Shark Tales


This article is a section of a paper entitled ‘The Shark, Remora and Aboriginal History’ delivered at a symposium, ‘The History Wars: Factitous Fiction or Fictious Facts?’ held at Queensland University of Technology on 26 September.

From an Indigenous historian’s perspective, we have a far more important agenda than enhancing the profile of history warriors like Michael Connor, Keith Windschuttle and others. That is, to play a part in helping our people and communities put together the fragmented, erased and hidden pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is our historical experience since 1788. As Edouard Glissant articulates in referring to the restoration of history: —

For history is not only absence for us. It is vertigo. The time that was never ours we must now possess. We do not see it stretch into our past and calmly take us into tomorrow, but it explodes in us as a compact mass, pushing through a dimension of emptiness where we must with difficulty and pain put it all back together.

I would like to explore the concept of colonial history as a metaphor a cruising shark. The domains of this powerful shark are the oceans of history its practice, understanding, delivery and ownership.

The colonial historical shark was a feared predator during the 19th century but by the later stages of the 20th century many people began to re-enter waters which were previously too dangerous to swim in. People’s history from a grassroots perspective gained a rightful place in the academy. Recently, there has been a strong shift back from this revisionist work towards the glorified colonial history of the past. The shark did not go away and continues to cruise the history oceans devouring any other form of historical memory.

Alan Atkinson, in his 1998 The Europeans in Australia, compares the European arrival in Australia with stories of the ancestral shark. He writes that the traditional peoples of the Pacific, Torres Strait and Australia had stories about sharks ‘who left the sea and came ashore’. Some Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land believed the shark was their ancestor, ‘who had been washed inland and whose great spirit lived among those reedy islands of water, the brown lagoons’.

In Hawaii, the Polynesian Chiefs were ‘called sharks that walk on the land’. Atkinson interprets the arrival of Governor Arthur Phillip in Australia ‘to be distinctly shark like’. Phillip is thus described and matched with the ancestral shark as the ‘epitome (it seems) of unselfish authority, strangely blank and unknowable against an intimately known landscape, he stalks the horizon of the past’.

Atkinson reflects that it remains unknown ‘whether the mythology of the Port Jackson area included any notion of the shark who came ashore. But the shark’s fearful symmetry was a quality which might well have been mirrored, once again in the first Governor.’ The European arrival is thus tied to Aboriginal belief and knowing:

This was the shark’s secret: it made its home ashore through an ancient, self-justifying certainty, a truth which echoed in the ear. If one cut along its shining sides they fell open like a book, full of gilded imagery and familiar stories, but edged also with terror.

Atkinson’s appraisal has been set upon by Michael Connor in his 2005 book, The Invention of Terra Nullius, who scoffed:

Readers [will]find one of the funniest interpretations in all our history. Governor Arthur Phillip swims through Atkinson’s text as the ‘ancestral shark’ of the European Australians. Other history books may come and go, but this erudite fish and chip history will last as long as histories of Australia are read. The finny journey of governor number one can be traced through 10 index references to ‘Shark, image’.

However, I am in strong support of Atkinson’s understanding: Aboriginal people in many parts of this country hold stories that strongly identify with the invading shark metaphor. As an example I offer a story of contact from the Narungga community on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, which I retell with the permission of my brother Lester Irabinna Rigney from the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre. It is a story about a huge white shark, Gooreta.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The custom of the Narungga, when arranging a meeting of the clans of the Yorke Peninsula, was to capture a small fish and wrap bark around its midriff and release it. Then, at a later point, they’d recapture the fish and know by its size that it was time for the meeting.

There came a time when the fish was caught again by the Narungga and released in the expectation that the meeting would take place the next full moon. However, this time the full moon came and no one came to the meeting. So they caught the fish again and found that it had got bigger and had started to go grey.

They released the fish again, and again, but the next full moon came and still no one arrived. Yet again they recaptured the fish, found that it had grown remarkably and become greyer still, and released it. And again, come the full moon, nobody turned up.

One day, the Narungga people found that the bay was full of fish, all the children went running down and the rest of the people including the elders went down to welcome the fish in. But behind the smaller fish was Gooreta, the original fish grown to enormous size and coloured white a monstrous shark that came in and killed and dismembered the Aboriginal people.

This story was a warning to Aboriginal people to beware of large white predators that come from the sea even though, at first, they may appear friendly (driving in schools of fish). It was constructed as a way of warning Aboriginal people by announcing the arrival of the voracious and deadly White intruders, and also provides an explanation as to why people are not turning up to the customary meetings and ceremonies.

Despite including an account of the destruction of Aboriginal people, there is no suggestion that the overarching system of Aboriginal law and cultural responsibilities has been destroyed. Indeed the fact that this story is still current today is in itself a testimony to the resilience of the Aboriginal world-view.

This brings me to the ‘Remora’ or sucker fish which rides with the shark, dining on the discarded scraps of his host. I liken the history warriors to the Remora. They attach themselves to the glorified colonial historical understanding and cruise the shoals of others’ footnotes, looking for any discrepancy or possibility to stamp their own interpretation in a savage frenzy.

I wish to encourage the young Indigenous historians who are now emerging to get on with the job, to get out there and assist our communities in putting our history back together. The colonial historical shark is far from extinct and continues to cruise our history beaches in search of prey.

To our people and those people that support us: stay strong, the struggle continues!

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.