Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A recent call for indigenous Australians to promote a monstrous plan to soak the Union Jack in the blood of the oppressed is a clear sign of out-of-control frustration. As the twenty-first century rolls by, one realizes that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are becoming increasingly vocal. However, without a book like Henry Reynolds’s Truth-Telling, an ordinary, untutored white man could not expect to understand the depth of anger that characterizes so many indigenes. The call by radicals for some plain truth telling becomes easier to understand.
The sub-heading to Truth-Telling reads as History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement.
From a purely legal point of view, Reynolds’s case appears irrefutable. Cook, in taking possession of the whole of the east coast of Australia, made a huge blunder. Reynolds asks how a nation such as Britain could discover a land known to be peopled? Then, did Cook’s claim of possession dispossess the resident people? Furthermore, the injunction given to Cook was to take possession only with the consent of the resident natives or take possession in the king’s name only if the land was known to be uninhabited. Moreover, according to the laws of the day, a nation could achieve possession only if possession actually took place.
Reynolds continues the case for truth telling. Following Cook’s blunder, why was Arthur Phillip not instructed to seek permission of the natives to locate a settlement on the mainland? Having put down the roots of the new settlement, Phillip wrote to explain that the native population was much more numerous than he had been led to expect. Yet there was no official instruction to negotiate with the natives. Britain’s claiming sovereignty of land as far south as Tasmania was unsupported by international law.
Reynolds shows that Britain’s claim of sovereignty was based on key ideas: the great landmass was virtually uninhabited, that the people who lived near the coast had no permanent ties to territory and were too primitive to have any idea of political organization. These ideas were shown to be wrong.
What is becoming clear is that Truth-Telling is to be based on legal technicalities, on issues of law that are significant. Reynolds’s arguments are never trivial. To this point in the book his statements have addressed only early white settlement.
White settlers were unable to understand the distinctive difference between Aboriginal and the Squatters use of what European eyes saw to be vast areas. The traditional creation of many small reserves was not understood. In 1856 the new Colonial Parliaments opened their doors at a time when half the continent was in possession of the Aborigines, yet squatters were able to force the aborigines off their lands without any action from the government.
Colonial knowledge and interest in the Aboriginal peoples were ever-present subjects in the immense volume of correspondence that crossed the oceans but had little significant effect upon conditions on the ground. Governor Gipps explained, in May 1839, that the Aboriginal peoples had equal rights before the law. Reynolds claims that these fine words paid little regard to the reality of colonial society. Aborigines and colonial settlers were engaged in colonial wars, conflicts that receive little air time today. Fighting seemed to be the only way disputes about land could be settled. Effective control by white governments was virtually non-existent.
The British decision to abandon the policy of treaty making in Australia had disastrous consequences. It was a clear signal of lack of respect. Reynolds makes a particular case of Queensland where an unofficial militia committed murder after murder of Aboriginal people. No civilized society can accept this hidden affair, the truth must be told, and a government apology submitted.
Reynold’s arguments are all based on legal principles. He is on very firm ground. He appears to have ignored any suggestion that a long period of possession gives the whites some rights to holding land. Truth must conquer and the Aboriginal current push towards truth-telling incorporates important issues that must be addressed. That the whites have been in possession for more than 200 years should be considered in the truth-telling argument.
A fascinating book. Well worth a read.
By Henry Reynolds
New South Books
$34.99; 288 pp
Paperback | Feb 2021 | NewSouth | 9781742236940 | 288pp | 210x135mm | GEN | AUD$34.99, NZD$39.99