In my hometown of Ballarat, there is a monument that stands in the town’s cemetery. It was raised in 1897, and the inscription reads: ‘The resting place of King Billy, the last of the Ballarat Tribe of Aborigines’. With these words, irrespective of any actual surviving members of the Wadawurrung clan, my ancestors were consigned to history and ceased to exist in the eyes of the settler.
King Billy lived out the last of his days in impoverished obscurity. He was buried with fanfare, piquing the fascination of the community. Many came to witness the death knell of what was, by that time, a rather dilapidated footnote in the town’s golden history. Little is known about the original occupants of the region beyond the names of local landmarks, and as a result, like many Victorian Aboriginal people, reconnecting the fragments of the past is a labour-intensive process.
There is one striking problem with the epitaph upon his memorial: King Billy was not the last of the local Wadawurrung nation, nor even the last of the clan in Ballarat. This area has a continuing and enduring line of Indigenous occupation.
This lone monument is a striking example of the culture of erasure that persists in Australia. Literally written into the landscape, this memorial was likely one of the few visible signifiers of Aboriginal occupation in the area until the 1980’s. History is the writing of absence, as Michel De Certeau writes.
Over the past few months, we have seen two stark comparisons of how Indigenous and settler histories are regarded in this country. On one hand, we have seen Rio Tinto destroying an incredibly important cultural and archaeological site in the Pilbara, while neighbouring communities were fending off further attacks from FMG and BHP.
It was truly a surreal image—one that laid bare Australia’s bizarre aggrandisement of whiteness—and the infrastructure that reinforces it.
Mere weeks later, in the face of vandalism and civil disobedience, police across the country were deployed to protect the statues of significant colonisers. They were joined by white activists, arms linked, forming a protective vanguard around the monuments. It was truly a surreal image—one that laid bare Australia’s bizarre aggrandisement of whiteness—and the infrastructure that reinforces it.
What we are essentially comparing are two histories that are complementary to our national history yet are treated as contradictory by a settler society unwilling to grapple with the specifics of how they came to rule this continent. Simultaneously, we are comparing two histories that are beyond comparison in the wider narrative of humanity’s story—the colonial being a relatively young, relatively inconsequential story of an outpost on the fringes of a global empire. If this is Star Wars, Australia is Tatooine.
These colonial statues are not even ‘history’ themselves—merely monuments to sailors who found things that were not lost, and to the stubbornness of pioneers who so often failed where the people they dispossessed had thrived for millennia. These monuments are the physical embodiments of a structural, concerted erasure of pre-colonial history, and the ritual-sites of Australia’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’. Anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner in his 1968 Boyer Lecture called it ‘Great Australian Silence’. In tandem with this silence is a great Australian dissonance—a drowning out of dissenting narratives in every city square and park, every newspaper, every Manning Clark volume.
By comparison, the history being destroyed with Australia’s consent is as important as it is impossibly old—stretching far into ‘Deep Time’, with the potential to reshape what we know about the story of humanity.
The history being destroyed with Australia’s consent is as important as it is impossibly old, with the potential to reshape the story of humanity.
Imagine, for a moment, belonging to a people that, in the eyes of history, of the system, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. How would that play into your sense of self? Your identity, your belief in your own right to dignity?
In late May, mining giant Rio Tinto blew up an incredibly sacred, 46,000-year-old cultural site on Puutu Kunti Kurrama country in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. As an Indigenous man, this utter sacrilege and loss of irreplaceable culture breaks my heart. Doubly, as an archaeologist, my heart breaks for the loss of incredibly important evidence vital to the story of humanity. There is a rich wealth of evidence of human occupation in this continent that challenges many age-old presumptions built up over decades by dry old white blokes, evidence that remains under threat from both private and public interests.
Rio Tinto has a history of ignoring the cultural importance of this site—with the support of government authorities. In 2013, mining operations near the Juukan Gorge were given ministerial consent to damage the cultural site at the caves. A year later, an archaeological dig produced artefacts showing that the site was much more ancient than previously thought. Ministerial consent allowed Rio Tinto to continue activity at this site, nonetheless. As a result of this historic negligence, at the beginning of Reconciliation week no less, the government was complicit in the destruction of an archaeological site vital to our understanding of human history.
The chairman of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural heritage authority, compared Rio Tinto’s actions to that of ISIL in Syria with the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, or the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. When you are being compared to terrorist groups, it’s hard to justify your actions.
It is not just these remote archaeological sites that are under threat; most Australians struggle to contend with the fact of ‘Urban Country’. Our urban landscapes retain their cultural significance despite the layers of concrete that entomb them. Many sites, such as middens and rock art in Sydney face constant graffiti tags, meanwhile more contemporary cultural places like the Block in Redfern have made way for gentrification. In Melbourne, the landscape has been so thoroughly changed by colonisation that whole rivers have been rerouted or simply dried up, wetlands filled, and hills bulldozed.
Our urban landscapes retain their cultural significance despite the layers of concrete that entomb them.
But Country cannot be so easily supplanted—each year, despite the remaking of the landscape, the eels migrate along the network of sewers, dykes and canals that now are the delta of Narrm (Port Phillip Bay).
Henry Reynolds, in his book Why Weren’t We Told contrasts two examples of Australia’s reverence for colonial violence: even today places bear names like Murdering Plains, Skull Creek, Murder Creek, Blood Hole, Fighting Hills, Slaughterhouse Creek, Murdering Island, etcetera. Not only is it difficult for local Indigenous people, their allies, and authorities to rename these places, even the most token recognition to these site’s First Nations histories is an unwelcome affront to may settler Australians. Memorials at these sites are often met with destruction. A plaque on a tree at a site south of Perth was stolen and the tree set alight. A monument at Battle Mountain in Queensland was repeatedly defaced, shot at and eventually blown up. Where is our valiant police guard?
Much of what we know about the history of our species relies on theory and hypothesis, with the timeline of humanity’s migration across the globe being disrupted by more recent findings from Australia, Africa, and Asia. One of the key unanswered questions in Australian prehistory is how Aboriginal people colonised the vast arid expanses of the interior despite relying on seed-based, agricultural economies. Unfortunately, in May Rio Tinto dynamited the only inland site on the continent with evidence of human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.
Indigenous Australians, the oldest continuing cultures on the planet, may hold wisdom vital to our future survival under the threat of climate change. For at least 80,000 years, if not deep into 120,000 years, people across this continent thrived where no-human should, defying the logic of nature. Resiliently, our people colonised and pastured the aforementioned arid deserts, roamed great glacier tundras in Tasmania, weathered millennia-long cycles of droughts and floods, saw lakes dry up, volcanoes erupt, territories sink beneath sea levels rising some 125 metres, made lush meadows through fire-stick farming where they had found dense forests. Remarkably, this wisdom is preserved within the oral traditions of our people and imbedded in the very rock of our cultural sites. Of all the chapters in our continent’s story, Billy Griffiths writes, it is the Indigenous story Australia fails to ‘comprehend or accommodate’. When Europe was only colonised some 40,000 years ago, 120,000 years seems an incalculable amount of time, beyond any comprehension with the framework within which Westerners consider time itself. ‘Far from being terra nullius,’ Griffiths continues, the Australian landscape is as ‘cultural as it is natural’.
Statues, on the other hand, tell us less about history than they do about the contemporary power dynamics of their erection—they spring up not ‘as if by natural law to celebrate the deserving’; argues Kirk Savage, but rather they are built by those with the power to impose them on the landscape. History is not driven solely by the singular deeds of great men, nor do historical events exist in a vacuum. History exists as the sum efforts of countless actions and reactions of innumerable individuals, shaped by the structural hierarchies of power that surround it and is given meaning after-the-fact by the discourses that surround it.
History is not driven solely by the singular deeds of great men, but as the sum efforts of countless actions and reactions of innumerable individuals.
Statues do not tell us the context of an individual, instead standing as constant reinforcement of a cultural identity taken for granted by a public living in ‘unconscious acceptance of it’. Statues do little but become to Australian Nationalism what Eric Hobsbawm describes as ‘poppies’ are to ‘heroin addiction’.
The uniquely complex history of European settlement in Australia demands a retelling that gives credence and validity to the many voices through which the narratives are told.
Words hold power. In 2014, Ballarat City Council attempted to name a new suburb ‘Mullawallah’ after King Billy—this attempt was quashed after more than 100 complaints that this was too hard to spell, and the suburb was instead named ‘Winter Valley’ after prominent pioneer and squatter, John Jock Winter. We, as a nation, must accept our flawed mainstream perception of our national identity. It is through inclusive retrospection into the values we hold common as human beings that strong communities are formed. To quote Uncle Bruce Pascoe: ‘Nations are built with pens and brushes, not just hammers and nails.’
This piece was commissioned and edited by Jasmin McGaughey, KYD’s First Nations Editor-in-Residence, in partnership with State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing and Editing project.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers can submit pitches to Jasmin here.