I will begin with one of the most haunting, moving, beautiful and sad poems I’ve ever read.
The sunlit ripples widen in the soft and gentle breeze
‘Til they reach the distant shoreline where the dark and silent trees
Seem to stop as though they listen to a faint and distant sound
While their shadows write a requiem on bare and stony ground;
But I fancy I see shadows of a very different kind…
And the shadows of Jiguma haunt my mind.
Ten thousand years of history on nature’s shelves are piled,
A sad and tragic record of a people free and wild:
A people long forgotten… of their homeland dispossessed, their sacred totems plundered and their liberty suppressed.
These empty shells, symbolic of the life that once they had…
And in the middens of Jiguma make me sad.
I stand on the ground made sacred by a thousand tribal feet
And breathe the air of freedom from invasion or defeat;
But a thousand voices haunt me, and I seem to hear them say: “We loved our freedom also, but you took it all away. You used your freedom to destroy, our liberty to kill”.
And sad voices of Jiguma haunt me still.
Rock lilies shed their fragrance on the river’s southern shore,
Where once the tribal elders sat to teach their sacred lore;
No marble slab extols the deeds of tribal heroes slain,
No written record tells a tale of happiness or pain.
The grey barked witnesses could tell of secrets dark and deep;
And the sad forgotten story makes me weep.
I looked into the dream time as I walked along the sand,
And I fancied I saw traces of a wild nomadic band.
Imagined there were imprints of the Picaninnies’ feet,
And I heard their childish laughter where the sea and river meet.
But a dream time and the present are a million years apart…
And the silence of Jiguma wrings my heart.
– Author Unknown
So, January 26th is ‘Australia Day’. Traditionally an excuse for everyone countrywide to have a day off work, eat, drink and be merry in the sunshine, I couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed to be British when the day rolled around.
January 26th 229 years ago marked the day the British ships landed ashore Australia, home to the oldest living race on earth, and started a process of murder, torture, enslavement and rape known as ‘colonisation’. The Brits of the past tried every tactic they could to wipe out the Aboriginal people of Australia, including stealing indigenous children from their parents and paying white men to sleep with the Aboriginal women to, disgustingly, breed the race out. Thankfully, it didn’t work, as this race has a connection with this country dating back 60,000 years.
It’s a day with a very dark past which I didn’t feel like glossing over by drinking alcohol or waving flags. Whilst I see nothing wrong with being proud of the country you live or were born in at all, I personally feel that celebrating Australia Day on this date is not showing the indigenous people of Australia the respect they deserve.
Since being in Australia, it has been interesting, and sad, to see how Aboriginal people live in the 21st century. I’ve only spent time in one major city so far, but I was saddened whilst in Perth to see that many of them live in a vicious cycle of a lack of education, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and joblessness. Pretty much all of the people I’d see shouting in the streets or drinking in local parks were of Aboriginal origins. When discussing this with white Australians, the main impression I was given was that their governments give a lot to the Aboriginal people, such as free housing, government grants and free healthcare, yet it’s constantly thrown back in their faces. Whole areas of tax-funded housing in Perth specifically built for Aboriginal people were burned to the ground in protest by the indigenous group, and I get the sense that some of the population is fed up with this attitude.
I can’t help but wondering whether years of being made to feel like the outsiders, the unwanted race, the nobodies – years of persecution – has hardened this racial group to the point where they have no interest in whatever the white man offers them? I am personally not surprised that it’s become this way. Hate breeds hate, and I haven’t seen much compassion, tolerance or understanding from many Australians towards Aboriginals thus far on my trip. (Not to say there aren’t Australians who feel the same way I do, I just suppose I haven’t met them). In fact, trying to have an adult conversation with a number of different people about the origins of Australia Day lead to some very heated conversations; I was told I had no right to an opinion because I’m not from Australia; or I was simply confronted with total indifference. No one seemed to care about the past.
Aboriginal people are trying to get the date of Australia Day changed, as to them January 26th is Survival Day, and to many campaigners, it is known as Invasion Day. I stand with them. It’s going to take a lot more than that to apologise for the wrongdoings of the past, but it’s a start.