Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP 2002)

I finished reading this book a while ago but it’s taken me until now to write about because I took it very personally.

It’s a meditation on the so-called horror stretch, country north of Rockhampton in central Queensland that has a reputation as the setting for terrible events. Starting with a number of roadside murders in the second half of last century that made headlines all over Australia, Gibson explores the cultural factors, the ‘structure of feeling’, underlying the general fascination with those crimes. A ‘badland’ such as this, he says, is a way of localising and mythologising issues that are unresolved in the society in general. This description may lead you to expect something that reads like a bad translation from the French, with lots of stuff being inscribed on the landscape, and references to impenetrable theory. But no, it’s an engaging read, and becomes positively compelling as it moves back in time to the terrible first contact between Aboriginal people and settlers, forward again to the ordeals of Melanesian indentured workers in the sugar paddocks, and forward yet again to the White Australia Policy’s denial of the extraordinary diversity of the region.

‘Sooner or later,’ Gibson writes, ‘any society that would like to know itself as “post-colonial” must confront an inevitable question: how to live with collective memories of theft and murder. Sooner or later, therefore, acknowledgement and grieving must commence before healing can ensue.’ This must also be true of the individuals who are part of that society, and my sense is that for all the impressive scholarship and historical research that went into it, this project is at heart personal, a way of making personal acknowledgement and beginning the necessary grieving. At least, coming though I do from Innisfail, hundreds of miles north of the horror strip (and yes, I knew of it by that name in my childhood), that’s how I read it.

Things may have changed, but when I was at school, history happened mostly in England (and elsewhere in Europe for Catholic Church history), and what we were taught of Australian history happened in Sydney or Melbourne, or occasionally the other capital cities. The only North Queensland figures I remember being mentioned – and that was at home rather than school – were the explorer Edmund Kennedy, speared by natives in 1848, and his faithful Aboriginal companion Jackey Jackey (whose real name, Galmahra, was never alluded to). The specific history of the arrival of non-Aboriginal settlers in the north was never even hinted at. As in the ‘horror stretch’, I’ve learned, this history involved mass murder by Native Police under white officers. Ross Gibson brings that history home, and a has a good deal to say about our collective silence about it. Even at the time of widespread killing of Aboriginal people in the mid 19th century, he says, the officers

jinked a two-step of violent action and circumspect remembrance. They wrapped their deeds in dissembling verbiage and eventually they became their own twisted idioms, developing a ‘pathological’ disconnection between doing and declaring, a disconnection which gave them no way to see the world clearly.

That ‘circumspect remembrance’ is something that has lived on in the north ever since, as ‘white people simultaneously knew and refused to know the violence behind their everyday lives’.

Now here’s why I took this all personally: in an entry in this blog a few years back I said I didn’t know much about first contact between the Mamu people and the first settlers of the Innisfail region, and I gave a link to Innisfail’s web site. When I clicked on that link I found this:

The first incursion came in 1872. Survivors of the shipwreck “Maria” arrived on the coast near the Johnstone River. Some of the Indigenous people helped; others they opposed. Sub-Inspector Robert Johnstone’s search party came to rescue survivors and punish Aboriginal people who had abused them, and ventured up river from what are now Flying Fish and Coquette Points. Johnstone wrote glowing reports of the area, and with vigilante Native Troopers attacked the Mamu people with rifle fire as he escorted the explorer Dalrymple, charting the watercourse and having it named after himself …

When European cedar cutters and Chinese gold seekers arrived later in the 1870s and early in the 1880s, the Mamu fought them and inflicted serious casualties. Again the Europeans sent in the Native Police. Superior firepower broke up the Indigenous communities and dispersed or integrated the remaining original landowners.

The evidence is that I had read that and could still say I didn’t know what happened, yet its meaning couldn’t be clearer. Words like ‘punish’ and ‘dispersed’ are transparent euphemisms: the high moral ground assumed by one and the almost kindly feel of the other could mislead only the ignorant or, it pains me to say, allow the wilfully obtuse to ward off the obvious. It’s impossible to stay obtuse after reading this book. And a further confession: I must have blithely assumed that if Native Troopers and Native Police were involved things couldn’t have been too bad. Gibson puts that assumption to rest with his account of the way armed young Aboriginal men, uprooted from their own communities and freed of cultural restraints, were directed to kill and maraud. He lays bare the mechanism by which Indigenous people, under tight white control, performed the genocidal work of dispossession, leaving the settlers – good Catholics in the case of the first farmers of the Innisfail Estate – to move in with an illusion of clean hands, deploring the violence of the unruly ones who had made their settlement possible.

Gibson’s discussion of the Melanesians who worked on the sugar farms is also compelling. I recommend the whole book.

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