The diversity of Aboriginal Australia (map created by David R Horton, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996).
The School of History at ANU teaches an exciting first-year course called Clash of Empires: 1450 to the Present (HIST1214). It takes students and staff on a roller-coaster ride through almost 600 years of global human history, from the late European Crusades to the Cold War, from Columbus to Cook, and from Napoleon in Egypt and the British in India to the Spanish in the Americas. Near the middle of the course, the grand sweep of history arrives on the eastern shores of Australia in the January of 1788.
This month 228 years ago, there took place one of the most momentous encounters in human history. The gravity, excitement and, ultimately, tragedy of this event is hardly registered in the way Australians today celebrate ‘Australia Day’, 26 January, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet and the establishment of a British colony at Warrane (Sydney Cove).
It took the new arrivals a couple of centuries to begin to understand that they had established a beach-head on a vast continent that was a jigsaw of countries and language groups, each intimately known. The map shown here represents this recent understanding of Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity.
Our Clash of Empires course gives a long-term, global context that enables us to think more deeply about the meaning of what happened, or began to happen, in January 1788. In the late eighteenth century, peoples with immensely long and intimate histories of habitation encountered the furthest-flung representatives of the world’s most rapidly industrialising nation. It was a precipice of human history: the moment when the circle of dispersal of modern humans out of Africa more than 70,000 years earlier was finally closing.
A First Fleet that was really called that – its ships carefully stowed with seeds and a ballast of convict settlers – initiated one of the most self-conscious and carefully recorded colonisations in history, on the shores of a land that was beautiful, baffling and like no other. This ‘new’ land was actually the most ancient, and the true ‘nomads’ were the colonisers.
The British colonisation of Australia was both an invasion and an awesome social experiment. There was creative dialogue and cultural exchange between Aborigines and settlers – and there was war. On our beaches and across the continent ever since, there began to unfold ‘one of the major discontinuities in the course of life on this planet’, to quote historian Alfred Crosby’s description of the Spanish impact on the Americas from 1492. The Australian event was just as significant for all humanity.
But if the 26th of January is to truly become a national day, it needs to be commemorated with grief as well as celebration. We would need to bring a consciousness of 60,000 years of civilisation in this land – and of 600 years of the clashes of empires – to our marking of the day.
You can explore the history and meaning of cultural encounters between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans through a marvellous exhibition open at the National Museum of Australia until 28 March 2016: Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum.