Australia Day luncheon of the Nepean and Rye Historical Societies
The address by Stuart Macintyre AO to the luncheon:
Thank you for that generous introduction. I want first to acknowledge and pay my respect to the people and elders of the Boonerwrung people of the Kulin nation, and also to express appreciation to the Nepean and Rye historical societies as we meet on this southerly spit of Australia.
Australia does not lend itself to easy pronunciation. We put the stress on the second syllable and leave the remainder to look after itself – Astra’yer. And we smile at those such as Queen Elizabeth who try to enunciate all the components, Orstralia.
The Europeans who moved out across the oceans and into this region made landfall from the seventeenth century at some extremities of Australia. They marked a large area on their maps with the Latin phrases Terra Australis Incognita or sometimes Terra Australis Nondum Cognita.
Terra means the land, Incognita unknown; Nondum expresses greater confidence as it means not yet. Australis is an adjective derived from the Latin word for the south, Auster. Hence this was the unknown southland.
Unknown to Europeans, of course, but known intimately by the people who entered it some 50,000 years ago by means of the Timor sea and spread rapidly to occupy the whole of the landmass.
Given their long occupation of Australia, longer by far than the inhabitants of the islands on the north-west coast of Europe who raised a flag at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 to proclaim possession, it is little wonder that the celebration of Australia Day has to negotiate sensitivities. Hence the recall by Aldi of that tee-shirt bearing the message ‘Australia, Est. 1788’.
It was Matthew Flinders, the English naval officer who sailed around Australia in 1802-3 and published an account in his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis, who suggested the term be converted to Australia, a word he described as ‘more agreeable to the ear’. Since there is no record how this man from the English midlands pronounced the word, we can only conjecture at why he thought it agreeable.
His suggestion was taken up in 1817, nevertheless, by Lachlan Macquarie, the governor of New South Wales, and when Macquarie was buried on the island of Mull in his ancestral Scotland in 1824, the name of Australia was inscribed on his tomb. While New South Wales was the official name for the colony, Australia was in common usage – and in turn applied to the new colonies of Western and South Australia.
It was Macquarie who declared 26 January a public holiday in 1818, beginning an annual custom of official celebrations on what was known as Anniversary Day.
The early observance of Australia Day carried a political meaning. It was a festival of the former convicts, the emancipists as they were known, who had served their sentences and were now making their lives in the new land, seeing it as a place of opportunities denied to them back in Britain.
Macquarie’s term as governor was notable for his encouragement of these emancipists, who were shunned by those colonists known as the exclusives ¬– the officers and free settlers who took up large land grants, enjoyed privileges and wanted nothing to do with the criminal classes.
The exclusives thought of the colony as their own; Macquarie, on the other hand, believed it should be open to all. The very fact that he sat at the banquet table with emancipists to celebrate Anniversary Day ensured the exclusives stayed away.
Macquarie is notable also for his attempts to restrain abuse of Indigenous people. He established a mission for the education of Aboriginal children, instituted an annual gathering or Congress from 1814 at which food, tobacco, clothing and blankets were distributed, presented breastplates to Aboriginal men as markers of their authority. If none of these overtures stemmed the violent dispossession, they were at least evidence of a white conscience.
Anniversary Day on the 26th of January had no relevance for the colonies other than New South Wales. In the course of the nineteenth century they turned their own foundation days into public holidays. We marked Separation Day, the first of July 1851 when Port Phillip District was separated from New South Wales and named Victoria.
But if Victorians wished to lay claim to a foundation day, it would probably be the 9th of October – which falls opportunely between the Grand Final and the Spring racing carnival. For it was on the 9th of October 1803 that Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins of the Royal Marines entered Port Phillip Bay on Her Majesty’s Ship Calcutta and established a settlement just up the road from here at Sullivan’s Bay.
Many of you will know more about it than me, but let me attempt a brief summary for those who don’t. In early 1803, when London decided to establish a new settlement on this corner of the mainland, the existence of Bass Strait had only recently been ascertained. It had the advantage of cutting a week or more off the sailing time from England (as previously ships had to navigate around the south coast of Tasmania).
The problem was that French ships had also been exploring the Strait and war with France, Britain’s great rival, was about to resume. So the decision to send 300 convicts and 50 marines was intended to forestall an interloper.
The timing of this decision was unlucky. It was not until January 1803 that a naval officer sent from Sydney found the Yarra River, and pressed beyond its swampy lower reaches to the more inviting prospects around Dight’s Fall. News of his discovery had not reached London when Collins departed.
He was under instructions to get cracking, so Sullivan’s Bay it was, even though the soil seemed poor, the timber scrubby, the water brackish. Collins unloaded his stores and human cargo, had the convicts build a jetty, clear a square, put up a battery and magazine, build huts and plant gardens.
Sullivan’s Bay was conceived as a temporary settlement, but efforts to find a better one were unsuccessful. Collins sent a naval officer and surveyor round the Bay, yet they failed to spot the entrance of the Yarra and encountered hostility from the Wurrinjeri people, who seemed more numerous and threatening on the northern shore. He thought he would need a stronger force to defend the settlement, which in any case was unlikely to support itself, so he sent message to Governor King in Sydney suggesting that the settlement be moved.
The Governor agreed and early in 1804 these early colonists abandoned Victoria for Tasmania. During their brief occupation twenty convicts escaped. Twelve were recaptured, one shot, and the remaining seven lost – except for one, William Buckley, who reappeared when white men again settled at Port Phillip after living for 31 years among the Wathaurang people.
So ends my history lecture. I’ve inflicted it on you in the belief that history has a place in and on Australia Day. As the celebration of anniversaries has increased in frequency and as they have expanded into major events and public spectacles, it would seem that their historical content has diminished.
The public authorities that organised the Australian Bicentennial and the various State sesquicentenaries in the closing decades of the last century were expected to put an emphasis on celebration; too much critical reflection on the foundational event could only arouse controversy. The marketing manager who organises the centenary of a sporting club will no doubt announce a team of the century at a lavish black-tie dinner, but will anyone be able to remember – will anyone care – how the club began?
Just as the exclusives refused to accept the presence of emancipists in early New South Wales, so those who orchestrate the commemorative anniversaries that are so prominent a feature of the public calendar shun the disreputable. They want a congenial, affirmative past, a story sanitised of mistakes and false beginnings, one that celebrates success and achievement, encourages patriotic pride.
‘Celebration of a nation, let’s make it grand’, ran the Bicentenary jingle. ‘Be proud West Australians, be proud of what you’ve got’ was WA’s equivalent.
Historians regard such exhortations with suspicion. They are uncomfortable with projecting the present onto the past. The convicts who were released from confinement in the holds of the First Fleet and brought ashore in January 1788 were English, Irish, Scots and Welsh exiles. Some indeed were African-Americans. When they stood squinting in the harsh light of Sydney in high summer to hear Governor Arthur Phillip read his proclamation on 26 January 1788, they did not put aside their nationalities for an Australian one, nor did they think they were creating a new nation.
Phillip and the other leading figures in the colonial venture, including Macquarie, were career officers with prior service in the Americas, India and other parts of the British empire who would return after this tour of duty to Britain.
Here, I can detect you thinking, is a typical instance of the quibbling academic. Those responsible for the public celebration of historical anniversaries are not interested in such arcane distinctions. Commemoration is a form of monumental history, not academic history, and the professional historians who keep raising objections to its simplified and selective narrative of national achievement are missing the point.
Yet even monumental history cannot function without historians. If Australians are to be drawn into public commemoration, if they are to feel interest in foundational events, then they need to know of the exemplary figures and formative episodes that make up the national story. ‘What sort of country doesn’t know the name of its own first prime minister?’ was the question asked by the body responsible for celebrating the Centenary of Federation in 2001.
It is common to lament the low level of such knowledge, and those who do so usually point the finger of blame at history teachers. How is it that young people can spend ten or more years in school and emerge ignorant of the basic facts of Australian history? A satisfactory answer to that question would have you nodding off into your coffee cups or calling for stronger drink, so I’ll mention only some of the reasons.
First, until the recent introduction of the national history curriculum, most students had no classes in history. Rather, they were given fragments of it in primary school and then dealt with select topics in a secondary school subject called studies of society and environment. Second, only a fortunate minority had the advantage of learning history with a trained history teacher. Third, even this fortunate minority found Australian history boring.
We know from research carried out by my colleague Anna Clark, who conducted extensive interviews with teachers and students across the country, that these students were excited by their encounter with the ancient world, medieval Europe, the Renaissance and modern history. Such studies were rich and challenging. But the teachers and students told Anna Clark that nothing ever happened in Australian history: it was dreary, repetitive and unimaginative; too many governors and explorers, too drab and parochial.
It was for this reason that the new national history curriculum adopted a framework of world history. When the curriculum authority asked me to start the process with a paper suggesting how we should teach history, I argued that we will understand Australian history better if we appreciate the long history of other places and other peoples.
We often hear talk of the Indigenous occupation of this continent as unique in its undisturbed longevity, and it was; but we can see the distinctive characteristics of Aboriginal Australia more clearly if we know more about the peopling of other continents; equally, we will better appreciate Aboriginal ecology and culture if we know more about how and why agriculture, towns and writing developed in other places.
And the same applies to the penal settlement of Australia as part of a much larger process of European expansion, to our migrant experience and much else. 50 million Europeans emigrated to other parts of the world in the nineteenth century, and the great majority of those who crossed the Atlantic Ocean before 1815 did so involuntarily.
I wrote my paper in 2008 and there was broad support for this approach. The development of the curriculum extended over the following four years. It was directed by a statutory organisation with a board made up of representatives of the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. It oversaw an iterative process of submissions, consultations, workshops and conferences that provided constant feedback. It employed the curriculum writers, more than a dozen of them for history, who produced successive drafts until the final version that is now being taught.
This history curriculum provides a systematic and sequential learning of history from the earliest times to the present. It introduces students to the major civilizations, allows them to follow the changes to economy, social structure, government, beliefs. It treats both the long history of Aboriginal Australia and then colonial and national history.
I’m sure that some of you will have noted the criticisms of the curriculum from the new Federal Minister for Education. He claims that it is unbalanced, that it tells of the trade unions but not the contribution of business, that more Labor prime ministers are mentioned than the non-Labor ones.
Both these allegations are untrue. The curriculum includes the formation of trade unions and then the decision by the president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1907 awarding a living wage to breadwinners, the first such provision in the world; but it also draws attention to the industries that enabled such rapid economic growth and supported such a high standard of living: pastoralism, mining, agriculture, manufacture. Five prime ministers are mentioned by name, the majority of them non-Labor.
Beyond this, the Minister alleges that the curriculum fails to teach students the western tradition that provided Australia with its national institutions and values: the rule of law, the civic culture, parliamentary democracy. The only evidence he cites is the alleged failure to include Magna Carta, but that great charter forced on King John by the barons assembled at Runnymede, near London, in 1215 is specifically included.
It would be more accurate to say that the history curriculum follows the history and culture of Western Europe and the United Kingdom as only one of the major world civilizations, for it requires them study those of India, China, Japan and other regions as well. The reasons for this seem to me to be indisputable. An increasing proportion of Australians have come from these places, and Australia itself is enmeshed with them. If young Australians are to understand the twenty-first world in which the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly important, they need to know its history.
The Minister makes frequent appeal to what he calls the Judeo-Christian basis of Australian society. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are three linked religious faiths, each monotheistic, each defined by scripture. They share foundations in what we would call the Old Testament, but of course each has claimed to possess an exclusive status and they have frequently been in conflict. Judeo-Christian is a recent and misleading bracketing of two of them and I do not believe it is the business of a government to prescribe it.
But at a deeper level Australian history is deeply rooted in the powerful themes of this religious tradition. The Old Testament tells us of expulsion, exodus and exile, a story that speaks to the experience of convicts who founded a penal colony – just as it did to the Africans transported to the plantations of the Americas. It tells of dispossession in ways that resonate with the treatment of the Indigenous peoples. It tells of sacrifice and endurance in the wilderness as pioneers battled a harsh environment, fire and drought. And it tells of redemption, the way that a people overcame their tribulations.
When I was teaching Australian history to undergraduates at Harvard a few years ago, my students found the story of Anzac perhaps the most perplexing. How could a country take an abject military defeat as its defining event? How could a nation be thought to come of age fighting in the service of the empire so far from home in such a disastrous campaign as the attempt to force the Dardanelles?
I’m not sure that I was able to explain why the story of Gallipoli speaks to so many Australians, but I sometimes think of that puzzlement when I hear claims that we have to reject the black armband view of Australian history. Australia is a remarkable success story. We enjoy an enviable prosperity, a freedom and a level of tolerance that many envy. For that very reason I think we should be more generous to those in need, we should resist the encroachments on our civil liberties, and we should stop demonising refugees.
But our amenities of life were not given to us, we had to win them. Nor can we assume they stay won. For more than 150 years we narrowed the inequality of income and wealth, but from the 1980s it began to widen once more and is now back to where it was in the 1920s.
The shrill nationalism that thinks this country has to be protected from any criticism, and that our history has to be purged of any failures, does a disservice to patriotism. Boasting is a form of weakness, not strength. And since a ship that carried the failed early settlers out through the Heads at the end of January 1804, 210 years ago, reminds us of that checkered history, it is a fitting place for us to reflect on the country’s past.
The first Anniversary Day banquets in Sydney were accompanied by odes presented by a former convict, Michael Massey Robinson, who would also propose the toast. They were masculine affairs, so his toast was to ‘The land, boys, we live in’. In the spirit of my reflections on Australia Day, could I ask you to stand and join with me in a more inclusive toast to ‘The land we all live in’.