As Australia Day approaches it draws the curtain on the holiday season for another year. With every passing year it seems more noise is made about how inappropriate or appropriate it is for us to celebrate the coming of the first fleet in 1788 as our national day.
The teaching of our history is vital for national self-understanding, for discerning the good and evil of our story, for carrying the good forward and for making peace with those disadvantaged by the past.
Whatever one might think about former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology, it is considered an important symbolic act. For many, it’s not about symbolism but about delivering real, practical change. Real change has a symbolic quality. We will find it in the data or the visible difference.
Significant things have been done to recognise the Indigenous people’s prior right to the land. I speak of Land Rights, many considerations in welfare, education and health and in the public recognition of the traditional owners, to name some of the most obvious. These may not be formally linked to the Apology, but they are expressions of wider Australia’s recognition that the settlers brought a complex mix of good and bad influences with them.
One essential element of nationhood and community is allowing all sides to tell their story. Listening to each other’s stories is a good tradition to encourage, as a way of weaving together the unique, Australian tapestry.
One storyline to consider is that most of the people in the First Fleet were convicts not free settlers. They were being punished for crimes committed in Britain at a time when Europe was testing out very unsatisfactory ways of dealing with the growing number of people falling foul of the law. And many of these crimes were because the industrial revolution was changing the economy, work and society resulting in slums of poor and desperate people.
There was a desperate need for law reform. There were 150 capital offences on the statute books of England and there were thousands of people being incarcerated in overflowing prisons and prison hulks anchored in the Thames and off the coast.
Before the First Fleet of 1788, about 50,000 people from English prisons had been transported to the American colonies. Other countries like France and Spain were using their colonial territories as locations for prison colonies as well. There are many other examples of non-Western governments using banishment as punishment or territorial expansion. It was the way of the world at the time.
What is different about our story is the resolve of evangelicals in England to redeem and rehabilitate convicts bound for Australia. The British Crown and its Governor Phillip did not espouse this purpose entirely but were persuaded enough to appoint a chaplain to the penal colony and to provide some practical support.
Professor Stuart Piggin commits the Prologue of his celebrated book on Christian influence in early Australia to Lieutenant William Dawes, the astronomer appointed to the First Fleet. Dawes was a genuine Christian and a considerable moral intellect. He took a special interest in the local people and explored the indigenous language and understanding of the world.
From Dawes’ surviving notebooks which lay neglected until 1972 we learn that in 1791 Chaplain Richard Johnson had been reading Bible stories to the local people and that they wanted to hear more. Dawes was relieved of his position by Governor Phillip after only a few years and took his notebooks and his cultural sensitivity with him and the penal settlement and the Indigenous people lost a key interpreter and mediator.
In Stuart Piggin’s considerable opinion, the influence of early Christians like Richard Johnson and William Dawes amounted to a parallel and generally unacknowledged universe of values and actions both in the first decades and then within emerging mainstream Australia.
Not much has changed in this regard. The religion of the heart doesn’t fit easily into public life, but its influence should not be underestimated or unstated. And so, we must keep listening to the stories of our nation and sharing with others our stories of life and faith because they are like salt in the increasingly diverse mix of people’s stories of what it means to be Australian.
The stories from the recent firegrounds – both of grief and loss and also of courage and sacrifice have refined us all in some ways. We are being exercised about how we live together in this wide brown land. We must not forget those who have lost so much, or the people on the land where the rain is yet to fall.
Australia Day may be the last day off for a while, but this year there are some stories to hear around the BBQ, some fences to be taken down, some prayers to be prayed together, some tears to be shared and a future to build together as one people under God.
Your brother in Christ,
PS. If you haven't already done so, please check out two of our important campaigns — supporting tennis great Margaret Court and sending a quick submission on the second draft religious freedom laws.