a particularly egalitarian society', with tolerance high on the agenda as its 'greatest national virtue'.[v]

There is considerable consonance between my early foray into Queensland history and the adolescent utopianism of John Howard's old 'Praetorian Guard' of culture warriors. My excuse, of course, is that I was an adolescent – and it was early 1959, a high point of Cold War utopianism about one's home-turf, as Western righteousness contested Soviet perfidy. Furthermore, both these writers got A-pluses for their efforts. Peter Ryan, Manning Clark's publisher (and later traducer) called Duffy's work 'superb'. He predicted it would 'become a beacon to bewildered young historians wondering which way to turn' after those reprehensible 'black armband' writers had so wantonly misled them.[vi] Gillian Dooley, a reviewer on the Australian Public Intellectuals' Network concluded, no doubt with unconscious irony, that Man of Honour was 'an example of the best kind of historical writing...as readable as good fiction'.[vii]

Any examination of elisions, blind-spots and suppressions in Queensland's past must thus consider a wider matrix. 'The Sunshine State' is not the only shiny national corner to be blinded by the light when it comes to recognition of its past difficulties, embarrassments and failings. Long before the present crop of historical straighteners dominated the local media, a vast school of nationalist historians were already preoccupied with finding only reasons to be cheerful in the overall Australian story. Could our history be nothing more than this endless parade of 'remarkably cheerful stuff, full of expansion and progress and growth and better wages and conditions?' asked Patrick O'Farrell sceptically in a Quadrant article in the late 1960s. O'Farrell was an expert in Irish-Australian history and knew it could not all be 'brightness and light'.[viii] A decade later, in 1978, intellectual historian Michael Roe also queried this 'genial, congratulatory and optimistic' monochrome in another article in Quadrant, [ix]while at the time of the 1988 Bicentennial, Don Watson (later to write Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern speech) worriedly traced an effusive official sanction of 'unmitigated and witless celebratory history', as public condemnation of counter-claims grew.[x] The current penchant for only a 'good nation' story therefore carries a long, and indeed curious, pedigree. In earlier times, a wide slew of authors had blathered endlessly on about 'the only continent in the world peopled by one race', showing up 'white on a [world] map of carnage' – meaning essentially guiltless and untarnished.[xi]

White Australians grew adept at evasion quite early on – for instance, they annually celebrated Foundation Day without any mention of convict transportation or frontier transgression. The continent became, by cultural default, 'the only considerable portion of the world which has enjoyed the blessed record of unruffled peace' as Ernest Scott put it in 1910 in his history of French exploration of Australia.[xii] The pseudonymous soldier-versifier 'I. Exit' was not just speaking for Queenslanders when he wrote in 1918:

My native land is a new, free land.

It needed not bloodshed to make it so;

One people, one tongue and no racial hate,

Yet o'er the seas her warriors go.[xiii]

Queensland, as a big part of this tranquil land, went along quietly. If the nation was calm overall, then tropical Queensland was soporific. If the nation was essentially virtuous, Queensland was exemplary. Ultimately, when a society self-censors so assiduously at every perilous turn, there is not a lot left to say. And with mainstream historical discourse dominated by a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney academic axis, Queensland furthermore was elbowed out of the national limelight and sidelined from portentous consideration. Australian history was largely a two-state affair with the rest of the country supplying quaint marginalia. In the sprawling national histories, Queensland's past largely received forgettable walk-on roles, although sometimes a small speaking part was thrown its way. (Queensland was New South Wales' foil as Tasmania was Victoria's.) In Gordon Greenwood's substantial edited tome of 1955, Australia: A Social and Political History (Angus & Robertson), attention to Queensland-ish issues monopolises less than seven of its 432 pages. This despite the fact that the volume was produced by the History Department of the University of Queensland.[xiv] Just over a decade later, in another history also called Australia, written by Russel Ward (Ure Smith, 1967), exposure was down to 1 per cent.[xv] It has mostly been this way. True, within David Day's ambitious Claiming a Continent (Angus & Robertson, 1996), Queensland attains a dizzying peak of almost 3 per cent of the narrative – and it is interesting stuff too.[xvi] But by the time of Stuart MacIntyre's revised Concise History of Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2004), the allotted space is back to a derisory 1 per cent once more.[xvii]

What were Queensland researchers and writers doing while others struggled to find something significant to say about their neglected northern zone? For a long time, they continued producing a slow trickle of texts with the flavour of my prescriptive 1959 effort. Some were advised not to bother. In 1890, when J.G. Walker compiled a first History of Bundaberg, the Queenslander newspaper's reviewer lashed out: 'Poor Clio, imagine her reading this – History of Bundaberg by J.G. Walker! History of Bundaberg indeed! I wonder what Bundaberg has done that it should stick itself into the realm of History. Has it had any wars beyond Kanaka fights, any revolutions beyond a bit of flood? Has it any heroes whose names are of world-wide fame? Has it been the scene of any epoch-making event? No? Then how the deuce does it come to have a history ...'[xviii]

Very little academic investigation occurred before the 1960s. In earlier times, it was left to ambitious amateurs who boosted such achievements as 'over three million cattle, almost six million sheep and a state teaching system'. A steady, tub-thumping approach of pro-development propaganda prevailed. Its apogee was M.J. Fox's massive, three-volume History of Queensland, extending across almost 2,800 pages and subtitled An Epitome of Progress. Compiled from 1919 to 1923, this enterprise ingeniously sold its pages to prominent Queensland families to sing their own praises in commissioned, self-prepared historical biographies – a sort of democratic word-fest for those cashed up enough to afford it (in other words, the ruling elite). Fox trumpeted the work as stimulating 'a world-wide interest' in Queenslanders, but it was more of a reassuring exercise in self-assertion for the powerful at a turbulent time in local history when their hegemony had never been more directly under challenge.[xix]

Then, in 1959, came the notorious Triumph in the Tropics (Smith and Paterson), Queensland's fat Centennial offering, written by former Director-General of Health and Medical Services Raphael Cilento and well-known public servant and bibliophile Clem Lack. Both were prominent members of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Their celebratory volume of official history unselfconsciously admitted that 'controversial political and economic issues have been avoided deliberately'. (Apparently they believed this would prevent rather then create interpretive distortion.) The 'Triumph' in question turned out to be not merely one over tropical climate and disease, but also over Aborigines, Melanesians and Asians, who were denigrated throughout as sub-human pollutants of varying toxicity, and comprehensively put to rout. Obviously, there was nothing too 'controversial' about this stance in the Queensland of 1959. No one complained. No one even seemed to notice. After all, the white and largely Anglo-Celtic majority were well recompensed. They were heirs to a happy, harmonious and prosperous society, bequeathed to them by the exploring and pioneering 'supermen' of the nineteenth century. Racist expression was implicit in the patois of the place.[xx]

 

SILENCES IN THE historical record are quite easy to miss. They are fugitive and do not, by definition, usually announce themselves. Yet, as Cilento and Lack's work attests, they can sometimes quite openly and helpfully do so. Earlier local chroniclers also frankly inform readers of the difficult or unpleasant subjects they intend to avoid. In Queensland, therefore, silences can and do declare themselves as purposeful suppressions. 'To a great extent, the history of one penal settlement is the history of all penal settlements,' is historian William Coote's dismissive summation of the Moreton Bay convict station that endured for almost two decades and was, at its worst, the roughest secondary punishment locale on the continent.[xxi] Convicts petitioned to be sent to Norfolk Island rather than be transported there. 'Shall we pass over it? We think so' bluntly concludes another history, Queensland 1900 (Alcazar Press), compiled in 1900 for Federation; while a third account, quoted in I. Duffield and J. Bradley's Representing Convicts (Leicester University Press, 1997), predicts pessimistically: 'It will indeed take more years than have yet rolled by to blot out from the history of Moreton Bay such scenes as those which formed the routine of its earliest days.'[xxii]

Such historical writing is not predicated on the essentials of disclosure and explanation. Rather, it is fixated upon eliminating 'hated stains'. The tendency to deny and suppress is a potent and enduring one. It is fed by two impulses. The first is a need to elude the phantoms of convict origins and frontier conflicts that are rejected as unconscionably shameful. In reference to convicts, the Reverend Charles Smith told his Brisbane audience in 1856: 'There is but little to lead our contemplation back to the past (and that little we would fain avoid and forget).'[xxiii] A local press columnist further assured readers of the Moreton Bay Courier in 1859: 'in writing what has already taken place, the aboriginals will be passed by in a few lines: "They were wild, untutored savages, having little more perception than animals, and were dangerous to the settlers and...made into worse than demons by Rum".'[xxiv]

Second, there were powerful motives to create a flattering public relations profile to attract migrants and capital across great distances into an apparently pristine and unproblematic environment. As migration historian J.C. Camm concluded in 1985: 'A favourable image of the colony had to be created, an image to counter the view of Queensland as a place of sweltering heat unfit for Europeans and ill-suited for agriculture.'[xxv]

It was at the migrant recruiting lecture in the Northern Hemisphere that the lying actually started. Prospective settlers were assured that, by hard work, they would become self-sufficient farmers. This hardly ever happened. Furthermore, a society built substantially upon successive migration waves is fundamentally unstable culturally. It has no continuous, experiential sense of enduring traditions – or, rather, such struggling traditions are continually mediated by the irruption of alien perceptions. Discontinuity rules, with the larger, older story held together by only a thin skein of fading folk memories. Strangers, after all, are more attuned to the cultural legacies they leave behind than those of the place they newly embrace. Such migrants are thereby vulnerable in their innocence to any interpretation – and perhaps the more sugar-coated, the better swallowed. So gradually a story is fashioned that sounds as virtuous as it is vapid. And, precisely because of its highly challengeable veracity, it functions prescriptively, angrily protective of both its narrative and its boundaries.

There was still something very ramshackle about Queensland history when I first became its student in the mid-1960s. It was insubstantial, unstructured and ultra-cautious, with far more knowledge gaps than truly durable texture. In fact, there were more lacunae than holes in a Swiss cheese. What immediately struck me as a new researcher was the vast contrast between most of the bland published material – much of it officially commissioned – and the stark, troubling documentation one uncovered in manuscript and archival collections. I was studying race contact history, so really had wandered into a minefield. The first primary documents I read at the Queensland State Archives in 1965 outlined a plea by white selectors at the Tully River in 1896 for more Native Police protection, after resisting Aborigines had burnt down Rockingham pastoral station and tried to spear some men. The existing Native Police camp at Nigger Creek could not vanquish these 'Range blacks'. The petition concluded: 'this we may remark is the seventh property in the locality that has been destroyed by fire by the aboriginals...and...stock for years past have been destroyed...in large numbers'.

To put this concentrated incendiarism into some kind of context, in 1892 desperate strikers in the great 'shearers' war' had fired five woolsheds across the whole of Queensland and, during a reprise in 1894, another six.

The very next letter revealed the other side of the equation. Sent by a sympathetic colonist from the same district, it stated that Aborigines at Cardwell were 'so terrorised by the fate of some of their companions' at the hands of the Native Police, who were killing adults and kidnapping children, that they refused to go hunting 'but gather round the houses of the friendliest settlers to starve'.[xxvi] In short, the contours of a vicious asymmetrical struggle were immediately displayed within this brown paper-wrapped bundle of documents, innocuously labelled 'Records relating to the Supply of Rations to Aborigines'. By 1896, moreover, frontier conflict in this region had been proceeding fitfully for over three decades. Why was this epic contest lost to posterity? Nothing I had read in the published material had prepared me for this sudden plunge back through time into the pitiless mayhem of what some Aboriginal writers are now beginning to call the First Wars. Long-term Aboriginal Protector J.W. Bleakley's volume, The Aborigines of Australia (Jacaranda, 1961) had referred to Native Police as 'black trackers', and a recent paper in the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland had examined the force without any reference to reprisal raids or the bloody dispersals of Aboriginal communities. Earlier, Fox had written: 'A very important factor in maintaining law and order was the Black Police ...'[xxvii]

Frontier historians balance their analyses precariously between sound and silence. And there certainly were strong imperatives to remain tight-lipped on various critical subjects in colonial Queensland. Detailed disclosures that might expose indictable offences were especially verboten. 'I have been asked and begged of repeatedly by many timid (I may say) persons not to...[report this],' began colonist B.H. Purcell's account of the shocking spread of venereal disease among Aboriginal peoples of Western Queensland in 1892. The report was immediately shelved.[xxviii] So it was not simply private citizens who practised conspiracies of circumspection. More crucially, the law itself was silent. No person was successfully punished in Queensland for anything harmful done to an Aborigine from the 1850s to the 1880s – that is, during the most tumultuous era of violent frontier expansionism, three to four decades in extent, there was open slather. One writer, A.J. Vogan, called these 'the red, shocking years'.[xxix] Aboriginal peoples had no de facto legal protection as they were murdered, maimed, kidnapped, enslaved, flogged, raped, maligned, humiliated and exploited. Their only protection was their own valiant, ineffective resistances.

Native Police officers, employed by the state, were quietly transferred or dismissed – but never tried – when found to be embroiled in the kind of undeniable atrocity that might capture the attention of the British Colonial Office. Level upon level, matters were systematically hidden. Settlers reporting irregularities were assured that they were delusional. Distant places, far across the globe as well as environmentally and climatically forbidding, were ideal locales for getting away with murder. Following a spate of killings of Aboriginal pastoral workers by white vigilantes in the Goondiwindi district, embodying something even worse than open frontier retaliation – slaughter under the mantle of protection – a harried Commissioner of Crown Lands, Richard Bligh, reported in early 1849 to his superior: 'It may give you some idea of the state of combination and system of terrorism existing in this locality when I state that though the murderers...are known to everyone [and] though the [New South Wales] government have offered large rewards...yet not the smallest additional evidence has been given...and persons of respectability...have actually joined in a subscription set on foot for the defense of the parties accused.'[xxx]

The case did not proceed. Less than a decade later, in the frenzied aftermath of the Fraser family massacre by Jiman in 1857, George Serocold, another member of a marauding vigilante band dubbed The Browns and composed of leading pastoralists and their henchmen, admitted to shooting 'every grown-up black which [sic] we could find' during a three-week sortie over one hundred miles of country, the Wide Bay hinterlands, in a letter to his brother in England, adding: 'Whatever you do, be careful as I do not wish anybody to be able to read what I have written.'[xxxi] He need not have worried.

A young journalist-to-be, George Lang, looked on appalled and disbelieving as the legal fraternity declined to act, even when accusations of the mass killing of more than 150 Aborigines (roughly equivalent to five Port Arthur massacres) were presented to them. The Browns had shot 'upwards of eighty men, women and children', Lang wrote, 'away from the scrubs of the murder of the Frasers altogether'. They had even visited sheep stations on the Burnett and killed unresisting pastoral workers there. Native Police detachments also admitted to shooting 'over 70 blacks'. But the law sat on its hands, even when Aborigines were cut down in open view in the streets of Maryborough. Lang informed his uncle: 'The whites punish and persecute without discrimination... I suppose you have said long ago where are your magistrates. What are they about. I reply, our magistrates are all here and they might just as well be at Jericho, they do not care a fig for either law or justice and in short knowing how matters stand they are as guilty of every act of cruelty as the actual perpetrators of them. They are traitors every man of them and unworthy [of] the confidence of the people.'[xxxii] Had such cases been legally prosecuted, they would have cast the Myall Creek affair of 1838 into the shade.

Most of 'the people', however, also understood the advantages of 'keeping mum'. The small coterie of colonial whistleblowers were particularly driven, courageous and perhaps foolhardy kinds of individuals. Most who contributed to an extended revelation of frontier atrocities in the Queenslander of 1880 did so under the cloak of anonymity. They knew that personal exposure risked career damage and public ostracism – a kind of social death. 'We have at our disposal a mass of information we cannot use,' the Queenslander editorialised. 'This...comes from men so situated that, if it could be traced to them, they would be exposed to much annoyance, and in some cases the danger of total ruin.'[xxxiii]

This season of exposé was eventually collated in pamphlet form under the title of The Way We Civilize, attributed to 'Anon' (who in this instance was the crusading journalist and editor, the Norwegian Carl Feilberg). No copy of this important pamphlet is available in Queensland research collections. I finally tracked it down in the specialist library of the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1984.

Writing also in 1880, the principled immigration agent at Maryborough, Richard Sheridan, informed Russian scientist and New Guinea explorer Baron Nicholaé De Miklouho Maclay of local Native Police excesses across two decades, in a detailed letter of 'extraordinary candour'. In Queensland, he concluded: 'No justification is required for shooting aborigines...our legislators have brought a lasting disgrace on the colony by their legalising wholesale crime.' But this was a private letter, surviving in a European archive and not published until 1944.[xxxiv] Corresponding from outside Queensland, both Sir Arthur Gordon, a British High Commissioner, and the New Guinea missionary William Lawes forwarded evidence of the colony's 'brutality and cruelty in dealing with blacks' to help thwart Premier Thomas McIlwraith's ambitious attempt to annex Eastern New Guinea in 1883. Lawes wrote: 'Nowhere in the world have aborigines been so basely and cruelly treated as in Queensland – the half has never been told – and are the natives of New Guinea to be handed over to the tender mercies of the men who have done these deeds?'[xxxv]

Similarly, in 1904 Harold Finch Hatton, an aristocratic former sugar planter of Mackay, informed the London Times: 'I unhesitatingly declare that the blacks of Queensland have been almost entirely exterminated by a system carefully planned and deliberately carried out by the Government of the country.'[xxxvi] He, like Gordon and Lawes, was by then safely out of 'the country' and thus emboldened to speak out.

 

IN THE EARLY 1970s, when I was deeply engaged in this research, the resident Queensland historian in my university department, Allan Morrison, angrily remonstrated with me one day about claiming a violent frontier for the colony. Sadistic types existed in every social formation, he maintained triumphantly. But these nineteenth century whistleblowers were exposing not simply the odd private individual mired in massacre, but in effect a massacring state (supported by a compliant society) that on the one hand permitted such licence by withholding prosecution from private perpetrators, while on the other remaining a massive, persistent perpetrator itself, via the enduring institution of the Native Mounted Police.

This mixture of inaction and purposeful agency appears to fall within the definitional ambit of genocide and is arguably the most serious issue today's Queensland historians have to face. The force operated lethally across the entire territory of Queensland – two-thirds the size of Europe – for more than sixty years at the behest of governments dominated for the most part by pastoralists, planters and mining magnates, all of whom had a vested interest in such land clearance. Even acknowledging this more than a century later brings a chill of shock and caution about what it must logically mean.[xxxvii] It is still largely dangerous, unspoken territory. Yet any history that has this kind of chronicle locked within it can hardly claim to be an innocent and peaceful one.

No wonder, then, that most colonists were so circumspect at the time about local issues involving dispossession, alienation and labour exploitation. All such matters were swathed in euphemism, secrecy and denial. Everything proceeded by inference. In 1895, a Brisbane journalist, J.J. Knight, interviewed a man (unidentified) who, he wrote, had 'assisted in putting away many Aborigines out of existence'. This man detailed several incidents that 'if repeated', Knight warned, 'would scarcely be regarded as pleasant reading nor yet redound to the credit of certain persons who shall be nameless'.[xxxviii] To penetrate the façade was to court serious repercussions. 'Influence is very powerful in this colony', wrote Alfred Davidson, the dogged local representative of the Aborigines Protection Society in Brisbane in 1869. His small band of supporters did not feel themselves 'quite safe...[and] circumstances oblige us to be very circumspect and prudent', not only regarding frontier excesses but also those of the Melanesian labour trade, unfolding on another kind of Queensland frontier.[xxxix] By the early 1880s, the Islander death-rate among prime-aged men and women would reach 148 per 1,000, fifteen times the comparable colonial average and almost equivalent to that of Australian prisoners-of-war in Japanese labour camps in World War II.[xl] More than 13,000 died during the course of the trade.

In 1890, New Zealand journalist and illustrator Arthur Vogan published a sensational novel in London about life in North Queensland, The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia (Hutchinson), pitched somewhat as an Antipodean Uncle Tom's Cabin, and based on data collected in the colony while on assignment for the London Illustrated News in the late 1880s.[xli] He soon became 'a marked man', and was forced by social boycott to quit the Eastern colonies for Western Australia. Years later, while living in Mosman, Sydney, he recalled witnessing Aboriginal girls flogged with fencing wire and hearing of bloodhounds 'bred and trained for hunting sundry blacks' at Goldsborough station (owned by James Allen) on the Mulgrave near Cairns in 1887. (An old pioneer later recalled that each bedroom in Allen's large homestead had 'a chest of drawers and there were revolvers in each chest...used in harshly reprimanding the natives for spearing Mr. Allen's cattle ...') 'I could fill a book with a list of atrocities alone,' Vogan mused in 1913: 'All I did (and it was little enough God knows, but all I COULD dare to do) in the years 1887-1898 is now forgotten. My book...was the first Australian novel to have a third edition...[but it] was considered so 'anti-Australian'...that I was anathema to all the Australian papers but the Bulletin, the Brisbane Courier and the Northern Miner. I lost my position on the Australian press and had to give up writing altogether for some years.'[xlii]

 

SILENCE WAS NOT simply golden in Queensland. On certain subjects, it was mandatory. Of course, when one is permitted to tell only a small part of the truth, one is really engaged in helping spin a bigger lie. That lie can form a sticky, persistent web, ensnaring across time even principled, well-meaning people like Julia Gillard, who presently appears to believe, like former Queensland premier Wayne Goss before her, that Australia was 'settled not invaded'.

By the early twentieth century, Queensland (and other Australian) writers were beginning to claim just this. So we do not have to wait for the arrival of the 'Power Intellectuals' of the Quadrant push in the mid-1990s in order to encounter entrenched denialism. Such denialism inheres within the very history that is being denied. Suppression was often commensurate with commission, and thus sedimented in the foundations of national culture. It originated contingent with the dubious acts themselves and then replicated itself across the years. Disappearances of revealing documentation helped it along. A Brisbane Courier correspondent wrote of scenes 'one hardly dare relate' in the vicinity of Rockhampton in 1861, involving 'the bloodiest of murders committed upon the innocent natives' and 'the greatest solicitude upon the part of those who saw the deeds that they should not be talked about'.[xliii] Men engaged in 'dispersing natives' required 'a quiet tongue' as much as a steady trigger-finger, a self-confessed killer of Aborigines, ex-Mayor of Bowen and Mackay, Korah Wills, confided in the mid-1880s.[xliv]

We have experienced the same silences, obfuscations and weasel words from authority figures and their acolytes today about refugee detention, the 'Pacific Solution', Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase and the torture facilities of Northern Africa and Eastern Europe as once excused and justified the secondary detention system of convictism, the frontier sorties, the abomination of the Native Police, the brutalities of Melanesian recruitment and indenture, the travail of Asian and Middle Eastern people in a white, Christian land and so forth: 'Dispersal', 'black-birding' and 'snipe-shooting' then; 'rendition', 'water-boarding' and 'collateral damage' now. To argue, as Australian historian John Hirst does that such colonial and post-colonial acts are only 'by today's standards shown to be unjust', and that historical perpetrators operated without equivalent moral sense, is specious.[xlv] For if this were so, there would be no cat-and-mouse games of revelation and suppression being played out throughout the historical record, with the latter usually gaining the upper hand. Suffering and its accompanying reportage and/or camouflage are not time-specific phenomena. We do not necessarily know better because we come later.

Pound for pound myth always out-punches history. And it is normally favoured to win. Myth feeds a society's psychological sense of well-being, sitting fixed and unchangeable as a kind of ultimate legitimation. Much too often in recent years, however, nation-building or boosting has been conflated with historical analysis, and reconstruction of the past with myth-making. The Howard government conscripted history into national service. Hirst recently confirmed his basic agreement with the former prime minister when he wrote that 'the cultural offerings of public institutions' – universities, schools, museums, the national broadcaster – have become 'so mean and negative about Australia that they were damaging national self-esteem'. Recently called upon to write an Australian history for the elucidation of new migrants, Hirst discloses: 'I needed at the least not to offend the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. Or, to speak positively, the history should be fair-minded and balanced, terms which Howard might have used to define the history he wanted ...'

But is this cautious genuflection to the political mainstream, in the cause of national 'self-esteem', really a balanced historical approach? And is it fair-minded to force-feed relatively uninformed new migrants, intent on citizenship, with only material that conveys, as Hirst puts it, 'what Australians of today knew and valued and celebrated in their history'?[xlvi] This is very reminiscent of neatly manicured Queensland migration propaganda from an earlier time. Hirst's confession of nationalist advocacy reminds us that history, like art, does not distinguish itself as the handmaiden of mainstream politics.

Much of what is disclosed about Queensland's past in this article might be considered 'mean and negative' – and, undoubtedly, at times quite nasty too. But it is also true, or at least as accurate as I can make it. Writers such as Windschuttle, Duffy and Hirst advocate silence on such matters – and attack those who ventilate such issues with name calling: eg. 'Brisbane brutalists' [sic] and 'white maggots'.[xlvii] Yet the silencers of yesteryear also fervently believed in such censorship in the service of colonial self-esteem and antipodean honour.

Truth – even the contingent truth that history provides – should not be coopted as a flag-waver in the patriotic legions. Its allegiance is only to itself. It is not in our service. We are in its. It is not a bolt of loyalist fustian, 'comfortable' stuff to be unrolled reflexively, as though – as Deborah Bird Rose put it in her Reports from a Wild Country (UNSW Press, 2004) -'the victims of power never mattered'.[xlviii] Truth is sometimes supposed to make us squirm.

Which brings me, circuitously, back to that 1959 high school essay. As the concoction of a fifteen year old, it was okay insofar as it went. There was nothing essentially wrong in expressing pride in the achievements of one's home-state. The essay's folly lay in what it lacked – a fundamental sense of balance. It might have told, if I had had the knowledge, of a simultaneously transplanting and supplanting society, composed of both voluntary and coerced migrations; of a people who were as divided by certain considerations as they were united on others and who profited from an environment that they were, in the process, also ravaging. It was a society that sustained its own, while at the same time wreaking havoc upon others.

In my essay, Aboriginal and Islander peoples, Asians, Melanesians and non-Britishers generally were nowhere in sight. Neither were women, the poor nor the handicapped; in fact, no one in any way marginalised, vulnerable or oppressed was to be seen. Neither was there any evidence of extreme environmental degradation or species extinction. Nor were any traditions of political corruption, censorship and authoritarianism revealed. Nor any patterns of cultural neglect and artistic alienation. Nor even the weighty matter of massive industrial struggle and the grinding-down of working-class people under the 'necessities' of profit-extraction – for it is not simply non-European peoples who have a hidden history here to reclaim.

I wish I had had the capacity to put something of this sort into that early essay but, as I originally stated, I was educated totally – rather than totally educated – in Queensland. I was never told about such things. Rather, everything then was all sweetness and light. I was never shown the layers of struggle, the gradations of suffering. Nor taught how to see the ghosts. I had to find those for myself.

 


[i] O. Blackwell, 'Don't Be Cruel', Cat. No. 20/47-6604, July 1956.

[ii] R. Evans, 'Queensland. One Hundred Years of Progress', Brisbane State High School English essay book, 1959-60 (in author's possession).

[iii] B. Humphries, 'Edna's Hymn', track one, Barry Humphries Savoury Dip (PMEO 9716), 1968.

[iv] M. Duffy, 'Bash the Greens but Don't Mention the Holocaust', Courier-Mail, 1 November 2003.

[v] M. Duffy, Man of Honour. John McArthur (Sydney: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 2-3, 123-26 and 129.

[vi] P. Ryan, 'Ghosts of Future's Past', Weekend Australian, 2-3 August 2003. See also P. Coleman, 'Quick on the Draw', Weekend Australian, 28-29 June 2003.

[vii] G. Dooley, Review of Man of Honour, API Review of Books, no. 44, July 2006, www.api-network.com/cgi-brn/reviews/index.cgi.

[viii] P. O'Farrell, 'A View of Australian History', Quadrant, no. 51 (1968), p. 59.

[ix] M. Roe, 'Challenge to Australian Identity', Quadrant, no. 22 (1978), pp. 34-35.

[x] S. Lawson et al., 'Why Write White History?', Australian Book Review, no. 41 (1988), p. 21.

[xi] P. Hunter, 'Australia and the Empire', Australia Today (special number of The Australian Traveller), 1 November 1913, p. 47; R.M. Crawford, 'The Australian Pilgrimage of Arnold Wood', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, no. 48 (1963), pp. 412-13.

[xii] E. Scott, Terre Napoléon: A History of French Exploration and Projects in Australia (London, 1910), quoted in R. Evans, 'Blood Dries Quickly: Conflict Study and Australian Historiography', in J.A. Moses (ed.), Historical Disciplines in Australia: Themes, Problems and Debates, special issue of Australian Journal of Politics and History, no. 41 (1995), p. 82.

[xiii] I. Exit', 'Australia', Aussie Magazine, October 1918, p. 17.

[xiv] G. Greenwood (ed.), Australia. A Social and Political History (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1955).

[xv] R. Ward, Australia (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1967).

[xvi] D. Day, Claiming a Continent. A New History of Australia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996).

[xvii] S. Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia, 2nd ed.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[xviii] 'Review of A History of Bundaberg', Queenslander, 15 November 1890.

[xix] M.J. Fox, The History of Queensland: Its People and Industries: An Historical and Commercial Review. Descriptions and Biographical Facts, Figures and Illustrations, 3 vols (1919-23), quoted in R. Evans, Comments on Queensland Historiography, unpublished paper in author's possession, pp. 8-10.

[xx] R. Cilento and C. Lack, Triumph in the Tropics, (Brisbane: Smith and Paterson, 1959), pp. 106, 137, 178-79, 186, 288, 426, 434.

[xxi] W. Coote, History of the Colony of Queensland 1770 to the Close of the Year 1881 (Brisbane: William Thorne, 1882), quoted in Evans, Queensland Historiography, p. 3.

[xxii] J.J. Knight, In the Early Days. History and Incident of Pioneer Queensland with Dictionary of Dates in Chronological Order (Brisbane: Sapsford, 1898), p. 25; Queensland 1900: A Narrative of Her Past, Together with Biographies of Her Leading Men (Brisbane: Alcazar Press, 1900), quoted in T. O'Connor, 'A Zone of Silence: Queensland's Convicts and the Historiography of Moreton Bay', in I. Duffield and J. Bradley (eds), Representing Convicts. New Perspectives on Convict Forced Labour Migration (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), p. 126.

[xxiii] Reverend Charles Smith, Moreton Bay Courier, 19 July 1856.

[xxiv] 'Aristides', Moreton Bay Courier, 23 April 1859.

[xxv] J.C. Camm, 'The Hunt for Muscle and Bone: Emigration Agents and Their Role in Migration to Queensland During the 1880s', Australian Geographical Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, April 1885, p. 93.

[xxvi] Tully River residents, Petition, March 1896 and W. Craig, Cardwell to Home Secretary, 4 April 1896, Queensland State Archives, Col. 139.

[xxvii] J.W. Bleakley, The Aborigines of Australia. Their History, their Habits, Their Assimilation (Brisbane: Jacaranda, 1961); A. Whittington, 'The Queensland Native Mounted Police', Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol. 7, no. 3, 1964-65, p. 509; M.J. Fox, History of Queensland, quoted in Evans, Queensland Historiography, p. 10.

[xxviii] B.H. Purcell, The general condition of Aborigines in the Western and Northern parts of the Colony, 14 November 1892, Col/A717, 14199 of 1892, quoted in R. Evans, K. Saunders and K. Cronin, Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993), pp. 386-88

[xxix] A.J. Vogan, The Case for the Aborigines, unpublished manuscript, Hayes collection, 2/2579-82, p. 9, Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

[xxx] R. Bligh, Crown Lands Commissioner, Gwydir to Chief Commissioner, 8 January 1849, NSW State Archives 2/7634, in M. Copland, 'A System of Assassination': The Macintyre River Frontier 1837-1850, BA(Hons.) thesis, Department of History, University of Queensland, 1990, p. 71.

[xxxi] G. Serocold to C. Serocold, 31 December 1857, Serocold Papers, John Oxley Library, Queensland Historical Retrieval Projects 5-7, in J. Richards, The Secret War. A True History of Queensland's Native Police (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008), p. 64

[xxxii] G. Lang, Maryborough to 'My Dear Uncle', 31 March 1858, Mitchell Library, A63 in Evans et al., Race Relations, pp. 375-78.

[xxxiii] C. Feilberg, 'The Way We Civilize', Queenslander, 3 July 1880.

[xxxiv] R.B. Sheridan to N. de Miklouho Maclay, 17 September 1880 in B.N. Putilov, N. Miklouho Maclay. Traveller, Scientist and Humanist (Moscow: Progress Press, 1982), pp. 126-27. See also F. Greenop, Who Travels Alone (Sydney: K.G. Murray, 1944) and H. Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998), pp. 128-29.

[xxxv] A.H. Gordon, Ascot to Prime Minister Gladstone, Private, 20 April 1883 in P. Kaplund, 'Sir Arthur Gordon on the New Guinea Question 1883', Historical Studies, vol. 7, 1955-57, pp. 330-31; G.W. Lawes, London Missionary Society to James Chalmers, 7 April 1883 in B. Jinks, P. Biskup and H. Nelson (eds), Readings in New Guinea History (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1973), pp. 32-33.

[xxxvi] H. Finch Hatton, London to The Times, quoted in Brisbane Courier, 18 May 1904, p. 4.

[xxxvii] R. Evans, '"Plenty Shoot-'Em": The Destruction of Aboriginal Societies along the Queensland Frontier', in A. Dirk Moses (ed.), Genocide and Settler Society. Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History (New York: Birghahn Books, 2004), pp. 150-73; H. Reynolds, An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia's History (Ringwood: Penguin, 2001), pp. 99-118; T. Roberts, Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2005); B. Kiernan, Blood and Soil. A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008); A. Palmer, Colonial Genocide (Bathurst: Crawford House, 2000); Richards, The Secret War.

[xxxviii] Knight, In the Early Days, pp. 142-43.

[xxxix] A. Davidson, Brisbane to J. Sunderland, Aborigines Protection Society, 10 July 1869 and to Secretary of London Missionary Society (undated), Council for World Missions, Australia, Box 6, folder 5, School of African and Oriental Studies, London.

[xl] Between 1882 and 1885, almost 4,000 Pacific Islanders died on Queensland plantations (or around 35 per cent). In Japanese detention during World War II, 7,777 Australian POWs died (or around 36 per cent). See P.G. Griffiths, The Making of White Australia: Ruling Class Agendas 1876-1888, PhD thesis, Department of History, Australian National University, 2007, pp. 141-42.

[xli] A.J. Vogan, The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia (London: Hutchinson, 1890).

[xlii] Vogan, Case for the Aborigines, pp. 9-10; A.J. Vogan to Archbishop of Sydney, 23 April 1904 and to Mr. Earp, Association for the Protection of Native Races, 4 February 1913, Hayes Collection, 2/2579-82, Fryer Library; T. Bottoms; A History of Cairns: City of the South Pacific 1770-1995, PhD, Central Queensland University, 2002, p. 119 (nearing publication).

[xliii] Brisbane Courier, 2 and 6 April 1861, in Reynolds, Indelible Stain?, p. 108.

[xliv] K. Wills, in R. Evans and B. Thorpe, 'Indigenocide and the Massacre of Aboriginal History', Overland, no. 163, winter 2001, pp. 31-33.

[xlv] J. Hirst, 'Australia. The Official History', The Monthly, February 2008, p. 30.

[xlvi] Hirst, 'Australia', pp. 30, 32 and 35.

[xlvii] See K. Saunders and R. Evans, 'Visibility Problems: Concepts of Gender in Australian Historical Discourse', Australian Historical Studies, no. 106, April 1996, pp. 142-53 and Hirst's letter of riposte in the following issue, Australian Historical Studies, no. 107; R. Manne, 'Sorry Business: The Road to the Apology', The Monthly, March 2008, p. 27.

[xlviii] D.B. Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics of Decolonization (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004), pp. 23 and 47.

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