2005 Annual Public Lecture - Institute for Public History
Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History
In recent decades, Aboriginal history has provoked enormous controversy in Australia, sparking passionate discussion and debate about questions that go to the heart of our culture, history, politics and identity. Associate Professor Bain Attwood considers why in: 'Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History'
About the Lecture
On 5 September 2005 the inaugural Institute for Public History annual lecture, 'Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History', was given by Associate Professor Bain Attwood to an appreciative and attentive audience of about 100. The lecture, based on Bain's latest book of the same title (Allen & Unwin 2005), was recorded and broadcast on Radio National and featured on the Hindsight and Perspective programs, adding to the considerable media interest and coverage Bain's book has generated.
Transcript: Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History
Thirty years or so ago an English historian by the name of J.H. Plumb forecast the death of the past. For a long time human beings had drawn on history in various ways, he argued, but in contemporary society this was no longer the case. 'The strength of the past in all aspects of life is far, far weaker', he asserted. Plumb attributed this decline to modernity. The modern world did not seem to need a sense of the past, he argued; 'Its intellectual and emotional orientation is towards change rather than conservation, towards exploitation and consumption. The new methods, new processes, new forms of living of scientific and industrial society have no sanction in the past and no roots in it'. Since he wrote those words, Plumb's prognosis for the past has been proven both right and wrong. On the one hand, more of the past has become less and less part of the present, but on the other hand, representations of the past have become increasingly pervasive in innumerable tangible forms. The more the past seems to recede, the more it returns as representation, we might say. It is this contradictory mixture - a world in which the past seems both less important and more important - that has characterised historical consciousness for more than three decades now.
The burgeoning growth of public interest in the past has occurred in many countries throughout the world. ' [H]istory as a mass activity, or as a pastime, has possibly never had more followers than it does today', another English historian, Raphael Samuel, has observed. The spectacle of the past, he points out, attracts the kind of attention that was once attached to the new and the future.
Public interest in history is evident almost everywhere one looks: commemorations and memorials are proliferating; museums, art galleries, archives and libraries mount historical exhibitions; heritage houses open one after another; historical reenactments, pilgrimages and tours flourish; family histories and genealogies are avidly researched; history books for the general public abound; autobiography and historical fiction are in great demand among publishers and readers; and, increasingly, film, radio, television and newspapers demonstrate a predilection for covering historical subjects and monitoring historical debates, if not provoking historical controversies such as the so-called 'history wars'.
Take the last month or so. A few weeks ago there were ceremonies memorialising the 60th anniversary of the Americans dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a fortnight ago a new exhibition on Captain James Cook opened at the Museum of Sydney; last week the Melbourne Council's list of heritage buildings went online (as i-heritage); in the last month or so there has probably been another tour of World War I battlefields and cemeteries led by one historian or another; several days ago the historian Henry Reynolds published another book, which begins and ends with his own family's search for a hidden paternal genealogy, which turns out to be Aboriginal in part; this week a ninety-year-old Melbourne man has published a memoir about his years as a prisoner-of-war on the Thai-Burma railway; last month Kate Greville published a historical novel about the Australian frontier, and Sebastian Faulks published a novel about one the beginnings of psychoanalysis; a new biography of Frank Lloyd Wright has been released in the last month or so; last week, a former professor of history at Monash had a long essay in the Australian Financial Review providing historical background to current struggles between Islamic groups in Indonesia; a week or so ago ABC TV began screening a historical reality show in which young men get to fly World War II spitfires, and Amazon.com announced the release of Edgar Reitz's Heimat on dvd; and last Saturday the Australian newspaper reported what it called a new front in 'the history wars' in a couple of articles, one by a journalist, the other by a historian.
It's the last of these examples of public history which I want to focus on, of course. The Australian told of another so-called 'war' over Aboriginal history. It apparently concerns a paddock near Portland, lying between the highway and the ocean, called the Convincing Ground. It is claimed that this was the site of a massacre of Aboriginal people in 1833 or 1834 by whalers. Here, more or less, is what I have gleaned from last Saturday's Australian. The traditional Aboriginal owners, the Kilcarer Gundidj people, have what we might call an oral tradition about this 'massacre' in which they say all but two of their people were killed after a dispute with whalers over a beached whale carcass. One of the traditional owners, Christina Saunders, was quoted by the Australian journalist Carmel Egan as saying: 'The old people talked of it. They would be sitting quietly telling you in whispers. Look at the names of places around here ... Murderers Flat, Haunted Gully, the Convincing Ground. There were some terrible things done around here'. On Monday another Aboriginal spokesperson, Wal Saunders, told ABC Regional Radio for south-west Victoria: 'It was the first ever recorded physical confrontation between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in the state; so it was akin to our Eureka Stockade'. This story has now been reported on the History News Network on the web and the bloggers have begun to go at it, hammer and tongs.
Many other people have apparently told the story of this 'massacre' in recent years. There's been the historical geographer Ian Clark, who carried out an assessment of the 'massacre' site for Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, and reported the massacre in his book Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, where he was once their history officer; there's been an archaeological survey commissioned by a local shire council, a study done by an archaeological survey; and a report written by cultural heritage consultants; there's also a book on the Western District frontier called 'A Distant Field of Murder', by a local academic historian, Jan Critchett, which, on the basis of the few documentary sources dating from the early 1840s, provides an account of what might have happened several years earlier at the place which, sometime or other, came to be called the Convincing Ground; there's also passing reference to the 'massacre' in Richard Broome's recently published general history, Aboriginal Victorians; the National Trust has, likewise, spoken of the massacre; the Age newspaper has referred to it; local whites presumably tell one story or another of this massacre; Black-Green Solidarity have taken up the cudgels; barristers and local shire councillors will do history later this month before a government tribunal which will try to resolve conflict between the owner of the land and the local Aboriginal people, by reference to the Commonwealth Cultural Heritage Act; and now, a history warrior by the name of Michael Connor, who has connections with those who have been called 'white blindfold historians', has entered the fray by doing some tabloid history in the pages of the Australian. (As far as I can gather, the only thing which is missing from the intensely historical site I have just described is a local church or reconciliation group!)
Now, it seems that the story all these history-makers are telling about the Convincing Ground varies considerably. For example, according to last Saturday's Australian, we have the National Trust and the Age claiming that a massacre occurred in which between 60 and 200 Aboriginal people killed; we have Ian Clark and the local Aboriginal people saying that a massacre occurred in which all but two of the Kilcarer Gundidj were killed; we have cultural heritage consultants telling a relatively detailed story about the 'massacre' and claiming that the whalers indiscriminately murdered elders, women and children; we have Jan Critchett saying more than thirty might have been killed, and Richard Broome inferring that 60 were killed; and you have Michael Connor saying the 'massacre' probably never happened.
What we have here is typical of the historical age we live in: a place which has become increasingly historical in the sense that there have been a growing number of histories told about it. It is also typical in that the stories are told by very different kinds of historical narrators and in quite different oral and literary forms. And it's typical in that they all claim that their story is true, and so they are vying for historical authority, all staking a claim to be the one who bears the truth about what happened. One might say 'Welcome to the world of public history'. But one might also say 'Pity the poor public'. Whose account should they believe? Which of these historical narrators or history-makers should they trust? Where might the truth of this history lie? There might also be other questions they are asking, too: Can we learn the truth about what happened there more than 170 years ago? Why are disputes like these happening so often these days? How might they be resolved satisfactorily? And, from the point of view of the academy or university, what role can and should a professional or academic historian play in disputes like this? Should we be offering our services? Who might commission or contract these? To which party in this historical conflict might we offer our services? And how much would they pay, and would it earn us research quantum?(!)
As I say in the preface to my book, Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, I had several audiences in mind as I wrote it, and one was these was members of the general public who, I presume, are confused by the claims and counter-claims being made in ongoing disputes over Aboriginal history, of which the Convincing Ground is just one more example. I also wanted to try to explain why such historical conflict is occurring, to suggest what the truth about the Aboriginal past might be, and how we might realise this.
As most of you here this evening know, my book is not the first to cover the so-called Aboriginal history wars. Shortly after the current controversy over Aboriginal history began, Stuart Macintyre, professor of history at the University of Melbourne, authored or co-authored a book entitled The History Wars. In this he described past and present controversies in Australia, but also explained how academic historians go about their work and how readers could distinguish good history from bad by applying the criteria adopted by academic or professional historians. In performing the latter tasks so admirably, Macintyre did much to uphold the integrity of academic historians and academic history that have been under attack from the 'history warriors'. As such, academic historians are indebted to Stuart (and his fellow author, Anna Clark).
And yet you could read their book and really be none the wiser about why these historical controversies are erupting, and how they might be resolved. One could be forgiven for concluding that Stuart was arguing that conservatives or, as I call them in my book, the new conservatives, were wholly responsible for the historiographical conflicts he describes, and that he was claiming that these 'history wars' could be resolved if only academic historians just went about their business as we have always done and the public out there listened to us as the bearers of wisdom and truth about history.
Now, as I say in the introduction to my book, as a fellow academic historian I have considerable sympathy for the approach Stuart Macintyre takes in his book The History Wars. But, in the end, both his explanation and his remedy for current historical conflicts seem terribly dated, perhaps even irrelevant. As I say in my book (about his book): 'There is little acknowledgment of how the terrain of history has changed [over recent decades] and hence little engagement with the profound epistemological and ethical issues that have been prompted by the popularisation and democratisation of history, the rise of memory and the emergence of subaltern histories (such as Aboriginal history)'. I will return to these themes - the popularisation and democratisation of history, the rise of memory and the emergence of subaltern histories - in a moment, since they lie at the heart of my discussion.
Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark's The History Wars was, of course, only one of the books published in 2003 in response to 'revisionist' commentaries on the stories that have been increasingly told over the last thirty to forty years about the colonisation of this country by white settlers. A collection of essays appeared at much the same time, called Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History. As the title of this book, as hyperbolic as the one it opposed, suggests, it was an attempt to rebut the revisionist arguments about the Australian frontier, or the Van Diemen's Land frontier, advanced by so-called revisionist historian, Keith Windschuttle, in his The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, vol. 1. There were a couple of excellent essays in Whitewash, though it must be said that neither of them were by historians; two of the historians whose research was most under the gun, Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, didn't do all that good a job of defending their work, and most of the other essays by historians were unsophisticated historiographically, which, perhaps, is not surprising, given that the book's commissioning editor, Robert Manne, who had never taught or researched the field of frontier history, and had no interest in the broader historiographical revolution which has occurred in the last forty years and which underpins the field known as Aboriginal history. Indeed, nearly all of the historical essays in Whitewash have the same theoretical and methodological approach that fatally circumscribes the work of 'revisionist' historians like Keith Windschuttle.
Now, I know some academic historians believe that we are best to leave the so-called history wars alone and that we are best not to get involved in such a controversy. I canvass these opinions in my introduction before making clear that I believe too much is at stake for historians to walk away from this and other historical conflicts. I quote the historian Iain McCalman, who, at the time he spoke, was president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities: 'We must face the brutal reality that it is the public and the government, rather than our own academic peers, whom we must persuade of our social and intellectual worth and who, directly or indirectly, pay for our research. Part of what is at stake in the History Wars', McCalman continued, 'is how we are able to assert and defend our territory as expert professionals'. These are sobering words, but, as I imply in the introduction to my book, I'm inclined to think McCalman is right in arguing that we need to go out there and explain better what we are doing.
In the second part of this book I present an account of Keith Windschuttle's work. I draw upon a large body of critical writing done by historians and others over the last two to three years, which includes the contributors to Whitewash but also the more sophisticated critiques offered by historians such as Tom Griffiths, Alan Atkinson and Klaus Neumann, and the sociologists Martin Krygier and Robert van Krieken. I go beyond these scholars, though, in order to trace the relationship between Windschuttle's earlier work and his Fabrication of Aboriginal History, and the relationship between his own psychic and political history and the history he writes, drawing on the work of American historians such as Dominick LaCapra to do so.
In my opinion, I incontrovertibly demonstrate three things. First of all, Windschuttle's account of the academic historiography tells us a little about academic historians and their research but a good deal more about himself and his own writing, largely because he projects his own, numerous failings onto academic historians and so confuses the latter with the former. At the end of final chapter of his Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle declares that the academic historiography is 'all smoke and mirrors'. In reality this comment describes his work, not theirs.
Secondly, Windschuttle's work, despite his best intentions, has long been riddled with misrepresentation. To be sure, this misrepresentation is probably more unconscious than conscious, but, whatever the reason for it, the result is the same for readers. In essence, Windschuttle simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth about history, let alone Aboriginal history.
Thirdly, Windschuttle is, quite simply, not up to the task of doing Aboriginal history. This is mainly because, whatever other talents he has (and there's much evidence that these are considerable), it is quite evident that he is a very poor historian. As I point out in my book, Windschuttle's misrepresentation of historiographical and historical sources only really becomes apparent once you have read the sources he misrepresents. Unless you've done this, or read a guide to his work that you have good reason to trust, you are in no position to make an assessment of Windschuttle's capacity to tell the truth.
I won't go on any more here. Rebutting Windschuttle's work is a tedious business, and it calls for the kind of mind-numbing detail which is best absorbed by reading accounts such as the one I provide in the second part of this book, rather than listening to me relate this detail in a lecture like this.
So, let me turn to the other major themes of my book. As I've already said, one concerns the popularisation and democratisation of history, the rise of memory and the emergence of subaltern histories (such as Aboriginal history) as a way of explaining current historical controversies. This is what the first part of the book is about. The other major theme concerns the different ways in which historians and others have been trying to tell the story of the frontier in recent years, the problems involved in doing what I have called 'traumatic history', and how we might try to resolve historical conflicts like the one over the Convincing Ground. This is what the third and last part of the book is concerned with.
For the remainder of this lecture I'll mostly going to talk about the theme of the first part of my book. There, I set out to explain the growing number of historical controversies in various ways, but the principal explanation concerns 'the democratisation and popularisation of history'. By 'the democratisation of history' I mean the fact that these days a broad range of people tell stories about the past which are now called history and accepted as history (whereas they were not in the past), and that they tell these histories in many different ways, not just in the form of writing. As I've already said, the struggle over the Convincing Ground is a case in point. The phrase 'the popularisation of history' speaks for itself, I trust.
As Dipesh Chakrabarty among others has pointed out, the democratisation and popularisation of history have had a paradoxical effect for history and historians. Chakrabarty has written: 'What is often lost sight of in these debates [or these controversies about the past] is the point that it is precisely because the past is enjoying such a boom in public life in all the democracies of the world' that doubts about the nature of historical understanding, doubts about what is historically true or not, have arisen. In other words, it is largely because we have so many different, competing historical voices that we have conflicts like the one over the Convincing Ground. As a result of the increasing number and variety of historical voices, the authority that academic history might once have enjoyed is a thing of the past. If you are truly democratic, of course, you might not altogether regard this as a bad thing. What progressive historians have found in recent years is that it is by no means easy to be true to democratic politics and true to the discipline of history's requirements, especially its requirements for proof.
To develop the point I am making here about the consequences of the democratisation and popularisation of history I'll relate some of what I say about 'Aboriginal history' in my book. As I imply in the opening page of this book, the term 'Aboriginal history' in the book's title refers as much to historiography as to history, and probably more so. It is the premise of my book that telling the truth about Aboriginal history is a matter that demands consideration of the nature of Aboriginal history as a field of history or historical discourse. Unless we grasp this and reflect on its implications, the so-called 'history wars' over colonialism in this country might be never ending. I should say here that I assume that my argument about the implications of 'Aboriginal history' is actually true for history and history wars more generally, since Aboriginal history-making reflects broader changes in the ways history is done these days.
This is the story I tell about the field of Aboriginal history and its implications for historical understanding and so for historical truth, to say nothing of democracy: After academic historians, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, belatedly began to devote attention to the study of colonialism in Australia, the most significant development was the emergence of a historical field or discourse called 'Aboriginal history'. 'Aboriginal history', I argue, emerged in the mid 1970s among a group of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians who were associated with the Australian National University and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Headed by Diane Barwick, they began a scholarly journal, which they called Aboriginal History.
For this group, the term 'Aboriginal history' did not simply refer to a historical subject - that is, a past that included Aboriginal people - however basic to their project the inclusion of Aboriginal people in Australian history was. More importantly, the term 'Aboriginal history' symbolised a realisation, indeed it was a conviction, that the task of representing the Aboriginal past required ways of doing history that were different to the ones that historians had traditionally used. In other words, for the founders of Aboriginal History, 'Aboriginal history' was not just a case of adding Aborigines to the pot called history and stirring without history as a practice changing significantly. These scholars were aware that 'Aborigines' and 'history' had long been seen as a contradiction in terms. In giving the name Aboriginal History to their project the founders of this field sent a message that this was going to be a different kind of history, which would necessarily challenge many of the conventions of the discipline. As far as I can see, it is this basic point - 'subaltern histories', histories of subordinated peoples, like Aboriginal history, are a different kind of history - that many academic and professional historians who do Aboriginal history, the new conservatives who criticise their work on Australia's colonial past and try to do their own research on this subject, and public intellectuals who dabble in this, all basically fail to acknowledge or refuse to accept. In turn, it is not surprising that many journalists and others who report the history wars do not seem to grasp or understand this. What I am saying, then, is all these parties seem to assume or pretend that they can just keep doing history as professional historians once did history. But, as I argue in my book, Aboriginal history, like a good deal of other history work, has changed, and, unless you want to go on having wars between people over the past, we had better accept this and try to go about our business differently. After all, there are probably going to be very few winners if we continue as are, and if there are it will probably be those who have tended to be the winners in the past.
Now, how is Aboriginal history different? In my book I argue that 'Aboriginal history' has several characteristics, which I will now list. First, it can be defined as a matter of historical perspective, that is, an attempt to see the past from the position or point of view of Aboriginal people. In focusing on Aboriginal perspectives, historical research has moved Aboriginal people and Aboriginality to the centre of historical inquiry.
Second, in order to do this work, academic historians had to expand their horizons in another respect. Many began to use sources other than the written ones they had traditionally relied upon. This included interviewing people about the northern frontiers of settlement ('oral history'), but also using the historical remains exploited by archaeologists, such as Aboriginal middens and rock art, and the sources used by linguists, such as word-lists. The work of historians became more cross-disciplinary in the sense that they drew upon the methods and knowledge of other disciplines.
Third. At the same time as this occurred, the practitioners of those other disciplines became interested in historical questions and doing historical work. This is not just a matter of more anthropologists, linguists and archaeologists entering the field but also those in disciplines such as geography, literary studies, philosophy, legal studies, political science and cultural studies, which had previously had little if any interest in the subject of Aboriginal history. These scholars enriched an understanding of the Aboriginal past by provoking new questions, providing different perspectives and fresh insights, introducing novel methods of research, suggesting new conceptual tools and other narrative forms. But this democratisation of history also meant that Aboriginal history was increasingly produced by scholars who had never been trained in history and who had a rather different conception of historical knowledge to that of academic historians. I will point out the implications of this later.
Fourth. The emergence of Aboriginal history as a historical field occurred, of course, during a time when there was a renaissance of Aboriginal culture in Australia. Fundamental to this was an assertion of Aboriginal people's status as the original or indigenous peoples of the land, but also an assertion that they were a people who had been oppressed in the past. Both these assertions were, of course, inherently historical in nature. As such, they provoked a need and a demand for history.
Aboriginal people became the authors of their own history, and it soon became evident that the history made by Aboriginal people differed in many respects from that of non-Aboriginal scholars. In Aboriginal history-making the past is regarded as part of the present and the future of Aboriginal people, rather than a time that has passed. In other words, the very temporal categories - past and present - that lie at the heart of academic history are drawn into question. (This, of course, reflects a broader trend in modern historical work, primarily where it involves oral history.)
In much of their history-making Aboriginal people have presented accounts of the past in forms that have differed markedly from those traditionally used by academic historians. How is this so? Aboriginal histories depart from the conventions of historical objectivity or realism. Most fundamentally, they do not depend on a correspondence between a specific historical reality and specific historical facts in making a claim for historical truth; they have profoundly different approaches to verifying and validating the truth of their historical narratives. Let me give you an example to illustrate the point I am making here. Aboriginal people tell what have been called Captain Cook stories which bear little relationship to the particular pasts that have been described by conventional academic histories. For instance, they tell of Cook being in places and at times he never was. It might thus be concluded that these histories lack historical authenticity because what they describe is sharply at odds with what actually happened and so are no use whatsoever in helping us answer conventional historical questions such as who did what, where, and when. But once we accept that these Cook stories are produced in the form or genre of myth (rather than the form professional history takes), we are more able to accept them as the bearers of historical truth. Aboriginal Captain Cook stories do not purport to treat Cook as a particular historical personage but rather as a mythic character who symbolises British colonisation by encompassing a large set of people, processes, events and the like. As such, the Aboriginal Cook stories do not pretend to give an account of relations between particular peoples in a particular place at a particular time. Instead they tell of the general relationship between two peoples: the British colonisers and the Aboriginal landowners. As such, it can be argued that these myths faithfully render the general nature of frontier relations and so can be called true histories.
Perhaps the most important point to make about the nature of Aboriginal history, though, is one that overlaps with one of the most significant changes to have occurred in history-making more generally in the last two or so decades: the rise of what is called, rightly or wrongly, 'memory' or 'memorial discourse'. With 'memory' or 'memorial discourse', the influence that the past and the present exert upon the making of historical narratives tilts towards the present rather than towards the past. This might be called time's arrow. Imagine an arrow on semi-circle, with the past at one end and the present at the other. In memory work, unlike history work, the gravitational pull is towards the present, not the past. By 'memory' or 'memorial discourse', I should explain here, what we are really talking about are forms of history-making which depend more on the oral and the visual than just the written. It is a kind of history that Alan Atkinson has recently called 'vernacular history', by which he means histories in which there is 'a mix of writing and speech'. It is vernacular history that increasingly informs public understanding of the past as history increasingly comes to us in the form of radio, television, videos, dvds, the internet and so on but also autobiography and testimony. It is history with a personal voice. Pity the poor historian who cannot get the hang of doing vernacular history, we might say. We or they are probably condemned to speak to smaller and smaller audiences.
As I observe in the opening chapters of my book, Aboriginal history in Australia became increasingly popular in the closing decades of last century, and it was increasingly drawn into the public sphere where it became a public history, which is to say a history that is produced and consumed, used and abused, in an array of public contexts. And, as I have been indicating, Aboriginal history has been done in a large range of forms and forums, most of it by those who are not trained in academic history, and most of it in forms unlike those of academic history: for example, autobiographies and life stories; memoirs; biographies and biographical studies; family histories; oral histories; local histories; popular or populist histories; archaeological works; essays; legal histories; public inquiries; novels; plays; history paintings and sculptures; photography; music; art exhibitions; television drama series; documentary films; and countless feature articles, profiles, background stories and documentaries by journalists for radio, television, newspapers and now the net.
In my book I provide examples of these in a very long paragraph. It goes on for pages and pages ... well, two pages. I was trying to provide visual evidence of the point I am making here: so much history-making these days is simply not academic history, but public history, and especially vernacular history (though unfortunately I only discovered this word after I'd done the book), and it is the latter that has much more influence. Academic historians might not like it, but, as our American masters say, go fight city hall.
Now, to add to all this history-making, we have had two more layers added, those of political parties and leaders using and abusing history to a degree that they have never done before, for example Paul Keating and John Howard, and the creation of a new phenomenon called 'the public intellectual' who are also using and abusing history, for example Robert Manne and Keith Windschuttle (and I have deliberately paired these here). In my book I try to explain why this is so, and to trace the implications of this for historical knowledge and understanding. I don't have time to discuss this at any length here. Perhaps the best way to summarise this is to say that that these two factors, the growing interest of political parties and their leaders in history, and the rise of a public intellectual culture largely centring upon historical matters, which in turn reflects the huge significance history has in national cultures these days ... these two factors have contributed to a shift in the axis of history that the French historian Marc Bloc drew our attention a long time ago: a shift away from understanding of history and towards judging history. This shift, from understanding to judgement, is a shift that is, of necessity, moral in its field of force, and potentially political and legal, too. History increasingly thus becomes a matter of morality, and the champions of vernacular history become modern day preachers more than they ever were before.
I want to turn back now towards the Convincing Ground and apply what I have been saying about the democratisation and popularisation of Aboriginal history to cases like this one. I have been saying that in the field of public history, and especially one such as Aboriginal history, you not only have different stories been told by different people but they are telling these in different forms and in different forums and they have different criteria for truth. Stories that were once not regarded as history, such as oral traditions and myths, are now frequently called histories; story-tellers who have never been called historians before, such as Aboriginal informants, archaeologists, historical geographers, and heritage consultants now claim this status or have it thrust upon them; and history is done in a range of forums, which include not only the academy but the Aboriginal cultural organisation, the government authority, the legal tribunal, and the media. As I said before, all these history-makers claim their stories are true, but the procedures they adopt to determine and demonstrate the veracity and validity of their narratives vary enormously. Hence, much of the confusion we have these days in historical controversies.
This can be illustrated by a consideration of the various ways in which the conflict of the Australian frontier has been represented. In the works of research and synthesis that were originally done by academic historians specialising in Aboriginal history (and which have continued to be produced) they sought to reconstruct a picture of the frontier on a large canvas, such as the country, a colony, or a large part of a colony. To do so these historians mostly relied upon a range of written sources; they seldom drew on Aboriginal oral sources (even though they had often done some oral history) or upon settler myths (though they had often read these). Their accounts tended to works of exposition and analysis more than of narrative, and for the most part they used the language of the contemporary sources to describe settler violence. So, for example, Henry Reynolds wrote a series of books based almost entirely on the contemporary and near-contemporary white record. In these he sought to demonstrate the incidence of frontier conflict across Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to explain why this violence occurred. He argued that the conflict amounted to war and was widespread, but he also contended that the warfare was small-scale - killings in twos and threes - rather than on a mass-scale - tens and twenties or more. Reynolds seldom referred to massacres unless he was considering mass killings that had long been described in these terms (such as the Myall Creek and Coniston massacres) or unless he was discussing contemporary humanitarian treatments of violence. Similarly, other academic historians made little reference to massacres in their consideration of frontier conflict.
An example of this kind of work is that of Jan Critchett, whose work I referred to before. As far as academic history is concerned, she is the historian to consult on the Convincing Ground. Significantly, the journalist who wrote the news report in last Saturday's Australian does not seem to have sought her expertise; the other writer, Michael Connor, actually draws heavily on Critchett's research but he bad-mouths her and other academic historians (accusing them of 'sniffing blood in the archives') and passes off one of Critchett's conclusions about the 'massacre' ('The number who died on the Convincing Ground is unknown') as though it is his own, which is the kind of ungraciousness we have come to expect from these history warriors.
Now, the way academic historians have tended to treat frontier conflict can be contrasted with the treatment found in Aboriginal histories. These have almost all been very local in their focus, and they tend to be based on their own oral traditions and/or populist white writings, rather than the contemporary historical record. These Aboriginal histories do not seek to emulate the empirical studies of academic historians described earlier. Instead, they are narratives which, more often than not, assume the form of myth. They tend to render the past in terms of an events or events like massacres which, their tellers hold, are symbolic of the nature of frontier relations. I suggest that the story told by the Kilcarer Gundidj might be regarded in this way (though it must be pointed out that there is some historical basis for the specificity of their story in documentary sources several years after the 'massacre' is purported to have happened). This is not only true for Aboriginal histories, though. Often local white settler traditions also relate the frontier past in terms of massacres, the best known example these days being the Bells Falls Gorge 'massacre'.
As Aboriginal history has been democratised and became popular among the producers and consumers of books on the subject, accounts that represent frontier violence in dramatic terms of white massacres of Aborigines have become more common, particularly among the authors of narrative histories, which, of course, has enjoyed a revival as a form of historical writing. So, for example, at a time when academic historians had begun to shift their focus away from conflict and onto a broad range of relations on the frontier, a journalist, Roger Milliss, wrote a mammoth narrative history, Waterloo Creek, on the so-called Australia Day massacre of 1838. As well as work of this nature, there have been much more populist work by journalists such as Bruce Elder's Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and the Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788. In other forms of history such as documentary films, which also tend to favour narrative and to use a small number of examples to make their point, there has similarly been a greater focus on events, such as massacres, rather than processes and structures, which are revealed in the small-scale incidents of violence that typified conflict between Aborigines and settlers. The television series Frontier is a case in point, despite an academic historian (Henry Reynolds) being engaged as a historical consultant.
As Aboriginal history has come to be done by the practitioners of other disciplines, such as historical geography and anthropology, so too has frontier conflict came to be portrayed in starker terms than academic historians had represented it in their scholarly studies. Even where, say, historical geographers and anthropologists do research, their research methods, which tend to comprise a focus on the local rather than the regional or the national and the tracing of place and the collection of oral testimony rather than written data, have tended to lead to greater emphasis on particular events such as massacres rather than the general pattern of frontier conflict.
So, what I'm trying to describe here, obviously, is my conviction that history-making has been changing over the last forty to fifty years, and essentially it involves a change where time's arrow moves towards the present rather than the past, and that the implications of this for historical knowledge, understanding and authority are both enormous and hard for us to really grasp.
I'm now going to turn to the last part of the book, which I will discuss very briefly and then I promise I will stop. Here, I argue that there has been insufficient acknowledgment among historians of the enormous difficulties that arise when they try to represent the frontier in this country, particularly its impact on Aboriginal people, and that many academic historians have failed to recognise the limits of their discipline when they try to relate this past in their customary manner. The nature of the problem faced by academic history is clear, I think, if we ask this question: How does one relate disaster? More particularly, how does relate a disastrous past in which the props of memory of one of the two peoples who could have registered this disaster, the Aboriginal peoples, were mostly destroyed by the events of that past, and when these people's perspective was barely recorded contemporaneously because they had an oral culture? In other words, how can you provide a reliable narrative of a cataclysmic event (and perhaps what happened at the Convincing Ground is an example) when the contemporary historical sources, upon which academic history has conventionally relied, are inadequate? Furthermore, how does one relate a traumatic past such as this one - traumatic for both Aboriginal and settler peoples? In other words, how does one relate a past that was only partially registered at the time it occurred because of its very nature? Taking these questions together, we must ask: do we require new historical concepts, new historical methods and new forms of historical narrative in order to be able to represent this past?
For the remainder of the book, I try to answer these questions, because this is what is needed in order to be able to tell the truth about Aboriginal history.