Henry Reynolds researched and wrote about the horrors of colonisation

Exposing the dark underbelly of our history

Recently I had the great pleasure to interview Henry Reynolds, one of Australia's foremost historians, best known for lifting the curtain on the violence suffered by Aboriginal people as a result of white settlement.

The cheerful 81-year-old said that growing up in Tasmania with a father who was an amateur historian sparked an interest in the past from a young age.

"But I didn't really know much at all about the Aboriginal question because it was presumed all the Tasmanian Aboriginals had died - there was little awareness that there were still people who identified as such on the Bass Strait Islands," Henry said.

In 1963 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in History in his pocket from the University of Tasmania, Henry and his wife Margaret (later to become a Labor senator for Queensland from 1983 to 1999), set off for England.

Two years later a surprise job offer from the James Cook University in Townsville saw the couple return to North Queensland, a part of Australia that neither knew much about.

"Suddenly there were lots of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders around us - you saw and heard the racial conflict and tension daily.

"Margaret was the activist and quickly became involved in Aboriginal issues ... she worked on the campaign for the 1967 referendum and we were meeting lots of people, among them Eddie Mabo, Bobby Sykes and Burnum Burnum.

"We were immersed in the race question."

We were deeply involved in the present before I started to focus on the past

Henry Reynolds

Employed to teach Australian History, Henry quickly discovered the lack of resources, especially any that mentioned Aboriginal people, racial issues or more specifically, North Queensland.

"I started including local history in my course, so Aboriginal people could see their past represented and I started doing research.

"The more I researched, the more involved I became. I started sourcing grants and travelling around the country.

"It really shocked me to discover all this history and how it had been left out of the colonial narrative."

Henry's seminal work, The Other Side of the Frontier, was published in 1981 and garnered some strong reactions.

"I certainly stirred up some trouble but that didn't both me - how can you talk about Australia without talking about our First Nation peoples?

"I'd get the strongest reactions when I was in the media and I'd often receive long abusive letters.

"My subject matter was not really considered 'decent' among the academic community and when I sent my manuscript to Penguin they responded that there were already too many books published on the subject!"

MABO LEGAL TEAM: Solicitor Greg McIntyre, barrister Ron Castan, Eddie Koiki Mabo and barrister Bryan Keon-Cohen at the High Court of Australia 1991 (Still from the film Mabo - Life of an Island Man)

MABO LEGAL TEAM: Solicitor Greg McIntyre, barrister Ron Castan, Eddie Koiki Mabo and barrister Bryan Keon-Cohen at the High Court of Australia 1991 (Still from the film Mabo - Life of an Island Man)

During this time the friendship with Murray Islander Eddie Mabo was growing ... Eddie was a groundsman at the university and the two often talked.

"I loved to listen to Eddie talk about island life, his eyes just glowed - he was totally shaped by his culture and had such strong cultural ties. He was very self-confident ... the islanders had not been killed and stomped on like the mainland Aboriginals.

"He was an activist for land rights but he didn't think it applied to him.

Eddie (Mabo) had no idea that his island belonged to the Crown and he had no legal rights.

Henry Reynolds

"When my post-graduate student, Noel Loos, and I told him, he was absolutely astonished and shocked ... if we hadn't had those conversations the need for the Mabo case would never have arisen."

The result in 1992, 11 years later and sadly after Eddie's death, was the High Court's Mabo decision that not only changed the law in Australia but changed the course of history.

"When the judges handed down their decision that took on board the 'new' view of history, it was a revolution in our historical perceptions ... the most dramatic change in Australian history in 200 years.

"Justices William Dean and Mary Gaudron described the past as one that carried an "unutterable shame"."

Henry is now back in Tasmania, still working and writing, but will be coming to Bellingen for the Readers and Writers Festival held over the June long weekend.

"I have never been to Bellingen, so I am looking forward to it. I think small festivals like this are wonderful because they add so much to the life of the community.

"They offer some seriously interesting intellectual stimulation and the audiences are always so completely absorbed."

He will be appearing at the festival on both Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9.

For more information or to book tickets go to www.bellingenwritersfestival.com.au.

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