Aboriginal Australians by Richard Broome


Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

The academic history book, Aboriginal Australians, was first written by Richard Broome in 1982 and has been in print ever since with new editions being printed in 1994 and 2002, each time with new chapters added. In 2010, the original thirteen chapters were completely revised and a new chapter added. This latest edition, the fifth, takes the coverage of Aboriginal Australian history up to 2019, thirty-six years of events in all.

Although Richard Broome, now seventy, is identified as the author, a work of this kind could not have been produced by one man, even if he was the teacher of the first tertiary Aboriginal History subject to be offered in Australian history in 1974 at La Trobe University.

In the Prologue, Endings and Beginnings, Broome gives tribute to John Hurst, the creator of the original Aboriginal History University course and to all those historians who toil in the field of Aboriginal history and have contributed to this book, which reveals the conflicts, adaptations and transformations Indigenous people have made over 230 years (viii).

This comprehensive book begins by giving information about the author and about the photograph of an Aboriginal man on the cover.  A contents list follows the title page and publishing details and states the names of the fifteen chapters in the book as well as telling the reader that there will follow, after the historical text, forty pages of notes, five pages of Select Bibliography for readers who may wish to extend their reading on the topic, and a twelve-page double column index.

Through the story of a young Aboriginal lad who committed suicide, the author, in the Prologue, asks the question ‘How did a joy-ride (pushbikes) unleash such a terrible chain of events’ (1)? He puts forward the argument in the following chapters that colonialism created practices that refashioned Aboriginal people into the ‘colonised and repressed’ and other Australians into ‘coloniser oppressors’.

Sarah Maddison, in her book ‘The Colonial Fantasy: Why White Australia can’t solve Black Problems’, argues that, in 2019, Australia is still in the Colonial moment as governments persist in managing Aboriginal people and their so called ‘problems’ through paternalism and mainstreaming (378) suggesting that not much has changed over the years.

Broome then goes on to provide the reader with information about the word Aboriginal, its Latin origins and meaning and when it came into use in Australia.

The text in each chapter is broken up by sub-headings and black and white photographs which have been acknowledged in each caption. The images of the sailing vessels which accompany each chapter title are by an unknown Arnhem Land rock artist and symbolise the new world that Indigenous people have experienced since 1788.

From Reflections on a Great Tradition, through Resisting the invaders, Mixed missionary blessings, Fighting for civil rights and Hoping for equality, we come to the present with the final chapter addressing Seeking a Voice.

Though a non- Aboriginal man himself, Richard Broome, through his own research and that of his students, has managed to build up a clearer picture of how the Aboriginal population perceived the coming of the white man and the changes this wrought in the Aboriginal community.

Writing this book would not have been an easy task because most Australian history to date has been from the white perspective and there have been few records kept from the Aboriginal point of view, while the relentless collection of statistics about Aboriginal people has mostly been without their participation in the process. Hopefully the new La Trobe course ‘On country’, where students test academic learning about Aboriginal history against teaching by elders in Shepparton, will help to address this issue.

Chapter fifteen, which is the latest to be added to this edition of the book, titled Seeking a Voice, focusses its first nineteen pages on the welfare of Aboriginal people and how better educational opportunities have allowed many to be able to fit more easily into the white 21st Century society.  This chapter also highlights the many government policies that have been implemented to varying degrees of success to try to improve Aboriginal welfare. The rest of the chapter highlights how Aboriginal people are now receiving a higher profile through all areas of society and that ‘indigeneity is now performed in most cultural fields’ (370). However, it also shows how this group within our society is still searching for the voice they crave.

This is an academic book and therefore is not for an afternoon’s relaxed reading. It has been well researched and provides a comprehensive coverage of Australian history since 1788, from a different point of view as the title suggests.  Some information in this book relies on census data and that, in itself, may not provide the full picture. From an educational point of view, I believe this book could generate much discussion and be a platform for further research. One must always remember that a history book contains information from the author’s perspective and therefore the reader needs to access other writers’ points of view to see if they support or give an alternative understanding. The author of this history book makes an effort to provide more than one point of view, but does sometimes slip into opinion unnecessarily. 

A quality piece of academic understanding, this book tries to address Australian history by acknowledging the past and correcting history as it has previously been presented in the years since 1788.

Aboriginal Australians
By Richard Broome
ISBN: 978-1-76052-821-8
$39.99; 448pp

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