Elizabeth Matheson

Over the past decade, our understanding and interpretation of Australian history has undergone a profound transformation. This remarkable shift has sparked both curiosity and skepticism. Nearly a decade ago, during a casual luncheon, I was taken aback by a confident statement made by an acquaintance. They asserted that indigenous Aboriginal Australians were sophisticated farmers, challenging my understanding of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Intrigued and skeptical, I embarked on a journey of investigation, delving into modern scholarship and ultimately creating the book "The Australian History: Pre-History to Settlement," along with a student guide. These resources aim to empower Australian students to explore history, cultivating well-rounded and enlightened learners. A key aspect of this educational approach is fostering critical thinking, logical reasoning, and a deep understanding of the world's intellectual heritage.

More recently, this "modern scholarship" has expanded its claims from farmers to asserting that Aboriginals were skilled miners, utilising advanced technologies comparable to Western society. This philosophical perspective that reimagines Aboriginal society as on par with Western society undeniably shifts the prevailing paradigm. Marcia Langton, a prominent Indigenous leader in Australia, remarked that this new scholarship has transformed the perception of Indigenous people from "savages" before colonisation to "fully fledged human beings." However, this contemporary revisionism is fundamentally flawed, primarily due to its lack of objectivity and connection to the actions of European settlers.

It is worth noting that Arthur Phillip explicitly rejected the notion of enslaving Aboriginal people, precisely because he recognized their full humanity. This aligns with the Christian principle that was being championed in both England and the United States, where all humans were considered equal, despite the persistence of slavery at that time. In fact, the Phillip’s memorandum stated, "The laws of this country will, of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment His Majesty's forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves."

As a classical historian, it is crucial to consider the intrinsic value and equality of all humans, a concept underscored by Christian beliefs. It is essential to remember that each culture and society possesses its unique merits, advancements, and strengths (and weaknesses), which cannot be directly compared or ranked on a linear scale. The Aboriginal people showcased an extraordinary understanding of the land, demonstrated environmental stewardship, and sustained themselves successfully for thousands of years before European contact – a testament to their sophistication and adaptability.

In unpacking the labyrinth of history through a classical lens, we must reject the postmodernist reduction of historical scholarship: a fragmented, constraining view that pigeonholes history into a mere power struggle. The classical approach, underpinned by a Christian worldview, goes beyond this myopic perspective, revealing history to be a rich tapestry woven of events, people, and ideas. This approach enables us to truly comprehend the motivations driving key individuals and communities, without the distortion of presentist bias. History, in this light, is no longer a catalogue of antiquated occurrences, but a profound study of human nature, an essential tool for understanding our collective past, present, and future. We must refrain from judging those in the past by today's standards, which are often arbitrarily deemed more moral and may, in reality, be far from it. We must instead strive to understand their actions within the context of their times, thereby enabling a richer, more nuanced understanding of our shared history.

Archaeology serves as the primary gateway to understanding the lives of Aboriginal societies in pre-settlement Australia, given the absence of a written language. By combining archaeological evidence with oral traditions, we gain insights into their unique lifestyle adaptations, revealing a resourceful existence deeply rooted in the land. These societies developed sophisticated regional technologies, including tools and weapons tailored to their specific needs and environmental conditions. However, with the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, notably through Captain James Cook's voyages, our understanding of Aboriginal history expanded. For the first time, written primary sources in the form of journals and logs provided firsthand accounts of the realities observed during this initial contact. This transition from archaeological evidence to written accounts underscores the dynamic and diverse nature of our comprehension of Aboriginal history. As a fundamental part of classical education, students must possess the analytical skills, reasoning abilities, and capacity to draw conclusions from studying these primary sources.

In order to accomplish this, students must possess a thorough understanding of the Grammar phase, which encompasses key historical events, notable figures, and significant dates. They should be able to draw upon their knowledge of other hunter-gatherer societies and the prehistoric era. Additionally, they must comprehend the evolution of written language and its implications for historical studies, including the limitations faced by societies such as the Aboriginals who lacked a written form of communication. A comprehensive grasp of the Age of Discovery is also crucial, as it brought about profound changes in global geography, culture, and politics. Various nations had diverse motivations for colonisation, ranging from the pursuit of wealth through trade to the propagation of Christianity, or simply a thirst for knowledge and exploration.

Without a firm understanding of this period, how can students contextualise the British colonisation of Australia? Moreover, they must appreciate the broader philosophical shifts of the Enlightenment, which significantly influenced the primary purpose of Cook's voyage and the way it was conducted. The scientific advancements resulting from the expedition, such as observing the Transit of Venus and the botanical discoveries of Joseph Banks, further highlight the profound impact of this era. Studying primary sources is crucial for understanding the intricate details of history. The narrative of coloniser and victim oversimplifies complex dynamics and perspectives. Delving into the nuances of the First Fleet reveals the arduous journey of convicts, testing their endurance and faith. Primary sources unveil diverse perspectives and challenge assumed cultural experiences. By examining these sources, we gain a deeper understanding of history beyond simplistic narratives.

The encounters between British colonists and the Aboriginal people during the early days of the Australian colony were characterised by cultural clashes, curiosity, and attempts at understanding. As the imposing ships of the First Fleet approached Botany Bay, the Aboriginals on the shore reacted with hostility, brandishing their spears as a clear expression of their unease with the newcomers on their land. However, amidst these tensions, individuals like Arabanoo and Bennelong emerged as bridges across the divide, demonstrating a willingness to embrace their new circumstances and forge relationships with the British. These interactions played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of Australian history and laid the foundation for the evolving relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is imperative that Australian students study these events within their proper context, not only to recognise the darker aspects of human conduct but also to appreciate the grace and goodwill that can be extended.

Unraveling Australia's Aboriginal history through a classical education perspective provides profound insights into our shared past. By combining archaeological evidence, oral traditions, and written sources, we gain a deeper understanding of the resourceful existence of Aboriginal people and their encounters with European settlers. This study equips the next generation with empathy for our ancestors and a greater appreciation for the rich tapestry of our collective past.

  • About the Author: Elizabeth Matheson, Director of Via Classica, viaclassica.com.