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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Book review: The Good Country, Bain Attwood (2017)

This book mainly chronicles European settlement of a central part of Victoria in the 1830s and 1840s and the relations between the settler community, the state and the Aborigines whose land was stolen. The land was at the time called Port Phillip District, before being renamed Victoria in 1851.

The book is subtitled ‘The Djadja Warrung, the Settlers and the Protectors’. In its first part, I found that Attwood went a bit fast, which is not remarkable in itself for a specialist when dealing with materials routinely found in his portfolio. You struggle to keep up with who is who.

There is Parker, one of the assistant protectors hired by the Colonial and Foreign Office in London to look after the interests of the Aborigines. There is Russell, one of the mounted police. There are settlers like Monro and their managers and servants, many of whom are ex-convicts. And there are the Daung Warrung, a nearby nation of Aboriginals competing for resources with their traditional rivals the Djadja Warrung. There are even named individuals in some of the clans belonging to these language groups such as the Djadja Warrung man Bootoogun.

In this early section of the book, Attwood rapidly shifts his focalisation from one of these men to another in the drama and you have to keep reminding yourself who is doing or saying what and what their place is within the social fabric. Fortunately, in later chapters this type of pure recount is replaced by more sustained analysis that takes place at a slower pace, and you are able to catch your breath and think for a minute before the focus changes from one person to another. I imagine judges having the same difficulty keeping their minds on things in court rooms.

This is a short book but it contains a lot of footnotes, which is why it doesn’t take much time for the general reader to finish it. It looks at the colonial dispossession with a gimlet eye, taking nothing for granted.

The dispossession of land from the Aboriginal peoples of the continent was disastrous for them. Squatters were supported by the press and by the elites in the colonies in their contests with officialdom, which held the progressive view that the Aborigines were the original owners of the land and deserved to claim a part of it for their survival. But the gradual push, as each governor was replaced by his successor in turn, toward prioritising the interests of Capital meant that despite the work of the protectors (who were in any case eventually abolished), the colonies’ Aboriginal inhabitants were gradually relegated to reserves and supported by the public purse. This made them increasingly vulnerable and dependent, and resulted in other, even more damaging policies emerging that attempted to deal with the problem – from the standpoint of the government – posed by their survival.

The book mostly covers the early colonial experience, and most of the recounts and analysis of the relations between the players cease around the time of the gold rush, in the 1850s. There is some attention paid to what happens a bit later because the protectorate endured into the period after gold was first discovered in the area. The narrative then jumps to the 1970s, to a period when Aboriginal self-awareness had emerged in the context of the American civil rights movement, but this part of the book is of secondary importance in the overall scheme of things. The reason for the jump is to show that historical claims made by activists in this later era sometimes rely on faulty narratives.

But violence in the original frontier region was not universal or probably even all that common. It is important to be aware while reading the book that the conflicts that happened receive far more space in it than any other type of relations that played out between the settlers and the Aborigines, because the protectors, whose records Attwood relies often on for his work, were mostly cataloguing events that were characterised by violence. Of course, some conflicts were hidden by the perpetrators because settlers became more guarded about the revealing the realities of the frontier, especially after disclosures made public due to the famous Myall Creek massacre in NSW in 1838 when some whites were sentenced to hang in the wake of revelations of a crime.

In the beginning, the Aborigines had tried to establish kinship ties with the white settlers, often by offering their women to them as sexual partners, and by involving them in ceremonies where food was shared. Initially, historians think that the Aborigines thought that the Europeans were their ancestors come back to life, and treated them with a touching degree of curiosity and solicitude.

Once it became clear that the whites were going to stay and use the land for livestock, however, their habits of mutual obligation meant that they started asking for and even just taking sheep and cattle for food. But they also worked for the white settlers on their stations. When gold was found in the early 1850s they replaced European workers who had gone off to prospect for the mineral. (Bain with dark humour says the Europeans “went walkabout”.)

In the early days, often, the land where such native staples as daisy yams grew would be trampled by large flocks of sheep, so that the kangaroos and emus wouldn’t come any more to feed there, depriving Aboriginal men of game to hunt. Spearing animals to use for food was an integral part of the Aboriginal male’s role in his clan, so this aspect of the dispossession was very troubling for them, possibly making them more aggressive toward the settlers. Settlers would also rape the women further inflaming temperaments.

Aborigines would ask the settlers for sheep as well as flour to eat, and these requests became a burden for managers on the runs. When livestock was stolen from runs, station managers would revert to the use of the gun to exact condign punishment. Many lives were furthermore lost also to diseases such as smallpox, which decimated the Aboriginal population, and other transmissible conditions such as syphilis.

The press in Sydney and Melbourne, solidly dedicated to promoting growth and prosperity far above any competing considerations, merely called for more policing and for more punishment of the Aborigines.

Edward Stone Parker, the assistant protector of Aborigines responsible for the Loddon District, had been a school teacher in England before gaining the posting, and he was a Methodist. He tried to educate the Aborigines in Christian ways but found parents unwilling to surrender their children for the purpose of education before they were grown up. Even though the protectorate was eventually dissolved by government decree, Parker worked for many years to learn the language spoken by the Djadja Warrung people and tried to work in their interests in the face of pressure from Capital to reduce the size of the reserve and curtail the budget that it eventually commanded. His reports remain a rich source of information for people wanting to learn about the original inhabitants of the region.

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