The documentary Our African Roots uncovers the lost histories of Africans who came to colonial Australia. By Nyadol Nyuon.

Our African Roots

A scene from Our African Roots.
A scene from Our African Roots.
Credit: SBS

Our African Roots, a documentary by journalist, filmmaker and author Santilla Chingaipe, presents a part of Australia’s history that remained largely untold, unclaimed and erased. It attempts to tell a complex story about the presence of people of African heritage in Australia; or more accurately, their presence on the lands of Indigenous peoples that would become, through violent dispossession, the country now called Australia. The historical records that shape the narrative don’t provide sufficient evidence to allow the figures in the documentary to be described in their own words. Consequently Our African Roots is both storytelling and – in how it fills in the historical gaps – story-making.

It begins with the founding of the first European penal colony in Australia, marked by the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. On the 11 ships were 10 “African-descended convicts”. Our African Roots tells their stories, with a focus on John Randall, Billy Blue, John Martin, Fanny Finch and John Joseph.

John Randall, believed to be originally a slave from the United States and a soldier who fought for the British in the American War of Independence, arrived in Sydney in January 1788. As he was skilled in the use of a musket, Randall was soon employed as a hunter, sourcing wild game for high-ranking British officers. The narrative informs viewers that, although Randall was a captive of the colonial system, wielding a musket gave him “some power” over the Indigenous communities who lived in the area. We are not explicitly told – or due to limited records, perhaps could not be told – how he used that “power”.

The documentary leaves us with Randall’s lasting influence through the contributions of his descendants to Australian society. One of them, Sergeant William Davis, fought with the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Another, Ernie Toshack, was a member of Sir Don Bradman’s “Invincibles” cricket team.

Next we meet John “Black” Caesar, “Australia’s first bushranger”, who rivals the legacy of Ned Kelly. Caesar escaped colonial authorities and hid in the bush, surviving by “stealing provisions and raiding Indigenous camps”.

Unlike Randall and Caesar, who disappear without significant historical trace, William Blue was a convict-settler of African descent who climbed the “social ladder of colonial Sydney” and is remembered in landmarks across the city today. In the documentary re-enactment portraying his life, a line stands out: “I respectfully stand before you, as the freed convict settler, William Billy Blue.” How can one be all at once freed, a convict and a settler? And, in telling Billy’s story, which of these identities do we represent for the public record and advance as a worthy addition to our national identity and character?

The documentary advances pride in our African heritage. There are moving moments, such as Chingaipe standing on the site of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, an event that inspired democratic reforms. She was led there by John Joseph, who joined the rebels and allegedly shot and fatally wounded the British officer who was leading the offensive against them. There are also affirming discoveries, such as Fanny Finch, a woman of African descent who was the first woman to vote in Victoria.

Our African Roots offers a redemptive story, a response to the narrative that initially inspired Chingaipe’s investigation – the so-called “African crime wave”. However, as American essayist Flannery O’Connor wrote of the urge to redemption, we often forget the cost when storytellers decide “that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored”. Too often, in this restoration the “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether” and all that can be offered up is either “mock damnation or a mock innocence”. What ties the African settlers in Our African Roots to “mock innocence” is the absence of the other truths. The absence of a story can be as revealing as what is told.

In an interview for SBS, Chingaipe acknowledges the consequences of the absence of certain histories: she says that the lack of African narratives in our histories “ultimately reinforces this idea that one group might be inherently predisposed to doing these amazing things and everyone else isn’t”. Likewise, when we focus on what is inspiring, we risk reinforcing the idea that a particular group might be inherently predisposed to doing deplorable and shameful things. As Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote, “We the colonised are sometimes also we the colonisers.” No story in the documentary can escape this.

Armed with a deadly weapon, John Randall roamed a country inhabited by Indigenous people, hunting their game to sustain his life and the lives of officers enforcing the colonial system. Randall was reportedly “granted” 60 acres (24 hectares) of land and joined the New South Wales Corps, the British military force that served the convict colony of NSW. Billy Blue was a close acquaintance of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, one of the most powerful men in the colony. Macquarie made Blue the harbour watchman and constable and “granted” him a farm of 80 acres (32 hectares). The word “granted” hides the truth that these lands were stolen.

At the end of the episode on Black Caesar, after telling how he survived by raiding Indigenous camps, Chingaipe remarks that what she loved about the Caesar story is that “it’s rooted in resiliencies”. “He was willing to risk his own life just to experience freedom. Caesar embodies the sort of traits we all want to embody, we all want to think that if we were denied our freedom we would fight for it.” Yet other records show that Caesar denied Indigenous peoples the freedom he sought for himself: there are stories of Black Caesar’s skirmishes with Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy, who led the resistance against the incursion of settlers on his peoples’ lands.

This is the story of our African shame.

A number of counterarguments may be reasonably raised against the claim that the colonised is also the coloniser, including that their colonised position limited their actions and choices. This is true to an extent but doesn’t address the harms visited on Indigenous peoples. Violence and dispossession of lands is no less detrimental because the violence is delivered by Black bodies. And if we are to revere the achievements of Black settlers as acts of agency despite their being colonised, we must also recognise when they exercised that agency to harm Indigenous people.

It’s important to remember that history is created. It wasn’t inevitable that the relationship between Indigenous people and Black settlers should re-entrench racial hierarchies. Before the arrival of the First Fleet, coins found on the Wessel Islands evidence an equal relationship based on trade between the mediaeval Kilwa Sultanate in East Africa and Indigenous people here.

We shape stories and are in turn shaped by them. The story of people of African descent is not wholly confined to the colonial past. As Clarke says, the tensions remain contemporary because for all “the bloodshed, oppression and colonial disharmony that African diaspora migrants may or may not have fled, we too are settlers – albeit Black bodied – on Black land of which sovereignty had never been ceded”. 

Our African Roots is now showing on SBS.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 as "Absent histories".

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