Journalist Stan Grant pulls no punches in his new book Talking To My Country, a personal meditation on racism, culture and identity in Australia – topics he will also address in a Hawke Centre talk in Adelaide later this month.
Grant, a Wiradjuri man who has had a successful career as a political and foreign correspondent, says the book is the story of his country and one he felt compelled to tell: “Black Australia is a foreign place and I feel like a foreign correspondent in my own land.”
In the following extract from Talking To My Country, he questions the myths surrounding Australian history. His words resonate particularly strongly in light of the recent furore over university guidelines surrounding the language used to describe the arrival of Europeans on these shores.
I was born into what anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner called the ‘great Australian silence’. It was the period of forgetting. 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.
These were the myths of my childhood, the myths of my education. In this telling, Australia was discovered by Captain James Cook. The Endeavour was a ship of destiny that led to the First Fleet. On 13 May 1787 eleven ships set sail with a cargo of prisoners to found a penal colony in New South Wales – but the true first fleet landed here 60,000 years earlier. I was told Lawson, Blaxland and Wentworth were the first people to cross the Blue Mountains.
There were people standing on the shore as Cook weighed anchor. Smoke from campfires trailed the white men who trekked over the great mountains west of Sydney; black people watched these people who appeared like ghosts. But that story wasn’t told in my classroom. The lesson I learned was that we didn’t matter. In fact we didn’t even exist.
I was young when I began to question all of this. Even through the eyes of a boy the glory of Australia did not match with the reality of our lives. Something was rotten here. Each morning at school I would stand in line to recite the pledge: I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I salute the flag. And then, in the evening I would return home to where this flag had deposited us. Home was wherever we could find it. It was a home on the margins, outside of town, outside looking in.
Here, was my place, among the detritus of the frontier: the huddled remnants of the hundreds of nations who formed here as the continent formed around them. Two thousand generations of civilisation and culture, all of it now smashed against the reality of white settlement, a people whose land was taken because the people themselves were not legally here.
School told me we faded from the frontier. The dying pillow was smoothed to soften our inevitable extinction.
It need not have been this way. The birth of Australia was meant to be so different. For a brief moment there was hope. Captain Arthur Phillip founded a penal colony with instructions from the crown to protect the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal people and forge friendly relations with the natives. There were reports of blacks and whites dancing together with joy in the early days of the settlement.
The local people began teaching their language to the newcomers. Here’s what we could have been. In this moment there was a glimpse of a better Australia, and we failed.
Within a matter of years violence had broken out on both sides and Phillip would now instruct raiding parties to bring back the severed heads of the local warriors.
Within a generation the heads of Aborigines were shipped back to Britain in glass cases, to be studied as relics of a doomed race.
Enlightened people throughout the world were wrestling with ideas of humanity and civilisation. The notion that all men are created equal was alive in the world. The ‘immortal declaration’ – as it was known – had been penned by Thomas Jefferson at the birth of America’s independence a decade before the First Fleet arrived on these shores.
Yet, such lofty ideals had no place here. Not for us. We were dismissed as brutes. We were deemed to be the living example of what seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes meant when he spoke of the natural state as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
At best to some we were the ‘noble savage’. We belonged to those so-called primitive people uncorrupted by civilisation. Yet such relics were seen to have no place in a modern world. The great writer of his age Charles Dickens spoke for many when he described such peoples as cruel, bloodthirsty and murderous. In Dickens’ words we were whistling, clucking, tearing savages that he wished civilised off the face of the earth.
© Stan Grant; This is an edited extract from Talking To My Country, by Stan Grant; HarperCollins Publishers Australia; rrp $29.99; Also available in ebook.
Grant will discuss his book at a Hawke Centre event at the Adelaide Convention Centre on April 21. Details and registration here.
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