Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lindqvist and Las Casas


Dorre Island, NW Australia - pretty island, ugly history?
Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land, a travelogue about Australia by the veteran Swedish journalist Sven Lindqvist (English version Granta books, 2007 - see http://grantabooks.com/page/3012/Terra+Nullius/552). In part the book is an account of a truly epic road trip through the deserts, plateaus, farmlands and coastal strips of central, Northern and Western Australia. But the book is, above all, a meditation on the relationship between the Aboriginal populations and Europeans since the 18C. There’s some great intellectual history here: Lindqvist argues persuasively that the grand ‘theory merchants’ of the 19C, Marx, Durkheim, Freud and the early anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, all derived major chunks of their ideas from their (very second-hand) reading of Aboriginal ‘primitive’ life. I can’t imagine this book went down well in (white) Australia, however. Above all it is a bleak pilgrimage, as Lindqvist visits dozens of sites which tell the story of how Aborigines were oppressed, murdered and exploited by Europeans from the 18C. He describes ambush massacres, forced marches through the desert in irons, prison-camps for blacks suspected of carrying venereal disease on Dorre and Bernier Islands (see photo), the mass rounding of up mixed race children, desecrated burial sites, detention/labour camps - much of all this in the 20C.

Initially, Terra Nullius reminded me of Matthew Kneale’s Whitbread-prize winning novel English Passengers, which explores the extermination of Tasmania’s native population. But the more I read, the more Lindquist’s relentless, dispassionate narrative of atrocities and genocidal actions reminded me of an iconic early modern ‘human rights’ text. In 1552 the Spanish friar Bartolome de las Casas published his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a little book which detailed how Spanish conquistadores had murdered, tortured, enslaved and dispossessed native populations in every single part of the Caribbean, Central and South America. Neither text is easy to read (as first year students studying Las Casas for the ‘Conquest and Colonisation’ paper on the Oxford history degree soon find). Las Casas wrote because he wanted to shock the 16C Spanish Crown into acting, and thus saving the native populations that had survived the first half-century of conquest. Lindqvist seems to have a different agenda – his concern is with history, as he offers an alternative, highly uncomfortable narrative of Australia’s past, which brings to the fore shocking events which he claims has been sidelined, forgotten and deliberately passed over in silence. Reading Lindqvist, I imagined most 21C readers will find the stories he recounts very grim, wonder if they could all be true, marvel how these things could have happened, and ask why they have not been investigated and acted upon further. Perhaps 16C Europeans, when reading Las Casas’ description of early colonial enterprise in Mexico, Cuba and Panama, felt a similar chill of disbelief, and a similar historical-moral disorientation. Interestingly, The Short Account made the Amerindians a cause-celebre in early modern Europe; Terra Nullius’ plea for the Aborigines seems instead to be regarded as a slightly left-field, literary and niche travel text.

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