|Myall Creek Memorial|
I started to tear up from about 20 kilometres out. I started looking at the landscape as it may have been in 1838; tried to imagine how it might have looked then. I tried to imagine Aboriginal people wandering the land as it was and was just overcome with the realisation that it was THEIR land. In a way I had never really grasped before. And it has been taken from them. So I was already filled with a deep sadness before I arrived at the Myall Creek memorial.
Happily (for me) there was no one else there. Just a dusty carpark with a sign pointing down a winding track. I reached the monument and just let it all wash over me …..
Off and on over the years I had heard tales of Aboriginal massacres. Like many Australians I imagine I just somehow pushed the information aside with thoughts like ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘it wouldn’t have been that many people’ or ‘it was just the same as what happened in many places where the New World met ancient cultures’. An inevitable consequence of progress or something. It didn’t really have much impact on me.
But I have now read Henry Reynolds’ work. (The Other Side of the Frontier, This Whispering in Our Hearts). Reynolds lays bare a tale that has been ignored for more than 200 years. And the most recent research reveals that at least 6,000 and up to possibly 70,000 Aboriginal people were killed during the first decades of white settlement. We will never arrive at a finalaccurate figure; suffice to say it was in the thousands.
What sets Myall Creek apart is not the fact that a group of Aboriginal people were killed there in cold blood. That, it turns out, routinely happened all over the land – but in this case witnesses came forward and at least some of the perpetrators were tried, convicted, and hanged. So while the simple monument at Myall Creek was created to honour the memory of the 28 people who were killed there, in the shameful absence of memorials for the other tens of thousands who suffered a similar fate, it also stands as a de facto monument for all of them, and is a stark reminder of the fact that white Australia has yet to fully reconcile its past.
The fact that white Australia has yet to confront and accept this part of our past is sickly ironic in the light of our obsession with the “Lest We Forget’ mantra for soldiers who fell in wars.
As far back as I can remember I heard about ‘the Aboriginal problem.’ As I grew older and lived longer I came to understand the complexity and depth of this ‘problem.’ I don’t know the answer but I still see evidence of an ongoing, persistent trauma that has reverberated down through the generations. As Stan Grant says in his recent documentary, TheAustralian Dream, it’s hard not to inherit the DNA of trauma, and as long as that trauma persists there will be cultural breakdown.
And I have a longing to quieten the whispering in our hearts that Henry Reynolds speaks of. To once and for all reconcile our past with our present, and publicly acknowledge what we did to indigenous Australians. Perhaps this kind of meaningful reconciliation just might act as a circuit breaker and lead to Aboriginal Australians once again feeling like they belong in their own land. Feel as if they are respected. Valued.
Right now I suspect many of them don’t feel any of these things.
Australians need to talk about this stuff. We need to know the truth of our past. I taught Australian history in schools in the 80s and found no reference to the events that Reynolds writes about. These materials – letters, newspaper articles, public notices, church correspondence, reports to the British government, all documenting decades of atrocities, have lain hidden and ignored for two centuries.
Gradually I experienced the central truth of Aboriginal religion: that it is not a thing by itself but an inseparable part of a whole that encompasses every aspect of daily life, every individual, and every time – past, present, and future. It is nothing less than the theme of existence, and as such constitutes one of the most sophisticated and unique religious and philosophical systems known to man. (Richard Gould, American archaeologist, quoted in Deep Time Dreaming.)