“For years we have walked on a one way street to learn the white man’s way. Now is the time for you to come closer to understand us.” I agree with Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann who spoke these words on 26 January 2021 when accepting her Australia Day Award.
How wonderful it would be if all Australians learned the languages, stories and songs of our first peoples. How mind boggling it would be if all Australian school children had the opportunity to learn to speak the Aboriginal language local to their area.
However, human nature being what it is, the process of coming closer on a national scale will take time, patience and compromise.
One of the major issues that increases the distance between whitefellas and blackfellas is the campaign to change the date of Australia Day celebrations on the basis of January 26, 1788 being Invasion Day. Using this term is inflammatory because it evokes images of an invasion i.e. armed troops marching en masse in the manner of the Roman invasion of Britain under Julius Caesar. I know there are nuances in the meaning of the word ‘invasion’ but given the era and the context, this is the obvious image it portrays. Many whitefellas see the use of the word as a deliberate ploy to twist the facts. As a result, new resentment against Aboriginal people is born in some whitefellas and existing resentment is deepened in others.
From the Aboriginal perspective, resentment toward whitefellas is deepened because of the resistance to the change of date.
Thus a bed of resentment grows where harmony cannot flourish.
So what happened in New South Wales on 26 January 1788?
On 25 January that year HMS Supply, the smallest and fastest ship in the First Fleet, brought a landing party, which included ‘a number of marines and reliable convicts’, into Sydney Cove.
‘The first night at Sydney Cove was spent on board the ships, but the next day, 26 January, there were scenes of unprecedented activity in the little inlet. In one place, said Tench, was a party cutting down the woods, while elsewhere another group set up a blacksmith’s forge. Soldiers pitched officers’ marquees, while a detachment of troops paraded in bright sunlight and cooks lit fires.’
Several paragraphs later in Thomas Keneally’s A Commonwealth of Thieves we learn that, ‘The disembarkation of the bulk of the troops and some male convicts occurred the next day…’
Some whitefellas wonder why January 26, 1788 has been targeted as the turning point for the change in circumstances for Australian Aboriginal peoples when the seed for British colonisation of the continent was first planted on 29 April 1770. This was the day Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook arrived in Botany Bay on the Endeavour.
After a failed attempt to communicate with the people on the shore, he twice fired a ‘Musquet load with small shott’ before eventually going ashore in search of fresh water.
Cook’s landing ‘…is symbolic because it portended the end of our cultural dominion over our lands.’ (Dr Shayne T. Williams, Ph.D, Aboriginal language and culture consultant at the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, Inc., and granddaughter of two ‘proud Dharawal women’)
Several months after this, on 22 August 1770, Cook ‘in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took posession (sic) of the whole Eastern Coast’.
While I can see that the 26th January was chosen for Australia Day from the perspective of whitefella history without due consideration for the first peoples, I can also understand why claiming that date was Invasion Day raises the hackles of many whitefellas – even those who would otherwise be reasonable and potentially sympathetic to the Aboriginal perspective. As a convict descendant I find the term offensive because it creates an image that denies what happened to the convicts.
This issue will continue to divide whitefellas and blackfellas and therefore prevent the development of kinship unless it is handled differently.
Perhaps what is needed is a funded national campaign to calmly explain, without anger, hysteria or demands, the reasons why Aboriginal peoples object to celebrating Australia Day on January 26th. I suppose that’s too much to hope for.
JB (For a free murder mystery from Brigid George CLICK HERE!)
Thomas Keneally. A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia (Kindle Location 1289). Anchor. Kindle Edition.