Australia Day – A reluctant Celebration
The very first four notes of Botany Bay played by the lonely sound of the flute as it gently floats the haunting melody, the woodwind sound vibrates entirely in the ventricle of a beating heart and the tears begin to well up.
That is before Australian soprano Mirusia Louwerse sings the first line of the convicts’ dirge in that sublime angelic voice of hers - Farewell to old England forever.
You are immediately transported to a berth on the ship the Alexander, or Friendship or even the Charlotte as it leaves Portsmouth. You are a convict for a crime that would not make it to court today. The date is 13 May 1787 and you’re headed for Botany Bay against your will.
Mirusia’s version of the song is stirring, particularly if you are Australian of First Fleet or Second Fleet descendent. For them, it was 250 days of hell at sea, fastened in irons against the hold of the ship as it stalls in the doldrums of the equator.
The heat down below is unbearable, and the stench of human waste and filth is your lot day in and day out.
From there to the Southern Ocean and the roaring forties, you are now thrown about in the roll of the ship as it rises and falls in the angry sea. You are soaking wet for months and still locked in irons against the hold. This is your history.
And as the Johann Strauss Orchestra plays on in Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, with Mirusia’s soaring tones in the air you indeed tear up, and shed real tears. The horrors of your forbears is s`eanced right before your eyes.
But then fidgety among some in the audience. The solemn moment is mentally checked against the backdrop of a 230 year of ugly history. You realise you shouldn’t feel this way.
Instead, a load of immense guilt should be your garland for the wrongs the First Fleet wreaked on the inhabitants when it reached Botany Bay first, then Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. Welcome to the guilt of Australia Day.
Tennis legend Pat Cash for one has vowed never to celebrate Australia Day again. He said he was embarrassed and feels guilty to be Australian. He sees Australia Day as Invasion day.
For 40,000 years the first settlers had lived peacefully throughout this vast land. Estimates put Aboriginal population in 1788 upward to 1.25 million (median est. at 750,000). That number plummeted 80% in a hundred years to 117,000.
Disease, conflict and more bloody conflict as the sheer number of European settlers followed saw to the decimation of Aborigines.
A massacre – a popular word and no less emotive describes what happened, a river of “black blood” flowed in the hands of good people no less.
Cash’s view can only be expressed from a white Australian perspective. From the Aborigine perspective, it’s not guilt. It is anger, hurt and loss against two centuries of humiliation, dispossession and indifference.
These raw human feelings of guilt and anger are self-consuming. Nothing good comes of consuming oneself.
In Cash’s case, the three words that sold him into thinking this way are “racist by association”. It was a popular phrase used by Aborigine elder Jo Willmott in a workshop that Cash attended, to describe the advantages gained by non-indigenous Australians at the expense of indigenous people.
Cash had no idea he was a racist and now sees himself as one by association by just being white. He is not alone in that way of thinking. There is a wholesale call from across Australia for the day of national celebration to be changed from January 26.
Indigenous musician Dan Sultan is one who wants a date change because of the “genocide at Sydney Cove”. Australia Day on January 26 he says, is a day for European Australians.
He wants an Australia day for all, “Aboriginals, non-Aboriginals, immigrants” all living together in harmony in beautiful and free Australia.
On the other hand, and from an unexpected corner in the voice of indigenous champion and boxer Anthony Mundine comes some deep wisdom. In an interview in 2016 with news.com.au, Mundine said that indigenous history has been really bad but the present situation of where Australia is a country must guide the future.
Mundine prefers to keep January 26 as the national day. In his mind the day is sacred and there needs to be a dual sacramental framework around it, that of mourning and celebration.
First, the remembrance aspect in the morning to mourn what happened to indigenous Australians and in the afternoon there is a celebration of unity and harmony of Australia today.
This is on the premise, for Mundine and Sultan that the terrible history will continue to destroy long into the future if anger and hurt remain its guiding force for indigenous Australians.
Later in the night as the concert was coming to a close, Murisia took the stage again to sing the timeless words of We are Australia (Seekers, 1994).
I came from the dream-time
From the dusty red-soil plains
I am the ancient heart
The keeper of the flame
I stood upon the rocky shores
I watched the tall ships come
For forty thousand years I’ve been
The first Australian
I came upon the prison ship
Bowed down by iron chains …
A convict, then a free man
I became Australian
There are five other beautifully worded verses. Murisia of Dutch descent was born in Brisbane – she is one of many who have come from all lands on earth to live in that great land. She sings, “I am, you are, we are Australian”
This is the Spirit of Australia desired, but not yet prevailed, by all today. There is nothing that can be done to do away with the past.
Only the future can be fixed, once the errors of the past are understood and remedied. So long as the shackles of history do not encumber us nor guilt by association confuse the course to a new and greater Australia.