Guardian

At present, bronzed heroes stand unchallenged, representing either a fictional history of terra nullius or the passive conquest of the land. Such histories don’t venture beyond myth

 A cylone fence blocking access to Bunjil’s Shelter, in the Black Ranges. ‘For over 100 years Bunjil’s Shelter has been repeatedly desecrated by vandals who have attempted to obliterate a reality of Aboriginal nationhood and history, making a mockery of the lie of terra nullius.’ Photograph: Tony Birch

If we are to recognise heroes, where are the stories of Aboriginal courage?

At present, bronzed heroes stand unchallenged, representing either a fictional history of terra nullius or the passive conquest of the land. Such histories don’t venture beyond myth

In late May 1836 the British explorer, Major Thomas Mitchell was many weeks into his third expedition into Aboriginal country in south-western New South Wales. Mitchell’s party were closely watched by Aboriginal people, most often from some distance, as the foreign visitors passed through country. Around 26 May, on the north side of what would be subsequently named the Murray River, Mitchell became increasingly anxious about the continued presence of a group of Aboriginal men tracking his party. He decided to act, by firstly crossing the river and then ordering his men to set an “ambuscade”; lying in wait, hidden, with weapons drawn for the Aboriginal men to also cross the river. When they did, Mitchell’s party, without provocation, shot the men, killing at least eight. That night, in his diary, Mitchell memorialised the killings through the tradition of colonial naming. He wrote, “I gave to the little hill which witnessed this overthrow of our enemies, and was to us the harbinger of peace and tranquillity, the name of Mount Dispersion.”

In order that Mitchell’s “feats” are not forgotten in the 21st century, more than 50 memorial plaques litter the Major Mitchell Trail that snakes its way across the land he travelled through in 1836. His second-in-command, Granville Stapylton, has an entire mountain honouring his exploits. He would write of Aboriginal people that “their hollow resembles the cry of some wild beast, which in fact it is”. On one occasion, after aiming his musket at an Aboriginal family, Staplyton would also rejoice that “these devils will always run if you give them time”.

In the same area of western Victoria there are no monuments to Aboriginal people who were both the victims of colonial violence and the heroes of the ongoing struggle for self-determination and sovereign recognition. Bunjil’s Shelter, in the Black Ranges, off the Western Highway near the town of Stawell, contains the most significant rock art in south-eastern Australia. The work is many thousands of years old and interprets a culturally vital story of Aboriginal history as well as land and ecological formation. The inscription is therefore a record of sovereign rights and a threat to the notion of unproblematic settlement. As a result, for over 100 years Bunjil’s Shelter has been repeatedly desecrated by vandals who have attempted to obliterate a reality of Aboriginal nationhood and history, making a mockery of the lie of terra nullius. In order to protect the site for several decades, the shelter has been encased in cyclone-wire fencing, a visual eyesore required to ensure that the commemoration of Aboriginal life is not whitewashed by those unable to countenance a history beyond the briefest moment of what we know to be colonialism.

Many of those who wish to preserve the name and reputation of Captain James Cook and other colonial heroes, such as Mitchell, whose names are immortalised in a national scattering of statues, plaques, street names, suburbs, towns, states and seats in parliament, have become outraged by the suggestion that some statues, particularly those commemorating men engaged in the act of killing, should be taken down. At present, these bronzed heroes stand unchallenged, representing either a fictional history of terra nullius or the passive conquest of a land inhabited by unproductive “savages” awaiting British ingenuity and capitalist exploitation. Such histories do not venture beyond myth. Aboriginal nations were invaded. Many people suffered horrific violence. And in the decades and centuries following the original killing fields of the frontier, communities continued (and continue) to suffer government policies, such as the forced removal of children, dedicated to the extinction of Aboriginal people.

In the current era of climate change, ecological destruction resulting from past practices of colonial agriculture has been shown to be detrimental to the health of country. Colonialism, on a global scale, is accepted as a major contributing factor not only to the environmental crises we face, but also our entry into the new epoch known as the Anthropocene, which is not simply a “man-made” phenomenon, but the outcome of capitalist expansion dependent on the global conquest of land. If monuments to colonial folly and violence are allowed to stand they must be interrogated in a manner that ensures that a more informed story is told. Complexity, though, is not the purpose and role of nation-building commemorations. Statues are erected to tell a simpler story; a story of uncomplicated hero worship.

If we are to recognise heroes, then where are the stories of Aboriginal courage? Many of those who strove for the rights of Aboriginal people did so at a grassroots level, working quietly but tenaciously within communities over many decades. In recent times we have heard the word “recognition” quite a lot. Well, if Cook is to remain standing, I would like Australia to recognise heroic Aboriginal women such as the Austin sisters, Ada and Lena, who lived in the western district of Victoria during the first decades of federation. The Austins wrote to the chief secretary of the Victorian government over many years arguing for the basic human rights of their community, the return of children who had been taken, and the reinstitution of paltry rations taken away as punishment for speaking out.

I would like the name of Bessie Rawlings, an Aboriginal woman who lived at the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve, also in the western district, recognised across this nation. Rawlings fought for the rights of Aboriginal people for over 40 years, from her kitchen table, where she wrote to welfare boards, politicians and newspapers. If Major Thomas Mitchell can have his memorial plaques, if the infamous Granville Stapylton remains entitled to his mountain, then the memory of Bessie Rawlings and the history she represents is entitled to so much more. Being the humble woman that she was, I would think, Bessie would ask for nothing for herself. But I am confident she would look upon the monuments to colonial conquest with great sadness and grief.

  • Professor Tony Birch is a senior research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University in Melbourne.