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.
It is not just about what happened 231 years ago on this day, 26 January. It is about what the events of that day began. Within a short space of time, mere months, and continuing for an extended period, well over a century, the impacts of the white invasion of the land were felt by the First Peoples who already inhabited the continent.
There have been a series of massacres of Indigenous people over many decades, commencing soon after the establishment of a British colony in New South Wales. One of the earliest such massacres took place at Appin, south of Sydney, on 16 April 1816. Initially, the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, had advocated a tolerant attitude towards Aborigines.
However, hostilities in the area around Sydney had intensified from about 1814, with both British and Aboriginal people killed and injured in a series of raids, attacks and counter-attacks. After an incident in 1814, when an Aboriginal woman and her children were murdered at Appin, Macquarie published an order in the Sydney Gazette, admonishing settlers in the Appin and Cowpastures area and declaring, Any person who may be found to have treated them with inhumanity or cruelty, will be punished.
However, two years later, after another sequence of events in which various British settlers were killed, Macquarie issued these instructions:
On any occasion of seeing or falling in with the Natives, either in Bodies or Singly, they are to be called upon, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compel them to surrender, breaking and destroying the Spears, Clubs and Waddies of all those you take Prisoners. Such natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on Trees in Conspicuous Situations, to Strike the Survivors with the greater terror.
As a result, at least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.
(There’s a detailed account of the Appin massacre in the Dictionary of Sydney at https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/appin_massacre and a careful consideration of Macquarie’s role in this series of events at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-27/fact-check-did-lachlan-macquarie-commit-mass-murder-and-genocide/8981092. Macquarie’s own words about his decision to send the troops in with orders to kill are found in his diary entry for 10 April 1816, and can be read at https://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/1816/1816april.html#apr10)
These words from Lachlan Macquarie — until this point, one known for his friendliness towards Aborigines — exemplify the colonial policy of aggression towards them which was so dominant through the 19th century and well into the 20th century.
Indigenous people in many, many places were subjected to aggression and suffered injuries and death in large numbers. There are many massacres of First Peoples which we know took place from the late 1700s through until 1928 … many that are known and now documented, and information about others gradually being discovered and documented.
After Appin (1816), there was Bathurst (1824), Cape Grim (1828), Van Diemen’s Land (from 1828), Fremantle (1830), Convincing Ground (1833-34), Pinjarra (1834), Myall Creek (1838), Waterloo Creek (1838), Benalla (1838), Murdering Gully (1838), Campaspe Plains (1839), the Wiradjuri Wars (throughout the 1830s and 1840s), La Grange (1865), the Dampier Archipelago (1868), Barrow Creek (1874), Goulbolba Hill (1876), the Arnhem Land massacres (throughout the 1880s and 1890s), Battle Mountain (1884), Halls Creek (1890), the “killing times” in the Kimberleys (from the 1890s into the 1920s), the Canning Stock Route (1906-07), Mistake Creek (1915), Bedford Downs (1924), Forrest River (1926), Tully Falls (1927), and the Coniston Massacre (1928).
(This list is taken from the Creative Spirits website, at https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/massacres-the-frontier-violence-thats-hard-to-accept#toc4. It identifies just some — by no means all — of the massacres that took place over the decades. There is a more comprehensive timeline on the Australian Frontier Conflicts website, at http://australianfrontierconflicts.com.au/timeline-of-australian-frontier-conflicts/)
Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872 is a recent project which has commenced the task of documenting the massacres of Aboriginal people throughout the continent of Australia. (A massacre is considered to be where a minimum of six people were killed in an action that was deliberately planned and executed.) There is a map with detailed local information on the website of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities at the University of Newcastle, at https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php)
This project has concentrated, thus far, on the eastern seaboard, and already shows a terrible collection of sites where there were massacres, involving the death of at least 6 indigenous people … although at some locations there were 60, 70, 80 deaths. This is our tragic and disturbing history. We inhabit this land on the back of this process of dispossession and murder.
65,180 is the number of Aboriginal Australians who, according to estimates of historians, were killed in Queensland from the 1820s until the early 1900s. That compares with 62,300 enlisted Australians who died in World War One. The Aboriginal deaths form part of what is now called The Frontier Wars.
In December 1992, Prime Minister Keating gave a speech at Redfern in which he clearly and unambiguously confessed this:
It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
Throughout the past two centuries, this tragic and unjust history was clearly known, but for many years it was rarely spoken about in public. When Henry Parkes, the then-Premier of NSW, was planning the celebrations for the 1888 Centenary, he was asked what—if anything—was being planned for Aboriginal people for the occasion. Parkes retorted, “And remind them that we have robbed them?” His harsh, but truthful response, like the speech by Prime Minister Keating, was a rare honest statement on this matter by a politician.
The imposition of British rule came at a great cost for the people who were already inhabiting the land in 1788. It cost far too many of them their life. We perpetuate the hurt by continuing with 26 January as our “national day”. 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.
See previous blogs:
On the Day of Mourning, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/
For further reading:
Richard Glover offers this very thoughtful consideration of the issues: