Words are weapons. Stories are dangerous, for they define who we are, they define our history; they can be weaponised. Stories and history are tools and weapons of war. Stories can be used as part of genocide, because if you say a people are extinct other people might believe it. Stories can be part of genocide because you can use stories to erase a culture.
We are the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. History is nothing but a story; a nation and its culture are defined by that story and the story is not always built on the truth.
You might think you know the history of the colony of Australia. But do you really?
History is trying to speak to you, it always has—from the birth of the Colony of New South Wales in 1788 down to today; the ripples left by the wake of longboats still reflect from the shore. Can you hear it?
Can you hear it? Can you?
Can you hear it? I am certain I can but perhaps I listen more carefully than most.
Do you listen? Are you listening?
Do you even want to listen, do you even want to know? The echoes of colonisation sound out even now, more than 250 years after the first shot fired on Australian soil; when in 1770 Lieutenant James Cook (not yet a captain) fired at the first Aboriginal men he encountered; when he landed a longboat near where Sydney now stands. Cook named that place Botany Bay, after the abundant samples the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks collected.
You might notice that the colony in New South Wales was not founded in Botany Bay but in Sydney Harbour.
Can you hear it? That first crack of a musket on a beach echoes down through Australia’s history and will until it is unpacked and dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light. It will always be there, wounding the soul of our already-heartsick nation until we absorb and neutralise it.
When I, and others who don’t need to be told, tell people that Cook shot the first person he met on Australian soil, on a beach, firing a warning shot between the men then shooting again and hitting one in the leg, they sometimes call me a liar, but it’s right there in his own writing, in his journals. You can read it if you like, in the museums, archives and collections, and on the internet where facsimiles and transcripts are kept and are free to access. Free for anybody to read.
It’s not even hidden.
Cook did not consider it secret, something worth hiding.
The crack of that shot will never stop echoing; its ripples will be under Australia’s skin forever.
It has been said often that Cook declared Australia ‘terra nullius’ and claimed the continent from Possession Island in the Torres Strait; however, there are reports it was not even on Possession Island but, rather, the log entry was retconned in later, long after he left the continent.
Australia is a lie, built on a foundation of lies so deeply embedded in its soul they pollute all that the nation is. Imagine constructing a building on a warped, bent, crumbling foundation: it leads to a building that can barely stand, out of shape and broken before it is completed. That is Australian history.
You can see the warping on every wall, every corner, every window of Australia. You can’t fix something when its foundation is faulty; all you can do is tear it down and build it again.
Back in 1992, with the High Court’s Mabo decision, terra nullius, a declaration that some say was never made until it was convenient to enforce it retroactively, was overturned, and for the first time Australian law acknowledged that Aboriginal people lived on this continent before 1788, before 1770, before 1606 (the first confirmed European sighting of the continent) and, then and now, have ownership rights and connection to land.
Terra nullius was never true in Australia; it was a lie. The courts did not render it untrue by their decision. Rather they declared it to have always been false; we were not suddenly here, we always have been.
Many still hold the delusional belief that colonisers, convicts and troopers from Britain were the first people to land on Australia, even people who know it can’t be true. We hear them constantly with their cries of ‘We were here first’ aimed at more recent immigrants, as if there were any difference between migrants and other migrants. Terra nullius was overturned, was declared never to have been true in law.
It’s time to overturn terra nullius in the hearts and minds of the people.
This is, perhaps, my duty, my work, my calling: not to end terra nullius on my own (even imagining I could would be arrogant); rather, I must do what I can to change how this country sees itself. I cannot destroy the lies on my own, all I can do is put two cents on top of the pile and hope other people can build more on top. My task is to do whatever I can to tell the truth.
Perhaps I can help build the new foundation the country needs: one based on respect for the sovereignty of Indigenous people.
Can you feel it, the truth rippling under the nation’s skin?
Can you hear the sound of gunshots and boots echoing down through time?
I can feel it; I can hear it; I can see it; some of it at least, in my father’s eyes, in the banksias, peppermint trees, white sand and grey stone of my Country, in the heart of the land, in the voice of the wind, in the stories of Aboriginal survivors of the invasion, in the Indigenous art on gallery walls, in the Aboriginal music on my car stereo. I can see it in the red dirt of the centre, in the tree ferns of the alps, in the sand of the beaches, the billabongs of the Riverina and the tropics, and in the eyes of the people.
It’s there, in the scars on my Country, in the bones of my grandfather whom I don’t remember because he died when I was only a baby, in the history of my family, our fates so profoundly altered by Australia’s arrival on our Country. It’s always there. Right down into my bones.
Think you know Australia, think you know the history? Most of what you think you know is a lie; the lies were told because if you knew the truth you might no longer support the status quo. The lies you were told because those lies serve the colony.
Think you know history?
It’s there, right there in your bones; in the bones of history, you just need to know how to listen; but first you need to want to listen.
Right down in your bones.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I first walked on my ancestral Country, on the south-east coast of Noongar country in the south of what is now known as Western Australia; I had driven through decades ago but stopping there was taboo, forbidden. Too many people died there, I was told. I returned there, a road trip from Naarm (Melbourne) of many days, crossing the Nullarbor, passing through interstate quarantine. I hit the coast barefoot, buried my feet in white sand, sat on the sacred bare-rock bones of Country.
My dad, whose father was born in the bush somewhere on that coast, met me there and we explored the coast and the bush, peppermint trees and banksia scrub, visited wadjela graveyards and unmarked Noongar graves.
Our Country was a massacre place, our Country was stolen, our Boodjar was the taboo place, our Boodjar was haunted. So the story goes.
There’s a historical society there, in the old quiet town, almost a ghost, and a museum in the old dance hall. Visiting there we discovered more of my family history on display than we had ever seen in one place, more than my dad knew, more than he even knew to look for. I told them who we were, read the history on display, ordered a facsimile of their archives, and then they invited us to the opening event for a recently built memorial to the massacre that had occurred just outside of town.
My ancestors’ family was involved in that massacre, my apical ancestor (the last ‘full blood’ Noongar from whom my Aboriginal descent can be traced and legally proven) would have been directly related to some of those who died. At the memorial opening I heard the stories of what had happened, absorbed them, tried to connect with the ancestors in that place and gained inspiration that became, after a time and many more travels, my award-winning debut novel Terra Nullius.
Since that day, when I finally understood that the stories of that place and the stories of a massacre were mine, I have made it my mission, my life’s work, to uncover, expose and destroy the lies embedded deeply in the history of the nation called Australia.
Words are weapons. Lies can be weaponised but so can truth. I have armed myself against lies with weaponised truths. •
Note: This is an edited extract from Lies, Damned Lies, published by Ultimo Press.
Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin-Noongar-Australian writer and poet, whose 2017 debut novel, Terra Nullius won the Norma K Hemming Award and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize.