Review: Surviving New England

10 Mar 2020

Surviving New England is impossible to put down. Its accounts shatter the colonial storying of the frontier. Mob in New England were not only resilient, as the current progressive narrative would have us believe, to colonisation — they resisted, fiercely, doing much more than surviving.

How do blak Nations get doing the heavy task of truth-telling? Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse offers us a model.

Published by the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, produced entirely on Anaiwan Country and written by Ambēyaŋ linguist and historian Callum Clayton-Dixon, Surviving New England works towards a truth-telling that isn’t stuck in the colonial frame.

The book is not a triumph — how could a history of anything so serious and enduring as colonisation be described as such? — but it is a remarkable and grounded work that should be cherished in its own right, and inspire similar projects.

The account that Callum paints is through the archive of newspapers and government records, ‘[using] scattered historical records to reconstruct a coherent and detailed narrative of our people’s struggle for survival through the early colonial period.’

It faces its core problem head-on — how do we use a colonial tool of memory to tell a story of colonisation for mob? Records might try to disguise the violence, justify it, or might omit it entirely.

Other blak scholars have written on the archive’s hostility, and its limits as a source of truth telling. But the Anaiwan Language Revival Program has been deliberate about this strategy from the start, first launching Mūgūng & Gun to turn to colonial gaze on itself in a similar way — using its own words to pre-empt settler denial reflexes. It’s not a perfect decolonial strategy, but as a truth-telling project surrounded by other Anaiwan community organising, it doesn’t have to do this work alone.

Callum’s research is systematic, detailed and impressive — but presented in a way that belies the huge and complex task the book would have been. Clear and purposeful, it’s presented in a storytelling format that is grouped both by theme (like Ecocide and the dismantling of Aboriginal independence; Decimated and outpopulated) and by the order in which things happened.

Surviving New England is impossible to put down. Its accounts shatter the colonial storying of the frontier. Mob in New England were not only resilient, as the current progressive narrative would have us believe, to colonisation — they resisted, fiercely, doing much more than surviving.

In laying out these mobs’ resistance for us, Callum exposes just what they were resisting. He makes visible the violence of settlement from all sources of European incursion — reconnaissance and mapping, policing and war-making, wholesale massacre by private actors, and the entrenchment of agriculture and disenfranchisement from Country — things we’re often told are neutral, justified, random or inevitable.

Narmi Collins-Widders drives this reality home with her powerful illustrations. The Anaiwan and Kamilaroi illustrator drew from her visits to Country, photographs and archival materials. Her illustrations especially of the acts of the New England Border Police, are heavy with significance and easy to get lost in. Narmi makes this history that much harder to forget.

Although it is hardly a fault in the book, the early years of the colonial apocalypse contained within it paint only a small part of the picture of the broader colonial structure. Maybe in doing so, there’s a risk that truth-telling only about the early colonial period, not just in books like this but everywhere, lets settlers of the hook and disguises how these acts continue in new forms.

On the other hand, any truth-telling project can’t be everything — and if it was, it would lose some of its specificity and power. It represents a need to reckon with white colonial mythologies of the New England region. Being grown up there myself, these mythologies not only shape everyday life, but the terms on which Aboriginal people can resist.

Surviving New England, using the story of just forty years within which colonial violence became an entrenched and enduring reality for mob there, takes a powerful cornerstone of these myths — peace and surrender — out. Surely, from there the cherished myths of New England will start to crumble if this book gets the audience it deserves.

My assessment, as a Gomeroi woman, will never be as important as how Anaiwan mob value this work, given its close focus on the resistance of their ancestors. As a testament to just how grounded in the community Surviving New England is, the book is introduced by Anaiwan and Gumbaynggirr woman Gabi Briggs, who says –

‘Surviving New England is a vital resource that will inevitably help heal old wounds.’

Nothing will be more of a testament to Surviving New England’s necessity and power this story Callum shares of bringing early versions of it home to the late Uncle William ‘Bimbo’ Widders.

‘I would often call Uncle Bimbo, let him know what I’d found, and then race around to his house with printed copies. One night I came across an article […] claiming that “a more rascaly, vindictive or treacherous set of vagabonds than are the New England Blacks, will not be found in any part of New Holland.”

Handing a copy of that article over to my uncle, I watched him read through it with a big grin on his face, full of immense pride. They were his people, his warrior ancestors, and they certainly fought hard to defend their kin and their country.’

Order your copy of Surviving New England here.

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