Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood

Henry Reynolds says the frontier war - his term for the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples - raises questions of global importance about the ownership of an entire continent

Henry Reynolds: 'I see myself as an interpreter of Australian history who was confronted with the realities of race as the great absence.'

Photograph: NewSouth Books

Paul Daley 10 March 2014

As a student at school and university in mid-20th century Hobart, Henry Reynolds received a conventional education in Australian history.

Which is to say he learnt absolutely nothing about the violent dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders after European settlement in 1788 - events he has referred to unambiguously in his controversial writings as "frontier war".

Reynolds - today a professorial fellow at the University of Tasmania after half a century spent probing the dark recesses of Australian colonial settlement and posing discomfiting questions about continental sovereignty - uses his own awakening to illustrate what he calls the "great absence" in modern Australia's narrative.

"Of course, I learnt nothing at school at all about the whole situation of frontier conflict and warfare," he says. "Generally speaking there was nothing in the curriculum that would have taught you this.

"Tasmania was a bit different in that there was an awareness of the Black Line [the farcical attempt to round-up the Aboriginal Australians in 1830] and the settlement [where they were later sent to be "christianised"] on Flinders Island. But if you wanted to find out more ... in the 50s and 60s many of the major historians published histories of Australia and there was almost nothing in them about it.

"In retrospect it was quite obvious that from the late 19th century until the 1960s the whole Aboriginal experience had really been written out of Australia's history."

In 1964, having taught in schools in England and Australia, Reynolds was in his mid-20s when arrived in northern Queensland to establish the Australian history program at Townsville University College (today's James Cook University). The textbook at the core of his course was the multi-authored Australia: A Social and Political History, edited by the eminent Australian historian Gordon Greenwood.

Reynolds describes Greenwood's 1955 tome, perhaps the most widely read text on senior high school and university reading lists at the time, as "a good book".

But the longer he taught the more he became immersed in the social fabric of his college and his new town, which had a significant and growing Indigenous population. The stories of extreme violence on the Queensland and other pastoral frontiers - as Aboriginal Australians clashed with settlers and experienced reprisal massacres from vigilante groups, native police units and troops - were a revelation.

"The small number of students I had in two small courses - they all knew because they had come out of that [Townsville] community and so many of them had come from places smaller than Townsville and they'd grown up with the whole question of race relations in Australia," Reynolds says. "So in a way the answer was brought home to me because of where I was.

"The extraordinary thing was that as I became every day aware of the whole question of Indigenous Australians ... there was nothing in the book. I mean, the Aborigine didn't even make the index. They weren't in the history."