Old truths creeping into the light

Sep 9, 2023
Mounted police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek clash of 1838

Recently, while trawling the net, I stumbled upon something startling. As a young man, my great-grandfather had unearthed a hideous crime. Against Aborigines.

Charles Heydon––known only through family whispers because he hadn’t married my great-grandmother—was a Supreme Court Judge and NSW Attorney General. According to the historian Raymond Evans, after a number of shipwrecked sailors had been killed by Aborigines in northern Queensland, the young Heydon “had come north on the Governor Blackall to search for or to avenge the missing men.”

“ [He] was sickened by what he observed, ” said Evans. “During early 1874, he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald :

I heard white men talk openly of the share they had taken in slaughtering whole camps, not only of men, but of women and children. They said that the gins were as bad as the men, and that the picaninnies, all their tribe being killed, would die of starvation if not also put out of the way… ”

Heydon protested at happenings on the Endeavour River. “Private persons go out to kill blacks and call it ‘snipe-shooting’ ”, he wrote.

Awkward words are always avoided you will notice. “Shooting a snipe” sounds better than “murdering a man”. But the blacks are never called men and women and children; “myalls” and “niggers” and “gins” and “picaninnies” seem further removed from humanity… What right have “myalls” to exist at all – mischievous vermin with their ignorance, and their barbarism, and their degradation and their black skins?”

Given the shame of illegitimacy, it’s hardly surprising that not a word of this had seeped into our family mythology. So when on 4 March 1938 my father, Frank Letters, read a Sydney Morning Herald eye-witness account of a massacre, he was profoundly shocked. “A well-known authoress” (almost certainly Dame Mary Gilmore) had written it. Ten years later, in his book of essays In a Shaft of Sunlight, Frank wrote:

“…when she was a child she had seen aborigines massacred in hundreds. They had been lying dead around poisoned waterholes, and she had seen hunting parties gather together. Dogs had been imported from Europe because they were more savage. She had seen little children dead in the grass, and scalps of blacks paid for as if they were dingoes.”

Frank protested his horror at ‘the bestiality of our more recent pioneer forebears.’ Despite his years as a barrister before becoming an academic, he’d clearly never stumbled on any such accusation before.

“Now, if all this is true,” he lamented, “it is extraordinary that so few of us have read anything of the kind in our historians. ”

Referring to an answering letter of protest in the Herald—“…imagination run riot, and unfair to our pioneers, and also to the history of Australia”—Frank went on:

“Incredible as it may seem, this was the only letter published on the subject. Verily, Australians, even those who love writing to the newspapers, are very bashful about discussing some things…”

As tortuous a way of learning the truths of history as you could imagine! No primary sources here: one man wrote that he’d read somewhere that a woman had once said…

Yet before historians like Henry Reynolds and Raymond Evans began searching the archives for truth, such scraps were all most white Australians had to go on. The facts had been so effectively buried that most of us had never stumbled across even the smallest snippet of convoluted, fourth-hand hearsay. Somewhere along the line the massacres had simply vanished from white history.

Aborigines, of course, had never forgotten. For them the murders, with the dispossession and despair that followed, must have been a daily thundercloud overshadowing everything.

A thundercloud that in some silent, sinister way must have darkened life for the rest of us too. A national trauma is a family one on a grand scale. Just like individuals or families, whole nations can suffer the after-effects of ugly deeds in the past. Especially if they’ve been hidden away unexamined and left to fester.

Humans have evolved a magic psychological trick for coping with parts of ourselves that we shrink from. Nasty bits, shameful bits, even unacknowledged good bits: according to Jung we stuff them away in the cellars and attics of our psyche where cleansing sunlight never reaches. Hidden deep within us they become part of our ‘shadow’, identified with darkness, blackness, night. If we don’t haul them out into the light and deal with them squarely, they can end up ravaging our health and sanity.

Aboriginal faces were a living reproach to white Australians. And the murdered dead even more so. So into the dark, unwanted shadow part of us we thrust all thought of them, and banged the door shut.

Surely it was no accident that the human objects of our blindness were also, symbolically, dark and unwanted.

It seems that, like children after a long-concealed family tragedy, we’ve all been left subtly bruised by the history we’ve repressed. Doesn’t the brash, cocksure, sun-bronzed Aussie image we love—so easygoing, so delightfully laid-back!—also come with a paradoxical hint of nervy adolescent uncertainty in our national psyche?

Why the old cultural cringe? The suspicious tall-poppy jealousies? The weird timidity that has had us forever creeping under the wing of one great and powerful friend after another? Snapping to attention when commanded to join their self-serving wars? Especially if they’re white, rich, and wallow in grandiose delusions about empires, past or future. Surely the schoolyard bully’s furtive insecurity is in the story somewhere, even when papered over with bluster and loud denials.

Our nation was built on a silent quicksand of wrongs: Aborigines crushed and murdered; convicts kicked around; the haughty cool-bloodedness of White Australia. We’re yet to haul ourselves completely out of the adolescent swamp; yet to turn into fully mature, proper grown-ups.

But hopefully we’re on the way. Despite sneers at the ‘black armband view of history’, most now admit that terrible deeds were done, then buried out of sight and mind. Formal government apologies have elated almost everyone. And who now takes seriously those few shrill white commentators who used to deny that massacres ever happened?

One truth, though, is still wincingly hard to face: that today’s Australians owe our comfortable living first and foremost to the fact that Aborigines used to be masters of the precious land, and now we are. Are we personally guilty of those old wrongs? We have certainly benefited prodigiously from them.

Blind, unknowing—and reluctant to probe too deeply—we’ve all lived well and thrived on the proceeds of crime.

Now it really is time to listen. To get out those metaphorical black armbands. Maybe even to pick up a biro and practise writing three simple letters: Y…E…S.

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