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The Australian frontier and traumatic moments.

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Wednesday 26 October 2005

Bain Attwood, associate professor of history, Monash University


The Australian Frontier and Traumatic Memories  


In recent years, there’s been a good deal of controversy about this Australia’s frontier history. Much of the debate has been both historical and historiographical. In other words, it is not only concerned with what happened; it also concerns how we might learn about what happened. In fact, these two dimensional histories are intertwined: how we learn about the past largely determines what we can known of that past. This is the case, of course, in nearly all-historical work. But, it is especially so when one tries to learn about the frontier conflict that occurred between Aboriginal people and settlers in this country. 


A few years ago, one of Australia’s finest historians, Tom Griffiths, wrote an essay about the difficulty historians have encountered when they have endeavoured to tell this story. ‘The Australian frontier’, Griffiths suggested, ‘reveals its character through memory and history-making as well as through recorded contemporary experience. We need history’, Griffiths went on, ‘because some things cannot be recognised as they happen’. 


‘We need history because some things cannot be recognised as they happen’? Griffiths was pointing out that the contemporary historical records, upon which historians have traditionally relied, were often not good enough for the historian trying to know the frontier. Not good enough because those who witnessed its conflict were often unable to recognise what was happening at the time. It was only later, and often much later, that the true nature of frontier conflict revealed itself … revealed itself in memories or histories, mostly told in the form stories — oral, written or visual — but also expressed in various signs or symptoms. 


Why was this so? The recognition of the true character of Australia’s killing times was belated, was postponed, Griffiths argued, because they were traumatic. Trauma, it is widely believed, is an extraordinary event which cannot be experienced fully at the time it occurs. It lies beyond anyone’s capacity to make both cognitive and emotional sense of what has happened. This means that traumatic pasts are inherently difficult to represent in any straightforward sense. These pasts reveal themselves instead in the form of richly symbolic myths, dreams and denials; often it is these, not the contemporary historical sources, which can help us learn the truth of what happened. 


In the aftermath of a traumatic history like Australia’s frontier past, a community’s story-tellers must not only find a way of relating this past by drawing on memory or history; they also must find a means of relating to this past. For a long time, the historians of the Australian nation failed in this task. As Bernard Smith commented over twenty five years ago now, the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal people was ‘a nightmare to be thrust out of mind’. But, by repressing this history, the traumatic experience of the Australia frontier, the traumatic experience of both Aboriginal and settler peoples has continued to haunt us all. 


The dead, of course, are an important part of any living community, and death lies at the heart of many nations. Arguably, it is only through ‘the magical or spiritual agency of death’ that states become nations. ‘A people recognises itself as a people … through the symbolic treatment of its dead’, Stephen Muecke has observed. In order for any community to come to terms with a traumatic past, it must have rituals in order to mourn that past. Australia has been very good at doing this in respect of some of its dead. It has remembered and mourned those who fought wars elsewhere. We commemorate their sacrifice every ANZAC day. But this country has not forged any ways of remembering and mourning the victims of the wars fought here, particularly the Aboriginal people who suffered the most. Their losses have never been recognised properly. 


This failure to mourn their death and destruction is one of the main reasons why popular historical discourse in this country swings backwards and forwards between beating up and beating down the blood shed in its frontier wars. We would be more able to relate to this history, and thereby relate to this history, realistically if we had both a national memorial and a national day of mourning for it. By commemorating such a past we could create a better a future.  


Guests on this program:

Bain Attwood  

Associate Professor of History 

Monash University 


Adjunct Professor 

Centre for Cross-Cultural Research