Peta Stephenson is a scholar who has written on aspects of Australian history most of us never learned about at high school. I've learned a fair bit from her first book, which I've written elsewhere:
Genuine conservatives show genuine respect and reverence to our 40,000 year indigenous cultural status quo at least as much as they will to our 220-odd year European status quo. That involves recognising the sophistication of indigenous communities. In her 2007 book The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia's Indigenous-Asian Story Peta Stephenson tells just some of the stories of trade and cultural interaction (and indeed intermarriage) between indigenous tribes and Makassar trepang fishermen from Sulawesi (going back at least a century before Captain Phillip landed in Botany Bay) and Chinese indentured labourers.
Stephenson shows that these interactions were suppressed by colonial and Australian authorities, with members of culturally mixed families torn apart. Her book should convince even the most hardened monoculturalist the Indigenous Australia wasn't some isolated monolithic horde of noble savages waiting for the Poms to civilise them. Before and after Europeans settled and plundered, non-European peoples interacted with indigenous peoples on more equal terms, respecting their laws and customs.
We've all heard of Cathy Freeman's indigenous heritage. But how many of us are aware that Freeman is also part-Chinese? Her great-great grandfather moved from China in the late 19th century to work on sugarcane farms in northern Queensland. Stephenson writes that Freeman actively supported Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and Chinese-language newspapers openly celebrate her Chinese heritage even if mainstream newspapers ignore it.
And who could forget the 1988 bicentennial celebrations, including the re-enactment of the Endeavour landing in Sydney? Our Territorian cousins up north had their own celebration, with the landing of the Hati Marege (meaning "Heart of Arnhem Land" in Indonesian) on the Arnhem Land coast. Stephenson provides evidence of Makassar fisherman from Sulawesi making annual voyages to fish for trepang (sea cucumbers) and to trade with the local Yolngu people since as early as the 17th century. This mutually beneficial trading relationship was banned by the South Australian government in 1906-07, ensuring the local Aboriginal people became isolated and insular. Mixed Makassan and indigenous families were torn apart, some only reunited recently after 80 years.
Dr Stephenson is now launching her second book, entitled Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia. You can find out more about the book here.
The launch of the book is coming up in Melbourne. Details of the launch are as follows:
Friday 5 November 2010
6:30 for 7pm
Institute for Postcolonial Studies
78-80 Curzon Street
RSVP by October 29 firstname.lastname@example.org
Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf
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