Anyone who has lived in Australia in the month of January for the past decade will no doubt be aware of the often increasingly intense debates surrounding the celebration of the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet on the 26th of January 1788, i.e. Australia Day. As 2021’s Australia Day has now passed, it may seem imprudent and pointless to discuss this already heavily discussed topic.
However, it seems that most, if not all the events celebrating the parts of Australia’s history attributed to its European heritage and influence are also heavily objected to. Which indicates that there is a larger underlying issue present that permeates the groups protesting days like Australia day.
Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with protesting or taking issue with a national holiday or parts of a country’s national history. The individuals who do so should absolutely be free to do so. However, I have often found it rather difficult to locate a very well thought out defence for celebrating the arrival of European’s in Australia on days like January the 26th. But, in this article, I am going to attempt to provide one.
It’s important at this stage to state that celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet led by Captain Arthur Phillip is not inherently racist or an attempt to diminish the suffering of Aboriginal Australians. When Captain Phillip was first tasked with leading the First Fleet he was given strict instructions to develop a friendly relationship with the local inhabitants and encourage the marines and convicts to show them kindness. Phillip was also the first Governor in the world to ban slavery, it was in fact the very first law enacted officially in Australia by Phillip, 20 years before Britain ever did.
Conflict did occur between the first European settlers and Aboriginals but there was also trade and medical care provided between both sides. Aborigines would trade local tools for mirrors, hatchets, or clothing. Even when one of the conflicts between the two sides led to Phillip being speared in 1790 he ordered that no retribution be carried out so as to help foster a better relationship.
Only after continual bouts of conflict between the settlers and locals and finally when his huntsman John Macintyre was speared did Phillip reluctantly authorise violence by asking his guard to bring back six Aboriginal heads, which they failed to do.
I posit that Australia’s original inhabitants were not presented with treaties as the Maoris in New Zealand were, as terra nullius was invoked to provide Britain with the necessary legal recourse to ‘claim’ Australia and Aborigines did not have a clearly defined leadership structure with whom treaties could be negotiated with. The settlers from Europe were not arriving with the intention of simply forcing the local inhabitants out of their traditional homes and off their traditional land.
This is partly due to the fact that when Joseph Banks and James Cook first discovered Australia for Britain, they believed the local inhabitants population to be far smaller than it actually was. Banks even suggested that the interior of Australia was likely completely uninhabited.
This was something told to Phillip prior to the First Fleet leaving for Australia and when first realising how large the local population of Aborigines was, Phillip and his officers were very surprised.
Anyone who’s studied, even sparsely, a history of civilizational interactions would be aware of just how violent they often are. This isn’t something only found in European colonialism, it’s something found in every region, every civilization, and every millennia since Homo Sapiens first evolved. It’s certainly out of the ordinary how largely non-violent many of the interactions were between the settlers and Aborigines overall.
Althought the first few years of contact between the first European settlement and local Aborigines was not immune from violence it is clear that violence was not seen as first and foremost the most fundamental way of dealing with either side. Furthermore, strict orders were provided to Captain Phillip to foster a relationship with local inhabitants.
When looking at the interaction from a historical lens the arrival of the first European settlers in Australia and the subsequent interactions with the local Aborigines were mostly peaceful.
January 26th as Australia Day is certainly a good day to celebrate the amalgamation of two distinct and unique cultures and the arrival of fundamental values that have now formed the most important tenets in our society.
Despite all this, I do believe good arguments can be made against celebrating Australia Day on January the 26th. However, I’m going to suggest that the real motivations behind many, if not most, of the protestors are not in-line with any of the good and consistent arguments I’ve heard made against the celebration. It seems that the primary motivations of many of those seeking to abolish Australia Day are the same motivators compelling a variety of other changes.
To be more specific these motivators include virtue signaling, misplaced hatred and more importantly a genuine desire to dismantle the stories and historical legacies a large portion of the Australian culture is based around.
Virtue signalling, for those who are unaware of what it is, is when an individual (or organisation) publicly declares a particular sentiment or opinion in order to demonstrate how good of a person (or group) they actually are. I believe many of the people marching against not just Australia Day but also in support of Black Lives Matter are individuals who are signalling to those around them including friends and family how good of a person they actually are. And when holding these opinions, their veracity or the amount of time put into it is irrelevant, the most important factor is whether or not the opinion makes them look good.
When I say misplaced hatred I’m referring to individuals who call celebrating Australia Day the same as celebrating genocide or something similarly evil. Obviously, that’s not the case. And if someone were celebrating genocide, then their hatred would in fact be justified.
As I stated above, members of the First Fleet did not arrive in Australia and proceed to massacre the indigenous population. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that systematic discrimination did not occur once the British established themselves in Australia, as it most certainly did, and many Aboriginals suffered as a result. What I am suggesting, however, is that the celebration of Australia Day is, in essence, a celebration of the amalgamation of two cultures, the unique circumstances they both evolved to suit and a time to come together for many.
The last motivator I mentioned is the desire to dismantle fundamentally important stories to the Australian culture. And when I refer to the Australian culture I’m referring to the unique ideas, behaviour, lingo, customs, and art found here in Australia. Stories like that of the First Fleet and the arduous journey taken by those abroad its 11 ships are part of that culture. As are the Dreamtime stories found within Aboriginal communities.
Understanding and acknowledging the wrongs of the past is absolutely crucial. And celebrating Australia’s European and Aboriginal history in this great land can be done simultaneously, especially on days like Australia Day.