We Say Sorry Day in Oz
Wed, 13 Feb 2008 19:11:42 +1100
By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)
Today, the newish Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd less than 100 days into his term in office, in a landmark speech (dubbed the 'Sorry Speech') said a long overdue Sorry, from the Government of Australia, to the original inhabitants of this vast continent, the Indigenous Australians (the Australian aboriginals/ the Kooris), for the taking of most of their land and erasure of much of their local cultures.
One consequence was that it made one focus on why the previous governments had not seen the good sense in such a gesture long before, and further, it certainly caused me to dwell back on my own personal history related to the land and to the original inhabitants. The land-grab was much more recent in Queensland (State capital is Brisbane) than it was in the southern states of Victoria (capital is Melbourne) and New South Wales (capital is Sydney). Though my immediate family moved to Victoria when I was 10, my Great grandparents and my Grandfather were amongst the Queensland pioneers (from Prussia, amongst 13,000 Prussian immigrants to Qld) who caved farms from the virgin bushland and forest back in the 1881-1900 period. The largest aboriginal settlement in current day Queensland is Cherbourg, 5 miles down the road from Murgon the town where I was born, and nearby where my grandfather's farm was situated.
My father later bought his own farm bordering the town of Blackbutt (it is named after the famous local hardwood trees, which partly resisted settler's burnoffs leaving large charred unchoppable black stumps dotting their new farms hewed from the forest) and then upsized to another one between Nanango (the fourth oldest town in Queensland - named after 'Old Nanango', King of the local tribe and peacemaker at the time of original land selection) and Yarraman (a one time big time timber town), in an area called Neumgah when I was about 6. The latter farm is one from which I have many vivid memories as we kids wandered around the environs there like barefooted halflings, a law unto ourselves (after the cows were milked, of course). It was several hundred acres right next door to a rainforest, from which my elder brothers snared Dingos (wild native dogs) at $4 a scalp. My father said that the farm was not cleared of rainforest, but that it "stops on a line, like some invisible fence" beyond which the sub-tropical vegetation just won't grow. Though most of the snakes about were relatively harmless (but very large) diamond pythons/carpet snakes, my father had bought the farm from a widow, whose husband had died from a death adder bite on the property itself. A death adder bite thickens your blood to jelly in about 5 minutes. (There was a local story about a timber-faller who was bitten by one, and then quickly chopped his own lower arm off in a single blow to survive it ... not sure of the outcome)
One of my elder brothers had found a stone axe head or two about the farm some where (adults farmed the countryside writ-large, kids explored all the nooks and crannies), and as a kid I thought (was no doubt told) that they were prehistoric artefacts. In fact, there was even an old corrobary ground (a raised circle of earth for Koori dances and ceremony) on the property, which we played on making up our own childhood stories and rituals. The place certainly fired up the childhood imagination. Again, as a kid I thought the mound was prehistoric. I was shocked to find out many years later when I was about 25 (they certainly didn't teach this in local schools) that the Kooris were rounded up from the surrounding lands and put into the Cherbourg mission as late as 1908 (just 100 years ago today ). Southerners (used to) make jokes of Queenslanders claiming that we were 20 years behind the times. There is certainly truth in Queensland being closer to the past than the southern States, but its just as close to the future.
In the late 1980s on a trip back to Queensland with my then partner, I took her to Yarraman (I saw my first movie in the local theatre there: it was 'Help' featuring the beatles) on an intended circuit of the old family haunts. I tried to go back to the farm at Neumgah, but it was impossible. The dirt road that we had ridden down on bikes as kids between Yarramen and the farm, was gone, and in its place some kilometres to the East was a new road cut through where rainforest was not very long ago, leading to an off-limits enterprise. The farm itself no longer exists - it has become part of an open-cut coal mine. At some stage after that trip I said to my father (who always knew there was coal under our farm, as the borewater drunk by our livestock was extremely 'brackish', barely drinkable by the hardy cattle): "You should have hung onto it, it was probably very valuable land." No, said he: "The government compulsorily acquired it at so-called market-rates, which was actually considerable less than what it would have fetched as farming land alone."... Nothing is forever, for black or for white, whether land-grabbing colonials or current day democratic governments. The human brutally is gone but the transformation of the land continues. I do have some little sense of the loss Kooris must feel for the loss of land and for the sense of Place that was, but which is now gone. Their loss was large and dramatic, continental in scale, personal in consequence and all-consuming, and I do certainly say sorry to the Indigenous Australians for the past and my families small part in it for whatever happened during those times and the adverse events that have gone largely unrecorded (the excuse in local history books was "they were too busy making history to record it"), and which are certainly now unknowable by modern people in multicultural 21st Century Australia - particularly in the cities, where people change houses and move on, much like they change clothes between activities.
Sometimes I feel like I am from another time and place, but aren't we all. There is a lot to be said for the new and growing Digital Culture that we are all charting at some level: it will be a lot harder to remove it from history. Even harder than removing whole landscapes.