Today is Australia Day.
Except that for many, Australia Day is known as Survival Day or Invasion Day- the anniversary of white Europeans invading the country we now call home. On this day, in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip took possession of the colony of New South Wales and raised the British flag for the first time in Sydney Cove. Along with a British flag, they brought weapons, diseases, their own laws, religion and more. Those first invaders cast a long shadow; the legacy of their actions still impacts the lives of Indigenous people today.
The arrival of white people and what they did to “settle” here is most likely the reason I am here today. My English ancestors came out well after the First Fleet but if things were different, who is to say what they might have done? As a white person with a vague bit of English blood flowing through my veins (together with German, Serbian and who knows what else), I’m pretty sure that the Australia I have lived in all my life would be a different place if the British had chosen a different place to send their criminals.
Would it be better or worse? Could white people have come to live here peacefully under the sovereignty of Indigenous Australian people? Or would someone else have come along and been just as brutal as the English? Would we all be speaking French?
We can never know because history can’t be changed. And when it comes to history, Australia’s is relatively recent and gut-wrenching to examine. Indigenous Australians were quite literally slaughtered. Entire communities were wiped out. I could never quite understand how people could come here and simply take the land and kill it’s inhabitants. It’s hard to fathom when you have been raised with the knowledge that Indigenous Australians are, you know, actual people. I guess that arriving on a ship and declaring a country yours, despite the people already living there for 50,000 odd years, means you probably don’t actually consider those people to be fully human. I guess it was easy enough to do when just a few years before, that very land had been declared terra nullius– “land belonging to no one”.
The date is an odd one on more than one level, when you think about it. Barbecues and plastic flags to commemorate the day that a ship full of people in chains arrived. Many were sentenced to transportation for minor offences that spoke of their poverty and desperation more than their criminality. Australia flag tee-shirts and drinking beer out of an esky at the park to celebrate the day that the British arrived and simply took over an occupied land.It’s been over 20 years since the High Court recognised that Captain Cook’s declaration of terra nullius was a convenient fiction for the British. Arrernte writer Celeste Liddle believes that, more important than changing dates, we should be engaged in negotiating a treaty over land rights. Listening to people like her, that take the time to help educate us, I have to agree. There is a lot to be done to achieve real reconciliation. A big part of reconciliation is acknowledging the past in order to move forward. It would seem that this is a big part of where we are falling down. The date we celebrate is not the biggest impediment to reconciliation.
But it’s still an impediment.
There are calls every year to change the date of Australia Day. Yes, it would be largely symbolic, but wouldn’t it also be respectful? Isn’t it long overdue? When Indigenous communities keep voicing that celebrating on this day is an affront to them, that this is a day of mourning for them, shouldn’t we all be listening, rather than shouting at them to “Get over it!”?
I’d love to hear those dismissive voices telling Indigenous communities to “Get over it” to pause long enough to hear their own arrogance. To be startled into silence by it and to begin to listen, instead. Imagine if our government could acknowledge the past fully and really work towards reconciliation. Land rights, collaborative approaches to helping Indigenous communities, an end to discrimination.
It’s doubtful that I’ll see all of these things in my lifetime. But I do hope to see some of them. We could change the date, for starters.
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