What are the ‘Australian History Wars’?: Understanding the ‘national struggle’ for who we are

To define what a ‘History War’ is in a succinct and in-depth manner is no easy task. In an understated word, the answer is summarily ‘controversy’.
Author: Casey Abel
A depiction of an Anglo-Australian child ‘defending against’ a charge of coloured children. Photo Credit: The Lone Hand, March 2nd 1920. Page 13.

To define what a ‘History War’ is in a succinct and in-depth manner is no easy task. In an understated word, the answer is summarily ‘controversy’. In a sentence, it could be defined as ‘A societal struggle to achieve near-unanimous agreeance on national stories as to allow the formulation of a national identity.’ That is a mouthful. But what does any of it really mean?

Identity is a pertinent concept in modern Psychology. Each individual embodies a number of different identities such as sexual, gender, cultural, ethnic and national identities. Each of these is vastly different from the other, but they intersect to form the self-perceived mental structure of the individual. And it is the individual who in turn populates and creates a community and broader society.

In other words, one cannot have an identity without a history. A person cannot formulate a gender-identity without lived experience to reflect upon. The conclusion of gender-identify stems from this very reflection. Likewise, how would a country formulate an identity without a history from which to define itself? This latter question reveals the road to politics. Where an individual can decide for themselves just ‘who’ and ‘what’ they are, a nation must first form a consensus on their national story or ‘history’. This is a very complicated process.

Who decides what histories contribute to a ‘national story’ and what exactly is ‘history’?

All countries are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-religious to some degree. Imagine for a moment that a new neighbour has moved in next door. She is a migrant from Kenya. Today she identifies as ‘Australian’, however, her first national-identity was and remains ‘Kenyan’. But there is more to her. She is also a Kalenjin woman, this being her ethnic-identity. While Kenya is the modern nation-state she was born in, the Kalenjin are her people, and they, their histories and culture are far older than any modern-country in existence today.

How would her perspective contribute and be represented in Australia’s national story now that she has migrated here? In our hypothetical, this woman embodies two national-identities, one ethnic-identity and two cultures, with Australian culture set to be her third. The complexity and diversity of individuals is one factor that makes the study of sociological phenomena such as a ‘History War’ so complex: the diversity of competing perspectives. This one woman has a diverse voice. Her voice contributes to her local communities (i.e. town and/or ethnic community) and those communities contribute generalised perspectives to the broader social conscious.

Everyone has a voice, but some voices ‘struggle to be heard’. It is the dominant social group in a country, that which wields political power, who makes the decisions. Including what the ‘national story’ is, the histories which contribute to it, and ‘who’ is included. For instance, the presence of Islamic peoples in Australasia predates European peoples, yet consider Islamic representation in Australia’s national story. Did you learn about Islamic peoples in Australia in School? How are they represented in the media today? Compare these thoughts with the following.

A depiction of Makassan traders and Indigenous Australians by Harden Sidney Melville. Photo Credit: National Museum of Australia.

The Islamic Sultanate of Gowa established trade with various First Nations from mainland Australia and broader Australasia from at least 1720CE. One Sulawesi historian suggests 1640CE as a more accurate date.  In 1944, coins originating from the seafaring Sultanate of Kilwa on Africa’s east coast were found on Marchinbar Island, to Australia’s north. Some of the coins are dated as early as 900CE, thus, potentiating Islamic contact with Indigenous Australians up to a thousand years ago . While there is no one fixed conclusion, historian Ian Mcintosh suggests the coins passed through multiple traders from either Kilwa or an Islamic mint in Asia before being brought to Australasia by Makassans in the 1780s CE.

Consider too, that England imported thousands of Cameleers from across the Middle East in the 1800s CE, to establish supply lines between settlements throughout the Australian interior. Chances are you know some people or have some friends of a Muslim faith. How much of this history did you know? The history of Islam and Islamic peoples in Australia is not mainstream knowledge despite their prominence. Which begs the question then, what is history? The term has multiple definitions, though the author will provide only two. Generally speaking, history can be thought of as ‘Social Memory’. On the societal level, politics tends to select key events for immortalisation. When we consider that at Federation in 1901, the Australian-nation considered itself wholly ‘white’ and ‘Christian’, it becomes clear why First Nations peoples, their Islamic trading partners, and England’s Middle Eastern indentured workers were marginalised in social memory.

Indeed, Australia’s first Attorney General Alfred Deakin gave the following speech to the House of Representatives in 1901CE.

No motive power operated more powerfully in dissolving the technical and arbitrary political divisions which previously separated us than the desire that we should be one people, and remain one people, without the admixture of other races.

Attorney General Alfred Deakin in 1901.

History is more than just the memory of societies. It is also an academic discipline and science. The historian is one who ‘creates history’. The historian formulates narratives by interpreting and weaving together historical evidence and combining this with the interpretations of their predecessors and peers. Consider the ‘Kilwa Coins’. Did Kilwa navigators travel to Australia in the 10th century? The coins do not tell us that, instead, they offer that potentiality, however unlikely.

The key term here is ‘interpretation’. Complete objectivity is impossible in historiography and the ‘truth’ of what happened yesterday or a thousand years ago is perhaps measurable only in specific contexts and to limited extents. This revelation may be dispiriting to the reader, though bear in mind it is the historian’s integrity – their stridence for objectivity – which determines the validity of a piece of historical literature. Consider the preface to a once influential 1898CE history textbook,

…a history book is not necessarily good if it appears to the literary critic ‘readable and interesting’, nor bad because it seems to him ‘hard or heavy reading’. The literary critic, in fact, is beginning to find out that he reads a history as he might read a treatise on mathematics or linguistics, at his peril, and that he is no judge of its value or lack of value. Only the expert, can judge that.

Bias is intrinsic to all humans and no work of history can be entirely objective. This truth emphasises the importance of historical literature being subject to peer-reviewership.

So What are the ‘Australian History Wars’?

The ‘history war’ in Australia is a social struggle for the story of the nation, a new story from which we can carve an identity to finally express who we are. Until the 1970’s Australia’s national story was largely cohesive and positive. It spoke of British settlement in Australasia and referenced an ‘age of discovery’ where British pioneers founded new settlements and tamed or killed ‘wild savages’ who got in their way. It told of a biologically superior British Race carving a ‘new England’ out of an untouched wilderness.

There were always historians present who produced more sensical literature but what the nation remembered, politicians touted and teachers taught were stories largely cohesive along these lines. After 1945, the Western World embraced the concept of Universal human rights. But some countries, like Australia, were not ready to forget the stories they had created for themselves. World scientists debunked the idea of ‘biological races’ in 1950. Yet, white-Australians cheered in towns across the continent when a young Queen Elizabeth toured in 1954 expressing her admiration for the ‘British Race’.

We are proud that the pioneers of the British race were the architects of this great corner of the Commonwealth, and we rejoice today that their descendants, with the representatives of so many races, are building well and truly upon their forefathers foundations.

Queen Elizabeth to a crowd of Australians in Townsville, 1954.

Australia’s ‘History War’ has been raging for half a century now. The political divisions are generally clear. If we look to politicians we see that it was the Labor Party’s Gough Whitlam who began the processes of native title and land rights and Kevin Rudd who gave the only governmental apology for the Stolen Generations. It is the Liberal Party’s John Howard who rejects that genocide has taken place against Indigenous Australians. Current Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison who claims that ‘there was no slavery in Australia’. This despite Queensland being the last colony to join federation out of fear of losing their ‘kanaka labor’ which had been fueling their sugar plantations in the far north.

The Australian media landscape is almost entirely owned by conservative interests. That Australia’s ‘History War’ has raged half a century is perhaps down to the role of Australia’s biased news organisations and their journalists. Most Australians despise racism, genocide, and violence. However it doesn’t help when they open a journal and find the IPA Review is telling them that historians are trying to manufacture a ‘guilt industry’. Or when they turn on the radio and hear the education minister accusing schools of teaching students to ‘hate’ Australia. Or when they read, see or hear conservative journalist Andrew Bolt harassing Indigenous Australians because their skin tones are not meeting his personal expectations.

Meet the white face of a new black race — the political Aborigine.

Andrew Bolt in 2009.

The History Wars rage every day. In the typed letters of writers’ blog posts, on the radio waves, television screens and in the pages of newspapers and even, on occasion, between actual historians – the facet of society who generally has the specialised knowledges to make nuanced claims about Australian histories. The history wars have gone on so long that many non-Indigenous Australians are numb to it. A luxury not afforded to Indigenous-Australians who endure the inter-generational traumas of Invasion. If any facet of Australian society has the especial responsibility to bring this national struggle to an end its ‘white-Australians’. We will eventually achieve this through treaties, truth telling and honest learning.

I consider it the responsibility of the coloniser to fight against the colony, even to dismantle it. You outnumber us, you have the political power, although you apparently lack the political will to do better than you are doing.

Noongar Author Claire G. Coleman.

One Reply to “What are the ‘Australian History Wars’?: Understanding the ‘national struggle’ for who we are”

  1. Great points Casey. We teach such a limited section of Australian history. We only cover Caption Cook and ANZAC Day and even then it’s a small section. There is so much more to our history and culture. If we have any chance in reconciliation we need to acknowledge our past.

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