History as a construct of the invaders
In November 2004 I was commissioned by the State Government of Victoria along with Aboriginal artist Gayle Maddigan to make an ephemeral artwork for the 150th year since the Eureka rebellion. We chose to look at the untold stories of Indigenous people at that time.
We found a very small amount in the history books and some recent research that revealed many things I had never known, for example that there were Aboriginal gold miners on the fields and stories of Aboriginal people who led miners to sites of plentiful gold deposits. There were also some shocking statistics regarding the dramatic population decline at the height of Ballarat’s population explosion. What struck me more than anything was my lack of knowledge about this aspect of history yet I had scored 98% in my Higher School Certificate for Australian History in 1975.
That Caroline Chisholm is a hero to women in Australia is taken for granted in what I am about to write. She was clearly someone who was infused with the desire to contribute and saw her life’s purpose in the context of serving others. This is to be absolutely commended and celebrated, however what I want to draw attention to in this essay is another perspective on this time in Australian history. Viewed from this other point of view Caroline Chisholm could be seen in another light. This is not a critique of her because she was just a part of the paradigm of the day and within that she was providing comfort and spiritual salve to the poor and dispossessed from other lands who were trying to survive and make a new life. However which ever way you look at it Caroline Chisholm made life easier for the hundreds of thousands who made the journey from Melbourne to the goldfields. For the Indigenous peoples of the land she was one of the many people who made way for the invading forces.
584,000 people immigrated to Victoria between 1851 and 1861. Sixteen years from the time Batman landed in a pristine environment in which the food supply was plentiful and the people lived in relative health, happiness and harmony. The discovery of gold was the main reason for this dramatic influx of Europeans, and yet we never hear of the impact that this had on the people of the land. We have been so schooled in denial that we don’t even see it as a missing piece of history. We talk about history is as though it began with the arrival of the non-Indigenous populations.
Obviously Caroline Chisholm cannot bear this mantel alone and I am using her as an example to draw attention to the neglect, denial and outright racism that exists in our contemporary reading of history even today. On Monday March 15th 2005 an article appears in the Moonee Valley Leader about Caroline Chisholm called ‘Radical in bonnet and shawl’ that doesn’t mention anything about the violence and dispossession that was occuring at the time. We are happy to applaud the fortitude and good work done by a remarkable woman however we still don’t seem to be able to acknowledge that the impact of the gold rush was a dramatic decrease in the population and well being of the original inhabitants.
In 1984 Richard Broome wrote the first of a series of history books for the celebration of Victorias 150th year of occupation. Chapter 1 is entitled Aboriginal Pioneers and gives exactly twelve lines to the Aboriginal explanation of prior occupation. The rest of the chapter dwells on how Aboriginal people were immigrants themselves. There is no account in most non-Aboriginal readings of history that Aboriginals themselves unanimously claim they have always been here. There are no stories passed down through their very complex and sophisticated law and language system that tells of a migration from anywhere. We are very attached to the belief that we had as much right to claim the land as they once did.
Caroline Chisholm created her shelters twenty years after Batman arrived. The invasion of an already populated land does not happen in 20 years without the effect of it being obvious to all who inhabit the place. So while Chisholm was noble in her philanthropic work she also needs to be investigated along with all of her contemporaries for her, at best, ignorance, and at worst, exclusion based in inherent racism.
To put this in a context Broome quotes an intolerant Bristol emigrant who complained about his accommodation in one of Caroline’s huts ‘that he had to spend the night “with a repulsive looking Chinaman on one side and a more disgusting nigger on the other”(p78 The Victorians, Arriving, R Broome 1984). Clearly Chisholm did not discriminate in who could use her shelter, however I note that she is not known for her empathy towards the local Indigenous peoples whose land she was building the shelters on.
The denial that lies at the heart of our culture is evident in all projects that deal with early history in Australia. Our relationship to our country and our culture as non-Aboriginal Australians is undeveloped and awaiting formulation. I assert that we cannot successfully create community or culture that has any solid base or integrity until we revisit our past, not in order to whip ourselves or our ancestors, but to claim ALL of our history, not just the pieces that are palatable. It is with this ownership of our past that we can create a future that is inspiring and resplendent, one that respects and includes the thousands of years of rich and diverse culture and stories that came before our recent arrival. Claiming this past also opens up the possibility of a wealth of stories, that currently lie dormant, of our own wild west. The American film industry was built on the story telling that came from their occupation of another cultures land. If we could get past our preoccupation with justifying what we know happened, and began to explore the stories we would see that they are fabulous and complex, not a simplified history of wrong doing. Our inability to own up to the brutal events of the early settlement is almost adolescent in its denial.
Time to grow up.