Australian history according to Joe Hildebrand

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Media personality Joe Hildebrand - Australian history is not his strongest point (Screenshot via YouTube)

Comments recently published by Joe Hildebrand on Indigenous issues demonstrate a lack of understanding and compassion, writes John Maycock.

IN THE WAKE of the Kennerley/Stynes Studio10 brouhaha, co-host Joe Hildebrand published two articles — the first in defence of his and Kennerley’s position, the second, a week later, in defence of the first.

He complains that in the wake of the first article he was called a white supremacist, an apologist for racial genocide, and accused of:

…denying massacres or atrocities were committed and attempting to whitewash history.

So, what’s going on?

With that first article, Hildebrand basically argues there is no reason to change the date of Australia Day as the First Fleet did not come with the intention to invade – so there was no invasion – and then takes the high ground by championing more pressing Indigenous issues. His position is that you cannot fight for both improvements in contemporary Indigenous issues and changing the date.

It all starts with a historical travel log of societies rising, conquering and falling, of ruthlessness, raping, pillaging, maiming and slaughtering.

The apparent take away from it:

‘Woe to the conquered.’

However, when it comes to the history of the colonisation of Australia, the tune changes – it was all benign, there was no intent to harm – and Hildebrand would have us believe we came to live in harmony:

…Phillip gave strict orders that the local… people must be treated well and he… attempted to befriend them.


Moreover he said that anyone who killed a native person would be hanged and… when he was speared… he forbade his men from retaliating.

Hildebrand suggests that:

Anyone who defines this as an act of war or invasion has either no knowledge of history or no knowledge of what such words mean.

For Hildebrand:

This was the spirit in which the colony of New South Wales was founded.

And so, although:

…there were unspeakable atrocities committed by some settlers, and… disease… had a catastrophic effect on the indigenous population.

It is of no consequence as:

…it was not government policy and it was not the government’s intention….

Even when acknowledging that:

It is vital that non-Indigenous Australians are made acutely aware of the sorrows and stains on our history… perpetrated by many of our ancestors.

Hildebrand tempers it with:

…it is equally vital that Indigenous Australians understand that… there was never an intent to “invade” them….

A thought to hold onto — Hildebrand does raise the Myall Creek massacre, but he neglects to point out that that occurred 50 years after the colony was established.

So far we have:

  • there was no intent to invade — we came as friends;
  • there were killings and such by some settlers, but the Government was not responsible;
  • the crimes were committed by our ancestors — by implication, we are not responsible for what they did (right, John Howard?); and
  • Indigenous people should accept that we didn’t mean it, even though we did do it.

Something to consider, too, is this from Hildebrand:

From their [Indigenous] point of view perhaps Phillip’s arrival did feel like an invasion, but for the colonists and the convicts nothing could have been further from their minds.

Firstly here, Hildebrand is talking about the point of view of the Indigenous people first confronted by Captain Arthur Phillip — his conjecture is about them and only them. And here he has ignored the Indigenous experiences of the following 230 years as the colonial invasion spread out across the country. Killing and raping, rounding up survivors and marching them off in chains, all the while stealing their prime producing land.

Consider that massacres and wholesale land theft/dispossession didn’t start in Victoria or Western Australia until the 1830s, nor in Queensland or South Australia until the 1840s. Also, this project that has been mapping massacres, so far having plotted around 250 up until the 1930s – excluding Western Australian and some South Australian incidents which are yet to be published – is intending to next look at massacres up to the 1960s. They expect that the final figure could be somewhere near 500.

Surely, all the people displaced by the colonial march across Australia would have seen their experience in the same light as that which Hildebrand gives those of first contact, even those displaced during the 20th century.

Hildebrand has erased the voice (point of view) of post-contact Indigenous experience and it is post-contact experience that speaks to changing the date.

Secondly, that last observation from Hildebrand that the colonists and the convicts would not have perceived their happenstances as an invasion. Here he leaves out the officers and soldiers – the Government representatives – a Government he exonerates of any intention to harm, or invade. Yet these Government representatives came to set up a colony (as did the colonists Hildebrand lets off the hook).

I have to ask, what the bloody hell is turning up on someone’s shore with the intent of setting up a colony in preparation to eventually take over the land? Surely it is an intention to invade. That was the agenda the Government had in mind and surely that would be how Phillip and co would have viewed it.

And here is a good place to add my own historical conjecture.

By at least the mid-16th century the colonial powers had learnt of the effectiveness of germ warfare on the occupants of the newly discovered lands — they understood that Indigenous populations had no immunity to European diseases. By the time the First Fleet arrived, they had certainly known this for some time as it had become an easily-deployed and effective weapon in the invading coloniser’s arsenal.

And so it would have come as no surprise when:

…within just two years, smallpox had killed almost half the Aborigine population around Sydney.

The first salvo had been launched.

For Hildebrand, we came smiling, hands out in friendship. Maybe so, but we knew we carried the biological seeds of Indigenous destruction — perhaps we came as smiling assassins?

And here, history suggests to me that there was intent to invade and wage war on the Indigenous — the mission: steal their land and either wipe them out or smash their culture and assimilate them. That war has raged on since and one proof is in the 80 years of Indigenous protests on 26 January. 

However, all this is obfuscation from Hildebrand. He is arguing that we should be doing something about more pressing Indigenous issues rather than arguing about the date. He argues that it is non-productive and that changing the date would be non-productive, but he has thrown a non-productive whitewashing argument into the ring.

Indeed, I would argue that one of the main hurdles to moving forward with Indigenous issues is the denial of that which Hildebrand minimises in his argument against changing the date — 230 years of Indigenous experience.

To put that another way, the very things at the heart of the argument for changing the date are the very things White Australia wishes to deny, especially over the last hundred or so years. That denial is the reason we cannot move forward on those other issues. And history lessons like that, which Hildebrand brought to the “debate”, drive that denial.

It begins with a perception that it all began and ended with the first (benign) colony. As though the entire Indigenous population/culture acquiesced the moment that Philip planted that flag in the ground — all that followed were/are just teething problems.

It can be seen in the likes of Kennerley’s assertion — it happened over 200 years ago, get over it.

It can be seen in the hostility toward reconciliation and recognition — it’s nothing to do with us, it was our ancestors.

It can be seen in the opposition to Indigenous assistance — we owe them nothing, they have had the same opportunities as us for generations.

And so, contrary to what Hildebrand is selling, I would suggest that it is what is being denied that needs to be brought to light and changing the date is the perfect vehicle for doing so. Accepting the Indigenous argument for changing the date would put that history front and centre. The truth would be undeniable, White Australia would have to deal with it and perhaps then we might move forward with unfinished business.

As for what drives Joe Hildebrand, I will leave that up to the reader.

You can follow John Maycock on Twitter @L3ftyJohn.

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