Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2019

Convincing Ground, by Bruce Pascoe

The battle site became known as the Convincing Ground, the place where the Gundidjmara were ‘convinced’ of white rights to the land. The Gundidjmara were beaten in that battle but never convinced of its legitimacy.

The title of Bruce Pascoe’s survey of Victoria’s colonial history is also the name of a place: the Convincing Ground site in Portland Bay is on the Victorian Heritage Register as the probable first recorded site of a massacre in this state.  There had been tensions between the local indigenous Gunditjmara people and whalers who had set up a station at Portland in the late 1820s, and the conflict erupted into violence over who had rights to a beached whale some time in 1833-34.  Estimates vary but it is thought that between 60 and 200 Gunditjmara people were killed. The exact date is not known (and the authenticity and details of the event are contested) because there were only two young survivors and the massacre wasn’t documented until a journal entry in Edward Henty’s diary in 1835.

As Bruce Pascoe says: This is not a history, it’s an incitement. Pascoe isn’t an historian: he’s a writer from the Bunurong clan, of the Kulin nation, a teacher, a farmer, and a researcher working on preserving the Wathaurong language.  And the point is that while it may not ever be possible to verify the precise circumstances of this or any other massacre in neat and tidy documents, there is no doubt at all that the settlement of Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, involved frontier violence.  James Boyce, (who is an historian) makes this abundantly clear in his award-winning history 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia which I reviewed here. What Pascoe’s book offers is an Indigenous point of view about these and other events, based on oral testimony as well as the documentary record:

I love my country and its people.  While working on a dictionary for the revival of the Wathaurong language I kept turning up new information on how the Kulin Nation (the clans surrounding Port Phillip and Western Port bays) defended their land.  There was plenty of unused material in the archives but more importantly I was told stories and shown diaries, letters and photos by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians which proved crucial to an understanding of those turbulent days.  Few of my sources were scholars and they had had no previous opportunity to paint the picture of their ancestors’ lives.  From that perspective our national story looked quite different and it seemed unfair that most Australians’ knowledge of their homeland was blighted by a cruelly inadequate history.

This book is for the Australians, old and new, black and white.  Some might find the style offensive and abrupt but it has been written so that Aboriginal Australians can recognise themselves in the history of their country.  Too often Aboriginal Australians have been asked to accept an insulting history and a public record which bears no resemblance to the lives they have experienced.  (p. ix)

So yes, Pascoe doesn’t beat about the bush, and sometimes his tone is abrasive and his sarcasm is a bit heavy-handed.  The stories about the violence are confronting to read, and these feelings are exacerbated by Pascoe’s uncompromising assertions about White behaviour.

The Convincing Ground should remind us to bite our tongues every time we utter the sentiment that ‘Australia is the only nation founded without a war.  It’s a myth, a joke, the most ridiculous intellectual folly we could commit, and yet the point at which we could remind ourselves of the true history of the nation we avert our face and allow the battleground of our soul to be obliterated, wash our minds of memory, impoverish our intelligence with deliberate contempt. (p.94)

Reading this made me search my own posts to see if I had made, or quoted the same sentiment.  I had, and have updated this post to acknowledge its falsity: Australian Foreign Affairs #4: Defending Australia, edited by Jonathan Pearlman.

Pascoe’s tone reveals his frustration about what he interprets as wilful myopia:

I’ve addressed halls of your academics whose hearts burst with compassion for Timor, Africa and India.  Never forget those nations you mighty young, but please turn about and look your countrymen in the face.  Most of your parents and grandparents never had the courage or the tools but you have access to both.  (p.95)

And although you might not like the way he expresses this, (because IMO one might equally say that it’s not a good idea to make assumptions about beliefs, attitudes or behaviour based on anyone’s identity), he has a valid point to make about making assumptions unless you hear it from Indigenous people themselves:

Remember if you are white not to guess at what your black countrymen and women think, they have perfectly functioning ears, tongues and minds. (p.95)

And therein lies the value of this book. It challenges us to think.  Not necessarily to agree, or to concede his point, but to consider it with an open mind.  I don’t agree with everything in its pages, and some of it, especially what he has to say about deficiencies in the education curriculum [1], is out of date and just plain wrong.  But I recognise that Pascoe is articulating the pain, the frustration, and the justified anger of many Indigenous people.  And although he may not know it, he also articules the outrage that many of us feel about continued injustices, about the refusal to listen, about the History Wars, and about the entire Howard agenda which persists in the current government’s refusal to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Many of us don’t need Bruce to tell us that walking across a bridge was only a beginning, (p.238) but many of us yearn for genuine reconciliation and grasp any opportunity to express that yearning, even if it’s only symbolic.


[1] I was at a literary event last year where a young woman who looked to be barely out of her school years, stood up and said that she hadn’t learned anything about Indigenous dispossession at school.  Well, that can only have been because she wasn’t listening when it was taught.  In the past curriculum frameworks varied from state to state and not all were as inclusive as they should have been, but since 2014 when the Australian National Curriculum was introduced, Australia’s Black History been compulsory learning.  The AC is taught from Prep to Year 10 in all Australian schools, (including private ones if they want to keep their funding), and there are three mandatory cross-curriculum priorities, one of which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.  What this means is that Aboriginal perspectives are to be included in the 8 key learning areas (English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, The Arts, Technologies, Health and Phys Ed and Languages.) For example, it you teach the solar system in science, introduce it with the fact that Indigenous people studied the stars, had their own names for the constellations and other bodies in the solar system[2], and used the predictable movement of the stars for navigation as well as hunting and agricultural practices.  You can see some of the work done to include Indigenous perspectives at my school here.

And specifically addressing whether or not the darker side of Australia’s Black History is to be taught, this excerpt from the Australian Curriculum website makes it quite clear.  The underlining is mine, and at my school this theme began in Year 4 when the children studied Australian exploration, a unit that began with learning about the Indigenous songlines that criss-cross Australia, that acknowledged the crucial role played by Indigenous guides, and specifically addressed the deficiencies in the documentary record e.g. that Indigenous guides were usually not named.  If it had been available then, I could have used Australia’s First Naturalists (2019) as a reference. This is from the AC website:

Humanities and Social Sciences

The diverse cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are explored through their:

  • long and continuous strong connections with Country/Place and their economic, cultural, spiritual and aesthetic value of place, including the idea of custodial responsibility. Students examine the influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples on the environmental characteristics of Australian places, and the different ways in which places are represented.
  • experiences before, during and after European colonisation including the nature of contact with other peoples, and their progress towards recognition and equality. In particular, students investigate the status and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, past and present, including civic movements for change, the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to Australian society, and contemporary issues.
  • exploration of how groups express their particular identities, and come to understand how group belonging influences perceptions of others.

The use of primary and secondary sources, including oral histories, gives students opportunities to see events through multiple perspectives, and to empathise and ethically consider the investigation, preservation and conservation of sites of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

And note that the use of oral histories is specifically mentioned, which counters Pascoe’s concerns about the deficiencies of written records:

History relies on the written records of the period and diaries are some of the most valuable, particularly those where the diarist is not writing for a political purpose, that is, with a view to laundering their own reputation.  Much of the official colonial correspondence however, is so corrupted by prejudice, or, like Batman’s treatries and Kilgour’s forgeries[3], so full of lies, that they are next to useless as true reflections of what is happening. (p.106)

Maybe it’s true that these topics aren’t always as well-taught as they could be, but speaking from my own experience it’s also true that resources and professional development are inadequate, and help that should come from Indigenous consultants within education departments isn’t always forthcoming. I myself have had some discouraging experiences.  The curriculum is there, the good will is there, but a lot needs to be done to make it easier for busy teachers to access practical resources.

[2] Where I live, on Bunerong country, Meeniyan is, for example, the word for the Moon.

[3] James Kilgour of Port Fairy forged signatures on a document that exaggerated squatters’ losses to justify violence against the Aborigines in that area.

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title: Convincing Ground, Learning to fall in love with your country
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007, 302 pages
ISBN: 9780855755492
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square

Available from IATSIS. They have it as an eBook too.

 


Responses

  1. […] Convincing Ground, see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

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  2. […] Update 9/7/19 The editor’s claim that with one exception conflicts involving Australia’s military all took place elsewhere rests on a technicality. Australia did not have a national defence force until Federation.  But there was well-documented military action against the Indigenous population on Australian soil during the frontier wars, notably in Tasmania.  See here, and here. […]

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  3. This sounds like a suitably challenging read. I like books like this, which make you reconsider your previous perspective(s). In Canada, there are items on the curriculum which are not necessarily covered as they are intended in classrooms; my step-daughter in Toronto had a teacher who was clearly committed to covering the elements in one course which specifically related to indigenous rights (I can’t recall if it was the single required history class or the single required civics course) but in a friend’s daughter’s class, in the same course in a smaller city a couple hundred kilometres west, the topic just got a mention. I can imagine all the reasons that could happen (you’ve mentioned some above) but I can also imagine how frustrating it must be to see something change on paper but see nothing change in reality. And that’s not to discount the important of making official changes: it has to begin somewhere.

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    • You’re right, of course, implementation of any change in education can be notoriously slow. But we teachers know better than anyone IMO that it’s a mistake to focus on the poor example and ignore the good. (Parents never come into the classroom before school to tell you their kid had a great day, they only come in to complain, and that one complaint is what you think about all day and sometimes into a sleepless night as well.) Constant criticism only discourages people, and the best example I know of was a conference of about 100 teachers that was specifically about teaching Indigenous issues. The keynote speaker lashed us for our ignorance for an hour, concluding with the prohibition that none of us should teach any Indigenous history until we’d done a PhD in it. (This is true, I am not making this up or exaggerating). Over a hushed break for tea, the conversation among stunned teachers was about the confusion, the hurt and the anger that his words had caused, and many came to the conclusion that they would do less rather than more, in case of causing further offence. Needless to say, the organiser didn’t organise any more conferences on that subject either.
      What works, IMO, is offering practical and replicable ideas for successful and enjoyable teaching, and encouraging people doing a good job of it. Because I had resources like that on my professional blog, including book reviews, planning guides, worksheets that could be downloaded and all for free, I know how often these were and still are accessed by teachers. (My professional blog ‘retired’ at the end of 2014 like I did but it’s still widely used). I don’t say my resources are perfect, and I certainly don’t have a PhD, but they are properly researched using recommended reference books and they are do-able in a primary classroom. And when I went to conferences, I shared them, and encouraged people to use them. Better to do things the best you can, IMO, than not at all.

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  4. I’m sorry I took so long to get to this post, because it may be the most important one of this ILW. (I still have a few more to respond to, though I think I have read them all once). There are documents around for many of the massacres by which white settlement was achieved, often court cases, but they are often ‘forgotten’, glossed over and are only now, slowly, being shown all at once so they can’t be overlooked.

    And if anyone needed an example of overlooking, how about the royal commission into Black Deaths in Custody. It is barely thought of now, a couple of decades later, and institutionalized racism continues apace.

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    • I found out about it when I went to a 2-day workshop about the protocols for writing Indigenous characters with Bruce Pascoe (incidentally, where I met MST in person for the first time) and almost as an aside, Bruce suggested that we should read this book. They had one copy left in the bookshop and I bought it:)
      I do think it’s a very important book. If I had to choose three must-read Indigenous NF books, I would recommend this one, the Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, and Am I Black enough for You.

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