Australians have been reflecting on what Australia Day means, and whether the date should change out of respect for our First Nations People. Here, we explore the history of Australia Day, as our contribution to this conversation.
In the beginning
People have lived on the continent of Australia for at least the last 50,000, arriving shortly after the migration of modern humans out of Africa. By comparison, the roots of European civilisation began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East, with the advent of modern agriculture.
People settled throughout Australia within several thousand years of arrival. More than 250 different languages arose across the continent, with culture based on kinship and familial responsibilities, and management of local animals and plants as food resources. In this system, rather than individuals owning parcels of land (as in the modern European system), family groups are responsible for managing the flora and fauna in specific areas. This responsibility is inherited, and taught to children from an early age. Culture is shared and passed on through ancestor stories, songs, dance and ceremonies, as well as paintings and symbols, that are inherently linked to the geography and ecology of place.
The impact of European arrival
Dutch explorers arrived at Australian shores in the early 17th century. However it was Captain James Cook's voyage in 1770, that documented the east coast of the predicted great southern continent, which facilitated the British claim to Australia. There were several political drivers for the British to start a new colony in Australia, including economic gain (ie supply of agricultural products, particularly flax), relieving the glut of prisoners held in prisons and hulks, and political expediency in the face of Dutch, Spanish and French naval power.
On 26th January, 1788, Captain Arthur Philip landed on the shore of Australia and established the colony of New South Wales. The First Fleet comprised 11 ships, of which 6 were convict ships. The first Australians and Europeans came in contact immediately, and although the British had intended to maintain positive relations, fighting soon broke out. Land was quickly occupied, cleared, and houses and farms were developed. The British brought guns and diseases, and dispossessed the First Nations people from their lands and cultural ties, killing substantial numbers of people.
Clearly, the purpose of British arrival in Australia was to take possession of land for their exclusive use, and equated to invasion. There were no treaties in place for the land that was taken. This "settler colonialism" occurred with little regard for the people already living there or their culture. It was based on a well-entrenched European sense of natural law - the superiority of European civilisation - which was primarily based on technological advancement and the accumulated wealth of European empires. It also occurred in the context of a European class system that had little regard for those perceived as lesser human beings.
The British colonies in Australia quickly grew, and involved (at minimum) dozens of massacres of First Nations people. Prior to colonisation, there were an estimated 300,000-800,000 people living in Australia, but by 1930, the number of First Nations people was estimated to be reduced to around 10%. The British generally felt that the first Australians would not survive colonisation, in what was arguably a thinly-veiled, systematic genocide that occurred over several decades. (Of note, the term "genocide" was not coined until 1944, in relation to the Holocaust.)
From the late 19th century, British governments and missionaries began to undertake so-called assimilation and protection programs for our First Nations people. However this ultimately led to further dispossession from traditional lands, and removal of children from their families. The generations of children stolen from their families lost connection with their culture, language and country, as well as family support and kinship ties.
Recognition and reconciliation
The road to reconciliation (or really conciliation) has been long and arduous, and is not nearly completed. The rights of First Nations people to vote in federal elections, the national apology to the Stolen Generations, and land rights rulings such as Mabo v Queensland, have been unimaginably hard won, and really reflect the suffering inflicted by colonisation on our First Nations people.
Current debates include whether to recognise our First Nations people in the Australian constitution, and have a Voice to Parliament, as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is symptomatic of the ongoing inequality of our First Nations people within Australia, from levels of poverty and incarceration to health and education, as evidenced by the Close the Gap campaign.
It is easy for those of us who have benefited from British colonisation to ignore that we walk on a land that is home to a separate, vibrant culture of people who thrived from their intimate knowledge of the land, and their own technology for sustainable food production and land management. The families of non-indigenous Australians have lived in this country for only a speck of time compared with our First Nations people. They never ceded sovereignty over their traditional lands, and it's time for Australia to embrace the difficult, complex conversations that we need to have with our First Nations people.
As women of the Goddess, the Gaia Temple stands with all First Nations people, in their struggle for recognition and sovereignty. Social justice is not just equal opportunity, it is empowerment of every human being to fully live their lives, with whatever resources they need. We respect that people will have different views, and look forward to constructive (not defensive or vindictive) debate.
The 26th of January is a highly significant date in the history of all Australians. Let's recognise what it means to all Australians and respectfully discuss how we will move forward, together.
Arrival of people in Australia (The Conversation)
The Biggest Estate on Earth (The Conversation)