Australia is afraid. It is home to the world’s deadliest snakes, to poisonous marine stingers and deadly crocodiles. It suffers through annual floods, fires and cyclones, and dangerous spiders lurk in its undergrowth. But something else terrifies Australia: History.
Australians are afraid of their own history. A deep fear of acknowledging its past paralyses Australia and prevents the majority of its citizens from making public statements about the colonisation of the land and the suffering of Aboriginal people.
Politicians are afraid to acknowldge the truth of Australian history.
The current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is afraid. In 2020, he publicly declared that there was no slavery in Australia. He later qualified the statement with obfuscation in order to extricate himself from a PR disaster, but he never acknowledged that slavery did exist in Australia.
On a separate occasion, the PM dismissed the suffering of indigenous Australians when he said,
“You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”
He was referring to the First Fleet, which carried colonisers from Great Britain and began the dispossession of Aboriginal land in 1788. There were only 11 ships.
Scott Morrison is not stupid. He attended an academically-selective high school and he holds university qualifications. He is also a master of marketing (many Australians argue that’s all he is). Morrison knows the consequences of telling the truth. He knows he has to appease the ignorant, racist, lowly-educated constituency which keeps him and his party in power.
Slavery occured in Australia. It was called ‘Blackbirding’ in some places, and called ‘education’ in others – it was never called slavery.
Blackbirding lured indigenous Australians and people from islands north of Australia to the mainland with the promise of work and high wages. Upon arrival at the farm, the workers were not paid for their work, were treated horrendously, forced to work in stifling tropical heat and horrible conditions, and were prevented from leaving or returning to their homelands.
When indigenous children were stolen from their families, they were ‘educated’ in the ways of the white man then sent to work for white families. Girls were normally set to work as domestic servants, while boys were forced to be farmhands. They were not paid. This is slavery.
Wave Hill walk-off
Another example of exploitation led to the Wave Hill walk-off. Some Australians learned about it in their history classes, some learned about it through the Paul Kelly song: From Little Things Big Things Grow.
The original inhabitants of Wave Hill, the Gurindji people, sustained the vast cattle station. In return, children under 12 were forced to work, accommodation and rations were inadequate, Aboriginal women were sexually abused and forced into prostitution for rations and clothing. There was no safe drinking water, nor sanitation or rubbish removal. In August, 1966, the Gurindji walked off under the leadership of Vincent Lingiari.
Furthermore, many indigenous Australians are still trying to recoup unpaid wages to this day.
The Prime Minister is not the only politician with a selective memory. The current opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, recently omitted a crucial paragraph from a speech about indigenous Australian soldiers. Albanese recognised the indigenous Australians who have fought in many wars for Australia, but it was later discovered he had omitted the following paragraph:
“A continent for which their ancestors had fought so desperately during the frontier wars-wars we have not yet learned to speak of so loudly.”
Albanese was happy to mention overseas wars, but left out the paragraph about the war on Australian soil between British colonisers and indigenous people. He left out the paragraph which concedes that Australians do not talk about colonisation – do not talk about the truth of our history.
Why have we not yet learned to speak of it so loudly?
Albanese’s office later claimed the omission was unintentional. Maybe it was, or maybe Albanese and the Labor party also feel desperate to appease the racist majority-especially since a federal election is expected this year. Thus, the current leaders of both of Australia’s major parties have failed to publicly acknowledge the truth of Australians history.
The national broadcaster is also afraid. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) initially referred to January 26 as Invasion Day and not Australia Day in 2021. The label Invasion Day recognises the colonisation of the land, as opposed to the peaceful settlement myth perpetuated in some history books. The ABC soon removed Invasion Day from all official publications and replaced the term with Australia Day.
History is political
Politicians determine the curriculum taught to Australian school students. Until recently, Aussie school kids learned that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive’ and ‘savages’. That they were simply ‘nomads’ who wandered the continent living hand-to-mouth, devoid of science, culture or technology. Students were also taught that Australia was ‘settled’ and not ‘invaded’, that the British were ‘settlers’ and not ‘colonisers’.
Textbooks soften the truth. Many Australians learned that indigenous people died in large numbers due to the introduction of disease for which they had no immune system, and not as a result of murder. Many politicians fought, and continue to fight, to keep this version of history in the school curriculum, and while the teaching material has changed, it is not always becoming more truthful.
Apartheid existed in Australia. Most Australians don’t know, or don’t want to admit, that this is true. The incident at Moree pool proves the existence of apartheid. Aboriginal people were officially excluded from the public swimming pool in the rural NSW town of Moree. Summer gets very hot in Moree. A group of Aboriginal activists visited the town in 1965 and attempted to enter the pool with local indigenous children. Three hours of debate and tension followed, during which fights broke out and non-Aboriginal locals threw eggs at protestors.
Moree Council eventually rescinded the by-law and Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at the pool. Aussies are happy to criticise South Africa for its apartheid, but are largely reluctant to admit its existence in Australia. Or, as one white South African once told me,
“South Africa is not the only country with apartheid, the mistake they made was giving it a name.”
Why is Australia so afraid of its history?
Why are so many Australians afraid to tell the truth about their past?
Australia is a racist country, and the worst of this racism is directed at indigenous people. Racism justified the invasion of Australia by the British. The notion of Terra Nullius, or uninhabited land, justified the dispossession of the land from the original inhabitants. If no one lives here, they believed, then it can’t be stolen – it belonged to no one. Terra Nullius is supported by notions of cultural and racial superiority. The colonisers saw people on the land. They interacted with them. However, they claimed the land was uninhabited because it was devoid of structure and buildings which in European minds constituted habitation.
Racism is not going away. News outlets carried images of a large group of Caucasian Australian men celebrating their membership of a neo-Nazi group on Australia Day weekend this year. Many citizens and even elected politicians have publicly declared their support for Trump and his rhetoric. Fringe political parties with a platform of racism and bigotry, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are winning more votes in elections – which is why mainstream parties are so keen to appease the racists.
Australians are also fed lies about the consequences of telling the truth. Australians have been convinced that officially acknowledging the truth will cost them their homes, as indigenous people will make endless land rights claims and take back possession of suburbs throughout the nation.