Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sorry

Since the Federal Government continues to behave like a sullen and solipsistic small boy on the question of an apology to the Aboriginal people for the way this country has failed them over the last 219 years, and since it's unlikely to change its mind between now and the end of Reconciliation Week, individual apologies while we wait are, I hope, better than nothing. So here is mine.

My own passage along the road of sorriness steers perilously between the all-encompassing Mea Culpa on the one hand and the cry, on the other, of Bunty from Seven Little Australians -- 'I never, it wasn't me, it wasn't my fault!' -- both of which I reject.

From within the pro-apology camp, I don't buy 'We're white, therefore we should feel guilty', but I'm not having 'We have merely to express our sorrow that something bad happened, it's not really an apology', either.

A note on the so-called 'black armband view of history': the meaning of Geoffrey Blainey's phrase, like that of Donald Horne's 'lucky country', has been politically appropriated and badly mangled in its transition to popular rhetoric, and, in both cases, not by accident. But black armbands, as any student of history knows, actually have nothing to do with 'guilt': they are about mourning and remembrance. Happy to wear one, on both scores.

For me at least, there are some fairly direct implications. The Narungga man in the photo a couple of posts back was probably -- nobody knows for sure -- my great-great-grandfather's son. From what I can make out, he stayed with the family because he wanted to, part of one of those loose and shifting constellations of single men that move seasonally round any farm. The patriarch in question, himself a penniless young Cornish immigrant who had worked eight years on the waterfront to qualify for a colonial land allocation, was one of the white men who took advantage of the colony's land policies to displace the Narungga people from Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

I have benefited directly from that, in ways too numerous to count.

Last winter I stood in the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Centre looking in horror at a huge, brilliant, angry painting by a Narungga artist of dead bodies in the ocean being nibbled and chewed at by sea-creatures, with a little exposition alongside about the old stories of Aboriginal people on Yorke Peninsula being murdered and thrown into the sea, washed by the tide into rocky places where crayfish and crabs lay in wait to gobble them up and dispose of the evidence.

I don't know whether this story is true or not, but I hope to God it isn't. If it is, 'sorry' doesn't even touch the sides.

At that family level, I am sorry for the land-taking, which definitely happened; for the sexual exploitation of Aborginal women, which might have happened; for the murders that I want to believe did not happen -- or not, at least, at the hands of my family, 'not at all' being too much to hope for.

For whatever happened in that place, which for better or worse is also my place, that was exploitative, destructive or cruel; for whatever such activities my ancestors may have taken part in or done nothing to prevent; and for all the histories, all around the country, that are similar or worse: for all those things, on my own behalf and on behalf of my family and my country, I am truly and deeply sorry.


Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

1 comment:

Dean said...

Recommend to read 'Colonial Ambition' (2007, Peter Cochrane) and 'Romantic Colonisation and British Anti-Slavery' (2005, Deirdre Coleman), and 'Body Culture' (2004, Isobel Crombie).

In any case, the Oz media is 95 per cent Anglo (and the complain about bias, lack of opportunity!).

The issue of the White Australia Act is far more complex than any journalist has dealt with it to date. Even reading these three books, you're just scratching the surface.

Next time you visit Sydney, go to Martin Place and take a look at the ornamental stone stone in the facade of No 44, the old MLC Building.

Very educational, especially knowing who the people were who signed the cheques.