The Past as Future: Aborigines, Australia and the (dis)course of History

by Bain Attwood

© all rights reserved

In the context of the birth of the new nation, ‘Australian history’ only began with Europeans, and so not only ignored the Aboriginal past but also erased the indigenes’ prior presence. British colonisation was legitimated by naturalising a relationship between Europeans–who by now were called Australians–and the land Australia, thus denying any relationship between those who had been the first to be called Australians and Australia.

Aborigines were further consigned to the past but not to history by dint of becoming the subject of anthropology rather than history. Indeed, the Aborigines were valued by this new discipline because they were construed as artifacts of the human past. Just as European history constituted its object in a temporal sense–the modern, the present (and the future), the civilised–so too did European anthropology invent its object–the traditional, the past, the savage.1 As Bruce Trigger has noted, ‘the original differentiation between history and anthropology was product of colonialism and ethnocentrism’.2

In the case of Australia, the later decades of the nineteenth century saw the autochthonous people become central to anthropological theory as it developed within the framework of social evolutionism. This occurred not only because they were regarded as one of the best examples in the world of early humankind–a paradigm of originality or primordiality which opened, it was believed, a window onto our beginnings–but also because local ethnographers responded to a pronounced imperial demand for colonial data. Hence, in 1927, Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, Walter Baldwin Spencer, one of the first Australian anthropologists, could dedicate one of his major works, ‘To Our Master, Sir James Frazer’ and introduce it thus:

Australia is the present home and refuge of creatures, often crude and quaint, that elsewhere have passed away and given place to higher forms. This applies equally to the Aboriginal as to the platypus and the kangaroo. Just as the platypus, laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making, so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad outline, what every man must have been like before he learned to read and write, domesticate animals, cultivate crops and use a metal tool. It has been possible to study in Australia human beings that still remain on the cultural level of men of the Stone Age.3

This construction of Australian Aboriginal culture, as well as the ‘denial of coevalness’ upon which it was premised, 4 more or less characterised anthropological study well into the twentieth century, notwithstanding that structural-functionalism replaced social evolutionism as the dominant paradigm: whereas ‘the earlier generation of [anthropologists] has relegated [Aborigines’] culture to prehistory…many of the next seemed to want to suspend it in [a] timeless vacuum. 5 As Gillian Cowlishaw has noted, Australian anthropologists tend to define their object as ‘traditional Aborigines’, and pursued this quarry as though no change had occurred amongst Aboriginal communities.6 In this denial of history anthropologists also excluded the principal agents of change–Europeans and other settlers (and thus relations between Aborigines and these newcomers)–from their field of view (or, inasmuch as they considered colonial relations and the processes of acculturation, they maintained a scholarly division between this and their primary object of study).7

While the temporal illusion that Aborigines were not contemporary with ‘Australians’ was undoubtedly sustained by the spatial relations which existed between Aborigines and whites in twentieth-century Australia–the majority of ‘Australians’ lived in areas where few if any Aborigines were physically present–one can nevertheless argue that the historical discourses of history and anthropology were mainly responsible for creating this chimera. And together their narratives produced what the eminent Australian anthropologist W.E.H.Stanner was to call, in the 1968 ABC Boyer Lectures, ‘the great Australian silence’.

Stanner described this silence as ‘a cult of forgetfulness’ or ‘disremembering’ that has been ‘practised on a national scale’. Rejecting the possibility that ‘inattention on such a scale [could] be explained by absentmindedness’, he claimed that it was ‘a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape’. And, as well as there being a silence, there had been a silencing: ‘the great Australian silence’, Stanner argued, ‘reigns [over] the other side of a story’, an Aboriginal history, the telling of which, he recognised, ‘would have to be a world…away from the conventional histories of the coming and development of British civilisation’. As such, he chastised historians for ‘having given the Aborigines no place in our past except that of “a melancholy footnote”‘.8

Among those influenced by Stanner’s calling for ‘another kind of history’ was Henry Reynolds who was to become the leading historian in the field. Over the last twenty-five years or more Reynolds and other historians have sought to address the great Australian silence, assuming the function of ‘remembrances’ by reminding White Australia of what it would prefer to forget. In time, they created what I have called here the new Australian history. This has had, as Reynolds has remarked, ‘important implications for our view of Australia past and present’, because it has suggested that ‘it is not just a matter of attaching Aboriginal history to the back-left-hand corner of the old homestead or of even glassing in the back verandah. The changes will ultimately have to be far more radical–a new floor perhaps, even new foundations’. 9

Together with historians, leading archaeologists such as John Mulvaney, one of the founders of the modern discipline in Australia, have not only assumed the task of changing our sense of the past but also influencing the future. In this, it could be argued that they have been following in the footsteps of anthropology insofar as a handful of its leading exponents, such as the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, A.P.Elkin, have, since the 1930s, assumed the enlightened, moral task of combating racial prejudice by representing Aborigines as the bearers of a worthy, noble, culture, and by recommending ‘positive’, ameliorative policies.10 Over the last two decades the scholarship of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists has undoubtedly had a tremendous influence upon Australia’s intellectual and cultural milieu, so much so that one can contend, that major changes such as those most recently heralded by the High Court’s 1992 decision, Mabo v Queensland, are inconceivable without historical (meta)narratives; or, one can argue, as Rosemary Hunter has, that the new Australian history had become so compelling that the High Court was forced to abandon its old legal narrative.

What is less readily apparent are the factors which have enable those disciplines to be a force of change. Historical and archaeological scholarship have been dominated by a conventional epistemology which assumes that the past belongs to another realm of time which is separate from the present, and that consequently, so long as scientific methods are adopted, it is possible for the historian and the archaeologist to show the past as it really was and to understand it on its own terms, and thus have independent, historical truth. In a culture that values ‘objectivity’, this stance has undoubtedly helped in the acceptance of historical knowledge, especially by the law, since it has similar procedures for establishing ‘truth’.

However, at the same time as this epistemological approach has borne fruit, it can also lead to some less satisfactory, even deleterious outcomes. For example, positivism or objectivism, at least in theory, requires historians and lawyers to privilege documentary rather than oral evidence and facts rather than interpretation, meaning and values thus favouring, in this instance, Australian interests other than Aboriginal ones. Although in practice, the legal system has proved in some contexts to be more accommodating than this would suggest, the positivist tradition nevertheless allows conservatives to accuse Aboriginal historical narratives of being evidentially weak or false and thus dismiss legal claims made by Aborigines as invalid. As well, it enables conservative attacks upon the High Court’s Mabo decision and the like as a ‘rewriting’ or ‘reinterpretation’ of history. 11

This raises the question of what role practitioners of historical disciplines should play in the making of a new historical consciousness and national identity. Many are probably inclined to argue that they should merely play the role of the sceptic. This would entail, for example, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists not only interrogating the content of conventional historical narratives but also Aboriginal histories, as well as contesting Aboriginal assertions of ownership of the past.

On the first count, this critical stance could help guard against the acceptance of any presentist historical knowledge which is marked by silences, distortions and lies that are as pernicious as those which marked the great Australian silence. In this, quite obviously, historians, have a role of defending history against an extreme relativism and subjectivism which denies that some historical accounts are empirically truer than others and rejects the possibility of historical truth of any kind. Historical scholars must steer a path between relativism and objectivism, practising a form of critical inquiry which yields approximate rather than absolute truths, in order to ensure that history, like the past, has a future.

On the second count, historians and other such scholars must refuse the claim of some Aborigines that there is only one story to be told and the demand that only they should narrate this, or that we should tell it as they do. If we fail to do so, our chances of learning through history will be severely eroded, as will our own sense of self and culture, while the pluralism which lies at the heart of an authentically democratic society and polity will be undermined.

Bain Attwood is Senior Lecturer in History at Monash University, currently writing a study of the relationship between Aborigines, Australia and the discourse of history. He is the editor of In the Age of Mabo, Allen & Unwin 1996. This piece is an extract from his introduction, reprinted with permission.

Notes and References

1. See Fabian, Time and the Other, oh.1. The associated distinction between “written” and “oral” societies was also important; Sutherland, for example, wrote: “There is no history anterior to [the arrival of the first white men. The Aborigines] have left not a trace for the historian to dwell on, of the time before the settlement of the European. They have left material for the antiquarian, their bygone ages may offer scope to the geologist, but of history they have none”.

2.’The Past as Power: Anthropology and the North American Indian’, in I.McBryde (ed.), Who Owns the Past Melbourne, 1985, p.34.

3. The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People: (1927), Oosterhout, 1966, p.vii. See D.J.Mulvaney and J.H.Calaby, So Much that is New?, Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929, Melbourne, 1985, especially oh.9.

4. Fabian, Time and the Other, p.31.

5. Beckett, ‘The Past’, p.195. The classic exposition of this can be found in W.E.H.Stanner’s famous 1953 essay, ‘The Dreaming’, (in Stanner, White Man Got No Dreaming, Canberra, 1979, pp.37-38).

6. ‘Aborigines and Anthropologists’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no.1, 1986, pp.2-11.

7. See B.Hodge and V.Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Sydney, 1991, and B.Attwood and J.Arnold (eds.), Power, Knowledge and Aborigines, Melbourne, 1992, where ‘Aboriginalism’ is treated as a series of discourses akin to Edward Said’s Orientalism.

8. After the Dreaming, Sydney, 1969, pp.7, 25, 24, 53, 56.

9. History From the Frontier, Bain Attwood, ed, In the Age of Mabo pp.23,26

10. See A.Markus, Governing Savages, Sydney, 1990, oh.10; G.Cowlishaw, ‘Helping Anthropologists’, Canberra Anthropology, vol.13, no.2, 1990, pp.1-28.

11. See, for example, R.Brunton, ‘Mabo and Oral Traditions’, in P.Durack et al., Mabo and After, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 13-23; G.Blainey, ‘Sitting in Judgment on History’, Australian Business Monthly, vol.13, no.10, 1993, p.44, ‘Land Rights for All’. Age, 10 November 1993, ‘National Damage’, Age, 1 December 1993, K.Baker, ‘The New History’, IPA Review,vol.42, no.3, 1988-89, p.50.

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