So, we are approaching the anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s epic voyage from England to Australia, arriving in January 1788. He chaperoned eleven ships with fifteen hundred souls onboard, roughly half of whom were manacled, half way around the world. A voyage that, in its dimensions and its impact is up there with those of Columbus and Magellan, even the Mayflower.
“I came upon the prison ship
Bowed down by iron chains
I fought the land, endured the lash
And waited for the rains
I’m a settler, I’m a farmer’s wife
On a dry and barren run
A convict, then a free man
I became Australian”
We know that in August 1770 Lieutenant James Cook had claimed the East Coast of Australia as New South Wales, on behalf of George III : that’s what you did in that era at a time when Britain had very little in the way of ‘possessions’ in the southern hemisphere and there was much competition.
It is rarely recorded that the French, in 1772 planted a flag on the Western portion of this continent in the name of Louis XV. On 28 March 1772, the Breton navigator Louis Aleno de St Aloüarn landed on Dirk Hartog Island and became the first European to claim possession of what is now Western Australia as Australie-Occidentale Française.
In both instances these competing colonial powers realized that you can’t just plant a flag and leave a jar of coins and express a few pompous sentiments to acquire a new possession or colony. You actually had to occupy the land either as the result of invasion or by peaceful settlement with or without the consent of any existing inhabitants.
“I came from the dream-time
From the dusty red-soil plains
I am the ancient heart
The keeper of the flame
I stood upon the rocky shores
I watched the tall ships come
For forty thousand years I’ve been
The first Australian”
The English had adopted the rather dodgy concept of Terra Nullius to justify their acquisition of territories on the basis that the land belonged to no-one – a legal concept used by the British government to justify the settlement of Australia.
As one of Irish heritage I tend to be somewhat ambivalent about being invaded by the English and we probably don’t need to get into whether it was an invasion or a settlement or an uninvited occupation. What is clear is that the colonial powers of the day saw it as their right to seize the land of others, frequently in the name of a monarch and enthusiastically supported by their chosen deity. This happened on every major land mass on this planet, with the Americas and Africa featuring prominently not to overlook the Indian sub-continent and many parts of Asia. At least in Australia, Christian conversion was not the primary driver for Arthur Phillip’s south seas adventure : that came later.
The race for possessions was on and in 1788 it was largely the British and the French who were out to grab their share in the Southern hemisphere : the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch had already ‘settled’ areas of South and central America, the Philippines and Indonesian archipelagoes and whilst the Dutch were very familiar with New Holland as they called Australia, they saw little commercial value in claiming the continent. Joseph Banks, however had convinced George III that Terra Australis represented an ideal location for a convict settlement particularly so now that the North American settlers had demanded independence and America was no longer a dumping ground for British miscreants.
Shortly after his arrival at Botany Bay Arthur Phillip was joined by Comte La Pérouse’s two ships which had arrived off the coast on 24 January 1788, but were unable to enter Botany Bay until 26 January, the same day that Phillip began to move the entire First Fleet to the more hospitable Sydney Cove in the harbour of Port Jackson. The French must have realized that their ambitions on the East Coast were forfeit to the English and La Peruse soon headed out to sea and was never heard from again.
As we approach Australia Day or Invasion Day 2023 and as we anticipate a referendum on an Aboriginal Voice to our parliament it is, in my view, time that we acknowledge that whatever has occurred in the past we are now one nation and in the words of what should be our national anthem :
“We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian”
I am, you are, we are Australian”
Here are The Seekers with the full rendition of that anthem :
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