Australian history

I find it really perplexing that Australians find it so difficult to be honest and factual about the circumstances in which Europeans first came to the land that became known as ‘Australia.’ The latest results from ABC’s Vote Compass show a slight majority agree with the proposition that “school textbooks should refer to the arrival of European colonists in Australia as an invasion of Aboriginal lands.”

Why is this something that 44% of people disagree with? This was the state of Aboriginal Australia prior to invasion:

Map of Aboriginal language groups prior to European arrival.

Australia’s judiciary have made it very clear: when the English said that they were occupying a terra nullius, that was simply not true. Justice Brennan at paragraph 28 puts it this way:

 The proposition that, when the Crown assumed sovereignty over an Australian colony, it became the universal and absolute beneficial owner of all the land therein, invites critical examination. If the conclusion at which Stephen C.J. arrived in Attorney-General v. Brown be right, the interests of indigenous inhabitants in colonial land were extinguished so soon as British subjects settled in a colony, though the indigenous inhabitants had neither ceded their lands to the Crown nor suffered them to be taken as the spoils of conquest. According to the cases, the common law itself took from indigenous inhabitants any right to occupy their traditional land, exposed them to deprivation of the religious, cultural and economic sustenance which the land provides, vested the land effectively in the control of the Imperial authorities without any right to compensation and made the indigenous inhabitants intruders in their own homes and mendicants for a place to live. Judged by any civilized standard, such a law is unjust and its claim to be part of the common law to be applied in contemporary Australia must be questioned.

And this is the crux of it. Whenever the issue of what to call the European arrival in Australia is brought up, those eager to retain the status quo launch into a series of predictable responses:

  • “well if the English hadn’t done it, the French/Chinese/whoever would have, and wouldn’t THAT have been terrible”
  • “Aborigines were dying out anyway”
  • “Why do Aboriginals need to be so angry about this anyway? It all happened so long ago!”
  • or the occasionally more nuanced “but it was legal at the time the British did it!”

All of these statements are wrong and offensive in a number of ways.

What relevance is it to the question of invasion v settlement whether the Europeans arriving were English or French/Dutch/Chinese/whatever? That’s just an attempt to avoid discussing the topic and hoping that someone will take the bait to go down Anglo-centric “isn’t Britain wonderful” waffle.

Aboriginal peoples in Australia were definitely not “dying out” or a “failing race” prior to European arrival: this has been shown over and over again in anthropological studies. I highly recommend Lyndall Ryan‘s book which breaks down the evidence against this common racist misconception in terms of evidence about Tasmania’s Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal peoples are entitled to still be pretty angry about the invasion of their land, and it’s not just Aboriginal people who find the stubborn refusal of Australia to admit it was invaded frustrating. I find it immensely aggravating, and my ancestry is Scottish/Welsh/English, a mix of convicts and ‘settlers’ arriving from the 1800s through to the early twentieth century.

The question of legality at the time of invasion shows a more nuanced and informed push back to the idea of describing English arrival as an invasion, but it’s still factually inaccurate. Relevant international law at the time of Captain Cook and the First Fleet required European powers to attempt to reach a treaty settlement with any indigenous peoples in lands they wished to occupy and/or exploit, and we can see this is Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and the United States. The treaties might not have been particularly fair*, but they did exist. It’s just that when the British came to the question of annexing Australia into the British Empire, they couldn’t be bothered trying to make treaties with the many, diverse Aboriginal tribes they encountered and came up with this fiction of terra nullius as a way of getting around that time-consuming process. Maybe if the French and Dutch hadn’t been so close behind them on the trail to the Great Southern Land they might have made more of an effort.

But they didn’t, and so we cannot accept this assertion that the circumstances in which the British came to occupy Australia was legal at the time those decision were made.

* for instance, the Treaty of Waitangi between Aoteara’s Maōri and the British has significant differences between the Maōri and English texts, supporting modern day Maōri claims that their ancestors were conned out of their traditional lands. 

So why can’t we just say “yes. The British invaded Aboriginal lands to create modern Australia.” 

What is it about this statement that causes so many Australians to become deeply uncomfortable with a not particularly contentious historical fact? 

Nation building myths

The reason that Australians can’t deal with this historical fact comes down to the myths on which we have based our conception of our nation.

The Anglo-centric myth that adventurous Captain Cook “discovered” Australia (despite 70, 000 years of Aboriginal occupation, or earlier mapping by Dutch and French explorers) and the bold First Fleet “settled” these new lands have been drummed into Australian minds since 1788. This nation building myth is all about encouraging a view of Australia that complies with an Anglo-focused, white superiority and glossing over the claims of Aboriginal Australians about the effects of invasion and dispossession.

Australia has come a long way in recognising the problems that British and Australian government policies have caused: the Bringing Them Home report and the Apology to the Stolen Generations, the work of Reconciliation Australia to try and find a way forward for Aboriginal and European Australians, the current dialogue about constitutional recognition (however flawed and patronising that might be.)

But we can’t seem to deal with admitting that the circumstances in which our European ancestors came to be in this southern land were less than stellar. We can’t break that myth of Brave Englishmen In The New World, or Righteous Englishmen Bringing Enlightenment To The Savage Aborigine. 

And that’s a real problem that resonates today. 

It’s a paternalistic and patronising attitude that says white Australians are better qualified to organise Aboriginal Australian’s affairs because the latter are too crude or primitive to manage their own affairs. It’s the thinking the justifies the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act to the Northern Territory to allow the Intervention, which persists to this day. It’s the kind of thinking that justifies cutting funding to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and putting the funding into white-led government organisations that are disconnected from local communities and don’t actually help.

Above all, it’s an attitude that says “yeah, we as a nation of white people who control everything are totally comfortable with treating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people like dirt.”

This is why people like me join with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to say “this isn’t good enough. That’s not acceptable.”

We need to start by recognising the problems in our nation building myths, and creating new ones.

We can’t go back in time and stop our ancestors from getting on ships to Australia (for those who had the choice!) We can’t change the fact that Australia was invaded. But we can at least admit that we enjoy the spoils of invasion today, and figure out a way to move forward that recognises the mistakes of the past, tries to make amends in meaningful ways, and commits to not repeating the same mistakes again.


2 thoughts on “Australian history

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