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Canberra Today 20°/22° | Monday, January 24, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

The genteel whitefella at the heart of change

Henry Reynolds… instrumental in the great victory of Aboriginal land rights.

“If ever a writer and historian were deserving of a Nobel Prize, whether for literature or peace, that person is Henry Reynolds, now in the golden years of a life that has changed a nation,” writes columnist ROBERT MACKLIN.

WHEN we look back on the era that saw the great transformation of Australia to a nation that embraced its Aboriginal past and engaged the wisdom of its First Nations people, one whitefella of modest and genteel manner will be found at the heart of it. 

Robert Macklin.

Henry Reynolds is the very embodiment of the US President Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. In his case the stick is actually a switch of more than 20 finely wrought literary canes with which he awakened the Australian conscience. Their titles range from 1972’s “Aborigines and Settlers: The Australian Experience”, to “Truth-Telling – History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement” in 2021

In between, separately and together, his books chart the course of a revolution in Australian perception. Like all revolutions, nothing was won without a fight; and through the decades Reynolds was pounded by the remorseless opposition of a prime minister leading a raging conservative cohort. 

Born in Hobart in 1938, the son of a journalist and biographer, the young Henry went to state school and the University of Tasmania where, in 1960, he gained his BA (Hons) before pursuing a teaching career that took him eventually to the Townsville University College in 1965.

Asked to lecture on Australian history from a textbook that barely mentioned the Aboriginal people, he began his own research. 

He was “shocked”, he says, “by the revelation of the frontier wars” that plunged NSW and Queensland into a killing field that took some 20,000 Aboriginal lives. And that didn’t include the death toll from European diseases and starvation when expelled from their tribal lands.

His 1982 book, “The Other Side of the Frontier” detailed the horrors perpetrated by settlers and police. It was also a “revelation” to a population weaned on the heroic tales of the pioneers. It inspired other academics and writers to enter the fray and a Culture War erupted. 

Paul Keating gave his celebrated “Redfern Speech” while John Howard labelled Reynolds and his supporters the “Black Armband Group”. Reynolds tagged his opponents “White Blindfold” and the conflict raged for a decade before the progressives gradually gained ground.

He was also instrumental in the great victory of Aboriginal land rights through chats with his university’s groundsman and gardener, one Eddie Mabo who doted on his Murray Island land in the Torres Strait.

“So intense was his attachment to his land,” Reynolds says, “that I began to worry whether he had any idea about his legal circumstances. I said: ‘Don’t you realise that nobody actually owns land on Murray Island? It’s all crown land’.” 

Eddie consulted lawyers and in 1992 a High Court judgement finally recognised Aboriginal land rights. 

It is hard to overestimate Reynolds’ influence in the great movement that followed, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. If ever a writer and historian were deserving of a Nobel Prize, whether for literature or peace, that person is Henry Reynolds, now in the golden years of a life that has changed a nation. 

If literature, he would adorn a cohort of historian laureates from Winston Churchill to Christian Mommsen, the recipient of only the second to be awarded in 1902, or for peace such worthies as Shimon Perez or Jose Ramos-Horta. 

While the final goals of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” have yet to be enacted, their achievement is within our grasp; and a great Australian helped immeasurably to place it there.

robert@robertmacklin.com 

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Robert Macklin

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