Representing the Past to Represent Us

TORI S. BARENDREGT | FEATURES



In Australia we proudly boast values of mateship, multiculturalism, humility and sincerity. We are known for our easy-going, down to earth, friendly attitude, giving the idea that we can get along with just about anyone. But the expression of our nation’s history, in schools and everyday public life tells a different story, a story dominated by the white coloniser with a set of different and outdated values.


There are a few people who don’t understand the nature of history. Simply put, it is the expression of the past. But some people figure that the past is the past, what happened, happened and there is no changing it. So why dwell? Unfortunately, history is not static. It exists in a dynamic relationship with present society where it shapes us and we in turn shape it. On one hand, everything that has happened in the past has culminated in the world we live in today, explaining how we have gotten to where we are, it shapes us. But on the other hand, we have a power in shaping history. The first and most obvious way is that we create a past, we leave an imprint on the world through our actions. We are the catalysts for events, wars, movements and developments that forge the trail for the future world. The second way is through how we communicate that past. This is how we use the past, how we write about it to tell a certain story or create a specific portrait. The Chinese historian Bai Shouyi, offers an interesting definition, claiming that there are two strands of history: objective and subjective. Objective history would be the thing that happened and the people involved or the substance of history. Subjective history would then be how we interpret that substance, what we say happened. This is ultimately the only history that we have access to because as soon as we put words to what happened it becomes tainted by our perspective. History is always promoting a viewpoint.


This becomes problematic because when we first start learning about Australia’s history, we are not aware of this and in any case, we are too young to even begin to comprehend it. We accept what we are told as real. This level of thinking is only accessible as we become older. But then history is only mandatory from kindergarten through to Grade 10 and it is all taught the same way, and repetitively too: one linear story, highly veiled through a European perspective.


I remember in primary school learning year after year about how Captain Cook discovered Australia, how Governor Arthur Philip colonised Australia, settling the First Fleet and establishing civilisation. I remember learning about their hardships as they battled the land and Indigenous population for survival. Later in Australian history, I remember learning about the Gold Rush and World War I and the ANZACS. But from primary school the only thing I remember learning about in Indigenous history was The Dreaming, the sweet creation stories of an old culture.


High school was a little better. I remember learning about the Stolen Generation and the Lands Rights Movement. That cast white Australia in a different light. But it didn’t feel connected. I think a lot of the problem was the way the content was delivered. I learnt from a textbook and the occasional film. And there was no argument between Aboriginal history and the heavily mythologised telling of European history that had been ingrained in my memory from primary school. It was as if they were separate and distinct, distances away from each other. The heroes we learnt about in primary school were not of the same people of the villains that took Aboriginal children away from their families. Then there was the additional problem of minimal connection of the past to the present and no analysis or criticism of how those two pasts were told, or how they continue to be told in society and what effect it has on us as people today.


Not everyone pursues further education in history and do not consider exploring the other side of the story. They do not always develop high-level critical thinking towards history and revisit what they were taught in their formative years. They may not even be aware of how powerful the expression of history really is. This is why public history is such an important field in historical delivery. White privilege is established through knowledge construction. Primary and secondary Australian history education favours the white coloniser. They are given a special place in history, treated with near reverence, telling us something about the people descended from them. Then, after school people mostly encounter Australian history through popular or public mediums such as television, film and memorials. The Black Lives Matter protests brought attention to this in June 2020. It started in Britain when protestors toppled a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston and dumped it in Bristol harbour. In Australia, various statues of colonial figures became targets of protesters, calling for their removal due to their racist connotations. Furthermore, every year protesters march on 26 January for the Change the Date campaign for Australia Day’s insensitive historical connections.


Historical expressions such as these are saying something about Australia. Their continued presence or continued celebration reinforce this particular version of history in the present-day mind. They continue to promote a white Australia — the white coloniser as making Australia — ignoring the oppression of Indigenous and other cultures that make up our Australia today. These protests then can be understood as protests against the way we as nation remember our history and what it promotes to our present society. Though not a physical manifestation of history, Australia Day is rooted in a historical event, connected to the First Fleet when Arthur Philip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove in 1788. It is remembering the beginning of white Australia and the catalyst of a history marked by white dominance and oppression to Indigenous Australians and non-white immigrants. And this occurs every year. Meanwhile, statues remain permanent markers on public display that promote Australia’s white history and outdated values along with it. An inscription on the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park reads, “Discovered this territory / 1770,” recalling terra nullius. Terra nullius was overturned. The White Australia Policy was abolished. But historic markers such as these make it difficult to move on.


Such expressions of our nation’s past have a persevering, prevailing, and continuing presence in Australians’ minds, either on public display or celebrated publicly by the entire nation. What do these things say about us as a nation today? Do we still believe in such ideas? An entire history cannot be captured in one source but the aspects of Australia’s history that are captured in mediums such as these can send the wrong message as clearly demonstrated by annual protests. These aspects of the past may no longer be acceptable to be displayed in this way, unregulated and unchecked. While Britain is important to the making of Australia and should still be taught, Captain Cook and his like have had their time celebrated in the spotlight. Now it is time to consider them in today’s landscape and moral framework. The statue of Edward Colston was replaced by that of a Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid, better reflecting the values that present-day Britain would like to promote. Australia is a multicultural society and public history can be used to promote that idea.