I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)
The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.
The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.
Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.
However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.
The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.
“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.
The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).
The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).
The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”
That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.
The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …
From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.
Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).
The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.
The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).
Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.
Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.
The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).
Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.
Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).
However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.