henry and margaret

a peek into the past, and maybe the future

henry reynolds

henry reynolds could be australia’s most prolific, most heralded, and least heeded historian. he has written and lectured widely in his career, and has been elected one of the country’s living national treasures. now in his eighties, henry sits comfortably next to his wife, former senator margaret reynolds in their colonial era home on the outskirts of tasmania’s capital, hobart, as he recalls their years on the front lines of australia’s fight for historical accountability.

“i’ve been accused of disloyalty, of irresponsible troublemaking, and of hating my country, he writes in his latest book, “truth telling”. ” i was often denounced as a communist.”

photo from tasmaniashistoryhouse.com.au

the reynolds’ home is a museum in the making. nicknamed ‘tasmania’s history house’, it sits prominently across from the entrance to richmond’s st. luke’s anglican cemetery, down by the coal river that once separated the catholic and protestant sections of the village. it was one of the first places the english settled when they arrived and one of the last places a tourist might think to visit. the two-story brick house now sits as a testament to two lives spent on the front lines of the struggle to bring aussies face to face with the sins of their forebears.

the walls are choc-a-bloc with memorabilia from events in the reynolds’s story. among the prominent displays is a larger than life campaign photo of their younger dauhter, anna reynolds, who followed her mother into politics and is now hobart’s lord mayor.

there’s a montage of the covers of reynolds’s books as of a few years ago. he’s since added a half dozen more titles, including “truth telling”, which is proving to be possibly the most controversial among his deliberately provocative histories.

henry’s first fifteen

“i was teaching at a college in rural queensland,” henry recalls wistfully the origin of their involvement in the movement to recognize the accomplishments of the continent’s ‘first peoples’. “i went through the history textbooks and discovered there was virtually no mention of the aboriginal people. it was as if the entire continent had been vacant before the arrival of europeans.”

on one level, the reynolds’ story is one of triumph. in the more than half a century since henry’s discovery, aboriginals have gone from sub-human status in australia to being celebrated as its “first peoples”, the custodians of the land. prime ministers have issued apologies for the behavior of the european settler (now commonly referred to as invaders), days of remembrance and reconciliation are observed each year, and schools teach aboriginal culture.

but henry’s books are like lightning flashes, initially appreciated, then quickly forgotten. aussie history can be compared to a partially developed polaroid photograph. it is hard to imagine what the picture will finally turn out to be.

margaret reynolds

margaret reynolds holds her age well. she’s a veteran of the legislative wars that surrounded the question of what to do about australia’s shameful past. she’s also a cheshire cat. her husband puts his findings into print, where they languish in university libraries. what may have transpired in parliament’s proverbial smoke filled rooms during her years in the senate may forever be shrouded by a thick gray cloud.

history evolves. who can predict the future evolutionary process of evaluating the european settlers’ treatment of the continent’s first peoples? after all, who’d a thunk, as recently as ten years ago, that mainstream u.s. scholars could be persuaded that america’s history began in 1619, not 1776, when the declaration of independence was signed. is a similar phenomenon possible in oz?

henry reynolds, in the conclusion of “truth telling”, notes that the long-term political impact of the skeletons in australia’s historical closet is “yet to be determined”. he argues the country will have to “persist with two separate stories of war. the inescapable implication is that the nation is deeply divided, its soul bifurcated and located in different places.” however, he offers two possible paths forward. one is that, in his words, ‘the time may come when the australian state needs the first nations as much as the first nations need the state”. the second is — and this is what really worries reynolds — “the first nations will become alienated from the domestic political system and increasingly look overseas in their search for both justice and respect”.

“and what of truth telling?” he asks in the book’s introduction. “is there an appetite for it in contemporary australia? or is the need for comforting national stories too compelling?” only time will tell.

btw, it is still possible to get a look at tasmania’s history house and its unique occupants. time will surely erase henry and margaret reynolds’s insights eventually, even those preserved in libraries. if you’re interested in this limited time offer, go south in australia into the colonial period about as far as it’s possible to go, then go a little further. it’s just down the road. a warm welcome awaits.

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