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Hindsilence

August 15, 2011

Historian and broadcaster Michael Cathcart explores the ways in which Australian life has been fundamentally shaped by water — or rather by the lack of it.

The First Fleet January 1788

When Governor Phillip arrived with the First Fleet, in the Eora country at the place he called Sydney Cove, this is how that event was described by David Collins, who was on the First Fleet.

‘The spot chosen for this purpose was at the head of the Cove near the run of fresh water, which stole silently through a very thick wood, the stillness of which had then for the first time since the Creation been interrupted by the rude sound of a labourer’s axe and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants. The sound of the axe,’ he goes on, ‘broke the stillness and tranquillity which from that day would give place to the voice of labour, the confusion of camps and towns, and the busy hum of its new possessors.

Now hear what the imagery there is. The idea is that you go into a silent forest. It’s silent, it’s timeless, it’s still. The Aborigines, if they’re there, are padding about noiselessly, locked in a kind of eternal yesterday. And the image is that you chop down a tree, the tree crashes through the forest, and with that almighty crash it announces that history has arrived in the silent land. The clocks have started to tick. The place is acquiring a story. The place is acquiring language: this is the bringing of civilisation and sound to the silent land.

Temperate forest, Sydney

Now it’s my view—in fact it’s more than a view, it’s what I have found through years of research—that in the 19th century this is one of the dominant ideas that’s shaping the way in which these colonists think about Australia. I’m not imposing this idea on them, I’m saying to you that Australia was the silent continent to these people.

Joseph Lycett (c.1775–1828) Aborigines Hunting Waterbirds c.1817

So where are the Aborigines in all this? This is one of Joseph Lycett’s wonderful paintings of Aborigines. How do they fit in to this idea of silence? Well, the Durag people of Sydney have lived there for thousands of years. They, of course, like Aborigines all over the country, have immense skill at finding water. Water, we know, is central to Aboriginal spirituality. The explorers, we know, depended on Aboriginal skill to find water. And in the early phase of exploration it was always possible for the explorers to strike up a relationship with Aboriginal guides who quite willingly it seems would take them through country and negotiate rights of passage across other people’s territory.

Forest Sculpture by William Ricketts

But the country was full. That’s the thing to grasp. Aborigines had been here for whatever the figure is, 40,000, 60,000 years. They had filled the continent up. Every waterhole was occupied. It was named, it was owned. Every drop of water that fell on a rock in the Western Desert, every pint of water that went down the Yarra River—these were all accounted for. The country was full.

So when the whites arrived to take land, it couldn’t happen peaceably because the country was full. There was going to be a battle over water. Sure as eggs, it had to happen. There was going to be a battle.

Aboriginals in police custody 1906

Now let me come back to this idea of silence. If you think about the Aborigines as here but not here; as silence present but not present, as somehow locked in the past, you’re looking at the way in which Terra Nullius works. Some people say that Terra Nullius is an idea that the Aborigines weren’t here. The lives of the Aborigines weren’t here. Terra Nullius never meant that. Terra Nullius was the idea that the Aborigines were here but they somehow didn’t count…because they were living in a different dimension. They weren’t living in the now. They weren’t in the present, and they didn’t own the land in a way that white law was prepared to acknowledge.

Rainbow Valley, Red Centre, Australia

So my central claim is really this: we think of colonial Africa as the dark continent, and that’s got all sorts of resonances of the idea that the west will bring the light of civilisation into the dark continent. My claim is that in exactly the same way, Australia was the silent continent. So I’ve bodgied up a book cover there, put my name on the cover…because that’s the story we’re telling. Just as Africa was the dark continent, Australia was the silent continent.

In the 19th century, European Australians came to equate the continent’s dry interior with ’emptiness’ and ‘silence’, and also with the notion of aridity in both a material and metaphorical sense.

Cathcart suggests that from Federation onwards, spirited nationalists such as Alfred Deakin sought to change this earlier ambivalent relationship to the land by overcoming it — and that they attempted to do this through water. Irrigation became a symbol of this new belief.

Michael Cathcart argues that today Australia is witnessing the emergence of a new nationalism shaped by environmental consciousness and global responsibility. [Click here to read full interview transcript]

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