Twenty years ago, almost single-handedly kicking off the History Wars, Henry Reynolds published ‘This Whispering in Our Hearts’. For him it was the culmination of researches stimulated in 1971 by his first job teaching history at the Townsville University College from the set text that didn’t even contain the word Aborigine in its index. The 1998 book caused outrage at his minimal suggestion that about 20,000 Indigenes had been killed in the process of pushing the ‘frontier’ out across Australia. Reynolds assessed that such people might have been feeling guilty “ whereas he only felt great sympathy for the people like the Queensland pastoralist Ernest Thorn who’d refused access to his boat to a posse of fellow-farmers intent upon attacking an Aboriginal camp by night.
For many years, Thorn recorded, my name was covered with opprobrium, and I was branded as a man who was false to his race, and unworthy of the confidence of decent white men.
Now Reynolds has Revisited his book. He’s taken the book right through to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but he’s keen to emphasise the questions he continues to ask aren’t new but were there from the very beginning of the British ‘invasion’. For philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a pamphlet in 1803 noting that legal obfuscation (of terra nullius) notwithstanding, the colony had been acquired by conquest. The Aboriginal people had been accorded no diplomatic power, nor had their representatives signed a treaty with the King. This created problems that will be enduring. The flaw is an incurable one.
So the still-unanswered questions listed by Reynolds in his 2018 Introduction are as follows:
Was British settlement morally justified? Was it legal? Was it invasion rather than settlement? Why were no treaties negotiated in Australia? Why was Australia treated as terra nullius? And why did that idea remain enshrined in Australian law until 1992? Was the persistent frontier conflict warfare, albeit of a distinctive kind? (Stephen Gapps has no doubt in his book entitled ‘The Sydney Wars‘!). Did the catastrophic decline of the Indigenous population amount to genocide or to willed extermination, as it was termed throughout Australian history? Did the nature of the frontier encounter directly foster the racism that cast Aboriginal people as subhuman savages? Should a modern treaty or treaties be negotiated?
Etcetera? How much remains to be done to settle the whispering in our hearts!
In case you wish to whisper back to Henry Reynolds, there are a series of opportunities coming up as Newsouth Books launch the Revisit. This weekend sees two of them:
Saturday August 25 at the Canberra Writers Festival he’ll be in conversation with Paul Daley
On Sunday 26th the Melbourne Writers Festival plays host
Then on Wednesday September 5th, Reynolds will be on home ground at Fullers in Hobart – In conversation with Rufus Black
Next, straight to the Brisbane Writers Festival from September 6th to 9th
Sydney has to wait until Wednesday September 26th, when Gleebooks hosts him from 6-8pm
Finally SA on Thursday October 18th when the History Trust of SA gives him a platform at Adelaide University at 5:30pm