Australia Day recalls the arrival of the First Fleet under Governor Phillip in 1778. It marked the beginning of European settlement in Australia and of Indigenous dispossession. For most Indigenous Australians with a sense of their own history, Australia Day is an occasion for grief.
For many other Australians, it is an uncomfortable day, one for rumination, for pondering the creation and the destruction of cultures and for revisiting the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the overseas invaders. To understand its significance, however, it is helpful to set the arrival of the first fleet in a broader context, beginning with the arrival of Captain Cook in Botany Bay eight years earlier.
This wider point of reference undercuts the suggestion that Australia Day should be moved to another date that all Australians can celebrate. The proposal is superficially attractive, but it could degenerate into yet another attempt to redefine Australia in a way that conceals the dispossession of one race by another. To combine Australia Day with Anzac Day, for example, might say that real Australian history begins with the colonists, and that the long story of Indigenous nations and their dispossession are no more than a prelude to a story in which their destined role was to be a relic. It might suggest that their crowning glory for Indigenous Australians was to be invited to fight and to die in British wars on behalf their conquerors.
If, however, we see Australia Day as a day for reflection on the complexity and ambiguity of Australian history, it might invite us to wonder together at the first meeting of cultures and at the richness of each. Against this background, Captain Cook’s expedition was not only about discovery and possession and demonstration of superior power. It was about enriching the European world’s knowledge of flora and fauna, of mapping universal as well as local seas and skies, of curiosity about the Indigenous peoples encountered on the voyage, of marking points of connection and of haven in the circling of the world. For good or for ill, and in this case great ill, Cook was one of the people who brought very different peoples into contact and collision.
The landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay can now be seen to have offered the colonists who arrived later with Governor Phillip opportunities and choices they did not take – to be curious about the Indigenous people whom they met, to go to school on the ways in which they cared for the land and the rituals with which they engage with one another, and on their respect for their world.
We more recent Australians, including those of us at Jesuit Social Services, are beginning to learn this through the rituals of honouring the Indigenous owners of the land and their descendants, smoking ceremonies and particularly in conversation with the Indigenous people whom we accompany in our work.
After a year in which the ways in which Western cultures have dealt with the environment have been evident in bushfires and global warming, and in the cavalier response to viruses crossing species, the delicacy and sophistication of many Indigenous rituals in passing on respect for the land bear honouring. To honour them is also to honour the best traditions of the European culture that contemporary Australia also inherits, found in Cook’s restless spirit, respect for the world through which he travelled, and boundless curiosity.
Christian Bergmann06 June 2023
Melbourne Catholic16 May 2023