Bones or Remains researching the history
Researching the history for Bones or Remains has been a focus of my work for the last 20 years. The following text is from my notes for the book and starts to look at some of the issues around the history of our involvement with indigenous people in Australia.
When I say ‘our’ I mean white English people specifically and white British people generally. The book itself, which I am hoping to publish this year , is the story about my Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in Queensland conducted between 1997 and 2000. In this research, I was looking at indigenous relationships between elders and youth but this inevitably led to a much wider frame of reference. I was presented with a history I was previously completely ignorant of.
This discovery has required me to re-think much of the history which informed my cultural heritage and created my own identity of being ‘English’. I have had to take some time to work out what it is I wanted to say about my experience in Queensland, such journies demand consideration before the telling. My own engagement with the indigenous culture taught me that it is easy to rush in and miss everything. I believe that 20 years to think and absorb what I learnt is probably not rushing things too much.
Over the coming months I will be posting on this blog a series of articles which are devised to help create a landscape of questions on which ‘Bones or Remains’ travels. The story itself will not appear here but some background will be provided to allow the reader to start to access elements of this contentious history. If you want to know who that ‘reader’ is, who is the audience that I am aiming at, then I am happy to say.
‘Bones or Remains’ is not a book for indigenous Australians, there will be nothing in it which they do not already know. As a white Englishman it is not for me to tell indigenous people about their history even if I could. My audience is primarily a white English audience which can expand out to white people everywhere. The story I am writing is really about us and how we see ourselves.
Once in Queensland, research took me through volumes on the history of the indigenous population after the arrival of the settlers. The British colonists came after Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia. The importance of Cook was that he was an Englishman in a world dominated by their Empire.
Known as the British Empire, in its heart of power, London, the English were the lords of their dominions, they were the masters. Indigenous Celts, the Irish, Scots and Welsh were the ‘British’ but the architecture of power was built by the English by securing the British Isles.
In those home territories, the landlords were Anglicised if not actually English. Those who ruled over the indigenous peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Wales held their allegiance to the English crown by the time James Cook set foot on Australian soil.
English castles had subdued the Welsh in the fourteenth century, English soldiers had capture Ireland in the seventeenth century and English armies had defeated the Scottish hearts in the eighteenth century.
In the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall and the officers’ mess in Bombay and Ontario, the British Empire may have been the brand name but the English were the masters.
Cook’s expedition to Australia was not a grand adventure in exploration for the noble sake of human knowledge and the benefit of humanity. The small flotilla he commanded was the most professionally constructed scientific investigation ever put together up until that time.
This deliberate focusing of science was not any more philanthropic or idealistic than the purpose of sailing. That purpose was about wealth, profit and power; Cook was the vanguard of commercial exploitation. The members of his team were going to Australia to catalogue, map and identify anything of value and start to describe how best that value could be extracted.
This was an aggressive commercial take over which made no allowance at all for any existing human population. Whoever stood in the way of the British Empire, no matter their history, culture or history of civilisation, were described by one word; natives. The simple, unaffected peoples to whom the empire brought advancement.
If deals and agreements could be achieved with local agents, then they would be installed as princes or petty potentates overseeing the social order in the manner required for the extraction of wealth. Where a persistent strength of feeling about a local identity existed such that the natives resisted the civilisation the empire brought them, then murder and destruction was the preferred method of takeover.
The Hudson Bay Company in the Canadian lands and the East India Company in the subcontinent were the established models for exploitation. There was a brutal honesty in their construction. They were private enterprise operations, business ventures, which were licensed by the crown and contracted to direct the asset-stripping operations for the benefit of the treasury in London.
To be cost-effective and for the purpose of the balance sheet, these companies could either raise their own armies or contract the British military for specific tasks.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the British Empire was a proto-model for a global corporation made up of a board of directors covering specific territories of operation in relationships with subsidiaries, agents and local clients across the world.
The massive financial success of the West Indies operation, where record profits for commercial operations were set, had been more entrepreneurial in character. Individuals had received grants of land and made enormous personal fortunes whipped from the backs of twelve million kidnapped African natives.
The wealth of the sugar plantations built huge estates back in England created the first steps in modern merchant banking and funded the industrial revolution and the development of northern factories. Times were changing though.
Originally the Elisabethan East India Company was more of a trading cartel run by powerful cliques. By 1657 the British government was seeing the company as a vehicle for colonial ambitions and the creation of a territorial empire. At this point, joint-stock was created and the government became a shareholder.
Now a long-established route to multi-national corporate power, the business of empire began to become much more corporate and a lot less entrepreneurial through mergers and acquisitions.
Cook’s expedition to Australia was a superb example of due diligence; the process through which a corporation makes a detailed assessment of any asset it is seeking to take control of.
Onboard the expedition with Cook was Joseph Banks, the later architect of the empire’s enhanced process of due diligence. A botanist from the heart of the wealthy establishment, he could be seen to be as much a ‘resource accountant’ as a scientist.
When we look back at the watercolour paintings of flowers and plants produced in exquisite detail during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we probably just see a rather pretty art. Their purpose was never that of art but that of commerce, to the business sense of the corporate empire there was no reason to send artists on expensive expeditions just to paint pretty pictures for the drawing rooms of London.
Banks was cataloguing resources and looking at the fauna of the world for its potential financial value.
In 1779, Banks, giving evidence before a committee of the House of Commons, had stated that in his opinion the place most eligible for the reception of convicts “was Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland”, on the general grounds that, “it was not to be doubted that a Tract of Land such as New Holland, which was larger than the whole of Europe, would furnish Matter of advantageous Return”.
On arriving in Australia the expedition found that the land was empty of human culture or civilisation. They saw a territory ripe to be taken in hand and shaped to the heights of human civilisation, the British Empire.
There were some savages roaming around but they were more wild animals than examples of humanity. To the eye of business they were almost naked, with no obvious morality, completely incapable of even the most rudimentary forms of architecture which set man above the animals and organised in small groups or bands not dissimilar to troupes of baboons in Africa; as far as Cook and Banks could see the land was uninhabited. Australia was wide open for business
What made this rich, virgin territory even more potentially profitable was that absence of human beings. In the Americas, they had to fight and wage war against the local populations of natives they called ‘Indians’ and the competing colonial power of France.
In India, they had faced long-established cities and kingdoms which needed to be subdued. All across the empire, in the lands of spices and tea, they had been bearing the costs of subjugation of the natives. An expensive balance sheet item for which adequate provision had to be made on an annual basis.
Australia was empty except for a handful of throwbacks from the stone age. A residual population of early humanity which was moving towards its extinction. These were not even natives, they were beasts of the land at best and vermin at worst.
In this inability to see culture or humanity evidenced by anything other than that by which they identified themselves, the British Empire defined the exceptional process of colonisation in Australia. Everywhere else in the world the empire had need of its armies and conducted warfare against revolting natives.
The army was not needed in the new southern continent, there was no-one to subdue. All that was required was a police force to manage the settlers and to allow them to deal with any issues of pest control.
Tony Birch puts this into sharp and painful focus in his article ‘Nothing Has Changed’ in Meanjin written back in 1992.
“When the Chief Protector of Aboriginies, G.A. Robinson, arrived in Portland in May 1841, he discovered that only ‘2 of the tribe who once inhabited the country of the Convincing Ground are still alive’.
Robinson’s tour of the Western District uncovered large-scale murder by the European squatters, as well as Koori resistance. At Portland the Police Magistrate, Mr Blair, stated that the ‘natives’ of a ‘tribe’ that had killed a squatter and his shepherd ‘should be exterminated’. He would ‘shoot the whole tribe’ if the murderer was not ‘delivered up’. Two days later, one of the Henty brothers informed Robinson that ‘the settlers were dropping them’. Blair, who was present, ‘replied he hoped so’, and added that ‘he had no power to restrain the settlers from shooting the women and children’.”
source: Tony Birch ‘Nothing has Changed’: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture. Meanjin Volume 51 Number 2 1992
This is the way of thinking which framed the experience of the indigenous human beings of Australia once the English had arrived with their business model. From the late eighteenth century to this day here and now (12.02.2020) the human beings who were the first inhabitants of what we call Australia have been persecuted on a shocking scale.
And we, the whitefella, especially the white English as I am myself, find it almost impossible to admit what we have done and how we have benefited from the murder and suffering of men, women and children. We need to change that and it starts by understanding our history as something other than glorious tales of Empire.
Bones or Remains researching the history
The award of a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to Jack Adams in 1996 enabled him to spend three years researching the history of the indigenous experience in Australia.
Bones or Remains will be published in 2020 and is a book about Jack’s journey into the indigenous landscape and the history it contains. The material is very difficult to handle because there are long established problems with a white man writing black history. Quite rightly so. There are also massive problems with writing about indigenous history and experience in Australia producing yawning pitfalls in respect of cultural appropriation. How does a white Englishman go to Queensland, engage with indigenous people, leave and then twenty years later produce a book about the experience without simply taking other people’s cultural property? That is the challenge of Bones or Remains.
In Bones or Remains researching history is not the whole story. When researching history we have to try and understand what is the nature of the history we are researching. This is like the title of the book, Bones or Remains, everything depends more on what cultural position you take before you start to research history and that decides whether you have bones or remains.
The cover photograph is of Rodney Boschman, a man I consider as my friend and someone who helped me, as a man, to understand the indigenous experience. I am hoping to meet him again and I am very much pained that circumstances have drawn us apart. Jack.