The day white Australians can look in the mirror and say ‘I am Aboriginal’ is the day their tormented country will start to heal, argues Germaine Greer
There is only one way to escape from an impasse, and that is to turn back to the point where you went wrong, sit down on the ground and have a think about it. I’ve seen too much of the frantic grief that is eating the heart out of Aboriginal communities not to have racked my brain for years trying to imagine a way of healing it, but I’m not here offering yet another solution to the Aborigine problem. Rather I want to suggest an end to the problematisation of Aborigines. Blackfellas are not and never were the problem. They were the solution, if only whitefellas had been able to see it.The country I love has been crazily devastated by whitefellas who knock down its mountains, grind up its trees, divert its watercourses, build high-rises on its flood plains, creating an endless nightmare of suburbia from which our kids try to escape by sticking needles in their arms. It is obvious to anyone that Australia’s “sophisticated recreational lifestyle” comes at a huge cost in terms of non-renewable resources. The senescent bush along the densely populated foreshores will one day explode in firestorms that will wipe out the insurance market and bring the whole shonky economy to its knees.
A good deal of energy has been expended on diagnosing the malaise that leads to high levels of alcoholism, addiction and crimes of violence in Aboriginal society. Whitefella spiritual desolation is seldom admitted, let alone discussed. Problem drinking affected whitefellas long before it made devastating inroads into Aboriginal society, and continues to wreak havoc today. It is one of a galaxy of self-destructive behaviours making a continuum with suicide, drug abuse, reckless driving and self-harming, all of which are rife in the “lucky” country.
What is there for whitefellas to cry about? In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead”. Vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment, and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted”, “warped”, “misshapen”, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without.
It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.
The settlers did not mean to destroy the Aborigines, but they could not deny that the Aborigines were being destroyed. They could agree not to mention the fact but they couldn’t forget it. Their descendants prefer to bicker over just how badly whitefellas treated blackfellas, and just how much or how little the blackfellas deserved it, rather than utter the simple word “sorry”.
Saying sorry would not have fixed anything, but it might have reaped the whirlwind, as Australians came to wonder just what it was that they were saying sorry for.
The settlers toiled like madmen to remove the scrub, bush and trees that stood in the way of cultivation. They no more realised that the newly denuded land would be vulnerable to extremes of heat and cold, drought and flood, than they realised that the rising of the water table would bring the stored salts to the surface, gradually poisoning the land. Nor did they realise that the willows they planted along the waterways would spread through entire river systems, until the flows were clogged, or that their garden flowers would become a curse. The settlers imagined that they were redeeming a land the original inhabitants had failed to manage in any rational fashion, and that they could turn it into a new Canaan.
Ultimately, rural Australia ended up emptier than it was before it was “opened up”. Australia has now become the most highly urbanised population of any country in the world. The whitefellas who tried to make a living in the bush soon fled from it, and wound up as far from the interior as they could get, on the continent’s very edge, where they built themselves houses that faced outwards and away, across the ocean. Happiness is now a house in a seaside suburb with not a single native plant in sight. Most Australians would these days deny that they hate the land, but actions speak louder than words.
There is only one way to purge the taint, uncover the secret and ease the otherwise eternal regret, and that is not to give the country back to the Aborigines, because it isn’t ours to give, but to admit that it has been an Aboriginal country all along.
The way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves, I suggest — guilty inheritors of a land usurped by our deluded, desperate forefathers — is the simple admission that ours is an Aboriginal country. All of it. Every single bit. Try saying it to yourself in the mirror. “I live in an Aboriginal country.” Even the obvious cannot be recognised as true until somebody says it.
As newcomers to an Aboriginal country, our forefathers should have done their best to assimilate. Instead they took over. From first contact, the traffic ran the wrong way, towards the impasse in which we now find ourselves. The ignorant presumed to teach the learned, even though they couldn’t speak any of the many languages that the learned spoke. The ignorant set about “discovering” a country of which the learned all carried immensely detailed maps in their heads. The ignorant didn’t ask the learned which way to go, or how to survive. As a consequence, all of the pioneers suffered and an unknown number of them perished. Unabashed, our forefathers continued their ignorant rampaging. Though they relied heavily on Aborigines in their establishment of the pastoral industry, they never dreamt of consulting them as equals, let alone as their superiors in understanding the country, because they were utterly convinced that the most illiterate, drunken, down-at-heel European was intellectually and in every other way superior to the blackfella. So the settlers and the squatters were repeatedly wiped out by drought and flood.
Can it be possible to make a u-turn after 200 years of careering off in the wrong direction? Can there be any point in admitting at this stage that Australia is an Aboriginal country, when only about 400,000 of the population can claim any Aboriginal descent? Would non-Aboriginal Australians who admit that they are living in an Aboriginal country be doomed to think of themselves as for ever aliens in their own birthplace?
Aboriginality is not a matter of blood or genes; Aborigines themselves have to learn Aboriginality. They have to master knowledge of their own country, and of their relationships with neighbouring peoples, and the languages appropriate to trade, negotiation and celebration. Who may learn what is dictated primarily by willingness, evinced in readiness to undergo ordeal in order to be admitted to the deepest secrets, and has nothing to do with colour. It follows that whitefellas can achieve a measure of Aboriginality, and historically they have done. Full-blood white men have been initiated, instructed in the law, and have played their part in the clans.
The second step in the journey is a second statement to the self in the mirror. “I was born in an Aboriginal country, therefore I must be considered Aboriginal.” This is a tougher proposition, as long as Aboriginality is thought of as racial, but if we think of Aboriginality as a nationality, it suddenly becomes easier. It would not involve the assumption of a phoney ethnicity or the appropriation of the history of any particular Aboriginal people. The owners of specific dreamings would continue to be so still, and would continue to pass them on according to their law as it applies to those concerned.
It will be hard for a whitefella to believe that, after all that has happened, Aboriginal people will allow him to assume Aboriginality. Any such assumption could well be seen by Aboriginal people as the last and most terrible co-option, a final annihilation. There is a risk, principally a risk of misunderstanding, which mischievous parties on all sides will magnify. Assumed Aboriginality would not allow whitefellas to muscle in on mining royalties or hard-won funding for Aboriginal development and education, but there will be those who will say that it would, just as there were those who said that admitting the justice of Aboriginal land claims would result in wholesale expropriation of owner-occupiers in the suburbs. Admitting Aboriginality would not entitle all Australians to have access to sacred sites – not all Aborigines have access to sacred sites.
My bloodlines are fairly typical of my generation of gubbas. My father was born in Tasmania in 1904; his mother was the granddaughter of two free settlers from Lincolnshire and two convicts. His paternal grandparents were from Ulster. My mother’s paternal grandfather was born in the Swiss Ticino and his wife was from Yorkshire; her grandparents on her mother’s side were from Ireland and Schleswig-Holstein.
I suppose I am one of those described by Richard Flanagan, winner of a Rhodes scholarship and a Commonwealth Writers Prize, in an article published in an English newspaper, as “the generation of cultural quislings who fled Australia’s shores for England, where they thought they might meet their muse, and ever after berated an Australia they no longer recognised”. I don’t know who else belongs in this category but, much as I might want to fling the word “quisling” in Flanagan’s teeth, I have to admit that if I hadn’t been studying in England, if I hadn’t been living in the genuinely multicultural society of postgraduate students in Cambridge, I might never have grasped the absurdity of Australians mounting street demonstrations against the South African Springbok tour in 1971. And might never have glimpsed the Australian situation from an international perspective.
It was not until I was half a world away that I could suddenly see that what was operating in Australia was apartheid: the separation and alienation South Africa tried desperately and savagely to impose on their black majority, we had achieved, apparently effortlessly, with our black minority.
From first contact, the leaders of many Aboriginal peoples saw that sharing of the land would be possible only if the whitefellas could be drawn into the Aboriginal system. They pursued a deliberate policy of co-option, hoping to civilise the invaders into abandoning their inappropriate concepts of ownership and exclusivity. The most frequently repeated version of the initial attempt at negotiation tells us that the Aborigines, upon first seeing white men, thought they were their own dead kin “jumped up”, that is, resurrected as white men. What was in fact an attempt to classify the white men so that they could function within the dense Aboriginal social fabric is usually treated as a naive conviction literally understood. The whitefella didn’t hesitate to exploit what he didn’t understand, and helped himself to liberal amounts of loyalty and affection from his black “brother” without considering himself bound in any way by the relationship.
For 200 years, the Aboriginal peoples have been seducing the whitefellas, subtly drawing them into their web of dreams, and though the whitefellas struggle and protest, they are being drawn inexorably closer. We yelp with surprise when a popular talkshow host is revealed to have ‘istory, as blackfellas say, but we should have guessed. The black communities are bound to us by a multitude of blood ties which it is vain for us to deny, but we are blinded by denial and its companion, guilt.
The majority of non-Aboriginal Australians no longer think of themselves as Europeans, British denizens of an outpost of empire. Even when they did, “British” Australians of Irish blood could hardly have forgotten their ancestors’ revulsion at imposed Britishness. To accept Australia’s Aboriginality is not to impose a single culture on all Australians. Aboriginality includes a multitude of cultures and languages, and provides a better template for 21st-century Australia than a phoney multiculturalism that serves only to increase the dominance of a proto-British elite, which insists on wriggling up to the US and replicating the least impressive aspects of British policy.
The common perception from within the country is that white Australians and black Australians are very different, but I for one am struck by the degree of influence exerted by Aboriginal people on the formation of the Australian character and way of life. Australians, despite the official policy of multiculturalism, aren’t genuinely cosmopolitan, but they aren’t British, either. They exhibit neither British manners nor British values. If Australians should doubt this, they have only to travel to England, where they will feel less at home than they would in any other part of the world. Their gestures are too ample, their voices too loud, their approach too direct and their spontaneity embarrassing. Their lack of class-consciousness mystifies the English.
Australians are amused by the number of times English people will say “please”, “thank you” and “excuse me”, unaware perhaps that in such a crowded country it is important to avoid friction. Aborigines are not given to “please” and “thank you”, either, when “gibbit” will do.
Australians cannot be confused with any other Commonwealth peoples; they behave differently from Canadians, South Africans and even New Zealanders. It is my contention, diffidently offered, that the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines whose dogged resistance to an imported and inappropriate culture has affected our culture more deeply than is usually recognised. From the beginning of colonisation, the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native. In many subtle and largely unexplored ways, they did just that. Indeed, they may already partake in more Aboriginality than they know.
Australian egalitarianism is usually perceived to be the result of the harsh circumstances that drove settlers to make the long journey halfway around the world and the fact that the free settler had scant reason to consider himself a cut above the emancipated convict, especially when so little stood between him and a conviction for poddy-dodging, cattle rustling or simply not having the necessary paperwork. The influence of the Aborigines in deflating whitefellas’ pretensions to gentility has nowhere been considered. Australians still place great store on an individual’s ability to do what he is asking others to do, whether in terms of endurance or skill or courage, and that too may be a part of their Aboriginal inheritance. You will not find it in Britain, where rank and class still count for more than any personal talent or skill.
Untold numbers of Australian parents have become aware that their children have turned “feral”, that they have no ambition, covet no man’s goods, and are happy to follow wherever the waves are, living by and for the moment, and occasionally attending secret gatherings deep in national forests where strange things are done and said and strange substances ingested.
The evasiveness of white Australians is another sign of Aboriginal influence. Under the constant pressure from American cultural imperialism, Australians are becoming more loquacious; my father’s generation would have regarded the endlessly babbling characters of Australian TV soaps with instinctive revulsion. In life, as distinct from TV, Australian shyness is real; it is based on a principle of waiting to see whether an individual is worthy, “a good bloke”, “dinkum”, rather than figuring out how much money he’s got and to whom he might be related. Australians don’t, as Americans do, confront total strangers with a barrage of questions, “Where’y’from?” etc.
Similarly, the Aboriginal way is not to confront or interrogate anyone, whether a first acquaintance or an old friend. Blackfellas never put themselves in a position in which they are asking to be lied to; what you want to tell, you tell, and what you are silent about remains unspoken. The reticence intrinsic to Aboriginal relationships is also a governing principle in the Australian concept of mateship. Mates give each other space, allow each other to come and go, and to retain a measure of privacy, especially about their past and about their intimate relationships.
Though self-revelation is unwelcome and uninvited by Australians of all hues, yarning is a social duty. Australians used to take trouble to spin a good yarn; the best are those in which some incident in real life is expertly spun into something almost mythical. A story by Henry Lawson, Stragglers, published in 1896, describes the tradition:
There are tally-lies; and lies about getting tucker by trickery; and long-tramp-with-heavy-swag-and-no-water lies; and lies about getting the best of squatters and bosses-over-the-board; and droving, fighting, racing, gambling and drinking lies. Lies ad libitum; and every true Australian bushman must try his best to tell a bigger out-back lie than the last bush-liar.
I once heard Tid Dignam, father of the actor Arthur Dignam, describe a game of ping-pong in such dramatic detail that it became a mini-Trojan war. It took me some years to register that Tid was part-Aboriginal and that the making of memorable stories was part of Aboriginal culture many aeons before whitefellas started doing it round the boree log.
Observers of white Australian life are struck by the degree of segregation between the sexes, which cannot be explained by the prevailing mores of the countries they came from. Aboriginal society, too, is deeply segregated; men and women are used to spending long periods in the company of their own sex. The more important the occasion and the larger the gathering, the more likely it is that women will gather in one area and men in another, just as white Australian men gather round the beer keg, leaving the women to talk among themselves. One explanation of the Australian mania for sport of all kinds is that sport is the only remaining area of human activity that is still rigorously segregated.
Australian English is studded with Aboriginal words; the unmistakable intonation and accent bear the imprint of Aboriginality. The Anglo-Celt settlers came with Scotch and Irish brogues, and the burrs of provincial England. The Australian accent bears scant resemblance to any of these. When I first heard blackfellas speak, I stupidly thought that they were imitating the way whitefellas speak, which just shows how upside-down gubbas’ assumptions can be. The transfer must have happened the other way about; the broad flat vowels, complex diphthongs and murmuring nasalities of spoken Australian English must have come to us from Aboriginal languages.
In the 2001 census, 410,003 Australians claimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin, a huge increase on the 1991 total of 265,371. The explanation is to be found not in a population explosion among Aboriginal communities but in a change in the perception of Aboriginal identity itself. Moreover, as in those 10 years more and more Australians had been investigating their family history, hitherto unacknowledged Aboriginal forebears had been rediscovered. Many people who came out as “black” in 2001 had never lived as Aborigines and had never had to endure the discrimination and abuse that Aborigines coped with daily, but no Aborigine inveighed against their claim to Aboriginality. There are now more Aboriginal people in Australia than at any time in the continent’s history.
The recognition that Australia was not an empty land when European settlement began has resulted in a good deal of pointless and acrimonious argument about notions of ownership. Aborigines do not consider themselves proprietors of territory, it is argued, therefore they should not be given proprietorial rights. Squatters did claim proprietorial rights, sometimes over tracts of land that were so vast that the idea was meaningless. They were prepared to fight the original inhabitants for the right to exclude them from the land that was their life, but they never became attached to the land they fought for.
Such openers-up of country neither stay long enough nor wait long enough in the country to see how it works before setting about disrupting it, killing or driving off its native inhabitants, building roads, making boundaries. Not for nothing are these users of vast tracts of the Australian hinterland known as squatters. In the topsy-turvy Antipodean way, a word that denotes an abuser of the rights of others has come to signify “old money”, an upper class, the “squattocracy”. The land they took up was actually leased from the Crown; what they bought and sold was not land but leases. Today, the vast majority of Australians are not squatters but “owner-occupiers” who have acquired the freehold of tiny parcels of land, quarter-acre lots for the most part. In Australia, Crown land has been declared freehold by governmental fiat, usually in return for a money payment, but sometimes by a mere “stroke of the pen”.
The Crown is the most absentee of absentee landlords; no protest is ever heard from the Crown Estates Office against the arbitrary creation of freeholds and no action has ever been taken against a leaseholder for abuse of the land. If Aboriginalisation was achieved, the absentee landlord, the British Crown, would be replaced by an in-dwelling entity, the Aboriginal people (ie, all the people) of Australia. If Australia were to be recognised as an Aboriginal nation, Crown leasehold would vanish as a concept in Australian law because the Crown’s claim to the land would be seen as invalid or extinct.
Existing freeholds could be ratified, apart from exceptional cases where a pre-existing right of use or occupancy was recognised. If land were to become a national resource, governments could exercise closer control of its exploitation, and citizens would have a clearer perception that restrictions on land-use, for example, were made in their interest and ought to be observed by everyone.
The leaseholders of the major part of Australian land historically speculated, devastated, and disappeared. The traveller across inland Australia will move from abandoned homestead to abandoned homestead, along lines of collapsed fences, past heaps of machinery rusting into the ground, to abandoned townships that once had churches and law courts, concert halls and racetracks, and are now no more than truck stops.
Sheep replaced wheat in the arid inland, and in turn withdrew. None of the whitefellas who once made a living as stockmen, tank-sinkers, hawkers, shearers, policemen, hoteliers or bullockies, felt sufficient attachment to the country to stay there through drought and flood, or even to return when times got better. If the country couldn’t earn its keep, the white man wanted none of it. And even when he could make a profit, the white man tended to take his money and run. Only the Aborigines stayed.
Of all the transitory devastators of country, miners must be the worst. They arrived like locusts, stripping every vestige of vegetation off the ground, riddling it with holes and tunnels, and pimpling it with mullock heaps. Behind them came those who preyed on them, tax-collectors, publicans, prostitutes. Nowadays mining is not a matter of fossickers and battlers staking individual claims but of corporations investing in massively industrialised open-cut mining. The ore is carted away along temporary railway tracks laid across the desert. The miners live in trailer camps that will move when they do.
Even the most important provincial towns, such as Broken Hill, where billions of dollars’ worth of precious metals have been extracted from the ground, are withering. Their huge hotels are cavernous and empty. The flight from the inland continues; these days not even a new gold rush would get the people back again.
Australians now travel throughout Australia as tourists; in recreational vehicles of all kinds, they penetrate into the remotest areas, driving thousands of kilometres to see funny-shaped rocks, taking photographs of the rocks and themselves with the rocks. They are on safari in their own land, treating their birthplace as if it were an exotic, thrillingly foreign wilderness, travelling from well-appointed campsite or hotel to another campsite or hotel. The people who stay longest in these remote places, and take jobs servicing the itinerant Australian tourist in Australia, are not indigenous, or native Australians, or even residents, but British backpackers.
If we climbed out of the recreational vehicle and sat on the ground, we might begin to get the message that we can’t afford to hear, the message that, since contact, Aborigines have never stopped transmitting. The land is the source of everything; if we rip it up and sell it off, we will perish with it, or else move on in our restless European way to devastate someone else’s country — or planet.
Aboriginality is not simply a cluster of behaviours and characteristics that individuals could claim for themselves; it is more importantly a characteristic of the continent itself. Australia will be truly self-governing and independent only when it has recognised its inherent and ineradicable Aboriginality. It is already too late perhaps for us to learn how to reverse the devastation inflicted by whitefellas in the short space of 200 years, but some attempt at damage limitation must be made. Recognising the custodianship of the land as a sacred trust would not be a bad place to start.
To accept Aboriginality would be to deny the validity of the annexation of the continent for the British monarch. The planting of union flags on tiny bits of it would be seen from the Aboriginal point of view and understood to have been entirely insignificant. In this version of events, colonisation was attempted and failed. The colonial authorities tried to crisscross Australia with roads and railways, tried to populate the country, tried to build up a provincial society, tried to make money out of the country, tried to accumulate the gravitas of a world power, failed repeatedly and finally gave up. The colonists have now retreated to the beach where they originally landed; the inland remains indomitable.
It has never been clear to me whether Australia in its present state can properly be described as post-colonial, because there seems to be nothing post- about it. The influence exerted by foreign corporations as the principal exploiters of Australian resources reinforces the colonial stereotype. Emerging as an Aboriginal Republic, Australia would stand alongside the exploited, instead of falsely identifying with the exploiter. This might involve a loss of prestige, but Australians have never had much truck with prestige. Australia’s voluntary identification with the largest group in the United Nations, namely the emerging post-colonial republics, could provide an opportunity for genuine leadership, rather than the eternal flunkeydom that is our present lot.
If we followed the Aboriginal course, we could follow Aboriginal precedent and simply absent ourselves from activities that we knew to be evil and pointless. Riding on the coat-tails of Britain, itself on the coat-tails of the USA, has brought Australia neither power nor wealth, and has cost us moral authority in our rather tenuous sphere of influence. The respect Australia earned in its handling of Timor it lost in the Gulf.
If Australia were to declare its Aboriginality, all the trappings of fake Britishness could be ditched; the states already have premiers and do not need governors, but if we felt that some such outrigger were needed for the ship of state, we could appoint a council of elders who could comment on legislation from the point of view of Aboriginal law and custom, if they felt like it. Otherwise their function could be, as the gubernatorial function is, largely ceremonial. Already, Aboriginal ceremonial is being built into formal occasions in Australia, though in a rather shy and constrained fashion. If Australia were officially Aboriginal, these ceremonies would be more than lip service. If New Zealanders can reduce huge football stadiums to a breathless hush by performing the haka, we can dance, too …
© Germaine Greer, 2004
This is an edited extract from Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way To Nationhood by Germaine Greer