The Law of the Land – Andy’s brain might be terra nullius, but Australia sure as hell weren’tDecember 14, 2009
The best non-fiction writing makes its readers feel clever. Top of my list of such writers would be Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky, although Steven Pinker’s right up there too. Bad non-fiction writers go out of their way to make themselves impenetrable and unintelligible, presumably hoping to trick readers into thinking they’re too dumb to understand what they’re reading when in fact what there reading is a colossal crock of shit (is that the flapping of a black swan’s wings I hear? I do believe it is). Henry Reynolds fall slap bang in the first category. The Law of the Land strips Australia’s founding mythology bare and exposes the vicious hypocrisy of what is essentially a bipartisan political approach to Aboriginal affairs. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it.
And it’s appalling to discover that you, dear reader, having absorbed Netty and my posts and being filled with the urgent desire to dispel your ignorance on these issues, won’t be able to rush out to your nearest bookshop and buy it. Because it’s out of print. I hope that’s only because it’s being re-issued (my copy is the third edition). This is one of the most important works of Australian history ever written. Fuck John Howard’s trivia quiz to get your citizenship, this should be required reading for every Australian and every wannabe immigrant. That it’s out of print is appalling. Oh, I said that already.
It’s also kind of embarrassing to admit that I haven’t had much interaction with Australian Aborigines over my somewhat cloistered 40 years. I went to school with a couple of adopted (stolen? In the late ’70s? Possible, I guess) Aboriginal kids. I called one of them a boong once. Not a great start. While I was at uni in Toowoomba I lived with a born-again Christian family. The mum and dad had worked in the “mission fields” of the Northern Territory in the ’50s and ’60s. They had three “adopted” Aboriginal kids who were adults and no longer living at home when I knew them. They were definitely members of the stolen generation, beyond a shadow of a doubt. One of the adopted daughters had kids, one of the kids was a girl, a cheeky wee monkey, and one day when they were visiting she was having fun and being a cheeky monkey and her “adoptive” grandmother – my landlady – said “That’s the aboriginal in her. And we’ve got to beat it out.” Yup. Lovely people those Christians. Oh yes, and while I lived in St Kilda I saw someone puke on their own shoes and since I’ve been living northside I’ve been told to “fuck off back where you came from you fuckin Captain Cook cunt” at least once on Smith St in Collingwood. Tragically none of this, as far as I can tell, has turned me into a racist prick.
While Henry Reynolds ranges widely over the subject of Australia’s original inhabitants and the process of colonisation/settlement/invasion, his primary focus is the myth of terra nullius – the idea that Australia was “uninhabited” before Europeans arrived. “Uninhabited” in a technical legalistic sense, of course, because clearly it was inhabited in a literal sense – oooh golly, was that a tribe of technically, legalistically non-existent blackfellas I just killed off with my sack of poisoned flour? The doctrine of terra nullius dictated that Australia was uninhabited not because there was nobody living here but because the people who were living here weren’t using the land the way we thought they should’ve been. Oh yes, and they didn’t have a concept of land ownership. Or at least they didn’t think of land ownership the way we thought of land ownership. So they weren’t using the land properly and they didn’t understand property properly. Genius. And it wasn’t until 1992 that it occurred to our country’s finest legal minds that perhaps this was a crock of shit.
The most extraordinary thing about Reynolds’ book, for me anyway, was the revelation that up until the mid to late 19th century most of England’s and plenty of Australia’s minds thought it was a crock of shit, too. In fact a great deal of thought was put into how the Aborigines were to be compensated for land that was colonised and what land was to be left for them to continue their culture and lifestyle. It’s astonishing – and tragic – to realise that while Gippsland’s “founding father” was merrily massacring Aborigines around my home town of Maffra, while settlers in Tasmania were committing genocide, while Aborigines across the continent were being shot and poisoned and herded off cliffs, legal minds in England and Australia were firm in their belief that Australia’s original inhabitants had proprietorship of the soil. The concept of terra nullius existed from the very beginning and ultimately won the war of ideas (until the Mabo judgment in 1992, at least, although by then the damage had been done) but it was not, for some decades after the arrival of the First Fleet, the dominant way in which Australia and the Aborigines were conceived.
Racism always depresses me but racist attitudes towards Australia’s original inhabitants shits me to tears. Whether you grew up in Mount Isa and think boongs are fuckin foul because you saw one puke on the footpath when you were a kid or you’re a newspaper columnist railing about the “myth” of the Stolen Generations, prejudice towards a people who have possibly copped it worse than any other indigenous group anywhere else on the planet is despicable. Reading about the dispossession and injustices these people have experienced over the past two centuries leaves even the most allegedly high-brow critiques of “black-armband history” looking morally bankrupt. As I said before, everybody should read this book. You – yes, you. Read this book.