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The year began in haze. We felt relatively safe where we were on the New South Wales south coast, despite the blanket of smoke. The Currowan blaze had passed through here a month earlier, leaving little left to burn. I could see for hundreds of metres into the once-thick bush. Charred black trunks rose from scorched earth towards auburn treetops. The trees at the fringe of the small township were stained pink with fire retardant: the eerie residue of an airdrop that ultimately saved my partner’s family house.
We were not safe, of course, as so many Australians learned this fire season. There was nothing predictable about the fires that raged from winter into spring into summer, smouldering into autumn. Not only was fire reaching into ecologies unfamiliar with flame, but it was looping back on itself, with fallen leaf litter fuelling new spot fires. This was a new breed of fire: a biome pushed to its limits by anthropogenic climate change. I later read how the smoke from the south-east fires had carried east across the seas to choke cities in New Zealand and, after circumnavigating the globe, bruise the skies of Perth.
In the final days of 2019, the Princes Highway closed in both directions. We lost power and mobile reception. ABC local radio became our only connection to the outside world. At night, we listened as dead trees creaked and crashed nearby. The resident kangaroos huddled in the garden, drinking thirstily from the birdbath, grazing the dry lawn. Two months later one came back to rest and die in the shade of the water tank. My father-in-law buried her in the ash nearby. By winter, the mob had gone. The township feels lonely without them.
We evacuated the region in the early hours of 2 January, seizing on a narrow window when the roads were clear, following a police escort through a corridor of still-burning bush. Fallen powerlines smouldered on the roadside. Paint had melted off the signs. Blackened gum leaves fluttered from the lurid orange sky.
The smoke stayed with us all the way back to Melbourne. The fug of tragedy was just as thick. Some of our friends lost family in these fires; others lost houses; we all lost places we love.
For First Nations peoples, this sense of loss is acute. At Deakin University, where I teach, Aboriginal flags were lowered to half-mast in mourning for the destruction of country, with all its complex meanings and associations. As Gabrielle Fletcher, director of the Institute of Koorie Education, wrote, “To lose Country, in this way, is a distinct, messy kind of grief.”
I can remember my first day of 2020 without smoke. It was late in January, and I was on Flinders Island, researching an essay about the Bassian Plain, the vast land bridge that connected Tasmania and the mainland during the last ice age. I drove to a high point near Emita and gazed west into the teeth of the wind, savouring the fresh air. For the first time I could make out the distant islands that pock the strait: the mountains and ridges that once must have guided travellers across the plains.
Below me lay Wybalenna, the dismal concentration camp where more than 200 Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples were herded and detained from 1833 to 1847. The thin, rotting wattle-and-daub walls that housed them are long gone. All that remains is the historic chapel and a sombre graveyard. It was known to those who lived there as a “place of sickness”.
On Lungtalanana (Clark Island), to the south of Flinders Island, a team of researchers recently uncovered a 41,000-year record of Aboriginal fire management. It is a powerful reminder that fire has always been a part of life in Australia. When Cook voyaged here 250 years ago, he was struck by the burning coastline. He wrote in his journal that he had come upon a “continent of smoke”. This continent of smoke. In the midst of our savage summer – the black summer, the forever fires – his words seemed prescient. And yet, the fires he saw were nothing like those we experienced. The smoke told a story of life, ceremony and interconnection. It rose from campfires, fire signals and cool, cleansing, managed burns. It was healthy and local, not continental. Cook was being closely watched on his voyage along the coast, and the sea country he charted was already intimately known and embedded with culture and law.
In the wake of the latest bushfires, there has been a surge of interest in Indigenous fire knowledge. The gentle smoke of firestick farming or “cultural burning” is once again being seen as a positive force, perhaps even a saving grace. Yet, as Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen argues in his book Fire Country, Aboriginal environmental knowledge is holistic: it cannot simply be an addendum to existing management regimes. Cultural anthropologist Tim Neale observes that all too often, non-Indigenous individuals and institutions have “sought to understand Aboriginal fire knowledge and practices without empowering or even engaging with Aboriginal people”. Steffensen calls for a more equal relationship. His book is as much about power (or powerlessness) as it is about fire: “I’d love for the government to effectively jump in the passenger seat and let us drive for a change.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic consumed the bushfire crisis, we became witnesses to an example of what happens when Aboriginal leaders take the keys from government. As early as January, many Aboriginal community-controlled health services began planning for Covid-19, seeking advice from First Nations communities in Canada, sharing information and developing a strategy to protect their people against an as-yet-undeclared pandemic. In February a national taskforce was formed, led by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and the health department, meeting twice weekly. The Northern Land Council released public health messages in 18 different languages. About the time that panic buying was making national headlines, Aboriginal communities quietly began closing borders: first in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands and then in Cape York and parts of Western Australia. By the end of June, fewer than 60 cases of Covid-19 had been recorded among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, representing 0.8% of all Australian cases.
The Aboriginal health sector’s response to Covid-19 has been coordinated, evidence-based and often far ahead of federal and state governments. It is a small insight into what can happen when Indigenous communities are empowered, when their leaders have control over their peoples’ fate. As Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire reports, part of the reason for this swift and decisive action is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have borne the brunt of past viruses, from the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 to the threat of Zika in the tropical north. They also carry with them historical memory of the devastation that disease can bring. Not only from the “Spanish” (actually American) influenza outbreak of 1919, in which some Aboriginal communities had a 50% mortality rate, but also from earlier outbreaks, such as smallpox, which was an ally in the conquest of Australia.
I wonder how the Covid-19 pandemic will shift Australians’ historical imagination. Will it allow us to better grasp the role of disease in invasion? Will it help us appreciate, with the full depth of compassion, the enormity of the smallpox epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries?
Disease killed some 80 to 90% of the population in parts of eastern Australia. Let’s be clear: this was and remains the single greatest demographic catastrophe in Australian history.
According to some estimates, the Aboriginal population fell from some 750,000 or perhaps even 1.5 million in 1788 to only about 60,000 in the 1920s. Although violence was ever-present, this was mostly due to introduced diseases, such as smallpox, measles and influenza, as well as venereal and respiratory diseases. The numbers are vague because of how swiftly disease spread.
The 1789 smallpox epidemic is particularly vivid in the historical sources. The new pathogen, known to Eora and Darug as gal-gal-la, engulfed the societies of Sydney 15 months after the British landed. It ripped through densely populated areas and provoked terror and disbelief. There was no cure. It extinguished entire language groups, killed warriors in the midst of resistance and disproportionately affected elders, stealing cultural knowledge as well as lives. It left those who remained wondering where everyone had gone, coming to terms with haunting absence and mournful silence. And it travelled far ahead of the frontier, so that when European explorers eventually moved inland, they were greeted by the pockmarked faces of survivors.
The source of the 1789 smallpox epidemic remains disputed. There were no recorded cases among the first fleet, so it could not have been incubated in the bodies of the invaders. And yet the time between arrival and outbreak is surely too close to be a coincidence. Over the past century many scholars have determinedly sought an alternative source for the spread of smallpox. A popular theory, first put forward by microbiologist John Burton Cleland in 1912, links the epidemic to recorded outbreaks in Sulawesi in the early 1780s, with the disease transmitted by Macassan seafarers in the north and then sweeping across the continent, arriving in Sydney in 1789. This hypothesis conveniently washes British hands of culpability, and it remains vigorously contested. We have learned a lot about the spread of disease these past months and there was plenty of social distancing happening between Sydney and Sulawesi.
A more likely scenario, put forward by historian Craig Mear, is that the disease was transmitted by smallpox scabs – or fomites – clinging to old clothing and blankets held in a ship’s store. Blankets were the colonial currency of welfare, and the gift of a blanket could have been a deadly transaction. The question is: was infection inadvertent? Or was it a half-conscious, even sometimes deliberate act of biological warfare? The debate continues among historians, although there is no doubt that British commanders used smallpox as a weapon against First Nations peoples in North America.
As Australia entered lockdown in March, many historians began publicly drawing connections with earlier outbreaks of disease and the looming 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage along (not around) the Australian coastline. A month later, on 29 April, the deputy chief health officer of Victoria, Annaliese van Diemen, tweeted a similar comparison:
Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror. Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?
Her three-line tweet sparked a flurry of conservative outrage and bad puns. “COOK LINE A STINKER”, read the front page of the Herald Sun. The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, broke his silence in the midst of the Ruby Princess debacle to call for Van Diemen to be sacked. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, dismissed the tweet, noting that van Diemen “wouldn’t get the job as chief historian”. (If only there were such a role!)
But the comparison is apt. Regardless of his role in conquest, Cook is emblematic of British arrival – an idea that has been reinforced by government spending on anniversaries and statues. 250 years after his landing on Australian shores, are we ready to confront this complex historical legacy? Anniversaries should inspire reflection and debate. They should incubate new histories.
Part of the “Great Australian Silence” has been a willingness to see disease as inevitable and apolitical. During this pandemic we have witnessed every country in the world confront the same biological phenomenon, with dramatically different consequences. The global story we are watching unfold is not only about microbes; it is also about culture, politics and history. The spread of disease is not without responsibility.
In Australia, disease is often invoked to qualify the culpability of the invaders. But, as historian James Boyce reminds us, the British well understood the link between disease and conquest, yet took few measures to protect vulnerable populations. In Melbourne, for example, the highest rates of mortality occurred after the initial act of dispossession, when Aboriginal peoples had lost their traditional food supplies and were concentrated together in places with poor sanitary conditions. At Wybalenna, where Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples were confined for 15 years, the death rate was over 70%. As Boyce writes, “The point is not the one made by former prime minister Paul Keating in his Redfern Park speech of 1992, that ‘we brought the disease’, but rather that Europeans created the conditions in which diseases flourished and did almost nothing to ameliorate these.”
The destruction wrought by introduced diseases cannot be explained by biology alone. It was, and continues to be, a matter of public health.
On that smokeless day in January, I walked down the ridge towards the historic site of Wybalenna and spent some time in the restored chapel, listening to the wind wail in the rafters. The visitors’ book is full of comments from the descendants of survivors, who go there regularly to remember, reflect and to feel connection with their ancestors. The recurring theme in the comments is the sentiment that “this must never happen again”. And yet, I cannot help but compare it with the offshore detention centres of today.
On the ridge above the site is a grainy black-and-white photograph printed on a metal sign. It was taken in 1858 at Oyster Cove, where those who survived this “place of sickness” were removed after Wybalenna was abandoned in 1847. It shows nine Tasmanian Aboriginal people sitting outside a wooden house while a dog plays in the foreground. Their gaze is defiant. The only interpretation offered on the sign is a solemn declaration: “The morality of a nation remains impaired until that nation deals honestly with its past.”
Looking into their faces, still haunted by the savaged coastal forests, I am reminded of Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay journalist Lorena Allam’s response to the bushfires: “We know what it feels like to lose everything.”
• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We brought the disease’: Will the pandemic shift Australia’s historical imagination? | Australia news