Australia Day or Invasion Day?
As an Australian, I have fond memories of Australia Day celebrations. I would sit on my father’s shoulders waving my Australian flag as we watched hundreds of boats crowd the harbour. I was always taught that Australia Day was a day to celebrate the beginning of a great country. At school it was the same – I recall colouring pictures of a heroic captain proudly planting a flag in Australian soil. Little did I know at the time, that the beginning of this ‘great nation’ was the end of another.
26th January – A day to celebrate?
Australia Day is celebrated on 26th January because it is the day that Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, made up of eleven convict ships, landed at Sydney Cove in Australia and raised the British Flag, marking the beginning of British sovereignty over Australia. Phillip took possession of the land in the name of King George III, a land that had been declared terra nullius (uninhabited by humans).
In schools and in most history books, Arthur Phillip is described as a kind man who had a “friendly attitude towards the Aborigines”, and for a short period of time he did. However, what is not taught is the fact that Phillip’s tolerance was short liveed. After his game keeper, John McIntyre, was killed by Aborigines (John McIntyre was a brutal man who hunted Aborigines as well as animals), Phillip ordered the capture of any two Aboriginal men found in the region, and that ten more should be killed. The heads of the slain were to be cut off and brought back to the settlement for public display. In his own words, he was “determined to strike a decisive blow, in order at once to convince [the Aborigines] of our superiority, and to infuse a universal terror.” He also later ordered his men to shoot at Aboriginal people to keep them away from the British settlements. This is the ‘hero’ who is now honoured with a statue in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens.
Different perspectives, different meanings
To Australians today, the 26th January is a day that is intended to represent how far Australia has progressed and to celebrate the positive aspects of Australian society, to recognize those who have made important contributions to society, and an opportunity to be proud of how Australia had flourished since the early days of settlement, to reach its present state as a democratic nation.
However, for indigenous Australians, the 26th January, much like Columbus Day in America, is a reminder of the decimation of their people and the loss of their land, their culture and their basic human rights. The Australia Day celebrations of 1938 (150th Anniversary) were accompanied by an Aboriginal Day of Mourning and in 1988 (200th Anniversary), many indigenous people made a concerted effort to promote an awareness among other Australians of their presence, their needs and their desire that there should be communication, reconciliation and co-operation.
An ancient culture spanning thousands of years
The Aborigines, who now make up only 3% of Australia’s population, are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and are believed to have migrated from Africa to Asia around 75,000 years ago, and arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago. However, some researchers have said their culture is much, much older. The Aboriginal culture is in fact the oldest continuous living culture on the planet.
There were about 600 different clan groups or 'nations' around the continent when Europeans arrived, many with distinctive cultures and beliefs, and there were over 250 – 300 spoken languages with 600 dialects. All but 20 of those dialects have virtually died out. The map below is just one representation of other map sources that are available for describing Aboriginal Australia. This map indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.
The hallmark of Aboriginal culture is 'oneness with nature'. Out of a deep reverence for nature Aborigines learned to live in remarkable harmony with the land and its animals. Prominent rocks, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, islands, beaches and other natural features - as well as sun, moon, visible stars and animals - have their own stories of creation and inter-connectedness. To the traditional Aborigines they are all sacred.
The Aborigines lived a nomadic life, following the seasons and the food. They learned to live in the harsh and inhospitable Australian outback. When at rest, Aborigines lived in open camps, caves or simple structures made from bark, leaves or other vegetation. Their technology was both simple and practical. Above all, it was appropriate for their way of life - ideally matched to the constraints of nomadic life.