Sunday, April 16, 2006

Book Review: Nowhere People

This week's book review is Nowhere People, by Henry Reynolds. Henry Reynolds is probably Australia's most prominent exponent of what its opponents call the "Black Armband" school of colonial history. The Black Armband school of history (as contrasted by its originator, Geoffrey Blainey, with the "three cheers" school of history) focuses (in its opponents' views excessively) on the various wrongs that were done to the aboriginal people of Australia during white settlement:
The 'black armband' view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. (John Howard - 1996 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture).

To me, the argument seems to be over focus, rather than fact. One thing that Henry Reynolds did in one of his earlier works was make an attempt to count the number of Aborigines who actually died from various frontier confrontations, add them up, and compare them with the number of Aborigines who lived at the time. Reading the detail of his books, it's hard to argue with his conclusion that there was a guerilla war going on at various times and places during the early days of Australian settlement; one which was almost overwhelmingly won by white people due to a combination of superior numbers, firepower, and occasionally, germs. That doesn't negate one of the other historical passions of Australians - that the ANZACs were a brave and heroic fighting force in World War I and particularly Gallipolli; but maybe it tells you that some of them had prior experience.

I've been a big fan of Henry Reynolds since I found his first books maybe 10 years ago (he's been writing a lot longer than that), so if you can't already, you can tell which side I'm on.

Anyway, back to this book. This book is a history of "mixed-race" people in Australia, and focuses on how much international theorising about mixing races affected the way in which mixed-race people were treated here. It has some high-level review of international thinking during the early 1900s, and then talks about the ways in which that thinking very much influenced the decisions of most state governments to try and separate mixed-race children from their aboriginal parents (an episode commonly known as the stolen generations). It's clear from the source documents, that Reynolds quotes quite extensively, that this was more than just children being removed from parents who neglected them; in most cases, the children were stolen forcibly and the state neglected them worse, and for ideological reasons.

The book is then topped and tail with Reynolds' story of his own family - it seems likely (although he doesn't and never will know) that Reynolds' grandmother had a fair bit of aboriginal ancestry.

I found the book heavy going; Reynolds seems to revel in finding quotes that sound unbelievably racist to modern ears (international ones talking about quadroons, mulattos, etc and the mongrelisation of the race), but apart from piling them on top of each other, doesn't do much with them. While he has a good high level survey of the stolen generation timelines, I've read better outlines of the facts elsewhere.

Sadly, the book didn't do that much for me; I suspect that Reynolds' personal interest has overtaken the need for good editing. Or maybe I'm just too politically correct (and squeamish) to be able to read that many racist documents in one sitting.


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