Battle lines redrawn in fight for 'black-armband' history


When a British prison fleet sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788, a group of Aborigines stood on the seashore waving their spears and shouting 'Warra warra!' The first recorded exchange between black and white people in Australia was the simple message, 'Go away!'

As Robert Hughes, celebrated author of The Fatal Shore, observes, this was not merely an overture for future conflict between the races, but a collision of two cultures utterly ignorant of each other.

'One may liken this moment to the breaking open of a capsule,' he writes. 'The Aborigines and the fauna around them had possessed the landscape from time immemorial ... now the protective glass of distance broke ... never to be restored.'

For many reasons - not least the shameful treatment of Australia's indigenous peoples - history has always been a divisive issue in Australia. Academics and politicians have long used the nation's history as an ideological battlefield (the so-called 'history wars').

The situation has not been helped by the fragmented way history is taught in schools.

For many children, history is just a mish-mash of half-understood concepts, events and personalities.

But all that could be about to change.

A report by the National Curriculum Board recommends that history should become compulsory.

Stuart Macintyre, the author of the draft proposals, says that unlike recent, theme-based history 'modules', the new curriculum would return to the chronological study of history - drawing on both Australian and global topics.

'To operate in the world in which they live, students need to understand world history,' writes Professor Macintyre.

But critics are worried about Professor Macintyre's view that 'all meaningful historical accounts involve explicit and implicit moral judgments' - especially since he was once a card-carrying communist.

'This idea that facts should be downplayed and concepts of historical inquiry and historical thinking should be stressed, in my view, is not the correct way to go,' said Gerard Henderson, a well-known conservative Sydney thinker.

The emphasis on Aboriginal history and multiculturalism has also caused outrage, striking many as political correctness gone wrong. Nor do they agree that British history should be abandoned because so many of today's students come from other ethnic backgrounds.

Tony Abbott, a prominent Liberal MP and Oxford University graduate, says Britain's contribution should be recognised. '[People have] got to know about the ideas that shaped the modern world, and in a very significant sense, the modern world has been made in England.'

Such sentiments are reminiscent of John Howard, the former prime minister who battled hard against what he saw as a trendy, apologist view of Australian history, with an undue emphasis on the suffering of minorities.

'This 'black-armband' view of our past reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination,' he once said.

With a Labor government now entrenched in Canberra, one might imagine that the 'black-armband' view of history will prevail. As Winston Churchill said: 'History is written by the victors.'

Not that his name is likely to be familiar to the next generation of children: Britain's wartime leader is far too white, male and imperialist to make it onto Professor Macintyre's new-look history curriculum.