June 2007

Arts & Letters

The lost enchanted world

By Robert Manne
Sven Lindqvist’s ‘Terra Nullius’ & Louis Nowra’s ‘Bad Dreaming’

I am an enthusiastic, although not unqualified, admirer of Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All the Brutes, a book whose title best explains its theme. When he was a boy in postwar Sweden, Lindqvist read Heart of Darkness. He interpreted Kurtz's deranged annotation at the conclusion of his report on colonialism and the civilising process - "exterminate all the brutes" - as Joseph Conrad's pre-vision of the Holocaust. Later he came to believe that it represented rather Conrad's understanding of the moral character and the logic of the Western imperialist world in which he lived. Although Lindqvist's brilliant and original book combined travel, autobiography, literary criticism, a history of colonial conquest and a scintillating account of nineteenth-century scientific racial thought, in essence Exterminate All the Brutes was a sermon delivered to a Western audience. It began and ended with these words: "You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions." What "we know" is that our own civilisation was, until very recently, profoundly racist in its relation to non-Western peoples and also to the European other, the Jew, and hence capable of acts of extraordinary barbarity, acts which took place throughout the non-Western worlds in the age of European imperialism, and which culminated in the Holocaust in the heart of Europe.

I anticipated the publication of Sven Lindqvist's new book, Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land (Granta, 256pp; $27.95), on the fate of the Australian Aborigines, with real hope. There is no Western society which more needs to hear a local version of the Lindqvist sermon than post-Windschuttle Australia. But I also anticipated its publication with a certain dread. It is not merely that even highly educated, liberal Australians have recently lost the taste for his kind of sermon. It is also that Lindqvist is more than capable of spoiling the true and important things he has to say by certain characteristic flaws: hyperbolic exaggeration, historical oversimplification and inaccuracy, cavalier carelessness in the mounting of argument, fanciful self-indulgence. As it turned out, both the hope and the dread were justified.

Sometime in the early part of this century Lindqvist travelled in the non-eastern part of Australia: from Adelaide to Darwin, from Darwin to Broome, from Broome to Perth and from Perth to Central Australia. His head had been filled for decades with an understanding of nineteenth-century European racial thought, encapsulated for him in a sentence from Charles Darwin's Descent of Man: "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races." More recently Lindqvist has been reading, although unfortunately not with the same energy, some histories of the Australian dispossession (Charles Rowley, but only one work by Henry Reynolds); some contemporary accounts of child removal (Anna Haebich and Bringing Them Home); some Australian novelists, both well known and obscure (Xavier Herbert and Catherine Martin); a small handful of Australian anthropologists (Spencer and Gillen, Radcliffe-Brown, Theodore Strehlow); and some of those cultural theorists who used the anthropologists for their wild speculations from afar about the origin of human society (Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss).

Although he has read extensively on Australia, it is a fair criticism of Lindqvist that he has still not read enough to become truly familiar with the country. Because he has discovered in John Mulvaney's Encounters in Place that a massacre occurred at Moorundie, outside Adelaide, Lindqvist is astonished and indignant that no one he meets there seems to have heard anything about it. Lindqvist is unaware that virtually all the massacres that took place in Australia are unknown to the public. Even more significantly, because he has not read WEH Stanner's groundbreaking lecture on "the great Australian silence", he does not understand why this is the case. As he travelled across Australia Lindqvist stumbled, to his considerable surprise, across three desert detention centres for asylum seekers: Woomera, Curtin and Port Hedland. He intuits that these camps have some kind of connection with the history of Aboriginal internment. By the time he reaches the west coast he has come to think of Australia as a penal culture. In Port Hedland, when he is advised to visit yet another old jail, he explodes: "It was my first prison of the day." But when he tries to explain Australian migration law to his readers he is almost comically confused. The same applies to the history of Aboriginal confinement. Lindqvist knows that in the interwar period, Moore River was an Aboriginal internment camp whose inmates were locked up. But he does not know enough about the dispossession to realise that Aborigines were not incarcerated on the Christian missions. And he believes that even now the Central Australian settlements, like Papunya or Yuendumu, have a penitentiary character. Lindqvist is interested in the fact that the Arrente people allowed Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen to see their most sacred ceremonies. There is no irony in his suggestion that a hunter-gatherer people, who had no conception even of Australia, did so as part of a calculated publicity campaign to prove to the international community that, as he puts it, their "terra" was not "nullius".

It seems to me a pity that Lindqvist's occasional ignorance and even more occasional high-order silliness will lose him many readers. For what he sees truly about our history is far more important than what he misunderstands. He grasps that it was the exculpatory power of racial Darwinism that allowed British settlers to destroy Aboriginal society in the late nineteenth century with barely a qualm. He thinks of the leaders of the punitive massacres he encounters in the historical literature, like the Central Australian policeman William Henry Willshire ("it's no use mincing matters - the Martini-Henry carbines ... were talking English in the silent majesty of those eternal rocks"), as the practitioners of the theory. He sees the true horror of the fact that in Broome Aboriginal boys as young as six were driven by whips to dive for pearls. He is astonished to discover that as late as 1958 in Western Australia the use of neck chains for Aboriginal prisoners could be defended. He knows that the removal of lighter-skinned Aboriginal children to breed out their colour is a crime. And he often is capable of writing about all this with an extraordinary eloquence. Here is his paraphrase of what Daisy Bates saw of the Aboriginal syphilis patients incarcerated on the West Australian Islands of the Dead, Bernier and Dorre:

Many succumbed to mental illness and tried to walk on the water to return home, or sat for days on end pouring sand over their heads. Others cried night and day in an interminable monotony of grief ... Used to extremely close family ties, but cut off from all contact with their people, they would often stand in silence on the furthest point of the promontory, in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of a loved one somewhere out there on the far shore.

Given what he knows about the fate of the Australian Aborigines, Lindqvist is puzzled about the emergence in Australia of Windschuttle's vituperative denialist history and about the wide support it has received.

Inga Clendinnen revealed some time ago in the Australian's Review of Books that when she thought of genocide, she thought of Armenians and Jews but not of Aborigines. Like very many Europeans, including the originator of the concept, Raphael Lemkin, whose history of what he considered the genocide of the Tasmanians was published posthumously in 2005, Lindqvist thinks of Indigenous Australians as well. More recently John Hirst, in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, has argued that because Australians are the beneficiaries of the dispossession they are not able, without hypocrisy or disembarkation, to express contrition for what has occurred. Lindqvist disagrees profoundly with that thought. If you take a share of the booty, he argues, you cannot avoid admitting moral responsibility for what has previously been done. This is not the place to take up the arguments with two historians whose work I deeply admire, except to say that, on both these issues, I am on Lindqvist's side.

It was Clendinnen who suggested in last month's Australian Literary Review that Lindqvist came to Australia with his mind closed and eyes wide shut. In part this criticism is unfair. Lindqvist's concern is with the history of the dispossession. History is learned not through travel but in documents and books. If Lindqvist travelled in Australia it was to breathe in the landscape of the places where, from his reading, he knew that massacres and the internments of Aboriginal Australians had taken place. In part, however, the criticism is just. It is a very telling weakness of Terra Nullius that, during his travels, he appears to have taken almost no interest in contemporary Aboriginal societies. This ruins the concluding section of his book. Lindqvist is rightly fascinated about the recent emergence of great Aboriginal painters, even in some of the most abject settlements in the Centre and the north, and about why this has occurred: "Art is none the worse for coming from the very brink of the abyss." But because he has not engaged imaginatively with the contemporary consequences of the destruction of the Aboriginal world he has so vividly revealed, he has somehow managed to convince himself that this astonishing movement might lead to the salvation and the liberation of the Aboriginal people. This is a highly implausible and dilettantish thought. Because of this blindness, those conservative Australian readers who have most need of his unblinking analysis of the Aboriginal tragedy and of his discussion of responsibility will find him easy to mock or ignore.

In Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men's Violence against Women and Children (Pluto Press, 128pp; $17.95) Louis Nowra shows in one brief passage that he does not disagree in any fundamental way with Lindqvist's portrait of the dispossession or the apportionment of blame. But like many Australians his mind is now elsewhere. Since his childhood Nowra has been interested in domestic violence. For many years he has been following press stories of the brutality visited by Aboriginal men on their women and their children. Recently, when in hospital in Alice Springs, he saw the results of this violence and heard open bragging about sexual abuse of children. He tells us that, as a result, he decided to write this book.

What he reports is genuinely shocking. Nowra writes with power, eloquence and urgency. The stories need to be told again and again. And yet it has to be said that in these chapters there is nothing that would not already be familiar to a reasonably conscientious reader of Australian newspapers, and that for those who want to gain a greater understanding of the breakdown of Aboriginal societies there already exists a small library of more illuminating accounts from authors who have gained their understanding at first hand: Basil Sansom in The Camp at Wallaby Cross, David McKnight in From Hunting to Drinking, Richard Trugden in Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and Mary Ellen Jordan in Balanda.

There is only one semi-novel dimension in Bad Dreaming. Nowra argues that the violence and the sexual abuse visited by Aboriginal men upon their women and their children must be understood, at least in part, as continuous with the hunter-gatherer/warrior culture of pre-European-contact Aboriginal society. I am sure that Nowra is aware of the sensitivity of this question. During the course of the dispossession many members of the settler society thought of the people they were destroying as savages and brutes. Even now, for many decent non-Indigenous Australians, there is an almost overwhelming temptation to find ways of thinking that help shrug off responsibility for the consequences of what their forebears have done. Nonetheless, if it is true, as Nowra believes, that contemporary Aboriginal male violence against their women and children cannot be explained without reference to pre-contact culture, he is right to insist that it must be openly and fearlessly discussed. All that one can reasonably ask of Nowra is that he has mastered and not misrepresented the evidence on which his case is based and that he shows an awareness of the extraordinary complexity of the kind of argument he is mounting.

Unfortunately, according to both these tests he fails. To show the pattern of Aboriginal male violence against women Nowra treats with an equal seriousness the anecdotes of nineteenth-century British and French observers, like Watkin Tench or Francis Barrallier, and the work of anthropologists, like Catherine and Ronald Berndt or Phyllis Kaberry. What is significant here is not only that such accounts are not of equal value. More important is the fact that Nowra has presented quite misleading accounts of the portrait of Aboriginal society given by the first generation of anthropologists who lived with traditional Aboriginal groups for months or years.

Take the case of the author of Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane, Phyllis Kaberry, who, after spending time in the Kimberleys in 1934 and 1935, provided the first systematic study of her subject. Kaberry's portrait of Aboriginal women and of the relations between the sexes is rich, unsentimental and humane. She shows the economic interdependence of male and female rather than the traditional picture of male exploitation ("the stability of most unions is not due to the ruthless subordination of the female, but to her place in economics and procreation, which renders her indispensable"); the deep affection and loyalty that often existed between husband and wife ("a man would sit for hours by the side of his sick wife, stroking her arm, moving the branches so that they could cast more shade, and fetching her water"); the warmth of the bonds between the women and between mothers and daughters; the customary, even overindulgent love that both the mother and the father expressed for their children; the fact that parents felt as proud and happy to have daughters as to have sons; and the unusual degree of sexual freedom women possessed, through elopements and affairs, despite polygamy and arranged marriages. Kaberry does not shy away from discussing the frequency of male-female violence. She acknowledges that in the case of serious fights male strength would ultimately prevail. The women, however, were far from passive:

I, personally, have seen too many women attack their husbands with a tomahawk or even their own boomerangs, to feel that they are invariably the victims of mistreatment. A man may perhaps try to beat his wife if she has not brought in sufficient food, but I never saw a wife stand by in submission to culpable conduct. In the quarrel she might even strike the first blow ...

Extraordinarily enough, readers of Nowra are led to believe that Kaberry's work is generally consistent with his portrait of Aboriginal misogyny. Almost the opposite is the case. As her doctoral supervisor, AP Elkin, puts it in the introduction to her book, Kaberry's project is to overturn "the widespread idea that Aboriginal women are mere drudges, passing a life of monotony and being shamefully mistreated by their husbands". Nowra concludes his cultural chapter like this: "Let's leave it up to Phyllis Kaberry to sum up Aboriginal men's attitude to women: ‘[The men] generally attribute a series of undesirable qualities to women. They are faithless, untrustworthy, sexually insatiable, and talk too much.'" There is a small problem with this concluding quote. The words are WEH Stanner's, not Phyllis Kaberry's. She cites them only in order to disagree.

The flaws in Nowra's account of culturally conditioned contemporary male violence are deeper than his misrepresentations - of Kaberry on women, or of the Berndts in their fascinating book Sexual Behaviour in Western Arnhem Land - for his entire argument is mounted without sufficient clarity or care. In general Nowra suggests that contemporary Aboriginal male violence against women and children is rooted in what he calls at one moment a "pathological distortion" of traditional pre-contact custom. He cites two main types of this male violence: sexual abuse and bashing of women, and the sexual abuse of children. There is no doubt that in pre-contact Aboriginal society adult interpersonal violence of many kinds was very common: male on male; female on female; male on female; even, as we have seen, female on male. It is also clear that, although in Aboriginal society sex was decoupled from shame, sexual violence against women was common. But it is acknowledged by almost everyone, and this includes Nowra, that no violence of any kind was directed against children. If anything, Aborigines were criticised by the British for their overindulgence. What follows from all this seems clear. Any general argument about contemporary abuse as a pathologised distortion of tradition must begin by explaining the awkward fact that one of the two main forms of contemporary Aboriginal male violence - the sexual abuse of children - did not exist in the pre-contact world.

Nor is this the only weakness of his account. Nowra is formally aware of the dangers of applying the moral standards of the contemporary West to a hunter-gatherer/warrior society. He tells us: "I am ... not making moral judgments about such behaviour; indeed, I deplore the way some historians make value judgements about the past." But on the next page he writes, "Despite local variations, there is consistent pattern of Aboriginal men's treatment of women that was harsh, sexually aggressive (gang-rape for instance) and, in our term, misogynist." There is much talk of this kind in the cultural chapter. Does Nowra not see that severe and potentially explosive moral judgements of the past are implicit in the language he has used?

Peter Sutton published a seminal essay, ‘The Politics of Suffering', in Anthropological Forum in 2001, which argues, like Nowra but with much greater sophistication, that we must look both to continuities and discontinuities in the relation between the pre-contact Aboriginal world and the present breakdown in the remote settlements. No doubt this is true. Yet in my view, emphasis must be placed on discontinuity. This has nothing to do with prudence, still less political correctness. A number of brilliant Australian anthropologists - Elkin, Kaberry, Stanner and the Berndts - lived in Aboriginal societies in the interwar period, before those societies had collapsed. Unless the portrait they offered was radically misleading, even delusional, it is clear that the differences between the world they observed and the present one are very much more significant than the similarities. These anthropologists discovered not an Edenic but an enchanted world, in the technical sense of the sociologist Max Weber. They discovered an intricate social order in which, through the kinship structure, every human being had a precise and acknowledged place. They discovered a world that was filled with economic purpose; leavened by playfulness, joy and humour; soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual; pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning. As Sven Lindqvist shows, Aboriginal society, for a hundred reasons, could not survive the arrival of the British. It is the destruction of this world, rather than Nowra's idea of pathologised tradition, that provides the most useful clue to the manifestations of spiritual crisis and social collapse which now appear in so many different forms in the remote Aboriginal settlements and the fringe camps.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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