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Survival Day: reclaiming Australia’s history

Why should Australia acknowledge its bloody past on Australia Day? Firstly, this is a fundamental question of dignity.

Harry Blain
26 January 2015
Marching for recognition.

Marching for recognition. Flickr/Dutytodo. Some rights reserved.“If you want to be legalistic about it, the state of war didn’t exist” – Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, 1998.

It is hard to imagine an American president using such language to describe the violent historical confrontations between white settlers and Native Americans. Yet, this claim was the basis for John Howard’s opposition to recognising Australia’s frontier wars at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra. “I think,” Howard continued, “[the purpose of] the Australian War Memorial is to honour Aboriginal Australians and other Australians who died defending Australia.” That is, white Australia.

This year will mark the centenary of the brutal and tragic Battle of Gallipoli – a defining event in Australian national consciousness and, in the words of the historian Peter Stanley, “a symbol of Australia’s national identity, achievement and existence.” The War Memorial itself commemorates not only Gallipoli, but all Australian involvement in overseas wars – from the 16,000 troops who fought in the Boer War, to an obscure and limited role fighting the Boxer Rebellion in China, which saw six Australians die of sickness and injury – none in battle. On its website, the AWM provides a brief article on the wars that led to the conquest of the country, the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, and the deaths of at least 20,000 Aborigines and 2500 settlers. It does not mention the name of one Aboriginal resistance leader – in keeping with its refusal to formally recognise the fallen First Australians in Canberra, even as further research continually reveals the full extent of the “line of blood” that marked the country’s colonisation.

War and resistance

Though educated in Australia, I heard little of the frontier wars. In the public sphere, we heard the famous apology, in 2008, for the Stolen Generations – long overdue, after the “Bringing Them Home Report” established in 1997 that “between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970.” Kevin Rudd, however – the Prime Minister who issued the apology – refused to grant compensation or reparations to the victims, while later emphasising the importance of “moving beyond” debates about the wars fought for control of the continent itself.

There is ample evidence that the colonisation of Australia led to significant warfare. “Conflict,” writes Henry Reynolds, a leading historian of the wars, “broke out between invading settlers and resident Aborigines within a few weeks of the foundation of Sydney and was apparent on every frontier for the next 140 years.” The duration and intensity of the violence dwarfed that seen, for instance, in New Zealand’s “Maori Wars,” which “lasted 27 years and resulted in 2100 Maori deaths.”

I took two school trips to the Hawkesbury region north of Sydney, a popular destination for fishing, camping and hiking. Only last year did I learn that this was the “first front in Australia’s frontier war” – where the local Darug people sabotaged the crops of settlers who bound and tortured Darug boys, and where the Acting Governor of New South Wales was forced to order a military crackdown in 1795.

Further north, the Hunter Valley provides a popular retreat where Sydneysiders can spend a weekend away from the busy city, go wine tasting and ride in hot air balloons. It is little known that this was a region where, after escalating violence, the Governor warned in 1826 of the possibility that “no longer fearing the Settlers, the Natives will renew their depredations,” leading him to arm the settlers and encourage them to terrorise the Indigenous population into submission.

Examples like this abound across the vast continent. As John Pilger points out, Rottnest Island – “an idyllic retreat” off the coast of Western Australia – was, in fact, a brutal prison for Aborigines from 1838 to 1931, incarcerating over 3700 men and boys. Again, few white Australians know the history of such places – nor, I imagine, would they want to know.

Why does it matter?

Why should Australia acknowledge its bloody past? Firstly, this is a fundamental question of dignity. Paul Keating, one of the rare Prime Ministers to recognise this, put it clearly in his much-celebrated Redfern Speech. “Imagine,” he said to the crowd, “if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight.” These words, spoken in 1992, provided hope for the creation of a truly shared history, and, perhaps a shared nation.

Australia’s current political leaders are less inspiring. Christopher Pyne, the current Education Minister, wrote to Prince William in 2011 requesting assistance finding the lost skull of the great Indigenous resistance leader, Pemulwuy – “a hero for modern day Indigenous Australians and a rare example of recorded Aboriginal resistance.” The request itself is of course welcome, but the added patronising – and historically inaccurate – claim of “a rare example” indicates a continual refusal to accept the realities of the country’s settlement, typical of a minister who has since argued for school curriculums to place more emphasis on “the benefits of western civilisation” and arranged a national education review co-chaired by a commentator known for his attacks on history lessons “uncritically promoting diversity” at the expense of “Judeo-Christian values.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister himself, notwithstanding his claim to be “the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australia,” seemed to forget the existence of Indigenous Australians during his speech in August last year. He stated: “I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or scarcely settled great south land.” Perhaps Mr Abbott still believes in the legal and historical fiction of terra nullius – land belonging to no one – established at the time of British settlement and upheld, embarrassingly, until the High Court struck it down in 1992.

The heroes we forget

How can white Australia expect “reconciliation” when it fails to recognise the history and resistance of the original custodians of the land? “Australia Day,” January 26, lives on as a day of immense national pride and celebration – even though it marks the arrival of an invading British fleet in 1788.

This year, the Gallipoli centenary will likely add a measure of militarism to the events. We will honour the heroes who fell fighting abroad for the British Empire – but not those who fought to defend their land from colonisation, and whose culture has lived on, despite massive upheaval and destruction, and continuing horrors like deaths in custody and a highly intrusive federal government “intervention.”

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, January 26 will mark “Survival Day.” They will not forget the history of what is, after all, their land. It is a disgrace that white Australia has failed to confront its past – that its memorial to national heroes remains obstinate and forgetful; that it fumes at the spectre of “illegal immigration” while living prosperously on land that was stolen, never ceded; and that it hides its historical and current injustices from the world.

No common nationhood can honestly be forged against this backdrop of silence and denial.

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