Tom Griffiths tells an Australian Morality Tale

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Once upon a time, an Australian pioneer, a whitefella, invited his family to join him on a large swathe of land in northern Australia. He was anxious, for this was `frontier country’. The climate was unpredictable, the land was unforgiving, and he had a mortgage. He had only made a few `improvements’ to the land – some fencing, a dam or two – for he was working at the margins in every sense.

There were, for instance, still `wild blacks’ about. And there were the station blacks as well, his pastoral workers. He and other pastoralists in the district had, several years ago, decided to `let them in’, to encourage them into pastoral stations. Working with them was better than warring with them. There was a lot of intelligent self-interest in this policy of `letting in’; many pastoralists didn’t just let them in or merely allow them to remain, they even rounded them up. The benefits were that the Aborigines, once they were made more confident of the survival of their own hunting and spiritual rights on the stations, speared fewer cattle and provided a cheap, easily accessible, less stroppy pool of labour for the pastoralist. Even if they did `go walkabout’ from time to time, they did not run off to the local gold rushes like the white blokes.

For the Aborigines themselves it may have represented their only chance to stay on their land. They were loyal to the land, and many had been born on the stations. If the pastoralist moved, they mostly stayed. In hard times the pastoralist would tell himself he was `civilizing the land’ -and also the people. That’s something he could offer them, he felt.

Our pioneer pastoralist ran cattle for several years and then the drought hit, the long drought, the one his family would remember as a turning point in their lives. They learned something then that was both wonderful and a bit embarrassing, even private. Their financial losses would have been great, perhaps overwhelming, without the Aborigines. They couldn’t have held the land without them. It was a sober lesson for civilizing white pioneers, and not one to be talked about too much. Many, though were grateful. And a few put it in writing: `Without the Aborigines, my losses would have been simply ruinous’, confessed one. `Had it not been for the loyalty and co-operation of the Aborigines themselves, our lot would have been considerably more difficult’, wrote another. The moral of the story was a poignant one: the Aborigines and the pastoralists had helped one another stay on `their’ land.

The frontier vouchsafes us many secrets, and this is the greatest of them: the role of Aboriginal labour in the pastoral industry. Is my story, with its satisfying symmetry, a fairy tale? No, it’s a true story, but one that often finds no audience. It’s an Australian morality tale, and we need to hear it now. If you would like to know more about it, read books like Ann McGrath’s Born in the Cattle (1987), Dawn May’s Aboriginal Labour and the Cattle Industry (1994), Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy (1996), Henry Reynolds’ many histories, and virtually any Aboriginal outback memoir. The stories are there, but you can hardly hear them today above the din of `white noise’.

Historian Peter Read recently argued that the Wik decision is special and unique. Not, though, in the way that the politicians think it is. It is not radical in legal ways, and builds sensibly and predictably on Mabo. It does not threaten any existing, valid interests in pastoral land. It is a radical decision only in its social vision, in its recognition that our future lies in `sharing the country’, and that our past is full of precedent.

In Australia, through both scholarly and popular insights, we are moving towards a positive sense of the frontier as a shared space. In the words of Philip Jones, it was `less a line that separates than a zone that unifies, a zone capable of generating new and potent forms of culture’. But first we have to come to terms with its inequality of power, its violence – the recent television series, Frontier, is part of that. So was the Mabo judgement. We have to acknowledge, and must never forget, that there was war on the grasslands, and a muted bureaucratic and political war ever since – one that has been sadly revived by the Howard government. But it’s important, too, to acknowledge the sharing, the creative tension, that is part of frontier experience. That’s what the Wik decision is about. That’s the great opportunity it offers black and white Australians. Let’s grasp it. Otherwise our stories will be ones of anguish and despair.

Postscript: Are our pioneer pastoralist’s descendants still on the land? Or were they bought out by a company whose plans for the land include neither his family nor the Aborigines?

Tom Griffiths is currently at the Australian National University and author of the multi-prizewinning book, Hunters and Collectors. Reprinted with permission from the Sydney Morning Herald , 26 May 1997.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also Tom Griffiths Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian history of the world
and a report on Aboriginal Land Rights: Australia and the Mabo Judgment: conference organised by the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, London, 18-19 April 1996.

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