Jarring views of a familiar landscape

Opinion Article

1999 May, 10

In the lead-up to the new millennium, Australians are caught in an identity crisis concerning the position of the indigenous peoples of the nation.

Land rights, our colonial story and the desire for reconciliation are hot buttons in the national psyche.

A prerequisite to reconciliation has to be acknowledgment of the truths of the past. More often than not, these truths are not pretty. The colonial story left the country with what the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, described, together with his then colleague on the High Court of Australia, Justice Mary Gaudron, as a ``legacy of unutterable shame''.

For the New Australians these are bracing truths. The triumphalist view of the past based solely on pride in achievement and frontier bravery and perseverance must now contend with stories of frontier cowardice and inhumanity.

These truths are uncomfortable for Australians who for too long have been fed on jingoistic histories. The new histories which have emerged over the past three decades have revealed a complex and troubling past.

These histories are not only bracing for the nation as a whole, they are bracing for local communities and regions because they tell the story of familiar landscapes, place names, sites and landmarks.

These are places where acts of gross cruelty and heartlessness took place; where blood and tears were spilt.

For north Queenslanders, Timothy Bottoms's book Djabugay Country reveals a jarring new view of a familiar landscape, which will be alien to most north Queenslanders: the swimming holes where children now play were once places of great misery; at Crystal Cascades a mother and child fled for their lives from the massacre of their people at Speewah; the silence of Black Mountain was once shattered by the cries of dying humans when Molloy ``taught the blacks a lesson'' for stealing his draft horses.

Supermarkets and canefields now sprawl over the sacred places, the byways, homes and meeting places of the Djabugay.

Remember the immense tragedy wrought by psychopathic retribution at Port Arthur in 1996? And the way this tore into the lives of families, communities and the nation?

The Djabugay suffered likewise and were left destitute following the destruction of their economy and the desecration of their religious places.

With Djabugay Country: An Aboriginal History of Far North Queensland, Timothy Bottoms joins fellow north Queensland historians Henry Reynolds, Dawn May and Noel Loos, who have each made such a great contribution to illuminating the truths of our frontier past.

Good history is the pursuit of truth. Reconciliation is, above all, a test of maturity. For Australians generally, and the people of north Queensland particularly, it will mean coming to terms with the past that Timothy Bottoms describes.

Jarring views of a familiar landscape