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Thursday, 27 August 2009

Review: Demons At Dusk, Peter Stewart (2007)
JOHN Howard has called for fundamental change in how children are taught Australian history, and claimed victory in the culture wars, including the end of the "divisive, phoney debate about national identity".

In an Australia Day eve address to the National Press Club, Mr Howard exhorted a "coalition of the willing" to promote changes to the teaching of history, which he said was neglected in schools and too often questioned or repudiated the nation's achievements.

Approaching his 10th anniversary as Prime Minister, Mr Howard also hailed research showing that fewer Australians were ashamed of the nation's past. "I welcome this corrective in our national sense of self."

Mr Howard came to office mounting an assault on "political correctness" of the Keating era, sceptical of what he saw as excesses of multiculturalism, and critical of the "black armband" view of relations with Aborigines.

- Michelle Grattan, ‘Howard claims victory in national culture wars’, The Age, 26 January 2006.

Howard attempts to sweep the black armband under the carpet but it turns out the underlay contains asbestos. Or, it turns out that the public record is intact. The fibres get in and, once in, can’t be removed. Just like the story preserved by The Age’s editors; so many stories are removed, some sooner than others. This one, luckily, survived.

Or maybe they were waiting for someone like Stewart to come along and inject a modicum of balance into the equation following Howard’s triumphant decree, which turns out to be – for me, now – something of a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment. I didn’t ask Stewart any of this when I met him in June, at the commemorative ceremony of the Myall Creek Massacre. But I did ask him about his historical accuracy.

Stewart’s historical novel draws heavily on the record. A lot is fabricated and some ‘colour’ added to maintain the sense of fiction. In his author’s note, Stewart admits, for example, that the romance between the convict Anderson and the Aboriginal woman Ipeta was not based on the record. They did have a sexual relationship, he says.

Whether he loved her in the way I have portrayed in this book is anyone’s guess, but Roger Milliss does speculate in Waterloo Creek that he may have loved her, and that is good enough for me, because what Anderson did was absolutely revolutionary.

What Anderson did was to testify against the stockmen who murdered 28 black women, children and old men. Naturally, he was concerned for his safety, especially since one of the squatters who contributed to a relief fund for the defence of the perpetrators, Henry Dangar, was in favour of killing blacks. Summing up in the epilogue, Stewart loses track of Anderson after he gains his freedom in September 1846. Dangar, of course, has numerous streets, an island and even a school’s student ‘house’ named after him.

Stewart also includes an end note about the ‘historical significance’ of the massacre, the trial, and the subsequent executions. We are not to miss a thing. Stewart covers all bases, so it is difficult not to miss anything. Coming from a position of utter ignorance, however, that is probably a good thing.

The book is overtly didactic and sometimes poorly crafted. At other times Stewart is ingenious in the way he introduces elements of the story, such as the lowly situation of the convict in the 19th century, and the unwillingness of convicts to testify against each other, for fear of reprisals. These inclusions serve a purpose, as we have seen.

The government and capital do not get off lightly; the ‘war’ between blacks and whites that was being conducted at the boundaries of settlement was based on the idea that the Aborigines ‘owned’ nothing. Governor Gipps, a Whig appointee, did not personally subscribe to this idea. Gipps was in a difficult position. He came in immediately after an interim governor had mounted punitive action against Aborigines in the same area, under Major James Nunn. However, an inquiry conducted in 1839 was, Stewart tells us, “a whitewash”, and exonerated Nunn of any wrongdoing. Gipps himself returned to England in 1846, the last year of conservative government before the Whigs were voted in again. He died in 1847.

Gipps emerges as some sort of a hero, although his enlightened attitudes toward Aborigines seem to have failed somewhat when it came to dealing with convicts. These were tough times, but there were enough voices that arose in contrast to the squatters’ to make it easy to condemn Dangar and his ilk in the face of overwhelming evidence that the massacre was not only unnecessary, but extremely foul in its intent

In the Grattan article it is also reported that Howard called for more history teaching in schools. Perhaps this book should be recommended as a set text?
And if you’re looking for the Grattan article, just type ‘culture wars’ into Google. There are so many times when I wish it was this easy to find a news article. Unfortunately, many just seem to drop out of the public record. We live in slippery times.

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