In Australia - at the time of writing - people are gearing up for our country’s national day”, “Australia Day” on January 26. Specifically, the day is celebrated to commemorate the day on which the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788; raised the British flag - and in their eyes - established British Sovereignty.
For many, though, such a celebration is questionable in light of the dispossession of Indigenous Australians that followed. Thus there are some who refer to the day disparagingly as “Invasion Day”.
Talk of Invasion Day can be understood in the context of Australian history. Indigenous Australians did not have the right to vote until 1967, and for many years Indigenous children were removed from their families to “aid in assimilation”. This was despite the participation of Indigenous Australians fighting against fascism during World War II.
Many Indigenous Australians died through exposure to exotic diseases introduced by the settlers. Other Indigenous Australians were also killed resisting the white settlers. Furthermore: reprisals from settlers sometimes took the form of indiscriminate massacres. In these and other ways, many tens of thousands ultimately perished.
To some therefore, and especially Indigenous Australians, British colonialism in Australia comprised an invasion under which Indigenous culture was suppressed; their bonds with the land not recognised; their basic human rights denied.
What to celebrate in Australia’s past?
Australian history must not be thought of in a purely negative light, however, just as it ought not be considered in a purely celebratory or uncritical spirit.
Representative democracy and full adult suffrage developed in Australia with relatively little violence; although the example of the Eureka Rebellion - is seen by many as the source of a more militant democratic Australian tradition.
In 1854 miners rose in rebellion, demanding full male suffrage, and representative democracy. Arming themselves and establishing a stockade, the miners were crushed violently. But their example expedited the cause of democracy in Australia: the “Eureka flag” and tradition still remains a source of inspiration and identity for many on the radical Left, including militant trade unions. This struggle for liberty and democracy is very much part of Australian history and identity and deserves recognition on Australia’s “national day”.
Other sources of Australian identity and culture include the spirit of egalitarianism and mateship, and more recently of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism.
The Australian egalitarian spirit was seen by many as being embodied in a culture by which class barriers were overcome with friendship. (Notably, however, this did not “dissolve” class differences, or do away with the need of working people or the disadvantaged to fight for justice. Indeed the myth of “classlessness” was sometimes used to undermine this struggle.) The strong bonds of mateship which arose during World Wars I and II became a powerful source of identity, especially among Australian men.
For those tens of thousands who served in Singapore, Crete, North Africa and New Guinea - these strong bonds of mateship helped Australians survive under intolerable conditions. This was as much the case for Australian prisoners of war, including those who endured - and the tens of thousands who died - in Changi and on the Thai-Burma railway.
It says something of Australian culture and character that perhaps the most celebrated of figures from this context is Edward “Weary” Dunlop, a surgeon rather than a conventional soldier. Dunlop was responsible for saving many lives in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, where conditions were appalling and primitive and Japanese cruelty was legendary, horrific and extreme - beyond what most Australians today realise.
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