Sydney’s Botany Bay was named by Captain James Cook while he was investigating this “great Southern continent” for the British empire in 1770. His exploration led to the First Fleet’s settlement in the area on January 26, 1788, and the beginning of 226 years of massacres, dispossession and abuse of the land’s first people.
So the graffiti discovered along the western shoreline of the bay reading “Fuck Australia Day, no pride in genocide” and on the front of Captain Cook’s heritage cottage in Melbourne labelling January 26 “Australia’s shame” had a symbolic point to their messages.
That is, the date of “Australia Day” falls on a day of mourning and trauma for Aboriginal people, many of who prefer the title Invasion Day or Survival Day.
It is estimated that more than 750,000 people lived in 250 individual nations in Australia for at least 40,000 years before foreign explorers arrived. But Cook’s observations of the first Indigenous people he encountered laid the groundwork for the British to declare Australia terra nullius — “no one’s land” — a legal fiction that was the foundation of the mass murder and destruction of hundreds of thousands of people.
This pain is still deep and fresh. Aboriginal writer Nakkiah Lui wrote in the Guardian on January 26: “It’s only four generations back that my family felt the direct consequences of foreigners invading our land. There's my great-great grandmother, who survived a massacre; my great grandfather, who was forced back to the mission after his father died and wasn't allowed to own land; my grandfather, who was given ‘dog tags’ dictating he was an ‘honorary white man’ after he returned from being a prisoner of war in World War II; my mother, who was encouraged to not finish high school because she was Aboriginal.”
This history of Australia is largely ignored when the nationalistic fervour rolls around each January. Celebrating the date has been made a part of a national campaign to whitewash the fact that Australia’s prosperity was built on the brutal and inhuman oppression of its original people.
Their descendants continue to suffer, Aboriginal journalist Amy McQuire wrote, having “inherited a legacy of disadvantage that has compounded since the very first days of invasion”.
The vandalism caused predictable outrage from the mainstream media. Ignoring historical massacres and modern-day deaths in custody is acceptable, but paint on the streets must be condemned as “sickening”.
Reporting on the trail of graffiti at Botany Bay, the St George & Sutherland Shire Leader news website described it as “racist”, sparking a surprising backlash from readers. Dozens of comments with hundreds of up-votes called it the “opposite of racism”.
Comments read: “Seriously when did it become ‘racist’ to acknowledge the genocide carried out against the [Aboriginal] population, and the discriminatory politics that continue to this day?”; “If you think a slogan decrying the use of a national holiday to airbrush historic events is ‘racism’ you may need a dictionary”; “How on earth can you call this graffiti racist? This is AGAINST racism. Against CELEBRATING GENOCIDE.”
The Leader was eventually forced to retract the label and apologised in the comments.
Awareness and protests about the truth of Invasion Day have risen and fallen over the past 200 years. Australia Day’s aggressive promotion by the John Howard government has led to renewed intolerance and ignorance.
But a rising tide of resistance and tireless campaigning by Aboriginal people and supporters are again causing more critical questioning of the national holiday and its links to genocide and oppression, and this should be celebrated.