It felt wrong reading Whitewash among the bubbles of my favourite bathtub, as if I was dishonouring the First People of this great land and all the people of colour who were slaves over the centuries and their descendants.
It’s impossible to read John Ogden’s book and not marvel and appreciate the depth of his passion for telling Australian stories that need to be told. Stories that would go untold if not for “Oggy” and his Cyclops Press. I had the privilege of meeting the author at the launch of Whitewash where he spoke. It was an unforgettable experience. Beneath John’s self-effacing manner is a historian dedicated to finding every hitherto buried fact and shining a torch on them. He first got the idea for Whitewash eight years ago and has spent the best part of the last three years researching and writing.
At 406 pages and with 37 pages of Endnotes, in very small print, this book is not for the feint hearted but it’s so well structured and has chapter headings that make it easy to dip in and out of. At the book’s launch sitting inside Freshwater Surf Club, a building just metres from the location where Oggy’s inspiration for undertaking this mammoth task began it felt eerie, almost as though the ghosts of John Boyd Steel, George Bernard Showery and Duke Kahanamoku were nodding their approval at their stories being unearthed with such care. In true historian style the book’s launch coincided (almost) with the anniversary of one of the book’s characters, John Boyd Steel, announcing in November 1908 the beginning of the lifesaving movement by establishing a club at Freshwater.
Whitewash is many books in one. Yes it’s the story of George ‘Bernie” Showery who was abandoned by his African-American father when he was three years old and eventually found a place in Australia with an eccentric father-figure in John Boyd Steel, but it’s much more. Oggy wasn’t satisfied to just tell one story. Instead he has pulled together possibly the most comprehensive and understandable history of slavery in every so-called civilised country since the 1500s. These countries all engaged in a practice that to civilised people is utterly repugnant and makes for an uneasy read. Did you know of a “black holocaust” in the United States? Does the term “blackbirding” mean anything to you? How about that approximately one hundred of the convicts sent to Australia during 80 years of penal transportation had African heritage.
If you’ve watched on in horror at what’s been happening in Trumpland then Whitewash will also help to put many of today’s attitudes towards people of colour, especially in the (not so) United States of America into a perspective that enables better understanding of just how deep the prejudice, and the brainwashing that caused and enables it, runs.
You won’t find this book on the summer reading lists of the usual booksellers. Shame about that because Whitewash deserves a big audience and Oggy deserves to get paid for tackling such a massive subject in such an accessible way. This is a serious book dealing with serious issues. Oggy uses historical facts and superb story-telling as the creative technique to keep you, dear reader, intrigued, flabbergasted and appalled by what went as acceptable behaviour towards people of colour down through the centuries.
Whitewash deserves to be compulsory school reading. It covers so many aspects of Australian history from the country’s discovery to slavery in Australia, Federation, the White Australia Policy, the gold rush, a brief history of surfing and much more.
Australia does not come out of Whitewash untainted. Scott Morrison was wrong when he recently said there had been no slavery in Australia in a comment relating to the Black Lives Movement. There was. It behoves all of us to seek a greater awareness of our nation’s true history. Whitewash is just the book to help you do that.