Australia Day doubters misread our past

Australia Day doubters misread our past Geoffrey Blainey

The Australian January 26, 2018Australia Day is still important. The nation would be unwise — and seen by later generations as foolish — if it did not proclaim its legitimacy, and its successes and even failures too, on one special day.Admittedly, many critics deride January 26 as Invasion Day, though they read their history backwards. Captain Arthur Phillip had no intention of launching an invasion that would eventually cover and conquer even a fraction of Australia.He made no claims whatsoever to the sites of Darwin or Perth. He was interested only in the area close to Sydney Harbour, which he acquired with ease. It was easy because the Aborigines were divided; many welcomed him at first.The British were more interested in sea than land. After Sydney Harbour their next choice was Norfolk Island, 1500km out to sea.On February 14, 1788, almost three weeks after that first Australia Day, sailors and convicts left Sydney to occupy that remote ­island. There they were at work before Governor Phillip set eyes on Parramatta and the Hawkesbury River.One attraction of Norfolk Island was that it might supply tall wooden masts in the era when sailing ships ruled the oceans. Moreover its distinctive flax plant might produce sails and ropes for ships. Neither goal succeeded, but half a century later the same flax was harvested in New Zealand and prized in English dockyards.Every third or fourth year the governor-general should visit Norfolk Island on Australia Day and so impose perspective on our history. A cheerio to Sydney might be one of his duties that day.For many Aborigines the year 1788, in retrospect, was a tragedy. Accordingly they maintain that a treaty protecting their lands and their culture should have been promptly signed with the British. But the confrontation in Sydney in 1788 was one of the most difficult in recorded history. The people who had just invented the steam engine were face-to-face with people, who, though rich in many branches of knowledge, could not boil water. The two peoples, face-to-face, had contrasting concepts of ownership, family, land, technology, territory, and death.How could they negotiate a treaty that both sides would understand? Moreover, a treaty signed by a “nation” living near Sydney Harbour had no relevance or authority for a “nation” living near Canberra. In 1788 the Aborigines were bound to be the losers. This is the real cause of the persistent sense of injustice.Ten thousand years ago all the peoples of the world — your ancestors and mine — were hunters and gatherers, but territory by territory they were replaced by stronger groups who were farmers and herd-keepers, who had stronger chieftains and raised well -equipped armies. By 1788 Australia, the last of the vast homelands of the hunters and gatherers, was in the line of fire. That it was divided into several hundred “nations” hastened its demise.Then followed a long era when Aborigines suffered. Their population declined, many of their freedoms faded, their culture was shaken. Thousands were killed by Europeans, though the death toll through infectious diseases was far, far larger. It has to be said that daily life for a host of new Australians was also extremely difficult in some of these decades — until the welfare state arrived.The Torres Strait Islanders had their own experience. With a gardening way of life very different to that of Aborigines, they were enticed into Australia’s realm by missionaries in 1871. They did not call it Invasion Day. They called it the Coming of the Light.Sections of the media, universities and schools exaggerate the bad news. This is a powerful ingredient in the present criticism of Australia Day. These critics, putting on their black armbands, now imagine that before 1788 the Aborigines lived in a kind of paradise, from which later they were brutally and deliberately expelled.Aboriginal life did have many virtues, and from the 1950s Australian archeologists, anthropologists, prehistorians and others rediscovered them. The nation owes them a debt. But the extreme concept of a paradise, wholesome and more spiritual than Australia today, has also won converts. They depict Aborigines as living in peace and harmony with one ­another and with nature. But the evidence, globally, is that these traditional societies suffered through warfare and that little children and women were often the victims. Massacres of Aborigines by Aborigines, however, are unlikely to find their way into the main textbooks. Their extinction of native fauna will rarely interrupt a school lesson.For Aborigines — they did not usually hoard food — the devastation of a drought was deadly. In the 12th century, a dry time in much of this continent, a drought commenced in 1173 and ran for 39 years. Was the population of Australia painfully reduced by one quarter or more? A researcher will, one day, provide an estimate.It used to be said dogmatically that Aborigines would never cope with the modern world. The last half century has undermined that prejudice. They attend universities in numbers unimaginable when Charles Perkins and Margaret Valadian graduated in the mid-1960s. They are in all the professions. Their leaders’ skill in political debate is conspicuous. Even the health of a large sector of Aborigines is transformed.NSW has the largest indigenous population, and its babies have a longer expectation of life than my generation had as babies. In the far outback, where live a large minority of Aborigines, ill-health, household violence and illiteracy remain daunting problems.Most indigenous people are better off than if they had remained, generation after generation, in their old way of life. Most newcomers to Australia — and their children — are better off than if they had stayed at home. Australia Day in its low-key way recog­nises these truths.The loudest attacks on Australia Day come from those who are really attacking the legitimacy of their nation. They should ask themselves: do China, France, the US and Indonesia — with their various woes — so loudly inform the world that they lack legitimacy? To fly the flag at half mast on Australia Day is their tantrum.Geoffrey Blainey has written 39 books, mostly on Australian history.Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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