December 23, 2009

Where have all the convicts gone?

I once was an English teacher. On a Friday afternoon late in the year I ducked out of the classroom to retrieve a book from the staffroom. On my return I found Melissa Cassel, the dux of the year, in blue-eyed tears. She was sobbing because Tran Phuong had called her ‘a convict’. I am not sure what racial slight Melissa might have passed on Phuong to receive the response she did.

The convicts arrived on 26 January 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip had the Union Jack raised on the shore of Sydney Cove to proclaim the newest British colony – New South Wales. The 750 convicts he had transported across the globe however remained on board the fleet of ships viewing the proceedings from afar. In the founding of the colony, the convicts were absent.

Ironically it was emancipated convicts who first began celebrating First Landing Day. Many had thrived in the colony and celebrated their good fortune with an annual anniversary dinner. In later times the Anniversary Day celebrations were led by Currency Lads and Lasses and then by the Australian Natives Association in the colony of Victoria.

By the centenary in 1888, the penal beginnings of Australia had become a ‘stain’ and they were a blot on the celebrations. In Adelaide the anniversary was considered linked to the ‘unpleasing circumstances of [New South Wales’] early occupation' while in Brisbane it was noted that Australia has been infected with 'the cancer of convictism'.

In 1938, the sesqui-centenary year, the convict embarrassment was at a peak. There was no mention of convicts in the official parade in Sydney, and convicts were absent in the officially commissioned historical painting of the 1788 event. In a day of re-enactments, did no one notice their absence?

In recent decades much has changed and many Australians now choose celebrate their convict ancestors. Despite this new embrace of convict heritage, the convicts remain absent from celebrations on Australia Day. But now also absent in contemporary celebrations are Arthur Phillip’s, his crew and marines. I suspect that for many, re-enacting the role of the convicts and their captors on Australia Day would be an awkward reminder of the unwelcome arrival of the First Fleet for the original inhabitants of this land. This is a real and valid concern.

Perhaps Phuong’s direct hit was aimed not just at Melissa but at the nation more generally. Why should the modern nation be embarrassed about the circumstances of its founding? Melissa’s tears might have been born of confusion and loss, rather than of embarrassment.

On that hot Friday afternoon close to Christmas I was laughing inside as I tried to smooth the tension in the classroom. I was rather impressed by Phuong who was Melissa’s rival as dux. What a smart insult, I thought.

But back the question - where have all the convicts gone? They were absent in the beginning, then they were central to the celebrations and then they disappeared again. Is it time to bring back the convicts? Is it time to at least consider how the foundation of the colony of NSW has profoundly shaped the contemporary nation we celebrate on 26 January each year?

How can we appropriately bring back the convicts? What is the positive legacy of the convicts and their captors?

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