Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Rectifying "The Great Australian Silence'? Creative Representations of Australian Indigenous Second World War Service

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Rectifying "The Great Australian Silence'? Creative Representations of Australian Indigenous Second World War Service

Article excerpt

Abstract: Until the publication of Robert Hall's landmark book The Black Diggers in 1989, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were essentially 'written out' of Australia's Second World War history. Still, more than 20 years since the publication of Hall's book, Australian Indigenous participation in the war effort as servicemen and women, labourers and scouts, in wartime industries and in various other capacities, continues to be on the periphery of Australia's war history. The Second World War remains part of what WEH Stanner referred to in 1969 as 'the Great Australian Silence' of Indigenous history.

Notwithstanding the lack of significant academic histories of Indigenous military history, there have been a few creative depictions of Aboriginal participation in the Second World War. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have used creative mediums, such as poetry, short fiction, film, musical theatre and music, to portray Aboriginal Second World War service. This paper examines these creative cultural representations and how they position Australian Indigenous war service within a wider narrative of the Second World War and Indigenous history. Though the portrayals of Aboriginal service vary, the majority of creative works present the Second World War as central to Australian Indigenous history. Moreover, the creative representations depict Indigenous servicemen's hopes for a better life after the war, only to be crushed when they returned to ongoing discrimination. Even so, the creative depictions use the Second World War as an early marker of reconciliation in Australia, portraying the conflict as a time when ideals of liberty and equality overruled prejudice to unite Australia. Such a message continues to resonate, as creative representations of the Second World War contribute to contemporary understandings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizenship and reconciliation.

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On 19 February 1942--four days after the fall of Singapore--the Japanese launched two air raids on the northern Australian port of Darwin. The two raids represented the first foreign assault on white Australia. The attacks resulted in the deaths of at least 243 people, crippled the harbour and led to widespread panic that Australia was on the verge of invasion. The Commonwealth Government subsequently censored reports of the attack to minimise its impact on the public consciousness (Grose 2009; Lockwood 1992; Powell 1992). The bombing of Darwin is well known in Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory, where it forms a significant part of the region's collective memory. What is less well known, though, is that amidst this raid, a Japanese Zero airplane was damaged and crashed on Melville Island, about 40 kilometres north. The Japanese pilot encountered a group of Tiwi Islanders who ran into the bush, leaving a baby behind. A Tiwi man named Matthias Ulungura snuck up behind the Japanese with a tomahawk and said, 'Stick 'em up!' This is the story of the first Japanese prisoner of war ever captured on Australian soil--captured by an Aboriginal man (No Bugles, No Drums 1990). The story is celebrated within Australian Indigenous circles, yet has received little dissemination among the wider Australian community. This remarkable story has, for the most part, been what anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose refers to as a 'hidden history' (Rose 1991).

Hidden histories of Indigenous people in the Second World War reflect a wider Australian cult of forgetting Indigenous history. In 1969 the anthropologist WEH Stanner referred to the absence of Aboriginal people from Australia's popular consciousness and history as the 'Great Australian Silence' (Stanner 1969). Since the 1970s both non-Indigenous and Indigenous historians have worked to document Indigenous contributions to Australia's history. This rise of Aboriginal history, though a fraught process, has been one of the great strides of Australian historiography. …

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