This storied land
Mark McKenna’s ‘From the Edge’ tells four fascinating stories of Aboriginal and settler interaction through the history of place
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It has been common for a generation, following Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard, to think of Australian histories as being of either the “black armband” or the “three cheers” variety. Such terms, of course, are simplistic, functioning at best as a form of shorthand. At worst, they are no more than fodder for the horses in Australia’s history wars.
But, if it is necessary to think in terms of such dualities, a better way of dividing up histories might be to differentiate the “pre-Mabo” and the “post-Mabo”. These groups are not entirely chronological, since pre-Mabo histories still appear regularly and sell well.
Pre-Mabo histories celebrate the bravery of hardy explorers and pioneers, entrepreneurs’ contribution to national prosperity, and the exploits of daring Anzacs. They use terms such as “we”, “us” and “our”, addressing an audience that shares a common identity with the subjects of the history. They are populist, patriotic and masculinist. National stereotypes are currency to be traded rather than false images to be debunked. They invite their audience to relax, to make themselves comfortable, to enjoy an easy conscience. The land is both a resource to be exploited and a place to make a home – for deserving white Australians, and for others acceptable to them and prepared to accept the terms they set for admission. Aboriginal experience might be considered, but it is peripheral to the story of settler achievement – a remnant of a past society rather than a living part of a present one.
Post-Mabo histories – and Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (Miegunyah Press; $34.99) is a distinguished example – offer a more complicated story. Their natural orientation is towards the microcosm rather than the panorama. They are ethnographic, cross-cultural and multi-perspectival. The land is “storied”, a place of many and contested meanings. They are sceptical about conventional ideas of national journeying and economic progress, and wary of efforts to make heroes or saints out of colonisers. They adopt an insider-outsider view – they are part of the nation yet also professional appraisers of it – and they assume their audience is capable of dealing with ambivalence. They unsettle and disturb rather than comfort. Above all, they grapple with the moral conundrum that is studiously avoided in pre-Mabo history: how can all Australians feel at home together in a country taken from Indigenous people?
McKenna has long been one of Australia’s most accomplished post-Mabo historians. The author of a definitive history of Australian republicanism and an acclaimed biography of Manning Clark, he is also one of the country’s most innovative local historians, or, as they are sometimes more fashionably called these days, historians of place. But his are not local histories written according to the familiar template of progress and development. McKenna has little interest in when streetlights came to town or the accomplishments of a conga line of bearded mayors.
Rather, one of McKenna’s achievements has been to show how the grandest of themes – the great conflicts at the very heart of national being – can be understood afresh through the history of place. In his award-winning Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place (2002), he examined his own backyard – quite literally, the part of the NSW south coast where he lives – for its hidden stories of violence, dispossession, intimacy and reconciliation. The result was a most unusual kind of local history, one that shifted frequently between past and present, history and memory, Aboriginal and settler, noise and silence.
The interplay of local place and national story is also at the heart of From the Edge. That we are dealing with a post-Mabo history is clear from the outset: “It is impossible to conceive of any place that is not embedded with Indigenous story. There are no empty places in Australia.”
Once again, McKenna is concerned with coastlines – places on the fringe of the continent as well as of national consciousness – and the book is based on four of them. The first is the setting for a dramatic tale of shipwreck in 1797. When the Sydney Cove, laden with goods from Calcutta and bound for Port Jackson, was caught in a wild storm as it made its way across Bass Strait, the survivors – among them Lascar seamen from Bengal – arrived on what is now known as Preservation Island. Having salvaged as much of their precious cargo as they could, they decided to send one group of men in a longboat to seek help. But the small boat was itself wrecked on the Victorian coast, and its crew had to begin an arduous journey to Sydney by foot.
Few of those who set out survived the gruelling 700-kilometre walk along the coast, but those who did were indebted to the help they received from the Indigenous people, who treated them with kindness. It was only as the party approached Sydney, and they encountered Aboriginal people who were more familiar with the death and disease that had accompanied British settlement at Port Jackson, that they received a less cordial welcome. Eventually, the three remaining men were picked up by a fishing boat not far from Sydney. In the subsequent effort to retrieve both the cargo and the men who had stayed on Preservation Island there were further adventures, including yet another shipwreck.
The story is a gripping one, and McKenna’s telling of it would be worth the price of admission even without his creative reading of its wider meaning for national history. For McKenna, these events encapsulate “the central, elusive drama of Australian history itself: the encounter between Aboriginal people and the strangers who came across the seas to claim their lands”. The men who made the overland journey debated among themselves how best to manage their relations with Indigenous people, a conversation that would continue across the centuries to the present day. And the record shows that almost all the interactions between the newcomers and the Aboriginal people were peaceful; this is “a story of cooperation and hope” that McKenna sees as carrying possibilities for the present.
The three other stories have less of a ripping yarn character about them. There is firstly the tale of Port Essington on what is now the Cobourg Peninsula in West Arnhem Land. Settled in 1838 to forestall claims by a rival European power, and in the hope that it might become a new Singapore, Port Essington proved a folly, although one that the authorities managed to drag out for a decade. A visiting French naval officer clearly had no imperial designs on the port: “You [British] must have a mania for colonies to drop one down in Port Essington.”
Yet here was another allegory of the Australian colonising process: white men and women – the latter “clothed from head to toe” – in stifling heat, battling malaria and cyclones, and fruitlessly seeking non-existent commercial opportunities in a place where Aboriginal people had long lived successfully. Again, the colonists soon found themselves dependent on Indigenous help and knowledge, and again, whereas the experience of contact with settlers imprinted itself on the culture of Arnhem Land’s Indigenous people, the episode has been largely erased from white settler memory.
The book’s other places are the Pilbara, in Western Australia, and Cooktown, in northern Queensland, each a site with resonance in white settler consciousness but with very different meanings for Indigenous people. The Pilbara is today the resources industry’s promised land, but it has also been a violent pastoral and pearling frontier – essentially a place of warfare – and it remains one of the country’s greatest art galleries, with perhaps a million rock paintings. Lacking adequate heritage protection, some have already been destroyed, while others are at risk as the resources industry’s colonisation of the region continues.
McKenna pointedly places Cooktown’s story, the one most obviously about white Australia’s origins, at the end of his book. In 1770 James Cook’s Endeavour stayed for repairs for seven weeks, but in the white Australian historical consciousness this place would forever be associated with that brief visit. Like the Pilbara, the region became a zone of violence, especially after miners looking for gold invaded the Palmer River in the 1870s. McKenna shows how an essentially white settler historical consciousness has been transformed, as Guugu Yimithirr historians reinterpret the events of 1770 through local re-enactment and other rituals.
As well as being a formidable work of professional history and an important intervention in debates about how Indigenous and settler Australians might live together, this is a vivid and sensuous book, based on a rich documentary record and McKenna’s visits to the places featured. It is beautifully illustrated, mainly with coloured photographs taken by McKenna himself. From the Edge reminds us of the many ways in which the colonial past is not really past; for even the resources industry – that great symbol of Australian modernity and source of prosperity – is founded on a measure of complacency about the culture and heritage of Indigenous Australians.
Frank Bongiorno teaches history at the Australian National University. His books include The Sex Lives of Australians and The Eighties.