Truth and Reconciliation II

There’s a perception that Australia was created as a nation the moment Captain Cook landed.  In fact it was claimed originally as a colony and only on the east coast.  The rest that follows is an ad hoc, patched together chain of events based on a need for a place to dump prisoners, luck, disagreements, a private company,  and policy on the run, until federation.

Even after Federation, it took more years for the current flag to fly over a new capital city to house Federal Parliament.  Given the newness of the current look of Australia, it’s no surprise we haven’t come to terms with the true history of this nation.  In my grandfather’s life time, we fought under two flags, South Australia was a colony and the federal government sat in Melbourne.

Growing up in South Australia in the 60’s and 70’s, our colonial history was taught at primary school as a minor subject, with some reference to Aboriginal people holding spears and greeting Captain Cook as he ‘discovered’ the land.  I don’t remember ever being taught South Australian history at school.

The ignorance of the formation of our country in previous and successive generations to this day, has allowed for misinformation to take hold over public discourse.  We are unable to sort fact from fiction.  This was exacerbated with the outcry over history wars during the Howard years, which turned teaching our past in schools and universities into a political football.

Australia has to face the truth of our history and how it has impacted on our First Nations people, to mature as a country.  Continuing to deny the past or minimise the generational discrimination in racist policy and actions, has paralysed debate.

We have seen the healing achievable from memorials and apologies, and other countries have shown how war trials, documenting events and testimonies of witnesses can offer a way forward.

There are several important objectives in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The first is recognising what Cook himself understood to be true, that the land was occupied when he arrived, and the people were self sufficient and wanted for nothing.  This negates Bourke’s Proclamation of terra nullius.

The second is officially hearing and recording the impact taking land away from the First Nations people had on their lives, and their descendants since that time.  Historical documentation, oral tradition and personal accounts can provide evidence of this impact.

Thirdly, reparation for the loss of land.  This was dealt with in Zimbabwe by evicting colonisers from their farms.  Fiji refused to renew land leases to Indian Fijians. Through force and stealth, with the backing of the law, colonisers forced Aboriginal people off their land.  How would we feel about the same happening to us?

While we can acknowledge our part in the history of Australia from colonisation by invasion, and provide with collaboration, the framework for a detailed and just Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acceptable reparation and reconciliation can only be led by the First Nations people.  Amendments to the Constitution form part of that reparation, but we are working backwards with the order of things.

Without frank acknowledgement of the injustices of the past, and the facts of prior occupation and the foundation of Australia, we won’t be open to the amendments that need to be made.  That is, we will stop from being said what has to be said for true reconciliation.

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Truth and Reconciliation I

When apartheid was abolished in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to hear from victims of gross human rights injustices, in the hope reconciliation could be established for all South Africans.

In Australia, there has never been any official commission or restorative justice body to recognise the colonisation of an occupied country.

When Captain (then Lieutenant in Command) Cook first surveyed the east coast of Australia, with the command to claim the land for the British Empire, he was given secret instructions*

You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents.

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in
the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take
Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and
possessors

According to Cook’s journals**, he was greeted along the entire east coast of Australia from what is now Botany Bay to Possession Island, with having spears and rocks thrown at him and his men; or locals  running away and refusing to have anything to do with him, including any meaningful trade.

Monday 30th – ..in the afternoon 16 or 18 of them came boldly up to within 100 yards of our people at the watering place, and there made a stand.  Mr. Hicks, who was the Officer ashore, did all in his power to intice them to him by offering them presents; but it was to no purpose, all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.

Cook later observes in August 1770

..in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholy unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe; ..in short, they seem’d to set no Value upon anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with anything of their own for any one Article we could offer them.  This in my opinion, Argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life, and that they have no Superfluities.

On Wednesday August 22nd 1770

..on the Western side I can make no new discovery, the honour of which belongs to the Dutch Navigators, but the Eastern Coast from the lat. of 38 degrees S. down to this place, I am confident, was never seen or Visited by any European before us; and not withstanding I had in the Name of his Majesty taken possession of several places upon this Coast I now once More hoisted English Colours and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast from the above Lat. down to this place by the the name of New Wales ..

Cook did not gain the Consent of the Natives and he recorded habitation at each landing.

It wasn’t until 1835 that terra nullius, or ‘nobody’s land’, was used to stop the purchase of land from Aboriginal people, in what is now known as Batman’s Treaty.

The Proclamation of Governor Bourke implemented the doctrine of terra nullius upon which British settlement was based, reinforcing the notion that the land belonged to no one prior to the British Crown taking possession of it. Aboriginal people therefore could not sell or assign the land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown

Federation of the states in 1901 was accompanied with a Constitution for the nation of Australia.  The Overview states:

The Australian Constitution has properly been described as ‘the birth certificate of a Nation’…..the Constitution is a document which was conceived by Australians, drafted by Australians and approved by Australians.

The voice of First Nations people is not heard in the drafting or approval of the document.  Interestingly the Constitution states,

51…The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:

(xxxi)  the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws

 

Next: Truth and Reconciliation II

*http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/scan-sid-252.html

**30th May, 1770, Captain Cook’s Journal 1768-71 Australiana Facsimile Editions No 188, Libraries board of South Australia, 1968.

See also TERRA NULLIUS, THE HIGH COURT AND SURVEYORS by C. L. Ogleby:  A discussion of the High Court decision regarding customary land tenure in Australia. (Mabo)