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How real is history?

Even witnesses to an accident have a different perception of what happened, and the more they try to remember what they actually saw and heard, the less certain they become. Ask any crime scene investigator!

Catching a photo or a video might appear to provide a more accurate picture of the event, but, again where precisely the individual recording the scene is located, in relation to the recorded event might, and often does, affect how the picture can be interpreted.

We cannot change history – but we can never be certain it has been recorded or reported accurately, and it is rare for the record to not be influenced, at least to some extent, by the personal perspectives of, and choices made by, the recorder, even if only in what to include and what to exclude..

What is indelibly ingrained in the first memory of someone hurt in an accident, is the pain.

I have fallen many times. I could not tell you how I looked, as I fell, but I can tell you – if I survive the fall (clearly I always have done, so far!) – exactly which bits of me hurt as a result of the fall.

You can see where I am bruised – I bruise very easily and the bruises appear remarkably quickly! – and, if you have medical knowledge, you can assess whether I have broken any bones or possibly incurred more serious internal injuries.

But you can never experience or record my pain.

However nature has a remedy. If we recover from the fall, we remember that we were hurt, but no longer feel the pain.

Around the world, wars, invasions and catastrophic events have left people bereaved maimed, grieving – or dead. The survivors each have an individual story and for many the pain never really goes away.

The concept of human rights is a relatively modern phenomenon, even though, through the ages, there have always been people who sought to help others, just as there have also always been people who seek a goal, carelessly destroying any who get in their way while they stride towards it.

Some countries – even ones like the USA, which regard themselves as being modern and enlightened (laughter off-stage) – still have the death penalty for certain crimes. Yet those same countries often have a very flawed justice system. And if you execute someone who is not the real culprit, that situation is not open to reversal.

We are all imperfect beings, who make mistakes, hurt other people – sometimes deliberately – and experience many emotions. Much of our experience is not recorded, and those records are often questioned.

What is – IMHO – indisputable is that descendants of those forced into slavery by invading Europeans, and transported to Europe and the Americas, are members of the human race and entitled to as much care and respect as all other members of that race.

No – revise that statement – they are entitled to more care and respect, to recompense them for much of what they have been denied because of their origins.

What is done, cannot be undone is a trite but true statement.

When the First Fleet, and those that followed it, arrived in Australia, in their ignorance they regarded our First Nations as savages and made a good fist of trying to destroy them.

Yet we now know that they have a long history of developing a culture which saw nurturing the land as their duty. Their culture is, in fact, very complex and contains many elements which are far superior to our money-centred life-style.

I personally feel that is not really fair to judge the past by standards which we have adopted only recently.

Pulling down statues of slave traders, or others who are no longer regarded highly, is not necessary, because it does not change what they did. What would be more effective would be to erect an easily-read plaque which critiques the damage done through their actions.

In our criminal law system, intent to cause harm is a critical element of finding guilt. If a political climate sanctions certain behaviours, then where does the guilt lie?

We are at a watershed in history as regards discrimination in first world nations.

If we genuinely support human rights, then surely we need to sanction all – be they Presidents, police officers or governments – who promote or condone discrimination on racial grounds, particularly if it leads to harm, or death, of anyone subject to that discrimination.

In Australia, our education system MUST incorporate the history of our First Nations if we hope to change our attitudes to any significant extent. We need to consult community leaders and involve them in decision making and we need to stop allowing mining companies from destroying heritage treasures tens of thousands of years old.

If we stopped worshipping money, just think how much better our world might be!

We cannot change the past but we can and should make a real effort to ensure our behaviour in the future leaves a history which does not make our descendants ashamed of their ancestors.

And if we are to have a future, we need to start listening to the experts in all of the sciences, not just health!

I end as always – this is my 2020 New Year Resolution:

“I will do everything in my power to enable Australia to be restored to responsible government.”

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  1. B Sullivan

    “Yet we now know that they have a long history of developing a culture which saw nurturing the land as their duty.”

    There may have been people living in Australia for as long as 120,000 years, but there is no history of what went on in all that time. All we know about precolonial Australian history comes from archeology and palaeontology. Recorded history doesn’t begin until explorers with a written language arrived. Just as British recorded history didn’t begin until the invasion by Julius Caesar even though for centuries before that Britain was one of the major sources of tin which made the bronze age possible.

    The oldest dated Australian rock paintings in the Kimberly are around 40,000 years old. They are so unlike later traditional Aboriginal rock paintings it is hard to escape the conclusion that they were produced by an earlier culture. What happened to them? We don’t know.

    We do know that humans, essentially no different from us arrived in Australia around the same time that the megafauna died out and when the more luscious forest habitats disappeared under the combined stress of natural climate change and an increased rate of destruction by fire.

    Nurturing the land. Is that a euphemism for destroying bio-diversity? Because that’s what humans of all cultures and ethnicities do. The rate at which they do so appears to be determined by the level of technology they have achieved.

  2. New England Cocky

    Rosemary, you are being far too generous with your description of the USA (United States of Apartheid) as “modern and enlightened”. Just look at the current fascist POTUS (Person Obviously Totally Unsuitably Selected) and the national polices on universal health care, secret policing and built-in corporate corruption BEFORE you consider present and past foreign policy decisions that have created immense wealth for the NE military industrial complex at an enormous cost of their own working class lives and naturally the lives of the residents of the invaded countries.

    There is little doubt that White Australia has a Black History that the Liarbral and Nazional$ supporters prefer to ignore because it offends their self-serving self-perception as “all conquering heroes in a strange land”.

    @B Sullivan: There is growing evidence that the Pilbara region was settled earlier than archeologists previously thought with the recent Rio Tinto cave destruction showing settlement about 45,000 years ago. The Menindee Lakes settlements are generally recognised as about 70,000 years and other sites south may be earlier. This makes European pre-history at best 15,000 years, positively yesterday. So why do Australian NOT value their own history?? Could it be because it is Aboriginal history rather than European history?

    Now about all those invasions of Europe over the millennia from the west …..

  3. Keitha Granville

    We make the mistake of continuing to repeat history if we refuse to learn from it. For all the millennia of inhabitants of this land who have left little by way of their history that we so called modern folk can comprehend, we could do the future inhabitants ( assuming the planet has a future) a service by ensuring that the history we can accurately record is done better. Erasing it, destroying it, is simply destructive. Educate, enlighten, inform, protect the future by explaining the past.

    Changing names I don’t have too many problems with – what’s in a name ( said by a quite famous person whose history and stories we have fortunately retained ).

  4. Jack Cade

    Eyewitnesses to history are not particularly reliable, and participants in events are hopeless witnesses. Your memory plays tricks with you.
    I have a clear memory of a cricket match at Adelaide Oval where an English bowler called Lever hit a batsman under the heart with a fast ball and when the batsman collapsed, the bowler sank to his knees, weeping. I was sitting in front of the Richardson gates, having popped in to the oval after work to catch the last session of the day. I can still see the bowler, hands between his knees, head down, sobbing.
    But it didn’t happen. I have no idea whence the vivid memory came. It was a real event but it happened in NZ, and I also got the names wrong. But the picture is burned into my memory, as clear as if I saw it an hour ago.
    Voltaire – I think it was Voltaire – on being asked by a court what Had actually happened, said ‘I cannot tell you what happened, I can only tell you what I saw.’
    In WW1 a train, in Australia, was attacked by Afghan terrorists. I think it was The Ghan. I met an old man in a nursing home the 1980s who was 16 when it happened, and was on the train. Excited at the prospect of recording an eyewitness account, I grilled him on the event.
    ‘The train stopped for a while, then just started again. Someone told me it had been held up by bandits, but I don’t really know what happened .’
    At 16, he didn’t ask and he didn’t really care. He could have spun a classic yarn, but didn’t. His name was John Williams, from Broken Hill.

  5. Michael Taylor

    When the First Fleet, and those that followed it, arrived in Australia, in their ignorance they regarded our First Nations as savages…

    Rosemary, I will never forget what one of my Aboriginal lecturers told us:

    At the time when the British first went to South Australia a local Aboriginal man who lived along the ‘Adelaide’ coast would have gone hunting for Magpie Geese (which taste awful, by the way) first thing in the morning. He’d just catch three geese as that was all he needed to feed the family for the day. After the hunt he would spend time with the other men in his ‘tribe’ (a word I don’t like) exchanging stories or spending time teaching his son the skills he’d need in life. His wife would spend time with the other women helping raise the young children or doing a bid of food-gathering. It was an idyllic life. All activities – from both the men and women – contributed to a successful social structure.

    Back in merry old England there was a society that had a high crime rate, a population ravaged with disease, child slave-labour was all too common, as was serfdom. People were incarcerated for stealing an apple, the poor could barely exist, and life had little value … unless you were wealthy. It was a society fit only for the gutter.

    And these Englishmen had the nerve to point the finger at the Aboriginals and call them savages!

    Yet who had the better society?

  6. totaram

    B. Sullivan: “Recorded history doesn’t begin until explorers with a written language arrived”

    With all due respect, I’m not certain that this is accurate or meaningful. Verbally recorded histories can be as “reliable” as “written” ones . Early written “histories” are typically “stories” greatly influenced by the bias of the writer.

    Just a pedantic point that needs to be made, I feel.

  7. totaram

    Michael Taylor, it was “convenient and lucrative” to call these people savages, just as it was in the case of black africans, who could be sold as slaves. All colonisation was facilitated by considering the “natives” as savages and lower forms of life. Religion was a great help. Even the sciences were pressed into service by the development of “theories of race” etc. This allowed colonisers to carry out heinous acts with a clear conscience.

    Pretty well known and understood by now by most people who are not completely blinkered by their convenient and lucrative biases.

  8. Michael Taylor

    totaram, the English had it in their mind even before they arrived here that Aborigines were savages. William Dampier’s book was very popular in England. A book which included his encounter with Aboriginal people in WA, which he called “the miserablest people in the world”. This preconception was established in the Englander’s ideology by the time they came to our shores.

  9. Matters Not

    Perhaps it comes down to definition(s):

    The main difference between history and prehistory is the existence of records; history is the recorded events of the past whereas Prehistory is the time before writing was introduced. … Thus, history is an area that deals with written records of the past. The term prehistory literally means before history


  10. Phil

    ‘ When the First Fleet, and those that followed it, arrived in Australia, in their ignorance they regarded our First Nations as savages…’

    They still do.

    When the English dropped anchor here in 1788, Sure their cargo was full of ignorant people (Just how the English like them) But the Captain and his officers were not ignorant. They could navigate the seven seas, some of them could name the stars in the aid of that navigation. Mathew Flinders charts were accurate up to a few feet. The Anglo Saxons were out of their caves.

    It is only the left overs of the medi evil bully boys that question our history and the treatment of Aboriginals. I have not met a Tory yet, who doesn’t think Aboriginals should still be living in the bush. Where they belong they would tell you. Lang Hancock the iron ore magnate is on record as saying ‘ We should poison their water holes ‘ If he had his way he would have committed genocide on them all. They were still paying Aboriginal stock men in flower and tobacco up until the late 1970’s. The best is the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt a coconut by any yard stick. Who has just signed off on more mining on Aboriginal land. I want to retch my guts up listening and reading the apologists for what the whites did to Aboriginals. What was it that prize Doofus who should have been in the Hague for war crimes said. ‘ We should not have a black arm view of history ‘ Or words to that effect.

    Rudyard Kipling left no one in doubt of what the whites thought about Black people. Give me fking strength.

  11. Michael Taylor

    Oddly enough, though Mother England considered them as savages, they were nonetheless – in the eyes of the British – subjects of the Crown.

    Over the next century or so, the government back in England was becoming increasingly annoyed at the way those pesky colonists were mistreating fellow ‘British subjects’ and a chap called Lord Glenelg officially demanded that this mistreatment stop.

    Meanwhile, the colonists didn’t really like being told what to do and this was one of the driving forces behind the move to federation.

    (This stuff’s right up my alley. It was my Honours thesis).

  12. Matters Not


    We cannot change history

    Debatable! Depending of course on what meaning(s) we give to the concept of ‘history’. Certainly we can legitimately rewrite history, otherwise historians would be out of a job. Note an explanatory article of very recent times. (June 11 – just a few days ago – but there are any number in similar vein if one cares to look).

    People are suddenly very concerned about the perils of rewriting history. We must be vigilant, apparently, to the possibility that great swaths of the past will be forgotten or, worse, “erased”. … Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke – one of the pioneers of modern historical research – said, history is not only about finding out “how it actually happened”, but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present.


    Yes, how we think about the past – the way it’s constructed and then reconstructed – makes the writing and rewriting of history an ongoing project. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s all about writing (constructing) A History – knowing full well that another historian, sometimes in the future, will bring another perspective to bear and write another History. So in a sense we do change history. Just as we change the findings of Science(s) and virtually all other aspects of human endeavor. Guess we should accept that ‘change’ is just part of life.

  13. Phil

    (This stuff’s right up my alley. It was my Honours thesis).

    Well Michael my education about Aboriginals was on the ground with them. What the official position was, did not change the lives of these people. Possibly in the cities they may have fared better. They are still dying no change there then.

    I have seen the children’s eyes bleeding pus of all shades of green and yellow. I have seen the faces of the women beaten to a pulp, the men and women talking as if they were mad, repeating themselves endlessly from the ravages of alcohol. I have also seen the police bash them and leave them on the floor like a sack of spuds. .The most disgusting thing I have witnessed, is drunken white men chase the young females with an arm full of grog, wanting sexual favours. The elders being so addicted to the stuff they would trade their own children for it.

    About 1976 I was in a pub in Collie WA. Collie although must more beautiful aesthetically it is WA’s southern Pt Augusta. There are much worse places in the Pilbera. My mate who was Anglo Indian looked like the Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira, He was refused service because they thought he was an Aboriginal. Suffice to say my mate got us free lunch and beer.

    My wife and I traveled back to the North of South Australia some ten years ago. An Aboriginal friend of mine had died since I was there in the sixties, he was ceremoniously speared for some slight and died of his infection. After speaking to them they took my wife and I to his grave. An Irishman I knew all those years ago, clumped some racist arse hole in the nose for hitting a young Aboriginal girl, for me and him it was a week of Aboriginal culture in the bush. We had broken the ice so to speak. We were 2 of very few whites the Aboriginals would speak too.

    I will have no one tell me my life’s experiences are a black arm view of our history. My education didn’t come out of the ‘ Readers Digest or ‘ Womens day ‘ I can still remember the smell of gangrene, no not a movie, real life.

    Your thesis should tell you, I am not lying.

  14. Michael Taylor

    Perhaps “we cannot change the past” is more to the point.

    We cannot change how it was recorded, but perhaps we can change how it is interpreted.

    A can of worms, I readily admit.

  15. Matters Not

    MT – Suspect that the thinking in England at that time wasn’t necessarily uniform. Perhaps a bit like the thinking today in Australia re (take your pick.) The notion of Australian Aborigines being savages can probably be traced to the works of Montesquieu – in particular his The Spirit of the Laws. Dampier as you know referred to them as being the ‘miserablest people in the world’ but didn’t refer to them as savages. Probably would have had he been born a bit later when he might have been familiar with the concept.

  16. joseph wild

    hurrah for hindsight ……..where would you all be without it !!!!

  17. Michael Taylor

    MN, I’m also sceptical that Dampier was familiar with the work of Rousseau.

    But then again, most people still are.

  18. joseph wild

    please all read my previous post ……..like picking apart a game of footy after the game …clever !!

  19. RosemaryJ36

    And, despite criticising past behaviour, we still do not have a Bill of Rights!

  20. Phil

    Bill of Rights? We should give them a bill for the wrongs. That would no doubt bankrupt the nation.

    I get a strong smell of revisionist history being ginned up on this site. There are those that would have us believe the Nazi’s were Socialists. We are losing the collective plot. I thought all the bots were on FACEBOOK.

  21. Joe Carli

    From the Marquis de Sade’s story of Justine :

    “Yes, we insist upon these details, you veil them with a decency which removes all their edge of horror; there remains only what is useful to whoever wishes to become familiar with man;….Inhabited by absurd fears, they only discuss the puerilities with which every fool is familiar and dare not, by turning a bold hand to the human heart, offer its gigantic idiosyncrasies to our view.”

  22. leefe

    “In our criminal law system, intent to cause harm is a critical element of finding guilt.”

    It is arguable that the colonialists were worse than having intent to cause harm. They didn’t care. Indifference can be every bit as damaging as deliberate cruelty. That point aside, there was plenty of intent. You don’t enslave and/or kill people without intent. No rational person can believe that rape, assault, murder and massacres are not harmful.


    “men” and “females”? Why is it so often phrased like that? What’s wrong with “women” or “girls”? Why are the perpetrators recognised as humans (men) but the victims (females) not? Terminology matters.

  23. RosemaryJ36

    leefe: ‘men’ implies adult males, females implies women and girls.

  24. Phil

    ‘ leefe: ‘men’ implies adult males, females implies women and girls.’

    Indeed. Thank you Rosemary. I am not going to change my style at my time of life as uneducated as it may seem to some.. Blame my teachers for the correct intention of my comments. When I refer to the perpetrators of such disgusting vile acts, I use the term men, because we have as well as good men on this here most informative platform, we have a good female audience. You should hear what I call them in my own company.

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