ON this day in 1788 the seven remaining ships of the ‘First Fleet’ joined The Supply at a place recently named Sydney Cove.
The families of that place, who knew and had for millennia known it by an entirely different name, brandished spears at the arrival of the ships. The officers of the fleet landed on the shore and performed a ceremony involving the erection of a piece of coloured cloth, the drinking of alcohol and the discharge of firearms. Thus was born, in Australia, the culture of Anglo-Saxon superiority over all other claims to this place.
Today we pause to observe and reflect on those events.
The male human cargo of the ships was then landed and, in the words of David Collins as quoted by Manning Clark, “the spot which had so lately been the abode of silence and tranquillity was now changed to that of noise, clamour and confusion”. Ten days later, the colony was deemed to be ready for the disembarkation of the females. Their departure from the ships was celebrated by the sailors with rum, riot and debauchery; and by the place with a drenching thunderstorm.
More ships came, bearing the unwanted. The colony spread. It survived hunger, rebellion and mutiny. It consumed more and more of the place, and in doing so, either drove the owners away from their land, or killed them. This became a country of two peoples and two cultures.
Settlements became towns which became cities. Two cultures became many. This became a place of us and them, and them, and them. Great wars diverted our enmity from the others at home, to the others elsewhere, but the wars ended and the focus returned.
On this ‘Australia Day’, 218 years after the first, we claim to be one country. We claim a unique ‘Australian’ spirit, our ‘own’ identity and distinct ‘Australian’ values. But I’ve yet to see anyone define that spirit, or that identity or those values. Because we are not, despite what the glossy brochures say, one country. We have never formally acknowledged the theft which led to the establishment of this nation. And whilst we have learned to disguise the enmity, it continues to exist and defy reconciliation.
So, by all means, take this opportunity on ‘Australia Day’ to reflect upon our place. But to celebrate is to deny the truth.