Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blackfella, Whitefella

James Cook was chosen to captain the Endeavour in large part due to his famous abilities as a cartographer. The resulting charts of New Zealand for example, were in use right up to the 1990s. But he incorrectly reported the east coast of what is now Australia to be almost uninhabited, and only then by nomadic tribes with no fixed towns. This allowed the legal pretense of terra nullius - uninhabited land - which formed the basis of subsequent English colonization. Nowadays, the estimate for the aboriginal population of 1788 is something in the order of 750,000. Today it stands at about 400,000, or 2% of the Australian population. In Sydney, however, that population is almost nowhere to be seen. On Circular Quay, you will find a didgeridoo busker, sitting cross-legged in the shade, creating hypnotic sounds that dance tracks in the background. At Central Station I saw a grey-bearded busker, folded in two over a battered guitar, giving a soulful rendition of Neil Young's Hey Hey, My My. "It's better to burn out, than to fade away". It seems that in Sydney at least, the Aboriginal is doing both. If you want to see his disintegration in progress, it's a matter of getting the train to Redfern to see The Block - an aboriginal ghetto of inner Sydney that I have never seen, and with the children in tow, never will. The rampant alcoholism and unemployment among the First Australians (or First Owners as they are also now called) only serves to further isolate them from mainstream society.

But if Aborigines are almost invisible on the streets, these days they never seem to be far away from the headlines. The new Labor government under Kevid Rudd has just dragged a reluctant opposition into a bi-partisan apology on behalf of goverments gone by, to those Aborigines known as the Stolen Generation. From the 1920s, and for a period of about 50 years, children of Aboriginal mother but white fathers were taken away from their mothers and placed into foster care, or into state institutions (see the film Rabbit Proof Fence for a taste of the damage done). There are still those who argue today that many of these kids were done a great service. But to my mind this misses the point entirely. Any modern state reserves the right to protect children from bad parents by making them wards of the state. But in the Australia of the early and mid 20th century, every Aborigine was already a ward of the state - not a citizen - and decisions like taking an Aboriginal child out of its natural family could be made at a local administrative level rather than a legal one. This led to institutionalized racism where the grounds for breaking up a family were based only on the race of the children and not to the quality of the parenting. The thinking of the time was that the Aborigines were doomed to extinction - the same type of social Darwinism had infected many minds the world over - and it was a case of breeding them out.

The official apology was the latest in a line of symbolic gestures that began in 1967 when white Australian voted overwhelmingly in favour of granting full citizenship on every Australian Aboriginal. I watched Rudd live on TV - every channel carried the scenes from the parliament in Canberra. All the preconceptions I held of testosterone-fuelled, macho Australian politics fell to pieces at the sight of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition take turns in delivering deeply emotional speeches describing instances of past wrongs and saying Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. And meaning it, I'll swear. On the day, any building with a flagpole made space for the Aboriginal flag. Anyone with a public noticeboard seemed to use it to apologise. On my bus route I could see an untidily diagonal 'sorry' slotted into place, letter by plastic letter, on a board where scriptural quotes would normally appear (Surry Hills Presbytarian Church, whose admirably modest ambition is "Christian Hope for Every Resident of Surry Hills"). Gestures like this have come and gone. Marches over the Harbour Bridge, "Freedom Rides" through New South Wales. Billions have been spent, but the returning numbers show that little has changed. Aboriginal lifespans are 15-20 years less than other Australians. Although only 2% of the national population, make 20% of the prison population. The infant mortality rate is three times the national average. 'Sorry' is a good place to start, but if it doesn't lead somewhere, it will make things worse: it will trivialize the emotions so clearly on display in these days, it will make the word 'sorry' seem almost camp in its absurdity when compared to the reality, and it will make it harder to pick up the pieces of another failed initiative and start again.

How did it all go wrong for the Blackfella? In simple terms it was Cook, or the sealed orders of the British Admiralty that sent him in search of new lands after the public business of scientific study (the transit of Venus) was done. Or perhaps is was Arthur Phillip, captain of the first fleet and first governor of New South Wales, or more precisely the Home Office that sent him with instructions to establish a prison settlement in Cook's Botany Bay. And it was the subsequent masses, who quite literally ate the Blackfella out of house and home.

Ironically, these two first Whitefellas were men of the world who made no assumptions about the inferiority of any native - quite the contrary. But yet both of them oversaw the illegal dispossesion of the First Owners. They did what they did to further their careers and ambitions, but if it hadn't been them, it would have been somebody else. At least they were both, especially Phillip, able to cushion the blow of the British foreign policy of the time. But the logic of empire is simple, and in the long run, a series of imperfect but relentless implementations of that logic will eventually see it through almost perfectly. Those who formulated that policy, and the officers who executed it, must share the lion's share of the blame for bringing the Aboriginal and European into conflict. Everything that's happened since then has been a direct consequence of this first step.

Most of the first Whitefellas were, famously, prisoners - many Irish amongst them - whose conditions both before and after transportation were more wretched than any Eora. Like the modern Aborigine driven into the city and disconnected from his heritage, many on board the prison ships were country folk who were driven into English cities by changes in the laws governing use of 'commons' land. There they fell into crime - mostly petty - it didn't take much to be earn a hanging or transportation in those days. Subsequent waves of immigrants (perhaps excluding those drawn by the gold rushes) were themselves fleeing persecution or poverty brought about by warring . A trip to the Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour will make this clear. While it was the sheer mass of new bodies to be fed from the land that pushed the Aboriginals to the margins - from where they have not returned - it was the policies that put the Whitefella here that are to blame.

British imperialism is long since dead (I don't what to hear it - the British conceded that they have no strategic interests in Northern Ireland more than 15 years ago) and thanks to a successful transplantation of some of the more postive aspects of European economic and political thought, there's room and food enough on this continent for everyone. In principal there is no remaining point of conflict between the Blackfella and the Whitefella. The latter is now at pains to make amends, and to change the sense of what it means to be Australian (and this has the added bonus of laying the blame, much as I've just done, at the door of the Poms). The policy changes that follow the apology will have to make it possible for the Blackfella to come back in from the margins and live easily alongside the former conqueror.

1 comment:

Duncan said...

Brendan - A thoughtful summary of what's probably our most complex issue. Often when visitors open their mouths to voice an opinion on aboriginal affairs there's a collective holding of breathe, waiting for the first foot in mouth comment or inappropriate simplification (maybe like a visitor expressing an opinion on 'the troubles' in a Dublin - or Belfast - pub). No such worry here !

On an almost related note - the Benjamin Black book I was reading at the time of Rudd's apology (Christine Falls) touched on the Church sponsored removal of children from Irish families (not always orphans) in the 50s; often given to good church families in the states. I've no idea how prevalent this practice was but I'm guess not completely unusual if Black/Banville felt comfortable building a story around it ?