Blackfellas’ Point: One decade later

It is now more than twenty years since I first saw the land that I would later come to know as ‘Blackfellas’ Point’. What began as a retreat from Sydney – a remote ‘bush block’ on the far south coast of New South Wales – is now home to my family, my place of writing, and the one patch of earth to which I most instinctively belong. Although I know the truth to be otherwise, I feel as if I have always been here.

Looking closely at this  book again for the first time in several years, I begin to understand how crucial my experience at Blackfellas’ Point has been to the development of my writing as an historian. Solitude. Nature. Distance. Space. Independence. All my writing has been completed here. My voice is tied inextricably to the aesthetics of this one place, even when I am not here. Removing myself to ten acres of river country in the coastal hinterland has given me greater freedom at the same time as it has made me more vulnerable. As my attachment to the land has grown, the thought of losing it becomes harder to bear. Like many other Australians, I live with the awareness that everything I have built and created could at any moment be consumed by bushfire.

Twelve years after Looking for Blackfellas’ Point was published, I am able to see how purchasing the land and writing the book changed the direction of my life and work.

Moving from inner-city Sydney to a tiny village inland from Eden has schooled me in the privileges and trials of living in rural Australia. I have learnt to accept the land for what it is. When I first saw Blackfellas’ Point I naively imagined country that would remain constant, a ‘view’ downriver that would still be there for my children in their old age. A decade of drought and one flood of biblical proportions have taught me that I have not inherited a static environment. Peppermint gums that had for years framed the view from  the verandah have been ripped out by floodwaters, together with poplars, willows, blackberries, ti-tree, wattles and bottlebrush; tens of kilometres of riverbank vegetation gone overnight. The course of the river has pushed in towards the house, inching closer year by year, the floodwaters dumping tonnes of debris, removing fencelines  and rising to within a stone’s throw of the kitchen window, 17 metres above river-level. In the relatively short time that I have lived at Blackfellas’ Point, the river and its banks have continued to swell with sand; the snake-trail of polished, silver-hued granite rocks that my children once played on as they moved along the river in the late 1990s is now almost totally submerged – the result of road run-off and erosion from continued grazing, logging and landclearing. In little more than 150 years of European settlement, the river has changed more drastically than in the last six thousand years of occupation by Aboriginal people. What we have done to the land has rendered it more susceptible to the ravages of extreme climate events. And there is no return, no going back to a pre-European moment, only more informed and sensitive land management practices that might mitigate some of the damage we have already done.

Living in my bush ‘retreat’ deepened and sharpened my attachment to the land. No longer the arcadia of an occasional visitor from Sydney, aspects of the natural environment at Blackfellas’ Point infiltrated my everyday existence: a powerful owl slamming up against an upstairs window, its talons spread wide across the frame as it ducks under the eaves to raid a swallows’ nest just before dawn; weeds that sprout faster than the time it takes to remove them; drought that grinds down my resilience; king parrots stripping the fruit from our orchard; tiny, insect-eating bats flying into the house through the smallest gap, the persistent ‘beep’ of their radar emissions keeping me awake at night; a large brown snake trying to force its way inside a flyscreen door; bush rats and antechinus gnawing their way into bedrooms; squadrons of insects attacking my reading lamp every summer evening; wombats bulldozing fences and wallabies eating exotic garden specimens. I no longer romanticise nature. But I have learnt to respect it. Nor can I live on natural beauty alone. To reside twenty kilometres along a dirt road from the nearest shop and drive children to and fro nearly every day and to be isolated from the city’s infinite variety of cultural and social stimulation requires a modicum of discipline. In the bush, only the self-sustaining survive.

After long periods spent at home, sometimes for months on end, I felt as if the valley would swallow me up. 9/11 could occur on a daily basis and it would not alter the rhythms of life in the Australian bush. There was an undeniable sense of being cut off from worldly concerns. Of course, this detachment was precisely one of the reasons that drew me there in the first place. Yet I soon realised that if I was to continue to appreciate the peace and solitude of Blackfellas’ Point, I had to come and go. Partly because of this, together with my family, I have lived and worked overseas for three of the last fourteen years, as well as for extended periods of time in Canberra and Sydney. The truth is that in order to maintain my attachment to Blackfellas’ Point, occasional flight has been as important as staying put. Every now and then, a dose of homelessness seems to do me good: mobility and multi-layered belonging matter as much to me as my spiritual home. In this sense, I have been fortunate. Thanks to the diversity and vitality of contemporary Australian culture and the age of jet-air travel, I am one of the first generation of Australian writers who has not found it necessary to leave home indefinitely in order to pursue my career. I do not need to make such a stark choice. Nor do I live in exile from a distant homeland. My mother country is Australia.

Then there is history. I can now see how Looking for Blackfellas’ Point expressed my growing conviction that my historical writing could not be detached from my personal experience. And it taught me several lessons about the audience for whom history is written. Writing local and regional history showed me that history is not something to be written solely for readers of peer-reviewed journals. Long before it is a body of knowledge, a discipline, an argument, or the territory of one corridor or another, history is human experience. If it is not written for the broadest audience possible, if it does not touch people in their everyday lives, then it fails its most fundamental purpose: to reveal the strange, other-worldly and largely irretrievable past; to connect readers with the origins, development and myriad experience of human cultures and civilisations, perhaps inspiring readers by example, or, as is more often the case, reminding them of what they must avoid. History is our greatest teacher. We should be wary when it is conscripted to inflate national pride or serve the narrow ideological imperatives of politicians. And it should begin from the ground up. I once thought that local history was for amateur historians and antiquarians – that only national, transnational or global history was of any consequence. But I have learnt that the personal and the local is the starting point for the type of history I strive to write – holistic history – history that is at once personal, local, regional, national and international, history that is not specialised or cordoned off as the property of one group, and history that is always marked by a sensitivity to the particularities of place.

One of the joys of writing regional history is observing the book’s afterlife in local communities. I have made close friends through the book and I have met many others because of it. Stories from the book have often come back to me in casual conversation, sometimes altered around the edges, sometimes entirely unrecognisable from the text itself. I have learnt that the history I write is not my personal possession. Many people who mention the book relate oral history that escaped the pages of the book. As the author of a regional history, I have become a vessel in which to pour the lost stories of my local communities. Many of the stories I’ve been told relate to the main theme of Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: the culture of forgetting that surrounds the history of Indigenous–settler relations.

Readers have written telling me the stories that have survived in their family from frontier times. One told me of ‘the last’ Aboriginal people near Bombala being ‘chased on horseback, run down and shot on the flats’ of a large pastoral property in the 1860s. Another told me of a family settled not far from Blackfellas’ Point in the late 19th century who made sure that Aboriginal people were ‘cleared’ from the land – ‘they shot them all’. Yet another told me of his conversation in the 1990s with an elderly man in Mallacoota, who assured him that the last punitive expedition against Aboriginal people in that region took place only a few years before the outbreak of the First World War.The details of these stories are sketchy and almost impossible to verify, but they nonetheless contain an underlying kernel of truth. All over Australia, both in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, similar stories abound, handed down from one generation to the next to bear witness to the means of Aboriginal dispossession, a truth that the country has still yet to formally acknowledge, either in its federal Constitution or through an appropriate national memorial in Canberra.

Of all the histories in the book that have resonated in the local community, one in particular stands out: ‘Emily’s Story’, the story of the murder and midnight burial of a newborn ‘half-caste’ child in April 1864. Five years after the book’s publication I received an email from Val Rutledge, a descendant of Emily Wintle, the young woman who, in 1870, alleged in a Sydney Court that the Tarlinton sisters of Cobargo, Margaret and Elizabeth, had strangled Margaret’s part-Aboriginal child shortly after she had given birth, then buried the body in the homestead garden. Val told me that Emily Wintle’s story had been passed down in her family for over a century, and despite the fact that the court dismissed Emily’s evidence, declaring the reputation of the squatter’s daughters to be unblemished, Emily, she insisted, was telling the truth. I found it remarkable that the story I had written, based on a newspaper report of the trial in Sydney, now returned to me, verified independently by Emily’s family history. But something even more remarkable was about to unfold. In December 2009, I met the author and academic Felicity Collins in Sydney, and again, six months later, at a conference in Dublin. She had grown up in the Bega Valley, and she explained to me how ‘Emily’s Story’ had affected her more than any other part of the book. It continued to stay with her, but it was not until several years after first reading the book that Felicity realised the full import of the story. Her sister, Janene, who had long maintained an interest in their family’s history, phoned her unexpectedly: ‘Are you sitting down?’ she asked Felicity. ‘Elizabeth Tarlinton is our great-grandmother.’ Felicity was shocked. She could not ‘recognise’ Elizabeth Tarlinton as part of her family tree. She immediately retrieved the newspaper report of the trial and tried to digest what her sister had told her. Still, she did not experience the moment of ‘recognition’ until suddenly, some days later, returning from a family barbecue, it finally arrived.

I realise that Elizabeth Tarlin[g]ton is as close to me, in time, as my mother is to her great-granddaughter, Ivy Elisabeth. A cry of recognition escapes. It’s her! It’s them! It’s me! Great-grandmother Elizabeth’s hands held my grandmother. They could have held me. When Elizabeth and Margaret gave birth, when they held their newborns, when they nursed their grandchildren, did a memory flash up of that first birth? If that birth, that baby’s first cries, slipped their minds, did their hands remember the black silk petticoat wrapped around her body, the strip of white calico tied around her neck?

Collins’s personal experience in coming to terms with her family history, evocatively described in her article ‘Tarnished Memory: “Emily’s Story” and my family tree’, points to the difficulties many local communities across the nation continue to face in coming to terms with frontier history. The disturbance of Collins’s family history caused by the airing of the historical record is something that could potentially happen to many other families in Australia. Yet Collins’s case remains unusual. Settler oral history that tells of frontier violence and mistreatment of Aboriginal people is often generic in form. It speaks of Aboriginal people being ‘mowed down’ or ‘wiped out’, but rarely identifies the names of those responsible. Within the many stories that acknowledge wrongdoing on the part of settlers, there is often an inbuilt protection mechanism, a convenient element of forgetting. Responsibility is rarely claimed. Everyone and no one achieved dispossession.

In the years since this book was published, much has changed in the public debates surrounding Australian history. The word ‘reconciliation’, which had great currency throughout the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century, no longer expresses the promise it once did. The ‘history wars’, which dominated public debate between 2001 and 2007, have subsided, while the long-expected apology to the Stolen Generations was finally delivered by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008. Yet even the apology has been overshadowed by a succession of reports detailing alarming levels of domestic violence, sexual abuse and social dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, as well as poor education, health and employment outcomes. The need for ‘practical reconciliation’ and ‘closing the gap’ has marginalised the symbolic language of Indigenous politics that dominated previous decades, such as land rights, reconciliation, mourning and atonement. In 2007, the Howard government launched its so-called ‘intervention’ into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory without even the slightest awareness of the historical irony in the title that it had bestowed on its policy of crisis management. ‘Intervening’ in the lives of Aboriginal  people is precisely what governments of all persuasions had been doing since Australia was settled by the British in 1788. Yet again, as with the missions and government ‘protection’ initiatives in the 19th and 20th centuries, the claim was made that ‘the intervention’ was necessary for ‘the good’ of Aboriginal people. In the aftermath of both the apology and the intervention, the struggle to end the culture of forgetting regarding Aboriginal Australia is ongoing.

Like nearly everywhere else in Australia, Aboriginal people on the far south coast endured the forced removal of their children and had to fight for the apology that was rightfully theirs. When prime minister Kevin Rudd delivered the national apology in February 2008, local shire councils, schools and TAFE colleges marked the occasion with flag-raising ceremonies, while several Aboriginal leaders journeyed to Canberra to hear Rudd’s speech in person. Among them was Ossie Stewart, 70 years of age, one of the Stolen Generations. He traveled to Canberra because he hoped that something would be said there that ‘might change lives’. Taken from his family at the age of two and fostered out to a family in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner southwest, he eventually returned to the Koori Community at Wreck Bay in his teens, only to find that he was a stranger among his own people. Later, like many Aboriginal people, Ossie worked up and down the coast in sawmills and picking peas for white farmers. ‘I lost my Aboriginality’, he reflected, ‘that’s the worst part of the Stolen Generations. But over the years, I’ve learnt to block out all the bad stuff.’ More than a year after the apology, Ossie spoke of how ‘moved’ he was to see so many people affected on that day. The apology was ‘a good thing’, he thought, but he wasn’t sure if it had made any real ‘difference’. For Ossie’s daughter, Robin, the fact that her father was taken away had disconnected her from her past. ‘It was Dad’s 70th birthday the other day,’ she said, but because he was taken away, ‘we didn’t have any photos of him until after he was 20, nothing of him as a little boy, and that’s a whole chunk of your life missing.’ For Ossie’s wife, Lyddie Stewart, there was no doubt that the apology had made a positive impact on the local community. ‘I think it’s a lot better than it was. People are more aware of the Aboriginal people, the Koori people ... Non-Koori people are more understanding now and they know more about the Aborigines and what they went through. I think that’s changed a lot, and I’m just going by what happens in the school and the way the schools are with the kids, and seeing people in the town, in our own community.’

Nearby at Bega, further south along the coast at Eden, Aboriginal leaders such as Ozzie Cruse were more sceptical of the apology’s capacity to bring about social and economic change. Like David Dixon, in Bega, Ozzie Cruse believed that an apology without ‘reparation’ would not bring true reconciliation. ‘Almost with the same breath [in which Rudd apologised] he said he would not offer compensation, and that only caused more hurt,’ insisted Cruse. Cruse saw constitutional change as essential, calling for a republic and a ‘new constitution’ that would ‘safeguard the rights of Aboriginal people’ and forge a ‘genuine partnership’ between black and white Australians.

Australians are accustomed to reading reports of dysfunctional communities in remote parts of Australia. Yet in urban and regional Australia, where most Aborignal people live, the problems can be just as acute. The Eden Aboriginal population numbers about 400. It has close ties to other communities at Bega, Wallaga Lake and Gippsland and is the fastest growing part of the general community. While  it is not unusual for Aboriginal people in their fifties to have numerous great-grandchildren, they are also likely to have chronic health problems, particularly diabetes. Unemployment remains the major issue, but in 2009, the number of funerals, many for the young, has dismayed elders such as Cruse. He lists alcohol as a prime cause, but he also detects a general malaise and feelings of helplessness within the community. A disproportionate number of Aboriginal youth are serving  gaol sentences. With no work available, traditional hunting and fishing practices such as the collection of abalone have become contentious issues. Many Aboriginal people feel that fisheries inspectors have unfairly singled them out for doing what their ancestors have done since time immemorial. Compared to non-Aboriginal Australians who live on the south coast of New South Wales, Aboriginal people have so many more obstacles before them in life. They cannot escape from history. With communities in distress, there is no simple process of ‘moving on’ as in the non-Indigenous community. Their perspective on the apology is altogether different. Yet there is still ground for hope.

On the anniversary of the apology, as in so many other cities and towns across the country, schools and community organisations on the south coast commemorate the event. February 13 is now on the local calendar of ‘events’, a day for remembering why the apology was delivered, and a day for measuring progress and understanding history, both within and outside Aboriginal communities, and finally, a day for pushing governments to action on a whole range of issues affecting Aboriginal Australians. Rituals such as ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ have now become standard practice at official community functions such as school assemblies. The acknowledgment that all areas of Australia remain Aboriginal land (at least in spirit if not in native title) and the prayer-like repetition of the words ‘we pay our respects to elders past and present’ daily pierce the silence that for so long characterised public ceremony in Australia. By acknowledging Aboriginal people as the ‘traditional custodians’ of country, ‘Welcome to Country’ also points to the shallow temporal status of European civilisation. Australia is a recent invention sprinkled across the surface of a continent that contains some of the most ancient cultures on earth.

Greater awareness of history has made a difference to the lives of Aboriginal communities on the far south coast. In 2013, schools and community leaders attended the reburial of Aboriginal remains (dated to approximately 1200) that were originally discovered in 1963 at Tathra. They watched as Aboriginal elders performed a smoking ceremony and ‘placed a handful of dirt on top of the bark-wrapped remains’. To guide them in designing the appropriate form of traditional Aboriginal burial for the occasion, elders drew on Oswald Brierly’s 1843 sketch of an Aboriginal bark ‘coffin’ at Eden. The response of the relieving principal of Tathra Primary School, Graham Roberts, whose students attended the burial ceremony, was indicative of the shift in community attitudes over the last three decades: ‘Our school has a very strong Indigenous Education program. Over the last two years we have worked hard to develop our ties with the local Aboriginal community to assist our students and staff gain a greater understanding of local Aboriginal history and culture. A very big thanks…for including our school in such a significant and thought-provoking experience.’

Compared to the last half of the 20th century, Aboriginal people today have a far more visible and positive presence in local culture on the far south coast. The history from which they cannot escape has also empowered them, helping to break down cross-cultural barriers, particularly because its recognition often involves positive collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members of the community. No better example can be found than the Bundian Way, a project led by writer, naturalist and historian, John Blay and the Eden Aboriginal Land Council, which will soon see the launch of a 360-kilometre Indigenous traditional pathway from the Snowy Mountains to Eden, led by local Indigenous guides. Blay explains the antiquity of this ancient road and trading route as going back many thousands of years, ‘before the Silk Road, before the pyramids, and before the last Ice Age’. More than any other project in the region, the prospect of the Bundian Way being established as a major tourist attraction has helped to stimulate interest and pride in Indigenous history and culture. As pilgrims walk today in increasing numbers from the French–Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, seeking ‘spiritual’ enlightenment and learning of the history of religious and cultural exchange in Christian Europe from the Middle Ages, those who walk the Bundian Way will learn of the rich spiritual and material heritage of Indigenous cultures by walking in the footsteps of Australia’s ‘old Aboriginal people’. History will become tangible.

On my own patch, I continue to discover new things about the Indigenous history of Blackfellas’ Point. Thanks to a surveyor’s report from March 1845 handed to me by John Blay, I now know that it was traditionally an area designated for the special use of Aboriginal women. Marked on the surveyor’s map of the country directly across the river from our house are the words ‘First Women’s Camp’ and then, a little further upriver: ‘Second Women’s Camp’. Each fragment of new knowledge helps to lessen the daunting feeling that can sometimes overwhelm me when I contemplate how little I still know of the Indigenous peoples and cultures that lived on the land for thousands of generations.

Looking downriver, I’ve often thought of the tonnes of sand that have buried the riverbed as a metaphor for the concealment of Aboriginal cultural knowledge that occurred in the wake of colonisation. Nearly all the names that were locally bestowed on every plant, creature and landform have been lost, as well as those for the stars in the night sky. Yet my awareness of the magnitude of this cultural loss has not stopped me from belonging to the land. If anything, it has intensified the awe I feel when I contemplate the depth of Indigenous knowledge of country. By comparison, my attachment is shallow-rooted and transient.

March 2014

This is a slightly edited version of the epilogue to the new edition of Looking for Blackfellas' Point, published by NewSouth and on sale now.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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