Australia Day is held on January 26, the date on which the first British settlers arrived to colonize the country in 1788. It's a painful anniversary for hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Australians, marking the start of years of killings and dispossession, and many refer to it instead as Invasion Day. – Google (original emphasis)
Historical revisionism, while often associated with the ultra-right, is actually one of the few things the ultra-left excels at. They constantly tell us that there was an ‘invasion’ of indigenous nations, that the European powers engaged in systematic genocide against the indigenous people, and that 21st-century inhabitants of European descent of a once colonised land have something to ‘apologise’ for and be ‘forgiven’ for.
I reject these claims out of hand.
There was no ‘invasion’ because there was no ‘nation’ to invade.
Before 1901, Australia was a continental landmass – a geological, not a political, entity. Australia only became a nation upon federation in 1901, prior to which there were six distinct colonies.
The pre-Europeanisation population of Australia consisted of numerous groups of mostly hunter-gatherers. There was no ‘nation’ in the sense of an overarching political structure. Any talk of a First Nation in the singular is arrant nonsense, and makes the suggestion of a First Nation treaty with indigenous peoples, past or present, a non sequitur.
The notion of there being First Nations in the plural deserves a little more consideration. The expression ‘First Nations’ originated in Canada, where ‘treaties’ (in inverted commas because a treaty is an instrument of international rather than domestic law) were concluded with 11 aboriginal populations between 1871 and 1921. Similar deals were struck with indigenous entities in the USA.
To be a First Nation, an entity first has to meet the criteria for nationhood. Those were formalised by the Montevideo Convention of 1933, although they had been tacitly recognised in practice since the 17th century. In brief, these criteria involve a defined territory that is under permanent occupation, a system of governance that exercises jurisdiction over that territory, and the capacity to enter into relations with other nations. The Iroquois Nation, the Cree Nation, the Apache Nation and so on met these conditions; these were tribal nations.
When we look at the Australian situation, we see nothing of the sort. The Map of Indigenous Australia produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
… attempts to represent all of the language or tribal or nation groups of indigenous people of Australia. It indicates general locations of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.
(From the introduction to the map at http://www.abc.net.au/indigenous/map/ )
The use of the zoom facility reveals a plethora of micro-“language or tribal or nation groups” in more fertile regions such as Cape York. ‘General locations’ of those nebulously defined ‘groups’ generally reflect the areas over which wandering bands periodically moved; other groups traversed those same areas. Stick a pin in a map of Australia and half a dozen ‘groups’ are likely to lay claim to it.
The Uluru Declaration stated that sovereignty was never ceded. In a way, they got that right – there was no sovereignty to cede, as not a single one of the criteria for nationhood was in operation. There is no similarity between the Australian situation and that of the First Nations of North America.
The colonisation of the continent of Australia was in accordance with international law and the ethics of the period.
European imperial policy from the 18th century on was generally to forge formal relations through treaties with indigenous entities where it was considered that the latter were at a stage of political development that such arrangements were meaningful. During the 19th century, the British in particular were concluding treaties with local ‘big men’ all over the place – literally hundreds in northern Africa alone – which the International Court of Justice held to have been ineligible in international law either at the time or today because nationhood criteria were not met (Cameroon v Nigeria 2002).
Where the people of the land were adjudged to not be at the level of political sophistication required by this approach, the land was held to be terra nullius. To labour the point developed in the last section, the landmass of Australia was quite rightly deemed to fall into this category. Its occupation by European powers was accordingly wholly legitimate.
Colonisation targeted barbarity and started to bring human rights to indigenous populations.
The fashionable neo-Marxist travesty of history would have us believe that the imperial powers – the British in this instance – instigated programmes of genocide against indigenous populations.
As a general statement, the European imperial authorities were protective towards the indigenous inhabitants of colonised lands. The Spanish government passed laws to protect Amerindians as early as 1512. The first prosecutions of settlers for the unlawful killing of Australian Aboriginals were in 1828. However, we are dealing with a period when the rule of law was weak in untamed areas, including the South America of the 16th century and the Australian outback of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Awful things did happen, but on the whole those were the actions of maverick individuals (sometimes including functionaries) and settlers taking the law into their own hands and were not part of any systematic programme on the part of the legitimate colonial authority. Where atrocities took place, the authorities generally acted against the wrongdoers – but in the days of slow communications, that could take years.
Generally, the British in particular left the indigenous people to their own devices with regard to their customary laws, except where customary practices were barbaric. In India, for instance, the practice of suttee – the burning alive of a widow on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre – was outlawed by the colonial authorities. Are we supposed to ‘apologise’ for that?!
Much has been made in Australia of the ‘Stolen Generations’. I call them the ‘saved generations’. There is a tendency for woolly-headed PC zealots to present indigenous culture as benign, but much indigenous culture is entirely inconsistent with conceptions of human rights since the Enlightenment. In the words of Sara Hudson, “It is time to abandon romanticised notions of Indigenous culture” (in “Time to remove the rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Aboriginal culture”, Centre for Independent Studies, 8 July 2016). In his analysis of entrenched sexual abuse of young girls in indigenous communities, Frank Pledge argues in his Quadrant article of 8 November 2013 “Indigenous culture and vile crimes”,
In those remote communities remnant, traditional culture relating to forced marriage of under-aged girls lent an air of legitimacy to these otherwise illegal activities. In traditional societies, girls under the age of legal consent were considered “available” to be partners, with or without their own consent… These traditional practices, I argue, could provide the template on which modern dysfunction has been built.
To again quote Sara Hudson,
We need to acknowledge there are aspects of Aboriginal culture that need to be kept firmly in the past. No culture is static and unchanging, and the belief that Aboriginal culture needs to be frozen and preserved in time is preventing many Aboriginal people from moving forward and embracing modernity.
Bottom line: we have nothing to ‘apologise’ for or be ‘forgiven’ for.
We in the 21st century should not have the sins of our forebears visited upon us. But I go further: on the whole, there are no ‘sins’ that need to be atoned for. People in the past acted in accordance with the legal and ethical norms of their time, which is all that any of us, past or present, can do. I maintain that the European imperial powers, certainly during the later period of the colonial era, generally acted with the well-being of indigenous peoples in mind; and that, on balance, the association between them and us has been beneficial for them.
I don’t want to be ‘forgiven’ because I am not ‘sorry’. I refuse to have any guilt trip imposed on me on the basis of what is largely a nefarious fabrication. I leave the last words to a ‘victim’ of the ‘Stolen Generations’ (reported in The Age of 14 March 2008):
It was a good system. Or a better system than now. At least my generation learnt to read and write properly.
And here’s hoping all you Aussies enjoyed a great Australia Day!
Barend Vlaardingerbroek is a retired academic who worked at universities in PNG, Botswana and Lebanon. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org