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‘Invasion vs Settlement’

Posted On: Monday, September 26, 2016  By:  
Review of Stan Grant, ‘Talking to My Country’

Grant, S. Talking to My Country, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2016

“we occupy the same land, but tell ourselves very different stories.” (p.25)

Stan Grant’s Book, Talking to My Country is not only highly recommended but should be required reading for every teacher of Australian history.

There are now many historical studies of the colonisation of Australia that challenge the long-held romanticised narrative of the peaceful settlement of a vast ‘empty’ continent. What gives Stan Grant’s challenge to this myth, or lie, of peaceful settlement such a powerful resonance is that he tells the story as a personal and family memoir. We are drawn into his story and then into the wider story of violent frontier conflict and the dispossession of a people.

For Stan Grant the problem is that “Australians know so little about us. They know so little about what has happened here in their name.” (p.4) Australians probably know more about the world trouble spots that Stan Grant has reported on in his role as foreign correspondent for national and international media, than what happened in their own country. As Grant comments,

“We have struggled with dispossession, we have struggled with colonisation, conflict, we are traumatised by our history in the same way that the people I report on overseas are traumatised by their history.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 26, 2016)

Stan Grant adds that Aboriginal Australians are not just traumatised by their history, but “the weight of history in Australia suffocates us.” (p.117). Towards the end of Talking to My Country, Grant writes that many Aboriginal Australians feel “estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstratively most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.” (pp.216-217)

A history that traumatises, suffocates and maroons a people in their own land is not just a benign story of the past to be skipped over in the classroom, but a history that must be confronted, acknowledged and seriously discussed. Why not begin an Australian history course with a very challenging and still historically controversial idea. Should the Nineteenth Century colonisation of Australia be termed an invasion or a settlement? Stan Grant is quite clear on the terminology to use.

“Australia still can’t decide whether we were settled or invaded. We have no doubt. Our people died defending their land and they had no doubt. The result though was the same for us whatever you call it. Within a generation the civilisations of the eastern seaboard – older than the Pharaohs – were ravaged.” (p. 2)

Looking back on his own learning of Australian history, Stan Grant wrote,

“The myths we created fed Australia’s lie: that no blood had stained the wattle. We were told a story of peace and bravery and the conquest of a continent. This was the inevitable push into the interior, a land opening up before the explorers. It was empty, tamed and claimed.” (p.29)

How much of this version of Australian history is still taught today ? “Empty, tamed and claimed” was the ‘Australian Dream’, but not for Stan Grant and Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. The Australian Dream was,

“Aborigines rounded up and shot, babies buried into the sand and decapitated, women raped, men killed as they hid in the forks of trees, waterholes poisoned, flour laced with arsenic. The Australian dream abandoned us to rot on government missions, tore apart families, condemned us to poverty.” (pp.25-26)

Teachers should ‘take on board’ the anger behind Stan Grant’s words. History and its consequences for Indigenous Australians is not some dry, distant and abstract study to be skimmed over in a few lessons.

Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country is a well written and an ‘easy-to-read’ starting point to a wider and more specific study of what really happened on the Nineteenth Century Australian frontier.

Why not listen to Stan Grant’s speech about Talking to My Country at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016.

In 2015 Stan Grant gave a very powerful speech during the IQ debate on ‘Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream.’ This speech can be listened to on the Ethics Centre website.

A full transcript of Stan Grant’s speech can be found on the same site. If the link for this site doesn’t connect you go to www.ethics.org.au and use their index

 

Short Cuts

ABC Radio National ‘Castaway’ July 27, 2014 (available for downloading)

Quite often the stories of individuals get lost in the broad sweep of history. But for many students and readers of history it is the personal stories of individuals that capture the imagination and make history ‘live’. Individual stories also give a human perspective to the historical ‘big picture’.

For example, how many students would give a thought about the reality of sea travel in the 19th Century. Ships were not necessarily that seaworthy, conditions on board were cramped and unhealthy, navigation was primitive by modern standards and there was no communication with the rest of the world if the ship ran into trouble. Perhaps the most frightening thought was that you would go down with the ship in a storm or if your ship struck rocks off some isolated coast.

If you were lucky you might be washed ashore. But what then ?

ABC Radio National’s Hindsight program has put together the stories of three individual castaways, Barbara Thompson, James Morrill and Narcisse Pelletier. What is common to all three castaways on the Northern Australian coast was that they were taken in, looked after and welcomed by Aboriginal People.

The program ‘Castaway’ can be downloaded from the ABC and listened to at your own leisure. The story of Barbara Thompson is recommended. Barbara was only 13 years old when she became the sole survivor when her ship was wrecked north of Cape York in 1844. The local Kaurareq People looked after Barbara for 5 years until a British research and surveying ship, the Rattlesnake, picked her up.

On board the Rattlesnake was Oswald Brierly whom you would have met in the Eden-Monaro Case Study on the @HISTORY website. What is important from a historical point of view is that Oswald Brierly wrote down everything Barbara Thompson had to tell him about traditional Kaurareq society before it was dramatically changed by contact with European sailors, settlers and missionaries. Oswald Brierly’s transcript of Barbara Thompson’s experience as a castaway is, therefore, a very important historical source as well as being a good story. You might be interested to know that the Kaurareq People who where so good to Barbara Thompson over 170 years ago won Native Title rights to a number of islands in the Torres Straits in a Federal Courts of Australia decision in May 2001.

What’s Next

How an Aboriginal perspective of early contacts might be reconstructed from an examination of written accounts from Eden, New South Wales.