Violence and the Intimate Frontier

In my continuing series of posts about the Australian Historical Association today I write up some notes I made at two plenary panels. These notes are not a comprehensive overview of the panels; rather they are a handful of the thoughts presented which particularly resonated with me. 

Conflict in history is the theme of the Australian Historical Association conference which was held in Brisbane last week. Held just weeks away from the centenary of World War I, the immediate assumption is that this conference would be about the history of wars in other places such as the world wars. However, a plenary panel and other papers presented throughout the conference demonstrate that historians are continuing to research conflicts on Australian soil.

Book cover, Out of the Silence

Out of the Silence: The history and memory of South Australia’s frontier wars, by Robert Foster and Amanda Nettelbeck (Wakefield Press, 2012)

Australia has a history of conflict on this continent which goes well beyond the bombing of Darwin during World War II. As Australian historians over the last twenty to thirty years have found, the settlement of Australia by Europeans was not peaceful. Violence and conflict can also be expressed in many forms.

Military aspects of frontier violence have taken away from inter-cultural violence on the Australian frontiers observed Professor Amanda Nettelbeck of the University of Adelaide. When we think of conflict between two peoples we think of armed conflict between two groups of strangers who do not know each other. Yet conflict between two peoples can be waged between people who know each other, who perhaps grow up with each other and even live under the same roof. Nettelbeck reminded us that when thinking of conflict between Aborigines and settlers we should also consider the intimate and everyday aspects of the violence.

Book Cover of One Bright Spot

One Bright Spot by Victoria K Haskins (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Violence is interwoven in the history of domestic service said Associate Professor Vicky Haskins of the University of Newcastle. Her research focuses on Aboriginal domestic service. Many of the women were forced into servitude whether as a result of the policies concerning children stolen from their families and placed in domestic service or, as in a case she described, where a child had been taken after a violent clash with settlers decimated her family. Haskins regards this as another site in the conflict between Aborigines and settlers. However, it is very different from the warring between two sides where they didn’t know each other. In this case the conflict manifested differently because the domestic servants and the family they served knew each other very well. With reference to the important work of Ann Stoler in this area, Haskins describes this as the ‘intimate frontier’.

Book cover of Roving Mariners

Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790–1870 by Lynette Russell (SUNY Press, 2012)

It is known that there was violence by the employers towards their servants, but Haskins is researching the violence by the servants against their employers. While the power was largely held by the employer, the domestic servant did have some limited power to fight back. Thus Haskins supported Professor Lynette Russell’s argument regarding the Aboriginal women in Bass Strait sealing communities that they did have limited choices.

The Bass Strait sealing communities of the early nineteenth-century consisted of white men and Aboriginal women that they had taken to the islands from elsewhere. Russell argued that the Aboriginal/white dichotomy is not a good way to represent these communities. The Aboriginal women still spoke their language and practised their culture to a limited extent but the people of the two racial groups interacted and developed a community culture even if it can be seen to have problems.

Dr Angela Wanhalla of New Zealand’s Otago University has been researching the ‘GI babies’ who are a legacy of what Wanhalla described as the ‘tsunami’ of American service men in the Pacific during World War II. The Americans left thousands of children born to indigenous women in Pacific during the War.

Book Cover of Matters of the Heart

Matters of the Heart: A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand (Auckland University Press, 2013)

Wanhalla used oral history to counteract the bias inherent in the archives. This research had to be conducted very sensitively as it revealed things the mothers had never told and could trigger the sense of shame and guilt which compelled them to keep quiet about their stories for all these years.

At the beginning of her talk Wanhalla said that her study of the Pacific did not include Australia. She recommended that we read the book Children Without a State: A Global Human Rights Challenge edited by Jacqueline Bhabha. That evening Wanhalla’s book, Matters of the Heart: A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand won the prestigious Ernest Scott prize.

At the opening of the conference, Aboriginal elder, Aunty Lilla Watson expressed concern that the history of colonialism was not going to be covered in the conference. These two plenary panels show that historians are still very concerned about this question and are doing considerable research into it. However, we need to heed the concerns of Aunty Lilla and many other Aboriginal people and be careful that the history of colonialism is not subsumed by the juggernaut of the Centenary of World War I. This issue is still of paramount importance for Australia as a nation to properly understand and come to terms with.

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