By Fraser Raeburn |
Before being seduced by the Spanish Civil War and its unending litany of acronyms, one of my main historical interests was the interaction between Aborigines and settlers in colonial Australia. It’s an aspect of history that has been in limelight recently thanks to the BBC series Banished, a dramatisation of the founding of Australia’s first penal colony. In Australia, a notable point of controversy has emerged thanks to the producers’ rather bizarre decision to not feature a single Aboriginal character in any of the seven hour-long episodes. Apparently, crocodiles (hundreds of kilometres away from their usual habitat) were more important to portray than the people who already lived there.
I question both their racial politics and their sense of drama (Source: Wikipedia).
This, needless to say, is problematic. What accounts exist of this period – and there are surprisingly few – abound with references to the local Indigenous population. Diarists like David Collins and Watkin Tench recorded frequent encounters and interactions with Aborigines, both positive and negative. Relations with local tribes were of paramount importance to the fledgling colony, whose precarious existence relied on the goodwill, or at least lack of open hostility, from the local Aborigines. From the very beginning, Aborigines such as Bennelong (who gave his name to piece of land the Sydney Opera House occupies) were instrumental in facilitating the co-existence of colonists and the local inhabitants. There is simply no historical basis for excluding an Indigenous presence from this series.
Given this portrait and his anachronistically enlightened attitudes, I’m starting to believe Watkin Tench was the Doctor (Source: Wikipedia)
Co-producer Jimmy McGovern recently defended the decision on the grounds that there was not ‘sufficient time to develop and do justice to indigenous characters’ (they might have had to cut back on all the Anglo-Saxon sex, after all). One might also argue that the events shown were fictionalised, unsurprisingly given just how few detailed records are available, and clearly they wanted to focus on the (also fictionalised) convict/guard dynamics as well as the gendered implications of a women-scarce society. A documentary portrayal of the early days of the penal colony was never on the cards, so can ignoring the historical reality of the Aboriginal presence be justified in order to better explore the chosen themes?
I would say no, not this time, not in this context. Contemporary representations of Aborigines have enough problems as it is. Indigenous Australians are often invisible in modern society, absent from the media and public life to an unacceptable extent. Indigenous Australians are still light years behind the rest of the country in just about every socioeconomic indicator available. To pick just a few: life expectancy is at least a decade shorter, incarceration rates 14 times higher and, my personal favourite, of all the thousands of representatives ever elected at a Federal, State or Territory level, only 32 could claim even partially Aboriginal heritage. Despite all this, the historical idea that Aborigines faced systemic violence, dispossession and exploitation due to colonisation remains contentious in both history writing and in the media. Moreover, by portraying Australia as uninhabited when the First Fleet arrived the show feeds into the whole Terra Nullius assumption of ownership over the ‘empty’ land, the implications of which are still with us, with little in the way of legal recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty, either via treaty (as in New Zealand) or constitutionally. To be fair to McGovern, he knows this better than most and he has previously engaged with several Aboriginal performance arts projects, which makes his decision here even stranger. However, given that this is the only portrayal of these events that mainstream British audiences are likely to see, Banished is particularly egregious in perpetuating the whitewashing of Australian history.
This 1789 engraving acknowledges the existence of Aborigines better than Banished (Source: Wikipedia).
This is important as it isn’t just an Australian issue that the BBC can wash its hands of. This was a British colony, and if there is one thing I have learned while trying to explain the endemic conflict on the Australian frontier, it’s that violence was a by-product of the logic of empire. This is an issue that modern Australia grapples with – often poorly – but it is also a part of history that Britain needs to acknowledge a role in. Once the British convicts and soldiers portrayed in Banished landed on Australian shores, violence and dispossession became inevitable. As a good friend of mine Hugh Robertson wrote a few weeks ago, ‘if you don’t have the time or the resources to even touch on how the arrival of the First Fleet affected Indigenous people, you don’t have the time or the resources to make a show about the arrival of the First Fleet.’
Fraser is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh with a soft spot for imperial history of the non-Niall Ferguson variety. You can check out other aspects of his research on academia.edu or on Twitter @FraserRaeburn. If you’d like to read about how media can be used to actually better our understanding of history, check out Roseanna’s post about Irish history and film.