Not a systematic post on the pains of history….

I warned you a couple of days ago: “Well, having now finished my 2010s re-runs, and pausing while I formulate what will I hope be a sensible post about the current statues thing and cancel culture, for which meanwhile visit Jim Belshaw.” That recommendation still stands. His very personal wrestling with the issues is quite admirable, in my view, and expresses many of my own reservations as well.

Much ranting, raving, and even sometimes good sense has taken off lately about what to do with our history — especially in the USA, the UK, and here in Oz. Sometimes it is about statues, sometimes about graffiti, sometimes about who tells history and on whose behalf.  There are serious matters at play, obviously, and I have varied views. For example, I understand that in the USA Confederate monuments were never just innocent monuments but were rather manifestations of defiance against the “winning” side and in favour of defending the Antebellum South, manifestations of Jim Crow, and greatly loved to this day by the KKK — and unfortunately in this day, it appears, by Donald Trump.

Then in our own sphere we have had attacks on James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie, and even Matthew Flinders. (In that last case I may point out that my brother married into the family of Bungaree who circumnavigated Australia with Flinders.)

Bungaree pictured in red colonial coat with black and gold details for hand-drawn portrait.


I have posted on all the above before:

The Daily Telegraph’s cultural amnesia (2016)

Living with the facts of our history (2017)

Bicentenary of Dharawal massacre in Appin area (2016)

The Secret River (2015)

—  201 years ago at Minnamurra River (2019)

Matthew Flinders rediscovered (2019)

Now I turn to poetry. I have myself posted both these poems in the past, but am delighted to have found both and much more in a dedicated poetry blog: My Word in Your Ear. The first poem I quote in full. It is by well-known 19th/20th century Australian Communist Dame Mary Gilmore (1865 – 1962).

Old Botany Bay

“I’m old
Botany Bay;
stiff in the joints,
little to say.

I am he
who paved the way,
that you might walk
at your ease to-day;

I was the conscript
sent to hell
to make in the desert
the living well;

I bore the heat,
I blazed the track-
furrowed and bloody
upon my back.

I split the rock;
I felled the tree:
The nation was-
Because of me!

Old Botany Bay
Taking the sun
from day to day…
shame on the mouth
that would deny
the knotted hands
that set us high!

Lachlan Macquarie of course was in his time the Governor/Head Jailer. But (whatever his sins, and there were sins as my earlier posts show) we would not be here without him and without everyone else in that small band of colonists — 12,000 by 1820. On which I strongly commend yet again Grace Karskens, The Colony:

….Unlike Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, this book joins other histories- John Hirst’s work springs to mind-  written with  a determination to look beyond Hughes’ gulag and horror: it looks to the agency, optimism and opportunism of ordinary people in a new environment instead of just the dregs of the old world.

The history itself is a thing of beauty too.  It breaks free of many straitjackets: more than perhaps any other history of Australia that I have read it interweaves Aboriginal history, archaeology, women and environmental history throughout the book.  Not content with the almost obligatory “before” chapter dealing and then dispensing with “the aborigines”, she asserts that Sydney remained an Eora town- that Eora people continued to live within Sydney on their own terms, with their own geography and in resistance to christianizing impulses, into the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, they have never left…

I do like honest history, but if I am to be really honest I would have to say that short of packing everyone back onto ships and returning to the British Isles there was no way of reversing the changes that most of my ancestors brought to this part of the world. (I am descended from a convict who set out from Ireland while Macquarie was still Governor.) Nor for all the jumping up and down and spray painting do any of those possibly born after 1990 decide to return to wherever their forebears or they themselves came from. Rather nastily in one of the above posts I placed this picture of my own making:


That is the base of  the Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park, recently graffitied again.

We are as a nation quite rightly wrestling — and what a slow wrestle it has been — with the issues of treaty, sovereignty and reconciliation. Personally I am still a fan of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Now to my second poem, a personal favourite, this time from a very conservative poet whom I actually met in the late 1960s. He read this poem aloud and I found it totally moving. It is about family relations, but can I think apply to our attitude to our history more generally. It is James McAuley (12 October 1917 – 15 October 1976), Because. Do read it.

People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?

Judgment is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.

I may have more to say later.