Opinion: Australia Day and Terra Nullius
Early encounters between the inhabitants of the continent we know as Australia, and seafaring explorers sent by imperial European powers, set the scene for what took place when the British colonised the continent.
These early encounters failed to develop a deepened understanding of each group by the other. Journal records show instances of failed encounter, misunderstood communication, and skewed interpretation (on the part of the journaling explorers) of “the Natives”.
Inevitably, the explorers and then the settlers determined that there were multiple deficiencies in the activities and lifestyle of the inhabitants of the land. (Here, I draw on the work of Australian historian Nick Brodie, in his recent book 1787, subtitled the lost chapters of Australia’s beginnings).
The terms of relationship were set early. In August 1770, when the British sailor James Cook (pictured) became aware that his journey on the ship Endeavour, along the eastern seaboard of the land then known as “New Holland”, was coming to an end, he wrote an entry into his ship’s journal that laid claim to the whole mass of land, in the name of the King of Great Britain.
As he was taking leave of the continent and heading through the Torres Strait on to the islands of New Guinea and then Java, Cook offered a final assessment of the indigenous people that he had observed, and occasionally encountered directly, on his journey up the east coast of Australia.
Of these people, he wrote that they live wholy by fishing and hunting, but mostly by the former, for we never saw one Inch of Cultivated land in the whole Country.
Cook here pens what so many of the invading settlers claimed that they observed, from 1788 onwards: not one inch of cultivated land! As the indigenous people were not cultivating the land (so the thinking went), they would not mind if others came to cultivate that land. Indeed, the duty to civilise these people, through imposing a settled lifestyle, was seen to be paramount.
Cook had been given Secret Instructions in 1768 that, in the event that he found the Continent, he should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. (You can read about these Secret Instructions here).
Cook followed the coast of New Zealand, then turned west, reaching the southern coast of New South Wales on 20 April 1770. He sailed north, landing at Botany Bay one week later, before continuing to chart the Australian coast all the way north to the tip of what is now Queensland.
There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, he declared the land to be a British possession:
Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.
Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants, and here he noted, as he returned to the ship, the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, a certain sign they are Inhabited.
But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land. He was acting in accord with the Doctrine of Discovery, in obedience to his royal orders.
So Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. This action demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, although there might be some initial attempts to live together peaceably, ultimately they would be met with force, violence, and murder.
What became a cause of enduring conflict was the activity of settling on the land, erecting fences, planting crops, farming animals, protecting the property and claiming exclusive rights to the crops and animals now installed on the land.
To those who had formerly lived on this land, this was theft from their land. To those who had established a “civilised” lifestyle on the land, the former inhabitants were irritants to be kept at bay, and eventually enemies to be removed.
Thus murder was normalised in the years of settlement. And the original inhabitants experienced this as aggressive invasion and enforced colonisation.
Changing the date of Australia Day will not undo the damage done by this process. However, it would be one small contribution to recognising the damage that has been done by such colonial, imperial attitudes.
The imposition of British rule was not without cost for the people who were already inhabiting the land when the colonises arrived in 1788. 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. (You can read a report on the vulnerable state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by the Australian Human Rights Commission, here).
And, as I have mentioned before, 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 at the centre of contemporary Australian society.
This is an edited version of an earlier blog post. You can view the original here.
Rev Dr John Squires was formerly Principal of Perth Theological Hall. He is currently undertaking an Intentional Interim Ministry with Queanbeyan Uniting Church.