The story of Torrens and the Real Property Act of 1858 is fairly well known. Torrens took an interest in reforming South Australia’s chaotic deeds-based land system when an acquaintance lost money on a property, owing to a faulty title.
With help and advice from competent friends, and a sustained campaign for conveyancing reform, Torrens won the seat of Adelaide in the first parliamentary election of 1856. His Real Property Act came into effect in 1858. Soon afterwards, Torrens resigned from government to run the new land titles registry.
Under the new system, the location and dimensions of each land parcel were to be surveyed and registered. Every new land owner received a secure grant of title, guaranteed by the Crown.
Torrens: the man and his motivations
Torrens’ interest in market systems is less well known. His father, Colonel Robert Torrens, was both a colonisation commissioner and a noted political economist who wrote extensively on theories of rent, wages, profit and comparative advantages in trade. Colonel Torrens admired the early work of liberal theorist John Stuart Mill, especially his “system of logic” in economic science.
Expert historians, including Douglas Pike, Rosalind F. Croucher, GregTaylor and Giancarlo de Vivo, have described the lives and works of father and son in detail. Still, the intellectual relationship between them remains unclear. How strongly was the son influenced by the father? Did he develop his own ideas on political economy?
One thing is certain: Torrens (the son) expressed strong admiration for Mill. In his prospectus for a new South Australian land bank, Torrens named him “the great economist” and “the most accurate thinker of our time”. He also quoted Mill:
To make land as easily transferable as stock would be one of the greatest economical improvements that could be bestowed on a country.
Land as a commodity
With the Real Property Act in place, Torrens could argue further that land, being immovable and indestructible, was the safest kind of collateral for loans of money. Its “limited extent” made it “yearly more and more valuable”.
So, freeing up the transfer of land for everyone was a stepping stone to freeing up flows of money, which Torrens saw as a good thing.
On one hand, the institutionalisation of land ownership has allowed the efficient, cheap transfer of land parcels via a single, trusted provider. It minimises costs for home buyers and gives them a certain peace of mind. As long as the transfer process is performed correctly, title holders are immune to claims from former owners and their creditors.
On the other hand, it has allowed faster, easier land speculation and wild fluctuations in property values. It seems that Torrens didn’t anticipate the phenomenon of the commodity price bubble and couldn’t foresee growing, public disquiet over market failures.
Privatising the system
In 2014, Victoria’s Liberal government proposed the sale of the state’s land titles office. Treasurer Michael O’Brien explained that “the market can perform those services just as efficiently, if not more so”. However, the Liberals lost to Labor at the November 2014 election and the sale did not go ahead.
Last year, the New South Wales Liberal government floated the idea of privatising the state’s land titles registry. Despite protests and arguments, the deal has gone through. Responsibility for title transfers has been leased to a consortium of investment fund managers. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian promised “more efficient practices and better outcomes for customers”.
Victoria’s recent 2017-18 budget includes funds for a scoping study to investigate the privatisation of its own land titles office. There have been some negative comments in the news media, but the final decision is still some time away.
Torrens, then and now
Is privatisation consistent with Torrens’ ambitions for land-titles reform? If the aim was to free up the trade in land and money by reforming an unruly, inefficient system, further reform couldn’t be called inconsistent.
Once the new system was established, Torrens didn’t stay put to run it. He travelled widely and, when nominated to run for parliament in Britain in 1865, resigned as registrar-general without returning to Australia. If the system mattered more than the people running it, shifting it back into private hands might not be inconsistent either.
But, if privatisation caused delays, eroded security, or raised the price of conveyancing, it wouldn’t be consistent at all. For better or worse, Torrens really wanted land transfers to be quick, safe and cheap.
Although unfortunate, the incident has focused attention on the importance of being able to share scientific specimens around the world, and the vital role that herbaria play in modern science.
Despite being sometimes described as “museums for plants”, herbaria aren’t just natural history storage and displays. In this era of DNA barcoding, big data, biosecurity threats, bio-prospecting, and global information sharing, herbaria are complex and evolving institutions.
The modern herbarium is steeped in tradition and full of antiquities, but it also leads the application of modern approaches to understanding our past, present and future natural world.
The power of 8 million specimens
If you tell someone that you work at a herbarium, most will ask “what’s that?”, or perhaps “oh, what kind of herbs do you grow there?”.
Conventionally, a herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are stored and managed in an organised and structured way by curators and botanists who specialise in plant taxonomy and systematics.
There are some 3,000 active herbaria worldwide. As a collective, they contain more than 380 million specimens, spanning collections dating back as far as 500 years ago.
In Australia there are nine state, territory or national herbaria that, along with some university collections, hold close to eight million specimens. Four major Australian herbaria hold over a million specimens:
Herbarium specimens exist in many forms, including “pickled” plants or plant parts such as flowers or other delicate structures, dried specimens still attached to the surface on which they grew (like tree bark and rocks), and fruits or seeds preserved whole. But the overwhelming majority are dried, pressed plant specimens attached to archival card. Alongside these specimens there are sometimes drawings, paintings or photographs of the species, which capture details that are not discernible in the preserved specimen.
The Australasian Virtual Herbarium
The plant specimens don’t just exist on their own inside herbaria. Along with the specimens, the accompanying information is vital, such as where and when they were collected, specific details of the environments where they were collected, and who collected them.
In Australia, the major herbaria have been actively adding this information into a digital repository, resulting in a world-leading dataset: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.
The collation of these resources helped to inspire the development of the Atlas of Living Australia, and gives anyone with an internet connection access to specimen records from around Australia and the world.
Specimen-based, online data sets provide evidence of what species are found in a particular place at a particular time. They are a direct link from the presence of a species in the field, to collections of physical specimens held in herbaria, with the current name (that is, the latest changes in taxonomy) for that specimen.
There are many applications of such evidence including tracking changing species distributions such as ferals and weeds (an example of the weed “Salvation Jane” is shown in the figure above). Herbaria have been active in supporting detection of biosecurity threats. New introductions of species to Australia need careful determination of their identity and herbaria work with agencies to assist with this.
Sometimes, herbarium or museum specimens are the only evidence that a species existed at all. For example Gentianella clelandii, a species of native Gentian, is only known from the collection made of it in 1947 in the South East of South Australia. This species and others like it are likely to have been lost as a result of changing land use in the region at this time.
Samples from Cook, Flinders and Baudin
Important historical, scientific or cultural plant specimens exist in herbarium collections.
Plants collected during the voyages of early European explorers – including Dampier, Cook, Flinders and Baudin – are still found in herbaria. Some of these plants were also shipped live back to Europe, and have been grown in gardens and in scientific collections all over the world.
Remarkably, due to the care in methods of preserving them, these specimens are often in excellent condition more than 200 years after their collection and still able to be used productively in scientific research.
These historical specimens are often the first known collections of a previously undescribed species. If so, they will be designated as “type” specimens by the taxonomist naming the new species. Type specimens are very important as they allow the work of taxonomists to have a global frame of reference. This allows scientists to work out if two (or more) species have been assigned the same name.
Herbarium records enable resource managers to track distributions of both pest plants and endangered plants, providing a historical and current view of how widely spread and common the various species are across Australia.
You say River Red Gum, I say Yarrow
Taxonomy is the science of describing, classifying and naming plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomists do the work of describing and arranging plant species into classifications based on their morphology (what they look like), their genes and sometimes other features.
While highly scientific by nature, taxonomy is also vital to society at large. For invasive plant control, for border control, for environmental management and for urban planning, there must be no ambiguity as to which plant species we are talking about. Common names of plants can be misleading, the same plant often having many different common names. For example, the Australian iconic tree species Eucalyptus camaldulensis is known as River Red Gum, Blue Gum, Murray Red Gum, Red Gum, River Gum and Yarrow. We know these are all the same species, because taxonomists can compare herbarium specimens and determine if they share the same characteristics.
Expansion of the search for new biological compounds for human use — including medicines, food, cosmetics and other applications — exemplifies the problem of misapplied taxonomic names. For example the search for bioactive compounds in marine algae yields very different results for different species.
But imagine if there wasn’t a way to apply the precision of taxonomy in the search for information on the characteristics of a species to be used for biological control? Not only would time and money be lost, but the incorrect species could be used and unforseen outcomes may occur.
An example from the insect world is the Southeast Asian termite. A potentially harmful species of the termite genus Coptotermes was known regionally by another name, affecting its management as a pest causing building damage in the Americas and Malaysia.
Herbaria as a research resource
In addition to storing and organising specimens, larger or highly specialised herbaria usually have an associated research program. Focus scientific areas typically include taxonomy, systematics (how living things are classified and named), evolutionary biology, conservation biology and applied botany (using plants for economic benefit) .
Many herbaria have molecular genetics laboratories attached to them. DNA can be extracted from many specimens, even very old ones, and thus they can become a core part of ongoing DNA based scientific research. Today, DNA barcoding can provide a rapid tool for identifying species when flowers or fruits are not available, or if we have only fragments. Globally, DNA barcodes are now available for more than 265,448 species in the BOLD database. This aggregation of DNA sequences, which for plants are linked to herbarium vouchers, are a global resource that can be used in a “big data” context to explore ideas.
The value of herbaria samples extends beyond just the plants themselves. Herbarium specimens have been used to collate data for inferring changes in flowering times, leaf morphology and species ranges with climatic shifts.
Scientists also analyse chemicals that herbarium specimens have been exposed to, such as heavy metals associated with urban development, and different elements incorporated as leaves grow. Knowledge about waxes on leaf surfaces, as well as inhabitation by insects, fungi and bacteria are all possible through herbarium samples.
The global network of herbaria share specimens so that taxonomists and other researchers can benefit from their existence. With online resources making it known exactly what specimens are in which herbarium, there is an ever growing set of demands made on the use of specimens.
Curators who look after collections must balance the requests for using specimens in the present with long term preservation. The ability to track the impact of climate change and other unforeseen influences on plant health may make our current herbaria collections even more priceless in years to come.
In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.
Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.
Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.
My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.
This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.
1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative
Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.
White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:
The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.
This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.
Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.
The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.
Has anything changed since the 1960s?
The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.
Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.
For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.
Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).
For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.
There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.
The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.
Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.
Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.
This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.
Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.
Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.
Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.
However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.
The belated inclusion of Aborigines in chapters on Australian national identity is a welcome improvement. Nevertheless, this inclusion is momentary.
Who’s responsible for textbook content?
According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.
The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.
The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.
Australian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.
Between 1500 and 1866, slave traders forced 12.5 million Africans aboard transatlantic slave vessels. Before 1820, four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European, making Africa the demographic wellspring for the repopulation of the Americas after Columbus’ voyages. The slave trade pulled virtually every port that faced the Atlantic Ocean – from Copenhagen to Cape Town and Boston to Buenos Aires – into its orbit.
To document this enormous trade – the largest forced oceanic migration in human history – our team launched Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a freely available online resource that lets visitors search through and analyze information on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866.
Inspired by the remarkable public response, we recently developed an animation feature that helps bring into clearer focus the horrifying scale and duration of the trade. The site also recently implemented a system for visitors to contribute new data. In the last year alone we have added more than a thousand new voyages and revised details on many others.
The data have revolutionized scholarship on the slave trade and provided the foundation for new insights into how enslaved people experienced and resisted their captivity. They have also further underscored the distinctive transatlantic connections that the trade fostered.
Records of unique slave voyages lie at the heart of the project. Clicking on individual voyages listed in the site opens their profiles, which comprise more than 70 distinct fields that collectively help tell that voyage’s story.
From which port did the voyage begin? To which places in Africa did it go? How many enslaved people perished during the Middle Passage? And where did those enslaved Africans end the oceanic portion of their enslavement and begin their lives as slaves in the Americas?
Working with complex data
Given the size and complexity of the slave trade, combining the sources that document slave ships’ activities into a single database has presented numerous challenges. Records are written in numerous languages and maintained in archives, libraries and private collections located in dozens of countries. Many of these are developing nations that lack the financial resources to invest in sustained systems of document preservation.
Even when they are relatively easy to access, documents on slave voyages provide uneven information. Ship logs comprehensively describe places of travel and list the numbers of enslaved people purchased and the captain and crew. By contrast, port-entry records in newspapers might merely produce the name of the vessel and the number of captives who survived the Middle Passage.
These varied sources can be hard to reconcile. The numbers of slaves loaded or removed from a particular vessel might vary widely. Or perhaps a vessel carried registration papers that aimed to mask its actual origins, especially after the legal abolition of the trade in 1808.
Compiling these data in a way that does justice to their complexity, while still keeping the site user-friendly, has remained an ongoing concern.
Of course, not all slave voyages left surviving records. Gaps will consequently remain in coverage, even if they continue to narrow. Perhaps three out of every four slaving voyages are now documented in the database. Aiming to account for missing data, a separate assessment tool enables users to gain a clear understanding of the volume and structure of the slave trade and consider how it changed over time and across space.
Engagement with Voyages site
While gathering data on the slave trade is not new, using these data to compile comprehensive databases for the public has become feasible only in the internet age. Digital projects make it possible to reach a much larger audience with more diverse interests. We often hear from teachers and students who use the site in the classroom, from scholars whose research draws on material in the database and from individuals who consult the project to better understand their heritage.
Through a contribute function, site visitors can also submit new material on transatlantic slave voyages and help us identify errors in the data.
The real strength of the project – and of digital history more generally – is that it encourages visitors to interact with sources and materials that they might not otherwise be able to access. That turns users into historians, allowing them to contextualize a single slave voyage or analyze local, national and Atlantic-wide patterns. How did the survival rate among captives during the Middle Passage change over time? What was the typical ratio of male to female captives? How often did insurrections occur aboard slave ships? From which African port did most enslaved people sent to, say, Virginia originate?
Scholars have used Voyages to address these and many other questions and have in the process transformed our understanding of just about every aspect of the slave trade. We learned that shipboard revolts occurred most often among slaves who came from regions in Africa that supplied comparatively few slaves. Ports tended to send slave vessels to the same African regions in search of enslaved people and dispatch them to familiar places for sale in the Americas. Indeed, slave voyages followed a seasonal pattern that was conditioned at least in part by agricultural cycles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The slave trade was both highly structured and carefully organized.
The website also continues to collect lesson plans that teachers have created for middle school, high school and college students. In one exercise, students must create a memorial to the captives who experienced the Middle Passage, using the site to inform their thinking. One recent college course situates students in late 18th-century Britain, turning them into collaborators in the abolition campaign who use Voyages to gather critical information on the slave trade’s operations.
Voyages has also provided a model for other projects, including a forthcoming database that documents slave ships that operated strictly within the Americas.
We also continue to work in parallel with the African Origins database. The project invites users to identify the likely backgrounds of nearly 100,000 Africans liberated from slave vessels based on their indigenous names. By combining those names with information from Voyages on liberated Africans’ ports of origin, the Origins website aims to better understand the homelands from which enslaved people came.
Through these endeavors, Voyages has become a digital memorial to the millions of enslaved Africans forcibly pulled into the slave trade and, until recently, nearly erased from the history of not only the trade itself, but also the history of the Atlantic world.
Most of the voters who will be casting their ballots in the general election on Thursday June 8 will take their right to do so for granted, unaware of the contested history of this now familiar action. It’s actually less than 100 years since all adult males in the UK were awarded the franchise for parliamentary elections, in 1918, in the wake of World War I. That right wasn’t extended to all adult women for a further ten years after that.
Even today, it might be argued, the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” has not been fully implemented, since the royal family and members of the House of Lords are not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. And even after the mass enfranchisement of the early 20th century, university graduates and owners of businesses retained a double vote, the former in their university constituencies as well as where they lived. These privileges were only abolished in 1948, in face of overwhelming Conservative opposition.
How Britain votes today is also a relatively late development in electoral history. Until 1872, parliamentary electors cast their votes orally, sometimes in front of a crowd, and these choices were then published in a poll book. Public voting was often a festive, even riotous affair. Problems of intimidation were widespread, and sanctions might be applied by landlords and employers if voters failed to follow their wishes, though this was widely accepted at the time as the “natural” state of affairs.
Open voting even had its defenders, notably the political radical John Stuart Mill, who regarded it as a manly mark of independence.
But as the franchise was partially extended in the 19th century, the campaign for secrecy grew. The method that was eventually adopted was borrowed from Australia, where the use of polling booths and uniform ballot papers marked with an “X” was pioneered in the 1850s.
More recent reforms took place in 1969, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Party emblems were also allowed on the ballot paper for the first time that year. It’s this kind of paper that will be used on June 8.
Staying at home
What no one predicted, however, when these franchise and balloting reforms were first implemented, is that voters would simply not bother to turn out and that they would abstain in such considerable numbers.
To be sure, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, turnout for much of the 20th century at general elections remained high, even by European standards. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved slightly. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%. But the fact remains that, today, a massive one-third of those eligible to vote fail to do so, preferring instead to stay at home (and the situation in local elections is far worse).
What was a regular habit for a substantial majority of the electorate has now become a more intermittent practice. Among the young and marginalised, non-voting has become widely entrenched. Greater personal mobility and the decline of social solidarity has made the decision to vote a more individual choice, which may or may not be exercised according to specific circumstances, whereas in the past it was more of a duty to be fulfilled.
Voters rarely spoil their papers in the UK, whereas in France it is a traditional form of protest that has reached epidemic proportions: some 4m ballot papers were deliberately invalidated in the second round of the recent presidential election. Like the rise in abstention in both countries, it surely reflects disenchantment with the electoral process as well as disappointment with the political elite.
In these circumstances, the idea of compulsory voting has re-emerged, though in liberal Britain the idea of forcing people to the polling station has never exerted the same attraction as on the continent. The obligation to vote is a blunt instrument for tackling a complex political and social problem. When the interest of the electorate is fully engaged, as in the recent Scottish or EU referendums, then turnout can still reach the 75% to 80% mark.
However, in the forthcoming parliamentary election, following hard on the heels of its predecessor in 2015, the EU vote and elections to regional assemblies in 2016, plus the local elections in May, voter fatigue may take a toll. It’s hard to envisage more than two-thirds of those entitled to do so casting their ballot on June 8. Given the relatively small cost involved in conducting this civic act, which is the product of so much historical endeavour, such disaffection must be a cause for significant concern.
Maybe seven really is a magic number. 2017 certainly has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. And as we’ve heard in recent weeks, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the Mabo ruling, the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report and the 10th anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention. These are all significant milestones in Australian history and the legal, political and cultural relationship between Australia’s colonisers and its colonised.
In May, we witnessed the historic coming together of 250 indigenous delegates at Uluru to determine what form of constitutional recognition to seek from the Australian parliament.
But this is not the first time that locally elected delegates have gathered in one location to thrash out the legal and moral framework for establishing the principles through which our nation should be constituted and our people counted.
This year is also the 120th anniversary of the Australasian Federal Convention. In April 1897, ten elected delegates from each of Australia’s colonies (except Queensland, which did not attend) gathered at Parliament House in Adelaide to map the route to nationhood, a Commonwealth of Australia.
Six years earlier, delegates appointed by the colonial parliaments met in Sydney to discuss a draft constitution for federating the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. But 1897 was the first time that members of the Constitutional Convention were appointed by popular vote. (New Zealand was no longer included, having decided that being part of a trans-Tasman Commonwealth was not in its best interests.) Here was a novel experiment in democracy: allow the people to elect representatives to draft a constitution that would be submitted to the people for their assent.
Much has been made of the lack of unity at the Uluru Convention. But surprise, surprise: the 1897 Convention was no chorus of harmonious hallelujahs either.
Democratic sentiment in the last decade of the 19th century — a mood for inclusivity and openness to progressive change — did not necessarily subvert the age-old mechanisms of power; in particular, the fact that those who have it want to keep it. According to historian John Hirst,
the constitutional conventions were horse-trading bazaars at which premiers and their cohorts worked to protect the interests of their colonies.
Commerce and finance also manoeuvred to secure their short and long term investments. Hirst argues that if Federation was a business deal, as is commonly averred, it was a shaky one, with issues such as tariffs more often “divisive and tricky” than designed to broker consensus.
One major point of discrepancy among delegates at the People’s Conventions is what became known as “the Braddon Clause” (named after then Premier of Tasmania, Edward Braddon) whereby three-quarters of customs and excise revenue acquired by the Commonwealth would be returned to the states. Critics of “the Braddon Claws” feared this would lead to smaller states pilfering the profits of the more populous states. While Braddon’s initiative became Section 87 of the Commonwealth Constitution, many other issues were determined provisionally, with the get-out-of-jail-free rider “until the parliament otherwise decides”.
“Votes for Women”
Perhaps the most significant of the Federal Convention’s sticking points was the issue that would eventually make Australia a global exemplar in democratic practice: women’s suffrage. “Votes for Women” was the international catch-cry of the day, but in Australia, on the precipice of nationhood, the matter turned on what could be termed the “constitutional recognition” of women.
At the 1897 Convention in Adelaide, “warm Federalist” Frederick Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution. Three years earlier, South Australian women had become the first in the world to win equal political rights with men: the right to vote and to stand for parliament. (New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, but eligibility to stand was withheld until 1919.) Playing with a home ground advantage, Holder moved to add a clause to the draft Constitution that read “no elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right”.
Other delegates were left speechless. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, found words to express the horror:
As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the Federal Parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.
If South Australian women could not lose their citizenship status — their right to be counted — then the rest of Australia’s women must achieve it.
Barton spelled out the inescapable conclusion: ‘It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.“
Holder and Kingston threatened that, should the new clause not be approved, South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes. Universal suffrage effectively became the precondition of a federated Australia.
However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which made Australian women “the freest of the free”, was the same legislation that stripped Aboriginal Australians of their citizenship rights – legal personhood – which they would not claw back until 1967.
If the founding fathers had one thing in common, it was that they were indeed all men. Monochrome photos of the Constitutional Conventions depict the monocultural make-up of the delegates, whether elected or appointed: white, bearded, suited.
But there were plenty of founding mothers in the wings. South Australian Catherine Helen Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate when she unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for the 1897 Convention. (Another 2017 anniversary, albeit one of apparent failure.) Spence’s proposal for political reform – what she termed “pure democracy” — did make it into the Constitution: the principle of one-man one-vote was not her idea exclusively, but she fought for it with ferocious tenacity.
According to her biographer, Susan Magarey, Spence also made proportional representation “the talk of the colony”, later developing a system for the fairest distribution of preferences (a system so unwieldy it has never been implemented). Though Spence was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia, her life’s major mission was to rectify the injustices of the electoral system to ensure “the elevation, educational and spiritual, as well as economic, of all humanity”.
Alfred Deakin concluded that Federation was achieved through a series of miracles. The road to nationhood was not always smooth, seamless or virtuous. Vested interests, entrenched prejudices, competing perspectives and outsized personalities meant that achieving “consensus” was a juggling act that required immense skill and determination. Balls fell. Some were picked up and thrown back in the ring. The nation that emerged was, and is, complex and conflicted.
Catherine Helen Spence’s system for electoral reform may not have been initiated, but let’s hope that the ongoing process of constitutional reform ultimately achieves her broader goal: the elevation of all humanity.
This Thursday is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.
Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.
Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.
Stories from the sea
Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.
Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.
Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.
Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.
For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.
Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.
Heritage in the margins
Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.
The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.
And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.
Underwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.
One of the many tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) is their smashing of statues and the destruction of ancient archaeological sites. Indeed, the rapid and terrifying advance of the IS has proved fatal for much invaluable heritage.
They toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel.
It’s difficult to interpret the unprecedented scale of this heritage destruction. The global media and politicians have tended to frame these events as random casualties of wanton terror or as moments of unrestrained barbarism.
However, in an article published recently in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, we argue that the acts of heritage destruction undertaken by IS are much more than mere moments of propaganda devoid of political or religious justification.
We analysed two key IS media outlets: Dabiq, their glossy periodical online magazine, which is part manifesto, part call to arms, and part grisly newsletter; and the various slick propaganda films released by Al-Hayat.
We found that the heritage destruction wrought by IS was not only very deliberate and carefully staged, but underpinned by three specific and clearly articulated frameworks.
Firstly, the IS have gone to great theological (if selective) lengths to justify their iconoclasm. For example, an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh starts:
Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if they are worth billions of dollars.
The destruction at Palmyra features in a double-page spread with 14 colour photographs in Dabiq. In the French edition, Dar-al-Islam, the text states:
Baal is a false divinity for which people sacrificed their children as indicated in the book of Jeremiah (Old Testament). But by the Grace of Allah, soldiers of the Caliphate destroyed it.
Secondly, the IS make frequent reference to key historical figures to justify their iconoclasm. These include the Prophet Abraham’s destruction of idols and the Prophet Muhammad’s iconoclasm at the Ka’ba, the centrepiece of Mecca’s mosque.
In an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh, one militant states:
The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honourable hands when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.
Similar homage is also paid throughout the magazine Dabiq to other, more contemporary, moments of iconoclasm perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. These include the destruction of untold numbers of heritage sites by the Wahhabi sect across the Arabian peninsula from the mid-18th century; the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001; and the destruction of the al-‘Askari mosque by al-Qa’eda in Iraq in 2006.
Finally, and often overlooked, the IS have used political reasoning to justify the destruction. One Dabiq article states:
The kuffār [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.
We can see two dimensions of the IS’s political iconoclasm here. First, it is an attack on “the kuffār”. These are presumably Westerners who, as part of the colonial period, drew the modern borders and created the contemporary states of the Middle East. They also excavated Mesopotamian archaeological sites and placed relics in public museums to be admired.
Second, the attacks on sites inscribed on UNESCOs World Heritage List (such as Hatra and Palmyra) are also an attack on the values such institutions promote: secular, liberal, humanist values that promote a recognition of the shared heritage of human civilization. This is in stark contrast to the IS who seek to create religious, historical and political homogeneity under the rule of a strict caliphate.
In March 2015 UNESCO’s Bokova issued a statement referring to the destruction of heritage sites at the hands of the IS as a “war crime”.
Knowing that UNESCO was powerless to stop them, the following month the IS released an Al-Hayat video filmed at the ancient city of Hatra. The film shows militants using sledgehammers and assault rifles to destroy priceless reliefs engraved into the walls of the fortress city. It also features a bold repost to Bokova:
Some of the infidel organisations say the destruction of these alleged artefacts is a war crime. We will destroy your artefacts and idols anywhere and Islamic State will rule your lands.
Such brash assertions made by IS clearly demonstrate that their heritage destruction cannot be dismissed as being simple propaganda.
Instead, as we have shown, the heritage destruction undertaken by the IS are not only very carefully planned and executed, but also couched within a broader religious, historical and political framework that seeks to justify their violent iconoclasm.
Understanding the complex layers that drive such iconoclasm are a step towards developing better responses to the destruction of our shared cultural heritage.
Almost a quarter of Australian women now have tattoos – a trend some attribute to the influence of feminism. What I find interesting is that the mainstreaming of female tattooing in the west has finally caught up with a practice that is thousands of years old.
Ancient Egyptian female mummies have been found with tattoos. Thracian women were depicted with “sleeve” tattoos on their arms in Greek vases from the 5th century BCE. In traditional Maori culture, the eldest daughter in elite families was tattooed as part of a sacred ceremony.
I have also been researching abstract painted motifs on nude female Cycladic sculptures, which I argue are evidence that women were tattooed in the Cycladic islands in Greece in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BCE).
My interest in tattooing stems from my upbringing. Living in Aotearoa, from roughly the ages of eight to 28, meant that I was exposed to Maori and Pacific Islands tattooing attitudes. In Pacific cultures, where the tattooist has traditionally been (and usually continues to be) male, ancient stories say that the ancestral gods originally wanted women to safeguard the practice and be the primary recipients of tattoos. Nevertheless, both men and women were tattooed in Maori society prior to British colonisation in the 19th century.
But the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 criminalised tattooing as one of the teachings and practices of Tohunga (Maori experts or priests). In 1962, the Maori Welfare Act was introduced in Aotearoa, repealing this act. Since then, there has been a resurgence in tattooing among both men and women there.
My first seven tattoos
I grew up with friends who appreciated the significance of tattoos. As soon I turned 18, in 2000, I was off to a local parlour to embrace legal adulthood and get a small tattoo. I had drawn it myself, using elements of my zodiac sign.
My second tattoo was my first mermaid design. The motif was a larger version of a charm my father had given me. I wanted to be like that mermaid – able to live in different environments (above the sea and below it). I had moved out of home and was making my own way in a new city and attending university.
My next five designs (“Are You Experienced”; “Electric Lady”; and “Axis Bold as Love”, and two large mermaids on each side of my back) were done by a Maori tattooist, Manu Edwin. I listened to a lot of Hendrix when I was dealing with depression as an undergraduate student, especially the three albums recorded by The Experience.
Edwin shared my philosophy that tattooing is a transformative process. He would play each album loudly in the studio as he was tattooing me – just as music and singing were traditionally used to drown out the “tap-tap” of tattoos being carved into the skin with hand held tools in the Pacific region.
I find that the physical pain of being tattooed puts emotional and mental pain into perspective. I love that the raw tattoo must be cared for gently in the following weeks after the procedure, and that the result is permanent. My tattoos turn something ugly from my past into something beautiful for my present and future.
Before I describe my eighth and most recent tattoo, let’s look at four ancient cultures that tattooed their women.
Maori (ca.1250 CE)
Elsdon Best was an ethnographer who gathered detailed information from the Tuhoe tribe (from the North Island of Aotearoa) in the very early 1900s. He recounts in his book, The Uhi-Maori (1904), that elite families tattooed the younger sisters prior to the tattooing of the eldest one, who was the most tapu (sacred).
The tattooing of the lips and chin of the first-born daughter of a chief was extremely tapu, and the rite was called ahi ta ngutu (sacred fire). During the tattooing, others from the tribe would surround the patient and sing specific whakatangitangi (repetitive songs) to ease the painful and highly sacred process, the song for women being the whakawai taanga ngutu.
The motifs of the tattoo would be determined by an individual’s genealogy, and the placement of tattoos on the body was significant. People without tattoos were papatea (unmarked, and thus of lower status), and to be tattooed was a sign of attractiveness and high status in the community.
Thracian (ca.500 BCE)
Thrace of the Greco-Roman world existed in what we now call east Macedonia, southeast Bulgaria and parts of Turkey. Pictorial representations of Thracian women with tattoos appear on Greek red-figure vases such as the one pictured here, with a Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.
Luc Renaut, an art historian, suggests that in Thrace, tattooing added beauty, and therefore value, to women in a society where they were bought for marriage (that is, they incurred a bride price). This was in contrast to the Classical Greek and Roman systems in which the bride’s family gave payments (a dowry) to the groom’s family.
Depictions of women on Classical vases (ca. 500 BCE), show Thracian women with geometric and figurative tattoos. The tattoos reinforce the Thracian-ness of the woman in the scene. And indicate that she is not your run-of-the-mill Athenian lass who can’t stand the lyre.
Greek vase painting gives a visual account of the geometric and figurative motifs on Thracian women: zigzags, dots, lines, meanders, checkerboard patterns, spirals, ladder patterns, “stick-figure” animals, half-moons, rayed suns, and rosettes.
Tattoos were placed on the arms, legs, ankles, chest, neck, and chin. Sometimes entire arms or legs were covered with bands of designs, row upon row.
Egyptian (Eleventh Dynasty: 2040-1991 BCE)
Much older artistic (and direct) evidence of female tattooing comes from Egypt. Egyptian tattoos from the late third to early second millennium survive on female mummies and were replicated on female figurines.
A pair of Eleventh Dynasty female Egyptian mummies excavated at Deir el-Bahari is the strongest evidence that in the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian women were tattooed.
The preserved “dotted diamond” tattoo motif is clearly visible on the arm of one of the mummies. The same motif can be seen on Egyptian potency figurines from the same site and period.
The striking similarity between the painted motifs on the figurine and the preserved tattoos on the female mummy are compelling evidence that cultures that tattooed their women produced female figures with tattoos painted on their bodies.
Egyptian tattooing kits consisted of three items found in the archaeological record. These are razors, needles or pins, and small containers of dried carbon based black pigment. All of these elements of the basic tattooing kit (not just in Egypt but around the world) are multifunctional items. They could be useful for non-permanent body modification: shaping eyebrows, using black eyeliner. Needles and pins could be used to sew clothing, pop pimples, or remove splinters.
Ancient people were very resourceful, and tattooing is very basic. At the core of the procedure is pricking the skin and getting some pigment into the wound. The process of prick-tattooing by hand is reflected by the representation of the diamond pattern on both the mummified tattoo and on the potency figurine shown here.
Today the cluster of needles on an electric tattooing machine are so small that you can’t differentiate the dots: a mechanism moves the needles up and down extremely quickly. But in 2000 BCE, tattooing in Egypt was done with singular pointed implements or a few pins bound together held in the hand of the tattooist, using their wrist strength to repeatedly poke a motif into the skin.
The points may have been dipped into an ink beforehand and it is likely that afterwards the whole area would be rubbed with more ink for good measure to try and get a clear, dark final result.
Cycladic (ca.2500 BCE)
The Cycladic people (ca. 3000-2000 BCE) colonised the Cycladic Islands. They were the first major Aegean civilisation to flourish in the Early Bronze Age, until the Minoans of Crete rose to prominence with their maritime prowess in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1500 BCE). The mortuary practices of Cycladic people (burial, sometimes multiple burials) and the climatic conditions of the islands, means that there are no preserved tattooed skin remains to support my argument that their women were tattooed.
However, like their southern Mediterranean Egyptian neighbours, they produced nude female figures with geometric designs across the face and body. This is where the iconographic evidence of the “tattooed” Cycladic figurines aligns with Egyptian female tattooing evidence.
Furthermore, I have identified objects in the Cycladic archaeological repertoire which are present in the Egyptian tattooing kits – small containers of preserved pigment, obsidian blades to shave the skin, and needles and pins made of bone and metal.
These items are also useful beyond the body modification sphere too – butchering, cooking, crafting, espionage – I could go on. But my point (pun intended) is that people should include tattooing in the list of possible uses for these items.
The painted Cycladic figurines and statues that constitute my artistic evidence are probably the most well known artefacts of this culture. However, their abstract painted decoration was not fully realised until art conservator Elizabeth Hendrix’s research in the 1990s and early 2000s. Under special photographic conditions, she found faint traces of red, blue, and black pigment (sometimes noticeable with the naked eye) were revealed to be the remains of a colourful array of abstract painted motifs. These include: dots, zigzags, stripes, eyes, and possibly linear representations of the Egyptian deity, Bes.
To me, the most enigmatic Cycladic tattoo motif is the eye. Blue evil eye charms are still a potent good luck symbol in the Mediterranean and Near East. You can see it on the neck of the example shown here.
Cycladic culture was an oral one that did not create it own script and leave any written clues per se. Instead their cultural ideas are inscribed on the sculptures. I read their designs as tattoos, which identified their bearers as women who had accomplished a certain status in Cycladic society.
My eighth tattoo
I chose a blue evil eye as my eighth, and most recent tattoo motif – to pay homage to the eye painted on Cycladic female sculptures. It was done by a female tattooist in Athens on my last research trip to Greece in 2014.
The power of female fertility and perils of prehistoric childbirth in ancient societies probably meant that tattoos on women conveyed certain messages. They were indicative of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, of female power and female beauty.
If I see my tattoos as permanent records of rites of passage and power over adversity, ancient women and their societies may have been doing the same – but with a more restricted range of motif options. The limited range of motifs would have been due to both social conventions, the skill of the tattooist, and the tools used to create the tattoo.
Next time you see a piece written about female tattooing today, I hope you will wonder at how feminism, globalisation and tattooing have taken so long to come full circle. Once again, women are now the primary recipients of this ancient, permanent body modification practice.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, in a sunset ceremony in central Australia, approximately 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across Australia delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Convened by the Referendum Council, the statement put forth an Indigenous Australian position on proposed constitutional reform, rejecting constitutional recognition in favour of a treaty.
Through the establishment of a Makarrata Commission (a body that would oversee agreement-making between governments and Indigenous groups), the Uluru statement expressed Indigenous peoples’ “aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia”.
Yet, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians voted in favour of what they believed would be a “fair go for Aborigines” in supporting the amendment of two clauses within the Constitution.
Fifty years on, there remain some uncomfortable truths about what those amendments did to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus have argued that the “yes” vote did little to change the administration of Indigenous affairs; nor did it grant Indigenous peoples citizenship rights, voting rights or put an end to racial discrimination.
The constitutional amendments attended to what appeared to be racially discriminatory clauses, which excluded Aboriginal people. The result may well have made Australia appear less racist, but it did not address the inherently racist nature of the constitution.
One example is the amendment to Section 51 (xxvi), referred to as the race power, which excluded Aboriginal people from the Commonwealth’s special powers to introduce laws affecting “the people of any race”.
In 1901, the Commonwealth’s power was put to work with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, and was rationalised by the then prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton. He said:
I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.
It is hard to imagine how our inclusion as a raced people within this racially discriminatory clause would be emancipatory. In being raced, we were not just named – we were claimed.
When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 on the land of the Gadigal people, it did not just bring convicts, marines, seamen and civil officers. It also brought with it “the Aborigine”, and our racialised construction as Aborigines has served the colonial project well.
Being an Aborigine has circumscribed our being, our relationship to this place and to the state. In being raced, we have become known by the state and through our relationship with it. It has cemented a relationship of power over us, physically, morally, intellectually, politically and legislatively.
We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.
As a racialised subject, I have been subjected to lies dressed up as racialised truths that insist upon our inferiority. Every day, we are forced to contest these lies while having to live with them. In order to get by and get on in a social world that discounts us, we create for ourselves other lies.
I remember the words of my father growing up, insisting that if I worked ten times harder than them, that I would “make it” – that it was possible to rise above my station, to rise above race. These were lies that we lived with in order to make the injustice of the world seem less insurmountable.
But I cannot be blinded to the ways in which my presence is read racially, regardless of how hard-working I am, how articulate I might be or how acceptable my presence might appear.
It does not inhibit the surveillance by police who perceive my presence as a predisposition to an unknown criminal act.
It does not inhibit a rendering of me as an Aboriginal mother or my husband as an Aboriginal father being deemed at risk of not being able to look after my children properly.
It does not prevent colleagues from seeing my presence as a scholar as an equity act, as an accommodation of my intellectual incapacity or as a cultural broker to white knowing.
The lie I can no longer live with is the insistence that our racialised being can be remedied through our own efforts: that if we just acted better, if we just articulated ourselves better, that if we were recognised better, that our lives would be better.
I don’t know if we can overcome race completely, but I do know that we cannot minimise the power of race by ignoring the power of race. Race was the foundation on which this nation was built and it continues to structure our society, its institutions and social life.
We cannot build a better nation by simply piling new bricks or new clauses to cement over the reality of race and the way it manifests interpersonally and institutionally.
While it was a remarkable feat that, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians supported in principle the idea of a fair go for Aborigines, we cannot get too swept away with the idea that the attending to the power of race is unfinished, or that it is confined to a constitutional clause or two.
At every turn, conversations about race are downplayed, dismissed or booed into submission. It would appear that more effort in this country is spent on not looking racist than on not being racist. The danger of the next step (in whatever direction that might be) is that we will fail to tell the truth about race.
We can only hope that the federal government and the Australian people will heed Indigenous peoples’ call for a “fair and truthful relationship” through a fair and truthful conversation about the power of race in maintaining power over Indigenous peoples’ lives and lands.
This essay is an excerpt from Chelsea Bond’s keynote address at the State Library of Queensland’s 50 Years and Counting event.