Reviewed by Benjamin Miller
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Recently, New South Wales State Leader of the Opposition, Peter Debnam, appeared on the popular ‘news’ television program Today Tonight. Debnam, responding to a State Government website was apparently ‘furious to see [not read] that the [first] fleet’s landing 218 years ago was being hailed as the day “Australia was invaded”‘.1 Debnam, a member of the conservative Liberal party, then takes it upon himself to state the opinion of all Australians:
Everybody agrees Australia was settled […] To use the word ‘invasion’ is a military term, pushed by the left wing for politically correct purposes in the extreme. (my italics)
Without batting an eyelid at his own militaristic rhetoric, Debnam went on to state: ‘we actually need to declare a war on political correctness in NSW and we could start with the National Parks website’ (my italics). So, was Australia ‘invaded’ or ‘settled’? This historical debate is based on a binary that has been endlessly flipped by various soldiers in the ‘history wars’; Botany Bay becomes the site for endless revisiting and revisioning – the point of first contact and constant conflict between Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, conservative and radical historians. This is the context Maria Nugent’s Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet enters; it’s an entrance long overdue. Rather than buying into the binaries Nugent conceptualises a history that refuses siding with ‘either/or’ warring parties and that, instead, sees Botany Bay as a meeting place for such contradictory histories.
Botany Bay is a history of gazes. Nugent’s introduction begins with a visual scene-setting, the view of Botany Bay unfolds as Nugent takes us along the Scenic Drive – literally the road to Botany Bay (a homage to Paul Carter’s groundbreaking work in spatial history, The Road to Botany Bay2). The Introduction then moves to an alternative view of Botany Bay, one shown to Nugent by a local Indigenous woman, Iris Williams. Williams, from her front yard in LaPerouse, points out various landmarks. These landmarks are not the stone and brass kind that Europeans keep erecting in the area, but ‘an historical landscape preserved in memory rather than monument’ (p. 3). Nugent sees Botany Bay as made and imagined through many different ‘Botany Bay stories’, some count historically and some do not – the monumental history juxtaposed with the memory-based history serves to highlight this. Too often, Nugent argues, Indigenous stories do not register. Botany Bay, then, is about re-orienting our gaze, as readers of history, to see how Indigenous people have resisted this too often exclusive Australian post-colonial history. Importantly Nugent does not simply flip the binaries to privilege the excluded, but examines the ‘entanglement of, and interactions between, these various pasts and presences’ (pp. 4-5). Nugent shows not only how the European history of Australia has excluded Indigenous people, though often reliant upon their memories (as seen in Chapter Two: ‘Sydney’s Backdoor: Isolating the City’s Unwanted at Botany Bay’, and Chapter Five: ‘From Shantytowns to Suburbs: Botany Bay’s Residential Landscape’), but also how Indigenous people have appropriated and subverted these histories to their own purposes (as in Chapter One: ‘A Place for Stories: Captain Cook, Colonial Origins and Hairy Wild Men’, and Chapter 3: ‘Boomerangs For Sale: Tourism in the Birthplace of the Nation’ respectively). By refusing to privilege one form of Botany Bay story over the other Nugent disrupts the binary of Indigenous/non-Indigenous history and shows how each are intertwined and effected by the other. Exemplifying this, in Chapter Seven, ‘Remembering Dispossession and Survival: Botany Bay Stories Revisited’, Nugent reads Botany Bay as a literal and metaphorical meeting place. Botany Bay, both italicised and not, is transformed into a kind of historical third space, a site for various histories to meet, mingle and co-exist. As a history of gazes, perhaps this is not so much a dialogic history, as a dia-scopic history – a challenge to those historians, like Mr Debnam, ‘furious to see’ a Botany Bay landscape that differs from their own perspective. Botany Bay is about new ways of seeing history itself.
Idyllic as it sounds, the problems of the third space have been known to cultural theorists since the term’s inception. Quite simply, the third space is always haunted by the question; can cultures ever meet on equal footing? In Nugent’s discussion of the recent refiguration of the Botany Bay National Park as a ‘meeting place’ (in essence, a reconciliation landscape), she discusses the problems with this idyllic space:
What gets lost in this reworking of Botany Bay’s historical significance as a reconciliation site is the tide of history that followed in the wake of Cook and Laperouse. More disturbingly, the plan of management states that ‘a precondition of this shift in emphasis is that the presentation and interpretation of the park reflects the meeting of cultures rather than the domination of one culture over another’ [quoting Bob Debus3]. But that was not the situation then; and is not the situation now. (p. 200)
Although a little ambiguous, Nugent is stating here that domination is, and has always been, a factor in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, histories and cultures. In Debus’ comments, this domination is made invisible – one is reminded of David Spurr’s comment that ‘Colonial discourse takes over as it takes cover’.4 If Botany Bay as meeting place fails in Nugent’s convincing opinion, what of Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet? The originality of Nugent’s work is sometimes haunted by her own questions: how does she, as more than simply an amanuensis of history (all writing is subjective, Nugent admits to being another in a long line of Botany Bay storytellers), re-enact cultural dominations in Botany Bay as cultural meeting place, or, above-all, as a history. The fact that this question is not completely addressed hides the political problems of white historians writing Indigenous histories.
Despite this there are many valuable aspects to Nugent’s work. She goes a long way towards disrupting the binaries between ‘settler’ histories that whitewash the landscape and ‘invasion’ histories that figure Indigenous identities as victims. Melissa Lucashenko, in a similar vein, has recently refigured ‘discovery’ without resorting to victimhood:
Let’s make it easy, and start at the beginning. Way back when, (before Eora people discovered that Captain Cook bloke), Australia was all Aboriginal people. Just Us, all different mobs across the continent. We had our different nations, traded with the Macassans, grew pearls and farmed kangaroo and emu.5
Lucashenko also identifies other histories here too – where precolonial Indigenous people met other nations apart from Europeans. Significantly,Botany Bay, in revisioning a space for histories to meet, has also laid the groundwork for histories to investigate the interminglings of more than just Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories (Migrant culture is shown to have been integral in Botany Bay society – Chapter Five: ‘From Shantytowns to Suburbs: Botany Bay’s Residential Landscape’, though this chapter does not consider how the histories Migrants bought to the continent effected Australian historical landscapes). The originality and significance of Nugent’s research has already been acknowledged. Botany Bay was originally Nugent’s PhD thesis and was re-written for publication with assistance from the inaugural Allen Martin Award for ‘innovative thinking’, of which Nugent was the recipient.6 Nugent’s work is a timely and thoroughly original intervention into a historical debate that is currently threatening to continue past its use-by date, and, perhaps if Mr Debnam has his way, to escalate into armed combat justified by apparently incompatible binaries of historic vision. Nugent shows us, overall, that differing historic visions are not necessarily exclusive and separate.
Benjamin Miller is currently writing his PhD in the English Department at the University of New South Wales. He has recently published an article on David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines in Altitude (http://www.altitude21c.com/).
1. A transcript of this broadcast, ‘Taking PC Too Far’, can be found online: http://seven.com.au/todaytonight/story/?id=28383
5. Melissa Lucashenko, ‘A Lighter Shade of Pale: Being Aboriginal in 2002’, Essay produced for the Black Chicks Talkin Project,http://www.qpac.com.au/education/research/black_chicks_talking/
6. Information on the Allen Martin Award can be viewed at the Australian Historical Association’s website. See also the official document granting the award to Maria Nugent: http://www.theaha.org.au/Allan%20Martin%20Award%20Winner%202004%20-%20Citation.doc