Monday, March 20, 2023

Rewriting Aboriginal Histories within Australian Postcolonial


Post colonialists argue that imperialism has to be challenged by rewriting history through the experience of indigenous peoples as an epic story telling of huge devastation, painful struggle and survival. According to post colonialists, the impact of imperialism still hurts and destroys indigenous peoples (Smith, 1999). In this regard, by writing back to the center, indigenous peoples began to write their own histories using the colonizer’s language for their own purposes. Within Australian post-colonial discourses, there consist of re-evaluation and a partial rewriting of history of people marginalized and subjugated by colonial process (Russell, 2001). This, particularly, include a re-writing Aboriginal histories in order to challenge the myth of peaceful European occupation in Australia since the eighteenth century. 

In this essay, I will examine post colonialism as a way of thinking to inform the attempt of indigenous peoples to rewrite their own histories as a political agenda and argue that the attempt of rewriting Aboriginal histories is a way to reveal the truth that colonial process in Australia consists of invasion and dispossession. This essay will be divided into two sections. The first section will examine postcolonial discourses. The second section will examine the attempt of rewriting Aboriginal histories by indigenous and non indigenous writers.

Post colonialism Discourses

Post colonialism relates to many issues for societies in the aftermath of colonialism. It includes the struggle of indigenous peoples to develop their national identity and creates the forms of resistance in the wake of colonial rule and also involves the struggle of writers from colonized countries to rewrite and articulate their own histories and cultural identities by reclaiming them from the colonizers. It also deals with the ways in which the literature of colonial powers is used to justify colonialism by perpetuating the images of colonized peoples as inferior. This refers to the structure of binary opposition which creates the way we view others. This opposition is crucial for creating images of colonized people and also for constructing colonizers itself (Loomba, 2005, p. 91).

For post colonialists, history is a modernist project, which has been developed alongside imperialist belief of the others and a story of powerful, which has been used as a means to dominate others. In this regards, indigenous peoples became alienated from ‘their story’ which has been written and retold by Westerners. This is why they want to rewrite their own histories, because they have been marginalized, oppressed and trapped in the project of modernity. For indigenous peoples, imperialism and/ or colonialism is an unfinished business since they are still being colonized and searching for justice (Smith, 1999). This reflects to the feeling of indigenous writers who communicate their anger and frustration of being excluded and being pushed to the margin. They would like to add the use of non-rationalist research techniques, such as story-telling, the taking of life histories, and the ‘testimonial’ (Pettman, 2001, p. 89).

According to Fanon (1967), colonialism includes dehumanizing aspect, which involves subjectivity of colonized people as well as of their masters. He defines colonized people as not those whose labor has been appropriated but those ‘in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality’ (Fanon, 1967 , p.18). As Smith (1999, p. 26) points out, from the nineteenth century onwards the processes of dehumanization were often hidden behind justifications for imperialism and colonialism. This smoothly covered within the notion of humanism and liberalism and the assertion of moral claims which related to a concept of civilized ‘man’ (Smith, 1999, p. 26).

In discussing colonialism and its aftermath, it includes the history of decolonization. This, according to Loomba, refers to the works of intellectuals and activists who fought against colonial rule and their successors and engaged with its continuing legacy and also challenged and revised dominant definitions of race, culture language and class in the process of making their voices heard (Loomba, 2005, p. 22-23). In this regards, decolonization means that colonized peoples have to know their past and transform their colonized views of their story by revisiting their history through Western lenses (Smith, 1999).

For practitioners of postcolonial theory, the work of Edward Said, Orientalism become the theory’s founding work. Orientalism can be seen as an aspiring work with widespread attempt to write ‘histories from below’ or ‘recover’ the experiences of those who have been ‘hidden from history’. For Said, the main issue relies on the fact that all Western discourses about the East is determined by the will to dominate Oriental territories and peoples (Moore-Gilbert, 2000, p. 70).

Other influential work of postcolonial theory is the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ In this book, she argues that it is impossible for indigenous writers to improve the voice of the ‘subaltern’ or oppressed colonial subject. Spivak illustrates her view that the combination of colonialism and patriarchy is in fact make it difficult for the subaltern – in this case the Indian widow burnt on her husband’s pyre – to speak or be heard. Therefore, for Spivak, the intellectuals must represent the voice of subaltern: ‘the subaltern cannot speak. There are no virtues in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish’ (Loomba, 2005, p.194-195).

However, Smith warns us that writing as a way to represent intellectually the voice of “subaltern” can be dangerous ‘because sometimes we reveal ourselves in ways which get misappropriated and used against us. Writing can be dangerous as well because by building on previous texts written about indigenous peoples, we continue to legitimate views about ourselves which are hostile to us’ (Smith, 1999, p. 36).

Rewriting Aboriginal Histories

The process of reworking an understanding of the impact of colonialism forms the basis of indigenous language of critique. As an Aboriginal descent, Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that there are two major critiques: ‘First, draws upon a notion of authenticity, of a time before colonization in which we were intact as indigenous peoples. We had absolute authority over our lives; we were born into and lived in a universe which was entirely of our making. We did not ask, need or want to be ‘discovered’ by Europe. Second, demands that we have an analysis of how we were colonized, of what that has meant in terms of our immediate past and what it means for our present and future’ (Smith, 1999 , p. 24). Therefore, according to Smith, the solutions for indigenous peoples relies on a combination of the time before, colonized time, and the time before that, pre-colonized time.

In the context of Aboriginal people, they have lived in peace and harmony with their land for over 60,000 years. Aboriginals numbered “as many as half a million people”, between 600 and 700 tribes and at least 500 languages and dialects. They believed in the Oneness where they lived in unity with the Creator and with each other. This peaceful and harmonious live changed dramatically with the arrival of white Europeans in January 1788. From the very beginning, the British started a systematic take-over of the Australian continent. The concept of terra nullius where according to this idea, the land was thought of as “belonging to no one” became justification for the colonizer to occupy the land (Gray, 1991, p. 13).

In this sense, the European settlers failed to understand the concept of land in Aboriginal understanding. According to Aboriginal, they do not own the land, instead the land owns the peoples and therefore they lived in harmony within it. By contrast to the European who “work” and “improve” the land, the Aboriginal people, gathered and hunted for their food. The Aboriginal understanding of land, thus, beneficial for the myth of terra nullius. Yagan, a Victorian Aboriginal, in 1843, expressed his feeling:

‘The wild black fellows do not understand your laws, every living animal that roams the country and every edible root that grows in the ground are common property. A black man claims nothing as his own but his cloak, his weapons and his name. He does not understand that animals or plants can belong to one person more than to another’ (Broome, 1982, p. 38). 

 In Australian postcolonial, there has been a deliberate rejection of the myth of passive conquest of Australia. Indigenous writer such as Anne Pattel Gray try to demonstrate the Aboriginal people resistance to European invasion. Historically, there was significant resistance from Aboriginal people since the very beginning of white “settlement” in Australia. From 1788 to 1802, an Aboriginal warrior named Pemulwuy became ‘the first Aboriginal resistance leader… (conducting)… guerilla warfare against the settlers firing crops, attacking farms and driving off stock’ (Gray, 1991, p. 14). The resistance efforts of Pemulwuy and other indigenous warriors such as Windradyne, Yagan, Multeggerah, the Kalkadoons, Barak, Nemarluk and Tjandamara were consciously “forgotten” from the mind of the colonizer (Gray, 1991, p. 15). This rejection can be seen as the breaking of ‘great Australian silence’ and destroying ‘the cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale’(Russel, 2001, p. 17).

In Australian colonial era, particularly in the 1820s, the government and the churches worked together to place Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal children are taken away from their families through the “settlement period” before Aboriginal men’s role in life has been destroyed. As Pattel (1999, p. 19) points out, this missions was done to “re-educate” the Aboriginal people in order to learn the “superior” white people’s way. Annie Morrison, an Aboriginal woman, testifying of the exploitation of Aboriginal children before the Moseley Royal Commission of 1934:

  ‘at 15 the children were sent from the children’s homes as state wards and apprenticed, generally as station hands and domestic servants. They were usually badly treated, often beaten and even starved, and paid very little.

…Where Aboriginals were regularly employed, usually as stockmen, they were always poorly paid and often worked for their keep and the support of their families. Their living conditions were always appalling.

 Sir, I have six children three boys three girls at Moore River. They haven’t enough to eat. Water soup no meat and bread and fat for breakfast and tea no green vegetables and fruit. They haven’t warm clothes for winter, my children have only one blanket between three of them winter and summer, I have been there and seen it. I hear some girls screaming in the office and the teachers said two trackers held the Girls feet over a sack of flour and Mr. Neal Gave them a hiding and till tha wet them self we had to eat the flour after’ (Gray, 1991, p. 19). 

The stories that Aboriginal people speak and write of themselves about themselves and others are not always accessible and not so many. Hence, what they reveal of themselves, such as their grievances and plans in a negotiation process is crucial in the reconciliatory process between the colonizers and the indigenous peoples. There is perhaps no story that the colonizers can tell to justify and satisfy the Aboriginal people what has  been occurred since the arrival of the European settlers in Australia in 1788 (McIntosh, 2006, p. 293). However, there is few non-Aboriginal writers view that conventional historical accounts distorted the past and guilty of committing serious injustices on the Aboriginal people, who were not treated with seriousness that was due to them. Henry Reynolds, a Professor of History, in the conclusion of the Other Side of the Frontier, recognizes vehemently the injustices on the Aboriginal people :

‘Frontier violence was a political violence. We cannot ignore it because it took place on the fringes of European settlement. Twenty thousand blacks were killed before federation. Their burial mound stands out as a landmark of awesome size on the peaceful plains of colonial history. If the bodies had been white our histories would be heavy with their story, a forest of monuments would celebrate their sacrifice. The much noted actions of rebel colonists are trifling in comparison. The Kellys and their kind, even Eureka diggers and Vinegar Hill convicts, are diminished when measured against the hundreds of clans who fought frontier settlers for well over a century. In parts of the continent the Aboriginal death toll overshadows even that of the overseas wars of the twentieth century. About 5,000 Europeans from Australia north of the tropic of Capricorn died in the five wars between the outbreak of the Boer War and the end of the Vietnam engagement. But in a similar period – say the seventy years between the first settlement in north Queensland in 1861 and the early 1930s – as many as 10,000 blacks were killed in skirmishes with the Europeans in north Australia’ (Reynolds, 2000,p. 116).


Post colonialism provides a framework for indigenous peoples to tell their own stories about huge devastation caused by colonialism and about their own struggle and survival throughout colonialism and its aftermath. Post colonialism can be used as a way of thinking to inform the attempt of indigenous peoples to rewrite their own histories as a political agenda. In the case of Aboriginal people, there have been some efforts by indigenous peoples and writers to reveal the truth by rewriting their own histories through their own experiences by using non-rationalist approach. I have argued that the attempt of rewriting Aboriginal histories is a way to reveal the truth that colonial process in Australia consists of invasion and dispossession.



Broome, Richard. (1982) Aboriginal Australia, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Fanon, Frantz. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, New York.

Gray, Anne Pattel. (1991) Through Aboriginal Eyes: The Cry from Wilderness, WCC Publications, Geneva.

Loomba, Ania. (2005) Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, New York.

Moore-Gilbert, B. (2000) Postcolonial Theory, Verso, London.

Mc Intosh, Ian. (2006). Reconciling Personal and Impersonal Worlds: Aboriginal Struggles for Self                           Determination. In At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial                         States, edited by Bartholomew Dean and Jerome M. Levi, The University of Michigan Press,                       Michigan.

Pettman, Ralph. (2001) World Politics: rationalism and beyond, Palgrave, Houndmills.

Reynolds, Henry. (2000) Why Weren’t We Told, Penguin Group, Victoria.

Russel, L. (2001) Savage Imaginings: Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Australian Aboriginalities, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: research and indigenous peoples, Zed Books,       London.

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