Is 26 January, the day the First Fleet dropped anchor in Sydney Cove, more appropriately called Dispossession Day? That is certainly one view of our national day, Australia Day, and it has come to the fore again this January.
A few days ago I was aroused by a Sydney Morning Herald letter by Caroline Goosen (16/1/18) who noted that African countries, subjugated for centuries by their colonial masters, have gained independence, but that in our country “the First Nations People have had no such luck. There has not been a treaty, nor does the constitution recognise the fact that there was an indigenous population who were custodians of their land”.
Perhaps the reason is because generations of white Australians like me, have been fed, through school text books and the media, stereotyped images of indigenous Australians: nomadic people, walking around the continent in small groups wearing loin cloths, carrying spears, digging sticks, dilly bags and boomerangs, getting food as they came upon it, and sheltering in a cave or behind a piece of bark leaning on a stick. Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu Black Seeds agriculture or accident? (Magabala Books 2014) enlightened me to Aboriginal custodianship of our continent, their semi-settled lives, and their managed systems of agriculture and aquaculture across the land.
The fact that Pascoe’s book won book of the year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing in 2014 and the Queensland Literary Awards in 2014, is only one reason why it cannot be dismissed. His evidence comes from the very sources that have been in white possession for at least two hundred years (in archives and libraries) or which can still be observed today in our environment or which can be gleaned in Indigenous stories.
Explorers like Sturt and Mitchell and numerous early settlers observed and commented on the cultivated appearance of fertile lands cleared with fire, and on the quality and friability of the soil in areas where white people had not then settled. They observed how Aborigines tilled and aerated the soil with hoe-like tools, spread seeds, built dams and irrigated, harvested native grain with knife-like implements and stockpiled it, made paste and baked bread. They saw the extensive yam gardens in coastal areas, when yam was an indigenous staple food.
Settlers and explorers wrote about the numerous sophisticated fishing methods across the country to catch and manage fish stock, for example haul-nets with floats and weights, fish traps, permanent fences across streams to act as gates, dykes over a metre high to create weirs for breeding.
They also recorded the sizes and living conditions of Aboriginal communities. Huts which were large and circular, the outside covered with bark and grass and coated with clay, with a fire in the centre and a hole at the top as a chimney. One was recorded as “capable of containing at least 40 persons and of very superior construction”. There are numerous references to Aboriginal communities of over 1,000, even in areas which today are referred to as desert.
Pascoe uses the words of our colonial ancestors, a convincing approach. Here are the words of George Grey in 1839 in Western Australia “more had been done to secure provision from the ground by hard manual labour than I could believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish.” Grey’s group “passed two native villages, or as the men termed them, towns…now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.”
Within a few years of white settlers infiltrating Aboriginal land with their sheep and cattle, the soil compacted, grainlands were eaten, wells and waterholes were taken over, introduced grains were planted and the land was degraded alarmingly. As was the Aboriginal population.
White Australians are taking a long time to recognise the white supremacist and paternalistic perspective of their forbears – their view that whites had a right to rule the world because they had proved themselves superior – a born to rule mentality. Nor are we as a nation alert to the resulting racism in ourselves.
The 21st century is holding up a mirror for us to see what has resulted from our “civilisation” – disastrous climate change, increasing inequality, destructive weaponry, poisonous pollution, calamitous wars and inhumanity.
Bruce Pascoe reminds us that at the very least we need to revise our history. But also that perhaps pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia holds a key to a better future for our country.
So yes I would like to see Australia Day moved away from Dispossession Day.