Features Australia

Teaching history

2 February 2017

3:00 PM

2 February 2017

3:00 PM

Australia Day always brings out the whingers, the whiners, the crazy Invasion Day anti-nationalists and the almost equally crazy flag-draped ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!’ nationalists. This year there has been a lot of fuss about a corny, witless lamb ad which is so passé that it looks as if it were cobbled together from advertising archives from 1975 – when eating a kebab and watching Greek dancing was the extent of most Australians’ appreciation of foreign ‘culture’.

Yet the genuine examination of the intersection of the indigenous and European past from the time of the First Fleet cannot be overlooked. It is vital to how we view the present and understand the legacy of dispossession for Australian Aboriginal people. History is important, and it is understandable that some call it Invasion Day. But that is not the full story, which is more than fodder for blithe historical mea culpas, which impose the complex modern ideology of identity and dispossession on the past. However, the discipline of history is something more simple and at the same time much more complicated than that. It is a pity we have forgotten that history is a story, and in the case of our founding story, it is an exciting one!

So why aren’t we telling children and young people today about what actually happened? Many kids don’t even know, despite all the highly political discussion in the media about multiculturalism and Australia Day being about invasion etc., that this was a very exciting maritime adventure. That it took over eight months for the fleet to make the journey, that it was done with minimal loss of life, that babies were born, that there were children on those ships, and so many animals it looked like a Noah’s Ark. Nor are they taught that Australia Day is not the day the First Fleet arrived; it is the day that Arthur Philip actually took possession, after moving the fleet to Port Jackson.And what does possession mean? Possession introduced the legal obligations of British law that have been the foundation of our concept of rights, indeed the very foundation on which the concept of indigenous rights is built.

This January, I read two recent books which tell some of these founding stories as they should be told – as stories, not as long dissertations on identity and culture. The First Fleet is by Rob Mundle, a practised teller of maritime tales who has written compellingly and knowledgeably about Cook and Bligh. His book tells the story of the First Fleet as a great maritime adventure which has all the components of well told history: drama, tragedy, and a fair dollop of humour, both in his own words and from the original sources from Tench, Clark and Nagle. Although he begins the story as a sailing adventure, as it unfolds it becomes a personal adventure of all sorts of disparate and eccentric personalities, not just a soulless story of British imperial ambition, which was part of the problem with the way the history was taught in the past, especially for young people. Mundle makes it an exciting story of ‘what will happen next?’. The officers and convicts have lives and personalities whilst undergoing the most awful privations unimaginable to modern kids, including the threat of imminent drowning during terrifying storms, with no hope of rescue (one teacher told me that kids in her primary school class asked why they didn’t bring their mobiles?!)

The unfolding story is of how after landing, such a motley crew managed to struggle on, despite being on the brink of starvation, seemingly abandoned by the mother country, having to deal with a completely alien climate and topography, with near rebellion, and unbelievably, numerous escape attempts – some exciting and successful like the famous Bryants who managed to sail in an open boat to Timor, others predictably tragic. And a few hilariously, unsuccessful, like the ill-informed ‘Irish’ convicts who decided to walk to China. Their constant attempts to understand the indigenous people, who they were well aware could help them, and their dismay at the outbreak of a disease among them, is all part of that story. Their first hand descriptions of their behaviour and customs are still the best eye witness accounts of this first contact. Even though today we think capturing a ‘native’ and putting a manacle around his foot, which they did, so he couldn’t escape, is barbarous, eighteenth century people were actually interested in these people as a group and as a people. They also realised the strange absolute Year One nature of these encounters. Knowing these stories allows us to examine and understand people and their motivations, especially in the interaction of indigenes and Europeans.

Mark McKenna’s prize winning From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories is a deeper yet just as compelling series of stories about survival and first encounters. The opening story of British sailors and 12 Lascars who survived a ship wreck in Bass Straight, and then set out to walk from the 90 Mile Beach in Victoria to Sydney in 1797, is one of the great untold adventures. It is also a fascinating account of various indigenous groups they met; from what they looked like, with bones in their ears and noses, covered in fish oil to keep off insects, to their various attitudes to the Europeans. Some were hostile to the sailors, others guided them over rivers and often allowed them to stay with them in or near their camps. It is also a story of how the European sailors learnt to interpret the behaviour of the indigenous people. How a spear deliberately thrown among them was not always a sign of aggression, but of warning, or how being invited to sit among the women and children was a sign of trust, whereas being tolerated on the outskirts was not. Eventually some of these intrepid characters completed the journey.

At a time when so many historical events are interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of political preoccupations of the present, it is refreshing to read a great story. Even better, in telling the story, with as little embellishment as possible, McKenna presents history which actually does resonate subtly with the present, without the false overlay of ideology: ‘The past matters not only for itself. It matters because we give it life, because we seek to understand both its difference from the present and the traces of commonality that bind us to the lives of those who have gone before us.’

McKenna is right, and it’s almost a criminal deficit of our education system that history has been so badly neglected.

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