I spent a fascinating day at the State Library of Victoria on friday hearing about the ARC-funded ‘Minutes of Evidence’ (MoE) Project.The MoE website describes the project in these terms:
It is a unique collaboration between researchers, education experts, performance artists and community and government agencies that seeks to promote greater awareness of the effects of settler colonialism and a more open consideration of how to live together justly in the future. Through a bold, multi-disciplinary approach that brings together research, education and performance, the Minutes of Evidence project highlights the local and broader significance of the 1881 Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry by examining how notions of justice have been formulated, invoked and confronted over time and space, and how the enduring legacies of past injustices continue into the present – despite official responses designed to redress them – so as to foster new ways of thinking about structural justice in the present and future.
I’d heard about the project whilst still in the UK, but this was my first opportunity to properly engage with it. The event was a day conference called ‘Just Encounters: Bringing Together Education, Arts and Research’ which showcased the work the project has been doing over the last four years to reconstruct the formal record of the Coranderrk Inquiry – the Minutes of Evidence of the project title – into a work of “verbatim theatre”, to develop a set of teaching resources on Coranderrk for teachers of history and civics in schools, and to use it as a vehicle to reflect on and engage with issues of ‘structural justice’. Structural justice, it should be said, can be seen as a sub-set of social justice, focussed in this context on redressing the historical and structural harms caused by settler colonialism.
The Coranderrk Inquiry itself was an extraordinary event for its time. Coranderrk was the name given in the 1860s to one of the most liberal and successful of the Aboriginal reserves established in the colony to receive surviving members of the Aboriginal clans that had been displaced by colonial expansion and settlement. In 1874 the sympathetic (European) manager of Coranderrk, John Green, was removed for his opposition to a plan by the so-called Board for the Protection of Aborigines to remove the Aboriginal population and release the 4000+ acres of the station for use by white settler farmers. Under the leadership of their headmen, William Barak and Thomas Bamfield (Birdarak), the Coranderrk residents mobilised into a powerful political protest movement over a period of several years. By adopting the techniques of white political (written) discourse to bring attention to their campaign for self-determination, they forced the state to take notice and set-up a Parliamentary Commission to inquire into their complaints and determine the future of the station. Before the Commissioners, the Coranderrk families succeeded in having the new manager dismissed and, ultimately, in getting Coranderrk formally recognised as a permanent reserve. Their victory was, however, shortlived, as the Victorian government responded by passing the apartheid ‘Half-Caste Act’ of 1886, which forced younger mixed-race men and women off of the reserves and (nominally) into the white population, breaking up families and forcing Coranderrk into a process of slow decline, finally closing in 1924.
The event on Friday included a staged reading of extracts from the verbatim play Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, written by Giordano Nanni (of Melbourne Uni) and Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, Andrea James, and produced by La Mama Theatre. It was extraordinarly powerful. If anything the device of verbatim theatre, and the knowledge that you were hearing the testimony of witnesses in the words spoken 130 odd years ago added to the poigniancy, and reminded me powerfully of some of the ideas and effects explored in Edinburgh as part of the Beyond Text in Legal Education project (see my earlier post here; though verbatim theatre was not an approach we considered in that context, it can clearly be used, like techniques such as theatre of the oppressed, to foster engagement with, not just awareness of, enduring injustice). Moreover, having coincidentally spent part of last week exploring the Mabo case with my legal theory students, I was doubly confronted after Coranderrk with the historical and contemporary reality of structural injustices on which a one-time colonial state like Australia was and continues to be built. The script has been published as a book by the Aboriginal studies Press (Canberra, 2013). Get it if you can.