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Towards an Australian republic

By Dr George Venturini

“Does Australia have the desire to move into the twenty-first century, or will it continue its retreat into a past as a colonial quarry for the empire of others, its public life ever more run at the behest of large corporations, its people ever more fearful of others, its capacity for freedom and truth with each year a little more diminished?” (Richard Flanagan, from The Australian disease, originally presented as Liberty Victoria’s Alan Missen Oration, and as the Closing Address of the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival).

Lies, bread and circuses

2016, in the Chinese calendar, marks the Year of the Monkey. According to Chinese astrological tradition, monkeys are supposed to be intelligent, quick-witted, clever, ambitious and adventurous – but straight.

Unfortunately, as expected perhaps, the year opened with the customary official lies, barbecues and conferral of foreign ‘gongs’.

26 January commemorates, almost correctly, the arrival of the English invaders of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, more or less on 26 January 1788, the subsequent taking possession on 7 February 1788 of the newly found ‘colony’ of New South Wales, and the vesting of all land in the reigning monarch George III by Captain Arthur Phillip, Commander of the Fleet. On landing, Phillip raised the English flag – a red cross over a white field – never to be confused with the present Australian flag, which carries on its top left corner the Union Jack. As a matter of historical record, it was not so on 26 January 1788, and the present version of it was introduced after the final subjugation of Ireland, with the insertion of Saint Patrick’s saltire. In 1801 Britain dissolved the Irish Parliament and formally unified Ireland with Great Britain. The new Union Jack, bearing the cross of St. Patrick, flew in New South Wales for the first time on 27 May 1801.

Phillip was in charge of the surviving 580 male convicts, 247 female convicts and 150 male marines. Between 1788 and 1868, 134,261 males and 24,568 women would be transported. More than a quarter were Irish Catholics; many of the English convicts were from London.

People of the ‘propertied class’ had long been worrying about the increased criminality of those to whom they referred as ‘the lower orders’. But their ideas for stemming the flood of larceny, mayhem and murder were limited. (R. Ward, Concise history of Australia (Brisbane 1992) 47-48) The English governing classes, those whom G.A. Wood called “the men who plundered their country in habitual political robbery”, (G. A. Wood, Convicts, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 8,4, 1922) thought only of terrifying potential malefactors by hanging more and more of the few who were caught. For the one hundred years prior to the invasion the number of capital crimes in the English statute books rose from about fifty to two hundred. For instance, by the end of the eighteenth century hanging crimes included picking pockets of goods worth more than one shilling, shoplifting of goods worth more than five shillings, and cutting down trees in an avenue or garden. (P. Colquhoun, A treatise on the police of the metropolis (London 1800) 437-440). Most convicts had committed petty theft, in a society in which extremes of wealth and poverty made the rich exceedingly anxious about even petty crime. Some, but few of the convicts, had had the audacity to participate in rural protests, or had the temerity to form trade unions!

From the very first day of contact many convicts and marines stole from the Aborigines their fishing and hunting tackle, their women and sometimes their lives, just as the English government, in the person of Arthur Phillip, has already stolen their land.

The Aborigines fought back as well as they could. Celebration of the landing began in 1791; by 1804 26 January was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day and, subsequently and seriatim, as Anniversary Day, Foundation Day, and Australian Natives’ Association Day – transformed into Australia Day for all the components of the present Commonwealth of Australia – although not without some disagreement.

Over what there is no disagreement is that the initial military encampment was established as a prison for people ejected by the English criminal system, and who could not be transported to America after the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies there.

When Phillip left, the officers of the New South Wales Corps also began the practice, continued by later governors, of granting large tracts of the land to each other. These changes, however discreditable to the officers concerned, did lead to much more efficient farming. The amount of wheat in circulation increased almost as much as the amount of rum. The colony rapidly became self-sufficient in basic foods and the ‘starving time’ a memory. (Historical records of Australia, I,1,413-417).

On 26 January 1804 the colony was otherwise busy: a festering dispute between ‘real estate traders’, merchants and the New South Wales Corps who were in charge of rum, came to an end which resulted in a military dictatorship, properly named ‘the Rum Rebellion’. Another of His Majesty’s gifts will be, and remain, alcoholism.

Three more naval governors, John Hunter, Philip King and William Bligh, tried without avail to break the rum traffic and to mitigate the social and economic evils that it nourished.

Sedated somewhat by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the colony prepared itself for new celebrations on 26 January 1818, officially designated for the first time as a public holiday. Foundation Day, as it was known at the time, continued to be officially celebrated in New South Wales, and became connected with water sporting events.

Macquarie noticed that military and convicts gathered together on Sydney’s streets to enjoy horse races, weighted footraces, fist fights, dog fights, cock fights and any other sort of fights. Like the emperors of ancient Rome, with whom his critics later compared him, Macquarie cemented his rule with bread and circuses. (D. Hunt, GIRT, The unauthorised history of Australia (Melbourne 2015) 215).

Having imported a sufficient amount of Spanish dollars, that he would have ‘holed’ at the centre, Macquarie encouraged exchange among the population. The ‘holey dollar’ was born. In turn, because now people had cold hard cash, Macquarie encouraged D’Arcy Wentworth and others, mostly emancipists, to establish the Bank of New South Wales, Australia’s first public company. The bank was to accept deposits, make loans and print the colony’s first banknotes. The bank had teething problems, but Macquarie would overcome them, and his ‘creative accounting’ would become a source of inspiration for Australia’s largest merchant bank, Macquarie Bank, to adopt his name and take the ‘holey dollar’ as its logo. (D. Hunt, op.cit. 229).

The tradition of celebrating the invasion with games and food was extended to the new colonies, although each of them had its own commemoration for its founding, on different days. Agreement on the same day was found for 26 January 1888, except for South Australia. There were further discrepancies until 1935, when all states celebrated Australia Day on 26 January. The Commonwealth and State governments finally agreed on a common day in 1946. By this time Australia Day had come to mean sport competitions, community barbecues, festivals, outdoor concerts and fireworks.

The invasion has been since referred to as a ‘settlement’, clearly a misnomer: a settlement is only possible among free agents. Such distinction is not anti-historical; it is disregarded only by the occupiers and their successors because they conveniently developed the notion that the Indigenous People who have a history of no less than 60,000 years could not be regarded as personae juris, but were quickly categorised as parts of the environment – with the land legally defined until almost thirty years ago as terra nullius – belonging to no one. As Captain James Cook found in his journey along the eastern coast in 1770, the continent certainly contained oddities enough to fascinate his men of science on board, and bounties sufficient to imagine a future of agriculture and ‘civilising’ activity. Furthermore, Cook was fully aware that the land was inhabited. He was also more dispose to recognise the humanity of the people who already lived in what was to become New South Wales: “They may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans.”

Scientist Joseph Banks, who was travelling with Cook, was rather unimpressed and he wrote disparagingly: “[the soil] was so barren and at the same time intirely (sic) void of the helps dervd (sic) from cultivation [that it] would not be supposed to yield much to the support of man.” And of the inhabitants, because they did not practice agriculture, he conjectured that: “their reason must be supposed to hold a rank little superior to that of monkeys.” [Emphasis added] (2 J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771 (Sydney 1962) 112-113 and 122-123).

In the end, the original inhabitants could be legally dispossessed, but only if the land was virtually uninhabited or if they were shown to lack the ‘possessive habits’ of ‘civilised’ people. There were some problems. Firstly, the Indigenous People were more numerous than the invaders expected – as they would find out. Secondly, there was no authoritative decision on whether the land was indeed terra nullius – legally unoccupied.

The invasion was therefore a settlement with no one! Pragmatism would not be the sole gift from the insane Hanoverian king.

Imagination came to assistance: not only did the land belong to no one; no one was there, in fact!

Watkin Tench, an English marine officer who is best known for publishing two books describing his experiences in the First Fleet: Narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay and Complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson, would provide an account of the arrival and of the first four years of the colony but would not help the official version. The Narrative would run to three editions and was quickly translated into Dutch, French, German and Swedish.

Tench was with the First Fleet on the Charlotte. He remained in Sydney until December 1791 and displayed a great interest and some sympathy in the local inhabitants of the Gadigal and Cammeraygal tribes, establishing a friendship with several of them. Unusually, given the insularity of his compatriots, his accounts were influenced by the liberalism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the idea of the ‘noble savage’. Still, Tench and other officials always presumed that English were civilised and Aboriginals were not.

Within a generation a much simple desire for land overcame legal niceties with a violent assault upon ‘the savages’. In time the English easily persuaded themselves that their invasion could only benefit the Aborigines – ‘civilisation’ was the antidote to their natural ‘savagery’.

A gross estimate of the Indigenous population was around one million. On another estimate there were between 315,000 and 750,000 Aborigines in the whole continent – give or take 50,000 or so, and distributed into 500 tribes. Archaeological finds indicate a sustainable population of around 750,000. By the time of the white centenary celebrations in 1888, the number had been reduced to about 60,000 ‘full-bloods’. Yet, to the English eye the land was un-inhabited!

Such illusion did not last long.

The chroniclers of the invasion recorded an outbreak of smallpox among the Aborigines in April 1789. The epidemic killed half of all the Port Jackson Aborigines and spread throughout south-eastern area of the continent, as far west as the future South Australia and as far north as the future new prison camp of Moreton Bay. As an exterminating agent, smallpox proved highly effective and must have caused the death of up to 125,000 people, thus ‘liberating’ enormous new resources for English exploitation. (N. G. Butlin, Our original aggression (Sydney 1983) 16-24).

In the first three years up to December 1790 the Aborigines had killed or wounded seventeen of the invaders. That year, to avenge the spearing of a convict servant, Governor Phillip sent into the bush a ‘punitive expedition’ to collect ten Aboriginal heads and two live prisoners whom he planned to hang in public so as ‘to set an example’. But the expedition failed – twice. And so much for living “in amity and kindness” – as Phillip had been commanded.

The Aboriginal ‘guerrilla war’ had began, and it would not be fought in terms familiar to the invaders. The invaders continued to believe, perhaps by ‘setting examples’, that the Aborigines could be brought around ‘civilisation’. On the other hand they would be convinced by David Collins – who was responsible under the governor, for the entire legal establishment of the prison colony, and who had begun his duty by reading the Act, commissions and letter patent for the formal inauguration of 7 February 1788 of the military government – that the Aborigines were “ignorant savages” but not beyond influence and remedy. For the moment they were “wholly incapable of becoming one day civilised and useful members of society.” (D. Collins, An account of the English colony in New South Wales (London 1804) 336).

The Aborigines, however, did not care about becoming useful. They preferred their independence of action, followed their own values and refused to adopt those of the invaders. They remained unconvinced of the superiority of the invaders’ ‘civilisation’ – perhaps because of the sight of men chained together in gangs, working under armed guard, floggings and public hangings?

The abyss of incomprehension between the two groups of contenders for the land, the invaders and the original inhabitants, was graphically illustrated in May 1791. Phillip decided to make another example of a convict caught in the act of stealing fishing tackle from a well-known Aborigine. The man was severely flogged in the presence of many Aborigines who had been ‘made to understand’ the reason for his punishment, but “there was not one of them that did not testify strong abhorrence of the punishment, and equal sympathy with the sufferer.” (W.Tench, A narrative, 111). Aborigines never could understand people who, in cold blood, deliberately inflicted pain on a fellow human being. Unlike nearly all other people on the earth, they never engaged in any form of cold-blooded torture. As the eyewitness Tench put it, the fiasco showed that the Aborigines were “not of a sanguinary and implacable temper. Quick indeed of resentment, but not unforgiving of injury.” (N. G. Butlin, op.cit. 119-148). Their human and conciliatory temper, like their social organisation and the inferiority of their weapons, remained a fatal weakness in their effort to resist the implacable and bloodthirsty English invaders. (R. Ward, op. cit. 56-57).

Of course, the expansion of ‘squatting’ over most of eastern Australia had nothing to do with the rapid expropriation and extermination of the Aboriginal tribes. Noooh! Few living Australians, black or white, have any idea of the scale and duration of the slaughter. It is true that dispossession, disease and despair killed more Aborigines than did white murderers, but premeditated slaughter of men, women, children and infants accounted in the aggregate for tens of thousands of black lives. From the beginning it is clear that blacks were murdered with impunity by convicts and their guards, in spite of some earnest official – yet very weak – efforts to protect them. It seems that the first official sanctioned massacre occurred in Van Diemen’s Land when a hunting party of about forty was shot down by soldiers in 1804. (Historical records of Australia, III, 1, 238, 242-243, 282).

At the end of Governor Philip Bligh’s rule in 1808, the prison-colony comprised land within a day’s ride of Sydney and the convict hellholes of Newcastle and Van Diemen’s Land.

Collins’ was not the sole voice. Barron Field, who already had a reputation as a fine poet, arrived in Sydney in February 1817, having accepted a commission as judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, writing to Under-secretary Goulburn in April thanked him “for making me acquainted with Mr. Field’s character. He appears to be everything that you say of him and I am very much prejudiced in his favour already from his mild modest and conciliating manners, and I am persuaded he will prove a great acquisition and blessing to this colony.” [Emphasis added]. In 1825 Field would write of the Aborigines that they “will never be civilised … We have now lived among [them] for more than thirty years, and the most persevering attempts have always been made, and are still making to induce them to settle and avail themselves of the arts of life; but they cannot be fixed … [I predict] decay or extermination [for] the simple race of Australia.” (B. Field (ed.), Geographical memoirs of New South Wales (London 1825) 223-224).

An amnesty was declared in December 1816, after which Governor Macquarie increased his efforts ‘to Christianise’ the wayward natives, to whom the Rev. Samuel Marsden had refused to minister on the ground that “Commerce promotes industry – industry civilisation and civilisation opens up the way for the Gospel.”

Marsden’s belief that only people interested in buying and selling things could be Christians meant that the Aborigines were spared organised religious instruction until the first missionary arrived in Australia in 1821. The Rev. William Walker, a dour Wesleyan, wasted no time in advising Aborigines that they were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah whom God had cursed with blackness and condemned to be “a servant of servants to his brothers” who were ‘white’. Judge Barron Field, a founder of the Society from Promoting Christian Knowledge among the Aborigines, had mused of his charges “Perhaps it is better that their name should pass away from this earth.” With friends like Macquarie, Field and Walker, the Aborigines did not need enemies. (D. Hunt, op.cit. 240).

Field’s belief in the Aboriginal people’s inevitable extinction was embraced by ‘policy makers’ for the next century.

All that, in exchange for the land. The land, boys! No man’s property was safe, John Macarthur warned, from the hypocritical dictator Bligh, an attack which resonated strongly with the invaders. Ever since, Sydney people in particular ‘love’ real estate; it is all they talk about at dinner parties, preferring to avoid conversation about ‘politics’ or religion as a matter of ‘good manners in polite society’ – and would be aghast at the thought that the government might seize their 1BDR/oBTH hovel with double lock-up convict.” (D. Hunt, op.cit. 188).

In 1838 the most notorious of all clashes happened on Henry Dangar’s Myall Creek Station in north-western New South Wales. This massacre is remembered not because in was more brutal and bloody than a hundred other similar events – it was not – but because it was better documented and because of what it showed about the values and assumptions of white society at the time.

The institutional massacres continued for sure until 1928, at Coniston cattle Station in the Northern Territory, which lasted between 14 August and 18 October. It was the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous People and one of the last events of the ‘Australian Frontier wars’.

Mrs. Daisy O’Dwyer Bates, who had arrived in Australia from Tipperary, Ireland in 1884 and promptly married a wealthy ‘pastoralist’, would later devote herself to studying the Aborigines. Her conclusions are contained in a book in which she wrote: “The Australian native can withstand all the reverses of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation – but he cannot withstand civilisation.” By ‘the Australian native’ she meant the Aborigines. (D. Bates, The passing of the Aborigines (New York 1973) 57).

It was understood that the progressive invasion of Australia by the newcomers was necessarily to bring about the complete extermination of the Indigenous People, and that the sooner Aborigines disappeared the better they would serve Australian development. All that remained, according to Bates, “was to smooth the dying pillow.”

The only possible, but quite difficult alternative, was assimilation. It was proposed in 1937 in the wake of a new version of eugenics. It would have consisted in a policy of separating the full-bloods on reserves as isolated as possible, and the granting of admission, through institutionalisation, to the ‘white Australian’ society to those of mixed descent.

The predominant view was that “At the coming of civilisation, the Aboriginal tribes dwindle like chaff before the wind” wrote Ernestine Hill in her account of extensive travels through Australia. Except for the doubtful success of eugenics, all Aborigines would be dead by the end of the twentieth century. (E. Hill, The great Australian loneliness (Melbourne 1956) 35).

The prophecy was not very far from the arrival of the German former chicken-farmer Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the people most directly responsible for the Holocaust.

Similar ‘policy’ would be prosecuted with various vigour and various names: dispersion, reservation, assimilation, even Christianisation, during the following one hundred and fifty years. No one ever bothers to ask ‘the blacks’ what they want for fear that they could say the word ‘treaty’. Had they, the situation would have become, in the Philistine language of the invaders, ‘rather embarrassing’.

Continuous preoccupation with the possible decline of the ‘Anglo-Saxon stock’, commanded a lot of attention to ‘stock’ and ‘breed’ for a long time in the development of Australia: the ‘white Australia’ policy was completely done away only by the Whitlam Government, elected in 1972.

Then, all of a sudden, well-meaning and well-to-do Australia found itself in the hands of a band of clowns, led by the Tallest-Poppy-of-them-all, who proceeded to attempt to take back the farm, to exploit natural resources for the common interest of all Australians and – horror of all – began returning land to the Aborigines, as Whitlam would on 1 January 1975 to Vincent Lingiari and his Gurindji people.

This and other unpardonable ‘sins’ would call the initiative of the Governor-General, assisted as one now knows for sure by the delaying technique of the Crown. A seriously and variously deviant Sir John Kerr saw to it, and sacked the whole troupe.

To be continued … Tomorrow: Race, trade and loyalty to ‘home’

GeorgeVenturini Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980).

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  1. kasch2014

    The bloody history of this country will soon be eclipsed by the disaster of our 200+ years of industrialisation. Our life support system (euphemistically known as the environment) is in an advanced state of breakdown – the tenancy of human and all other present forms left alive will be over much sooner unless we finally accept that this is so and act accordingly with the utmost urgency. The terminal idiocy of our political and financial system will not be of any use to us in avoiding this premature eviction . See

  2. Bronte ALLAN

    Most of what you have written here I had no real knowledge of! Sadly our education “system”–I was educated in the 50’s–did not really address any of or much of the so-called Aborigine “problems”. What a disgusting slight on the original occupiers of this vast country, & to now read about the genocide, mass murders etc of this (once) proud race of people is abhorrent to me, & would be to most right thinking (or “normal”) people in Australia. Well written, as usual, by all of the AIM “crew”!

  3. Vacy Vlazna

    Thank you for a comprehensive overview of the Brit invasion of the nations of the First Peoples the subsequent genocide that blights Australian history since 1788.

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