As the date marking the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove passes us by, we have all paid heed to the now-annual calls for Australia Day to be struck down in our national calendar. Yes, this year, like every year, we have heard how the date treasured by lovers of barbecues, beer and Triple J is not “Australia Day” but “Invasion Day” – a date which, rather than commemorating some abiding sense of Australianness instead grotesquely celebrates the beginning of White Man’s colonization of the Great Southern Land.
“January 26, 1788 marked the beginning of a cultural genocide which systematically dispossessed the indigenous peoples of Terra Australis of their land, history and future,” follows this line of reasoning. Therefore, proponents of this position claim, it is a national disgrace to be celebrating Australia Day on that date.
This year among the “Down With Australia Day” pronouncements, a popular video produced by Buzzfeed has been doing the rounds on social media. Labelled “an aboriginal response to ‘Australia Day’”, the video documents the responses of several indigenous speakers who discuss what Australia day means to them. Celebrating Australia Day, according to several of these indigenous speakers, is “insensitive”; a commemoration of an “invasion”; a day which is “really really sad” for the suffering sewed by British colonists after their arrival.
In principle, there’s merit to some of the arguments advanced in the video. Perhaps a date like Federation Day – that is January 1 – would be a more appropriate date to celebrate Australia Day. For the most part though, the entire production only reproduces viral memetic untruths which add little to serious discussions about “real” issues in aboriginal Australia, like continuing disadvantage in remote-living communities. It’s a shame because by regurgitating spoon-fed fallacies about the history and culture of aboriginal Australia – most of which hold no weight anthropologically or historically – it leaves the viewer less informed and the whole debate in a state where only the most reactionary voices are likely to be heard.
The many fallacies orbiting this debate are perhaps best outlined in the form of a listicle. I say this half-ironically, of course, because Buzzfeed-type depth of analysis is at the core of the problem. So. Now. A dissection of some random piece of click-bait I watched on social media – for better or for worse.
- Sweeping Generalisations about Indigenous Australia
What is perhaps most remarkable about this video is the sweeping generalisations and falsehoods many of its speakers make about Aboriginal Australia. This is even more remarkable because the speakers self-describe as indigenous Australians.
“Oldest Surviving Culture”
The first and most obvious fallacy is one speaker’s assertion that Invasion Day marks the survival of the oldest culture on earth. Anyone who has browsed through a tourist brochure selling bite-sized aboriginal cultural experiences is probably accustomed to the “oldest surviving culture” claim. While aboriginal peoples have inhabited Australia for a long long time, even the most cursory examination of what a “culture” actually is would show us how utterly ridiculous it is to use superlatives like “oldest” or “most survival-ey”.
Anthropology tells us that “culture”, a term which describes the prevailing set of discourses and practices within a given human society, is not static. Rather, “culture” is a continuously evolving set of norms in a state of constant flux – a vehicle in-motion not a petrified fossil. Since culture is ever-changing, ever-transforming, resembling something one day and something else the next, to talk about “aboriginal culture” as possessing attributes like “age” or “survivability” is utterly meaningless. In many ways, it is no more valuable to talk about Aboriginal culture as being “the world’s oldest surviving culture” than it is to talk about the mace carried by the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Australian Parliament as being “a cultural relic of the bludgeoning instruments used by early hominids in the East African Cradle of Humankind”.
Yes, transmissable knowledge and some aspects of material culture have survived milennia in many parts of Aboriginal Australia. And certainly, where a presiding Aboriginal sense of “being” is concerned, the connection with the past remains important, even if the ontological significance of that connection becomes more abstract as the yawning gap between the Dreaming and the Now grows wider.
Nevertheless, the point remains that Aboriginal culture today is so utterly different to what it was in 1788 (remember, the destruction of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia is the reason why Invasion Day is so controversial in the first place) that attributing an age value to any currently-practiced customs and traditions makes little to no sense. For sure, perhaps the greatest irony in this video is the fact that the speakers discussing their “oldest surviving cultures” are wearing European-style business attire and Chinese-made German-branded Adidas T-Shirts, speaking English and talking into Japanese-made video cameras.
Beyond the anthropological falsehoods which the claims of “oldest culture” represent, there is an obvious cognitive dissonance when people speak about “cultural genocide” and “oldest surviving cultures” in the same sentence. Which is it? Was your culture wiped out or did it survive? Personally, I think that the dispossession of aboriginal people in Australia constituted a cultural genocide (see, for example, the destruction of the aboriginal population of Tasmania), a historical reality that would seem to fly in the face of the antithetical assertion that pre-colonial aboriginal culture has “survived” into the present.“They were a peaceful people”/”We are an inclusive people”
According to the young boy interviewed in the video (who, it should be noted, is clearly below the age of informed consent as an interviewee – demonstrative, perhaps, of Buzzfeed’s journalistic standards), the arrival of the First Fleet was a day when Europeans came and slaughtered “a peaceful people”. Apart from the historical fallacy that the First Fleeters simply rocked up and started slaughtering people on the same day they arrived (more on this later), there is a more pernicious untruth to the claim that the indigenous inhabitants of Australia were any more “peaceful” than any other people who have ever lived.
Similarly, “inclusiveness” is also advanced as a quality that is apparently exclusive to aboriginal Australia. While most of the aboriginal informants I have come across during ethnographic research in Cape York could be described as both “inclusive” and “peaceful” to claim that either of these adjectives are abiding and overwhelming cultural traits is to make a sweeping generalisation without the backing of the empirical record – an over-simplification which borders on stereotype.
Certainly, in pre-colonial Kuuk Thaayorre society, clan rivalries saw the Thaayorre come into almost constant violent contact with members of the Kuuk Yaak language group (“snake speakers”) – a historical enmity which manifested in the eradication of the Kuuk Yaak as a cultural unit. No one in the modern Cape York community of Pormpuraaw self-identifies as “Kuuk Yaak” anymore – one is either “Wik-Mungkan” (a language group with strong ties to the township of Aurukun to the north) or Thaayorre. The Kuuk Yaak were literally wiped out. This seems neither “inclusive” nor “peaceful” to me.
We know of course, that the video’s speakers are trying to argue that the pre-colonial Eora of Sydney were comparatively peaceful and inclusive – at least in comparison to the world-destroying British. But even in the case of the Eora of Sydney, there is little evidence to suggest that they were any less war-like than the Kuuk Thaayorre of Northern Queensland. Incidents of spearing were common occurrences among the natives of pre-colonial Sydney. Disputes were often settled by violence. Under Pemulwuy, a group of aboriginal insurgents gathered to resist (perhaps rightfully) the settlers occupying their lands. Around the Eora campfires of Sydney Cove, discussions about immigration and the unwanted arrival of the “boat people” were likely vociferous and heated. Pemulwuy himself was rumoured to have been blinded in one eye in a violent incident with an enemy from another tribe.
Indeed, with all the violence and exclusiveness observed throughout the history of Aboriginal Australia it is fair to say that perhaps one of the most remarkable features about Aboriginal people, historically and into the present, is how remarkably like the rest of us they are. Aboriginal people were and are people – and like all societies, pre-colonial Aboriginal society had its racism and its bloodshed, its exclusivity and its conflict. Peace and not conflict is the exception to the rule throughout most of human history and it was no different in the Australia that existed before the arrival of Europeans. To imagine pre-colonial Aboriginal society as having embodied some kind of Utopian dream-state is to deny almost everything we know about the evolution of human history. We may as well start waxing lyrical about “noble savages”.
2. Excessive Use of the First Person Plural (“We”, “Our”)
One of the common traps we often fall into when talking about the historical lives of our ancestors is what I would like to call “the excessive use of the first person plural”. This is because when one identifies strongly with people who lived hundreds of years ago, seeing these people as part of the extended genealogical network which we call “our family”, it is easy to start using terms like “we” and “our” when we discuss what happened to these historical family members during their lifetimes, even if we ourselves weren’t there to witness or take part in what happened to them.
Now, I’m not going to claim that there is no validity to the idea of “inherited grievance” nor am I going to deny that oppression and structural violence experienced by members of the same social group can be felt, in real terms, for generations (and still continues to be felt by aboriginal peoples today). Ancestry is a complex issue which is heavily tied to peoples’ conceptions of their own identity.
But my main problem with somebody claiming that January 26, 1788 was “that day that we lost all that we had” stems from the fact that although one might have had relatives who were there and suffered at the hands of the Sydney Cove colonials, you yourself weren’t actually there. That hurt, though it might continue to resonate in the present, was transmitted and not experienced directly.
In a similar vein, some years ago, while munching on a shawarma in a Jerusalem hole-in-the-wall eatery, I listened to an Israeli man prattle on about “how we [the Israelites] suffered at the hands of the Philistines (the pre-modern Palestinians)” – how “they took our land [et cetera, et cetera].” This was why, apparently, “his people” were perfectly justified in wresting the Holy Land back from the Palestinians “all the way to the banks of the River Jordan”.
Naturally, being in Israel and surrounded by heavily armed IDF soldiers doing the rounds through the Old City, my reaction was to smile and nod. Inwardly however, I couldn’t help but think: “Really? Did the suffering at the hands of the Philistines actually happen to you? You personally?”
From this anecdote, it’s easy to identify a few of the major problems created reaching by back to form connections with events in the past: 1.) it can perpetuate cycles of violence (as we see in the “who stole whose land” debates in the Holy Land or, say, Yugoslavia) and 2.) it becomes easy to fall into an ancestral phantasm whereby you confuse something that happened to a historical person (who you never actually met) with something that happened to you, yourself.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the subjugation of the Eora peoples in New South Wales in 1788 is something that has no relevance for a Guugu Yimidhirr person in Far North Queensland in the present. Events like the arrival of the First Fleet exude the butterfly effect – continuing as it does to generate sociological hurricanes across the continent. A small flap of the wings like the landing at Sydney Cove was the chronological initiate of a centuries-long genocide – history, in this sense, is veritably macrolepidopteran. Equally, I’m not suggesting that today’s aboriginal Australians should collectively “get over” the dispossession of their ancestors from their native lands nor am I suggesting that it is wrong to draw parallels between the historical suffering of Australia’s first inhabitants and the ongoing structural violence directed against aboriginal peoples. It certainly would be insensitive to tell anyone to “get over” a cultural genocide and it would be factually incorrect to claim that the use of the first person plural in the context of one’s ancestors never holds any weight.
That said, what I am really railing against here is the excessive use of terms like “we” and “our” when talking about past persons and historical events. I have genetic links to the starving Irish who were loaded onto ships and sent to a penal colony in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet I did not feel their hunger – I am not those same Irish. I have a close ancestral link to Lt Jack Walsh, the first Queensland officer to take a bullet to the head at the landing of ANZAC, but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what taking a bullet to the head actually feels like. On the same note, and unlike others who have previously served in the Australian Army, I claim no real inheritance to the “glory of ANZAC”, whatever that is. I wasn’t there, so that particular battle honour should really have no bearing in the formation and worth of my identity.
Similarly, while it is perfectly valid for me to claim that my ancestor the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy McGregor was “one of us” (“us” being “Clan Cattanach”: “touch not the cat, bot the glove”), it would be excessive to claim that everything McGregor lost and experienced at the hands of the English was physically lost and experienced by me as his ancestor. In many ways, to claim Rob Roy McGregor’s suffering as my own would not be dissimilar to claiming his achievements as my own, in a way which conjures up today’s American laying claim to “the liberation of France from the Nazi” as if it were one of his own personal achievements (see comedian Doug Stanhope tear this sentiment apart).
3. The Date Itself
Perhaps the most eloquent speaker in the video is the bloke in the red and blue shirt. His understanding of Australia Day, as he describes it, is like “if a guy comes into your house, does horrible things to your family, and says ‘we’re gonna have a party and have a barbie and listen to Triple J on the date we turned up’.”
If read solely as a celebration of “the day White Man turned up” (a date which symbolically represents the beginning of a cultural genocide), it’s true that Australia Day might fairly be interpreted as a bit “sadistic”. And again, I agree that there is some merit to the idea of picking a different date to celebrate Australia Day. Perhaps a more neutral date like the date of Federation in 1901 would be more appropriate – given that it doesn’t carry the same historical and emotional baggage as the arrival of the First Fleet.
But to play devil’s advocate, if we as Australians have a responsibility to “never forget” what happened to Aboriginal Australians under colonial rule then doesn’t it make sense to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet in much the same way that “never again” commemorations have memorialised the tragedy of genocide in Rwanda or South Africa? That counter-cultural “Invasion Day” is dredged up every year simply because of the date Australia Day already falls on is a good thing isn’t it? Wouldn’t all these awareness-raising efforts about the atrocities in Australian history fade into obscurity if the PM just went and changed the date?
Similarly, if one is being faithful to the historical record, one should note that January 26, 1788 most certainly was not the bloodiest chapter in the history of European colonialism in Australia. There were no slaughters or massacres carried out on the day of the Sydney Cove landing. And according to my reading, the actual “invasion” – the very first boat landing – was actually a few days before January 26 anyway – the 26th was merely the date where the colony of New South Wales was formally declared. Indeed, compared to some of the other dates in the colonial history of Australia, January 26 was a comparatively tame one.
Australia Day does not commemorate, for example, the date of the first landfall made by Europeans on Australian shores – June 1605 – when the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, made the first contact with aboriginal Australians at Cape Keerweer – a contact which was characterised by the massacre of “savage, cruel, black barbarians” who had slain some of Janszoon’s sailors.
Neither does Australia Day celebrate travesties like the Black War in Tasmania, part of which involved the formation of an extended line by the 63rd Regiment to corral Tasmanian aborigines into a penal colony on the Tasman Peninsula. Certainly, while the landing at Sydney Cove marked the beginning of colonization, the date of the landing itself – January 26, 1788 – was a pretty low-key, native-friendly event. Per the accounts of Watkin Tench and others, the amicable relations between aboriginals and settlers continued peacefully for at least the first year until the Governor’s game-keeper, John McKintyre, started slaughtering Eora for fun on his hunting parties, resulting in his own death at the hands of Pemulwuy.
That said, saying that it is acceptable to celebrate Aussie Day on January 26th because January 26th is not as bad a date as other dates isn’t necessarily a way to make a good moral argument, so I’m not seeking to revise the history of the First Fleet’s arrival by painting it as a harmless event in our nation’s history. It may have been the contingent event upon which modern Australia was founded but that doesn’t make it something to be overly proud of.
More than that, what I’m not calling for is an Andrew Bolt version of Australia where Aboriginal people just “get over” the wrongs done to them and “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Nor am I advocating for any particular position in the discussion over who gets what in modern Australia – the ins-and-outs of Native Title and post-reconciliation reparations still need some work.
What I am calling for is a little bit more intellectual honesty in the way we discuss aboriginal Australia and the history of European colonialism in Australia. Yes, the colonisation of Australia and the dispossession of its native peoples was a travesty of genocidal proportions. But no, the First Fleet did not land at Sydney Cove and immediately begin “slaughtering” people in droves. Yes, aboriginal Australians have inhabited Australia for a period dating back at least 50,000 years. But no, Aboriginal culture is “not the world’s oldest surviving culture” because the very idea of an oldest surviving culture is a load of anthropological horse-shit. And anyway, what about the uncontacted Yąnomamö peoples of the Orinoco basin or the grumpy resistant-to-contact North Sentinelese who appear to have to survived the Boxing Day Tsunami? These groups are pretty old-skool as well and they continue, for the most, to live in the isolation they created for themselves many thousands of years ago. And finally, yes, there are many nice aboriginal people around the traps today but to imply that every member of the hundreds of language-groups which constituted pre-colonial aboriginal Australia was “peaceful” or “inclusive” is utterly misleading – doing a great disservice to history as discipline of rigour.
Ultimately, it’s worth emphasising that the above video was produced by Buzzfeed (under the rather stomach-churning watermark “Buzzfeed Aboriginal”), the internet’s chief purveyor of clickbait-for-profit, so perhaps it is not really worthy of serious intellectual consideration. Certainly, we know from the outset that the video is designed to emotionally-manipulate us into sharing and spreading (not unlike war-prop videos produced by ISIS or the Lions of Rojava in Syria). And yes, sharing and spreading is something that White Guilters all over my Facebook newsfeed have certainly done… by my last count this video has 2,082,458 views.
Indubitably, the white demographic of the video-sharers is worthy of note. Conspicuously absent from the re-share meme-train are any of my aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends on Facebook – probably because they are too busy catching barramundi or counting crocodile eggs with the Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers program or doing other, more useful things… like protecting the country.
As for me, while my aboriginal friends are out fishing and drinking beer on Australia Day lapping up some or other gorgeous Cape York sunset, I’m writing this from the cold depths of wintry Canada and I’ll be spending the rest of the day dreaming of barbecues, thongs, beaches and Triple J. After that, I’ll be waiting out for ANZAC Day – sharpening my pencils for the annual debate over whether the remembrance of the landing at ANZAC constitutes a day for the mourning of dead sons or a day when Australians unite to glorify bloodshed and violence. Probably, ANZAC Day (like Australia/Invasion Day) is a little bit of both – a celebration for what we have and a remembrance of what we lost.