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Makaratta: because it’s time for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

As a child growing up here in Australia, I was taught two big lies about Australia’s history:

  1. Lie number one: that Australia was uninhabited when the Brits landed here. Sure – there were some friendly Aboriginal peoples here we were taught, but they were a nomadic people with no sense of ownership of the land.
  2. Lie number two: there was no mention of the barbaric treatment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. No mention of the battles, of aboriginal being beaten to death, chained up, children torn from their families, cultures destroyed. Instead, the stories I heard were of brave explorers who ventured into supposedly unknown wildernesses. Explorers like Burke and Wills – who were said to be the first men to ever cross the continent.

I still vividly remember my shock and outrage on learning the truth about Australia’s history when I went to University. Outrage both at what had actually happened to our Nation’s first people and shock that I – and my classmates – had been taught lies. (Up until that point I had operated on the naive and misguided assumption, fostered by the school system of the time, that History was a set of concrete facts about the past rather than a collection of perspectives and viewpoints.)

I understand school syllabuses today have changed – but there are still many generations of Australians out there who, like me, were brought up on lies about out past.

It is those lies that the Indigenous Leaders of Australia – who met this week in Uluru at the First Nations National Convention – said need to be redressed before we can all move forward. Their request:

a) A treaty – acknowledging not only the original ownership of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but also the terms of its transfer into the Nation it is today – reflecting what was done in other British ‘colonies’.

b) Truth-telling – full disclosure about the impact of British colonisation on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders since the first true illegal refugees arrived here by boat in 1788 – hopefully putting an end, once and for all to the Great Australian Silence about our past.

We – all Australians – need to do this not just for the First Nations’ people who have been lied about, but for all of us who have been lied to.

Why? Because you can’t put past wrongs behind you until the truth about them is properly acknowledged. And because you can’t build a solid future of trust on the lies of the past. That’s why we hold inquiries into events that happened decades ago – so that the record can be set straight and victims of past injustices can finally move forward.

This is what Indigenous Leaders from across Australia are calling for – so that we can finally achieve ‘Makaratta’ (a word from the Yolngu language meaning “the resumption of normal relations after a period of hostilities”.)

Here’s the invitation that came out of the Convention this week – an invitation to all Australians to put the lies behind us and join in building a better future, one based on truth.

It’s pretty hard to argue with that.


This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.


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  1. Freethinker

    Thank you Kate, I share your views.
    Sadly the education policy of do not tell the truth about a country history in primary and secondary school it is not unique to Australia.
    I, in Uruguay have the same experience and will be interesting to know what it is in the curriculum in Canada and New Zealand.

  2. king1394

    Inspirational statement.
    As for your description of ‘education’ regarding the Aborigines, it is mild compared to my parents’ knowledge which was about how the ‘treacherous blacks’ couldn’t be trusted not to kill the settlers’ sheep

  3. townsvilleblog

    Kate, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments it is over time that Aboriginal Australians were duly compensated for their loss of land but of course ‘people’ are the lowest priority of any tory (LNP) government, and Aboriginal Australians are an even lower priority for this extremist right wing Turnbull government, so we will need to apply as much pressure as possible to see Aboriginal Australians at last get a fair go.

  4. stephentardrew

    Wonderful! Thank you.

  5. Kevin Brewer

    I am not sure what you mean in your claim you were taught Lie number one; uninhabited. I remember from school in the 50s and early 60s getting the whole gamut from Torres. Tasman, Dampier to Flinders, to Burke and Wills and John MacDougall Stuart that the place was inhabited and had been for a very long time. And in the history I did at uni i learnt that the Europeans knew it, they understood the relationship of the Aborigines to their land, they understood what they were doing and they understood the consequences for societies that were so rigidly bound to tradition they fell apart when the came into contact with the invaders. Read Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers. History isn’t what you are taught but what you learn, and if you don’t learn, don’t expect the surprises.

    I suppose in school and at uni you were taught the one founding of Australia, and its history as a convict settlement, the Fatal Shore nonsense of rum, buggery and the lash? Then, even that is a lie, the 1788 and all that version. All other lies flow from that one. The lie of the ANZAC myth is bound up in that lie: a group of armed men storm another country, establish a beach head. In the 1915 version they are defeated, but the defeat assuages the mythical guilt of the original invasion where the war is successfully fought to the conquest of the inhabitants of the country. But there were four settlements of Australia, not one, and they were all different. South Australia and Western Australia were settlements done as experiments in what became known as Wakefield’s schemes. Karl Marx had some interesting things to say about how the settlement scheme for South Australia revealed the mystified truth of British capitalism. Victoria was settled as a land rush from VDL and NSW in defiance of the limits of location, 19 Counties policy of the governor of NSW. These were very different societies and still are. South Australian Aborigines got the vote the same days as their white counterparts. There were fewer of the murders that mark Qld, WA and NSW settlements, and far more places have kept their Aboriginal names. I remember as a child a discussion of the Elliston massacre on Eyre peninsula in SA. It appears online now as a fact. But it didn’t happen, either in the rather fanciful online version where the judge is hanged by Aboriginal insurgents, or in the version I heard all those years ago. So we will need to turn every stone, uncovering the truth, and that is not a job for social media historians and oral historians. It needs a concerted effort which will cost a lot of money and require the work of a lot of historians. I can see the pollies popping open the cheque book now, to great publicity, later shutting it down quietly because the evidence will change the way we all see ourselves, and that will cost them votes. That is before we get to the truth about Aboriginal societies.

    One of the foundation myths of modern Australia is terra nullius. Henry Reynolds must regret letting that one loose. Searching Trove I found one reference to it. The rest were from commentors adding it to the newspaper articles so it would appear in searches. Having read a bit of colonial original documents there was never any concept of terra nullius. The colonial era talked about a different concept altogether, what they considered a natural law-which of course is a justification by another name-that of land must belong to those who can make the best use of it, derived from John Locke, and English philosopher who was influential in the debates that formed the basis for the American constitution. To quote the Britannica online “Before discussing the creation of political society in greater detail, Locke provides a lengthy account of his notion of property, which is of central importance to his political theory. Each person, according to Locke, has property in his own person—that is, each person literally owns his own body. Other people may not use a person’s body for any purpose without his permission. But one can acquire property beyond one’s own body through labour. By mixing one’s labour with objects in the world, one acquires a right to the fruits of that work. If one’s labour turns a barren field into crops or a pile of wood into a house, then the valuable product of that labour, the crops or the house, becomes one’s property. Locke’s view was a forerunner of the labour theory of value, which was expounded in different forms by the 19th-century economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx.” So it wasn’t that colonists though tthe place was empty but they thought their labour and capital would be more productive, and that would be the basis of their claim to it. That Aboriginal societies seemed to collapse when confronted by even a numerically inferior European approach opened the opportunity to take the land, which is what happened outside the Limits of Location.

    Nor was there any genocide. Genocide is what the Indonesians are doing to the Aborigines’ cousins in West Papua -500000 murdered in the last 50 years so far-starting about the same time as the 67 referendum, and not one voice raised in this country about it. A third of the population murdered, slowly and effectively, and we are effectively silenced by our own complicity and the Treaty of Lombok. That’s what treaties do, they keep people silent. Indonesian genocide is an organised campaign. Colonial era clashes with Aborigines were crimes of the moment, not a concerted campaign, except perhaps in parts of Queensland. However, mention either the lack of terra nullius and the fact there was no genocide and see how much far truth telling will get you. You will be shouted down, just as I expect to be.

    And the many headed hydra of truth telling?: We will need to deal with the lie, the claim of oldest continuous culture, as one myth that hangs around like a mozzie on a hot day. In doing so we have to deal with the idea that whitey is white, and the reasons they came here, not when they did. We need to go back a long way. I know from genetic genealogy I have Neandertal, Denisovan, Aboriginal, a paleo-Eskimo, a native North American, native South Americans, Chinese, Russian, southern European farmer, Scandinavian Hunter gatherer genes. And that is before the LBK genes from Hungary. Some of the percentages are small, 1-2%, but I am related via those small amounts to a Denisovan at 40000 ybp, and at least 5 Neandertals one of at least 50000y bp. The DNA I share with Australian Aborigines, native American, Eskimo, etc. means this whitey ain’t white, in fact about 8-9000 years ago not even Europeans were white, they were the same colour as all out-of-Africans, including the group who came east of Sahul and split to become Australian Aborigines and Papuans. The Africans stayed put; they are the oldest continuous culture, the rest of us are sojourners by comparison. That doesn’t make me an Aborigine, but it throws some dangerous light on racist claims that get thrown about.

    And whitey has a continuous culture, it is different, and that is what got us all here, by British expansionism in the middle years of their imperialism, when the West began to dominate the world after a couple thousand years or more of Chinese, Indian, Arab and Roman domination. In that British expansion my ancestors came here, and I don’t feel one iota of guilt about the fact. You can’t have truth telling without a better history than we have, and I think it is the right and moral duty of all of us to do the work. This is a very long project, and until it is done, no Treaty. Because the day after a Treaty is signed the great Australian silence will descend on us all again.

  6. Michael Taylor

    What school did you go to, Kevin?

  7. RonaldR

    We can’t change the past and bullshit treaties won’t do it ,it will only benefit a few and further divide Australians. What we should do and haven’t done is provide the descendants with a good education to give them equal footing. Not giving them a Good education is a way of keeping them down , oops I mean it is a good way of keeping every one down -look how misinformed Australians are ,that is why Australia has been constantly looted and its economy a mess and when a group is telling the people the truth and educating them they are vilified, Have a media blackout opposed on them. Nothing will happen until we remove the shackles of the British Empire.

  8. Matters Not

    Kate M re:

    operated on the naive and misguided assumption … that History was a set of concrete facts about the past rather than a collection of perspectives and viewpoints.)

    Unfortunately that’s what most people still believe today. We still see that view of ‘history’ with publications titled – The History of … rather than A History of … We still see claims of true history which completely misses the point (look above). Certainly naïve and unhelpful.

    Thus when commenting on a history I think we should be careful about how we use words like ‘truth’ and ‘lies’. They are much easier to recognise in retrospect. That’s why it’s wiser to use an a rather than a the.

  9. diannaart

    Thank you Kate. I had a similar experience at school, before I became more enlightened through life and tertiary education.

  10. Freethinker

    I just wonder how many people are out there that share Kate views about the Aborigines but at the same time have high regards for the Captain Cook and his arrival to Australia.
    There are many like me in South America that share Kate views regarding how were and are treated the indigenous people but do not celebrate when Colon arrived to South America or any of the “legal pirates” that followed him looking for gold and more land for their kingdoms.

  11. john ocallaghan

    Very good article,give these people back their true history and not the whiteman text book version!

  12. freefall852

    ” What school did you go to, Kevin?”…It certainly wasn’t St. Theresa’s at Brighton!

  13. Michael Taylor

    I forgot to add later that I know what school Kevin went to: the same as me. ?

  14. stephengb2014

    I am intrigued by the wish of the Aboriginal conference was a call for a representative council to ‘advise’ the government.

    I agree but lets not stuff around here they should as the soverign peoples occupy the House of review,

    That is that as the soverign peoples there is no reason to believe that they should vote amongst themselves for seats in the Senate, that the Senate is reserved for first peoples only.

    S G B

  15. David Bruce

    My schooling was a decade or two earlier, and the lies were more outrageous. Recently, I found out that the Sunda Empire extended east to Australia, and west to India, and the land masses were joined. It’s history goes back more than 100,000 years.
    What has been happening in West Papua is a travesty of gross injustice, and the Indonesian people are horrified when they hear what is happening. Martial Law is in place, but not maintained by the Indonesian Military. Private military contractors are employed for that purpose, so that US mining companies can remove the gold. About 200MT of gold are flown to Jayapura every day! 10 flights per day by converted 737 freighters, with 20 tonnes per flight! Similar mining activities are taking place in parts of Africa, where the ore is mined, smeltered and cast into bars and certified on site.
    Perhaps when the sovereign peoples are given the respect they deserve, Australia with recover it’s soul. We can also accept that our Moon wasn’t created out of the Pacific Ocean after a collision with another planet?

  16. Kyran

    The truth? You can’t handle the truth.
    The truth is that we are ‘managing a situation’. Under the primed miniatureship of talcum, the greatest advocate of constitutional reform in recent times, we have extended the olive branch to our First People. We will let them have a say in how we acknowledge them in our constitution.
    After that concession, these ingrates have issued an invitation. Albeit, not an ultimatum. An invitation.

    “Here’s the invitation that came out of the Convention this week – an invitation to all Australians to put the lies behind us and join in building a better future, one based on truth.”

    How dare they? What would happen if Australians ignored lies and pursued truths?
    In defence of our alleged government…… Well, I had a defence, other than bananas, but he summed it up well. They should be grateful for what we have offered them.

    “We – all Australians – need to do this not just for the First Nations’ people who have been lied about, but for all of us who have been lied to.
    Why? Because you can’t put past wrongs behind you until the truth about them is properly acknowledged. And because you can’t build a solid future of trust on the lies of the past. That’s why we hold inquiries into events that happened decades ago – so that the record can be set straight and victims of past injustices can finally move forward.”

    We hold inquiries on a regular basis. Whether it be that ‘they’ wanted to be counted in 1967, or that ‘they’ want to be heard in 2017, the ultimate truth is that we can’t handle the truth. We seem to be far more comfortable with lies and obfuscation.
    It’s a bit strange that WA, NT, ACT have deeds of Treaty with our First People. The Victorian government is negotiating Treaty with several mobs.
    We can’t handle the truth.

    “‘Makaratta’ (a word from the Yolngu language meaning “the resumption of normal relations after a period of hostilities”.)”

    Well, maybe we can. Our alleged government can’t.
    Apologies for the rant, Ms M. Thank you (and commenters) for the article. Take care

  17. Johno

    The first time I heard about the treaty was early last year. Guess who said, ‘Nope, not a good idea’… Howard and Abbott, surprise surprise.

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