Tag Archives: indigenous australians

David Malouf: Remembering Babylon

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I read this a while ago, but I am still haunted by this fictional journal entry, from a fictional Anglican minister, in a fictional white settlement in 1840s’s Queensland:

We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have bought with us and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already. I think of our early settlers, starving on those shores in the midst of  plenty they did not recognise, in a blessed mature of flesh, fowl, fruit that was all around them and which they could not, with their English eyes, perceive, since the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls out sensitivity to other forms, even the most obvious.

We must run our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there. Is it not strange, this history of ours, in which explorers, men on the track of the unknown, fall dry mouthed and exhausted in country where natives, moving just ahead of them, or behind, or a mile to one side, are living, as they have done of centuries, off the land? Is there not a kind of refractory pride in it, an insistence that if the land will not present itself to us in terms that we know, we would rather die than take it as it is?

For there is a truth here and it is this: that no continent lies outside God’s bounty and his intention to provide for his children. He is a gardener and everything he makes is a garden. This place too will one day, I believe, yield its fruits to us and to the great banquet at which we are the guests, the common feast; as the Americas brought corn and tomatoes and sweet peppers, and rhubarb and the potato, that bitter root of the high Andes that women, over long years, by experiment and crossbreeding, have leached of its poison and made palatable, to be the food of millions. (There is a lily-root here that the women know how to boil and make edible.)

The children of this land were made for it, as it was for them, and is to them a rich habitation, teeming with milk and honey – even if much of its richness is still hidden; but then so was the milk and honey of the Promised Land, which was neither milk, in fact, nor honey, and the land itself to all appearance parched and without promise. We must humble ourselves and learn from them. The time will come when we too will be sustained not only by wheat and lamb and bottled cucumbers, but by what the land itself produces, tasting at last the earthy sweetness of it, allowing it to feed our flesh with its minerals and underground secrets so that what spreads in us is an intimate understanding of what it truly is, with all that is unknowable in it made familiar within…

…The theodolite offers only one way of moving into the continent and apprehending the scope and contours of it. Did we not, long ago, did not our distant ancestors, bring in out of the great plains where they wandered, out of mere wilderness, the old coarse grasses that lapped the bellies of their horses, and, separating the grains and nursing them to plumpness, learning how to mill and grind and make daily bread, and how to tend the wild vine till its fruit yielded wine, create settled places where men and women sit at tables among neighbours, in a daily sacrament which is the image of the Lord’s greater one? All this can be done again. This is what is intended by our coming here: to make this place too part of the world’s garden, but by changing ourselves rather than it and adding thus to the richness and variety of things.

How I wish that this character were true, and that his hopes for his new home had come true.



Jackie French: Nanberry


The sky grew grey, then pink, and a too-bright blue. Yagali had vanished. He struggled to sit up. Why did his body feel like a jellyfish? He peered around frantically, looking for her. Had she run into the bush to find the others, or tried to swim out to cool her body? But even her footprints had been eaten by the waves.

‘Gumna?’ he cried to his grandfather. ‘Wianga?’ he called to his mother. But they only muttered, their eyes blank, their minds lost in the land of fever.

An 8 year old Cadigal boy, Nanberry, is on the brink of death by small pox, when he is discovered by Surgeon White in 1789. In an unprecedented move for his time, Surgeon White adopts Nanberry – not as a servant – but as his son.

Nanberry: Black Brother White is the story of this family during the early years of the colony. After Surgeon White adopts Nanberry he takes a convict mistress, Rachel Turner, who bears him a second son, Andrew White. The two brothers grow up in limbo. Nanberry hovers between his Cadigal and settler families, uncertain whether he will ever be initiated as a Cadigal man. Andrew must be separated from his mother and his convict connections when he is sent to England for a civilised education.

Like many of Jackie French’s other young adult novels, this one is based heavily on historical records: Nanberry, Surgeon White, Rachel, Andrew and (spoilers!) Rachel’s husband Thomas Moore – were all real people. They lived in incredibly difficult times, yet they have all left real and lasting legacies in Australian society. Rachel was one of the earliest women in English legal history to be defended in court against a charge. In Australia, Rachel helped found orphanages, schools and the Bank of NSW (currently Westpac); and her husband helped construct some of the earliest church buildings and founded Moore Theological College(!).

However, despite all these happy outcomes, Nanberry is a tragic read in the light of over 200 years of colonised history. This book is written for young people but Jackie French does not hide the violence of the colony, particularly for indigneous people and for female convicts. Nanberry himself faces terrible trauma and dislocation. And although he negotiates these circumstances with incredible courage and poise, although his story ends nobly, it is hard to take pleasure in it knowing the suffering of countless indigenous people in the generations to follow him. Similarly Rachel’s story turns out for the  better, but it opens up a window into the suffering and abuse of hundreds of other women who were sent to Australia the early days of the colony.

An educational read, a gripping read, but a sobering one. It sounds like it was a sobering book to write for Jackie French too.

Order of Australia

This Australia Day, my Dad won an award! Even more – he was accepted as a member of the Order of Australia, which as far as I can make out is like Australia’s chillaxed version of the British knighthood.

“Sir Frederick and Lady Wentworth! It would be but a new creation, however, and I never think much of your new creations.”
– Mary Musgrove, Persuasion, Chapter 9

Haha! I had that quote in my head all day after I found out!

In all seriousness I am very proud of my Dad. I think I had the most memorable Australia Day celebrating with him, both at the local council ceremony where he was given his award for local citizenship, and at the big party my mum threw for him afterwards. My Dad works really hard, it was very special to see him recognised. He is going to have a great time when the Governor (General?) gives him whatever he gets to acknowledge his Order of Australia membership later in the year!

 photo Dadaward_zpsf40c9ecc.jpgThat’s my Dad, getting an award 🙂

The day was also memorable for opening up two new experiences for me:
1. My first ever citizenship ceremony.
2. My first party almost exclusively attended by agnostic and atheist 50+ year olds since I starting working in Christian ministry.

So, along with overwhelming feelings of pride in my Dad and sharing his joy, my head was also abuzz with 500 other thoughts:
– What does it mean to Australian when everyone is disagreeing over indigenous history and migration policy?
– How do Liberal party members manage to sing the second verse of the national anthem with any integrity?
– If I was making a bingo sheet to take to a future citizenship ceremonies and awards ceremonies, what politically contested buzz words would I include?
(my list so far includes: ‘contribution’, ‘celebration’, ‘invasion’, ‘survival’, ‘migrant’, ‘heritage’, ‘volunteer’, ‘founded in 1788′, ’50 000 years’.)
– What on earth is the deal with Baby Boomer spirituality? They all seem to be believe in some kind of weak-but-still-spiritual pluralism that I have never encountered in anyone outside of their age cohort. They also all seem to assume that everyone else thinks the same way they do.
– Will Baby Boomers ever understand that Gen Y and those coming after them will never be able to purchase homes close to the Sydney CBD?

Lots of things to chew over, lots of difficult questions. Maybe I’ll tackle the easy one first and work on my bingo list for next year.

Tasmania Part 7: History

“Have you noticed any Aboriginal place names yet?” asked Matt, two days into our Tasmania trip. “In Victoria and New South Wales you get colonial names but also some Aboriginal names too. Down here it’s like everything has been renamed and reimagined.”

It really did feel like how I imagine rural England to be. It was cold, there were orchards and European-green fields, the colonial architecture has been well preserved. It was extremely hard to imagine that anyone other than European settlers had ever lived there, so successfully had the indigneous community been displaced.

The sense of European history was heavy and permeated everything. It was beautiful. But also a little bit creepy.

This is the last installment of pictures from the trip. Thanks for patiently waiting for me share them all!

Franklin statue and pretty planes

Part 7: History

My country, your country: Hard hitting thoughts

A few weeks ago, Matt and I went to Canberra to visit our friend Tim. It was early afternoon when we got in, and we were waiting around for Tim to finish work. To fill the time we visited some of the more obscure museums and monuments of Canberra. As the afternoon wound on, we found ourself outside the National Library. We went straight to their bookshop (it was excellent) and while I was there I read a book about making of the ABC TV adaptation of one of my favourite children’s books, My Place by Nadia Wheatley.

As I flipped through the pages showing each character’s story and the background to the filming, I was struck by photographs of the Aboriginal girl who tells her story in 2008. In the pictures, she was sitting under the big fig tree with her grandmother, listening to stories about the land, their history and their culture.

This, I thought, is a typical Aboriginal scene, of elders passing on stories and meaning to younger generations. But I had another thought, which was this:

I used to sit with my grandmother just like that.

My Grandma and Grandad used to live on a lovely rural property out at Ebeneezer, north-west of Sydney, and as kids we loved going out there to visit. We would go on long walks together, and sometimes just Grandma and I would go on our own. We would visit the big rock pile, or the dam, or the big waterhole. I remember distinctly sitting by the big water hole one day while Grandma taught me how to sign the alphabet (she is deaf, so it is actually a very useful communication tool!). It was such a key moment for me, learning how to be able to spell may way through clunky words so that we could actually converse. It was the moment I felt that I was valuable to my grandmother as a person in my own right, an interesting person to talk to, like the adults.

My grandparents don’t live there anymore, but as an extended family, we all hold this ramshackle piece of bush very dear in our hearts. All the special places there had meanings for us – the big water hole, the little water holes, the flat rocks, the good climbing trees. This place holds important memories, especially of my Grandad, who has passed away. I desperately wish I could go back there and see this place again that was such a key prt of my childhood, but someone else owns the property now. I just have to remember the places through photos.

Some of my earliest pictures on my very first camera:

My cousins Daniel and Drew at the small water holes (out of frame)

My cousin Kate, myself, Georgia, Daniel and Drew. My brother took this one.

Drew, Daniel and Georgia


Back in Canberra, it was 5pm and the library was closing. We still haddn’t heard from Tim, so Matt and I wandered back slowly to the distant place where we had parked the car. We walked past the Reconciliation Place monument, a collection of inscriptions – names, quotes, legislation and art work – memorialising the experiences of the stolen generations.

The stories written up along the displays were horrific. Families torn apart, mothers paralysed with grief and removed children abused in every imaginable way. Although there were a few positive stories up there of understanding white people, or of eventual family reunification, most of the stories were sickening pictures of desparation. It was awful to sit and take it all in like that, knowing that this whole chapter of history was so avaoidable!

One quote made me stop in my tracks. It was a woman talking about how she had never really understood who she was because she had never been able to be with her own family in their own place. I wanted to be sick on the spot. Only fifteen minutes beforehand, I had been lost in my own memories of family, and the place that my family felt it belonged to. At what cost were these memories created!? Which Aborignal people were removed from Ebeneezer so that white people could farm? Which indigenous families were torn apart so that I could grow up safely with my own?

Under John Howard, people said that the stolen generation was not this generation’s fault. Maybe that is true. I personally can’t take any direct responsiblity for destoying countless Aborignal families.

But I was blind to the way that I personally have benefitted from the pain that many many others have suffered. That afternoon at Reconciliation Place, I realised. I am truly sorry.

My country, your country: Thought 2

Indigenous Australians as a community have not been treated well since other people started settling here.

Another way that some people have tried to rectify this is by “acknowledging country” in public addresses or public gatherings. Typically this is done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– some public servants and politicians
– community organisations
– some universities
– some churches, including only two Sydney Anglican churches that I know of (see Leichhardt’s response to the apology to the stolen generation here.

I have never heard of it being done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– private companies and corporations

Acknowledgement of country is, more often than not, a very token action. It involves a non-Indigenous person saying a sentence at the beginning of their presentation that goes something like:
“Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we meet on, both past and present.”
Then they continue on with their presentation.

Like all other words, these words have no inherent power. It is a very bad thing that as I child I used to apologise to my sister after I hit her, to appease my parents, and then turn around and do it again as soon as they left the room. It is a very bad thing when people make promises with no intention of keeping them. And it is a very bad thing when people acknowledge the fact almost all indigenous people in Australia have been dispossessed for the last couple of years and then go on with your presentation like nothing needs to change.

Some people say these words because it is the socially acceptable thing to do in the circles they move in.
Some people refuse to say these words because it is not a socially acceptable thing to do in the circles they move in.

Some people say these words because they feel that indigenous people as a community have been mistreated since 1788, and they want to communicate their regret and desire to see things change.

The best acknowledgement of country I have heard was at the Lesvian book launch last month. Vasilis Vaslilas, the recently arrived Lesvian migrant who authored the book, opened his speech with words that went something like:

“Before I say anything else, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Dharug people, and their elders, past and present. We Greeks know the importance of topos*, the place we belong to, and the place where we live”

A giant room full of first generation migrants murmured in agreement. I wished that there were some indigenous people in the room to hear it.


Thought 2: I have heard many people back away from acknowledging country, saying it is a token gesture. Heck yes it will be a token gesture if you do it with an attitude like that!

*Topos (Τόπος): Place

My country, your country: Thought 1

Indigenous Australians as a community have not been treated well since other people started settling here.

One of the ways that some people have tried to rectify this is by inviting indigenous elders to welcome them to country. Typically this is done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– some public servants and politicians
– community organisations
– some universities
– some churches

I have never heard of it being done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– private companies and corporations
– Sydney Anglican churches (or any evangalical churches for that matter).

Welcome to country is not a token action. It involves an indigenous elder, native to the area in which you are meeting, welcoming you in a way that is meaningful to them. Sometimes a welcome to country can feel token, if it is staged. But usually these welcomes are heartfelt and very meaningful moments.

I have been welcomed to country twice, both times in the context of an NGO conference. One was a very subtle, normal kind of welcome. The elder got up, greeted us, welcomed us and told us how she hoped that our conference would be a good and useful process. It was a very hope-filled welcome to country.

The other one was weird and wonderful. We were in the Blacktown Town Hall, and the elder who welcomed us did the normal kind of talking, welcoming us to the country around Blacktown. But she wasn’t finished there. She went to get her guitar and then came back and played us a song that she had written about being an Aboriginal woman in Blacktown. Lyrically and musically I think it was the worst song I have ever heard performed. But it came from her heart and it spoke about the experiences of her and other women in the area who struggle with their indigenous identity and the way they are treated. It was definitely not a token action. We all definitely felt welcomed, not just to the place we were meeting, but also to its indigenous community.


Thought 1: I have heard many people back away from being welcomed to country, saying it is a token gesture. I don’t think that is the problem. I think the problem is that deep down we know that if we, the migrants and children of migrants, encourage indigenous people to welcome us to country, then we are opening up room to question western assumptions about land and land ownership.