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Australia Day 2017

By Bob Ryan - posted Thursday, 5 January 2017

It is unfortunate that, when reasonable Australians strive to unite us all as a nation, there still persists an objection to celebrating January the 26th as Australia Day. It is especially sad when compared to the gracious invitations Australians now receive to play cricket and football on Aborigines’ tribal lands such as the MCG and SCG.

But why do some call for a "Day of Mourning" or a "Survival Day", when the indigenous elders’ speeches of welcome reflect a healing of past injuries? If the commemorative day is misplaced, I would suggest we change it to February the 7th when, on that Sunday in 1788, King George III’s viceroy, Arthur Phillip read the royal proclamation to the First Fleeters assembled ashore at Sydney Cove. But that is a quibble compared to the real point, which is: many indigenous Australians still feel rightly aggrieved by the takeover of their country and what has happened to their land and so many of their people in the 229 years since. There is no suggestion that we ignore the uncomfortable facts: quite the reverse, we must address them and “bind up the nation’s wounds”.

It is important to keep in mind that England believed it was doing the right and humane thing in sending convicts to Botany Bay. True, the consequence of the First Fleet’s landing was the settlement of native lands; that, unquestionably, was England’s intention in the context of its time, which we now accept as having been misguided. Surely, the Mabo judgment on terra nullius settled that.


However, some of the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) preferred words and terms that comprise its indigenous lexicon smack of keeping the wounds open and could be read as pandering to the Aborigines, instead of engaging in open-minded discourse. UNSW, for example, prefers to call the English arrival invasion but does not find colonisation and occupation objectionable; settlement won’t do.

Further, some of the language is an affront to researchers and anthropologists who seek the truth. For example UNSW states it is wrong to say that Aboriginal settlement of Australia began “40,000 years ago” because that “puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions”. We should say, instead, that indigenous Australians have been here “since the beginning of The Dreamings”. First, anthropologistsare flexible about the time scale; for example, the Malakunanja II rock shelter in Arnhem Land has been dated to around 55,000 years. Second, it is pertinent to question when The Dreamings began. (UNSW should be careful not tobe seen as dogmatic.)

Anyway, these matters have been considered elsewhere, so I leave that part of the argument and offer some thoughts on the occupation and settlement of New South Wales as can be deduced from the records, and why January the 26th should remain Australia Day.

To begin: It can be reasonably argued that, had Captain Cook not arrived in 1770, seafarers from any other nation would have eventually bumped into and settled on Australia’s east coast; it was just a matter of time. As chance would have it, the discoverer (UNSW = mapmaker) was English, thus the blame for indigenous ills falls to the invading English.

On the word "invasion": had England really wanted to invade Australia, in the worst sense of that word, it might have done so at any time between 1771 (after Cook arrived home claiming New South Wales for England) and 1786, when preparations for the First Fleet were being made. In the space of those 15 years, there was no attempt to invade or occupy any land that lay between the south cape of Tasmania and Possession Island off the tip of Cape York, nor eastward to the 135th meridian of longitude (near Port Lincoln). This would indicate that England sought no new worlds to conquer; Cook claimed possession but England did not occupy.

As to those who did arrive in 1788, none among them liked being at Sydney Cove; for the government officials and military, it was their duty; they were every bit the prisoners that the convicts were. In one way and another, all had been removed from their English homes; the better off being the most deprived by their change of domicile, the poorer at least had some sunshine to warm them and no winter frost to endure. Trees gave no shade; meat was infested with maggots within minutes; caterpillars ate what crops survived the dry season. Is it any wonder the pommies whinged!


The fact is, in the 1770s England had its hands full of troubles elsewhere, especially in North America. Having bested the French in Canada (1758-1761), and the Spanish in the West Indies in 1762, England created a new enemy - its own people - by imposing a tax that the American colonists refused to pay. This eventually led to the American War of Independence, which the colonists won, and England lost among other things, a place to which convicts could be transported.

Meanwhile, in England, the Societies for Reformation of Manners (SRM) had expanded to become a number of separate groups, which were an influential force in national policy-making. Among their number were the Bettering Society, the Christian Influence Society and the Clapham Sect. (Henceforth the Betterers, except where any particular reference is necessary.) As Michael Mason observed: “The full range of Anglican Evangelical philanthropy and proselytizing involved scores of organizations and for many of these philanthropy was the exclusive project”.

During the half-century (1690-1740) in which the SRM flourished, over 100,000 prosecutions for moral offences came before the courts. Many were new offences, which required the regular updating of criminal law such that by the 1770s the list of crimes deserving of capital punishment had grown to more than 150. But those groups were, one might say, small beer, compared to the Betterers who formed The Society for the Suppression of Vice (the Vice Society), which operated primarily as prosecutors, targeting everything it considered unholy or indecent, in a range from trading on Sunday, to public urination.

Thus, while George III’s army and navy were fighting the American colonists 1775-1782, England was undergoing what in modern parlance would likely be termed a war on immoral and irreligious activity. It was not enough that England’s poor were being tried for offences against persons and property, they were also held to account for offences against Christian morality. As the numbers of those charged increased, many prosecutors and judges, in their own official ways, shied away from taking a person’s life (man, woman or child) for a capital offence and, instead, sentenced the accused to terms of imprisonment. (For example, stealing goods to the value of 40 shillings was a capital offence, but a prosecutor might advise the judge that a theft amounting to twice that value was worth only 39 shillings.) The result of the increase in non-capital sentences led to what the Betterers perceived as the inhumane overcrowding of jails. This was so even before the American colonies were lost to England.

Post-1783, the Betterers saw an opportunity to alleviate the situation by creating a settlement at Botany Bay, where the air was clean and living conditions healthy. It was thought that by bettering the physical condition, the soul, made in God’s image and likeness, would also be bettered. There was no question but that the convicts, through learning, would be turned from their immoral and criminal ways. That kind of reasoning led to arrangements for a preacher (the Rev. Richard Johnson) and a library of bettering books to be included among the First Fleet’s cargo to Botany Bay. Mackaness provides these details:

Though food, water, clothing and other essentials might possibly be lacking on the voyage, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, at Johnson’s request, provided an ample supply of religious reading matter—4,200 books in all—sufficient to allow each of the 700-odd convicts embarked to borrow six at a time. In addition to Bibles, Testaments, Prayer-books and Catechisms, the convicts—the few who could read—must have been edified by finding on board 200 copies of Exercises Against Lying, 50 Woodward’s Caution to Swearers, 100 Exhortations to Chastity, and 100 White’s Dissuasion from Stealing.

The books appeared to be no help at all and moral correction failed. Any study of Australia’s early settlement history would disclose, not only the convicts, but also the marines, lied, swore, fornicated and stole.

All of this is by way of demonstrating that whatever one wants to make of the "invasion" of Australia, the First Fleet was clearly not part of a plan to take possession by killing the native population (as the Spaniards had done in Central America). Furthermore, Governor Phillip’s commission enjoined him to treat the natives kindly and fairly. That events turned out otherwise and atrocities and humiliations were inflicted on Australia’s indigenous peoples in the two centuries that followed in no way represents England’s intentions of 1788.

On the second point of argument, suppose the Spanish had landed and occupied eastern Australia long before Cook’s first officer, Lt. Zachary Hicks, spotted the mainland on April 19th 1770. What if, in September 1606, Luis Vaez de Torres, made sail from Isla de los Perros and continued down the Queensland Coast and farther? If one judges by how Cortez’ men eventually exterminated the Aztecs, there might be some relief that a Spanish conquistador of his ilk didn’t land at Botany Bay.

The fact is, taken in the context of its time, the landing of foreigners in any part of the world could not have been more civil than that of the First Fleet; there was no overt aggression, no destruction of native habitations, no interference with native women and children, as had been occasioned elsewhere. Suppose, however, that Phillip had wanted to ask permission to land and set up a camp: Who would he have asked? There was no immediately apparent leader; indigenous peoples were not a nation but some thousands of small tribes, often warring one with another, possessive of their territory to the point where they would kill intruders.

For the invasion argument to succeed, we must answer a couple of interesting questions in the context of our time: Do the indigenous peoples think of the migrants who arrive daily and occupy their tribal lands as invaders? What is to be done with the millions of invaders’ descendants, who, while not indigenous, are nonetheless native-born Australians? Is it to be the case that, without express permission to remain, all non-indigenes are invaders?

As we cannot unpick history and re-assemble it to suit our desires or beliefs, I would suggest that such rhetoric and the examination of the painful past is only helpful if it leads to a better understanding of the present so that, in admitting to the wrongs done, there might be some hope of “a just and lasting peace” between the indigenous peoples and others who would call themselves Australian.

On January the 26th I trust there will be speeches in different parts of Australia, delivered by Aboriginal elders, that will welcome and invite us all to play cricket on their lands, and enjoy our national day. On that day, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the indigenous peoples’ grief, loss and sadness while at the same time accepting the reality of Australia’s population as it now is: an amalgam of “tribes” who hail from more than 100 countries and collectively speak some 200 different languages.

Let the commemorative date stand and, together: Advance Australia.

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About the Author

Bob Ryan is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University; his thesis is on Censorship.

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