Mark McKenna, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay 69, 2019)
We’ve been talking a bit in my house about Jean-Léon Gerôme’s fabulous 1896 painting La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité (Truth coming from the well armed with her whip to chastise humankind). I don’t know what Gerôme had in mind when he painted it, but if it had been painted this year one would be tempted to think it referred to either the #metoo movement or the subject of this Quarterly Essay. Mark McKenna’s essay argues strongly that now is the moment for Truth to rise from The Great Australian Silence about the history of First Nations of the Australian continent. There may be no whip in the essay, and McKenna doesn’t scream in rage – he’s a serious, evidence-based historian. But Gerôme’s passionately urgent Truth is surely more appropriate to the occasion than the serene Truths of other painters of his time..
McKenna begins his essay by quoting in full the Uluru Statement_From_The_Heart (link is to a PDF). If you haven’t read the full statement, please do. I think it’s worth reading many times, in full, and I hope that enough of us will take it to heart that the Prime Minister’s apparently offhand and certainly duplicitous rejection of its recommendations – for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution, and for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history – will turn out to have been a bump in the road.
McKenna continues to quote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals throughout the essay, but his own voice is clear, cogent and eloquent. Here he is, a historian, on the importance of listening to Aboriginal people’s stories of massacres and dispossession:
[Mainstream] Australians have yet to accept that they live in a country with two ways of knowing the past. Our hierarchies of storytelling dictate what we can and can’t see. Documentary sources are accorded more authority and power, Indigenous testimony is more likely to be questioned and interrogated, its findings cast in doubt. This is another reason to hold a truth-telling commission: to hear and understand another way of knowing how Australia was founded and created. For Indigenous Australians, these things are not ‘past’. Taken as one living body of story, they form a mosaic that binds the historical experience of all Aboriginal people from all parts of the continent. It is not the only tie, but it is the one they want other Australians to hear more than any other. And it binds us all. Not as a vehicle for blame or guilt or a means to recoil in moral disgust and denounce the past. In order to understand what happened we have to step outside our own moral universe. History is not a trial of earlier generations, or of the present. The past matters because we give it life; because we seek to understand both its difference from the present and the traces of commonality that bind us to the lives of those who have gone before us. Until we listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians, we will continue to see the history of the country we share through European eyes.
There’s a lot in that paragraph, and the essay as a whole could be seen as unpacking it. Because, unlike in New Zealand or Canada, the British didn’t make a treaty with the people who were already here when they arrived, Australia’s history has no redemptive moment. So, bizarrely, we are offered as a sacred foundational narrative the story of a losing battle on the other side of the planet, and our leaders say it’s a fascist rewriting of history to want public monuments to acknowledge the undeniable genocidal implications of ‘discovery’.
McKenna gives a fascinating account of his own intellectual shifts, in particular through his 2002 book, Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, and responds to recent hoo-ha about colonial monuments be removed with an account of a visit to Kurnell, the site of Cook’s first Australian landing.
The latter struck a chord with me because I recently went for a walk around Kurnell with a couple of friends. Mark McKenna went there in September, we went in November. You can read my blog entry here. Like McKenna, we were struck by the weather-beaten sign on an old metal post: ‘Welcome to Kurnell, the Birthplace of Modern Australia.’ He explores the history of that sign in a gently comic chronicle of bureaucrats trying to get it right. We were taken with the way Aboriginal perspectives are everywhere around the place of Cook’s actual landing. As one of my friends put it:
Love the Kurnell monument: ‘Which bit of Piss Off don’t you whiteys get?’
McKenna – presumably because of word limits – doesn’t go into detail about the place, but he does tell the story of how at the local level the understanding of that event and its regular celebration have morphed to include significant input from the Gweagal people. Locally, it’s no longer a story of discovery or birthplaces, but of the meeting of two cultures. This whole discussion puts egg all over the faces of those politicians who insist that to alter monuments would be ‘stalinist interference’ (Malcolm Turnbull’s words):
For as long as we refuse to relinquish the triumphalist and monovocal view of our past, we seal ourselves off from understanding history as anything other than a crude choice between shame and pride.
When this Quarterly Essay was published, in March this year, I was in London. I was there again when the brilliantly multivocal exhibition James Cook: The Voyages opened at the British Library St Pancras. It’s heartening to see that in the British Library Indigenous voices are heard and more than one perspective is given respectful attention.
As I was about to publish this post, the June 2018 Quarterly Essay arrived in the mail, with 50 pages of correspondence about Moment of Truth. There’s the usual mix of interesting additions, observations from different perspectives, civil differences of opinion on some matters, a bit of mudslinging at a straw man, and an intelligent response from McKenna (‘I’ve learnt as much from speaking about my Quarterly essay as I did from writing it’). There’s also a brilliant contribution from Megan Davis, one of the creators of the Statement from the Heart, which brings home both the huge significance of the Statement and the devastation brought about by its offhand dismissal. She tells us to do ourselves a favour:
don’t just read McKenna’s fine essay, go and read the referendum Council’s report.
A PDF of the report is available for download here.