The absurd contradiction of January 26 has been displayed vividly today as Aboriginal activists and their supporters have taken to the streets across the country, and meanwhile shirtless white idiots have emerged into parks and beaches to wave flags and sink tinnies of VB.
More than 3000 protesters, including hundreds of Aboriginal people young and old, gathered in Sydney to march from The Block in Redfern to Town Hall station, chanting “Always was, always will be – Aboriginal land!” and occupying intersections along the way. Aboriginal speakers highlighted a range of issues, from the historical basis of modern Australia in violent colonisation to present struggles over remote community closures, mining, land rights, astonishing rates of Aboriginal incarceration, Aboriginal deaths in custody, lack of access to housing, health and jobs, and the continuing removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Among the speakers was Aunty Jenny Munro, leader of last year’s Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy which successfully campaigned for affordable Aboriginal housing in the inner city. The size of today’s protests is a reflection of the momentum that has been building since the Embassy’s victory last September.
Meanwhile, in one of the most offensive displays of hegemonic nationalism, an annual re-enactment of the 1788 landing of the First Fleet took place across the harbour at Balmoral. The Daily Telegraph’s “Ultimate guide to celebrations” for Australia Day advertises the gathering as “one of the most creative events of the day” and seems to promise a day of “beach fun” for the whole family.
Events like these construct a particular version of our history – one in which the continent was unknown before Europeans laid eyes on it, and uninhabited before Europeans settled here. This erases more than 60,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, and provides the ideological underpinnings for a structural racism which continues to pervade every part of Australian settler society.
Of course, many Aboriginal people see Australia Day as a tragic day, preferring to refer to it as Invasion Day or Survival Day. I asked Uncle Ken Canning, from the Kunja clan of the Bidjara people and a stalwart of the Aboriginal justice movement in Sydney, what such an event means to him. He told me that “Invasion day is the start of the wars that were waged on every Tribal nation in this country and has yet to be resolved.”Uncle Ken asks non-Aboriginal people to walk a mile in his people’s shoes, saying “What if a group of us took over a Sydney suburb, say Marrickville, murdered most of the people, claimed ownership of that suburb, committed centuries of atrocities and then to make matters worse, celebrate the whole thing over and over again. It is horrendous.”
Georgia Mantle, one of the Indigenous Officers at the University of Sydney (and one of the activists responsible for a recent campaign which successfully removed a racist video game in which the player was encouraged to kill Aboriginal people), belongs to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who were the first to suffer under the British invasion. She finds it “sickening” that people would turn this deeply traumatic event for her people into a celebration, and reminds non-Aboriginal people that “my ancestors and the people of the Eora nation were slaughtered and raped” and that “to celebrate that in anyway is disgusting and inhumane”.
Uncle Ken urges non-Aboriginal people to “research their own history and find out exactly what the British did in this country”. So, I did some digging. Naval Lieutenant Watkin Tench, in his 1789 and 1793 accounts of the settlement in Sydney, describes how relationships between British and Eora were initially friendly, with Aboriginal people showing the newcomers where to find water, food and shelter. However, relationships began to sour as the British intention of conquest became clear. The British cleared large tracts of land, trawled the harbour for fish, and hunted kangaroos on a large scale. As Eora people lost access to their resources, they began to actively resist any further encroachment of the settlement on their traditional territory. Many Eora attacks were also direct responses to the barbaric behaviour of settlers and convicts, some of whom Tench describes as having a taste for raping and murdering Aboriginal people.
Even supposedly enlightened, educated settlers like Tench could not conceive of Aboriginal people as their equals, and though he sometimes expresses pity for the Eora as he describes their treatment, he clearly sees their subjugation as inevitable and justifiable. By 1789 there was open warfare between Aboriginal people and the British invaders, with Tench expressing serious concerns for the future of the colony given the lack of military manpower. At this critical point, a smallpox epidemic killed more than half of the Eora, and a historical debate continues to rage about whether or not it was deliberately introduced. Undoubtedly the colony benefited, and this pattern of violence and dispossession was then repeated throughout the next 150 years as the British settled over the entire continent.
While January 26th symbolises this brutal historical reality, it also represents 228 years of Aboriginal resistance and protest. The first national Aboriginal organisation, the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), was formed by seminal Aboriginal activists like Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and Margaret Tucker in 1938 to organise a “Day of Mourning” on January 26th of that year. They declared:
“We, representing the Aborigines of Australia…on the 150th Anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people…and we appeal to the Australian nation of today…for full citizen status and equality within the community.” Today’s protest in Sydney paid homage to the legacy of these activists, marching in silence from Town Hall to Australia Hall on Elizabeth St and listening as the original APA proclamation from 78 years ago was read out.
At that time, Aboriginal people could not vote in elections or hold public office, and were barred from entry to schools, pubs, pools, parks and other public places. Aboriginal children were routinely taken from their families and placed in institutions, and Aboriginal families punished for speaking their languages and practicing their culture. The Aborigines Protection Board (APB) was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal people in NSW, and had almost total control over Aboriginal lives. Aboriginal people required special “exemption” certificates to be free of APB restrictions on where they could live, what kind of work they could do and who they could marry. These restrictions were still in place until the 1960s, when a national Aboriginal civil rights movement, supported by trade unionists and students, successfuly campaigned to give Aboriginal people citizenship.
In 1938, the official January 26th celebrations included a re-enactment of the landing in Sydney Cove, in which Aboriginal people were brought in off missions in Western NSW and forced to participate. Before and after the performance they were imprisoned in police barracks. Such re-enactments remained common until 1988, when large Aboriginal protests on the 200th anniversary of the invasion redefined Australia Day as Invasion Day.
Young activists like Georgia Mantle continue in this tradition of resistance, arguing that “the so called birth of this nation is nothing to be proud of” and that non-Aboriginal people “need to face the realities of colonisation.” The fact that a re-enactment of the invasion can occur is an indictment on modern Australia and a symptom of a deep alienation of most of our society from the reality of our history. Such events shows how far we need to go to achieve justice in this country. Non-Aboriginal people should show respect for the original and rightful custodians of this land by attending one of the many Aboriginal events on this day, and use the occasion as an opportunity to reflect on our place here on Aboriginal country.
History shows that justice can only be achieved when diverse groups stand together with Aboriginal people, forming a national social movement agitating for change. Students, unions, environmentalists and others must unite behind Aboriginal people in demanding that Aboriginal sovereignty be recognised, and that treaties be negotiated between settler society and every Aboriginal nation across this continent as the legal basis for a just future here.
Some suggestions for further reading for anybody interested:
Heather Goodall – Invasion to Embassy
Heather Goodall & Alison Cadzow – Rivers and Resilience
Bruce Pascoe – Dark Emu
Any of Henry Reynolds’ books
Kevin Gilbert – Because A White Man’ll Never Do It