Australia’s awkward, tragic, national holiday
It’s apparently okay for immigrants to be anti-immigration after a century or two
January 26 is Australia Day, when mainstream Australians celebrate the 1788 landing of the “First Fleet” in Botany Bay. It’s celebrated with barbecues, beers, and red-white-and-blue Australian flags. Lots and lots of all three are needed in order to properly revel in the European colonization of what the settlers believed to be terra nullius, or empty land.
These colonial government believed that this island’s natives were barely human. In 1835, Governor Richard Bourke tore up a treaty between a white farmer and the Aboriginal Wurundjeri people. The Wurundjeri were living on what he called “vacant lands.” All of Australia was decreed a part of the British Empire and under Governor Bourke’s administration. The Aboriginals, including the Wurundjeri, didn’t legally exist.
The United States, Australia’s settler-colonial cousin, wasn’t even this bad. The USA may have massacred American Indian communities, abrogated treaties, and destroyed essential elements of Native culture. But the American government at least accepted that American Indian communities existed, could be bargained with, and had a culture to destroy. The Australians barely even understood Aboriginals to be human.
Two Aboriginal activists fought back in the most humane way possible. William Cooper and Jack Patten organized Australia’s first Day of Mourning on January 26, 1938. It was the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival, and the usual ale-infused revelers were taken aback by the 1,000-strong protest in downtown Sydney. Cooper and Patten led the Aboriginal marchers to Australia Hall, where they were obligated by segregation laws to enter through the rear of the building.
In 1938, Australia had 7 million citizens and there were doubts it would ever grow beyond that. About 98% of these citizens were British inhabitants (Aboriginals wouldn’t be counted in the census until 1967), and a University of Melbourne professor warned that “the drying-up of sources of racial supply” would mean “racial extinction” in the Pacific. Australia, long a whites-only utopia, had to stretch the meaning of “race” to include not only Anglos but Germans, Italians…even Greeks.
This was not the opening of a door but the adjustment of a sieve. South and East Asians trickled in slowly. Aboriginal Australians were second-class citizens at best. But by 1988 these communities were present in a way that Governor Bourke couldn’t have imagined in his most tormented nightmares. And during bicentennial Australia Day celebrations, Aboriginals met with other communities of color and their allies in marking “Invasion Day” with an occupation of Sydney Harbor under the slogans:
WHITE AUSTRALIA HAS A BLACK HISTORY — DON’T CELEBRATE 1988; AUSTRALIA DAY = INVASION DAY 1988
A decade later, Australia instituted it’s first National Sorry Day. It’s an apology for the grand-scale destruction of Aboriginal communities, but one that the prime minister of the time, John Howard, detested. He believed that “one generation can accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generation.” His parliament, and millions Australians citizens, disagreed and found ways to make reparations available for indigenous Australians.
Australia is a country of immigrants which is only now acknowledging what that means for its history. It still has a ways to go to figure out what this identity means for its future. The island nation has forbidden all boat-borne asylum seekers from making their way to its shores. The government sends these people (mostly Indonesians, Afghans, and Pakistanis) to small island detention centers in Papua New Guinea instead. It’s a policy that the Refugee Council of Australia calls “actually all about forcing people back in the direction that they’ve come.”
The million Aboriginal Australians, controlling nearly three million square miles of land in 1788, never realized all it took was a Council and a snazzy advertising scheme.