Australia Day and the Struggle to Control a Nation’s History

by Eleanor Russell

On the 26th of January 1788 eleven ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson, now known as Sydney Harbour, carrying the first of more than 150,000 convicts sent to the new penal colony in Australia. The experiences of these convicts, and of the naval and military personnel, administrators, and free settlers, would be transformed from history into an origin story of the Australian national character that remains the focus of Australia Day celebrations.

For the convicts and those who accompanied them on the First Fleet, Australia Day – as it would later be called – marked the beginning of long struggles: the convicts in hard labour, the settlers (free and ex-convict) against the hostile Australian landscape. Echoes of these experiences remain: Australian farmers were and still are subject to alternating ‘droughts and flooding rains’, whilst the sandstone of Sydney’s business district bears gouges from the pick-axes wielded by chain gangs.

Social struggle, between wealthy and poor settler, and Irish-Catholic and Anglo-Protestant, produced the bushranger, epitomised by the real-life Ned Kelly, a downtrodden ‘Aussie battler’ who resists or escapes wrongful authority. This character can be seen in Waltzing Matilda, which tells of a swagman who steals from a squatter (owner of a large property) and then escapes the police by committing suicide, and is sung every Australia Day as an unofficial national anthem. The music is generally performed by a military brass band, providing the link to the last national character or characteristic celebrated on Australia Day, that of the ‘ANZAC’ or ‘digger’, a character who faces and ultimately triumphs over overwhelming odds (note the pattern, please), originating in the First World War.

These underdogs are lauded on the 26th of January as manifestations of Australia’s triumph over adversity, but they only tell half of the story that began in 1788. For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the 26th of January is Invasion Day.

The arrival of Europeans onto Australian soil put them into often-violent conflict with the local Aboriginal peoples whose lands they were settling on, with the most notorious example being the forced relocation of several Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples, which has been interpreted by some (to strong objections) as a genocide. Indigenous people suffered further from governments removing Aboriginal children to foster homes, resulting in the Stolen Generations. On this Thursday, therefore, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will gather to protest the celebrations.

Recently, a campaign has gained traction calling for the government to move Australia Day from the 26th of January – that is, to separate it from Invasion Day. This has been met with widespread resistance, an unfortunate echo of the racial abuse that not infrequently occurs on Australia Day.

However, the backlash against the proposal cannot be attributed to racism alone, and the Invasion Day protest is asking for far more than for people to reschedule their party. Australia sees itself as a country descended from convicts and poor settlers who overcame and continue to overcome adversity, incarnated as the ‘Aussie battler’. The power of this story – frequently invoked by politicians – is imbued in all parts of Australian culture, and is so powerful that Australia’s renowned sporting success is still seen as the victory of the plucky underdog. In absolute opposition to this story, ‘Invasion Day’ proponents relabel colonial Australians as powerful antagonists taking land from the native peoples by force, putting Australia’s historical narrative and identity under attack.

For this conflict to be resolved, Australians need to expand their self-image so that both sides of the historical narrative can co-exist within it, to accept that the colonial settlers usurped the land of the indigenous population without dismissing their struggles. The rejection of the terra nullius argument – which held that indigenous Australians did not have ownership of the land before white settlement – since 1992, and the gradual return of land to its traditional owners shows that compromise can be obtained. Other challenges to the accepted narrative have come with the growing awareness of the Stolen Generations, who received an official apology from the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 in a reversal of the policy of refusing responsibility for the actions of previous governments. One could argue, however, that these compromises suggest that Australians are willing to re-interpret their history – or, rather, the history of governmental policy – rather than their national self-image, particularly as the latter contains a strong anti-governmental streak.

Such compromises have yet to be echoed on Australia Day, when the Aussie battler-bushranger-digger remains very much at odds with the image presented by the ‘Invasion Day’ campaigners of a violent foreign invader. By so doing, they threaten not only the accepted version of Australian history, but also the very way in which Australians see ourselves.


Image from Wikimedia commons

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