Australia's own war ignored

Australian historian Prof Henry Reynolds delivers the inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace...
Australian historian Prof Henry Reynolds delivers the inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture at the University of Otago Archway lecture theatres last night. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Giving young Australians a ''noble, patriotic story'' of their country's overseas wars is providing a good cover for its ''shameful'' history of killing its indigenous population, leading Australian historian Prof Henry Reynolds says.

Prof Reynolds, who specialises in the history of European and Aboriginal relations, last night gave the inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture at the University of Otago.

He did not know who Archibald Baxter was when asked to do the lecture and had to order the conscientious objector's book We Will Not Cease from New Zealand, after failing to find it in any Tasmanian library.

Having read his story, Prof Reynolds said there was no equivalent in Australian history, due to the lack of conscription during Word War 1, yet Baxter's messages were still relevant today.

Australians had been in conflict in their own land from 1788, when settlers first arrived in Sydney, to 1928, when the last large-scale killing of Aborigines occurred.

The numbers killed in those conflicts were still debated, although his estimate of 20,000 was likely to be ''very, very modest''. More recent estimates made it about 50,000, he said.

This conflict, was not in the textbooks he used to teach history decades ago, yet New Zealand history textbooks carried accounts of Maori relations with Europeans.

In the 1990s, a landmark legal decision changed everything and made the conflict about property and sovereignty, Prof Reynolds said.

''The war within Australia was Australia's most important war.''

Yet, one of Australia's best funded and popular memorial, the Australian War Memorial museum, did not include reference to that ''war''.

Children were inducted into a culture that Australia's efforts at fighting overseas wars were what made their nation Australian.

Australia was spending large amounts of money to commemorate the military history of those overseas wars.

''That is unbalanced and distorts the whole way Australian history is learnt and taught.''

Baxter's words that the best thing a country could do was not go to war was ''still the best possible advice'', Prof Reynolds said.

''New Zealand has completely taken that on board more so than Australia.''

-rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

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