Voted one of the ten most influential works on non-fiction of the last century, Blood on the Wattle draws together, in a single volume, most of the information about the massacres of Aboriginal people that have been recorded in books and journals. It also creates a broad-based level of awareness of the scale of the massacres of Aboriginal people so that this dimension of Australian history can become part of the Australian consciousness.
Bruce Elder writes on his Aussie Towns Facebook blog, 12/11/2020:
“Blood on the Wattle: A Brief History
I don’t usually write about my other activities but, as it is Naidoc Week, and as my book “Blood on the Wattle” has just been reprinted for the 17th time, bear with me and I will tell you the story of its genesis.
It was really a combination of serendipity and good luck.
In 1987 the Australian publishing industry was awash with plans for “Bicentennial Books” extolling the wonders of 200 years of European settlement; Australia the Magnificent, Beautiful Australia, Our Wide Brown Land et al.
I wanted to write something that was a little more skeptical and honest. One of my suggestions, to a publisher for whom I had already written a number of books, was a book about “The Massacres and Maltreatment of Aborigines from 1788.”
I knew nothing about the topic. I had heard about some horrific events but, at the time, I really knew nothing …
The publisher liked the idea. I was commissioned. I headed off to start my research and, almost immediately, discovered that in 1978 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (they had not added Torres Strait Islanders to their name at that time) had published Black Australia: An Annotated bibliography and teacher’s guide to resources on Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders by Marji Hill and Alex Barlow. It had a comprehensive list of everything that had been written about Aborigines up to 1978.
I went to Fisher Library where, as a graduate of the University of Sydney, I could borrow as many books as I could carry out the front door.
I staggered home with over twenty books and read and read and read. The stories of the massacres and maltreatment were fragmentary.
Only the so-called “famous” massacres – Myall Creek in New South Wales, Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-Ringo in Queensland, Forrest River in Western Australia, Coniston in the Northern Territory – had been comprehensively covered.
Then I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was an exercise in distress and rage and it took only twelve weeks before I had the first draft.
The title came from a Henry Lawson poem. The last line of Freedom on the Wallaby was “If blood should stain the wattle”. It seemed appropriate.
It was, by accident, perfect timing. If I tried to write the book today:
(a) I would come up against disapproval from indigenous people who claim the story is theirs. It is not. It belongs to every Australian and, while indigenous people know the stories, most non-indigenes need to be told and need to recognise that, if they want to be patriotic, they have to take the good with the bad … and this is an essential part of the story of this continent. It is part of who we all are and it needs to be integrated into our history … albeit with considerable shame for the behaviour of our ancestors and acknowledgement of the violence which occurred as Europeans took over the land.
(b) I would find the task impossible. Since 1988 Aboriginal history has grown so dramatically that Blood on the Wattle would now be a six-volume work. The academics, notably the work of Lyndall Ryan and her “Massacre Map”, show a scale of massacres and maltreatment that was barely known when I wrote the book.
Over the 32 years since I wrote it, the book has brought endless personal satisfaction as a bewildering and diverse range of people, from distressed young Aborigines who have clutched it as a reminder of what they have suffered, through to famous people including Evonne Cawley, have seen it as important and insightful.
In 2000, as the 20th century was coming to an end, The Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald ran a very detailed and extensive survey including a question about the most influential books written in Australia. Not surprisingly The Lucky Country, The Female Eunuch and The Fatal Shore all made the cut. And, much to my surprise and pleasure, so did Blood on the Wattle. I felt as though I had written something worthwhile.
I love the fact that a young Aboriginal writer, when asked what book she would suggest then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, should read, had no hesitation in recommending Blood on the Wattle.
So, with the 17th reprint, and the remarkable fact that it is now over 30 years old and still going strong, what can we say about Blood on the Wattle?
It happened, by accident, to appear at a moment in Australian life when we were receptive to a sad truth that had been hidden for too long. It is still a good starting point for those who want to know the true story of European-Aboriginal relations. It is an overview of what was known in 1988 and it offers an horrific and important insight into the history of post-European Australia.”
Bruce Elder is a writer, commentator, and currently a full-time journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald specialising in travel and popular culture. His other areas of expertise include film, television and popular music. He has written extensively about Australia and has a passion for Australian history. He has been involved in writing over 60 books, including Blood on the Wattle which, in 2000, was nominated as one of the 10 most influential works of non-fiction published in Australia in the twentieth century.
Publisher: New Holland Publishing Australia Pty Ltd Published: 1/10/2003
"I was given [Blood on the Wattle] by a cousin of mine who works for Aboriginal Affairs and I was in a daze. I mean, I was just reading page after page after page of massacres and really the only thing that I knew of my Aboriginality was that I belonged to the Wiradjuri tribe. Then I came to the page where most of the Wiradjuri tribe were wiped out..." - Evonne Cawley, The Midday Show, 18 May 1992.
"Blood on the Wattle...dares any Australian who admits no responsibility for the plight of the Aboriginal people today to remain defiant in the face of the overwhelming agony." - The West Australian, 22 October 1988.
"All they seem'd to want was for us to be gone." - Captain James Cook, 29 April 1770.