Recently I got my hands on a Polish translation of a copy of Terra Nullius, Sven Lindqvist’s 2005 book about the Aboriginal history of Australia. I borrowed it from a friend writing a thesis about cannibalism and colonialism, and it was bristling with little coloured post-it notes in the relevant places. Inside the front cover, Sven looked out from behind his glasses, hands in pockets, a baggy shirt hiding his affluent gut.
I admit to some initial reservations. There’s something about hearing foreigners describing your country that instantly raises the hackles of the natives. Even his botanical observations fill me with scorn- what’s so amazing about the proliferation of eucalypts and acacias? Later, lost myself in a sea of birches and beeches and larches, I had to admit that for a European, this may indeed be worthy of mention.
I observed this initial irritation and defensiveness with interest, and saw it slowly dissipate as I got deeper into the book. I read things that are new to me- about the internment of Aborigines supposedly carrying venereal disease on Bernier and Dorre Islands, the theorising of Durkheim and Freud about the ‘elementary’ nature of Aboriginal society and religion, a short biography of Albert Namatjira.
Mainly, though, my reaction was an emotional one. I have always sympathised, in theory, with the fate of the Aborigines and like any good leftie, have had no problems glibly espousing my politically correct views. But somehow I haven’t thought about the subject for so long that it hit me anew, causing a visceral response which I find myself more or less unable to describe in words. Part of it may have been the shock at realising that, far from being the paradise the Poles think it is, Australia could also be described as a land of overweight racists devoid of the milk of human kindness. But mainly I felt the horror of the Aboriginal experience of colonisation as I had never felt it before, obscured as it was by the talk of horror, the attempts to explain, express, describe.
Browsing the reviews, I find the inevitable bile boiling up at well-fed, hand- wringing liberals, the self- righteous outrage at the idea that the sons be held responsible for the crimes of their fathers (Peter Preston for the Observer, whose grandfather’s Aboriginal blood apparently gives him the right to defend us all). There is also a more measured response from Robert Manne, though he too criticises Lindqvist for his failure to fully understand the whole issue. What they have in common is a sort of resentment (better rationalised in one case than the other) that any outsider dare comment on our history, let alone pass moral judgment.
And yet we aren’t able to see clearly ourselves. The mention of collective responsibility raises such a furor that further rational conversation becomes impossible. We are like a nation of children, all clamouring It wasn’t me! I can’t agree. Somehow, as inheritors of that particular earth, we have to answer for the way it came into our hands.