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  • Social Justice Commission

Facing our History

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Over the next month or so, there are a number of significant events that connect us to First Nations peoples and their issues and concerns. These events cannot be seen in isolation as they link us to a painful history and our growing awareness of what is just and right.

The coming events are National Sorry Day (May 26), National Reconciliation Week (May 27 – June 3), NAIDOC Week (July 4 – 11) and our Catholic celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday (July 4). Through these events, we are reminded that there is significant pain and injustice in the past that still needs facing. Being open to commemorating and celebrating these events opens us to hearing First Nations voices. It is in our openness to listen that we take a step forward.

Earlier this year, respected historian Henry Reynolds released a new book titled Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement. Reynolds names that he was inspired by the call to truth-telling in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In his book, he recovers key historical information that challenges the dominant stories of the founding of this nation.

The most basic issues to be faced are how sovereignty was claimed and how land was acquired. Reynolds names that what unfolded was based on “tragic misconceptions” (p23) and failures to follow the international law of the day. There was also an unwillingness to learn from their North American experiences and from the reports of early settlers on the east coast of Australia.

On April 20 1770, Lieutenant James Cook hoisted the British flag and claimed all the east coast of Australia for the King. Cook’s instructions expected him to act “with the consent of the Natives” (p15). Even though all aboard the Endeavour “knew that the entire long coastline was inhabited by the Aboriginal people” (p15), Cook and his crew had limited contact with them and radically misjudged what they saw.

The British Colonial Office, in giving instructions to Arthur Phillip to establish a penal colony, went far beyond Cook’s claim of sovereignty and “made the extraordinary claim of half the continent” (p24). Phillip’s orders included a claim to everything from the coast “westward to 135 degrees longitude” (p24). Reynolds says that

“[i]t was truly an astonishing assertion of sovereignty that had almost no credibility in international law” (p24).

Arthur Phillip and subsequent governors learned very quickly that the assumptions underpinning their instructions were not true. There were no lands without people. Tribal boundaries did exist and the local people “stood their ground and resisted the invasion with every means available to them” (p34). In 1825, this led British peer, Lord William Bathurst, to attempt a new policy. The claim to British sovereignty “out to the centre of the continent was abandoned” (p41). This meant that the ongoing conflicts were seen as war and those resisting British advance were “no longer considered to be British subjects but national enemies representing ‘accredited’ states” (p41). This change of attitude was soon reversed with Governor George Gipps, in May 1839, “explaining that the Aboriginal peoples were indeed subjects of the Queen” (p73).

The second tragic event was that Governor Phillip’s commission named that “all the land became the property of the Crown” (p71) in all areas where sovereignty was claimed. Reynolds describes this as the “expropriation of about 400 million hectares of land over half a continent … an act of theft on a truly heroic scale” (p49). This claim was “fully exposed” (p49) within fifty years yet “the law was impervious to change” (p50). Henry Reynolds emphasises is that in the international law of the day when a conqueror takes control the property of the locals remains undisturbed. Britain acted illegally!

Reynolds also names that Queensland was different from southern states. He tells us that the

“first pioneers who came up onto the Darling Downs in the 1840s had arrived with attitudes shaped by the violent conflict experienced in northern New South Wales. They were heavily armed, ready to fight and convinced of their rights to wrench land from the traditional owners” (p179).

This happened all over Queensland and vast farms and stations were claimed. First Nations peoples were forced off their lands and many shot to

“terrorise them into submission and to prevent them from attacking the colonists and their property” (p184).

In fact, Reynolds draws on evidence that shows an estimated 61,000 First Nations people were killed in this process (p186).

This is just some of the history that is the context of the current commemorations and celebrations. The British claims of sovereignty and property transfer have underpinned all subsequent issues and concerns of First Nations peoples. There was no consent, no treaty making and no basic respect for the human beings already present in this land.

Over many decades, Henry Reynolds has painstaking sought to recover the truth of the raw and painful interactions between First Nations peoples and those who came as colonisers. In doing so, he helps us better face our history.

So as we commemorate and celebrate the coming First Nations focused events, I pray we deepen our listening, grow in empathy and seek a more just and respectful way forward.

Dr David Tutty

This article was first published in the Horizon Magazine June 2021

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