Seeing Australia as Empire: A call to turn our gaze on to our ongoing colonisation
Updated: Jan 17
There is no dispute that the nation state now called Australia was born of empire. While many may wish to downplay or push aside the immense violence involved in the colonial settling of this land, all can acknowledge that this modern state was born through the expansion of the British Empire in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. On independence, unlike places like India and Kenya, governance was not returned to those who lived here long before the British arrived but was retained by the descendants of the empire who had no intention of decolonising. In this process a new form of colonisation began and a new empire – called Australia – took its place on the international stage.
Of course, it is important to be clear what we mean by empire. There are many times in history where a political entity has been named as an empire. Whether we are talking of the Roman, the Ottoman, the Inca or the British Empires, all have the some key characteristics in common. Central to these is the imposition of power over territories and peoples without their consent. This imposition usually has occurred because of violent invasion and the ongoing maintenance of law and order through force.
Historian, Henry Reynolds (2021) speaks of the origins of British power here on this continent. Reynolds discusses James Cook’s assertion of sovereignty without the ‘consent of the Natives’ (p.15), the British Colonial Office’s ‘extraordinary claim of half the continent’ (p.24) and Governor Phillip’s commission naming all areas where sovereignty was claimed to ‘become the property of the Crown’ (p.71). He concludes that this ‘expropriation of about 400 million hectares of land over half a continent … [was] an act of theft on a truly heroic scale’ (p.49).
Yet Arthur Phillip and subsequent governors learned very quickly that there were no lands without people, that tribal boundaries did exist and the local peoples ‘stood their ground and resisted the invasion with every means available to them’ (Reynolds, p.34). Reynolds records that First Nations’ resistance ‘was confronting from the start’ and for some years from 1825, Aboriginal people were named as ‘representatives of a foreign enemy’. But the Colonial Office, in 1837, overturned this view and named that ‘all natives … must be considered as subjects of the Queen’ (p.72).
So the independent nation called Australia inherited the colonial claims over land and people and continued them. Megan Davis and George Williams (2021, pp.8-14) remind us of decades and decades of First Nations peoples’ resistance, protests and petitions calling for a voice, representation, autonomy, self-determination, land rights and even independence. Sovereignty was never ceded and colonisation by the descendants of empire continue. Settler displacement of those indigenous to the many countries here and the appropriation of their lands continue.
This nation also inherited and continued the history of deliberate enslavement, the theft of wages, the taking of children, the disproportional incarceration rates, the much lower life expectancies and the distressing levels of poverty.
Colonial behaviours continue with the majority of the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report not yet fully implemented. In fact, the numbers of First Nations children in out of home care now is double that when Kevin Rudd offered his 2008 apology in the Federal Parliament (Wahlquist, 2018).
Tunisian anti-colonial author, Albert Memmi (2021), argues that the core motivation of colonisation is ‘economic and political exploitation’ (p.215). Memmi talks of the illegitimate settler invader who usurps the original inhabitants (p.75), falsifies history, rewrites laws, and extinguishes memories and maintains a racism that is consubstantial (p.140). The continued colonisation of First Nations peoples and their many countries of this land must also be seen in this light.
In fact, the origins of British colonial capitalism is shaped by the rise of Enlightenment thinking and the dominant theologies of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. South African economic historian, Sampie Terreblanche (2002), says that British expansion around the world was shaped by a ‘racial capitalism’ (p.182). Key to the new way of thinking that arose was a ‘conviction that Europeans now knew the secret of knowledge and therefore the secret of mastery over the world’ (Newbigin, 1986, p.23). This ideology legitimated covetousness and has contributed to modern western culture to become a profoundly ‘economic culture’ (Collier, 1992, p.103).
Dominant theological ideas have shaped the Empire’s racial capitalism. Harvard professor Benjamin Friedman (2021) claims that even though Adam Smith was not religious, he was influenced by Calvinist thinking of his day. Friedman argues that Smith secularised this thinking and saw that the invisible hand provided a guide for the self-love, the individual pursuit of self-interest, which would lead to the benefit of all.
Dominant theology’s hierarchical dualisms have also contributed to capitalism’s racist assumptions and practices. New Testament scholar, Sharon H Ringe (1990), says that in the midst the divisions of spirit/flesh, mind/body, male/female, rich/poor, powerful/powerless, and perceived pure/impure and good/bad, those with the power determined ‘not just who was other, but also who was better’ (p.290). In the context of British colonial expansion the ‘better’ was the rational, wealthy English/British male.
The private-public dualism has been, and continues to be, a key contributor to maintaining injustice. Feminist theologian, Denise Ackermann (1993) argues that the maintenance of the personal-political dichotomy ‘assists in perpetrating domination and control’ through an ‘excessive preoccupation with personal morality at the expense of a social conscience’ (p.25). This private-public dualism relegates religion to be a private affair between the individual and God which effectively becomes, as Carter Heyward (1990) argues, ‘the preoccupation with oneself, and one’s god in one’s image – or in the image of one’s racial, gender, cultural, or religious roots’ (p.197). This allows the reification of personal experiences and perspectives. This type of theological narcissism also contributes to the covetousness of capitalism and the inability to question the ongoing racist, colonial exploitation that is the basis of our economic system.
Lesslie Newbigin, (1992) argues that ‘while the Catholic Church had attempted to erect barriers against the Enlightenment, the Protestant Churches had, in fact, surrendered the public field – politics, education, industry, economics – to the ideology of the Enlightenment and sought refuge in the private world of the home and the soul’ (p.210). Indian Jesuit, Michael Amaladoss, (1996) goes further and claims that all European Christians largely accepted the modern scientific worldview and the Churches ‘willingly believed in the myth of infinite progress’ (p.71).
One of the features of culture and of being part of the dominant group is that our assumptions, our perceptions and our way of being – socially and politically – in this nation are seen as normal and unquestionable. We are often unaware of the way the social and political structures privilege us and give us disproportional power. We continue to legitimate our on-going presence on this continent and treasure the narratives that name Anglo-Celtic settlers as heroic and good. We continue to possess this land and speak of ‘our indigenous people’ as though we own them. We cannot imagine any other way of structuring our way of being in this place.
Peggy McIntosh (1992) described U.S. white male privilege ‘like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passport, codebooks, visa, clothes, tools and blank cheques’ (p.71). Being invisible these privileges are unnamed and provide the basis for the social and political structures in the society.
In this context, to turn the gaze on ourselves is extremely difficult. We do not see the problem. What we do see is normal and judged to be good.
So in order to turn the gaze on ourselves, we need to learn to listen, to deliberately and patiently listen to the voices of those who have been on the receiving end of our violent colonial invasion and theft of country.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, (2004) a Quandamooka academic, speaks of First Nations peoples’ experience of colonisation as contributing to them being ‘among the nation’s most conscientious students of whiteness and racialisation’ (p.85). Learning to listen to First Nations’ voices helps us better see the history for what it is and to see how we have created and maintained our ongoing whitefella dominance in this land.
To turn and critically look at the past is one thing but more is required to see the ongoing implications of the past and the way it continues in the present. Why has the nation called Australia been so closed to the decades upon decades of First Nations resistance, protests and petitions? Why do we continue to think we know best what First Nations peoples need and should have? Why do we still think we are better and more civilised that those who have been caring for country for over 60,000 years? What in our culture and assumptions gives us the right to claim invasion and theft as a good and heroic basis for a nation?
I work as a Catholic social justice educator and advocate. The increasing depth of social teaching within the Christian Churches is reclaiming some of the space lost during the Enlightenment period. We no longer abdicate our role to speak to and witness amidst ongoing injustice. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has just endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is an important step as it is a commitment to listen to the voice of First Nations peoples and to support their aspirations. I would argue that we listen with the intent of turning the gaze on ourselves and on our role in the ongoing colonisation in this land. We need to see Australia as empire and we need to face this empire squarely and do our own work to decolonise ourselves.
Dr David Tutty
Pax Christi Queensland Coordinator
Executive Officer Social Justice Commission Toowoomba Catholic Diocese
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Ackermann, D. 1993, ‘Meaning and Power: Some Key Terms in Feminist Liberation Theology’, Scriptura, vol. 44, pp. 19-33.
Amaladoss, M. 1996, ‘Mission in a Post-modern World: A Call to be Counter-cultural’, Mission Studies, vol. 13, no.1&2, pp. 68-79.
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Wahlquist, C. 2018, ‘Indigenous children in care double since stolen generations’ apology’, The Guardian, 25 January 2018, viewed 20 Nov. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/25/indigenous-children-in-care-doubled-since-stolen-generations-apology