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Australia Day 2017

By Bob Ryan - posted Thursday, 5 January 2017

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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