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Posts tagged ‘First Fleet’

Lost to History

Nine-year-old John Hudson narrowly escaped death by hanging, for stealing a few household items, to become the youngest convict at the time of sentencing and one of thirty-four children to arrive in Sydney on the First Fleet. In 1788 when John, now thirteen, arrived in Australia along with more than 700 other felons, approximately 250 Aboriginal languages each with different dialects reverberated across our vast continent.

Along with the convicts and their jailers, the First Fleet brought a new language to the land; a language that evolved into Australian English. It is a rich language enhanced by colloquialisms, such as ‘a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’. Australian English developed under the influence of the convicts giving us words like ‘fair dinkum’, ‘chook’ and ‘brumby’, as well as Aboriginal languages which gave us words such as ‘budgerigar’, ‘yabber’ and ‘billabong’ .

For me, it is a tragedy that the original languages of the land are no longer spoken and sung across the continent. Modern Australia would be far more auroral if it were ablaze with the languages of the many Aboriginal tribes of Ancient Australia.

When my two young nieces, who are mixed-race Aboriginal girls, recently stayed with me for a weekend, the seven-year-old and I explored the Italian language together. (I am learning Italian as an adult and she is learning it at school.) As we enjoyed making this connection through a foreign language, I experienced a sense of sadness that we weren’t also able to enjoy exploring the language of her Aboriginal ancestors. From the whitefella side of her family (and from the wider community) she has inherited and learned the language of English. But the language of the blackfella side of her family has disappeared.

Just as Aboriginal languages were lost to history, so too was young John Hudson. The last known record of him is that on 15 February 1791, he received 50 lashes ‘for been out of his hutt after nine oClock.’

It occurred to me that perhaps my nieces and nephews, through the loss of the language of their Aboriginal ancestors, have also lost a connection to ancestral memories. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a heartbreaking possibility.

As my mother used to say, ‘it’s no use crying over spilt milk’ but I can’t help imagining an Australia where all Australians grow up speaking the local Aboriginal language as their second (or even first) language. Instead of struggling with the mandatory and irrelevant French I studied at school, I could have learned from the Kurnai language of my local area that the pelican is called ‘boorun’ and the Southern Cross is known as ‘Ngooran’. Speaking their language would have been a powerful way to demonstrate respect for the Kurnai people, as well as creating deeper bonds between the whitefella tribe and the blackfella tribe. Colonialism robbed not only Aboriginal Australians but all Australians, of the opportunity to know the first languages of our homeland.

It’s long been a dream of mine to see Aboriginal languages taught in schools as a mainstream subject for ALL students. I thought it was an impossible dream but it’s exciting to know that more is being done now by the Education Department and other agencies to revive and teach Aboriginal languages. Some schools have already implemented Aboriginal language instruction. So there is hope for my dream to be realised.

And perhaps one day, maybe when a descendant is researching their family history, John Hudson’s story will also be dragged out of the depths of history.

Glossary:

billabong: a dry section of a river that fills when the river overflows

brumby: a wild horse

budgerigar: a small parrot

chook: a hen

kangaroo loose in the top paddock: to be mentally deficient

Kurnai: title of the tribe that inhabited Gippsland

yabber: to chat or rabbit on

References:

Robert Holden, Orphans of History: The Forgotten Children of the First Fleet, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc.

Thomas Keneally, A Commonwealth of Thieves, Anchor Books, New York, 2007

https://firstfleetfellowship.org.au/convicts/john-hudson/

Kurnai Language Glossary from Wurruk by Vaughan Nikitin

 

Invasion? Please don’t insult me.

As a convict descendant I find the claims that January 26th represents an invasion of Australia downright insulting. Such a claim implies that the convicts of the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip who were forcibly transported from England invaded this continent.

To claim invasion denies the suffering of those convicts who were confined to a space of 18 inches by 6 feet on crowded ships for almost nine months on a journey over 24 000 kilometres of ocean (not to mention what happened to them before getting on the ships). We’re talking about people who had no desire to inhabit ‘New Holland’ and who were forced to survive for the most part ‘on flapjacks and desiccated salted beef’ and had to cope with sea sickness, diarrhoea, abuse and more.

Claiming ‘Invasion’ not only denies the suffering of the convicts but also the gruelling work they put in after they were forced to live here; the hard labour it took to build new lives, to build the infrastructure for Modern Australia which began on 26 January 1788. Unfortunately, people like Greens leader Richard Di Natale don’t care about that. Without a thought for the convicts or one iota of respect for their descendants, he’s interested only in manipulating emotions and scoring political points by screaming: INVASION!

Not only is it an insult to the convicts and their descendants, but falsely claiming January 26th marked an invasion of the continent is also an insult to Governor Phillip who faithfully followed the Crown’s instructions to ‘open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections’. Even after receiving a serious injury when speared by an Aboriginal warrior, Phillip refused to retaliate and continued to try to maintain friendly relations. Hardly the actions of an invader!

January 26th marks the beginning of Modern Australia which has evolved into the fantastic country we have today. That is worth celebrating. Those who clamour for a change of date seem to be not only ignorant of historical facts and disrespectful to Australians who are convict descendants but also indifferent of the ramifications for Aboriginal people who will surely be subject to resentment (or worse) if they are seen as the reason for changing a date that has become so popular with the general public.

Why not consider a more inclusive solution? There is no reason why Australia Day can’t be a day of celebration AND reflection. A day when we can reflect on what happened to Aboriginal nations after the arrival of the First Fleet and celebrate what has been achieved by Aboriginal people in recent times. A day to reflect on what happened to those who were transported here and celebrate what they achieved. And a day to celebrate what we have all achieved together to make Australia what she is today. I reckon that’d be deadly! 🙂

One more thing. Since so many Australians seem to be uninformed about those who laid the foundations for Modern Australia, perhaps a brief look at what brought them here is appropriate.

Many of the convicts on the First Fleet and the convicts that came after them were decent hardworking people who had been forced to break the law because England’s new Enclosures Acts had driven them off the common land their families had worked for centuries and into the cities in the hope of finding work.

Furthermore, the New Transportation Act 1780 meant that Britain had the power to transport people for such minor offences as ‘stealing cloth from the rack’ (the sin of one of my convict ancestors), not paying excise tax, ‘killing or wounding any deer without the consent of the owner’, or for attending a meeting of Quakers. Nine-year-old orphan John Hudson was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for breaking into a residence and stealing several items of clothing and a pistol. Nine years old! Mary Wade was only eleven when, before her sentence was commuted to transportation, she was sentenced ‘to be hanged by the neck till she be dead’ for stealing a few items of clothing from another girl.

All this was happening in a society that had no police force, where the possibility that confessions were beaten out of people was very real and where witnesses were not always truthful. The real ‘crime’ of a servant girl accused of stealing might have been that she rebuffed her employer’s inappropriate advances. They were harsh times and the exiles to Australia had no idea that many of them would end up creating good lives for themselves in the distant, frightening land on the other side of the world.

Ref:

The Commonwealth of Thieves by Tom Keneally

Mary Wade to Us :A Family History 1788 – 1986

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