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25 January 2018


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I wonder what you think of the idea that one of the functions of history, especially in the Australian context, is about myth-making Chris.

That is, once the nature of the myth to be created is established history is tailored to fit that myth.

This tailoring of history is not necessarily done by historians. Of late politicians have taken up the shaping of history to fit whatever myth they are trying to enshrine in the public's consciousness.

The ANZAC myth is a case in point. This particular myth has probably transcended its mythological status and is now approaching a kind of national religious event on a par with Christmas and Easter. The ANZAC myth, in other words, is now sacred.

When myths reach this kind of status anyone who challenges the version of 'history' that supports them is regarded as a heretic.

To a much lesser extent than ANZAC I think this has happened with regard to the history of the kiaps and to the history of Australian colonialism.

The problem with these myths is that they eventually take on a nationalistic flavour and can be used by politicians and others to manipulate and inflame public opinion. John Howard was a master at this sort of thing.

When someone has the audacity to question these myths the reaction is usually visceral, rather than measured. "How dare you criticise our brave diggers" or as the old hands in the PNGAA might say, "How dare you smear the reputations of such honourable men".

It then happens that any attempt to explain that criticism is greeted by hisses of "Shame!" rather than a balanced counter argument.

There has been an element of this on the exkiap website in reaction to historian Helen Gardner's comments about the murder of Jack Emanuel in her essay about the Tolai exhibition in Melbourne.

I don't think she has been smart enough to identify the myth and then attack it. Instead she, unfortunately, dug up some of the ancient anti-colonial rhetoric that we thought had subsided in recent years and resurrected it.

That surprised me. I thought that a practising academic historian might be above that sort of crude tactic.

On the other hand, Mathias Kin, seems to be taking a much more measured approach and is deconstructing the kiap myth as it relates to the Simbu in a more professional manner.

I guess he is taking the same path as Augie Kituai and John Waiko. Hopefully that will be a well-trodden path in years to come.

In this article, Phil Fitzpatrick discusses the perils of being a PNG historian, especially the likelihood of being criticised if you express views that are less than complimentary about the colonial era. It seems we old colonials tend to cling tenaciously to our sometimes dodgy or romanticised memories of the taim bilong masta.

Phil has advised Mathias Kin to acquire a helmet and Kevlar vest in preparation for incoming fire related to his forthcoming book on the Simbu experience of colonialism.

Despite the fact that I have taken issue with some of Mathias' preliminary comments about his findings (politely I hope), I have a very real sympathy for him. He is, I think, doing good work in his efforts to place on record an alternative history to that of PNG's colonisers.

In thinking about Phil's comments, I have reflected upon my own journey as a sometime historian.

Like virtually all Australian's born in the immediate post war era, my introduction to history began with the study of the glories of the British Empire and Australia's place within it. We were invited to gaze with pride and awe at a world map, one third of which was coloured pink, showing the extent of the empire.

Our teachers told us about how splendid the empire was, having brought the rule of law and civilisation to the lands which the British had, often reluctantly or by accident, come to acquire.

By the age of 10 (in 1961) I knew very much more about Britain and its history than I did about my own country. To the extent that I was taught about Australian history, it was in the context of the then widely accepted self congratulatory and triumphalist story of British settlers spreading out over a vast, supposedly uninhabited continent.

There was, of course, no mention of the Aboriginal population being dispossessed and, sometimes, being murdered during the process of settlement. At best, this topic came up by reference to periodic clashes between the settlers and the original inhabitants, the true consequences of which were not elaborated upon.

So far as I can recall, PNG did not rate a mention except when it came to the recent war.

It was not until much later, in 1975 when I first studied history at as a university student, that some of the less savoury aspects of both British and Australian history were revealed to me. I do not recall being shocked. By then I had seen enough of the world to understand that we humans tend to take what we want to see and hear from history, not what causes us discomfort or uncertainty.

At about this time, Australian history was undergoing a rather dramatic reappraisal and many comforting myths were being demolished.

Professor Manning Clark had produced the first volume of his magisterial History of Australia, which was a scholarly, highly literate and very bleak view of our history.

While Clark's history enjoyed immediate and wide spread influence, it also resulted in a barrage of criticism directed at Manning Clark, both as an academic historian and as a person.

His world view was patently and unapologetically that of a political leftist: anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and deeply sceptical about some of the supposed virtues of what we call western civilisation. Naturally, this incensed some of his critics, leading them to attribute sinister, even communist, motivations to his work.

At one stage, Clark was accused of having secretly accepted the Order of Lenin during a visit to the then USSR. As I recollect, it turned out that he had simply been spotted wearing a badge showing Lenin's profile, which was commonly given to guests of the USSR as a souvenir.

The attacks upon Clark in the 1970's and 80's were, in many respects, a pre-cursor to the so-called history wars which erupted in the 1990's.

On the one side were the revisionists like Clark who wanted the evils that accompanied the British invasion of Australia to be fully exposed to public view. On the other, were those who rejected what they called a "black armband' view of our history, preferring instead to stress the many real achievements of our ancestors.

To my mind, the actual facts of our history support both views simultaneously. There is plenty to condemn and plenty to praise.

The real point at issue is getting the balance right and not either rigidly applying modern moral and ethical standards to events that took place within another cultural context entirely or, alternatively, taking an excessively forgiving approach to what sometimes were acts of great evil and cruelty.

Getting this balance right is the central problem with history.

So, as foreshadowed by Phil, history can and will be highly contested. Consequently, the backgrounds, motivations and attitudes of those involved are highly relevant to the how the contest is conducted and the positions that are adopted.

Even people who are striving to be fair minded (as I hope I am) can fall prey to attitudes and prejudices that they may be only dimly aware of.

Thus, when Mathias publishes his book I think he will indeed need to brace himself for serious scrutiny and criticism. Most of it will, I hope, be constructive but as Manning Clark's experience shows, being a dissenting voice is always difficult even if you are right.

Sometimes I wonder whether there is a distinction between those people who left PNG around Independence and never went back and those who have since visited.

You can often pick up the 'rose coloured spectacles' view in the comments on PNG Attitude and they often contrast markedly with those of people still familiar with the place and its people.

I know my first trip back in 1997 was quite a shock but I've been back frequently, both to work and for other events like the Crocodile Prize.

The friends and acquaintances I've made in those subsequent visits seem to be of a different order than the friends and acquaintances I had back in the day.

Somehow there is a much deeper feeling of equality and comradeship these days.

I may be exaggerating this and it is hard to put into words.

I'm happy to say my once rose-coloured glasses have faded to clear over the years.

I got to know Mathias Kin quite well on my last visit to Kundiawa. I've since sent him some photos of kiap road-making to use as he wishes.

I applaud his historic efforts and look forward to reading his book.

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