Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bennelong Time: Australia Day

On a sunny day in Adelaide, Australia’s cricketers held the upper hand against India on the third day of the fourth test despite the surprise retirement announcement of wicket keeping great Adam Gilchrist. It was a double national celebration at the Adelaide Oval, possibly the most aesthetically pleasing sporting ground in the world. Not only was it Australia Day, the 220th anniversary of the first European settlement landing in Sydney Cove, but it was also Republic Day in India. That holiday celebrates the day in 1950 the constitution of India came into force and India became a truly sovereign state some two years after it gained independence. While both Australian and Indian celebrations are artificial constructs, the mood was happy in Adelaide and elsewhere. Any excuse for a celebration is a good one.

However for the original Aboriginal settlers of Australia, today is the Day of Mourning when their traditional way of life was ended. Ironically their day celebrates its own special anniversary, being the 70th anniversary of the first organised protest against the treatment of Aboriginal people around Australia.

In 1992 then PM, Paul Keating made a speech in the Sydney suburb of Redfern that seemed to herald a new era of white-Aboriginal relations when he recognised the issues started with non-Aboriginal Australians. Redfern was not only a suburb where Aboriginals lived it was also “[j]ust a mile or two from the place where the first European settlers landed”. Yet just over three years later Keating's vision was comprehensively rejected. John Howard was elected on the manifesto of making white Australians feel more comfortable about themselves. His attitude is reflected today in the advice of such bloggers as Iain Hall today to “enjoy this day without shame.”

But the story has more to do with positive recognition than negative shame. It was never in doubt what was going to happen when 18th century Europe collided with the Neolithic society it encountered in Port Jackson on 26 January 1888. If the British hadn't started it, it would have been the job of the French fleet of Comte Jean-François de Galaude La Perouse who by astonishing coincidence entered Sydney Harbour that same morning 220 years ago.

But it was the First Fleet of Governor Arthur Phillip who had the honour of starting the colony. Phillip was a doughty 50 year old experienced Royal Navy officer. He was smart enough to know that the original landing point at Botany Bay six days earlier was unsuitable for a settlement. And so they jettisoned the Bay discovered by Cook in 1770 and found a harbour 20km to the north of incredible beauty. His ships brought a cargo of a thousand men and women and they found fresh water in what is now Sydney Cove from a creek that ran through gum trees and trickled over mudflats into the saltwater cove.

But Phillip and his fleet knew they weren’t coming into an empty landscape. On the way into the harbour, they were alerted to the firestick farming practices of the native population. Four days earlier, a landing party on the ocean side encountered an armed and vociferous group of locals. As Phillips later described it to the admiralty, the native’s “confidence, and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place”.

Sydney Cove also had its manly natives. Sydney was the home of the Eora people. They lived in the region for tens of thousands of years having slowly migrated south from the landbridge with Asia. Eora simply meant “the people” and that is how they described themselves to Phillip. They would have had advanced notice of the European arrival from messengers bringing news about the Manly encounter. However they did not offer any opposition to Phillip and instead were very friendly.

British soldiers who had served in the Americas such as Watkin Tench called them “Indians”. While the natives chanted, the convicts were rowed ashore and ordered to cut down trees, clear the ground and pitch tents. North shore natives helped the crew catch fish. But while Phillip named the cove for the British home secretary Thomas Townesend (otherwise known as First Viscount Sydney), the Eora had their own names for the area. Sydney Cove was Warrane which was protected by Tallawoladah (now The Rocks) to the west and Tubowgule to the east. Tubowgule now has a different Aboriginal name Bennelong Point and is also the site of a half-decent Opera House.

The point is named for Woollarawarre Bennelong, a wangal man, from a clan name meaning ‘west’. Wangal territory ran from Parramatta to Darling Harbour. Although kidnapped by Phillip and not immune to Stockholm Syndrome, Bennelong proved to be a clever and wily politician who played a double game in his relations with whites. Phillip kidnapped him in 1790 in order to gain an insight into the Eora mind and calm the increasing tensions between the old and new settlers. Although he learned English and struck up a personal friendship with Phillip, Bennelong escaped after five months. He took part in a spirited resistance against the whites. It is likely he organised the spearing of Phillip in a ‘payback’ exercise for the kidnap. Phillip refused to blame his black protégé. He was rewarded in December that year when Bennelong and his kinsmen and women came in peacefully to Sydney Town, devastated by the newly introduced disease of smallpox.

When Governor Phillip returned to England in triumph in 1792, he took with him Bennelong. At first the young Aboriginal man enjoyed his stay in London, dressed as a dapper gentleman in a ruffled lace shirt and fancy waistcoat. He met mad King George III, heard debates in parliament and swam in the Thames. Newspapers treated him as a “merry fellow” and a celebrity who was “delighted with everything he sees, and courteous to those who know him”. But after seven months he wanted to go home and returned to Sydney broken by the coldness of British weather.

On board HMS Reliance his lungs gave him trouble but he was well enough to teach words of his native tongue to the future explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass. But Bennelong was a beaten man. When he got home he abandoned most of his white ways except for one – alcohol. He took seriously to drink and violence and was frequently wounded in payback battles. Bennelong died in January 1813 (almost 25 years to the day of the first settlement) at James Squire’s orchard in Parramatta.

Bennelong’s legacy today lies mostly in his name. As well as the famous building on the point that bears his name, he also survives in the nation’s most volatile federal political seat (in inner West Sydney) that in November saw sitting Prime Minister John Howard famously defeated by Labor’s star media recruit Maxine McKew.

But Bennelong’s people have not done so well as his name. Australia's indigenous population has suffered a genocidal history that caused the Aboriginal population to drop from 300,000 to 70,000 in the 134 years to 1920. Australia Day remains a tainted holiday until white Australia remembers the act of recognition in Keating’s Redfern speech. It also requires an act of imagination: As Keating said, “We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through 50 000 years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation.” Happy Australia Day.


Anonymous said...


Concord said...

I become so frustrated when I read about the mistreatment of natives in their own lands. The Australian Aboriginals, Native Americans of north America, the Natives of South America, the displacement of a large group of innocent people/natural life in general consumes my thoughts in anger and rage. I'm glad to see that there are SOME people in the world who have the same beliefs as me.