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Aboriginal Australian history

Richard BroomeRichard Broome
Email: r.broome@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I would be your host, Matt Smith. And with me here today is Richard Broome, professor of history at La Trobe University, respected academic and author in the area of indigenous Australians and their history. Thank you for joining me, Professor Broome.

Professor Richard Broome:

My pleasure, Matthew.

Matt Smith:

You released a book this year, which was the fourth edition of your work, Aboriginal Australians. And it has been described as one of the key general texts about the Australian people. Currently in this fourth edition, what motivated you to write this book?

Professor Richard Broome:

It first came out in 1982, and what motivated me was that I started teaching at La Trobe in 1977 and I took over a subject from John Hurst in the history program. And this was the history of Aboriginal Australians. It was probably the first history subject in Australia on Aboriginal people.

So I took it over from John and I started to teach it and I got very interested in the area. And I started to do some research. And then I was asked by Allen & Unwin, "Would I write this general text on Aboriginal people?" And I thought, "Well, I have a lot of things I want to say now as I was working through the history and working along with the students in discovering and finding things."

I just thought it was something really wonderful to do and my idea was that we should reach out from the academia into the general population with the writing of history. We shouldn't write for just our peers. We need to communicate to the wider community, and this book was promising to do so. And that's why I agreed to do it.

Matt Smith:

Before that, was there a textbook at all that you used to teach the subject from?

Professor Richard Broome:

No, there was just a series of papers, many of them by anthropologists rather than by historians, so Aboriginal history as a discipline had just come into being in 1975-76.

Matt Smith:

You wrote this record from the Aboriginal perspective. How did you approach this? Why did you make the decision to do this?

Professor Richard Broome:

Well, I tried as much as possible to do it from an Aboriginal perspective. I am a white historian, a gubbo, as local crews would call me. But what I wanted to do was to try and put them into history and not just write about what whites might have done to them or thought about them.

So I did try and look at what they were doing. And that's not easy because all the texts we have were created by white people in the first generation of contact. After that, the first Aboriginal people write letters to government in protest. They set down their ideas.

But before that, in the early frontier period, you had to work from white sources. Sometimes, you actually get missionaries and Aboriginal protectors giving conversations that they had with Aboriginal people. So you actually have some of their voices embedded in white texts. And you can often from the descriptions about them, see what they're doing. So from people's actions, you can start to think about the meanings they have. And often, it's just reading against the grain and remembering these are white-created texts with very strong ideas about Aboriginal people within them. And I got to try and sort out this sort of ideological overlay from what the real observations are. You've just got to make the effort and I don't know whether I fully succeeded but that is one of my aims.

Matt Smith:

What is something that you learned by doing it this way that might not have come out of the text otherwise?

Professor Richard Broome:

Well, I think other historians are resting on the work of other historians as well. It's just not mine, anyway. In a way, it's a synthesis of what was being done by young students in PhD's and things that hadn't got published.

But I think we learned a lot more about the strong physical resistance to the European presence. But also, I think, a more enduring cultural resistance to what was attempted to be imposed upon them, that Aboriginal people held to their culture tenaciously, and they did accept things from the outside.

They accepted particularly material items like glass and metal and things that are very useful and better than what they had. But they didn't think that the ideas that were being imposed on them, Christianity or even ideas about settling down and farming, were in fact superior to their own thinking.

Matt Smith:

Your more recent edition was a complete rewrite of your book. What made you take this step and has your understanding changed over the years?

Professor Richard Broome:

Well, I took it with some trepidation. The publisher wanted a fourth edition and the previous two new editions, I had added a new chapter but I hadn't touched the original part of the book. And I thought, "Well, it has been over 25 years and probably close to 30 by the time I actually wrote the manuscript."

And even though I didn't disagree with a lot of what I have said, I just thought, "Well, a lot has been written. I have learned a lot more." So I wanted to do that. So that's why I did sit down and I rewrote every word. I think I kept a few paragraphs here and there.

And I suppose it was a reflection of what I have learned over 25 years of teaching. Probably, a little bit more conceptual in the way I approached and not using the concept of race relations anymore but rather settler colonialism, because settler colonialism imposed a sort of thinking on the colonial situations, structures of power, imposition of language and lore and education systems on indigenous people, Aboriginal people.

But also a strong overlay of ideology, with very strong views of who Aboriginal peoples were and what were their abilities or lack of abilities. So I wanted to sort of let that infuse the book. And suppose, also, I just became much more knowledgeable and sophisticated about having done a lot of Aboriginal history. I wrote the book as a very young scholar and I was learning on the run. And now I had more chance to sit down and reflect.

And probably, I'm much more aware of regional difference. And certainly I think Western Australia had quite a bit of go than what it had in the first edition just because more work had been done that I know.

When you write a book across two centuries of a whole continent, you do have to rely on the work of others to a degree. Much more work was being done and I wanted to reflect that in the book.

Matt Smith:

To go some of the content that has been covered now, why is there so much controversy surrounding recent history of Aboriginal Australians, specifically the Stolen Generation?

Professor Richard Broome:

Yes, well, I think one thing about the position of Australia is that it has been an uneasy position, in that there has never been a treaty offered to Aboriginal people. And therefore, the legalities of the situation, even though there has been native title decisions and that has been sorted out to a degree, there's still uncertainties in a way about sovereignty. The position has never been complete and therefore, some Australians have been uneasy about the situation.

And particularly with the Stolen Generation, I think it was Paul Keating in his famous Redfern speech in 1993 which said, "These things happen and they happen because of the failure of imagining these things being done to ourselves."

And I think now, a lot of Australians are imagining what it would have been like to have lost their children to a state instrumentality, and therefore, starting to empathize with Aboriginal people who experienced this. And we know much more about the impact of trauma on people. And so I think that a lot of Australians are now are empathizing more strongly with Aboriginal people on this issue. There's certainly possibly 20-25% who don't and still are very resistant to that. In these issues, some of them are still very raw. Some of them are still unresolved and so that's why they keep on coming back.

Matt Smith:

How significant is the apology to the Aboriginal people issued by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? Have you seen it make a difference?

Professor Richard Broome:

Yes, I think it was very significant as a symbolic moment. It had been something that the Aboriginal people had been calling for a long time. You probably recall the constant refusal of Prime Minister Howard at the time not to say sorry. And it had started right about 1990 with the beginnings of the reconciliation movement. And so it was something that they really, really wanted. I think now, some among them really feel that it is incomplete because the whole issue of compensation wasn't addressed although other issues were, like giving people counselling, better access to records to find their families, stories and things.

It has made a difference, I think, to all Australians, not just to Aboriginal Australians. A lot of know Aboriginal Australians were very pleased that it happened and still probably think so. If you look at polls, probably 25% think it shouldn't have happened. And so it was not a complete victory by any means.

Talking to Aboriginal people over the last couple of years, they were really pleased. It did make a marked impact on them. So I think it was something that will be a landmark in the emerging relations.

Matt Smith:

The history of interaction between Aboriginal Australians and European settlers has hardly been a happy one and problems continue to this day. Do you believe that one day, you'll be able to rite a happy ending to your book, maybe in the fifth edition?

Professor Richard Broome:

Well, I hope I can and I might have to live a bit longer than that to be achieved to be able to write a happy ending. I think what I have written in this book is a mixed ending, but probably a little more positive maybe than the previous editions.

Look, as a historian you tend to take a long view, and if you look back until the 1960s, the Aboriginal people did not have the full rights that the average Australian. There were still many of them under Aboriginal acts which impinged on their rights and their freedom of movement, et cetera

And they didn't have access to social welfare. And so there were a lot of things that were unequal at that time. That has been washed away in an official way. And I think, the attitudes of Australians have changed markedly in that period as well. They still have a way to go.

But the disappointing things, of course, are that Aboriginal health, still Aboriginal education, also the problems emerging on many Aboriginal communities up north where there's not enough employment, there's not enough housing.

So these material things are still great problems. But I have hopes that Australia is moving in the right way in terms of inter-relations between these different Australians. There's a lot of inter-marriage these days and so it's being solved on the ground to a great degree in terms of how people get on. It's really the material problems that need to be solved now.

Matt Smith:

As you say, we have come a long a way, but I suppose another way to look at it is that it's shame we had so far to come. One place I had found a reference to you online is that I found your name in a reference section to the list of massacres of indigenous Australians on Wikipedia. I was kind of a bit dismayed that there was such a list, but having said that, it kind of shows how far we have come in that time. Do you think that this is surprising that it took as so long to come this far, though?

Professor Richard Broome:

I stated in the book, I sort of stressed settler colonialism. And I think that was a powerful structure that was imposed on the Aboriginal people in Australia, a series of legislative acts that for 100 years controlled them, stopped their freedom of movement, their ability to be employed where they wished, to live where they wished, and of course, finally acts to remove their children.

That was an incredible burden, and with it came this set of attitudes or an ideology, if you like, that these people were inferior or not the same as other people. And that took a long time to wash through.

I mean even politicians of today, people I their middle to elderly years, they were socialized in the 1920s and 1930s when these attitudes were still extremely virulent. And so it takes a long time for these to wash through the culture. There's this cultural lag of maybe a generation between what society is doing now and the way people were socialized and what they were told to think in their younger years. And that's hard to shake off. Some people can shake it off. Other people can't shake it off very easily.

Matt Smith:

I've a quote here you'd like to hear which might be relevant in the Myall Creek trials. One of the jurors said, "I looked on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder, but I wouldn't want to see a white man hanged for killing a black."

Professor Richard Broome:

That was the 1830s, but I think those attitudes still existed in the Northern Territories, in the Kimberleys, in the 1930s amongst many people. So we have a very long frontier period as the frontier moves across Australia. And really they weren't fully eradicated probably in the First World War world. And I'm sure you would find some people today still holding those attitudes.

Matt Smith:

What do you think is one story about Aboriginal Australians that everyone needs to know?

Professor Richard Broome:

I guess for me, the stories where people did get on in the past. And I think there was an Aboriginal elder in Melbourne called Billy Bellary who lived in the 1820s-40s. And when the Europeans came, he was one of the elders who signed the only treaty we have ever offered to Aboriginal Australians, and tat was an unofficial treaty offered by John Batman, which was quickly dismissed by the government.

But Billy Bellary did sign that and he as a key man in Melbourne at the time. And he became very friendly with William Thomas, the first Aboriginal protector in the Melbourne region. And they had a very close relationship. They would spend a lot of time together. They'd sit around the campfire talking.

And they really developed an understanding that went beyond all the labels and all the ideologies of the period. They developed a strong relationship. Unfortunately, Billy Bellary died in 1846 from influenza but he was a very important man and he had a vision. His vision was that some land would be given back or should be given back to Aboriginal people and they would settle down and farm it.

He saw the realities were, that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of his traditional life has been swept away by the pastoral occupation of Australia with all those sheep, 20 million sheep, in the southwest by to 1850. He saw they couldn't go backwards, so he had this what I call a radical hope that he could forge an Aboriginal way in the new world so that they would have some land. They would be farmers but they would remain Aboriginal.

And he dies in 1846 but William Thomas helped his son and his nephews to get land finally through the government and they got land up at Corranderk near Healesville and forged a settlement, which hey make as a farming success, until it's finally taken away from them 50 years later in the late 19th century.

Matt Smith:

Pioneering those ideas back then?

Professor Richard Broome:

Yes, so there were people who could see through all the stereotypes and the labels, even back in colonial times, and could build trusting human relationships. And I think we can see more and more of those as we go through the history and there are of course, today, there are many, many thousands of such relationships across Australia.

Matt Smith:

Professor Richard Broome, thank you for your time.

Professor Richard Broome:

My pleasure. Thank you, Matt.