We should, of course, question these things more. We could ask why – if we were actually genuine about remembering patriots who have died for this country – why would we not first spend $100m on a museum honouring the at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous dead who so tragically lost their lives defending their country here in Australia in the frontier wars of the 1800s? Why is there nowhere in Australia telling the stories of the massacres, the dispossession, and the courageous resistance of these patriots?
(Second Extract from a speech by Richard Flanagan to the National Press Club on 18 April 2018)
The figure of 65,000, I should add, is one arrived at by two academics at the University of Queensland and applies only to Indigenous deaths in Queensland. If their methodology is correct, the numbers for the Indigenous fallen nationally must be extraordinarily large.
As one prominent commentator noted, “Individually and collectively, it was sacrifice on a stupendous scale. We should be a nation of memory, not just of memorials, for these are our foundation stories. They should be as important to us as the ride of Paul Revere, or the last stand of King Harold at Hastings, or the incarceration of Nelson Mandela might be to others.”
The commentator was Tony Abbott, announcing the French museum, speaking of the dead of world war one.
And yet how can his argument be said not to also hold for the Indigenous dead? After all, Sir John Monash became a great military leader in spite of considerable prejudice. And so too Pemulwuy and Jundamurra.
Of course, such a reasonable and necessary proposal as a museum for the Indigenous fallen would at first be greeted with ridicule and contempt. Because in the deepest, most fundamental way we are not free of our colonial past. Freedom exists in the shadow of memory. For Australia to find out what freedom means it has to face up to the truth of its past. And it’s time we decided to accept what we are and where we come from, because only in that truth can we finally be free as a people.
Sixty years ago, the scientific consensus was that Indigenous Australians had been in Australia for only 6,000 years. But through a series of breath-taking discoveries, science has confirmed what Indigenous people always knew: that they have been here for at least 60,000 years.
It makes you wonder if the $500m earmarked for renovating the Australian War Memorial would not be more wisely spent on a world class national Indigenous museum that honours a past unparalleled in human history? Surely, when we have the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth, is not such a major institution central to our understanding of ourselves as a people? Is it not necessary, and fundamental to us as a nation?
It is, after all, extraordinary, and beyond a disgrace that there is in the 21st century no museum telling that extraordinary story, so that all Australians might know it, so that the world might share in it, and so that we might learn something of the struggle and achievement, the culture and unique civilisations that were and are Indigenous Australia.
We have turned our back on this profound truth again and again, because to acknowledge it is also to acknowledge the other great truth of Australia: that the prosperity of contemporary Australia was built on the destruction of countless Indigenous lives up to the present day, and with them dreamings, songlines, languages, alternative ways of comprehending not only our extraordinary country but the very cosmos.
And yet if we were to have the courage and largeness to acknowledge as a nation both truths about our past, we would discover a third truth, an extraordinary and liberating truth for our future, about who we are and where we might go.
We would discover that though this land and its people were colonised, a 60,000-year-old civilisation is not so easily snuffed out. And the new people who came to Australia, in their dealings with black Australia, were also indigenised, and, in the mash up, Indigenous values of land, of country, of time, of family, of space and story, became strong among non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous ways, forms, understandings permeated our mentality in everything from Australian rules football to our sense of humour.
As much as there was a process of colonisation, there was also a history of indigenisation – a frequently repressed, often violent process in which a white underclass took on many black ways of living and sometimes, more fundamentally, thinking and feeling, in which may be traced continuities that extend back into deep time.
We would discover that we are not Europeans nor are we Asians. That we are not a new country. We are in the first instance a society that begins in deep time. That is the bedrock of our civilisation as Australians, our birthright, and if we would accept it, rather than spurn it, we might discover so many new possibilities for ourselves as a people.
A war of extermination
My own island is a good example of both processes. There took place there what was described, not by a contemporary left-wing academic, but an 1830s Van Diemonian attorney general, as “a war of extermination” of the Tasmanian Aborigines. A terrible war of which fewer than 100 people survived, the forebears of today’s 25,000-strong Palawa population.
To this day Tasmanian society is shaped by the tragedy of a land where the English, as a ship’s captain’s wife, Rosalie O’Hare, confided in her diary in 1828, “consider the massacre of these people an honour”.
But it was, for a critical time, also a land where many ex-convicts, to quote a contemporary witness, “dress in kangaroo skins without linen and wear sandals made of seal skins. They smell like foxes.” They live in “bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines”. In coming to understand how to live in this strange new world, they took on Aboriginal partners, ways of life and thinking.
No less an authority than John West, the first official editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote in 1856 that whites living outside of the two major Van Diemonian settlements “had a way of life somewhat resembling that of the Aborigines”.
The bush became freedom, and for a time the Van Diemonian authorities feared a jacquerie in which the ex-convicts would make common cause with the Aboriginal population.
It was a messy, often brutal, inescapably human response to extraordinary times and places, out of which emerged a new people. It was a revolution of sense and sensibilities so extraordinary it is even now hard to fully compass its liberating dimensions.
If this history is frequently terrible, it is also finally a history of hope for us all. For it shows we are not dispossessed Europeans, but a muddy wash of peoples made anew in the meeting of a pre-industrial, pre-modern European culture with a remarkable Indigenous culture and an extraordinary natural world
George Orwell once said that the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your face.
This is what is in front of ours.
We became our own people, not a poor imitation of elsewhere.
We pretend that our national identity is a fixed, frozen thing, but Australia is a molten idea. We have only begun to think of ourselves as Australians within living memory. There was no legal concept of an Australian citizen until 1948. Twenty years later, the Australian population was still divided into three official categories by the ABS in its official year book: British: born in Australia; British: born overseas, and foreign.
Indigenous Australia wasn’t even recorded as a general category.
Indigenous Australia has, after great thought and wide discussion, asked that it be heard, and that this take the form of an advisory body to parliament – a body that would be recognised in the constitution.
“What a gift this is that we give you,” Galarrwuy Yunupingu has said, “if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”
The gift we are being offered is vast; the patrimony of 60,000 years, and with it the possibilities for the future that it opens up to us. We can choose to have our beginning and our centre in Indigenous culture. Or we can choose to walk away, into a misty world of lies and evasions, pregnant with the possibility of future catastrophe.
But this gift needs honouring in what Yunupingu calls a “meaningful way”. It needs honouring with institutions, with monuments, with this profound history being made central in our account of ourselves and, above all, with what the Indigenous people have asked for repeatedly: constitutional recognition.
In truth, we can no longer go forward without addressing this matter. We cannot hope to be a republic if this is not at the republic’s core, because otherwise we are only repeating the error of the colonialists and the federationists before us.
At a moment when democracy around the world is imperilled we are being offered, with the Uluru statement, the chance to complete our democracy, to make it stronger, more inclusive, and more robust.
And we would be foolish to turn that offer down.
Richard Flanagan is an Australian novelist from Tasmania. He was described by The Economist in the following terms “Considered by many to be the finest Australian novelist of his generation.” He has received numerous awards and honours. He won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.