“Resembling the park lands [of a] gentleman’s residence in England”

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.

Remembering 26 January as our national day embeds at the heart of our national identity, a story of dispossession, violence, marginalisation and oppression, perpetrated against the people who were already inhabiting, and caring for, the land we know as Australia.

Early explorers looked at the land, and the people, and decided that they saw uncultivated land and primitive, uncivilised peoples.

(See my earlier posts on Arthur Philip, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

James Cook, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

and William Dampier, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/they-stood-like-statues-without-motion-but-grinnd-like-so-many-monkies/)

Recent scholarship has demonstrated, however, that the First Peoples had cared for the land over millennia. It was not uncultivated land; it was, rather, land that was different from British or European land, which was managed in ways quite different from British or European customs.

In The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2011), historian Bill Gammage has written a hugely important book, demonstrating that in 1788, Australia was no wilderness, but a landscape that reflected a sophisticated, successful and sensitive farming regime right across the continent.

Fire was carefully employed to ensure certain plants and animals flourished, to facilitate access and rotation, and to ensure resources were abundant, convenient and predictable. Animals were harvested for food with care not to deplete the stocks.

Gammage draws on the journals of early British settlers and explorers, citing passages in which they clearly indicate that the land was being managed. For instance, he quotes the explorer Charles Sturt, who noted in 1849: In many places the trees are so … judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman’s residence in England.

Despite this, history demonstrates that the British occupiers generally continued to treat the Aboriginal people that they encountered as if they had no relationship with the land. We know, today, that this is certainly not the case.

Gammage also explores early British landscape paintings, to mount a persuasive case that the First Peoples of this continent were excellent conservationists. Their spiritual connection with the land governed the way that they lived and hunted. They have, indeed, cared for the land since time immemorial.

A second recent book, shorter and more focussed, is Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture Or Accident? (Magabala Books, 2014). Bruce Pascoe, a Bunorong man of the Kulin nation, argues for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer tag for precolonial Aboriginal Australians.

Pascoe carefully explores the evidence: that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the “hunter-gatherer” tag. Pascoe challenges the “hunter-gatherer” tag as a convenient lie, citing (amongst other things) the remains of fishtraps which are many thousands of years old and other evidence of settled living by the First Peoples.

(There is a fascinating discussion of Pascoe’s book, some related works, and the implications for modern agricultural practices, at https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-dark-emu-and-the-blindness-of-australian-agriculture-97444)

As in the book by Bill Gammage, much of the evidence in Pascoe’s work comes from the records and diaries of the early explorers from the British colonisers. For instance, there is a striking entry in the diary of British officer George Grey (at this time an explorer; later, he was a magistrate in Albany, WA, then the third Governor of South Australia, and then Governor of New Zealand where he was knighted, before becoming, a decade later, the Premier of New Zealand!).

Grey’s diary, later published as A Journal of Two Expeditions In North-West and Western Australia, 1837-39, includes these comments for 4 April 1839:

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants, the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. It is now evident that we had entered the most thickly-populated district of Australia that I had yet observed, and … more had been done to secure a provision from the ground by hard manual labour than I could believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish. After crossing a low limestone range we came upon another equally fertile warran* ground …

(cited on page 4 of http://rupertgerritsen.tripod.com/pdf/unpublished/up4.pdf)

[* Warran is species of yam plant – dioscorea hastifolia ]

Today, we perpetuate this false view of the First Peoples of this continent, as primitive “hunter-gatherers” who failed to cultivate the land. We need a process of re-education across society to correct this deeply-embedded misunderstanding. We also need to find new symbols to indicate our respect for our First Peoples. By continuing with 26 January as our “national day”, we perpetuate the honouring of the enforced imposition of British law, and British (mis)understandings, of 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. (You can read a report on the vulnerable state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by the Australian Human Rights Commission, at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/education/face-facts/face-facts-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples)

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

(There is a fine review of Gammage and Pascoe at https://www.ngarainstitute.org.au/articles/2018/8/21/rethinking-australias-past)

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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