Lost in time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

REGINA GANTER IS rewriting Australian history. In a book that she hopes will unsettle long-held views of what it means to be Australian, she argues for a rethink and a more flexible approach to rigid notions of who is white and who isn't.

She does so on the basis that the earliest contact between indigenous Australians and outsiders wasn't with the British, who arrived in the late 18th century, but with the Asians who preceded them. Yet it's the arrival of the white man that is celebrated and from which the origins of modern Australian society are dated.

'If you look at all the history texts, they have a little introductory statement about this contact [with Asians], so it's well known among historians,' says Ganter, an associate professor in the history department at Brisbane's Griffith University. 'But it's not well understood that, for example, we can't just think about a 200-year history or an isolated continent. This changes the way we need to think about Australian history as a whole.'

In Mixed Relations: Asian-Aboriginal Contact in North Australia (University of Western Australia Press, HK$340), Ganter writes: 'It is not defensible to write national histories - which ought to speak for the whole continent - as if they started in the southeast in 1788.'

Mixed Relations is a lavishly produced hardback written in a non-academic style that Ganter hopes will appeal to a wide readership in Australia and across the region. It's the first such study, but already it has encouraged others to begin work in the same field and has drawn interest and support from Chinese and Aboriginal Australians, with Ganter presenting parts of it at conferences as her work progressed.

'There are now a number of scholars working in this area and it's now seen as a worthwhile area of study,' she says. 'Previously, it was seen as marginal and irrelevant. Now, more people have come to see it as quite a central story to tell.'

Long before the British landed and probably as early as the end of the 17th century, Asians - Malays operating from the port of Makassar, people from Timor and Sulawesi, Chinese traders - were regular visitors to northern Australia. An annual fleet of 20 or 30 vessels would arrive, the seafarers setting up camp for the season to gather sea cucumber, which they traded in southern China.

These people had a major economic impact on the region, formed families and took Australian influences back to their home villages, and their legacy is important to this day. Yet, although Australia's 'polyethnic' history is well known in the north, it's little understood in the southern states, Ganter says.

Throughout her text are the stories and family histories of those she met during more than a decade of research - research for which she and her then-eight-year-old son, Yannick, moved to Darwin, which took her to China and Japan, and which shattered all the preconceived notions with which she began. 'They include [stories of] conflict with Asians and of being friends; of people who have been abandoned by their Asian fathers; and of people who thought they'd been abandoned and found out differently.

'They are stories of removals and stories of staying together against all odds; stories of 'being coloured' and of 'becoming Aboriginal'. There are stories of Aborigines educated in China or Japan, and of indigenous people who moved from Australia to Asia and formed families there, one, two or more generations ago.

'Together, these stories don't yield a formula by which we could judge that Asian contact has been good or bad for Australian indigenous people. But they do tell us that it has been important and consequential, and that Asia has long been solidly present in Australia,' Ganter writes.

Larry Ahlin told one such story. When Ganter met Ahlin, born in 1927, he was living in the Northern Territory alongside other old-timers who thought of him as an Aborigine. Yet he didn't see himself that way. During his many years of involvement in Aboriginal politics he had doubts about his right to be there and, ultimately, that right was challenged by others.

Ahlin was the son of an Aboriginal woman, Laurie Wynwylkba, and a Hakka Chinese man, Wong Al-lin, recruited in Singapore to work on the Darwin-Katherine railway line. Ahlin and his sister were removed from their parents - possibly the result of protests about part-coloured children at the local school - and spent their lives as wards of the state. All his life he had found it impossible to construct an identity, Ganter writes. 'I'll always be a half-caste, that's the way I see it,' he said.

These days, Australians are frequently confronted with forms asking them to choose: Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal. This has meant a change in Aboriginal politics, where mixed descendants had always been at the cutting edge, Ganter says. But she warns that this division into rigid racial categories also has the potential for great divisiveness and that the erosion of an in-between status also means an erosion of belonging.

She admits to feeling trepidation when, as a white woman who came to Australia from Germany 28 years ago, she began research in a potentially controversial field where some might feel she didn't belong.

But she has found a number of Aboriginal people also taking up the issue of 'purity of Aboriginal lineage' and feeling empowered to talk about their mixed histories.

Ganter began this postdoctoral research after writing a thesis and a book on the pearl-shelling industry in Torres Strait. She visited the villages in southern Japan from which the pearl shellers came and was struck by just how well the Japanese and Aboriginal people had got along.

'I felt they were both suffering from the same kinds of marginality,' she says. 'I thought, well if that was true it must also hold with other marginalised Asians in their contacts with the Aboriginal people.'

So, with a small research grant, she began testing her theory of Asian-Aboriginal contact - but what she found was 'a wild array of personal experiences', a chequered history and one from which today issues of identity arise: 'Mixed descendants wondering about, searching for, defining or defending their identity.'

What she discovered has led Ganter to challenge the way Australia's history is viewed and celebrated. 'Compared with histories of other regions of the world, it's not asking very much to extend the history of Australia another couple of centuries into the past to take account of a pre-British time,' she writes. 'Hopefully, the controversial bicentennial of 1988 will be the last time Australia tries to think of itself as beginning in 1788 and imagining that Asians came later.'