Last Monday 20 October I attended a panel forum presented by the ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, the first of four that will be conducted over the next year. This first one dealt with the era from Invasion to Federation; the next one planned for March 2015 will look at Federation to 1920; another in August will cover 1920s-60 and in October from the 1960s into the future. Judging from the first session, the series has certainly got off to a good start.
Given the time span delineated in this first forum, I expected Henry Reynolds to speak on the frontier wars between settlers and indigenous people, but he didn’t. Instead, he spoke on the work he is currently undertaking on the Boer War (1899-1902), which coincided with Federation. His presentation focussed on the Federation celebrations held in Sydney during the first weeks of January 1901.
Australia had a great deal to celebrate. Along with New Zealand, it had the highest per capita income and better distributed housing and education than anywhere else in the world. It had strong institutions, a burgeoning labour movement that was represented at the political level, and a constitution adopted by referendum twice. It was one of the most advanced democracies in the world. And yet, it was as if they (we?) didn’t know how to celebrate political achievements.
Instead, the celebration was trumped by the military. The Australian colonial troopers were engaged in the Boer War, the newspapers were full of military news, and when the returned soldiers marched in the Federation parades, it became a celebration of military might rather than political achievement. The mother country had sent out a large contingent of grandly decked-out imperial troops in what Reynolds suggests was a deliberate statement. There was an emphasis on the glamour of war, empire and aristocracy, and the largest cheers were for Lord Hopetoun, the Governor-General. Even then, there was the anxious pride that we be seen to be ‘punching above our weight’- an ongoing trope of insecurity that we’ve heard voiced again recently. The newly federated Australia gambled on the permanent continuation of the empire, but it was an empire in decline. We were a nation defined by race and culture rather than continent. The sad reality is that India was always more important than Australia.
Reynolds was followed by Anna Clark from UTS who has been working for several years on the process of history-making, particularly in schools. Her interest is “historical inheritance”: not just what we produce, but what we consume. History is to the nation, she says, as memory is to the individual. The histories we create are inherently selective, speaking to the concerns of the current generation.
She spoke of her own family history, which she had understood to be that of an honorable pioneering family. It was only when she realized that a massacre of an aboriginal woman and children on the O’Connell plains occured on her family’s property, that she came to question this family ‘truth’. Five men were charged for the massacre, and all were acquitted. This was her family.
Forgetting and the deliberate withholding of history is never benign, even though it may driven by motives of ‘protecting’ the family. Especially in light of the recent recommendations about curriculum that call for “imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers”, there is a danger that we will forget that histories are always constructed, subjective and incomplete.
Then, Tony Moore from Monash spoke about his recent publication ‘Death or Liberty’ (review to follow when I finish reading it!), which will form the basis of an ABC documentary next year.
The European historian George Rude estimated that there were 3000 political prisoners sent out to the Australian colonies, and Moore’s work examines these discontents of Empire who are often revered in their source countries but largely unknown here in Australia. He emphasized the transnational radical scene of which they were a part, with an emphasis on the Scottish martyrs, which is appropriate given that the forum was being held in the Melbourne Unitarian Church (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the martyrs, was a Unitarian minister). Some of these political prisoners returned home, published and even became public or political figures in their home countries which had earlier sent them to the 19 century equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. Some chose to stay in Australia. The post-federation national focus has blinded us to the internationalism of these political figures.
Finally Clare Land spoke about solidarity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the indigenous struggle in pre-Federation Victoria. She focussed on two people: Ann Bon, a critic and then member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and John Green, the manager at Coranderrk mission at Healesville. She questioned what it meant (and means today) to be an ally of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia. Always it is about land, but also constitutional reform (the referendum then, the Recognize campaign today).
The question-and-answer session that closed the evening was interesting. It is a sobering thought that Australia will be spending $325 million on the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli. That’s two hundred times what the UK is spending and twenty times the expenditure of New Zealand on the same event. Henry Reynolds left us with the observation that perhaps the ease of returning Australian troops to Iraq today has been made easier by this well-funded, twenty-year campaign to glorify war. (Again, I urge you to read his recent article ‘Militarism Marches On’ available here). This ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, and the ones to follow, is just one step in countering this expensive, swaggering campaign.