Judgement By His Peers - Gordon Syron
“Warami wellamabami!” or “Who are you!”1 asked Aboriginals of Governor Arthur Phillip at Sydney’s Circular Quay on 26th January 1788. They thought he was a spirit. Behind him were 11 British ships with their human cargo of 780 convicts, guarded by officers, marines and sailors.
Phillip is often haloed by historians for forging a little Britain in a harsh climate.
But was Phillip a failure?
He failed to fulfil King George III’s instructions2 to deal with ‘natives’ and
conciliate their affections … live in kindness with them … [and] bring an account of their numbers … that they may be turned to the advantage of the colony.
Many were wiped out by introduced diseases and purposely purloining 40,000 year-old land usages inchoate with their identity. Aboriginals were pushed to the periphery of Phillip’s new society as its colonial curtilage expanded.
Looking into the telescope of time, Phillip was ignorant, arrogant and negligent. He was, however, genuinely mystified by Aboriginals. His pragmatism meant any early kindness soon evaporated.
Watkin Tench, marine, diarised3:
Tired of petty warfare … the governor adopt[ed] a decisive measure by capturing some of them … retaining them by force, [to] inflame [them and] unveil … their mysterious conduct … [and] … reasons for …destroying our people…
Arabanoo was first. Gaoled, Guantanamo Bay-style, against his will, fettered for four months for interrogation and tortured by isolation, no charges were laid and no trial ever held. No court sat.
He died of introduced smallpox a month after release on May 18, 1789.
History, however, has provided a delayed verdict of Phillip. Guilty: English law was blindfolded.
Gordon Syron, an Aboriginal artist was gaoled in the 1970s. His artwork, Judgement By His Peers4, a title taken from Magna Carta, reverses the colours of courtroom players to highlight iniquities inherent when one legal culture is saddled onto another.
His message is like a pebble thrown into a pond. It creates a timeless ripple effect.
‘Australia’ Day is more about celebration than unification . And just what are we celebrating? Our culture, our history or our self-satisfied way of life? Our culture, what we’ve created, is reason to be grateful. Our history, however, is littered with wrong turns and gaffes of the highest order.
Our self-serving treatment of Aboriginals has created a vanilla society at the expense of their culture with history ‘white-washed’ over.
Losses of Aboriginal languages and lands is trauma, similar to invaders passing undemocratic laws on Australians, educating-out English, mining war memorial sites, poisoning water, using the high altar of a cathedral to sell souvenirs, overrunning homelands, forcing poverty on us and then abducting children from families, charging parents with negligence along the way.
Past generations have been guilty of apartheid and cultural genocide, creating an inter-generational white hate. This has drawn Aboriginals into a vortex of despair and nihilism: they see little hope of clawing back their dignity or pride.
Aboriginals, however, have survived even if they have not thrived.
Today, they suffer from unacceptably high infant mortality and crime rates, enormous alcohol problems and low education levels. They’re outsiders inside their own land.
They are also a permanent pigment on the face of Australia that can’t be smoothed over or ‘whited out’. Nor should it be, because their history is our hidden history. It now needs recension.
Because Aboriginal rights are human rights, most of us stand permanently guilty every day if we do nothing and are complicit in a continuing crime like mute bystanders. It’s no more than national negligence.
We’ve officially said ‘sorry’ but is sorry, like honesty, “just a lonely word”, as Billy Joel’s lyrics suggest? Do we really mean it?
In dealing with trauma, individuals undergo three stages of growth I call the three Rs:
We can’t learn from history by hiding it.
Recognition, however, is not reconciliation, really just a banking term designed to marry off credits against debits to justify an outcome.
It’s seen by many as history in denial because it recognises some convenient truths but not the whole truth. It’s a white man’s choice, a palimpsest cloaking black fella’s dignity. It offers no catharsis: it can’t cleanse or heal wounds. It’s no solution.
Reconciliation is white fella’s dreaming.
The real solution is here, in our heritage. Our future is in our past.
It’s not just a BBQ, bronzed, beach-ball focused lifestyle of thongs and things we’ll enjoy this Australia Day off. No, it accepts that this vast, cafe latte-coloured landscape does not belong to us: we belong to it. We must share, cherish and nurture it if we are to survive together on it.
Our heritage is what we all have in common. It’s linked to a common love of landscapes, places, peoples of all tinctures, and things we want to keep. It’s what we share.
It’s true, we are an ‘opal-hearted country’, as Dorothea Mackellar observes in her famous poem about a sun-burnt country; full of layers of complementary, deep, dazzling, colours, different dimensions and perspectives, just like its people. That’s us. It’s you and it’s me.
This is our heritage and this is what being ‘Australian’ really means.
Now we’re swinging on the hinge of history. We’ve altered trajectory to head in a direction that will embrace all Australians, old and young, Aboriginals included.
We’ve recognised our fault lines, despite some good works by a minority. We accept we don’t control our past: it controls us and is part of our common identity, like a freckle on our face. We regret past wrongs. The third phase, reconnecting, means that if we do not engage now we will only widen the chasm between us and our fellow Australians, Aboriginal communities.
Let’s encourage this. Let’s go back to the very spot of first contact between our first inhabitants and Phillip’s first fleet. Let’s have an Aboriginal Keeping Place, at Customs House, Circular Quay, now much underused as a café, internet and newspaper reading room and galleries.
Not a mausoleum for the dead, such a site will be a living thing, a collage of culture explaining the breadth and beauty of the oldest, living, continuous civilisation on earth. Where else to better celebrate customs than in a customs house itself?
Using our provenance to chart our destiny: isn’t this what history is about? And the spirit of Arabanoo will finally be propitiated.
1 The Aboriginal translation is by courtesy of Mr Richard Green, Aboriginal linguist and Aboriginal historian
2 The quote re: Phillip’s instructions is from Brodsky, I, Bennelong Profile, 1973, p 18, per Historical records of Australia Volume 1 Series 1 1788-1796 p 93
3 The quote re: Watkin Tench’s diary extract is from Brodsky, I, Bennelong Profile, 1973, p 19 vide An Account of Port Jackson, Watkin Tench, 1968, p 138
4 Permission to quote from and to use Gordon Syron’s art work is from Mr Syron
Very informative thank you
Excellent article and very well researched.
We need to re-think our attitudes to Aboriginals for all our sakes.
This thoughtful article highlights how history is never static: its relevance changes according to waht is relevant to us today. it is, as the author says “the past explaining the present”.
And his re-interpretation of Governor Phillip’s instructions can now be seen in a new light.
I think the painting above is a re-interpretation of J.D. Shearer’s Sentenced at the Old Bailey as published in Bound for Botany Bay (Paul Hamlyn Pty Ltd 1976) i.e. a mashup.
Comments by “Ibis” may be right. It is not a “mashup” however.
That is part of the poignancy of this painting: it is partly a paradox in that it does not represent the British trying their own.
It represents blacks trying whites in the very dock the British built, and highlights the hypocracy behind their interpretation of clause 29 of Magna Carta 1215 enshrining the right to fair trial – even for Aboriginals – based on judgment by one’s peers.
The artist was convicted of a crime unfairly in 1978. He is an Adjunct Professor at UTS, Sydney, Australia, and won this year’s COFA [Uni NSW College of Fine Arts] Indigeneous art award.
The problem with Governor Arthur Phillip was that he was a deeply ignorant man. Let’s not compound that ignorance with our own.
This is an interesting article and filled with words with very special meaning that are used to describe events of great concern, at least for those with an interest in justice. In the land of the fair go, perhaps we need a closer look at what we have been saying and maybe this might help us understand where we might be blindly heading.
Words like “indigenous” and “aboriginal” are European words, specifically from the great language of categories, Latin. They carry with them prefigured, predigested and invisible arguments about autheticity and origins, land and people specific to European interests that perhaps distort perceptions among both indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia. What are the meanings built into these terms and how can they be re-thought?
Likewise the words used by locals when discussing issues with (visiting?) white people are often filled with loaded meanings only known to those with an intimate knowledge of the local language. What are these meanings?