HENRY REYNOLDS This Whispering in Our Hearts Revisited. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan
In this book Henry Reynolds shows that today’s white activists for justice for Indigenous people are inheritors of a long tradition.
Reynolds’s first book about Aboriginal and white relations, The Other Side of the Frontier, was published in 1981. For many people it was one of those light-bulb books that fundamentally changed their thinking
The silence in the schools and a national failure of imagination meant that many of us had never considered the events of 1788 from the Aboriginal point of view. After the publication of The Other Side of the Frontier it was no longer possible to ignore. Reynolds showed how the arrival of the First Fleet was perceived by the watchers on the shore, and how they fitted it in to their cultural world view. He described how Indigenous attitudes changed with time and circumstance, and how their responses were resourceful, varied and, above all, not passive.
His subsequent books explored other aspects of the Aboriginal experience of white invasion and settlement, and the violence that accompanied it. As every Australian knows, that violence is a touchy subject, and it’s illuminating to read how it was perceived at the time. First published in 1998, This Whispering in Our Hearts charts the story of those white humanitarians who stood up against what they witnessed. Using reports, letters, sermons and speeches, Reynolds charts the despair and anger of those whose work or inclination brought them into close contact with Indigenous people. Faced with ostracism, hostility and vilification from their fellow colonists, only the most obsessive kept going. It’s a story of great struggle and unintended consequences, small gains and large sacrifices. Along the way there are useful insights into how history acts on the present. This new edition brings us up to date with the sorry tale of the past two decades.
Whatever the debate now about using the word ‘invasion’, there is no doubt that the early colonists saw their arrival as just that:
‘We have invaded the territory of the New Hollanders,’ declared the editor of The Colonist, ‘and have taken forcible possession of their rightful property.’
As early as 1803 the political philosopher Jeremy Bentham criticised the fact that even though the colony had been acquired by conquest, no treaty had been signed with the Aboriginal people. He believed this would be an enduring, incurable problem. How right he was.
There were lively debates about the morality of causing so much suffering and dispossession. An anonymous gentleman writing in 1826 is unequivocal:
… we have usurped the rights of others in possessing ourselves of their land without even the offer of an equivalent. And we have thus done, also, at the heaviest possible cost to the rightful proprietors, viz. their certain ruin… Deeply then are we in arrears to these injured Beings at whose expense we live and prosper.
Over time the colony became habituated to violence, the dominant tone of the majority settling into the sullen defensiveness so familiar to us today. In the 1840s a visitor noticed that the colonists’ right to Australia ‘was a sore subject with many of the British settlers and they strive to satisfy their consciences in various ways’.
Many defenders of the Aboriginal people were Christians acting on their belief that all men are equal in the eyes of God. As their missionary activity brought them in to close contact with Indigenous groups, friendships were formed and languages learnt. Even though their evangelical project was designed to undermine the local culture, they couldn’t help but see the anguish that the loss of their land caused their potential converts. They complained frequently about the violence and sexual exploitation they witnessed.
But these voices made no difference to the relentless pace of land appropriation. None of the pleas for recognition or compensation were heeded. When their predictions came true, the humanitarians were despised and feared. For example, in 1860s Queensland a young squatter, Charles Dutton, wrote to the government warning that attacks on peaceful Aboriginal camps would lead to reprisals. When the members of a neighbouring station were killed, there were calls throughout the colony for massive revenge expeditions. Dutton wrote to the press complaining of a total subversion of the rule of law. His fellow squatters despised him, calling him a danger to the community because he allowed the local Aborigines to live on his property.
Reynolds navigates in clear, accessible prose what the humanitarians were up against – ill will on the ground combined with indifference at government level in the absence of any overarching legislative instrument of support.
In general, more was achieved through bypassing the colonial government and appealing directly to London. The convict David Carley got his ticket of leave from the West Australian prison system in 1865. He moved to the north-west of the colony where he was shocked by the atrocities against the local Aboriginal people, who were being kidnapped and ‘assigned’ to settlers as slaves. He witnessed boys being torn from their mothers and sent away on ships to work without pay as pearl divers. Showing a surprising faith in the English legal system, he spent years protesting to the local authorities and to Perth. When this proved fruitless he turned to Britain, first to the Aborigines Protection Society, then the Colonial Office and then the Secretary of State. In a fusillade of angry correspondence he declared:
… that one of Englands Coloinis [sic] is Steeped to its Neck in Rapine and Slavery and Murder and as I have defended these murdered slaves to the best of my ability for 13 years and to my Complete ruin so I will defend them to the Last as I have long since given up all hope of aid from any quarter. Forty-eight years ago I lived in New Orleans and I have seen American Slavery which is White as Snow when compared with the Murders and Cruelty done in this Country Under the British Flag.
Questions were asked in the House of Commons, answers were demanded from the Governor of Western Australia. The Governor responded by denouncing Carley as ‘a very disreputable person’. But as a result of the representations of Carley and others, Aboriginal affairs remained in imperial hands when Western Australia was granted responsible government, a humiliation keenly felt by the colonists.
The chapter on the crusade of the Queenslander newspaper in 1880 to force a royal commission into the treatment of Aborigines is another fascinating story of how activism can bear results, although not the ones aimed for. Reynolds notes that by this time the parameters of the debate had changed from those of 50 years earlier:
There was almost no assertion of racial equality based on the Biblical notion of shared descent and common blood. Practically all discussants in 1880 took it for granted that the Aboriginal people were members of an inferior race … and would eventually die out.
Nevertheless, the Queenslander campaigned against the level of violence against innocent people, particularly the unchecked and widely supported practice of ‘dispersals’ (the local euphemism for massacre).
In spite of meticulously documenting the evidence of massacres, the Queenslander’s campaign failed. But the articles were published in a pamphlet called How We Civilise, which had a life far beyond the colony, being read by the Aborigines Protection Society in London and Sir Arthur Gordon, the Governor of New Zealand. When Queensland unilaterally annexed the territory of Papua in 1883, both Gordon and the Society campaigned against it, citing How We Civilise as evidence that Queensland was not fit to manage its own colony. The campaign was successful, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies disallowed the initiative.
In the 20th century the story becomes more complex, and less about individual acts of bravery. The genteel activism of aristocrats like Jessie Street was overtaken in the 1950s by the union movement, the Communist Party and Indigenous activists themselves. The Indigenous-led struggle being outside the scope of this book, the focus moves to the support provided by left-wing organisations. In the Pilbara walk-off in 1946, the refusal of the Seamen’s Union to pick up the wool clip was crucial. Twenty years later the Communist Party raised significant funds in support of the Gurindji workers when they walked off Vestey’s Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory.
Reynolds notes that the early campaigners would have been amazed at the size of the popular movement in the 1990s – the one million signatures in the sorry books, the reconciliation marches in 2000, attended by up to 400 000 people in Sydney.
At the same time, the history wars of recent years bear a chilling resemblance to the historical disputes – an outraged denial of culpability followed by attacks on the bearers of the bad news. Accusations of undermining national pride are also resonant of the past claims of treasonous ‘attacks on the white race’. As ever, activists can’t win: too polite and their words are ignored, too strident and they antagonise their audience. Invoking guilt is as likely to entrench bad behaviour as it is to change it.
In this book Reynolds shows how respect shown to the original landowners has waxed and waned over the last 200 years. Nothing is fixed in stone. That we are at something of a nadir at this historical moment is clear from Reynolds’s coverage of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The result of years of research and debate, drafted over four days last year by 250 Indigenous leaders, it proposed innovative constitutional reforms:
Five months after the delegates returned to their homelands, the ‘Uluru Statement’ was rejected by means of a brief press release from the Prime Minister. It was a stunning blow to all those who had participated in the long process of drafting and negotiation. The manner of the rejection was in itself offensive, marked as it was by profound disrespect and insouciant arrogance.
This Whispering in Our Hearts shows that today’s white activists for justice for Indigenous people are inheritors of a long tradition. White people of courage and humanity existed in the colony from the very first days, in the midst of shocking and widespread violence. The different paths that they followed in pursuit of their aims are illuminating. The hostility and isolation they experienced is depressing. Not many of them achieved what they hoped for, but they battled on anyway; heeding the whispering in their hearts was clearly its own reward.
Henry Reynolds This Whispering in Our Hearts Revisited NewSouth PB 2018 $32.99
Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.