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Dhaka Tribune

Why history has put Australia behind a firewall

Update : 16 Apr 2013, 10:41 AM

When I was young, I used to imagine that periods of history changed like the switching off and on again of a light switch. Richard III died at Bosworth, and that was the Middle Ages done; the Beatles hit number one, and the Sixties immediately began to swing. Sometimes this impression was almost synaesthetic. Even now, when I shut my eyes and picture the classical world, I cannot help but see perfect blue skies – just as the fall of the Roman Empire, in my imagining, takes place beneath grim and darkening clouds. The past invariably seems more dramatic for being cast as a series of crunching gear-shifts.

Historians, who trace the process of change by the very nature of their profession, nevertheless tend to steel themselves against the temptations of this perspective. Even the most seismic events – the storming of the Bastille, the outbreak of war in August 1914 – are interpreted in terms of continuity as well as rupture. The collapse of Roman power may indeed, in certain remote regions such as Britain, have heralded a "dark age" – but the transformation of the ancient world into a medieval one did not happen overnight. Castles did not sprout up across western Europe the moment the legions disappeared; the Middle East was not transformed within a generation of the Arab conquests into a set from the Arabian Nights. "Without Alexander the Great," claimed the great German historian of Islam, Carl Becker, "no Islamic civilisation". It is rare for something so abrupt to happen that it will bear no trace at all of what went before it.

But what of those rare occasions when the boundaries that serve to delineate different periods of history are absolutely stark? Visiting Adelaide at the moment as I am, this question has been haunting me for an obvious reason. In 1788, a fleet of eleven British ships arrived off what Captain Cook, on his visit there eighteen years previously, had named Botany Bay. The subsequent establishment of a penal colony on the estuary just to the north definitively brought to an end the era of human prehistory in Australia. This had begun some 60,000 years before, when the first humans to tread Australian soil had crossed what was then a land bridge from New Guinea. As the eleven prison ships from Britain tracked the Australian coastline, there were probably some 750,000 Aboriginal inhabitants on the entire landmass. None had any idea that there existed, on the opposite side of the world, creatures of the same species, but from an immeasurably different culture. The chasm of misunderstanding between the British and the Aboriginals in 1788 was as profound as any that has ever existed between two different peoples. For the latter, it would prove utterly disastrous.

No country's past better illustrates what a true break in history looks like than Australia's. Elsewhere in the lands opened up to European colonisation it was different. The very name of Mexico still bears witness to the Aztecs; in Peru, customs ancient in the time of the Incas still thrive; even the All Blacks have the haka. In Australia, though, the extraordinary imaginative culture of the Aboriginals barely intrudes upon the modern state founded on their ancestral homelands. Throughout much of the 20th century, it was illegal for many of them even to speak their own languages. Today, in Sydney or Perth, non-Aboriginal Australians do not share in the Dreaming.

It would be going too far to say that the ghosts of the culture displaced by the founders of modern Australia haunt the country. It is altogether too dynamic, too successful, too self-assured for that. Instead, the relationship of Australia to its pre-European past is like that of the coastal cities to the vast and untenanted wilderness which constitutes the majority of its landmass. People know that it is there – but very few choose to inhabit it. Australian history really is marked by a firewall.



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