January 20, 2010

What is the positive legacy of the convicts and their captors?

It is sometimes joked that the British sent their worst subjects to be punished on the best beaches in the world. After a shaky start, there is considerable irony in the success of the colony of New South Wales which, along with its sister colonies, grew in prosperity and stability to peacefully federate as the Commonwealth of Australia. This was achieved a little over one hundred years after the arrival of the First Fleet.

With 26 January 1788 marking the occupation of the continent by the British, it must be acknowledged that there was little irony for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Dispossession, discrimination and death of the first Australians is a tragic aspect of the Australian story.

Fully acknowledging the impact on Aboriginal peoples and despite the varied acknowledgment of the convicts over the years, Australia Day has always recalled the day of British settlement, one of many defining moments on the path to modern nationhood.
Arthur Phillip brought on his ships of the First Fleet the beginnings of the rule of law, democracy, liberal ideas and some spirit of egalitarianism that was well expressed in his proclamation that ‘there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves’. From these ideas came our political institutions and aspects of our national identity which we still live today.

An important facet of our national identity is the much lauded mateship. Mix a ragtag group of British folk struggling to eke out an existence on a strange and foreign continent with the notion of egalitarianism, and you end up with the beginnings of a spirit of mateship in the early colony. Decades later, the Gallipoli experience strongly galvanised mateship as dominant national myth. While I strongly question the universality of mateship in Australia, I certainly see a spirit of mateship: treating others as though you are their friend – even when they are unknown to you.

It is interesting to compare the cultures born of the arrival of the convicts and captors in Sydney with the arrival of the pilgrims in Plymouth in North America. The first modern Australians were banished to the other side of the earth where they would seek to build an existence together: the result a modern nation celebrating ‘a fair go’ and the spirit of mateship. The first modern Americans voyaging to the other side of the Atlantic in order to express their freedom of religion and to maintain their cultural identity: the result a modern nation emphasising liberty and prosperity.

If La Perouse had arrived before Cook or if the Dutch had done more than nail a plate to a tree on the west coast (such was the limit of my primary school history), things might have been very different. But as history would have it, the arrival of the British convicts and their captors has profoundly shaped modern Australia. On Australia Day we cannot help but celebrate the arrival of the British who brought the underpinnings of the institutions and laws which have served us well. So too we can celebrate the cultural values which have evolved to shape our contemporary national identity.

Not bad for a bunch of crooks.

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