A nation’s troubled bicentennial

ANDREW BILSKI February 8 1988

A nation’s troubled bicentennial

ANDREW BILSKI February 8 1988

A nation’s troubled bicentennial


Farewell to old England for ever For we're bound for Botany Bay.

—19th-century colonial ballad

Before a cheering mass of nearly three million spectators, a fleet of 11 square-rigged ships sailed into Sydney Harbor last week, re-enacting an epic eight-month voyage from Portsmouth, England, by Australia’s first white settlers 200 years ago. Their sails billowing in the gentle antipodean breeze, the tall ships—including the Our Svanen from Vancouver— were welcomed by thousands of craft, from rubber dinghies to ocean liners. Under blue skies etched with white vapor trails from a spectacular military flypast, dignitaries—including Britain’s Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana—watched the bicentennial celebration from the vantage point of Sydney’s elegant, scallopshaped opera house, a symbol of Australia’s rise to affluent nationhood from its humble origins as a British penal colony. Declared Prince Charles:

“Most people who live here today now think that Australia is the best country in the world, and many from elsewhere would agree.”

Not all Australians were in a celebratory mood. About 11,000 Aborigines, descendants of the island continent’s original inhabitants, came to Sydney to protest against what they see as two centuries of oppression by the balanda (white man). With their dark bodies ceremonially painted, and carrying huge tribal flags of red, black and yellow, the Aborigines boycotted the white man’s birthday party and instead proclaimed 1988 a year of national mourning. Their cause struck a chord among many white Australians. While they celebrate their good fortune-booming cattle, lamb and film industries, an abundance of natural resources, an enviable social welfare system and one of the world’s highest living standards—Australians’ characteristic brashness has clearly been tempered by a new mood of introspection. Said Manning Clark, author of a

six-volume history of Australia: “Now, in an age of doubt about everything, the descendants of the British have at last become soul-searchers.” Added Clark: “They have begun to ask: ‘Have we any right to be here? What did our ancestors do to the original inhabitants of the country?’ ”

Unlike the settlers who came to North America in search of political and religious freedom—and profitable raw materials—Australia’s white founding fathers were the castoffs of Georgian England. The tumultuous 18th-century shift from agriculture to industry, coupled with a rapidly growing population, left many Britons without an income. Its cities teeming with unemployed, its jails overflowing with petty criminals and its American colonies—apart from Canada—lost, England began sending its convicts to the far-off continent that had been claimed for the crown by Capt. James Cook in 1770.

On May 13, 1787, the first fleet of 11 ships sailed from Portsmouth. On Jan. 26, 1788—the date now celebrated as

Australia’s national day—Capt. Arthur Phillip led the fleet into present-day Sydney Harbor. The arduous 16,000-mile voyage had claimed 48 lives. But a total of 1,030 men, women and children—736 of them felons, the rest guards, administrators and their families—survived to begin life in the first penal colony of New South Wales. When the female convicts disembarked 11 days later, the rum flowed freely and a drunken orgy ensued. Wrote Australian-born author Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore, his acclaimed 1986 account of the continent’s first white settlements, it was “the first bush party in Australia. As the couples rutted between the rocks, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly be said to have begun.”

Until the transportation of convicts to Australia was ended in 1868, England sent more than 160,000 petty criminals and other social outcasts to New South Wales,

Norfolk Island and present-day Tasmania. Most served their sentences in government chain gangs or worked as indentured servants to free colonists.

And few, according to historical accounts, escaped brutal floggings at the hands of cruel penal masters for even the most minor of infractions.

But while the treatment of the British felons was harsh, the whites’ treatment of Australia’s indigenous people was near-genocidal. As Hughes’s book graphically describes, wherever white settlements spread on the vast continent, black tribes were routinely decimated—even hunted for sport by the colonizers.

Before the advent of the English, the Aborigines—who had roamed Australia for 40,000 years— numbered about 300,000. Now, only about 160,000 remain, one per cent of the country’s 16-million population. Some critics claim to see parallels between the fate of the Australian Aborigine and that of the Canadian Indian. Said Gary Potts, chief of the Temagami Indian band in Northern Ontario, who attended an Aboriginal protest rally in Sydney last week: “We know what it’s like to have your rights of ownership denied to your motherland.”

The worst days of white oppression ended long ago. But Australia remains a country of two solitudes, separate and decidedly unequal. Unlike the more than three million immigrants to the conti-

nent since the Second World War— mostly Britons, Italians, Yugoslavs, Greeks and, in recent years, Vietnamese-few Aborigines assimilate into the mainstream culture. Said Aboriginal leader Gary Foley: “It is too late to say we want the white men to be kicked out, but we want to be the ones to decide what our future is in a white Australia. We do not subscribe to the melting-pot idea. We are a nonmaterialistic, noncompetitive people.”

Despite annual federal spending of about $720 million on Aboriginal welfare, many white Australians see the condition of the native population as cause for national shame. Most live on government reserves in the outback, in hovels of tin, rubber tires and tarpaulins. The few who migrate to the cities live in shabby ghettos. The government acknowledges a high incidence of diabe-

tes, hepatitis, alcoholism—even leprosy—among Aborigines. Their infant mortality rate is three times the national norm. Their unemployment rate is six times the national average of 7.3 per cent, while 11 per cent have never been to school. Indeed, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gerry Hand himself boycotted the Jan. 26 festivities, saying, “Anybody who suggests Aboriginal people have a lot to celebrate hasn’t taken much note of history.”

In other ways, Australia has made great progress since 1788. Contrary to its image abroad as a land of sheep ranchers and rugged bushmen, Australia—or Oz as it is called in Strine (Australian English)—is in fact a highly urbanized country. Like Canada’s vast

northland, Australia’s desert interior remains largely uninhabited, while about 80 per cent of the population is concentrated in coastal cities, where middle-class Australians go to work in gleaming office towers and relax at the beach or around a “barbie” (barbecue) by the pool.

Indeed, the myth of Australia as the Wild West of the Southern Hemisphere is deliberately propagated by the federal government as a marketing tool. Through its prolific national film board, period movies such as Gallipoli and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, set at the turn of the century, have frozen Australia in time in the minds of foreign viewers. And the omnipresent face of actor Paul Hogan on the cinema screen (as the hero in Crocodile Dundee), on television (selling Australian beer) and on billboards and posters (promoting Aus-

tralian tourism with images of cuddly koala bears), has reinforced the country’s bucolic—and somewhat boozy—image.

But in fact, after emerging slowly from its traditional isolation since the end of the Second World War, Australia now clearly aspires to become a regional superpower. After 30 years of budget deficits, the federal Labor government Treasurer Paul Keating said in 1986 that Australia was in danger of becoming a “banana republic,” and he instituted spending cuts that have led to forecasts of a small surplus of about $532 million this year. Inflation is 8.3 per cent and falling, and unemployment is a manageable 7.3 per cent. Indeed, experts say that only the trend to-

ward world trade protectionism threatens Australia’s economic revival. But last month visiting U.S. trade negotiator Clayton Yeutter held out the possibility of a free trade pact, similar to that with Canada, between the two countries next year. With prospects like that in view, the majority of Australians have cause for celebration in their bicentennial year. But its own critics say that before Oz can confidently chart its future among neighboring Asian nations, it must first acknowledge the sins of its past and ensure a better future for its original inhabitants.