The limits of the colonial mind

Seeking reconciliation in the Australian Anthropocene

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I AM NOT original to this land, having just relocated to Australia from Canada, but a recent welcome to country ceremony I attended made me feel a small sense of belonging. A gathering of Griffith University administrators (to which I belong) and visiting Italian high-school teachers and principals listened as Graham Dillon, an Elder of the Kombumerri people, reminded us that when we speak we give breath to our ancestors and implored us to make the country we share the best place we can.

Thoughts of our ancestors’ breath and best places linger still as I ponder what Australia means by the idea of reconciliation, given that it has all come now to a muffled halt with the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is hard as an outsider to watch a society decline a heartfelt invitation, to refuse a moral engagement with the people who, beyond all doubt, were here first. What family or relationship, never mind a whole continent, can sustain such prevarication? Coming from Canada, where the idea of reconciliation rides atop a social moment sustained by the convergence of activist energy and political will, it is striking that while one Commonwealth country has undergone the harrowing exposure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, seen the drafting of a number of points of action drawn from a multi-volume royal commission, renamed the relevant federal ministries to comport with the idea of First Peoples, and committed to investigating why so many Indigenous women have disappeared on the edges of Canadian cities and on the shoulders of provincial highways, another Commonwealth member has decided to rebuff one of the warmest and most generous documents ever to emerge from the long shadows cast by Britain’s multiple imperial invasions.

Having immigrated twice now I’ve learnt that there are lots of ways to get to know a country, and the medium of the weekend newspaper stands out as among the best. My choice of paper runs to The Australian because it was the first one I bought when I arrived, and so carries some nostalgic heft. It is also accessible to someone who does not live in Sydney and, like any good paper, it pricks the conscience and stirs the mind. Whatever can be said about the decline of print media or the ideological slant of one paper or another, dailies do in some way grant entry into some portion of the national soul without the usual self-censoring we reserve when strangers are present, especially in relation to what seems to be known broadly as ‘the Aboriginal problem’. And what is most striking about the public discourse that the dailies sustain is the fact that social attitudes towards First Peoples are often located in articles or editorials having nothing whatsoever to do with them as conscious subjects. It is here, in the unguarded moments, where unspoken conventions, agreements and assumptions find that voice of quiet menace.

Such was the case in a story by Caroline Overington about a farm in the Hunter Valley whose owners had bred horses for service in the First World War. The farm’s family, she wrote, ‘live on ancestral land acquired in 1832…the family’s archives…brim with history: wars fought, races won and obstacles overcome by early settlers determined to endure, and to prosper.’[i] Such are the major plot points in every neo-colonial romance, those dexterous assertions of ‘firsting’ by which settler nations make First Peoples disappear and establish themselves as original. Proving the implacable power of the passive voice, land is ‘acquired’ and becomes ancestral, notwithstanding the preceding millennia under its previous ancestral owners. And the whole business is remembered as the overcoming of an obstacle, a kind of sportive triumph over a last hurdle, the humanity of which the author gracefully elides and adds to what historian WEH Stanner called one-half century ago ‘the Great Australian Silence’ – a public consensus forged in amnesia.[ii]

Or when, in Christopher Allen’s review of an exhibition that explored the origins of art, he mused, ‘Naked tribespeople attach much less importance to facial features because they are less concerned with personal individuality’. Drawing deep from the well of othering knowledge, Allen then minted the other side of the ‘savage’ coin: ‘In the civilised world…a powerful polarity arises between the face as the symbol of self…and the genitals as the symbol of hidden animal instincts’.[iii] Such notions of the savage’s libidinous abandon, when juxtaposed against modern Europe’s prim sense of restraint and ego, helped justify, among other things, the monstrous multi-century trade in enslaved Africans, while here in one modest piece of art criticism it serves as the interpretive apparatus for an attempt to explain the modern self in reference to the creaky model of savagery and civility that anthropologists dismantled long ago.


WHEN, HOWEVER, AUSTRALIA’S First Peoples stand as the overt subject of a story or an article, such consensual notions of history, civility and knowledge come to a far sharper point. One bit of such printed insight can stand for countless other column inches and departs barely a hair’s breadth from the art review by Christopher Allen. In a review of an exhibition of photographs of Indigenous Australians he transform his earlier generic comments about ‘naked tribespeople’ and ‘the civilised world’ into a sharp reproduction of colonial tropes concerning the nature of blood and bodies. Remarking on a photograph of a young dancer named Roslyn Watson, Allen mused: ‘Ballet is a highly artificial discipline, tremendously demanding, and one that could seem particularly alien to the natural way of moving of the Aboriginal body’. Notwithstanding the presumed power that race exerts on bodies and how racial thinking reifies that age-old distinction between savage wildness and civilised order, Allen nonetheless had also to admit that ‘Watson became a successful dancer’. How could an ‘Aboriginal’ then become a ballerina, one is left to wonder, given Allen’s investment in the almighty powers of race and biology, nature and artifice?

The review’s coda in which Allen takes aim at various straw people who run galleries and embody a kind of Victorian do-gooderism is even more striking. ‘Any number of these [photographs] could be forced into a tendentious ideological reading,’ he concludes – but by ‘ideology’ he means a mindset that ‘encourages the self-pity, resentment and, as we say today, victim mentality that are too often still found in contemporary Aboriginal art, and are encouraged by ideologically minded or just opportunistic curators’. When Allen further likens the modern subjects in the photographs to ‘Stone Age’ people who, if we are to track the continuity in thought across his reviews, must also have likewise obsessed over their genitals as opposed to their faces, and whose bodies were physically not suitable to disciplined, civilised movement, it is fair to ask which of the ideologies on offer is least, not so much tendentious, but insidious.[iv]

All such words, however, pale beside the achievement and the legacy of a notorious cartoon by Bill Leak that The Australian published on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day in 2016. The cartoon sets up two Aboriginal men, one in the navy blue kit of the cop gripping in his right hand his baton and the other, slouching in bare feet, a can of beer in his right hand. Between them, a surly adolescent barefooted male dangles at the end of the policeman’s outstretched left hand. ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility,’ says the police officer. ‘Yeah righto what’s his name then?’ replies the other.

Upon the cartoonist’s death on 10 March 2017, The Australian celebrated the legacy and the insight that the cartoon afforded, the much needed ‘truth-telling’ it accomplished, and the ‘courage’ it took to ink it. On the other side, numerous critics deplored the image and its unfortunate resurrection on the passing of its author, the crude stereotypes in which it traded and the antipathy it evoked.

The debate about the cartoon, however, replicated what the cartoon illustrated so bitterly, even cruelly – the fundamental limits that racism and colonialism impose upon one’s self, one’s society and one’s capacity to imagine outside of the constraints that language imposes.

If the Turnbull government, however, has checkmated the political reconciliation project, there are nonetheless other points of contact where other reconciliations are happening in ways that will outpace the political system and leave the government playing an embarrassing game of catch-up. One can find reconciliation happening in cuisine, in music, in art and in the love lives of countless Australians. But the most significant of such unspoken and unacknowledged reconciliations lies right at the centre of current Australian debates about climate, energy and power. Within the idea of environmental sustainability sits the locus of a new reconciliation, one wholly independent of a political system clearly incapable of abandoning colonial modes of thought and behaviour.

We live in an era that has increasingly come to be called the Anthropocene, in recognition of the clear impact that humans and, in particular, their emissions of carbon dioxide have had on Earth’s climate. While the advocates of the concept of the Anthropocene disagree over exactly when the new geological era began – some say when humans first fired bushland to create habitat for hunting animals and collecting plant foods, others when humans cleared forests to raise crops and herds, or when the first successful test of a nuclear bomb occurred – all agree that the industrial revolution that began in England in the late eighteenth century was the pivot point between an era when anthropogenic environmental change shifted from slow, measured and recoverable to sudden, vertiginous and lethal. It is easy to forget, though, that the industrial revolution was only part of the confluence of events that created industries premised on fossil fuel consumption whose emissions began to alter the composition of the atmosphere and the biosphere. Part and parcel of it was Western Europe’s great attack on the world from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries to acquire the resources to shovel into the blazing furnaces that kept the mills in smoke.

If the long walk to the political reconciliation that just ran aground on Uluru began in late April 1770 when Captain Cook and company first stepped ashore, so too did the Australian Anthropocene. The consequences of the coeval start of colonial and anthropocenic Australia are enormous because what had once been one event now becomes two. The prospects of such a doubling are dizzying in terms of the critical insights, interpretive possibilities and the equivalencies they entail. When Tony Abbott lauds coal as the solution to Australia’s energy woes, for example, he also doubles down on colonisation. When the South Australian Government sets the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world or enlists Elon Musk to build the world’s largest lithium battery, they make, in effect, profound anticolonial statements. When the Turnbull government crafts an energy policy silent on sources but loud on required capacity it steers a mushy middle way by counting on colonialism to end colonialism, which is a far cry from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s pulling of the plug on the Adani subsidy and offering a resounding ‘no’ to the ongoing colonisation of Queensland.

Because their origins stem from the same foundational moment, the confrontation with Australia’s climate crisis demands a confrontation with Australia’s colonial crisis. Consequently, the only way forward lies along the path of a reconciliation that enlists us as members of the same species and not as blacks or whites, and that also privileges not the exercise of political power but the crafting of a common culture through the braiding of knowledge. Such as what has happened in New Zealand where, after one hundred and seventy years of negotiations, the government just declared that what the invaders knew as the Whanganui River but whose traditional custodians experienced as Te Awa Tupua was now a legal person whose permission is required before any human act touches its flowing life. Likewise, Victoria has crafted a comparable arrangement and enjoined the traditional keepers of the Yarra River as partners in its management. On a smaller scale, the rebel owner of Wooleen Station hundreds of kilometres north of Perth saw how former flocks of sheep and herds of cattle had destroyed his land so he emptied it to let the grasses and the soil rebound. And when they did they began to absorb rainwater that allowed the grasses to flourish which, in turn, attracted kangaroos in the thousands. Like the children’s story about the king and the cheese, the owner then brought in dingoes, which solved the kangaroo problem but earned the ire of his neighbours whose sheep and cattle began to suffer collateral damage. Should the stockman decide to fire the land to foster even more growth and renewal, no doubt the long arm of the state will put an end to such an innovative yet ancient scheme.[v]

What such modest events suggest is that, here and there, people are partnering and seeking to replace the colonial cant of human and environmental segmentation, exploitation and degradation with an approach drawn from sustainable principles that, in the particular case of Australia, rest upon the modern technology of solar panels and wind-power alongside the deep history of the Dreaming and the intricate knowledge of the law. Such small steps also enact the braiding of knowledge and practice in ways that defy the binary strictures that give colonialism its strength and elasticity and that make possible the one thing that colonialism can never abide – a third way. And because the third way can pop its head up above the clouds that darken the racial world and see things that otherwise might pass unnoticed, it can lay the foundations for a fourth, fifth or sixth way of seeing, thinking and doing – something any society sorely needs to adapt and to thrive. Reconciliation through environmental practice thus begins first with acknowledging that colonial Australian society’s efforts to create a renewable supply of energy, a sustainable practice of consumption and an equitable ethic of reciprocity ought to consider the fact that all such efforts can find their deepest expression when set within the deep and continuous tradition of knowledge and practice that has endured for millennia, notwithstanding great violence and dislocation, that made this land over thousands of years and that remains ready still to speak in powerful ways to our current predicament.

Which is why we have to return to that Bill Leak cartoon.


I HAVE YET to come across anyone who makes much of a deal about the fact that the policeman in the cartoon is also Aboriginal, which sets the scene as a kind of Rorschach test that conjures the blotted symmetries inherent to the colonial predicament. The policeman’s truncheon is offset by the father’s beer can. Their respective hats reach into vastly different worlds of power or lack thereof. One embodies the historic role of the notorious Native Police, the other the equally historic role of the Aboriginal lawbreaker. And in the starkest and most base invocation of the perversity of colonialism that the cartoon holds forth, we see both adult male figures collapse into the same dilemma that will always be framed by an abiding faith in ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’– the real choice, the only choice, in the end, is to be a collaborator or a victim.

There in the middle, though, beholden to neither side stands the boy who has yet to make his choice and whose evident anger perhaps betrays equal contempt for either of the paths that the ongoing reproduction of colonisation holds forth.

‘What’s his name then?’

The Future?

Or at least its possibility.

Going back to that first welcome to country I attended, I wonder about his idea that when we speak we allow our ancestors to breathe and whether or not that is a good thing. For his part, he was talking about his saltwater kin and the continuity of thought and belief that ties him to an ancient lineage and occupation of the land. But what about those of us who are not original to the land? When we speak, do we also allow our ancestors to breathe? More worryingly, if we allow them to breathe, do they then also speak through us and use us to reproduce the racism and the nihilism that made so much of what they achieved possible? As much as Uncle Graham implored his ancestors to speak, I had to ask: would I?

Figuring out how to approach such questions, and the self-examination they demand, will tell us how we might speak to the boy, which then might also tell us how to speak for ourselves in ways that hopefully might overthrow the covenant with race that all colonial societies hold dear, for it is this original covenant that establishes a claim to the land and that separates those who belong and those who do not.

Now that the government and the society it represents have declined the Uluru Statement and reaffirmed Australia’s fundamentally colonial nature, anyone interested in something else will need to find a new language that will allow that young boy caught in-between to announce who he is, but right now we lack not just the words but the imaginative mental space to conceive them. Still, we need to be open to any possibility that can untie the colonial knot, that can posit other points of view and other kinds of reconciliation that do not depend on governments or parties, to find those words and ideas we don’t yet have to – as Uncle Graham put it – make this the best country we can.



[i] Caroline Overington, ‘Keeping It in the Family,’ The Australian (25-26 February 2017), 16-17.

[ii] Mark McKenna, ‘Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future,’ Quarterly Essay 69 (2018): 21-22.

[iii] Christopher Allen, ‘Aesthetic Genesis’, The Australian Review (4-5 March 2017), 11.

[iv] Christopher Allen, ‘A Matter of Perspective,’ The Australian Review (29-30 July 2017), 13.

[v]  Jonathan Pearlman, ‘New Zealand River to Be Recognized as Living Entity after 170 Year Battle,’ The Telegraph,, accessed 12 April 2017; Katie O’Bryan, ‘New Law Finally Gives Voice to the Yarra River’s Traditional Owners,’ The Conversation,, accessed 6 November 2017; Kristine Taylor, ‘Wooleen Station Couple Taking Radical Stand to Recover Ancient Outback Property,’ ABC News,, accessed 6 October 2017.

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About the author

James Carson

After working for twenty years as a professor of indigenous histories at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Prof. James Taylor Carson now heads...

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