Francis, P. 2000
The term, 'the Black Armband view of history' has come into common usage
in recent years. It has been taken up most strongly by those within the
Australian community who perceive that the history of
Key words: Black Armband view of history; Great Australian Silence; Three Cheers view of history
In essence the relationship between the concept of the 'Great Australian
Silence' and what has been dubbed the 'Black Armband' view of history revolves
around the portrayal of a history and in particular the completeness of that
history. The history is
Until approximately the 1960s the history of
Henry Reynolds in the introduction to his book 'This Whispering in our
Hearts' (1998, pp. ix-xvii) points out that concerns about the legitimacy
and morality of the colonisation of
In 1968 the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner coined the term, the 'Great
Australian Silence' (1979, p. 207), in his Boyer Lecture series titled ‘After
the Dreaming’ (1979, pp. 198-248). The notion he was conveying was of the
As Stanner wrote of the 'Great Australian Silence' he acknowledged (1979, p.
216) that there were historians already starting the hard work of filling in
the gaps in
For many non-indigenous Australians, particularly the groups in power (e.g. parts of government, big business and the church), the broadening of the nation's historical base and in particular the exposure and inclusion of less palatable episodes on which this nation has been built has not been particularly welcome. From many there has been resistance and a backlash. Henry Reynolds (1999, p. 243) notes that some of the more clamorous opponents accuse the writers of such histories of "…deliberately undermining national cohesion and self-confidence and making the young feel ashamed rather than proud of their past".
The labelling of and effectively the compartmentalising of Aboriginal,
feminist and non-British histories as the 'Black Armband' view of history
occurred in 1993. It was put forward in the 1993 Latham Lecture by the
historian Geoffrey Blainey and subsequently published in Quadrant (1993, pp.
10-15). He put it that this 'Black Armband' view of history represented an
opposite to what he calls the 'Three Cheers' view of history which saw
Australia's history (apart from the convict era) as largely successful and
something to be proud of (1993, p. 11). He set up the 'Black Armband' view of
history as a damning by the "…multicultural folk…" of
Blainey does not explain clearly what he intended the term 'Black Armband' to imply, but it is as Richard Hall (1998, p. 1) puts it a "…slogan… loaded with layers of meaning". My interpretation of it is that he has used it to imply a negative perspective rather than a sense of mourning, loss or respect as might be expected in a more traditional Western interpretation of the term. It can be seen as a 'branding' of a particular field of historical endeavour (within the broader field of Australian history) as somehow malevolent, bent on harm or shaming of the 'true' history. The intent of such branding, perhaps, was to legitimise attacks upon such uncomfortable histories. Whilst acknowledging that the 'Three Cheers' view of history may have been "…too favourable, too self congratulatory…" Blainey (1993, p. 11) puts it that in some way the 'Black Armband' view of history might well represent a move to "…an opposite extreme that is even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced."
Not long after his election in 1996, Prime Minister John Howard delivered the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture for that year and took up the notion of the 'Black Armband' view of history with gusto, "…repeating it like a mantra" according to Richard Hall (1998, p. 1). He warned against allowing history to be rewritten definitively by those "…who take a view that Australians should apologise for most of it" (Howard 1996). Others, many further to the political right, such as Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party took it up as well.
Much of what has been branded the 'Black Armband' view of history represents
the filling in of what was hidden behind Stanner's 'Great Australian Silence'.
This tussle with history that is the basis for this essay is not an isolated
one. The revisiting, reinterpreting and rewriting of history goes on
constantly. Sean Brawley (1999) points to similar debates in
Histories are generally written by the winners, those in control, with a
view to reinforcing the legitimacy of their position and how they arrived at
it. The writers of history rarely portray themselves (or their commissioners)
in a bad light. It can be argued then that the inclusion of the so-called 'Black
Armband' elements of
"…From the good we gain pride; from the bad we learn; and from the totality of our past we gain our identity".
As a final note we can rest assured that however we might perceive and record our history at this moment in time, historians in the future will revisit, reinterpret and rewrite it to reflect their understanding of their past.
Attwood, B. 1992, 'Introduction' in Journal of Australian Studies, eds B. Attwood & J. Arnold, No. 35, 1992, pp. i-xvi.
Blainey, G. 1993, 'Drawing Up a Balance Sheet of Our History', in Quadrant, July-August 1993, pp. 10-15.
Brawley, S. 1999, ‘A Comfortable and Relaxed Past: John Howard and the
Battle of History: The First Phase - February 1992 to March 1996', Electronic
Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, (on-line) available at:
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation 1994, Sharing History: A Sense for
All Australians of a Shared Ownership of Their History, Key Issues Paper
No. 4, Australian Government Publishing Service,
Hall, R. 1998, Black armband days: truth from the dark side of
Howard, J. 1996, The Liberal Tradition: The Beliefs and Values which Guide
the Federal Government, (on-line) available at:
Reynolds, H. 1999, Why weren't we told?, Viking, Ringwood.
¾ 1998, This Whispering in Our Hearts, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.
Stanner, W.E.H. 1979, 'After the Dreaming' in White Man Got No Dreaming:
Essays 1938-1973, pp. 198-248, ed. W.E.H. Stanner,
This essay was written in 1999 for the first year elective Australian Studies 1004: An Introduction to Aboriginal Studies as part of a Bachelor of Environmental Management Degree.