I have not done a book post for a while, but I have just read Timothy Bottoms’ well researched Conspiracy of Silence:Queensland’s Frontier Killing Time, as suggested by the title, Bottoms thesis has as much to do with the active obscuring of the history of Queensland’s frontier violence, as with documenting the violence itself. He is not the first to write about Queensland’s horrific history, in fact the foreword is supplied by another historian of note who has done much to reveal the obscured truth of frontier violence, Raymond Evans. Before even getting into Bottoms’ book I was particularly struck by one particular paragraph in Evans’ introduction:

“Reading through these chapters, I could not help but think of how Queensland’s Aboriginal-European contact history is rather like a strange amalgam of two well-known television science fiction series, Dr Who and Star Trek. First, we hear the raspy, blood-chilling cry of the Daleks: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’; and then, in the post-frontier phase, the flat, monotonal command from Star Trek; ‘We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is useless’. Not pretty images to be sure, but then this in not a very nice story.” (foreword Raymond Evans p.xix, Conspiracy of Silence by Timothy Bottoms.)

As a committed geek who grew up on a diet of Dr Who and Star Trek, Evans’ reference struck a cord, nobody wants to think of the side they culturally identify with, as the villains in any story, and that is part of the problem in regards to the still on going conspiracy of silence that governs our relationship with our own history. When a historian such as Evans or Bottoms does attempt to document the reality of colonial violence they are often attacked for challenging the dominant mythology of the pioneering myth, even when they build their argument on the evidence of pioneer documentation, and conservative, educated estimates of actual death tolls based on strong evidential based practice, they are attacked by a conservative press. As Bottoms argues, it is time to accept “a more honest appraisal of our history” (p206). He draws an analogy with the communal trauma of the Port Arthur massacre: “If the ‘effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression’ for those surviving Port Arthur, ‘were being felt throughout the community, and the recovery process could not be measured in days or weeks or months‘, what then of Aboriginal Australians? Add to this the concentration and total control of the surviving remnants who were until recently treated as children, and it is possible to see why Aboriginal Australia has so many contemporary problems.”(p207) Bottoms makes a great plea for honesty in how we approach our past, only then will we as a nation be able to demonstrate maturity and be able to progress as a nation for all Australians.

Do I recommend Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times? Bottoms systematically documents the violence that largely built Queensland, if not Australia as a whole, and the facts are confronting and ugly, but Bottoms’ account is compelling and well documented with evidence to support the history, it just does not make for pleasant reading, but it is a history we should all be more familiar with:

No Australian today is responsible for what happened on our colonial frontier. But we are responsible for not acknowledging what happened. If we do not, our integrity as a nation is flawed and we are shamed as a people for perpetrating a lie.” (p.207)

So yes, I recommend Conspiracy of Silence, lets be better informed, and give the respect of honesty to a people who have survived into the 21st century despite being on the receiving end, of a horrific war of invasion and conquest.

Will just keep this post brief, don’t want to sound like I am getting on a soapbox, Conspiracy of Silence is essentially an academic history but highly accessible and it makes an important contribution to an ongoing discussion about history and national identity. I did not enjoy reading it, it is depressing reading. I was not surprised by any of the horror that Bottoms recounts, but I did feel empowered by the information presented. It is with a sense of embarrassment that I reflect on the fact that as a young person I knew more about the injustices suffered by first nation Americans than I did about first nation Australians, although I think I always suspected the truth having grown up in a rural area largely devoid of traditional owners.

3 thoughts on “Conspiracy of silence

  1. Thanks very much for sharing this important book, Sharon! It has been on my reading list for a while but I hadn’t got to it yet. I recently read “Skin Deep:Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women” which, like the book you’ve reviewed, is a real eye-opener but certainly not a pleasant read due to the subject matter. The review on the back states: “They say pictures don’t lie, and Skin Deep skilfully uses that adage to present a powerful case on how the coloniser used the bodies of Aboriginal women as propaganda to justify the slaughter and oppression of Aboriginal people, and the theft of our land over 200 years. This book is important, because this process of dehumanisation has taken on new incarnations, and is still present today. If you want to find out how racism became embedded in the DNA of this nation, you can start by reading this book.” It’s very difficult to read these books but as you say it’s important not to sweep this under the carpet. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks Jane and Skin Deep has also been on my list, I have been putting it off in part because of the size and complexity. I am always surprised that in this day and age there is still such a level of ignorance and entrenched racism.

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  2. Earlier in the year, as part of an Australian History course, I read The Secret War by Jonathan Richards. It also was about the frontier war in Queensland. These books aren’t easy to read – the total disregard for Indigenous lives is shameful, but I agree, it is a part of our nation’s history that we all need to confront and come to terms with. Especially if we want reconciliation to become a reality.

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