Back in the dark ages of my primary schooling, we were taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and that the British settled here in 1788; the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson on 26th January. We knew that the first settlement was a penal colony and we learned that the aborigines were a primitive, nomadic people who were given beads and other trinkets in order to ensure that the settlement could be peaceful. We now know that what we were taught was lies. Total, unmitigated, baldfaced lies.
Captain Cook was the first to chart the east coast of Australia, an achievement not to be underestimated, but the Dutch and Portuguese knew about the existence of the country for at least a century before Cook’s arrival. The true ‘discovery’ of the country, however, had occurred at least 60,000 years prior to the arrival of white men, and quite likely much earlier, by a race of people who were far from primitive and nomadic and whose land and social management were adapted and perfectly suited to a large and diverse continent.
The day we call Australia Day is, in fact, the anniversary of the second landing of the male convicts. Doesn’t sound quite so auspicious, does it? The entire First Fleet (quick test: how many ships were there?*) was in place in Botany Bay by the 18th January. This means that the first of the ships probably arrived a week or more prior to that.
The ships carrying the male convicts sailed up the coast and entered Port Jackson through the Heads, landing on the 26th. It is the anniversary of the landing at what became Sydney. It’s Sydney Day. This fact alone should mean that no one in Victoria or Queensland would want anything to do with it, nor, for that matter, anyone in the west where a healthy distrust of anything east of the Nullabor is de rigeur. No wonder history was massaged.
We also know that the peaceful settlement of the country never occurred. From the outset, British troops were ordered to shoot to kill any natives who approached the colony. There are over 80 massacres of aboriginal people on the record, beginning in 1788 and continuing through to the 1920s. And these are just the ones on the record. Thus began the official attempt at genocide that culminated with the stealing of ‘mixed race’ children between the 1910s and the 1970s. It seems that the government turned to a bureaucratic form of genocide once the violent method seemed not to be working.
Hardly any wonder that many Australians are calling for a change of the date of our ‘national day’. It’s neither national nor is it a cause for celebration.
Will changing the date of Australia Day change history? No. But there's two two things that can start to atone for those wrongs:
Firstly, teach the truth. Ensure that young Australians at school in the 21st Century learn the truth about the colonisation and settlement of this country. Teach them about the horrors of genocide and the brutality of taking land. Colonialism is not a pretty story in any language; and that story is told in many languages. The British, Dutch, French, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and Belgians all bear the stain of colonial horrors in their histories. Teaching the truth of these horrors won’t change the past, but it may change the future.
Secondly, move quickly towards becoming a republic. Successive governments have indicated that there will be no such move while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne, but in August last year, the Queen announced that should she still be alive when she turns 95, she will request that the Regency Act of 1937 be invoked, which will pass all regal duties to her heir. The Queen turns 92 in April this year. We have three years to prepare for our own transition. Then we can have a national day that belongs to all of us.
Images: the top one - what we were taught (awestruck natives treating the new arrivals like gods); the bottom one - what happened (natives armed with spears used only for hunting being mowed down by mounted troops).