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On remembering the First Fleet



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 First Fleet comprised about 1,000 convicts and 500 soldiers, most of whom lacked skills in farming or building. As a result, crops and flocks failed to flourish. Governor Philip had to send to Indonesia for provisions.


"The Australian experience of the last two years has also put into relief positive qualities of Australian culture on which a better future can be built."


The reasons why the British government sent the first fleet also contributed to the anxiety and resultant hostility among those who arrived on it. The preponderance of convicts in the intended penal colony encouraged institutional relationships based on fear, inequal power and exclusion between prisoners and free people. The newcomers’ claim to the land bred anxiety and resentment between the First Australians and the settlers. Both lived off the same land. The geopolitical goal of the First Fleet to prevent the French and other European powers from establishing a base in the land, too, created anxiety about foreigners. It was strengthened rather than weakened by the cordial encounters with French expeditions.

The anxiety built into the foundations of Australia readily found expression in hostility and punitive behaviour towards Indigenous Australians, prisoners and foreigners. This became characteristic of Australian society and was reflected in attitudes to and treatment of Indigenous peoples, refugees, non-European migrants, and in penal policy.

When the beginnings of Australia are set against this background, Australia Day become an occasion for recalling the sadness as well as the achievements of colonisation. It evokes the demeaning as well as expansive strands of Australian culture. It recognises the loss of the First Australians as they endured despoliation, infection and discrimination, and evokes wonder at their resilience. It also recognises how the initial anxiety and hostility have shaped subsequent institutional and personal relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, and the impact of these on their life expectancy, health, access to education and work, vulnerability to imprisonment and ability to participate in the decisions that impact on their lives.

The Australian experience of the last two years has also put into relief positive qualities of Australian culture on which a better future can be built. They are evident in the small friendships across boundaries of race and religion, the mutual support of people in drought, fire and flood, and the generous service to public life and the building of local communities. We have come to value the sacrifices made by people in accepting restrictions for the common good, and the generosity of nurses and others in the medical system, and in other essential services. These counteract the pull of anxiety and hostility and embody hope for a better Australia. They are the core of a decent Australia Day.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: The Mellish in Sydney Harbour. (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day, First Australians, First Fleet



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Existing comments

'Understanding Australia' seems to be an industry these days, with comments from so many vantage points. What would have happened if Australia had never been colonised and its ATSI inhabitants had only limited contact with outsiders, such as Indonesian fishermen in the north? Would it be like some parts of the Andaman Islands, where outsiders are banned? Strange as it may seem to us, the Convict System was originally envisaged to reform people and give them a new life. Jackie French, herself the descendant of convicts, sums up what the First Fleet experience might have been like for some in her young adolescent novel 'Tom Appleby: Convict Boy' Things were a lot better for those like Tom than in England. He made good, as did many Emancipists. Of course there was a bad side to things and it would be wrong to whitewash our history. We are where we are now and I believe that is a good place. Of course there are social problems and iniquities, but there are people facing up to them and calling them out for what they are, like the admirable Grace Tame. I feel I am unqualified to comment on ATSI affairs as I am not a member of that community and it is a complex situation with many voices, not all of whom agree. If we are to be a tolerant, pluralist, inclusive. multiracial society, which we are fast becoming, Hawaii would be a good example to follow.

Edward Fido | 25 January 2022  
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Edward raises many unanswered questions, some of which encourage a reply.

The French, and perhaps the Dutch and some settler Portuguese, might have established themselves in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. While the Napoleonic Wars would then have almost certainly been fought here, as indeed they were globally, this would have given our First Peoples a chance to take stock and ally themselves with those whose energies were taken up with fighting one another - the Portuguese, and perhaps the French, with some Muslim Malaccans, assimilating more easily with Indigenous populations.

Of course, this is pure conjecture and, in fact, categorically didn't happen. What did happen was a brutality, both by design as well as accident, that neither Grace Tame nor Jackie French comprehensively address, other than through a somewhat romanticised construction of Tom Appleby's exploits and some others'.

That said, what Andy has done, is to point a way forward. I hope and pray, for the sake of us all, that he is right. This is, after all, what we have; but we don't need to be stuck with it! Where smugness sets in and self-congratulatory back-slapping becomes the order of the day we barter humanity for trash.

Michael Furtado | 26 January 2022  

‘What’s in name’? wrote Will Shakespeare. Actually, a very lot. There is a good reason why November 11 is called ‘Remembrance Day’, not ‘We Beat the Boche Day’. For similar reasons, January 26 would be better known by its original name ‘Anniversary Day’, a day of reflection, rather than ‘Australia Day’, a day for making whoopee. And if we want a truly significant date for an Australian National Day on which we could all share, then January 1 is surely the perfect choice for Commonwealth Day. Alternatively (and this might suit the republicans amongst us) we could make a take over the second Monday in June by rebadging it as our Republic Day.

Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2022  
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Although I would now be seen as a 'racist' because of my opinions about the Statement from the Heart etc. I have no problem, like Ginger Meggs, with moving Australia Day to January 1st - the obvious day. Then, because Australians would never agree to lose a holiday, find another day during the year to be Indigenous Australia Day, on which there would be displays in museums and art galleries, documentaries on TV, bands/music being played in public spaces, sports competitions featuring Indigenous athletes and so on. Honestly, if we can't solve a simple 'problem' like Australia Day, we'll never get anywhere.

Russell | 26 January 2022  

A thoughtful solution, Russ, and why would it be a 'racist' instead of a 'nation-building' idea?

Michael Furtado | 28 January 2022  

I believe England was called a Commonwealth under Cromwell to distinguish it from the Monarchy, Ginger. Commonwealth Day would genuinely give us something to be joyful about in the New Year. This is a wonderful country and we should celebrate our genuine Heroes of Federation, like Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin. Both were born and educated here, not in England. Deakin, the son of English parents, was offered a knighthood if he would go to England and lead the Liberal Party there. He refused. Australia has produced some of the leading intellectuals and artists of the UK, such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries. All were proudly Australian. With Australian cricketers wiping the slate with England and an Australian coaching England Rugby, not to mention Ash Barty, we are also up there sporting wise. We do have social problems and do need to address underprivilege, such as that many of our ATSI fellow citizens suffer, but there is the goodwill to address that. We must.

Edward Fido | 28 January 2022  
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Another thoughtful, generous and fascinating post by Edward that casts its net a little-bit haphazardly, resulting in the capture of some curious fish.

Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries as seriously good satirists - in the instance of Greer's feminism occasionally in a good cause - I can accept; but as public intellectuals? I think not!

As for Barton, he paraded his racism publicly, and was the architect extraordinaire of the White Australia Policy.

That said; 'Go, Ash Barty!'

Michael Furtado | 28 January 2022  

The fact, sad or otherwise, is that were it not for Phillip's colony founded on January 26, 1788, very few if any of the people identifying as Aborigines would be here to deplore it, celebrate it, or whatever. Because most modern Aboriginal people have some non-Aboriginal ancestry. So inescapably, what the Aboriginal dissidents are objecting to is the fact of their own existence.
The rise of modern Australia with its British institutions is an undeniable and historical fact, and worthy of recognition and celebration in the eyes of much of the population. Despite the fact that there is a convict in my own ancestry, I nonetheless always celebrate on January 26th, and will continue to do so regardless of changes of fashion.
Let times alter as they will. The pattern of ancestral conceptions required for the existence today of any one us is so improbable as to boggle the mind completely.

Ian MacDougall | 28 January 2022  
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With Covid spreading rapidly, I blame ES for the temptation to submit so many of my colleagues here to the glare of my self-assumed, and apologetically critical, 'locked-down' eye.

Therefore, in seconding Ian's citation of our shared British cultural heritage, including the resilience and pragmatism of its institutions and political culture, as a proud Australian of non English-speaking background and political scientist (who dabbles in ethics at this late stage of life) I would like to query the basis of Ian's contention that, somehow, the admixture of 'White' genetic inheritance, defying the evidence of our shared human DNA, somehow debars those of Indigenous cultural heritage from identifying with and questioning the ballyhoo celebrating Australia Day as somehow countermanding those who seek a more deeply reflective response to the events of January 26, 1788, when life changed inexorably for many, greatly advantaging some, while egregiously damaging others.

Much as I share a great admiration for the history and culture of the Scots, one of whom I am delighted to welcome as a member of my extended family (by virtue of his proposed marriage to a daughter later this year) I wonder what genetic inheritance has to do with it at all.

Michael Furtado | 28 January 2022  

‘non English-speaking background’

Meaning what? If you could speak English from childhood, ‘NESB’ is a label which doesn’t describe you at all. What if you came from a line of Indo-Anglican clerics? Would you be calling yourself a NESB still? Are your kids NESB? Is Kamala Harris NESB? Are Jamaicans NESB?

roy chen yee | 30 January 2022  

Good question, Roy. As much as my parents were English-speakers, they spoke the kind of stultified/literary/archaic English, associated with Anglo-India, and replete with exclamatory remarks, such as 'I say, old chap' and 'You do realise, don't you' that hallmarks the patois of my people and which accounts for my over-precise long-windedness, in which some colloquialisms don't come easily to me or don't feel quite right.

When we have covered this territory before, Roy, I have added that it is a subaltern's way of speaking - sweet, quaint even - but in the end the dregs of a language picked up by underlings and, as Gayetri Spivak shows, the communication system of those who are/were taught to 'know their place'. Rushdie mocks it well.

'Conjuncting' such a language were many expressions from Portuguese and Hindi, and, in which context we were taught to feel the kind off shame that eventuated in our acquiring a cut-glass delivery that put Margaret Thatcher's to shame.

By way of contrast, the smile of Australia seems to shine through the open speech of those, like Julia Gillard, who brought a humanity and improvement to my own.

What of your's, Roy? What influences have softened your delivery?

Michael Furtado | 31 January 2022  


‘Victimologically’ still living in the pre-Vatican 2 past? You learn English (or, if I were one of your Anglo-Indians, I’d say, ‘One learns English….’ --- although V. S. Naipaul, Indian but not Anglo, used to say, ‘One’, but is he a ‘subaltern’?) as it is taught in schools with common teaching materials decreeing how the coloniser’s language ought to be spoken, no differently from how standard Australian English is decreed to be spoken by Aborigines and immigrants through schools today.

This English-inflected language-subaltern stuff is just history by accident just as the fact that we’re not speaking Japanese under compulsion is just history by accident. If the British had delegated the running of India to the Scots and Welsh, you’d be speaking English without bells and whistles in a Scottish or Welsh accent. Would you still be a ‘subaltern’ then given the history of attitudes of the Scots and Welsh to the English?

You can adjust your style of speech just as you can adjust your writing. We’re not just prisoners of our upbringing or genes or whatever. The story of the Fall implies that the orientation of the human mind and body is to something outside it. Work out your style without breaching moral principle and go for it.

roy chen yee | 02 February 2022  

Thanks for your grammar and syntax lesson of February 3, Roy, but as usual in your haste to point-score you miss the point by a country mile.

There are inflections and usages in all postcolonial parlance and writing that reflect an ever-transitioning use of language, especially English, which is global, rather than specificallly English or American or Australian, be it Anglo-Australian or Aboriginal English, for there are several different forms of English, including modalities that are inter-generational as well as gendered, as you must know but either cannot see or scorn.

I wouldn't welcome anyone to your hapless 'King Canute' view of the world, which was swept away light years ago and is still changing culturally on all fronts, be they religious, political and ethical.

A Chinese-Australian, at the very least, should be able to recognise the existence of the Stockholm Syndrome which describes the psychological condition of a victim who identifies with and empathizes with their captor or abuser and their goals.

In your instance I respectfully suggest that your deep and entrenched reaction to all that is emancipatory and liberating, especially within the religious and theological spheres, relates to your falling victim to the entrapment of tunnel-visioned chauvinists.

Michael Furtado | 09 February 2022  

Roy, your post of February 6 again demonstrates your skill at 'reductio ad absurdum'. The Canadians and New Zealanders as well as numerous others have managed to resolve their differences without resorting to the kind of fallacious and exaggerated excuses that Ian, you and, to a smaller extent, Edward resort.

This is not about Malcolm Mansell versus Bruce Pascoe but an earnest, widely canvassed and well supported effort on all sides to help bring about a just and lasting peace.

Michael Furtado | 09 February 2022  

Here are some ‘subalterns’ speaking derivative English, shame, shame, shame.

www youtube com/watch?v=rkyH5Oe_f7g

One wonders why they can’t watch YouTubes of Putin to, you know, show a little independence by speaking English like him, no subaltern he, surely.

www youtube com/watch?v=jrXf8Qn9pBI

roy chen yee | 10 February 2022  


As in captured by the dominant syndrome that same-sex marriage is an intellectually coherent concept? Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps there is a subaltern situation occurring, presided over by Father Sosa’s formerly non-existent but now begrudgingly conceded Devil.


Your historical inaccuracy maligns Canute whose intention was to demonstrate that you cannot stop a force ordained by God. Is the movement towards same-sex marriage a social force ordained by God? If God exists, a social force cannot be considered to be ordained by him unless it is defensible in God’s own theology, theology being, for now, while we can only glimpse dimly in a mirror, the invisible master science behind all causes-and-effects.

Perhaps this explains the urge to conflate conscience with opinion or, more precisely, conscience with feeling, as a step towards rigging the theology. This is also why practising epistemology is how we recognise when something is being rigged.

roy chen yee | 10 February 2022  

‘fallacious and exaggerated excuses that Ian, you and, to a smaller extent, Edward resort.’

As usual, a claim is made but no reasons are given. Fallacious? Exaggerated? How?

‘a just and lasting peace.’

Peace is generated in an individual and repeated over a group. If you want a just and lasting peace, give faith and a decent job to one First Peopler and, by example, replicate, like our good friend SARS, to create a robust middle class of orthodox, Christian First Peoplers. In fact, a robust middle class of orthodox, Christian everybody.

roy chen yee | 11 February 2022  

Roy (3/2), here's James on Naipaul:

'(O)nce, at his home in London, a workman wanted his help in opening a window, and Naipaul telephoned his wife at her place of work to tell her that he was being disturbed, and could she come home immediately because there was manual labour to be done. Or so the legend goes: with him there are always legends, increasingly boosted, in the autumn of his patriarchy, by his own testimony. He behaved like an autocrat to his women, and in 2008 he cooperated with a biography saying that he did. Throughout his writing career, some of his most entertaining stuff has been written in contempt of the backwardness of the culture from which his family fought to emerge. He can be hilarious about just how little cleaning an Indian cleaner gets done when cleaning the steps of a government building, but perhaps the hilarity would be less hilarious if you were an Indian. Nevertheless, we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart. Like the comparably great Nirad Chadhuri, he is supreme for his style as a writer in English, not for his profundity as an Indian thinker.'

Like you?


Michael Furtado | 18 February 2022  

Undeniable fact, and as objective as they come: of the modern people who identify as Aborigines and who wish to 'change the date' and incline to recitation of endless slogans about stolen land, most have non-Aboriginal ancestry to a greater or lesser extent. So if they had the power to turn back the clock and prevent Phillip's landing and all those landings that came after his, those date-changers would themselves disappear as in a puff of smoke. (Moral: be careful what you wish for.)
Please note: I have great admiration for the achievements of the Aborigines. Having no more than stone and wood for the basis of their technology, they took that technology about as far as it could be taken. Significantly also; no expedition is on record in which descendants of their founding populations made the return sea-voyage to spread the news into Asia about their ancestors' discovery of this continent. But its eventual discovery and colonisation by some foreign mob or other was only a matter of time.
And the rest is history.

Ian MacDougall | 30 January 2022  

I can see, Ian, that you are a straight-talking, no
nonsense, 'stone and wood', nuts and bolts kind of guy.

'Course, there's sometimes a bit of 'wood that's missed for the trees', in the context of which I wonder how you conclude that commemoration of an Invasion Day, alongside a Settlement Day (on the same day and inclusively incorporating two realities) would be both inequitable as well as ahistorical?

Why can't this be about You AND Them, rather than You OR Them? Is there not room enough for ALL of Us?

Michael Furtado | 31 January 2022  

‘how you conclude that commemoration of an Invasion Day, alongside a Settlement Day (on the same day and inclusively incorporating two realities) would be both inequitable as well as ahistorical?’

Would that be like black people celebrating their free speech right to proclaim critical race theory at one end of the park and the Ku Klux Klan bemoaning ‘white cultural suicide’ at the other end, free speech being as true as an historical phenomenon at one end of the park as the other and both points of view, being wrong, being as equitable as the other?

roy chen yee | 05 February 2022  

Race in Australia is not as it was in sad old Apartheid South Africa, Ian MacDougall. There they had a classification 'Coloured'. Coloured South Africans, have their own long and proud history and heroes, including the likes of Alan Boesak. I often wondered who the current Tasmanian Aboriginals were, as, extremely regretably, most of them seem to have been wiped out in a barbarous, planned act of genuine, culpable genocide in the 19th Century. They are, I understand, descendants of the Cape Barren Islanders, who were a mixture of white sealers and Aboriginal women. The estimable Michael Mansell is, I believe, of such genuine, verifiable descent. He and other genuinely accepted Aboriginal people are scathing of the supposed Aboriginality of Bruce Pascoe. I am only a migrant kid, so cannot comment authoritatively on the matter, but my private opinion is that Bruce may turn out to be another Helen Demidenko: a dud. That is sad.

Edward Fido | 31 January 2022  
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Enjoyable to read and well-informed as they are, Edward, your posts frequently position one side against another, e.g. Mannix versus Simmons and, in this instance, Mansell versus Pascoe. That doesn't have to be the case, since the claims of Indigenous Australians to an equal life of dignity and sharing rest upon their unique prior presence on this land.

Thus genetics and race-inheritance theories have nothing to do with it and pursue a pattern of differentiation and identification that is quite unscientific, disreputable and, in contemporary educated parlance, without reference to culture, which is the wider, socially-literate and more acceptable marker of identity.

In fact, no one, apart from those whose schooling stopped several years ago in about Grade 3 or 4 would employ as a determining factor in who they are the extent to which they are 'mixed race' or 'full-blooded'.

Such modalities of race classification, typical of pre-Darwinism, were responsible for the use of monikers such as 'quadroon' and 'octoroon' and, like the pejorative 'nigger', hasn't just fallen out of intelligent conversational exchange but has come to signify deep-seated if, at times, unintended ignorance.

Your posts would attain sublime conviction by acknowledging the common status of all human DNA.

Michael Furtado | 18 February 2022  

‘the common status of all human DNA.’

By definition within the Christian context, the Fall means that not all human DNA can be considered of equal moral status, unless all aberrant behaviour comes from aberrant psychology rather than aberrant genetics. Not that, in the end, there is an objective moral difference between the two: all aberrant psychologies or, if they exist, aberrant genetics, have to be borne as objective crosses and not affirmed as subjective virtues.

roy chen yee | 21 February 2022  

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