Drama and the Archive: BBC’s Banished

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[W]hat sensibilities would a rough and charmless colonial history track—what would such a history look like now?
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 252


On 4 March 2015 MCAS was treated to an excellent paper by Professor Lynette Russell, ARC Professorial Fellow and Director of the Monash Faculty of Arts Indigenous Centre. Speaking on ‘Governance, Settlers and Aboriginal Victorians’, Professor Russell focused on the messy affair of early European-Indigenous Australian contact in the space we now call Victoria, Australia, showing the ways in which myriad official and non-official interactions between such diverse peoples unfolded to be shaped by the archive and by earlier historians into the imperialist story of Victoria as a colony and then an Australian ‘state’.

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Her account undid any sense of smooth transition into the settler colony, not only by focusing on a series of very different types of encounter—moments of resistance, the work of Aboriginal Protectors, the histories of those caught up in the life of missions—but by recognizing the multiplicity of views and experiences on either side of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary. This included recognizing the opposed stances regarding Aboriginal ‘governance’ of ‘homerule’ institutions in Victoria and London-based evangelical groups like the Aborigines Protection Society; and seeing also some of the positive legacies some Aboriginal men and women recognize in the story of Christian missions in the region. Professor Russell showed us how we might also see Protectors and missionaries as early ethnographers whose research has preserved—and been the unwitting perpetuator of—important aspects of traditional knowledge.

While never letting us forget colonial governance constituted a ‘culture of terror’, Professor Russell’s research generally emphasizes, as does the work of Ann Laura Stoler, that no colonial administrator worked as a robotic embodiment of monolithic imperialism.

At its core is the rejection of the premise that we who study the colonial know both what imperial rule looks like and the disposition of those it empowers. It responds to the flat interiorities commonly attributed to those with whom we do not sympathize, politically or otherwise. Its aim is directed at the smug sense that colonial sensibilities are a given and we can now quickly move on to the complexities and more subtle, troubled dispositions of the postcolonial present. (Stoler, 238)


Colonists, too, in other words, had work lives bothered by the uncertainties and questions of, well, life itself.

So too were the experiences of individual Aboriginal Victorian men, women and children diverse, ever-changing and self-interrogated within the collective experiencL Russell 2e of colonial oppression: indeed it is to perpetuate the latter if we fail to recognise the forms of agency which these people exercised within the ever-varying sets of power relations they confronted at different moments of their everyday lives. As often as not, moreover, as Professor Russell reminded us, this is agency–expressed in a barely perceptible moment of resistance, a playful thought, a ‘between-us’ comedy, a wink of the eye, a determined gaze back at the camera or note-taker—which does not find its way into archival records.

This is not to say the archive is inaccurate in its record of the oppressiveness of colonial regimes: that in failing to register moments of resistance, conviviality, cooperation or even fun it makes things out to be worse than they were. It is rather to suggest that the accumulative energy of Aboriginal Australian agency which we know must have been there–if nothing else because of the sheer ebullience of Aboriginal cultures today–may only be found sporadically in the archive, and only then by applying new methodologies to its perusal.

New forms of history-writing in the last few decades—‘micro-histories’, histories from below or the ‘other side of the frontier’, postcolonial histories, subaltern studies among others—have enabled the recovery of such new voices (and/or new timbres within formerly recorded voices). All involve exercising a disciplined historical imagination in new and exciting ways.

KullarkBut Australian drama and fiction have also long been sites for re-visions of contact history which–through disciplined creative intervention–give full voice to personalities and experiences that the archive does not explicitly record. To pluck some few examples from the air: Jack Davis’s stage play Kullark (1979) re-envisioned Western Australian contact history to the present; Colin Johnson’s [Mudrooroo’s] Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983) and Master of the Ghost Dreaming (1991) lent voice to Aboriginal Tasmanian experiences from the early 1800s; and Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941) approached Sydney Cove from both European and Eora perspectives. It is timely to remind ourselves of the first sentence of the latter 74-year-old masterpiece of non-Indigenous Australian writing: ‘Bennilong [sic] and his father had come down to the cliffs again, alone’. Watkin Tench puts in a first-European appearance only 50 pages later.

AgainstThis is hardly to say that Dark’s depiction of Indigenous Australians is entirely unproblematic: nor to suggest that, since she wrote, non-Indigenous reconstructions of the Port Jackson settlement have always given the owners of the ‘settled’ land due acknowledgement. (As a child I remember loving the TV series Against the Wind (1978), and even visiting history-fun-park Old Sydney Town where it was shot, though I recall no Indigenous presence among the mob caps and mock floggings—replete with audience-flicked stage-blood—in either.)

But it is to say that it is utterly inconceivable that a 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation television drama featuring the Port Jackson settlement in the late 1780s would have no Aboriginal Australian characters in it. And it is frankly astonishing that the BBC’s Banished also can so steadfastly focus its dramatic gaze as to miss this part of the story.

cover_dancing_L2For one thing, the presence of the Eora and other tribal groups at this time and in this place—physically and in the minds of convicts and officers—is undeniable. For if ever Aboriginal agency, intra- and inter-tribal politics, humour, sexual relations, diverse cultural practices, and various individuals’ tics and habits are readily apparent—even foregrounded—in European writing, it is in the various accounts by First Fleet officers of their time in the Port Jackson colony. A quick glance at Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793) is all the research you need to assure yourself of this fact: or you can turn to Inga Clendinnen’s masterful amalgam and analysis of similar narratives in Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2003).

Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire, writing in New Matilda, has expressed her anger at Banished‘s whitewashing of Sydney Cove history with greater justification and eloquence than I could do. Her main arguments are to expose the want of consultation or employment of Aboriginal Australian producers, directors, actors and writers that the end result betrays; and this despite co-producer Jimmy McGovern’s admirable work on Redfern Now. She also lambasts the rather lame excuses trundled out re the need to present fully-developed not token Aboriginal characters (is it better, then, to have none at all?).

I agree with her wholeheartedly. But the other point that screams for attention, for me anyway, is the foregoing of the sheer dramatic potential of bringing Indigenous characters and viewpoints into the mix of this tale. I can see that, from its title, this is a story about not being in England rather than being in Port Jackson. I can see also that it is about men [sic] being limited to the resources they brought with them (food, labour, women) rather than learning to resource themselves from country; and that this may indeed capture the way many of these earliest settlers thought. That said, to suggest that dramatically or historically such issues can be or in fact were isolatable from those related to occupying Eora land is both inaccurate and an aesthetic blunder. The explicit dilemmas we see Banished’s Governor Phillip confronting in fact all come back to the fundamental paradox of his orders: be nice to the natives while occupying their land. Not to let us see this is to deny viewers the wider intelligence the best television drama of today never forgets.

Charming (in a literal and in Stoler’s’charmed’ history sense), then, as the eye candy and soapy aspects of the series might be, the potential dramatic power of its subject exposes just how lame Banished turns out to be. We may thank goodness that, being a non-Australian production, these characters—so far—are not burdened with speaking a sense of ‘building a nation’: at the same time, the terra nullius effect is wholly lamentable on dramatic grounds, let alone for the appalling colonialist gesture it repeats.

And that gesture is in evidence in the very opening credits: when a white palm print takes the shape of Australia. The white hand becomes ground: when in fact it is stealing country.

The Menzies Centre continues to promote nuanced historical, political and social accounts of Australian history and the land’s contemporary cultures. In the coming months we have numerous exciting events which will showcase academic and cultural engagements with the dramatic story of our country, several coming up in association with The BP Exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization at the British Museum. I urge you to keep an eye on our events page and welcome you to any of these complex debates about how the ‘banished’ and the ‘indigenous’ are intertwined in the making of Australian modernity.  

Dr Ian Henderson