Australia is fighting not only the most stupid and manipulative war in history in Iraq, but has its own internal war going on, known as the history war. In this war, eminent scholars who choose to face the sordid past of white settlement in scholarship and books are attacked, lest the displaced Aboriginal people receive some sympathy for their plight. The latest effort seeks to tell me, who was told about terra nullius throughout my school years in the 50’s and 60’s, that it didn’t happen, and that terra nullius was invented by radicals in the 1970’s to further the fight for land rights. The strategy seems to be that old reliable one of if you tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often. Of course, all of these rewrites of history have the old “I’m not a racist, but……….” tone to them.
Terra nullius itself was the lie this country has lived under since its inception. Even as a school boy when I was first told of terra nullius, it seemed to be so unfair, so ridiculous – and of course it was. The British, wanting to claim the land they ‘found’ and eventually to settle it, wanted to do it legally, and it was necessary to go through some charade to do this. They declared the land terra nullius, meaning “empty land” or “no man’s land”. Although there were attempts at fairness in parts of the on-going settlement of Australia (one must remember that these were separate colonies being settled – Australia was not a confederation) Aboriginal people were in general, driven off their land because the white settlers wanted it. This of course is the part of the history of black/white relationships that even the revisionists can’t deny, although they try to imply that it was all done nicely, presumably with the agreement of the indigenous people. Even the Federal Government of Australia supports the cover-up of the atrocities of white settlement. The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, labels those who seek to describe the dispossession of the Aboriginals as writing a “black armband view of history”.
When the national museum in Canberra displayed a sympathetic view of Aboriginal people, the Howard Government sacked its director, and had the display re-arranged to suit its own view of history. Ironically, the revisionists accuse those seeking to depict Aboriginal history in a sympathetic light, as “rewriting history”. Well I am a witness to what I was told during my upbringing – that terra nullius was the convenient subterfuge to occupy the land. It follows that by “rewriting history” and insisting that the British did not use terra nullius, and that terra nullius was conveniently invented in the past 20/30 years, the revisionists are continuing to distort, to muddy, and to downright lie to promote their version of history. The Australian, the national Murdoch newspaper (and the greatest enthusiast of the Iraq war) even supports the terra nullius revisionism currently being peddled, in a recent editorial. Apparently they are too lazy, too stupid, or can’t be bothered to do a little research and to put this lie to rest.