Telling Tennant’s Story: The strange career of the great Australian silence
Greg Spearritt reviews the 2022 book by Dean Ashenden
The nation we now know as Australia began with a war.
That war, and the treatment of the continent’s original inhabitants, euphemised as ‘exploration’ and ‘settlement’, were out of order even under Britain’s own laws. For the Aboriginal people the war and its aftermath were devastating, and in the push outwards from Sydney each new contact with the white-skinned invaders marked one more shocking step forward from that day when “a world began to vanish”, as Ashenden puts it in this deeply affecting book.
I live on the eastern edge of the Darling Downs in Queensland. I’m on Jarowair or Giabal land – no-one is sure where the boundaries are, for the simple reason that ‘dispersal’, ‘pacification’ and the obliteration of culture that began here in the 1840s was so effective. A century later, my parents’ generation from further west on the Downs had little to say about encounters with Aboriginal people, because on that especially fertile and resource-rich slab of Australia there were few such people around.
Even today, after land rights and Mabo, we are struggling to properly recognise the First Australians. In large part, this is because the story of their dispossession has been actively suppressed and passively overlooked for the best part of two hundred years.
Ashenden sets out to tell the story of the Warumungu and other Indigenous groups around Tennant Creek, his childhood home, as they came to terms with invasion by white explorers, settlers and miners. In the process he gives a very helpful overview of the history of contact, oppression and attempted assimilation that marked the experience of First Nations people in Australia generally. Ashenden’s account includes an incisive historical analysis of the developing discipline of anthropology and its political impact in Australia over that time.
When Ashenden was a child he went along to weekly sessions at the Tennant Creek cinema. He recalls seeing the black kids from the local mission trooping in each week just before the movie to sit in their own section of seats. Years later, speaking to his Aboriginal contemporaries from that time, he learned that the reason the Aboriginal adults didn’t come was that they were frightened by the gunfire in the films.
In the frontier wars in Queensland a cautious estimate suggests a total of 66,000 deaths. For context, Australian casualties in the First World War were around 63,000 and significantly fewer in the Second. On Queensland’s frontier, the black:white death ratio was in the order of 44 to 1.
Ashenden notes that Aboriginal culture was no stranger to violence. He conveys, however, how astonishing it was for the Warumungu to apprehend the idea that the white people had come to stay. In Australia, unlike Europe, the British encountered no forts or castles; for tens of thousands of years protocols had been in place to allow one group to travel across another’s country. The taking and possession of another’s land, however, was unthinkable for First Australians.
When the graziers came to stay, with their sheep and cattle, reprisals were swift whenever Aboriginal people killed a beast. At the same time the white people had no compunction in killing emus and kangaroos or allowing their stock to trample and pollute waterholes and sacred sites.
Though much of the violence on the frontier in the Northern Territory was never documented or accounts heavily redacted, eye-witnesses and even official reports do record some of the carnage. The Gulf frontier was an extension of Queensland’s, where “far from government, missionaries, journalists and other nosy parkers”, what was referred to as ‘the Queensland method’ was adopted:
‘the blacks’ were shot down like crows, like kangaroos, or hunted for sport, or to take women. Some of the captured women were sold for five or ten pounds. The grandmother of one of my Tennant Creek contemporaries was a Garrwa woman brought to Banka Banka station, just north of Tennant Creek, by one cattleman as a gift to another. Girls as young as seven were raped by syphilitics. Fleeing groups were hunted over weeks. Raids on campsites involved slaughtering everyone in the camp then burning bodies, dwellings, weapons and canoes. At one point in the Abner Range, now known as Massacre Hill, people were driven over a cliff. One station manager had forty pairs of Aboriginal ears nailed to the walls of his hut. And the children? ‘Gottem stick, knockem in the head or neck. Some kid, piccanin’, that small one, like a goanna, hittem longa tree.’
Ashenden candidly acknowledges the complexities of this era. About two-thirds of the Queensland deaths, he notes, were down to the Queensland Native Police, comprised of Aboriginal troopers overseen by white commanders.
The history Ashenden was taught in the early 1950s, like my own school experience a decade later, was heavily selective and sanitised. It celebrated – as many Australians still do – the achievements of the new nation and gave the original inhabitants a bit-part, if that. It carefully avoided mentioning the war:
I was told about the old telegraph station and its history, but not that it was built right beside Jurnkurakurr, the Warumungu’s most sacred site, and took their best water supply.
He notes that romanticised accounts of pioneer life, like that of Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never were entirely perspectival rather than factual, as is suggested “by her decision to excise a chapter titled ‘A Nigger Hunt’.”
There is a view in 21st-century Australia that even if the original Australians were badly done-by, it is (as Ashenden’s expresses it) “no-one’s fault, really, just the inevitable and irresistible workings of evolution and progress”. It’s just human nature. In any case, it wasn’t us, the modern crop of Aussies, who did the damage, and it’s time Indigenous Australians just got over it. ‘Best we forget’ seems to be a common sentiment.
Apart from the moral inadequacy of this view, given that white Australians in general have profited enormously from stolen land and resources at the continuing expense of First Australians, what we now know about epigenetics tells us there is no simple ‘getting over’ it. Sins committed upon the fathers (and mothers) are visited on subsequent generations even at a biological level. Trauma and an impoverished diet have left a horrible legacy, including rampant diabetes and obesity, in many parts of Australia, not to mention the effects of child removal (still occurring as I was mis-learning history in primary school) and of course alcohol, still cynically made available for profit in many communities.
Even though the policy of assimilation is officially over, the goal in some white minds seems to be that Aboriginal people should become distinguishable from those of us of European descent by nothing other than skin colour, if that. Yet even back in 1958, anthropologist Bill Stanner – one who stood out for his genuine engagement with Indigenous groups – could see that “Not only are the Aborigines not being turned into Europeans, they do not want to be… The Aboriginal and the European ways of being in the world are fundamentally different”.
It’s self-evident that two completely separate worlds cannot be sustained in contemporary Australia. Nonetheless, the crises of our own (European) making in terms of climate and other ecological damage, as well as our soul-destroying market capitalism, surely suggest that some accommodation with – or better still, learning from – the world’s most venerable continuous human culture would be advisable.
It remains to be seen how well Queensland’s newly-announced Truth Telling and Healing Inquiry goes, as a step towards a Path to Treaty. It will have the considerable weight of two centuries’ worth of denial and silence to conquer. As Ashenden puts it:
From a genesis deep in the frontiers’ euphemisms, secrets and cover-ups, the silence embedded itself in social rules and penalties, and in powerful institutions of memory and commemoration, education, the law and scholarship.
And, I would add, it was deeply embedded in the churches. Attempts to raise historical truths about my local area were not at all well received by the respectable Anglicans at my local Toowoomba church in the late 1990s.
Ashenden cautions that we need more than truth-telling: we need comprehension, absorption and action. Telling Tennant’s Story is an excellent step towards facilitating comprehension and absorption. The question of action is one we must all wrestle with, individually and collectively. Supporting a Voice to Parliament seems like the least we could do.
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.