Graphic by Alistair Blacklock/The Gazelle
On Jan. 26, 1788, the First Fleet planted the Union Jack on the shore of Botany Bay, on the east coast of Australia. It marked the founding of the British Colony that quickly established itself on the great terra nullius, the vacant land, down under. This Sunday, on the 226th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet, Australians will gather around the country to celebrate Australia Day and the nation that we’ve become.
The only problem is that the First Fleet didn’t stick their flag into a terra nullius but into a land inhabited by indigenous peoples whose ancestry dates back more than 60,000 years. Out of that initial act, a bloody and unrelenting barrage of murder, conquest, oppression and cultural annihilation followed.
Too often we shrug off these realities as being in the past, but this history continues to define the Australia we live in today. The fact that indigenous Australians have a life expectancy 10 years shorter
than that of non-indigenous Australians, the fact that one in four indigenous Australians have been incarcerated and the fact that unemployment for indigenous Australians is almost three times
that of all other Australians are not incidental. These great injustices that shame our nation were born of that history. The fact that we still celebrate Australia Day on such a divisive day as Jan. 26 shows that, as a nation, we Australians have yet to come to terms with anything that looks like reconciliation.
The Australia Day celebration is no isolated incident. Instead, it is symptomatic of the ways in which indigenous Australians are institutionally neglected, culturally disregarded and systematically ignored. Time and time again, indigenous Australians are left out of the national project. Time and time again, the nationalisms that define my country — the flag, the national day, the constitution — are steeped in an asymmetrical historical account that ignores our indigenous population. These symbolisms reaffirm a narrative that Australia only came into being when the First Fleet anchored in Botany Bay, entirely alienating and neglecting tens of thousands of years of indigenous history.
In 2008, when Kevin Rudd offered a national apology to the Stolen Generation, it was a watershed moment for Australia. It felt like a moment that might catalyse change, a moment in which Australia might finally move forward, towards a collective reconciliation. Yet days celebrations like Australia Day show just how engrained the prejudice towards indigenous Australians is in our national psyche.
A recent incident, in which t-shirts with the slogan “Australia est. 1788” were printed and sold around the country in preparation for Australia Day, hit a nerve. The t-shirts were deemed “offensive” and “racist”
and were quickly withdrawn from the shelves, yet the celebration of our national day on the anniversary of the Jan. 26, 1788 is really no different.
The point is not to rewrite or erase our history. Instead, it is a way of making our national historical narrative more complete. Australians must recognise that, though our history is embellished by economic prosperity, wartime heroics, sporting might and progressive voting rights, it is also marred by the original colonial venture that began on the Jan. 26, 1788. Our history must recognise the past of mass killings, a generation of children stolen from their parents and a constitution that listed Australian Indigenous people as flora and fauna until 1967
The point is also not to ask Australians to repent or to imagine an Australia without the British but to push for a day that is more inclusive of all and that can celebrate national unity around an identity that we can all be proud of and part of.
Changing the date of Australia Day will not lift communities out of poverty, nor will it address rates of incarceration of Aborigines. For the many tired of the rhetoric of change, a mere change of date may seem to be another tokenistic gesture. However, if you recognise the importance of words, of symbolism and of the performance of national belonging, then it may fundamentally shift the ways in which we celebrate our past and our identity, and that is worth fighting for.
When you go to raise your flag this Sunday, Jan. 26, spare a thought for communities around Australia that are marking the 226th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet as Survival Day.