Put away the muskets

The sight of Australia’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip lying face down on a Sydney beach in1790 with over three metres of Indigenous barbed spear in his shoulder is not something that immediately springs to mind when we think of Reconciliation. The tribes had many grievances but what elevates this story in my mind is what came next, or rather what didn’t come next. As the critically injured Phillip was bundled back into the bottom of his boat by his men, he ordered his soldiers to put away their muskets.

Phillip survived and went on to make a full recovery but there’s no escaping the fact that the arrival of European society in this country remained a catastrophic event in the lives of First Nations people. It is hard at times to reconcile the many perspectives borne of the cross cultural clashes that followed but asking forgiveness for what happened in the past does not necessarily mean to forget history, even where the passage of time makes truth telling a challenge.

In my last post, I wrote about one of the greatest athletes of Australia’s colonial age, Tom Wills who now lies mouldering away in a grave up at the Warringal Cemetery, within easy reach of the mortal remains of the not so athletic Mr T Wragge Esq of Yallambie. As Wills’ old football clubs, Melbourne and Geelong readied themselves to play off in the 2021 football finals series, it seemed to me like a good time to recount a shortened version of the short life of Tom Wills. Here was a Ripping Yarn for the telling, make no mistake. The documented friendships Wills enjoyed with First Nations people, touched only lightly upon in my post, was another side to that story, made all the more remarkable by the death of his father who was murdered alongside 18 others by Indigenous people in Queensland.

Maybe like me you saw the sensationalist claims that surfaced in the press soon after that post. Those claims detailed the alleged involvement of Tom in a deadly and disproportionate retaliatory raid on Indigenous people that followed the Cullin-la-ringo massacre. The claims were based on a racist diatribe written anonymously to a Chicago newspaper in America, more than 30 years after the event and if true, they put Wills in a very damaging light. On first reading the detail of the I Zingari jacket sounded particularly incriminating.

Days passed. Indigenous leaders were asked to comment. The AFL said they would need to take advice. Melbourne FC triumphed in the Grand Final. Finally, the day following that game, Martin Flanagan revealed in The Age that the story about Wills had only partly quoted the Chicago article. Taken in its entirety, little of the source material could be said to be plausible. The Chicago writer had managed to get nearly all Tom’s family relationships wrong, the lurid portrayal of the attack by the tribes at Cullin-la-ringo was clearly an utter fabrication, while the writer had even managed to locate Cullin-la-ringo in the wrong Australian Colony altogether.

Wills’ biographer, Greg de Moore who spent more than ten years of his life researching his definitive “First Wild Man of Australian Sport”, while not prepared to dismiss completely the possibility of Wills involvement in the attacks that followed Cullin-la-ringo, said he had found no evidence of it during his research. In the heat of the moment that followed the death of his father, as first man on the scene after the attack, Tom had certainly called out for vengeance, but was Tom thinking of lawful or lynch mob justice?

Last weekend, following up on the original story, another much more likely event appeared in the press, describing how Wills had lead the Indigenous cricketers he was supposed to be mentoring into the destructive effects of alcohol abuse. Alcohol likely led to the premature deaths of a number of the Indigenous cricketers but then, this was a fate also shared by Wills himself. Wills has been elevated to legendary hero status by proponents of the history of our game and his early recognition of the natural brilliance of Indigenous sportsmen is well understood but in the final analysis, off the field Wills was something of a flawed character. Last month saw a famous Grand Final victory for the Melbourne Football Club, the first for the club in 57 years, and but for the questions so recently raised, a moment that should have been celebrated in Tom Wills’ folklore.

The story of Reconciliation has for a long time been a story filled with suspicion and mutual misunderstanding, made worse by the lack of a Treaty with the First Nations and the so called “History Wars”. It can be a fraught topic to write about but The Age lead this morning made a pretty good attempt. In that story, associate editor, Tony Wright summarized the murder and dispossession of Indigenous people that marked the first years of settlement in the Port Phillip District, a dark irony he says as many of the perpetrators were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders who had themselves been victims of the Scottish Clearances. These were brutal times for many but Wright says the British government, having just banned slavery across its empire, was infused with evangelical, humanitarian fervour for the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Wright quotes the first resident Supreme Court judge, John Walpole Willis who said that “the colonists and not the Aborigines are the foreigners… [the colonists] uninvited intruders.” What transpired though was a different reality. Land was seized under the doctrine of Terra Nullius, massacres were covered up and the influx of European diseases resulted in an almost complete crash in the Indigenous population. The total Indigenous populace of Victoria before white settlement has been difficult to estimate and is hotly debated today but it is thought that the decline after 30 years had been by as much as 80 per cent.

Such a figure is a sad indictment on our society but there is a way forward. Today Victoria has plans to become the first jurisdiction in Australia to develop a long overdue Treaty with First Nations people via its Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. Wright says, “Victoria’s quest for truth and justice, we might reflect, does not come before time.” It seems to me that after 18 months of lockdowns, conspiracy theories, global warming inaction and nuclear subs, Australia stands on a threshold, more divided now than at perhaps any time since Federation. Last week even saw the bizarre sight of Americans in New York, egged on by a conservative media, demonstrating to “Save Australia” from itself. Maybe it’s time for us to look beyond the lines that divide us in this country and remember what it is that makes every single one of us an Australian, from those very first inhabitants to all of us Johnny-Come-Latelies. Yes, it is time for truth telling but after the truth has been told, let’s put away the muskets.

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