How can a mini-series about British settlement show no Aboriginal people?

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Alecia Simmonds

David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip.

David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip. Photo: Mark Rogers

Next week Foxtel will air a seven episode BBC mini-series about first settlement in Australia that has not one Aboriginal person in it. No, not one. And nor did any Aboriginal people work on the production. It's called Banished, which is meant to refer to the English convicts, but more accurately describes the fate of Australia's original inhabitants in this cinematic incarnation of terra nullius.

The show is historically inaccurate, politically retrograde and, quite simply, racist.  It is complicit in a myth that has long been the basis for the denial of Aboriginal rights to land, dignity and justice.

It's odd, because Jimmy McGovern, the creator of Banished, was also involved in the production of Redfern Now. And he came up with the idea for the series at an Aboriginal Writers Workshop in America. He told Cassie McCullagh on Radio National's The List the idea was to bring in Aboriginal people in Series Two and to have these stories written by Indigenous writers. But "those plans are seemingly permanently put on hold" because "there wasn't the time or opportunity to bring in Indigenous writers".

Fatal shore ... David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip on the set of <i>Banished</i> at Manly Dam.

Fatal shore ... David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip on the set of Banished at Manly Dam.

McCullagh, very politely, asked if it would not have been possible to at least show the Aboriginal people described in the settlers' journals at the time. For instance, Watkin Tench's description of their "frequent visits" to the camp?

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No, said McGovern, "A shot like that would cost a fortune and would perforce take all the drama away from the penal colony." McGovern said he needed to be "quite robust" in defending the decision to have an exclusive parade of pale-faces: "It's a series written by a British man for the British Broadcasting Corporation for British people." Ergo, all British people are white and white people will only be interested in other white people.

It's a ridiculous argument because there is no history that is purely 'British'. When the British decided to exchange their beads, trinkets and syphilis for other people's land and resources, they became colonisers and, in so doing, their history became intertwined with those they oppressed. The very idea of what it means to be British has been built around ideas of racial difference: we are civilised because they are savage; I am white because he is black; she is a coolie and they are Aborigines.

The colonies created British identity and they made Britain's wealth. From the Indian tea they sipped, to the Jamaican sugar they ate, to the Egyptian cotton and Australian wool they wore, to the colonial subject who came to call Britain home, Britain was and remains a product of its imperial history. Britain's history does not exist in splendid isolation from its colonies. Anglo-Brits need to take responsibility for the hurt of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, because of their forebears.

And, at the very least, this means being historically accurate. Of course, artistic representations of the past don't have to be beholden to truth, except when they say they are true. And, in this case, McGovern has used the real names of real characters and real events to create a historical drama.  As such, he must have chosen to ignore the abundant evidence of Aboriginal-European interactions in the journals he used to construct his narrative.

Take Lieutenant William Bradley's description of an inter-cultural dance on the harbour: "These people mixed with ours and all hands danced together". Or one of Philip Gidley King's men's frolicsome nude outing with a group of Aboriginal people. Or Governor Arthur Phillip's kidnapping of Banelon and Colebee. Europeans also worried about Aboriginal people because they were aware of their own precarious claims to the land.

Look at the hints Captain Cook carried with him when he set out for the Pacific: "They (indigenous peoples) are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent."

McGovern said his dramatic inspiration for the series lay in the idea that "on one side lies the ocean and on the other side lies the bush" which created "the most amazing prison". This is nothing less than a fantasy of terra nullius. He is imagining an exclusively British settlement surrounded by wild nature depopulated of the Indigenous inhabitants. These ideas are echoed in McGovern's defense that it's "a story about British people in the British penal colony in New South Wales". 

In fact, that British penal colony was on Bidjigal and Cadigal country. In imagining places of settlement as exclusively white, McGovern is perpetuating a collective amnesia around Aboriginal dispossession that has, and continues to have, political effects (as seen in the difficulty Aboriginal people have when making urban land rights claims).

I fail to understand how the two cultures could ever be prised apart in a first (white) series and a second (black) series, although two series would certainly have been better than having no Aboriginal people. That said, having discovered there wasn't the funding or interest for Series Two (neither of which are valid reasons) the responsibility fell to McGovern to redress the whiteness of the first series. His suggestion that he couldn't incorporate Aboriginal perspectives because he couldn't get any Aboriginal writers is absurd.

There are countless historical dramas by white people, most notably Kate Grenville's The Secret River, that, through careful research and respectful consultation, do a fantastic job at a two-sided history. As stolen generation claimant Lorna Cubillo once said: "The writing and telling of history has to be a combined effort…We need to get all sides together, to be fair all round so everyone can speak and be heard and recognised." Anything less is not just retrograde, but astonishingly so. Banished should be banished from our screens.

Alecia Simmonds is an academic and the author of the forthcoming book Wild Man.