Ranty Tuesday: teaching racism in the 1950s

I’ve been reading an old primary school social studies book. The casual and explicit racism is beyond belief.

There’s been a lot of head shaking and OMG-ing. And calling out to Mr S, “Oh my god, listen to this.” And, “Are you ready for more?” And sharing bits with my oldest son, he’s the one who has been very active in Labor politics and is very left. He just stares, bug-eyed and open-mouthed. And then laughs, “Did they really write that for primary kids?”

So what caused such a stir in the House of Lucinda? What is it in the 1950s social studies textbook for the young in NSW schools that has left us outraged?

Let’s start with the worst bit. The unnamed author is giving an account of the first British settlement and the new animals and flora they encountered – the platypus, lyre-bird, wattles, dingoes. OK, you’ve already guessed part of it. The next bit is on the local Aboriginal people. Like, they are just part of the flora and fauna. But it gets worse. They are referred to as the natives and the blacks. Still gets worse.

The author says Phillip, the first British governor, did all he could to “win their friendship.” Even when attacked by spears, he didn’t allow his men to fire guns as “he wanted the good-will not the ill-will of the Australian people. To learn their words and ways, he sent a party of sailors to Manly to catch a couple of them.”

What the actual fuck!

Catch them like some animals to observe! And the author doesn’t even realise the absolute oxymoron – writes of good will and in the very next sentence writes of kidnapping which is downplayed as “catching”, maybe she wants it to sound like a game of chasing in the playground?

Anyway, it still gets worse. The poor blighter who was kidnapped, allegedly “settled down” and taught Phillip some words. Then comes the closing sentence: “Everyone was sorry when Manly fell sick and died.”

Holy shit! No acknowledgement of the role played in his lonely death.

Then “another blackfellow [was] caught… He was a vain, cheerful fellow who talked a lot about himself.” This is what stands out? His immature nature compared with the clever, brave early British explorers!

What of the frontier wars? You’ve got to be kidding. Of course, there is no such thing. Rather, a story of justified action.

About 80 years later, the blacks in … Queensland speared a brave explorer named Edmund Kennedy. They were angry with him because, to save his party, he had to shoot some of them.” (my emphasis on brave.)

Can we unpack this? The European is brave. The local Aboriginal people are emotional and act unreasonably but Kennedy had no choice? Why? What had happened? And “some of them” – how many is some? We’re they dead?

A cursory search turns up interesting facts. No mention of shootings. I think the local people were engaged in warfare – it’s the 1840s and they would know what destruction arrival of the Europeans herald. As to brave, I think the European explorers were brave. But also so stupid. Most of Kennedy’s party dies. From starvation, and one from accidentally shooting himself. They got hopelessly lost and stuck in mangroves. It’s worth a quick Google. Or read this. You know who’s brave, Jackey Jackey, the Koorie from Port Jackson who carries Kennedy in his back , holds him as he dies and makes it to the supply ship without food while still being tracked and attacked by the local Aboriginal people.

This ignorance seems a recurring theme in Australian explorer tales – they ignore that Aboriginal people live in these areas, ignore that there may be things to learn, ignore that they may wish to defend their land.

But back to the racism in the text book. All the info given about the Aboriginal people’s is negative. Dampier, the English explorer, is quoted at length, thinking them the “miserablest people in the world … with great bottle noses… are of unpleasing aspect, having not one graceful feature in their faces.”

As Older Son says, if the English were on the ships, how’d they know what the First Nations people said?

Cook is quoted as saying they had the worst canoes he has ever seen. And when he came near to two fellows on land, they were unable to understand that he came in peace, so had to shoot them when they threw spears at his landing party. I mean he tried to tell them in the King’s English, what’s wrong with them!!! (Luckily he was able to use beads to coax the childish natives!)

I found this next quote strange, implying as it did that the Aboriginal people were defending their land against invaders (given that this was not the norm for textbooks or common opinion in the 50s) and strange as it went against the Australian orthodoxy that Australian defence personnel are the bravest in the world. After hearing the guns…

Very much afraid, they ran and hid themselves, just as other Australians did in 1942 when they heard the roar of Japanese bombers over Darwin. p24

Have you had enough?

Well, it continues. Banks is quoted as describing their huts as wretchedly built with “nothing more than pieces of bark” and their beards rough snd their bodies very dirty. Cook is said to have spat on his finger to rub off some dirt to see the actual skin colour. I mean, how bloody rude! And it is written as if it is the most natural and understandable thing to do. Why wouldn’t an English explorer have the right to touch someone with spit to check out the skin colour?

Of course, the Aboriginal people are described as having “odd habits”. This written straight after describing the spitting as skin wiping scene. I suppose that’s not an odd habit, it’s just disgustingly rude.

The Aboriginal peoples are portrayed as stupid and lacking knowledge or adult commonsense – for example, being puzzled by the clothing – but the author doesn’t record how the Europeans are ignorant – obviously because the author herself doesn’t think there could be purpose or reason for the actions of the Aboriginal peoples and their ways of living based on knowledge and culture.

I do wonder if Miss changed her views.

You know portrayal of Aboriginal history and culture wasn’t much better in the text books in the 70s. I remember my high school history textbook refer to Aboriginal people’s living a Stone Age like existence. No recognition of the diversity of lives. Nothing on frontier wars. Nothing on racism. Nothing on fight for land rights. I think the latter may have been a little sentence on Whitlam and his revolutionary government.

There’s more on people from other countries but I think we’ve covered enough for one post. I will save Miss portrayal of Chinese and Malaysians and Muslims for another post.

Remember the young students taught this in the 1950s are only just retiring. I know the owner of this textbook went to an expensive private boys school, whose students went onto to being leaders in business, law and politics. The owner of the textbook is a lawyer with an Order of Australia for his work. How did the students shake off the racism they were taught? Did they shake off the racist beliefs?

3 thoughts on “Ranty Tuesday: teaching racism in the 1950s

  1. As you say, the racism is outrageous. Unfortunately it sounds like a book I would have had a school, and so your question intrigues me. How did I leave those ideas behind me. I am not sure ~ a sense of social justice from my parents, being involved in left-wing politics helped. However it is only fairly recently that I have begun to understand how amazing and deep Aboriginal culture was and still is. To have lived on the land for at least 60,000 years, to have witnessed the Ice Age and changing sea levels, the creation of the Great Barrier Reef, to be the first bakers, to have farmed grains and yams, to have understood the interactions of Country. And to have survived all the racism that we have thrown at them.

  2. You could have been reading a US social studies textbook of the same time (and later years, too) and all you would need to do is exchange Native Americans for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for the treatment they received. Certainly I was taught many of these things in school, but was fortunate enough to have traveled a great deal from a very early age so was exposed to other cultures and never particularly thought my way of life was better than anyone else’s. I still remember, in the mid-1950s when we visited an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. My very British mother (who loved history) spent a great deal of time talking to the Chief about his life (she skipped the tour). They hit it off and so began a long period of my mother intensely studying the history of Native Americans…always looking for the truth. So even though the textbooks may have said one thing, my mother and father both made sure I was exposed to more realistic historical information.

  3. So painful. And what was taught to students in Canada about the original inhabitants of North America, too (as Mary said). Later we got more of a feeling that First Nations people were historical, that their culture didn’t survive, and they’re all integrated now or should be. Thankfully that’s not true but we as settlers did everything in our power to obliterate them through residential schools, reserves, and broken treaties. The government of Canada (and all of us settlers) have a long, long way to go to make things right.

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