In my previous blog article, I mentioned three recent and consecutive dates that commemorated specific events in the life of three different communities. In the 25 January article, I wrote about the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, and the importance of Burns to contemporary Scots. In this, the second of a trilogy of related articles, I wish to speak about 26 January and the celebration of “Australia Day”.
Australia Day is the official national day of Australia. It is celebrated annually on 26 January. It marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and the raising of the Union flag at that site. Wikipedia has this to say about the commemoration: “In contemporary Australia, celebrations reflect the diverse society and landscape of the nation, and are marked by community and family events, reflections on Australian history, official community awards, and citizenship ceremonies welcoming new immigrants into the Australian community”.
However, for some Australian, Australia Day is a day of mourning. I speak, of course, of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal people who populated the continent for many thousands of years prior to its “discovery” by Europeans. According to the historians, it is these people whom directly felt the consequences of foreigners invading their land: wars and massacres; land removed from tribal ownership; “honorary white” status for the purposes of fighting for the British Empire; forced off the land and into missions; neglect of education; communal misery.
According to Nakkiah Lui, an Aboriginal woman in her late 20’s, Indigenous Australians do not celebrate the coming of the tall ships to Botany Bay. As she tells the story, Aboriginal people mourn the white Europeans’ declaration of terra nullius (empty land), the colonisation of the sunburnt continent and the effects of genocide that persist even to this day (as the Australian journalist, John Pilger, has recently argued in his documentary film Utopia).
Nakkiah Lui is also a TV and theatre writer and winner of the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous playwright award. In a recent article she said that, “We mourn while the rest of the country celebrates around us. Protesting against Australia Day is nothing new – it is an ongoing fight for recognition of what has been happening to us for more than 100 years.”
Nakkiah Lui has been protesting since she was two years old – she is now 28. She can remember getting huge cheers from non-Aboriginal people who supported the protest marches in Sydney when she first started. However, she is sceptical if that kind of support would exist now, as she wonders “if our red, black and yellow Aboriginal flags would be welcome among the union jacks and south crosses”.
To my understanding, the contemporary Australia Day commemoration is a day when most people just want to celebrate the place they call home, to be part of a community and to guide Australia into the future. As one of the people, Nakkiah Lui asks the question, “So why can’t we celebrate this on a day that includes all Australians?”
Why not, indeed? In contemporary Australia, surely this question is axiomatic.