Dear fellow BAC members,
The BAC’s Australia Day Picture Contest is almost upon us. This should be a fun day, a day of celebrations, barbecues, and a little gastronomic excess. It should also be a day of remembrance and thanksgiving. Because the First Fleet, which Australia Day commemorates, made us what we are. It was an audacious mission undertaken by a self-confident country just getting started on inventing the Industrial Revolution.
Take a picture or a short video, and send it to the BAC to be published on this website. Put on a red coat or loin cloth, carry a musket or boomerang, and show us the results. Choose a suitable backdrop, no matter how dubious the relevance. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Funny would help. Ironic preferred but difficult to achieve.
Wishing all BAC members and their families a happy Australia Day.
Was the First Fleet Right or Wrong? The Geopolitical Context
Preparations are afoot to conduct a referendum to decide whether to insert an advisory body – an indigenous voice to parliament – in the constitution. The YES campaign has a great head-start on the NO campaign, partly due to misleading notions about the history and geopolitics of British colonisation. The leftist intellectuals who write that history generally adopt the indigenous perspective and omit to mention important factors driving events far beyond Sydney Cove, even beyond London.
If the colonisation of Australia from 1788 is viewed from the British perspective, rather than from the perspective of the indigenous inhabitants, it appears less as a questionable annexation or outright invasion and more as an inevitable race against time and distance.
By 1788 the world was shrinking at an accelerating pace. The states of Britain, Holland and France were competing to build global trading empires. Spain and Portugal had already been marginalised from that competition, as industry and naval power shifted to northern Europe. Four days after the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, it was joined by two French ships captained by Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse. At this time the Russian land empire was also expanding, though across land towards Siberia and finally Alaska. That empire would begin to compete with Britain’s by the 1850s, when the two powers went to war in Crimea. It was in the 1850s that the New South Wales colony fortified a small island in Sydney Harbour, now known as Fort Denison, in case of Russian or French attack. Australia has often been viewed by covetous eyes.
Though the colonial initiative lay with European states in the 18th and 19th centuries, those states did not monopolise the capacity to project power. In the 15th century China had experimented with ocean-going ships, visiting Africa. Closer to Australia, Java, Sumatra and Bali had been linked by sea trade routes to southern India since the first century AD.[i] Polynesians originating in Taiwan and Melanesia had developed ocean-going vessels, horticulture and a warlike culture to spread across the Pacific for perhaps 3,000 years, settling on islands as far apart as New Guinea, New Zealand and Hawaii.
The continent that the British would name “Australia” was about to enter this ferment. It would not remain a backwater for long. Its hunter-gatherer population was tiny compared to the agricultural societies to their north, Typically agriculture and herding have been spread by settler populations that grow to dwarf the original hunter-gatherers. Even if Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of 1800 had somehow adopted agriculture and herding without being colonised, it would have taken them many centuries to grow their population and technology to a level where they could defend themselves against replacement migration. The continent was a power vacuum. The realistic question in the late 18th century was not whether Australia would be colonised, but which culture or cultures would fill the vacuum?
Arguably, the indigenous population won the jackpot when, of all the circling powers, the continent was seized by Britain, an island on the other side of the world. No other power was in the process of limiting its own aggression, whether by outlawing slavery or developing liberal democratic politics. And no other power had invented the industrial revolution, which was set to create a cornucopia of material wealth. These characteristics of the British ameliorated the colonial experience of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. There were unpleasant actions such as occupation of traditional lands, land removals, and the inevitable frontier conflicts with settlers who had the advantage of numbers and technology. At the same time, there was no genocide, the colonial authorities provided legal protection, and indigenous people began voting in elections by the mid 1800s, well before most Englishmen received the franchise.
This historical context deflects much of the guilt being heaped on white Australia’s colonial ancestors. At the same time, it reinforces our obligation to do everything in our power to keep the interpretation true, by ensuring that the jackpot remains a reality. It is also relevant that the six colonies and the federal Commonwealth have gone a long way to fulfilling that obligation. Our commitment to treat indigenous fellow citizens with dignity and respect does not oblige us to disable our system of government in the effort. On the contrary, we have a duty to all citizens to preserve a secure, united, and prosperous Australia.