As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.
On 26 January 1788, the commander of the First Fleet, Arthur Philip (pictures), placed the British flag into the soil of Sydney Cove. Journals of the time record that the British had already set foot on the land a week or so earlier, at Botany Bay. However, because Philip couldn’t find fresh water there, he sailed further north. In Sydney Cove, he found fresh water in the Tank Stream, and this determined the site of the first British settlement.
At the time, this settlement was an expression of colonial expansion, claiming a new colony as “Britannia ruled the waves”. Today, we can see that it was an act of colonial imperialism, with inherent violence at its heart and aggressive marginalisation of the inhabitants of the land.
Even though the existing inhabitants of the land had been sighted, described by various writers, and interactions had been undertaken with them, the British acted as if these people did not have any legal rights to the land.
Under the Doctrine of Discovery (developed by a series of medieval popes), the land was considered available for colonisation by an imperial power, because the inhabitants were heathens who were in need of conversion.
(See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/)
So the British claimed Terra Australis as their colony, disgorged a batch of convicts onto the land and a collection of troops to guard them, and henceforth acted as if they had sole rights to all that the encountered. Land theft, retributive murders, and massacres then followed, for well over a century, in locations right across the continent. 26 January 1788 unleashed an Invasion which destabilised and decimated the inhabitants of the land.
The original Draught Instructions issued to Governor Arthur Philip in 1787 recognised the existence of people already living on the land which the British intended to settle. The Instructions advised Phillip about managing the convicts, granting and cultivating the land, and exploring the country. He was explicitly directed: You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an Intercourse with the Natives and to conciliate their affections.
(You can read about the Draught Instructions at https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-35.html and the full transcript of these Draught Instructions can be accessed at https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/nsw2_doc_1787.pdf)
The Instructions made it clear that the Aboriginal peoples’ lives and livelihoods were to be protected and friendly relations with them encouraged. Nevertheless, the Instructions make no mention of protecting or even recognising their lands. It was assumed that Australia was terra nullius, that is, land belonging to no one.
This was a fictitious assumption, not based on the reality that the land was already inhabited (as the Instructions show); yet this assumption shaped land law and occupation for the ensuing centuries, through to the present. The settlement of the land by the British, on the assumption that they had the right to impose laws and practices on the original inhabitants, made for an unhappy life for these Aboriginal people.
We perpetuate this hurt by continuing with 26 January as our “national day” which recalls the enforced imposition of British law on the land and people that was being colonised. It is time to change the date. This won’t solve all the accumulated problems … but it will signal that we are serious about addressing systemic disadvantage and beginning to heal the trauma that has been passed on through the generations since 1788.
And, as I mentioned before (https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/), along with changing the date of our national day, we need to work to change the culture of our country, so that we no longer tolerate racism, and so that the First Peoples of this continent and the surrounding islands can have an honoured and valued place at the centre of contemporary Australian society.