Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972 (Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books 1996)
I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like. Despite having been correctly described on my auxiliary blog as not knowing shit about Aboriginal matters, I was slightly better informed than that in my childhood: I knew there was a lot of frontier violence. But I think I’m like most non-Indigenous Australians in having assumed, complacently enough, that Aboriginal people, at least in this state, were irrevocably dispossessed and driven from their land in the early years of settlement. In other words, all the really bad things were done long long ago, probably by people who were just acting according to the morality of their times. Um, well, mea culpa.
The dispossession of Aboriginal people in Australia has been a long, painful process. It has played out very differently in different states and territories and different regions within states, and been resisted at every phase by Aboriginal people and their allies, using means ranging from armed resistance to eloquent letters to the press. Invasion to Embassy tells the New South Wales history, and although the stories it tells are grim, often heartbreaking, I found it exhilarating: in these dying days of what W H Stanner called the ‘great Australian silence’ – the relegation of Aboriginal experience to footnotes in our history – books like this, where Aboriginal points of view are front and centre, are like doors opening onto the real world. I wish this one could be absorbed into the bloodstream of every non-Indigenous Australian.
Heather Goodall maintains that land has been a key issue in Aboriginal politics from the beginning. ‘There are strong grounds for arguing,’ she writes in the first chapter,
that for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia before the invasion, land was the physical and symbolic base for almost every aspect of life. Social relations were expressed, managed and negotiated through relations to land; political standing was legitimated and authority grounded in landholding. Knowledge was structured by its relation to place, and it was taught, held in memory and performed according to this organisational framework. New experiences were analysed by and incorporated into that oral tradition and so they too became organised within it by place.
In the first decades of the colony at Port Jackson and surrounds, then:
Land was seen by its Aboriginal owners as a central factor in their experience of colonialism. Their sense of invasion, of loss and deprivation of land was expressed clearly and unarguably. It was expressed to whites alongside Aboriginal pain at the deaths of their loved ones and offence at the transgression of their laws.
It’s a book that makes you want to read bits out loud to the nearest available listener, and maybe I should have done the blogging equivalent of that by uploading regular progress reports. But that’s an idea for another time, another book. Until you read the book, here’s a string of dot points, which might be familiar to you but were mostly news to me:
- Before 1850, owners of the large pastoral properties described Aboriginal men as virtually useless as employees, but after that date, when almost all non-Indigenous workers headed for the Victorian goldfields, those same Aboriginal men, being now necessary, were suddenly transformed into brilliant horsemen, unsurpassed as shepherds and stockmen.
- In the second half of the 19th century, reserves were established all over the state where Aboriginal people were promised security of tenure, and where many of them cleared land and worked small farms for decades, only to have their tenancies summarily revoked by the government, with no justification that would make sense in the absence of deeply racist, genocidal assumptions.
- The legal doctrine that Australia was terra nullius, land owned by no one, when the first European settlers arrived, was not proclaimed in law until 1889. Goodall comments that such a judgement could not have been made in 1840 ‘when there was such wide acknowledgement of Aboriginal relations to land’.
- 154 Aboriginal men from New South Wales volunteered and fought overseas in the First World War. Although there were no discriminatory regulations or laws, it turned out in practice that the Soldier Settler scheme was only for white soldiers – just one Aboriginal man was given any land under the scheme.
- This kind of thing happened during the Depression (page 185):
By 1933 there was a large camp of Aboriginal people just outside Cumeragunja, refused the dole in Victoria because they were New South Wales residents, but refused the dole in New South Wales because they were ‘too black’, and told they must go to the [Aborigines Protection Board] station for relief. But at Cumeragunja they were met by a manager clinging to the old APB rules, who told them that they were ‘too white’ to receive Aboriginal rations because they were not ‘predominantly of Aboriginal blood’.
The story of the first half of the 20th century is gruelling. When government agencies wanted to move Aboriginal communities from their land, the threat to remove the children was often used to force compliance. Aboriginal children were excluded from public schools in many places because white parents complained and the government gave them what they wanted – and families were again forced to move to places where some form of education, sometimes of a quality that beggars belief, was available. The ‘Dog Act’ – the 1936 amended version of the Aborigines Protection Act – created conditions in which Aboriginal people felt the government could pen them up and shift them around like animals: the reserves, which had been refuges and places where some vestige of traditional connection to land could be maintained, became virtual prisons. Even as benign a project as the creation of National Parks was the occasion of further dispossession and removal – I was shocked to reflect that to speak of wilderness in Australia is to give voice to a genocidal worldview, that is, it denies the existence of the people who lived in that part of the world for millennia.
Here are some more dot points, people and events that in any sane world would be as much part of general Australian lore as Ned Kelly, Phar Lap and the Eureka Stockade:
- Pemulwye and Windradyne, the two most famous leaders of armed resistance to colonisation, around Port Jackson and Bathurst respectively
- William Cooper – if you haven’t heard of him, and even if you have, read his Wikipedia entry. He was an extraordinary leader, who wrote to his local parliamentarian in his 20s, calling on the government to secure a ‘small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine Right’, and in his 70s organised the Day of Mourning on the sesquicentennial Australia Day. He is honoured in the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum in Israel as the only person in the world to have organised a private protest in response to Kristallnacht. As Goodall says, he ‘had personally experienced the whole process of demanding land and winning it, farming it in relative independence, and then facing the bitter years of dispossession and violet repression on the station [of Cumeragunja]’
- The Cumeragunja Walk-Off, in which 200 Aboriginal men, women and children crossed the Murray River into Victoria in protest against conditions at the New South Wales station. Among other things, this is the subject of Deborah Cheetham’s opera Pecan Summer
- The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association – the first Aboriginal political organisation to create formal links between different communities, whose chief spokesperson was Fred Maynard, a Hunter River Koori. It took shape in the early 1920s and found allies in the right-wing nationalists of the day.
- The Australian Aboriginal League, formed in the 1930s with a close focus on Cumeragunja (can you tell the Cumeragunja story made a deep impression on me?), but also asserting broader Aboriginal unity: ‘We should nail our colours to the mast, … making our slogan “Full equality for the dark race with the white race, and no differentiation between the full-blood and those of mixed blood”‘
- Political alliances between Aboriginal and other organisations – ranging from the Communist Party of Australia, which saw the unjust treatment of Aboriginal people as an extension of class struggle, to PR Stephenson’s right-wing nationalists, for whom Aboriginal issues were emblematic of White Australia’s need for independence from England and English cultural domination. When different Aboriginal groups accepted help from such disparate sources, it caused serious rifts.
I could go on. Read the book! You won’t regret it.
Invasion to Embassy was published in 1996, four years after the Mabo decision had laid to rest the legal fiction of terra nullius, and the same year as John w Howard said, disingenuously, ‘Injustices were done in Australia and no one should obscure or minimise them.’ The book would have to be an example of what Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard labelled black armband history. I’m sure Keith Windschuttle could find, perhaps has found, any number of errors. But those critics miss the point. Telling these stories doesn’t deny or diminish anyone else’s story. And it’s not about handwringing, collective guilt and shame – rage, perhaps, and a profound respect for those who held out for justice and dignity through it all.