The black armband view
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the traditional view of Australian history was one of progress - white progress. The white men came to Australia, used science and technology to forge a modern country, explored, found gold and fought in world wars. More recent histories written about Australia's past have 'de-bunked' the glorious progress myths and instead started to tell the Indigenous peoples' side of the story. The story of disease, massacres and the attempted destruction of a culture. See animation
Why did the traditional view of history change?
- The Aboriginal protest movement of the 1960s and 1970s
- The land rights campaign
- The Mabo and Wik decisions
- The Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)
- The new era of multiculturalism in Australia
- The Stolen Generations report
These events have all helped to bring a different view of history into the Australian consciousness. In 1981, the historian Henry Reynolds published his ground-breaking book The Other Side of the Frontier. Reynolds was writing about the frontier war in the 19th century, but he was trying to look at that period from a 'black' point of view, rather than a 'white' one. He was one of the first people to try to pin-point how many Indigenous people had been killed in that time and what it had done to their culture and way of life. See image 1
Since Reynolds many other historians have helped revise the 'traditional' view of Australia's past. Instead of writing about a peaceful settlement of a wild country, history books now talk about a 'white' invasion and an organised Indigenous resistance to that invasion. The history books still acknowledge the achievements of the white settlers, but at the same time they also try to present the Indigenous perspective.
Many older Australians would have grown up reading about the fearless early settlers and their heroic battles against the 'savage natives' and the attempts to civilise them. Hearing a different version of that history that can be difficult for them to accept. For many people the two versions are hard to reconcile.
The term 'black armband' history was first used in the 1990s by the historian Geoffrey Blainey. He claimed that the new 'revisionist' histories of Australia's past are politically motivated, not historically. Many conservative white Australians, including the Prime Minister John Howard, feel that a black armband (a symbol of death or mourning) has been placed around Australia's past. They think historical studies are too negative, concentrating only on the bad side of the European settlement. They believe that when it comes to history - the past is the past and Australia should move on and look to the future. See image 2
However, people like John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey do not feel the same way about events in 'white' history. Events such as the doomed beach landings at Gallipoli are remembered and celebrated. Their arguments are countered by those who say that it is better to have a 'black armband' than a 'white blindfold'.
More recent backlash against the 'black armband' version of history can be found in the controversial 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History by Keith Windschuttle. He says that the histories written in the last 30 years were politically motivated lies with no basis in reality. He looked at four massacres written about by historians and said that only one of them was really as it had been presented. Windschuttle attacked the research done by the historians, yet he admitted he had not done enough research himself. His book did find some support among more conservative commentators, but the uproar it caused upon its publication died away very quickly. See image 3
This issue is part of a wider debate about whether history should be taught as a narrative - that is, as a sequence or account of events. Opponents of the narrative approach say that every narrative is influenced by those who create it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they bring their own beliefs and prejudices to what they write. The challenge for the history student is to always be aware of the source they are using to investigate a period of history. If you know from which perspective that source is coming from - the traditional view, the new revisionist view, the black armband view etc. then you will know what prejudices that source may have. And as always when studying history, remember never to rely solely on one source as it is only one side of the picture.
There are never going to be any simple conclusions when studying Australian history. Whether it is a 'white blindfold' or a 'black armband' view of history, it is a shared history. There might never be one historical truth, but there can be reconciliation and a new future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations.