Karen Wyld: History Mysteries

In BlogX, History by Luke Pearson

Author: Karen Wyld

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Karen Wyld is a freelance writer, author, consultant and facilitator. Of Martu ancestry, she lives on Kaurna Country.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who supports reconciliation week, but I no longer participate.

It’s hard to maintain hope when there’s scant signs of achieving justice.

This year’s theme, Don’t Keep History A Mystery, feels problematic to me. Luke Pearson recently articulated some of these issues. In particular, the need to learn about whiteness and to unlearn viewing history unconsciously through culturally-biased lens.

However, as a writer of fiction who is fascinated with history, I have some history mysteries to share.

First up, a whodunit mystery:

I have gathered you all here, in the library, to reveal the mastermind behind the Slaughterhouse Creek massacre.

Stop being so dramatic. Just call it Waterloo Creek.

In all due respect Colonel Snodgrass, this incident of killing innocent natives is no light matter.

Which incident are you speaking of? There have been a few unavoidable skirmishes.

I refer to the slaughter of 300 Gamilaraay in the year of 1838, sir. Major James Nunn and his men may have undertaken this evil killing spree, but you too have blood on your hands.

Still the dramatics?

Did you or did you not order Nunn to eradicate these natives, to ‘fix the black problem’?

Yes. I felt that order was in line with my role as Governor.

Soldiers, stockmen, citizens – almost every local person is implicated in these killings. The natives were unarmed. Women and children were killed. Do you feel no remorse?

No, I was nowhere near Waterloo Creek on the 26th day of January. As Governor of New South Wales, I was celebrating Foundation Day in the company of my family. 

Four known massacres in this region in the previous two years, and you dare to say you have nothing to answer for?

Of course not. Furthermore, I will participate in the upcoming inquiry into the event, but I will not humour your ambitions as an amateur detective.

‘Mounted Police and Blacks’ (1852) depicts the killing of Aboriginals at Slaughterhouse Creek by British troops.

Too violent? Here’s a mystery pantomime:

Scene – Aunty is hiding behind a bush mid-stage, clutching a baby to her breast. She’s been running from the villain but has lost sight of him.

Audience – “He’s behind you.” “Look behind you.” “Run. Run, its A O Neville.”  “He’s come to steal your baby!”

Too sad? Maybe a forensic mystery is more to your taste:

“Sirs,” said the doctor, as he rushed into the parlour. “The results are conclusive.”

“Out with it, son.  I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“It was in the blankets. The smallpox virus that killed the natives…..it was in the blankets issued by the government.”

“Yes, yes. Leave us. We have a robust burgundy waiting to be savoured.”

An apocalyptic mystery:

They stood, transfixed at the mysterious cloud that engulfed the horizon, not realising that their lives would be forever changed by this toxic black mist that would scorch Country.

Too far-fetched? How about a supernatural mystery movie:

Sister Mary Marie stands at the front door, not heeding the moths beating against the hall light behind her. She frowns. This country has too many bugs. Sister Mary scans the darkened bushland surrounding the Shepherds of The Lord Children’s Home.

“What evil lurks out there,” She mutters.What is creating all these orphans?”

A short distance away, the grounds-keeper rested on his shovel at the end of another long day. He grimaced, wondering how many more child-sized graves he would dig this week. And, not for the first time, he thought: what evil lurks inside this place?

Too dark? Perhaps a romance mystery novel will be more appropriate.

Like the story of how the young Aboriginal woman eventually fell in love with the sealer who brutally took her from her family. Or the tale of the barely-a-woman who warmed the heart of the soldier who felt alienated in such an inhospitable country.

No, I’m not going to tell fake histories. Sex slavery, rape, sexual assault and coercion are not romantic. Fetishizing or mythicising settlers’ interactions with Aboriginal women is not truth-telling. So, fellow writers of fiction, just stop that depraved nonsense.

In all seriousness, none of the above historical events are mysteries. These and similar histories (stories) have been told in film, documentaries, plays fiction and non-fiction literature, in art, poetry, song, and dance. And represented in monuments, public art and built environs.

If non-Indigenous people choose not to listen or to see, that does not make pre-invasion or settler-colonisation histories a mystery. And if people choose to white-wash our collective history, then shifting hearts or minds becomes impossible.

This year’s reconciliation theme has the potential of utilising stories to create change, but this story-telling needs to challenge the status quo by being brutally honest.

However, First People should not be expected to share stories of achievements and contributions to Australian society – to demonstrate they are ‘worthy’ of being recognised. This is reflective of the harmful narrative that only good refugees are worthy of sanctuary, and only productive migrants are worthy of being recognised as Australian.

Any sharing of history needs to be done on the terms of the story-keepers – those that have lived experience or tell the stories of their ancestors. Not dictated by non-Indigenous people, no matter how qualified they see themselves. Truth-telling involves deep listening. And a willingness to engage with the uncomfortable.

History is not a mystery. And neither is some people’s reluctance to listen, learn, and embrace change. Are you listening?

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