Academic journal article Antipodes

The History Wars and Holy Day (the Red Sea): Andrew Bovell's Dramatic Black Armband

Academic journal article Antipodes

The History Wars and Holy Day (the Red Sea): Andrew Bovell's Dramatic Black Armband

Article excerpt

AUSTRALIA'S CONCERN ABOUT THE PROPER RELATIONship between its present and its past has produced a variety of cultural skirmishes known as "the history wars," a term taken from the title of a book edited by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt dealing with the 1994 battle that erupted when the Smithsonian Museum mounted an exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Accompanying the Enola Gay was an invitation to ponder the legitimacy of dropping The Bomb to end the war. This led to accusations from conservative circles that "a certain political correctness" was "seeping in and distorting and prejudicing the Smithsonian's exhibits" (Macintyre 9).

The central topic of Australia's history wars is race and historian Henry Reynolds's list of the central questions, "Was Australia settled or invaded? Pioneered or conquered? Won by sweat or won by blood? Was it the fruit of industry or a prize of war?" (Frontier 3), suggests the stark differences between the warring views of Australia's past. The first is more cheerful, even triumphalist, looking to the past to find inspirational achievements. The other insists that Australia was won through wrongs and injustices that must be confronted if Australians are to be reconciled with each other. In a 1993 lecture, Geoffrey Blainey characterized the two approaches as "Three Cheers" and "Black Armband." He noted that his generation had been brought up with the first, but that more recently the second had gained an ascendancy. He nominated Manning Clark as the leader of the "black armband" brigades. The mantle has passed most recently to Henry Reynolds. On the "three cheers" side, Keith Windshuttle probably occupies the place once occupied by Blainey.

Though it might be imagined that the contest between the "three cheers" and the "black armband" viewpoints is a recent phenomenon, evidence of the contrasting approaches may be found early in the history of European occupation of Australia. An 1816 account of New South Wales surveys a peaceful and benign colony in which

[. . .] there are no scenes [. . .] of desolating war and bloodshed to contemplate, no peaceable inhabitants driven from their smiling dwellings, and deprived of the comforts of life, by means of the destroying invader. Our settlers have not established themselves by the sword, nor willingly done injury to the naked and miserable stragglers, who were found on the barren shores. (Reynolds, Frontier 3)

Later in the century, Queensland's Governor Bowen admired the "triumph of peaceful progress [. . .] victories without injustice or bloodshed, conquests not over man, but over nature" (Reynolds, Frontier 3). But this excerpt from an 1831 letter to a Launceston newspaper reveals that there were dissident voices: "We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies-as invaders-as oppressors and persecutors-they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force" (Frontier 4). Lawson's short stories provide evidence of both approaches in reference to the Australian frontier. While, in "The Bush Undertaker," the sun sets fairly benignly "on the grand Australian bush-the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands" (9), "The Drover's Wife" deals with the anxieties and despair of bush isolation.

Regarding the history of race relations in Australia, Henry Reynolds has noted that while statements concerning Aborigines were part of public discourse early in the history of white settlement, there was "a cult of forgetfulness [. . .] which emerged in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century [coinciding] with Federation and the flowering Australian nationalism" (Why 92) and "between 1900 and the 1960s the Aborigines were virtually written out of Australian history" (Why 94). …

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