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Whose history do you believe?

American-declaration-independenceCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE- When I was a small child I was a precocious reader. By the age of 12 I had ploughed through Edward Gibbon’s ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. This made me unusual amongst my peers.

Mind you, I also devoured, just as avidly, ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Coral Island’, the entire series of Biggles books and pretty well anything written by Gerald Durrell.

But history was and remains my first love. I can never remember not being fascinated by it.

Thus my history lessons at school were always of riveting interest to me. This did not pass unnoticed by my history teachers, who judiciously steered me towards books that, while relevant to the curriculum, were regarded as too difficult for most students to read and understand.

As a child of the immediate post war era, I was taught a version of history that extolled the virtues of the British Empire which, even then, was in the process of being dismantled.

British prime minister Harold MacMillan’s famous “winds of change” were whistling loudly through the corridors of the Colonial Office in London, and across the globe the Union Jack was being lowered and new flags raised in its place.

My lessons on the history of India invariably cast the British presence there in the most favourable possible light.

The thrust of my lessons was that the intrepid British had by determined and courageous efforts, brought good order, just government and the rule of law to India, not to mention English, railways and cricket.

An important British figure in the history of India is Robert Clive (1724–75). The man I learnt about was brave, intrepid and resourceful.

Almost single handed, I read, Clive brought the bulk of India under British control. For this great feat, he was richly rewarded with both a vast fortune and a peerage.

Recently, I have, after a very long hiatus, again turned my attention to the history of India.

Specifically, I have read a book by William Dalrymple called ‘The Anarchy’, which describes the process by which Clive and others subjugated India on behalf, not of the British nation, but of the British East India Company.

Importantly, Dalrymple draws extensively upon contemporary Indian sources, not just British and French material.

I had known that Clive was connected to the company, being a Major-General in its private army. What was not taught to me in my youth, though, was that the company ruled India entirely for its own benefit and manifested the very worst excesses of unbridled capitalism in doing so.

To say that many of its officers were greedy, ruthless and cruel would hardly understate just how venal and corrupt they were.

Clive, in reality, was a gifted opportunist who realised earlier than most that the company had the military technology, skills and resources to effectively take over India in its entirety.

He deftly exploited the serious divisions within Indian society following the fall of the Mughal Empire to progressively bring the country under the effective control of the company.

This process was not uncontested. India had a rich and sophisticated culture and its leaders were not without talents and abilities of their own.

Sadly, they could never put aside their own quarrels for long enough to expel the British interlopers, although they came close several times.

Eventually, a combination of technological superiority, better leadership and a ruthless determination to succeed allowed Clive and others to do the unthinkable and utterly dominate the entire Indian sub-continent.

In doing so, they were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians, whether as a consequence of war, economic exploitation or the famines they induced with their rapacious demands for trade and wealth.

So, rather belatedly, I have come to understand that the history I was taught was true in many respects but decidedly misleading about how British rule in India was actually achieved and maintained.

I will do my teachers the courtesy of believing that they either did not know the whole story themselves or felt that telling the unexpurgated and complex truth might be too hard for teenagers to properly comprehend.

It seems that it takes considerable time for historians to either uncover the truth about events or, perhaps, muster the courage to reveal that truth knowing that it conflicts with the accepted orthodoxy and thus will attract considerable criticism.

Authoritarian states have a well established propensity to suppress the truth about historical events if that conflicts with their ideology or political needs.

Thus the Chinese government continues to refuse to either acknowledge the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or allow any mention of it. Even talking in private about the events that occurred there can result in arrest and imprisonment.

In a similar way, the Turkish government not only refuses to acknowledge its predecessors’ role in the Armenian Genocide carried out between 1914 and 1923 but insists that it never happened despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

To admit the truth of these events would be intolerable for many Turks, whose concept of Turkish nationalism prohibits any admission of an evil comparable with the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jewish Europeans between 1941 and 1945.

Of particular relevance to the people of Papua New Guinea, particularly Bougainville, is Bill Brown’s illuminating history, ‘A Kiap’s Chronicle’.

It reveals the plain truth about the greed, ambition, arrogance and willingness to trample over people’s rights that was exhibited by the Australian government and mining company Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) as they pressed on with the creation of the Panguna copper mine in the face of clear evidence of fierce local resistance to it.

Now, at last, the unpleasant truth is being revealed, albeit some 50 years after the event.

Also, Mathias Kin has recorded a Papua New Guinean perspective on the Australian pacification of PNG, which casts our efforts in a rather less favourable light than we may have hitherto believed.

It is very important that he and others continue with their work so that, over time, a history of colonial PNG can emerge that reflects perspectives other than just those of the colonial power.

Australia, of course, has other ugly truths to confront, notably the appalling history of the dispossession, abuse and murder of Aboriginal people during the process of settlement by Europeans.

This is a work in progress, but slowly and surely it is entering public consciousness that some of the supposed heroes of our history after 1788 were guilty of serious crimes, knowledge of which was suppressed and denied for generations.

In this, though, Australia is hardly alone. There remain many Americans who cannot bring themselves to admit that their union was founded upon a great lie: being that all men were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This powerful statement in the US constitution was made when its authors and signatories all knew that it would not apply to the millions of black slaves held in captivity, mostly in the southern states.

Their noble statement was, in truth, an act of monumental hypocrisy and sowed the seeds for the American Civil War and the eventual emancipation of America’s huge population of slaves.

The Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge the infamous Nanking Massacre, in which its troops murdered at least 200,000 Chinese men, women and children.

This remains a source of friction between Japan and China to this day and reflects a continuing Japanese preference to see themselves as the victims of a nuclear atrocity at the end of World War II, rather than as the perpetrators of many unspeakable horrors during that war.

In fact, there is hardly a country in the world where the national mythology does not either exclude or under play or otherwise air brush out of history events and facts that it is inconvenient to remember.

So, whose history do we believe?

I think that the answer to this question is rather complicated, but my advice is that it is best to assume that any history, however beautifully researched and written, is likely to carry within it certain assumptions that reflect the author’s personal belief system.

This can result in very subtle, possibly unconscious, bias in the interpretation of the facts or, at the other end of the spectrum, a history that consciously seeks to present a very particular view of events.

This is why understanding the past remains hotly contested territory, with some historians in vehement disagreement with each other about how the same basic set of facts can be interpreted and understood.

What many people imagine as a rather stuffy and dry discipline is, in fact, a source of sometimes almost violent contention and dispute. Australia’s ongoing “history wars” about what happened to its indigenous people is a case in point.

The main implication of this is that you must read several different histories on any given topic in order to arrive at your personal understanding of the truth.

The ideas and views of historians who are deemed to be “outliers” can be immensely useful in doing this because the orthodoxy is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the truth.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that the truth is seldom pure and never simple. This is a good aphorism to keep in mind next time you are reading a history book.


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Chips Mackellar

I also had problems with the current Chris. The longest tributary of the Fly River was the Strickland, and we did some patrolling along that river.

The countryside there was as flat as a tack, and in ordinary circumstances you would expect that a flat terrain could not generate much current.

But because the Strickland originated in the Highlands, the venturi effect of where it passed through the Strickland George generated a current of about five knots all the way downstream to its junction with the Fly.

As our work boat could only make seven knots it was a long and tedious journey upstream. But the locals had no problem paddling their canoes upstream because they rode the swirls.

You see the Strickland did not flow in a straight line downstream. The water swirled like a series of whirlpools., all of which of course were headed downstream. But that portion of the swirl which pointed upstream swirled faster than the downstream current of the whirlpool.

Therefore, by moving from one swirl upstream into the next, a canoe could move upstream faster than our work boat, which had to struggle against the current.

So frequently we had the embarrassing experience of watching canoes passing our work boat on their way upstream .

Garry Roche

Chris, with regard to history of events in PNG I think that the 'First Contact' film and book, and the follow up with 'Joe Leahy's Neighbours' and 'Black Harvest', present accounts from different sides and provide clear examples of how singular events may be viewed in very contrasting ways.

I am aware of quite different reactions to this series depending on one's background. Both sides of the story are often presented and the viewer or reader has to do some thinking.

Chris Overland

I too got my river Chips. In my case it was the Purari River.

Admittedly, the Purari is only a modest river compared to the Fly, but what it lacked in length and breadth it made up for in velocity.

The Sub-District's 40' work boat (the Ruby) could only get about half way up the Purari before it failed to progress against the estimated 10 knot current. At that point it was necessary to transfer the patrol gear into one of our 30' canoes powered by one of the infamous Mercury 40 hp outboards that Phil disliked so much.

A canoe could make it to the upper reaches of the river in about 5.5 hours. It was too dangerous to go further than the last riverbank village (Uraru?) and the current far too strong.

Despite this, the schoolkids at Uraru regularly swam across it to get to school. I would see them bobbing by each morning, holding clothes above their heads as they went. No health and safety inspectors around then and the crocodiles didn't come up that far either.

The trip back to the waiting Ruby was only an exhilarating 45 minutes. It was a white knuckle ride if the river was up a bit. There were several rapids and at least one large whirlpool to negotiate and that bloody engine was a source of much anxiety in case it failed at a crucial moment.

I did the full length of the Purari twice and it was an adventure each time.

The rest of the bigger rivers around Baimuru and Kikori were comparatively tame, although they could still surprise you with sudden influxes of water from the distant Southern Highlands.

So I guess I got my Sanders of the River moment too and feel lucky to have done so.

Chips Mackellar

I was inspired by Sanders of the River, and that is why I went to PNG. And when I arrived there, I certainly got my river, just like Sanders did.

Only my river was the Fly River, my first posting being Daru and then Lake Murray.

I was totally overawed by my river. It was 40 miles across at its mouth, tidal for 300 miles upstream, seething with crocodiles which frequently ate people - mostly children, but sometimes also adults, and just to even the score, the people ate crocodiles.

What an amazing place where crocodiles ate people and people at crocodiles. Oh yes. I remember my River just as Sanders remembered his.

Chris Overland

Like you Phil, I was very surprised when Frank Dubois was jailed for fraud.

I went to school with his younger brother and only got to know Frank in 1968, when he returned to Australia on leave. I met him again in 1970 when he turned up as the ADO at Kikori, where I was the humble APO.

Frank had spent his cadetship in the Southern Highlands, mostly at Tari. I remember watching a slide show Frank put on at the Dubois' home which first aroused my interest in being a kiap.

As for Gibbon, my parents came into possession of a collection of books from the pre-war era, given to them by a friend of my grandparents who was clearing up a deceased estate. Amongst them was Gibbon and a huge Webster's Dictionary. Gibbon is long gone to God but the dictionary remains a proud possession of my daughter, who used it in the process of acquiring a Masters Degree in Linguistics.

I cannot recall anything of Gibbon really. As a 12 year old, I doubt that I caught more than the general drift of it, but it left me with a deep interest in the Roman Empire which remains to this day.

Some of our latter day politicians might do well to revisit Gibbon. There are certain commonalities between the fall of the Roman Empire and what appears to be the decline of liberal democracies in the 21st century. Trump fills the role of the proverbial mad emperor rather well don't you think?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Frank and I were on the same course at ASOPA and I was most surprised to hear about the trouble that he got himself into upon returning from PNG.

I'm still marvelling at someone of 12 years old reading the 2,000 odd pages of Gibbon's monumental work. Dave Agg, who was also on my course, was reading it while we were at ASOPA and he was about 24 years old.

Then again, I'd read all of Steinbeck by about fifteen.

Chris Overland

Phil, I definitely fell into the Sanders of the River category, at least initially.

I had a ridiculously romantic idea about PNG as a place to prove myself, whatever that actually means. I guess the exploits of people like Robert Clive or Cecil Rhodes, both now rather ambiguous figures in history, might have influenced me.

However, it was several long conversations with a school friend's brother who was a kiap (Frank Dubois) that enthused me for the job.

Sadly, Frank got himself banged up for fraud post PNG, but he did inspire with the idea that I could be kiap.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I have always been an avid reader too Chris but in a decidedly disorganised way. I must have been reading Steinbeck when you were reading Gibbon.

Given your prodigious reading I'm curious to know why you became a kiap in the first place and what you thought of it at the time.

I was fired up by reading Jack Hides, Ivan Champion and all those other kiap writers, not to mention the spin in the targeted government advertisements for the job.

Also at play was the desire to escape the commonplace of an Australian working life.

I do recall, however, becoming very suspicious about the truth of the matter and Australia's role in PNG when I was at ASOPA and seriously considered giving the idea away.

A talk with Fred Kaad dissuaded me. He openly acknowledged the hypocrisies and imperfections of the project but also pointed out that if I gave it away I would be missing a chance to observe firsthand the death of a colonial enterprise. There were no flies on Fred.

That feeling of being a disconnected observer coloured my time as a kiap and provided a different perspective on how the system worked and how many kiaps behaved.

Some were wholly into the Sanders of the River thing, others were just out for a good time and quite a few genuinely had the interests of the PNG people at heart.

I didn’t do any of this consciously of course and have only realised what was going on in my head well after the fact. No doubt this retrospectivity is also coloured by time, poor memory and influences after the fact so it is a decidedly unreliable take on my personal experience.

That said, I’m still curious about whether others experienced something similar.

Paul Oates

Having had a similar upbringing to you Chris, the myths of the past are now being dramatically revealed by uncovering the stories of those whose ancestors didn't have the opportunity to write their own stories.

The important aspect about human history is to learn from it. To now try and undo whatever may have been done by your ancestors is an anachronistic desire to undo what has gone on before we were born.

Many now seek to extract retribution against those who now are able to be targeted. That sometimes takes to form of financial restitution or more simply, just saying 'Sorry'.

Such is the case with the so called millennial generation that now blames the Baby Boomer generation for ruining the world they are about to inherit. Saying 'sorry' apparently doesn't cut the mustard these days.

The issue is basic human nature. We can try to understand it but we still apparently keep making the same mistakes made by previous generations.

As a species, can we therefore bring ourselves accept we appear to have plateaued as far as evolution is concerned. Perhaps we, like the dinosaurs, are due for a mass extinction unless we evolve further due to some external influence yet to arrive.

On the other hand, maybe it already has and we haven't yet realised it is already among us? Antibiotics losing their efficacy? Dictatorship on the increase. Totally ignoring international justice? The takeover of the UN by vested interests? Yet another new virus from an uncontrolled 'wet' market?

Take your pick.

The real problem is that humans are prone to accept mediocre government while ever it doesn't have a direct influence on themselves. Once a national problem becomes too hard for the established political class to handle, the eventual solution is to acknowledge a more effective leadership is required.

Such acknowledgement was often made in the traditional PNG village. So how can say we have in any real way improved on the basic concept?

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