True Stories by Inga Clendinnen

Inga Clendinnen’s True Stories assembles her 1999 Boyer essays, revised in 2008 after the fall of the Howard Government. She personifies what Howard would have described as ‘black armband history’.

Looking back over the settlement of Victoria, she follows Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson, sent to curb the violence of the squatocracy, in the 1840s. He didn’t have much luck. Going through his records, Clendinnen writes:

[Robinson] follows a trail of black complaints to the farm of a man called Francis. Francis blandly admits to having shot five blacks down by the river – they attacked him, he says, so he shot them, and later shot another black he saw running from his sheepfold close by the homestead. Robinson finds the man’s skull still lying where the body had fallen. He discovers that Francis has forbidden his black workers to touch the corpse. They have had to watch it as it withered, as dogs worried at it and dragged most of it away until only the skull is left.

The Aboriginal population around Port Phillip Bay declined by 85% in the first 25 years after contact. It’s hard to see how you’d document this as anything other than ‘Black Armband’ material. Yet Clendinnen rejects the term:

We need history: not Black Armband history, and not triumphalist white-out history either, but good history, true stories of the making of this present land, none of them simple, some of them painful, all of them part of our own individual histories.

Unfortunately, what jumps out from Clendinnen’s writing is the sense that things have moved backward over the past decade. I read this just after Abbott made his ‘lifestyle’ comments, which makes it perhaps a little harder to believe ‘true stories’ hold much weight. To that end, this is sort of an interesting time capsule as much as a set of essays; a reflection of a more optimistic era, albeit only a few years back.

Would My Mother Like This Book: In theory, yes. In practice, it’ s a bit grim. But she would read a couple of the essays and we would have a chat about it.

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