Starting on Sunday SBS television begins a seven part series called First Australians. I have taken up related issues from time to time, notably here.
I have just viewed the free DVD from today’s Sydney Morning Herald which gives a very good idea of what to expect. I am very impressed, even if there will be some issues where, objectively speaking, I may not accept all I see, but that in no ways diminishes the significance of this very ambitious project. On the one hand there will be furphies such as that the disastrous smallpox outbreak early in Sydney’s story was “germ warfare”, though that is roundly condemned in the program by historian Inga Clendinnen. On the other hand, there will be a fascinating interview with a descendant of the Suttor family of “Brucedale” — a property I have seen — who were pioneers of the Bathurst district soon after the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains.
I was (and am) annoyed by the “Black Armband”/”White Blindfold” dichotomy that has bedevilled Australian historiography since the 1980s. Neither is true. One thing, it seems to me, is beyond dispute. There is no way that here and now in 2008 we can approach the subject as if it were 1958, 1938, 1898, 1858, or indeed 1788. Whatever one thinks of “postcolonialism” –and much of the theory I find both tendentious and opaque — the fact is we are postcolonial; we simply cannot exclude the voices of the colonised, nor should we, from our historical considerations. We cannot regard official written records as the only valid historical witnesses. Certainly, we need archaeology, and we need to regard many issues without, so far as is possible, ideological preconsiderations. We need to realise that the story is neither merely one of genocidal malice nor one of enlightened beneficence. One can find examples of both in the history, and everything in between. To pursue either extreme as the sole picture is to fall into the trap of apologetics or propaganda.
In sum, I think this important project is one that all Australians should watch. It will become in future an extremely valuable educational resource. It is an encouraging sign of our maturity that such a project has even happened. This is not to say it should all be accepted passively. That, I suspect, is far from the documentary team’s intention. We will be informed by the project, no doubt about it, and all the better as Australians for the experience. I believe too that in having this debate at all we project an excellent image to the world of what a free and open society is truly like — a society where truth matters and nothing is beyond criticism.
I was not disappointed. I think it is good, on reflection, that a number of rather bitter voices were included, as they cannot then complain of being excluded — and they do need to be attended to. History is about viewpoint and emotion, not just about :facts: as 1) the selection of which :facts: are salient is a matter very often of viewpoint, and 2) the reality of times past, as time present, is more than :facts: can ever capture. This is not to condone downright lying, of course, or to accept :facts: which are no such thing. Inga Clendinnen was a humane and binding voice through the whole episode. The material on Brucedale was just fascinating, and deserves to be widely known.
It is living up to its promise. It continues on Tuesday.