Sovereign Hill is an outdoor museum about Victoria’s 19th century history. Specifically, the exhibits and costumed characters who interpret them tell stories about the impacts of the gold rushes and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Australia. But how does The Sovereign Hill Museums Association decide what stories to present at the outdoor museum?
In recent years, we have chosen to increase the visibility of Aboriginal stories and perspectives on the gold rushes, because in the past Sovereign Hill was criticised for appearing to leave these stories out of its presentation of Victoria’s history. We now present a more accurate and fair story, and believe we have found a balanced, middle ground viewpoint on the Australian History Wars. What do you think?
What are the Australian ‘History Wars’?
When you read history books (or even school textbooks), it’s easy to think that the facts of history are unchangeable. The First Fleet arrived in Australia on 26 January, 1788. Albert Einstein invented the famous scientific formula E = mc2. Edward Hargraves was the first European to find gold in Australia in 1851 … However, sometimes the facts aren’t very clear, and historians argue over which facts are true, or even truest. Causes of such arguments can be the result of:
- new historical evidence coming to light (for example, if we were to find a diary written by Marco Polo in which he says he never travelled to China, but instead made the whole story up, that would change history);
- a new way of looking at old evidence (for example, if we use new medical technology to DNA test Ancient Egyptian mummies, we might discover new information about their lives); or
- the decision to include new ‘voices’ in the story, or to emphasise the role played by a group of participants who have been left out of the story until now (for example, Claire Wright wrote a history book about the women involved in the Eureka Rebellion in 2013).
In the case of the History Wars in Australia, historians (and politicians) have been arguing about the colonisation of Australia for a long time, and whether or not it was a peaceful process, a blood-stained invasion or something in between. The History Wars see people arguing about the historical facts – new evidence is being unearthed regularly, new ways of interpreting old evidence are being explored, and new voices in history are becoming louder.
While the old saying that ‘History is written by the victors’ is no longer true, the Australian History Wars demonstrate how difficult it can be for historians to get the details of the story right, especially when it comes to the impact Australia’s recent history has had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But is there ever going to be a ‘right’ way to understand our history? Probably not (these kinds of questions are studied in historiography, which you can learn more about here). Let’s try to better understand the two sides of the Australian History Wars.
The ‘Three Cheers View’ of Australian history (also known as the ‘White Blindfold View’)
Some historians believe the historical evidence we have about the creation of modern Australia tells the story of brave, adventurous Europeans who came to this continent and tamed the ‘wild’ landscape to produce food (through European-style farming) and useful minerals (through mining). The historical evidence used to tell this story mainly uses written accounts like diaries, official government records and newspaper articles from the time etc. This version of our history celebrates the achievements of Europeans and the British Empire in Australia, and focuses on the stories of the pioneers who came here after the convict period to create what is one of the richest countries in the world today.
While historians who support this interpretation of the facts might admit that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in the process of making modern Australia, or at least had their traditional lifestyles brought to an end by European colonisers, they argue that these were rare events or accidents, and shouldn’t be the main part of the story of Australia. At best, it presents a history of Australia that is heroic and inspirational, at worst it presents a history that is Eurocentric and nationalistic. Many supporters of this view want Australia Day to continue to be celebrated on 26 January, the day the Union Jack flag was first placed in the ground of Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip, leader of the First Fleet.
The ‘Black Armband View’ of Australian history
Some historians believe that the Australian story is an ancient one, and begins more than 65,000 years ago. This version of our history views the arrival of Europeans after 1788 as a time of abrupt, and often violent cultural, economic and environmental change, resulting in the British Empire’s colonisation of the entire continent regardless of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s claims to sovereignty (meaning ownership of land). The historical evidence used to tell this story includes both written accounts and oral history accounts. While the Black Armband View acknowledges the decisions made (mostly by Europeans or people of European ancestry) which have turned Australia into the rich country it is today, it places the impacts of these huge changes on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the centre of the story.
While historians who support this interpretation of the facts might admit that European colonisers in Australia didn’t always deliberately act in damaging and hurtful ways towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they argue that massacres and murders of Australia’s first peoples were common, even if they weren’t always written down/recorded. They sometimes call this time of regular conflict between European colonisers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (from 1788-1934) the ‘Australian Frontier Wars’. At best, this view presents a history of Australia that is inclusive and fair, and at worst it presents a history that is shame-promoting, particularly in the eyes of many non-Aboriginal Australians. Most supporters of this view want the date of Australia Day – which some call ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’ – to be changed from 26 January to a ‘less hurtful’ date.
Why do the Australian History Wars exist?
There are many reasons the History Wars exist in Australia:
- In recent decades, some Australian politicians have demonstrated a keen interest in the History curriculum which is taught in Australian schools. As a result, the History Wars not only happen through academics, like historians, who write books, but also in Parliament, in classrooms and on television etc. This means that every Australian is pushed to form an individual position on the story of modern Australia.
- For a long time since 1788, the history of this country has been written by Europeans, or Australians of European ancestry, without much mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For example, if you find an old Australian history school textbook, you might be surprised to read that it begins with the story of Captain Cook and then the First Fleet, and completely forgets the previous 65,000 years of human habitation on this continent in its introduction.
- When historians look for historical evidence to put the pieces of the history puzzle together, they mostly look for written sources of information. The oral histories of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people often aren’t taken very seriously by historians, or at least weren’t until recently. This means that historical sources written by Europeans or Australians of European ancestry got all of the attention in the past, while spoken historical sources were largely ignored.
- One of the main arguments used by the Three Cheers View against the Black Armband View is the questionable use of academic references. This means that the historical evidence supporting the Black Armband View isn’t as strong and reliable as it should be. If you wish to learn more about the Three Cheers View of our history, read some of the history written by Keith Windschuttle. If you wish to learn more about the Black Armband View of our history, read some of the history written by Henry Reynolds. For a criticism of both sides of the debate, take a look at the writing of historian Geoffrey Blainey.
The way we understand our national story impacts upon the way we see ourselves as 21st century Australians. The kinds of historical research methods we use to write history are never going to be perfect, as historiography tells us … And this debate even affects how we understand the origins of Australian Rules Football! The History Wars are fascinating, but it’s important to remember that in debating this topic, we’re not just throwing ideas and opinions around to promote thinking; we’re talking about real people from the past, who are dearly remembered by their living family members today. So, be mindful of this if you get into a public/classroom debate about the History Wars.
Links and References
A link to the Sovereign Hill Education Teaching Kit for Level 9 & 10 History ‘Australia and Asia’: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/AustraliaandAsiaActivitiesandResources4.pdf
Wikipedia on the ‘history wars’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_wars
Keith Windshuttle and Henry Reynolds debating on ABC’s Lateline about the ‘history wars’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClS2gzn3QTg
The Conversation on the ‘history wars’: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/november/1270703045/robert-manne/comment
The History/Culture Wars in 2017: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/rewriting-our-history-is-not-the-way-to-go-20170831-gy7q8u.html
Should we use the word ‘settled’, ‘colonised’ or ‘invaded’ when it comes to Australia’s recent history? https://theconversation.com/australias-history-wars-reignite-57065
Wikipedia article on the contentious origins of Australian Rules Football: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_Australian_rules_football#Various_theories
Is it ever OK to corrupt history for a good cause? http://www.convictcreations.com/history/historywars.html
The tension between getting the historical facts right and being patriotic: http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/198.pdf