Looking For Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place by Mark McKenna.

Reviewed by Marguerite Nolan

© all rights reserved

Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a personal response to McKenna’s purchase of eight acres of land on the far south coast of New South Wales, overlooking what he learns is Blackfellas’ Point, a site that’s name refers to its role as an Aboriginal meeting place. ¬† Initially “convinced it was my destiny to become the new owner”, he later saw himself as “just another colonist arriving in a distant land… still waiting to feel at home.” In this way, McKenna’s history is a journey that links the personal and the regional to larger, national questions that are being struggled with in the public domain.

For McKenna, this is a contribution to the reconciliation process where reconciliation is largely about reconciling historical narratives through creating a shared history; no small task in a context where the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous understanding of the past has been so wide. McKenna’s history, however, seems more concerned with demonstrating a mode of history through which settler Australians might reconcile ourselves with our past, in order to find a place in contemporary Australia, just as McKenna seeks to reconcile himself to the purchase of his land through the process of historicising it.

McKenna’s history has two dimensions: to narrate what happened in relations between settlers and Indigenous people on the far south coast, and to explore how settler culture came to forget what happened. In this sense, it is history that reflects on the ongoing processes, contexts and implications of history-making in a regional setting, with a focus on the diversity of experiences and understandings, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that make up this history.

The book is comprised of four parts – Dispossession, Forgetting, Abandonment and Confrontation – each of which is divided into chapters and vignettes, offering multi-faceted, alternative readings of the history of the region. Part I, Dispossession, ranges from a consideration of certain nineteenth-century humanitarians who constituted “an undercurrent of resistance to the Australian story” to those sites where acknowledgement of frontier violence was retained in the middle of the twentieth century, amidst a culture of silence and forgetting, which eventually fed into a new school of critical history and a politicised Aboriginal resistance. McKenna reads historical sources regarding the region’s sealing and squatting histories that challenge both W.K. Hancock and Geoffrey Blainey, as well as the broader community understanding that the Monaro district was “occupied peacefully”, while still narrating the small acts of kindness and attempts at understanding.

Part I also considers Henry Reynolds’ work and the politicisation of history and its implication in structures of law, suggesting that Reynolds’ style of history, which he refers to as a history of what might have been, puts the nation on trial and finds it guilty. This is a compelling argument even if McKenna, who acknowledges somewhat ambivalently the importance of Reynolds’ work, produces a history of what Reynolds might have done differently.

Part II, Forgetting, takes as its starting point W.H. Stanner’s famous statement that the absence of Aboriginal people from Australian history constitutes a “cult of disremembering”. This part traces the complex process through which non-Aboriginal Australians came to forget Aboriginal Australians and explores the various ways that settler culture has attempted to explain the Aboriginal absence during the twentieth century.

Part III, Abandonment, contemplates the importance of religious belief in the psychology of settler Australia, and the forms of spiritual longing and lack that accompanied the colonial process. This part traces settler attempts to create a home in a land already saturated with spiritual meanings for the Indigenous peoples the settlers sought to forget. McKenna takes seriously the historical basis for the sense of victimhood that pervades settler culture in the far south east coast, and traces poignant narratives of isolation, resentment and economic hardship in the face of environmentalism, Indigenous land claims and globalisation.

The Confrontation of Part IV refers to the process of confronting the history of dispossession and injustice beginning in the 1960s, a result of politicised resistance and new critical histories emerging out of events like the Cook bicentennial in 1970, the 1988 bicentennial, the Mabo judgment of 1992, and, most recently, the publication of the Bringing them Home report in 1997. McKenna considers the sense of moral crisis concerning the legitimacy of the Australian nation and the accompanying guilt, remorse and sympathy that is now characteristic of settler understandings of Australian history.

Part IV contains a history of Wallaga Lake, the first Aboriginal reserve to be established by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board in 1891, which became, McKenna demonstrates, a repository of cultural knowledge in spite of practices of segregation and dispersal, creating new networks of belonging. McKenna turns from this to a divisive community debate in Bega and Eden over Aboriginal housing in the late 1960s. McKenna places this debate, the emerging protest movement and the politics of shame that it mobilised, with the conjunction of involved church groups, the union movement and the liberal left, in a national and international context. He investigates the role of Bega’s new Anglican rector, Rev Frank Woodwell, who arrived in 1967, highlighting the power of individuals to make a difference. Although Woodwell worked closely with Indigenous activists like Margaret Dixon, it was not until the 1970s that Aboriginal leaders, like Percy Mumbler and Guboo Ted Thomas, took on the major roles in the regional movement for change, which accompanied the increasingly politicised cultural pride that had land justice at its heart. In 1984, after 10 years of struggle, Wallaga Lake became the first Aboriginal community in NSW to receive title deeds to what remained of their traditional lands.

The book concludes by positing the narrowing gulf in historical understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and the determination of people to reconcile with Aboriginal people and build an inclusive society even amidst ongoing attempts in some quarters to sustain denial at the local level. Yet McKenna also acknowledges there is still work to be done and raises the difficult question of what settler Australians can do with their increasing knowledge of the violence upon which their communities were founded. How it is possible to acknowledge such violence while retaining community pride, and what form should such acknowledgement take?

Ultimately, Looking for Blackfellas’ Point seems to me to be more a white than a black history and the reconciliation it advocates seems less about reconciling Indigenous and settler narratives than it is about reconciling settler Australians to our own history. As such, McKenna has produced an important, multi-perspectival history of compassion and possibility that remains aware of its own limitations. Personal, passionate and exploratory, it looks at the way different versions of history – narratives of acknowledgement and denial, narratives of despair and hope – might sit alongside and interrupt each other, and perhaps even shape new kinds of Australian regional and national identities in the social, political and historical landscape.

Marguerite Nolan is a lecturer in Australian Studies at the Brisbane campus of Australian Catholic University. Her work on hoaxes and imposture, and postcolonial cultural studies has appeared in a range of journals and edited collections.

Looking for Blackfella’s Point was published by the University of NSW Press in 2002.

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