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Being shaped by the stories we choose from our history.

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Alfred Deakin Lectures

Sunday 13 May 2001

(delivered on Saturday 12 May 2001)


Being Shaped by the Stories We Choose from our History


Rodney Hall


Storytelling is at the hear t of human understanding. Who are we? How did we come to be here?


Isn’t this history? Not quite. From the community’s point of view there is a problem with history. There’s too much of it, because it includes everything we do. No nation on earth lives with its actual history. People take from it a selection of stories. Stories they are comfortable with.


There lies the risk, because these stories are not powerless. We may think we choose them, but they end up shaping us. And if we’re shaped by what we’re comfortable with we could be living dishonestly. And, as these stories govern not only our self-image but the basis for our actions as well, we could be behaving dishonestly too.


In the days when we told ourselves we were a white anglo-celtic society isolated in the Asia-Pacific region, we behaved accordingly and, rather than relating to our neighbours, we preferred dealing with their colonial masters, the Dutch, the Portguese and the British. These days we tell ourselves the multicultural story, the embracing of variety, the emphasis of on being flexible - and that has given rise (only just in time!) to a very different mode of behaviour. One which paid off dramatically in 1973 when Britain dropped us in order to join the European Community.


So, we can and do change stories, if we choose. I’m here to testify that the world I grew up in is gone. The stories that shaped that world, which sound quaint to my children, sound simply irrelevant to the generation younger than them. But, what is more, those stories are mostly irrelevant to me . Nowadays, I also need a fresh look at who I am, who we are.


The world has changed almost beyond recognition since 1901. Australia has huge achievements to be proud of , but to cope with the twenty-first century we need a new s tory. The question becomes: How do we get to choose what to tell from the pool of fact? And have we begun taking away from our young people the power to choose freshly selected facts that suit them? After all, the sole resource of these choices is history - and history is suffering a swift demise as a subject in schools and universities. Despite the best efforts of teachers, the source is dwindling.


The need, however, does not dwindle. The need is ever- present.


Anyone who was mystified or distressed by the lost opportunity of the Republic referendum last year - or by Australia’s shameful special pleading on the issue of an international agreement on greenhouse emissions, or by our Prime Minister’s continued failure to say sorry to the stolen generations - should look to the commonly accepted account of who we are and how we came to be here.


Incidentally, I am not proposing any such Post-Modern notion as that everyone will have his or her own private version - or that these all carry equal validity, with each of us thinking what we like independently, free from value judgements, or even factual verification.


Stories, can be and are agreed on collectively and valued collectively. For this to happen (or for it to change they must be remade collectively. Ironically, the way this seems to occur is by appealing to a personal standard, if I can phrase it this way. And I don’t think it has ever been otherwise: the macro-history of the nation must ring true to the micro-history of individual. Put simply, it has to sound relevant to us.


When I was at school in Brisbane, the authorized version started with Captain Cook in 1770. When I was in university it started with the Dutch on the West coast throughout the preceding century. Now it starts with Aboriginal history. But I’d be tempted to begin at a tangent with the age-old story of ownership - of “that’s mine” - a point of immediate relevance to what our culture is about, right now in 2001.


So, I would begin with: Once upon a time there was the land which had been someone else’s for a very long time.


And to be clear what “a very long time” means, I’d come up with a measure of ancientness that everybody can grasp. The pyramids, for example, are ancient. Well, our unit of measurement being the Great Pyramid of Cheops - [the pyramid is ancient - it’s that far back from us] - we’ll need to fold this unit further back in time fourteen times (imagine that) before we reach a period when there were no Aboriginal people in this land.


So ... For “a very long time” this land was someone else’s, occupied and lived on by the 300 tribal nations of Aborigines. If this doesn’t constitute ownership, then the word has no meaning - not even as it might be used in a legal document (because, and we should be clear about this, language comes before the law, not after it). You don’t define language by the law, you define law by the language.


Their mode of living off it, by wandering in circles around local regions is irrelevant. They did that circling permanently.


Next in the story, I’d like to establish that, from this very ancient period through to 1788, the Aboriginal people who, in our terms, “owned” almost all parts of the continent were taken completely unawares by the British invasion. Though they had never been completely cut off from the outside world, visits by Macassan fishermen or the occasional Chinese junk were one thing - whereas invasion was another. Invasion meant taking away their ownership. That’s the next thing: They knew nothing of invasion.


Now, it’s worth thinking a moment about those oceans to our north-west - the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea - right around their coastal waters, as Europeans sailed into them, these were not mere empty spaces on a map, vast wildernesses of water being crossed for the first time. They were busy trade routes used by thousands of Arab, Indian, Malay and Chinese sailors.


And this constituted the trade Australia was to be linked into while British business secured as much of it as they could.


Some of these British businesses still exist - the once-wealthy London based Van Diemen’s Land Company, for example, a company that set out in the first years of the nineteenth century with large grants of land in Tasmania, working their pastoral properties with unpaid convict labour. Slave labour. The Van Diemen’s Land Company was: A Fact. And still is. Let’s put that fact in.


Business lay behind the entire convict system and its provision, at huge expense to the British taxpayer, of slave labour. Business - which is a concept we perfectly well understand - seldom gets a mention, yet it provides an illuminating context to our familiar litany of grievances - many of them justified grievances - about the brutality of the convict past. Putting business in the picture may help give us a fresh understanding of where we are today and where we came from.


In fact, if you go back far enough, the 1788 invasion really developed from a brilliant business idea - an idea as radical as the Internet.  This idea, first explored by the Portuguese, was that you could have an empire witho ut territory - a trade empire - all you needed was an archipelago of ports, strung like a necklace around the coast of wherever you wished your ships to ply.  Either these ports could be, like Surat in India, already existing facilities which you negotiated the use of with the Mughal emperor and paid for leasehold rights, or else ports which you built yourself, like Bombay, Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope or Ambon, or - as I am here to say - Sydney. We were always linked in. We were never cut off. The necklace of ports was strung right round the African, Arabian, Indian and Malay coasts.


The three main East India Companies - Portuguese, Dutch and English - were soon fierce rivals for the spice trade.  Spice may not sound like much. But in the seventeenth century the investment returns were sensational by any investor’s standard.


The firs t voyage of the English East India Company in 1604 realized sales of nutmeg and mace for 32,000 times what the captain paid for them. Of course, if he had paid a fair price, the Banda Islanders would still be the inheritors of that wealth and might be among the richest communities of the world.


But he didn’t. He looked after his shareholders instead. And the profit margin must have been in the region of 10,000 percent - this is something we can understand perfectly well in the econo-centric world of John Howard, staggering though it is - £10,000 return for every pound invested. People would, as they say, kill for that.


If we wish to understand how ordinary folk, much like us, came ... invaded ... and did what they did here ... and that’s the next bit of the story ... well, there’s one motive for a start..


So, beginning with ownership of the land by the original inhabitants - along came a marauding pack of transnational trading companies setting up ports all the way to Indonesia. And then even further eas - because t.he spice trade began to be overtaken by a new bonanza, the China tea trade.


It’s time to introduce another element into the story: the issue of technology. The shortest route from Europe to China, round the southern tip of Africa, was across the bottom of the globe, the Southern Ocean, (a bit like polar air routes today) passing south of Australia, and then up to China. But, in those days of square-rigged sailing ships, that ocean presented two problems: there were next to no landmarks by which you could tell where you were - and it had an almost constant one-way wind pattern and you needed to get your ships both there and back.


On the navigational glitch of tracking your progress on a grid of lines of latitude and longitude, though latitude could be easily measured - being a real geographical thing (there are poles, the world’s broadest circumference is at the equator), longitude is purely theoretical. The imaginary divisions running north-south might be, notionally, drawn anywhere. You could only make an estimate by the midday sun if you knew what time it was back where you began. Longitude was impossible to calculate until a very ingenious chronometer was devised by a contemporary of Captain Cook named John Harrison.


This breakthrough, a British invention, gave them the edge. And, combined with significant technical improvements in ship design, made the Southern Ocean route possible in the late eighteenth century.


With the French, as ambitious new players, right on their tail, the English East India Company, by this time enormously influential, the largest commercial empire the world had ever seen (with the government in its pocket and Prince George on the  board), needed a new far east port to take advantage of this faster route. Was it mere coincidence that the government decided to occupy Botany Bay, the harbour found by Captain Cook? Or that, like the Portuguese before them, they sent convicts - to do the work?


So, who were these convicts? Mostly, they were the pick of the crowded prison hulks and jails: trades people, stonemasons, carpenters, housemaids, laundresses, fishermen and farmers.  Just the sort of people you would send for sustaining the trade empire. And sending them involved an immense investment of public money.


The First Fleet cost about as much as a doctor in England could expect to earn in a year to send each convict. (One can imagine the public fuss today if our government proposed paying a doctor’s salary - whatever figure you would put on that - per head to dump anybody at all anywhere.) And altogether there were 1,487 men women and children aboard the HMS Sirius , the Supply plus the nine transports and supply ships that set sail. If you were the government you’d want something back for that, something more than mere dumping.


And, of course, why not - while this labour force was being sent - why not include, for very little added expense, those recidivist criminals the British government really wanted out of the way, those who they really were dumping? Among this minority group, as the system of transportation continued, were the intellectual elite of the convicts, a mixture of Irish freedom fighters, whose role was to become crucial, and English Chartists who opposed the break up of the British rural economy in what they considered the disastrous spread of the Industrial Revolution. Others were repeat offenders, violent and dangerous men.


So the First Fleet set sail on its nine month journey - carrying its mixed company of a majority of minor offenders and a minority of serious criminals and rebels - but also a mixture of races. We don’t generally hear about the 11 black Africans and 9 Orthodox Jews among them, for a start.


Just as we don’t hear much about our first export - seal oil - and the American whalers who harvested it , or that it wasn’t sent back to London, it was sent back to ... Calcutta on ships with Indians among their crew. Let’s include this racial mix now.


Incidentally, the British Government frequently out-sourced these transportation arrangements to private contractors - as had previously happened with transporting convicts to the American colonies - often with problematic and even tragic results.


How does all this stack up in the context of today? Does it begin to sound more connected to what we know? And what does it tell us about race relations within this country or our international relations with our neighbours if, instead of seeing ourselves as a society of victims, we see our arrival as an invasion of opportunists? Among many vices one could characterize as universal there is a particularly nasty one - the lust to be seen as a victim. I was astonished and repelled a few years ago in Germany to read a lead article in a major publication claiming: “We Germans were the first victims of Nazism”.


We have our own version of this, complications and mitigating circumstances notwithstanding: by the story we habitually tell, we have made the tragedy of Australia a convict tragedy. Whereas the overriding tragedy always was, and still is, an Aboriginal tragedy.


So, the invasion of 1788 began. (We’re getting there!) The Southern Ocean had suddenly become desirable to commerce, the money was put up, the orders given, and the fleet, finally, sailed into Botany Bay. The conflict that gradually took shape between new arrivals and Aboriginal inhabitants degenerated from parleying and expressions of goodwill through to the organized massacres, dreadful massacres, of the early nineteenth century.


These were two races at opposite poles of cultural development: the energetic and ruthlessly courageous Europeans, driven by the clock and notions of progress, whose chief pursuit was acquisition - in conflict with a culture based around vast languages entirely committed to memory and the ceremonial observations of a metaphysical system derived from the prevalence of spirits animating every aspect of land and air in a timeless continuum.


No two peoples could have been further removed or more incomprehensible to each other.


I’d now want to add the ingedient of magic.


The usual story then goes on to say that the invasion succeeded because the invaders had superior weapons.  Anyone who has fired a flintlock musket will acknowledge that the spear has hugely superior accuracy and about the same range. What made the musket succeed was the factor of fear. It was magic: a bang went off over there and someone beside you dropped dead.


Tribal people had only magic by which to understand this phenomenon. Their fears defeated them, during the half century when vastly superior numbers were on their side.


Finally, the invasion suceeded because European culture had the characteristic of supreme adaptability.  The indigenous peoples’ cultures were entirely place-specific. Of course, they knew about inter-tribal fighting, but they had no idea of combining with age-old enemies and neighbours to form a united army. No idea what an invasion from the sea might be.


Not, as I have already said, that they were totally cut off from the rest of world. To cite Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of Australia: in 1804 he noted evidence of Arab sailors coming ashore on the north coast, he found the foundations of a many-roomed stone building where there were Chinese hats, and he met with the Indonesian islanders who regularly visited Arnhem Land each year for trepang fishing.


What was new wasn’t contact - but the seizure of territory ... the corruption of that brilliant idea that all you needed was the port. We also took the land.


So, we spread out, claiming more and more, clearing forests, fencing paddocks and waterholes, altering the landscape beyond recognition.


The dark secret haunting the Australian heart is the knowledge that we stole what we have. We killed to secure the theft.  Admittedly a number of diseases, persumably inadvertently introduced, did a huge amount of the killing for us.  But we waged war. Not with an army, but with armed bands of citizen militia (much like recent events in East Timor), backed by troops from the garrison. And the Aboriginal people resisted.


This belongs in our story. They were not passive. We owe it to ourselves to have the largeness and grace to take into our national co nsciousness how they must have felt - what the invasion and dispossession might have felt like from their viewpoint.


And, you know what? They never gave in. They are still resisting by one means or another.  There has never been a peace sought or an official recognition of the invasion - which is not simply an event long gone and best forgotten: we still live very comfortably on the proceeds of what we took. An admirable start was made by Paul Keating with his Native Title Act, and this was his personal mission. But then what happened?


During the public hysteria whipped up over Mabo and then Wik, as became quite clear, suburban Australians feared that their backyards could be taken from them - despite all the specific legal detail to the contrary. Well, there was a reason. Beneath this fear lay the guilt of what we know. The fear proved it. We may not all have heard about the Myall Creek Massacre or the Waterloo Creek Massacre, or the Cape Grim Massacre in Tasmania or the countless other massacres and murders. But we know the general drift.


The disturbing fact was the vehemence of ordinary Australians, determined to shut away the secret and continue denying the causes. Meanwhile, in these globalized days, the international community was watching - the very community that we, as an exporting-importing nation, depend upon for our survival.


In the new world of the Internet our own young are in contact with the stories other people tell about us. Even our own journalists are beginning to express some disquiet at the rift between our comfortable assumption about ourselves and other people’s doubts.


What we are witnessing is no less than a change of culture. A new feeling out there - and it’s a liberty - that we don’t have to like our story in order to accept it. We don't have to be the eternal good guys. Indeed, if I read it rightly, the mood suggests that there is automatically a suspicion if we are always the good guys. The message I’m getting is that young Australians identify with the absence of bullshit.


This is a new environment reflecting a world-wide change, in which the old boundaries of patrolled checkpoints, customs, visas and so forth have nothing to do with the new world of the universal word. So we feel the jolt when journalists in Malaysia or Korea, for example, raise the spectre of the White Australia policy.


The White Australia policy? Where did that come from? (I was brought up short the other day in the library, coming across a pamphlet written by October 1949 by Arthur Calwell, Labor Minister for Immigration, entitled, “I Stand by White Australia” - in which he vehemently argues against the idea of admitting even a quota of Asian migrants). Many people, I suspect, might soon find this simply baffling.


So, it needs to be brought into the story purely for that reason - to remind us of what used to be - and as a marker of change. But it also needs to be told so that lingering preconceptions about us can be dealt with. People of other races remember because they were offended. They remember longer than we do.


The idea that one can only accept the stories one tells about oneself has to be challenged.


The fact that there is no longer a White Australia Policy is not the point, we still must cope with fact that there once was one - and that there is still fallout from it. It hangs around out there as a perception about us. And other countries immediately connect it to our government’s behaviour on such issues as refugees seeking asylum. They’re helped along when our own newspapers puff up ridiculously and inexcusably inflated fears of “floodgates” opening and a “tidalwave” of illegal immigrants and refugees arriving - when you look at the figures of how many are actually here.


The latest figure I saw was 4000 - equivalent to the population of Bega, NSW. That’s how many. Bega invading Australia? Bega as the floodgates?


And then this same government in Canberra hopes to be taken seriously when it negotiates trade and international agreements with overpopulated nations such as Indonesia, India or China. Don’t talk to them about the floodgates.


All non-indigenous Australians are migrants, really, a migrant society, still accustoming itself to the land. If we told this story - instead of an Anglo-Celtic establishment which makes all other peoples outsiders - “New Australians” as used to be said - it’s a great leveller. To acknowledge that we are all migrants makes the integration of a variety of cultures easier. Proof that we are is manifold. I need cite no more than one, massive argument: the catastrophic salination problems we have created because we are not yet used to this land and its needs.


In the new environment of the twenty-first century, business is being done on the Internet and connections are being made within a global state without borders. The price to be paid is the difficulty of getting a grasp on things, the difficulty of feeling we have a place. When students leave school they get jobs they don’t expect to keep for more than a couple of years. And so on, with the next job and the next. In front of one computer screen or another, they are temporarily at home, relishing the fastantic mind-space of worldwide communications - but living in a world, much of which is without shape or substance.


No wonder the old stories have started to fail them. Who we are is complex. Who we think we are is often misleadingly simple. We have to work at it.


How hard will it be in the immediate future to sustain an argument for the existence of Australianness - beyond the listing of what is physcially here on this great island? What will it matter? Australianness may well become something only ever perceived from outside .


Among the enormous changes during the past half a century, there has been a political shift of seismic proportions.


Beginning with Harold Holt’s focus on Asia and culminating in Paul Keating’s vigorous initiatives within the Asia-Pacific region, in which Gareth Evans played so significant a part, it is still developing. Our neighbours think of us as constructive partners in the region, though not as truly belonging - belonging will take a very long time.


My point is that we can help it along by telling a story about ourselves which they, also, can believe. And our future depends on their acceptance - our largest trading partner is Japan our third largest is Korea. Hypothetically, if they combined to withraw from dealing with us (as we once withdrew from dealing with South Africa) our export economy would collapse. This is the globalized world we’re talking about - for better and worse.


No wonder the Australian people, showing their good sense, voted NO to the spellcheck republic we were offered last year: Governor-General becomes President - replace all - press a button. How contemptuous of the intelligence (and plain nous) of the general public! All because we are told a story - that this is as much as we can manage to come to a decision about.

When the simple truth, obvious to everybody, is that we’re Australians first and Victorians or Queenslanders, and so forth, second. We are no longer an aggregation of ex-colonies but a single nation - and we need a new constitution appropriate to that - and appropriate to the changing world.


There’s another aspect of the Internet which must be mentioned here. Our daily communication is now done, overwhelmingly, by means of the written word. For the first time in history people write as much as they talk. Even when using the telephone, we are more and more sending text messages. And the written word, on the screen, is an objective thing. The word is tangible, re-readable, exposed to scrutiny, no longer an organic part of a persuasive dialogue. For me to be me - so it seems for many people, especially young people - it is necessary that you don’t see my face or hear my voice. You receive what I say in a neutral medium. This is new.


This has never been the way of the world before.


It’s my belief that the last barrier to acknowledging that modern Australia was founded on an invasion is down. The issue, once raised, is at last free of the bogey of state reparations, or even guilt. Reparations and guilt are part of the old story. At heart, it has effectively become an issue of honesty - of credibility. It has become personal. And this is an opportunity we should seize upon.


Reconciliation is not just an afternoon walk to feel good, helpful as this gesture might be. There has to be something personal given up. Something surrendered. And the first thing is to give up our falsified and laundered version of the story of what has happened since 1788 - our comfort zone.


The search to uncover Truth is a lifelong quest affecting everybody.  We all feel it.  Nobody can escape, let alone abandon, the quest.  This is no less than a search for the story at the heart of experience, at the heart of our knowledge and our confusion. The story of our loves and disappointments, our grief and our happiness. It governs whom we trust, how we behave, and what we do with our lives.


In all aspects of living we seek the story of who we are, where we are and how we became like this, simply because we need to know. Because we need to secure our place in the world and better fulfil our obligations. It applies to our nation too and to our collective future as international citizens.