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On remembering the First Fleet

  • 25 January 2022
  In recent years, Australia Day has been a holiday without title. It has been marketed as a day for all Australians, but is held on a date is seen increasingly as the beginning of the dispossession and humiliation of the First Australians. As a result it is generally received as an opportunity to laze around undisturbed by serious thoughts about Australia.

This year, however, serious thoughts buzz around like flies. Its beginning marks the second anniversary of the bushfires and of the arrival of Coronavirus in Australia. Over these two years the effects of global warming have become tangible, and we are less convinced by easy assurances that after Coronavirus we shall soon resume a predictable life of shared prosperity.

The uncertainty about the immediate and distant future of Australian society in which Australia Day is celebrated this year affects both people of the First Nations and the descendants of later arrivals. Neither the climate nor the virus discriminates. The virus has spread from cities into communities through Western Australia. We are told, too, that the 50-degree temperatures experienced this year in inland Western Australia will also become a feature of summer in Western Sydney. Such prodigies invite us all to ask what kind of a society we want Australia to be and how we may build it in a time of uncertainty.

In doing that we may profitably look freshly at the coming of the First Fleet. The images painters have left us of the landfall portray powerful and handsomely dressed representatives of a mercantile culture settling easily into a new and sparsely populated land, observed by a few poorly clad and primitive native people. They describe a powerful, resourceful and sure future replacing a poor and ineffectual past.

The events of January 26, 1788, however, tell a different story. On that day the fleet abandoned the inhospitable and unpromising Botany Bay and arrived at the more promising, but still precarious, Port Jackson. The landing introduced a time of anxiety and stress both for the First Australians and the invaders. For the Indigenous people the coming of the fleet was a disaster. Recurring pandemics brought by the newcomers killed up to two thirds of local tribes, disrupted their culture and made impossible any resistance to the invaders. For the settlers it was a time of anxiety, of lack of food, of threat to civil order and of adjustment to a strange land. The