From The Secret River to Stan Grant’s debate

The current longest non-stop flight in the world is the Qantas route from Sydney to Dallas: 14.5 hours in the air in an Airbus A-380.  A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on  that Airbus flipping through the inflight entertainment system in that semi-catatonic state that all long-haul flights seem to induce, when I stumbled across an intriguingly-titled television series: The Secret River.  It turned out to be a two-part mini-series originally broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation based on a novel by author Kate Grenville.  The blurb promised an exploration of an emancipated convict in the early days of the colony of New South Wales, carving out a new life on the Hawkesbury River (the Secret River of the title).

I thought to myself, this seem promising, and settled back expecting a mildly diverting period piece about early Australian history that I had never seen dramatized.  I imagined it might be a little dry and slow, but would have great images of the bushland that I was familiar with growing up (the Hawkesbury is just a 20-30 minute drive away from where I grew up), I was interested to see how the producers recreated the early Australian colony, and at the very least it would while away about 3 of the remaining hours until touchdown in Dallas.  Instead I found myself watching a graphic and unsentimental depiction of the often brutal confrontation between the early European settlers and the indigenous people, the Australian Aborigines.

William Thornhill is a convict having arrived in Australia in 1805 and recently been freed by his wife. The Secret River follows his attempt to build a farm for himself and his young family on the shores of the Hawkesbury River (which is about 30 kilometers north of the colony at Sydney Cove on Port Jackson, now most commonly known as Sydney Harbour).  (The character is based loosely on Grenville’s own ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled in the area now known as Wisemans Ferry).  Thornhill is excited for all the possibilities that an apparently untouched area of the river could bring for a new settler.  His early interactions with the local Aboriginal population, the Dharug, are fearful, but under the guidance of another settler, Thomas Blackwood, he seems to develop, at least at first, a kind of grudging truce.

The Secret River does not attempt to conceal or sugarcoat the early settler’s attitudes towards the local Aboriginal population, who are viewed as little more than savages, barely even human.  And as it becomes clearer that the Aborigines do not intend to “vacate” what Thornhill views as “his” land, the interactions turn from mutual wariness to outright hostility.  Relations between Thornhill and the Dharug progressively deteriorate and eventually lead to a murderous and brutal showdown that is quite hard to watch.

The overall tone of the series is unromantic and unleavened by traces of sentimentality.  Staples of early Australian culture such as the lash (cat ‘o nine tails) and the corrupt Rum Corps are often treated in popular entertainment – as I recall in my childhood visits to the now-closed Old Sydney Town – as a kind of fun, almost campy lark of excessively “laddish” behaviour.  The Secret River treats them with the same sobering realism that they deserve, and the show leaves an indelible impression that early Australia for Europeans was much less an adventure than a sheer battle for daily survival.  For the indigenous people it was the beginning of something far, far worse: the loss of culture and language, a complete dismemberment of a way of life and, in some cases, apparent active genocide.

As I finished watching, I was simultaneously reminded and appalled by our dark past, but as an Australian living in the United States, it seemed to me that even the mere existence of series like The Secret River showed a certain degree of maturity as a nation.  After all, there was I sitting on Australia’s national airline, Qantas, watching a series broadcast by the national broadcaster, the ABC, funded in part by various Australian governmental agencies such as Screen Australia, Screen NSW and Film Victoria.  Surely this is a sign of the fact that we are now dealing with our past as adults, with Kevin Rudd finally issuing an apology for the Stolen Generations in 2008.  Then I came back to discover a powerful speech by indigenous journalist Stan Grant had gone viral I realised that my smugness was unearned: as a country we have really only just begun this process.

Stan Grant at Ethics Center IQ2 Racism Debate in October 2015

Grant, a long-time Australian television journalist, delivered a speech as part of a debate at the Ethics Centre, about racism, back in October 2015.  In it, he lays out the case that the early history of dispossession and racism continues to this very day, and that “the Australian dream” doesn’t include Australian Aborigines.  Taking apart the pieces of national mythology, he notes that although the national anthem proclaims: “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free”, the reality for Aborigines is very different:

My people die young in this country, we die ten years younger than average Australians and we are far from free.

We are fewer than three percent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 percent, a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons, and if you are a juvenile it is worse, it’s fifty percent. An indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.

As Grant notes, right the beginning of the colony, the British legal tradition declared Aborigines to be effectively non-people through the doctrine of terra nullius:

It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation . It is there in terra nullius.  An empty land. A land for the taking.

And the exclusion, almost invisibility, continued through the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia:

By 1901 when we became a nation, when we federated the colonies, we were nowhere. We’re not in the Constitution, save for ‘Race Provisions’ — which allowed for laws to be made that would take our children, that would invade our privacy, that would tell us who we could marry and tell us where we could live.

And into the fairly recent history:

By 1963, the year of my birth, the dispossession was continuing. Police came at gunpoint under cover of darkness to Mapoon an aboriginal community in Queensland, and they ordered people from their homes, and they burned those homes to the ground, and they gave the land to a bauxite mining company. And today those people remember that as ‘The Night of the Burning’.

Whilst many of these events are well-known and documented, Grant connects the historical dots with an emotional heft that is rare in contemporary Australian life, leading to some to characterize it as Australia’s “Martin Luther King, Jr. moment” (a comparison that Grant himself rejects).

On this 2016 Australia Day, I strongly urge all Australians to view it (there is also a full transcript), because even if you disagree with some of Grant’s characterisations of Australia, he asks tough questions of us all.  And dealing directly and unsparingly with the sorry history and current existence of Australian racism is the first step towards moving past it, not brushing it under the mat, arguing it away as just “ancient history” or that it’s all white liberal guilt that we have to just “get over”.  Cultural depictions like The Secret River, and speeches like Grant’s have to be the beginning of the process, not the end.  We have to deal with both the racism inside people’s hearts – what continues to cause people to boo Australian Rules player Adam Goode because he has the temerity to speak out strongly on indigenous issues? – as well as the racism embedded in government and economic policy.  As Grant has said of his speech: “It challenged us to ask hard questions of a country that is demonstrably among the most tolerant, free, prosperous and safe in the world, yet has a stain on its soul.”

Of course, ultimately as Grant says:

And one day I want to stand here, and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone in this room, Australians all let us rejoice.

But we have a lot more work to get there.  Let’s use Australia Day to think about that.

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