“First Australians” on SBS — “must watch TV” not a cliche…

11 Oct

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.


9 responses to ““First Australians” on SBS — “must watch TV” not a cliche…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    October 13, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Neil, your point about bitter voices is well taken and is a necessary counterpoint to my instinctive reaction on the same point.

  2. Gianni

    October 14, 2008 at 10:05 am

    and any other reactions other your instinctive reactions? Any positive ones Jim? My reaction, having family who have grown up around ‘first Australians’ is one of relief that finally someone is attempting to listen to these people not simply (older and perhaps less open minded) white historians etc.

  3. Neil

    October 14, 2008 at 10:40 am

    …finally someone is attempting to listen to these people…

    A process that for me, at least, began around 1988, and for many I suspect. There has been a period of action/reaction, but perhaps now we see the fruit of that.

  4. Jim Belshaw

    October 14, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Gianni, I was referring just to one point of Neil’s. But I think that you have seen my broader post since.

    Still,as a broad comment, this one gets a bit complicated.

    Social change including changing attitudes goes in waves.People respond depending where they sit in the wave. This is a matter not just of attitudes, but also of timing.

    I did my Australian pre-history honours thesis in 1966. Neil’s process started in his own words in 1988. Others are just becoming interested.

    I was part of the first ever Australian pre-history honours group. Led by Isabel McBryde, we believed that an understanding of the Aboriginal history had to begin at regional or local level. This was a key McBryde thesis, working against previous attempts to construct universal, Australia wide, sequences. This remains my position.

    In 1966, there was a common view that in NSW at least the Aborigines had lost all knowledge of their past as a consequence of social disruption. To my mind, this was conclusively disproved by, among others, Malcolm Calley’s PhD thesis on the Bandjulung.

    That said, just because people are indigenous does not make them right, nor does it necessarily give them special knowledge. It depends upon the topic they are talking about.

    Indigenous people making generalisations about the Aboriginal past are just as likely to be wrong as non-Aboriginals. They are also equally likely to be caught in stereotypes.

    Speaking personally, and this links to the waves issue, I sometimes find it difficult to manage or respond if I am out of kilter with the latest wave especially where that presents, sometimes distorts,things that I worked through a long time ago by reason of historical accident of my place in the waves. I have to recognise the validity of other position, of the need to accommodate sometimes strongly held views.

    Still speaking personally, I hold strong positions on some issues formed over years that can be out of kilter with current views. For example, my continuing emphasis on the need to understand local, to be able to develop histories of individual Aboriginal groups.

    Something similar happens on the policy side when I suggest that “Aboriginal policy” must fail because it is based on wrong premises.

    As a non-Aboriginal, I cannot share some of the emotional content we saw in some of the commentators on the First Australians, although (and this is why I found Neil’s comments helpful) I must recognise that those comments have their own validity.

    But what I can do is to try as best I can to look at the facts, to try to disentangle arguments, to understand positions.

    Does all this make sense?

  5. Neil

    October 14, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Just to clarify. While 1988 brought many things together for me, and it was also the year I first got to talk with Aboriginal people in any depth, I had obviously thought about the matter before that.

    I suspect many people agree with you, Jim, on the need for Aboriginal policy to be local, in the sense that reflects the diversity of needs, issues, and traditions. On the other hand, there also needs to be a coordinating policy over-all. Sometimes local initiatives can become subject to their own forms of nepotism or corruption too — and we all know this has happened, and sometimes local issues can be very complex in themselves.

    There’s no contradiction however between such realisations and going through the processes we have needed to go through, and had set aside for some years, that are captured for me in this year’s Apology and in attending to programs like the one SBS is now running. It is interesting that all kinds of voices are being allowed on that program, given the constraints such program must have simply on the grounds of time and need for selection. Even so, that first episode set up a very interesting framework, I thought, and on reflection some material that could close gaps both in knowledge and in attitudes.

    For most of us it will be very informative; for people of all kinds of views it means exposure to some things they normally don’t think about. Such, I hope, will be the case. I certainly hope that now, and when the DVDs are released, many people get to see it and think about it. I can certainly see the programs being a good resource in history teaching, especially if some of the stories are followed up.

    I guess my strongest pre-1988 influence was Eleanor Dark’s historical novel The Timeless Land, and that still stands as a pretty fine effort given what was available to her.

    Referring to your early study, Jim, there were of course some engaged in such study at the University of Sydney when I was an undergraduate from 1960 to 1964. I didn’t know many of them; they were all a bit non-mainstream. Australian History at that time was dominated by someone so specialised that it apparently took almost the entire year of Aus H 1 for the First Fleet to set off from England! Not that they were examining pre-history here; they were going into minute and no doubt interesting detail about the First Fleet itself. Aboriginal matters were the concern of Anthropology and Archaeology.

    The one student I did know to follow that line was Stuart Hamilton-Hume, and Oz history buffs will have no trouble recognising why he may have been interested.

  6. Jim Belshaw

    October 15, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Thank you, Neil. I thought that this was a great comment that i shall refer to again.

  7. Neil

    October 15, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks, Jim. I guess you saw Tuesday night’s episode on Tasmania, a moving story however you look at it, and I learned some new things from it. I am looking forward to Episode 3 on Sunday because there will be even more new information, it seems.

  8. Graeme Harrison

    October 22, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Can someone help me please.

    I have missed 3 of the first 4 episodes. When I try to watch them on the podcast they show up as a little picture the size of a cigarette packet and I cant expand it to full screen.

    I travel the country a lot and I like to understand as much as I can about the early history and treatment of the aborigines. I have seen episode 2 and it was gripping. I need to see the rest.

    If it helps reply to me off line at
    Graeme Harrison

  9. Neil

    October 22, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Maybe someone has recorded them; otherwise I am sure SBS will be selling the DVDs in the near future.

%d bloggers like this: