Australians Are Settlers, Too

The prosperous country stems from the unwitting dispossession of the indigenous people — unwitting but with its share of cruelty.

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Aboriginal Australians in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 11, 2008.
Aboriginal Australians in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 11, 2008. Credit: AP

The seat backs in Sydney-area train cars are adjustable so passengers can sit facing each other, which is nice for families or groups of four friends riding together. The seats can be moved back as well. This is a pleasant and logical upgrade that I’ve yet to see on the mother continent, Europe. (Maybe I’ve missed it?)

With these improvements, Australian trains run through mountains and eucalyptus trees of endless variety and numbers, and then stop at stations that look as if they were in England.

Not only the stations look English, or like what one imagines England to have been like. So do the botanical gardens alongside the villa of the Governor General (representing the Queen), the one- and two-story houses with their brown bricks, and filigree that looks like lace on veranda railings and little bridges over creeks.

It's all as if you’ve entered a Mary Poppins movie, replete with Gothic-style churches and government buildings with classical-Greek-style columns.

“How do you see Australia?” asked a member of a Jewish group that was hosting me during a closed meeting in Sydney. “A prosperous settlement in which the mother country, the British Empire, is present everywhere” was my reply, more or less.

Let’s set aside for a moment the history of the penal colony with its rebellious Irishmen and workers demanding their rights who were exiled there as criminals. And then there were the women from the same “criminal classes” who were sent there to see to the men’s needs and increase the population.

Let’s also ignore for a minute the horrific stories of manhunts and genocide carried out against native peoples. Let’s ignore Serco, a private company that operates (for profit) the mass detention centers for visa-less refugees, under conditions that have been severely criticized. Let’s ignore that this multinational outsourcing company is based in Britain.

In other words, let’s ignore for a minute the layers of institutionalized cruelty prevailing today as it did among the ruling classes in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the cruelty with which Australians engineered the lives of non-British migrants. First they were Europeans such as dark-skinned Italians and Greeks who were Christians nonetheless. Then, God help us, they were Asians.

The land is large and needs laborers – “populate or perish” was the rallying cry in the mid-20th century. Australian labor unions chalked up some impressive achievements in their struggle to establish the eight-hour workday at the end of the 19th century, but they objected to importing competing laborers from China. These unions, obviously, didn’t include the Aborigines or oppose the Aborigines’ brutal dispossession.

Perpetuation of military prowess

If one ignores all the cruelty, the architecture reflects the natural yearnings of perfectly ordinary people to expand England, London or Dublin a little — to gain more land for their villages and pasture land for their sheep. In the course of all this, unintentionally, truly inadvertently, native peoples were evicted.

The imported filigreed woodwork on the front of homes captures in a nutshell the people’s hopes for a better life, along with the look, esthetics, vegetation and prayer books from back home. Compared to the United States, the British colony in Australia looks very fresh.

“I speak to you as one settler to another” is how I usually start my lectures to the converted, namely audiences who oppose the Israeli occupation (it’s my habit to tell listeners things they don’t want to hear). My audience members clear their throats, pause and giggle with embarrassment.

I was surprised to learn that they don’t experience the urban surroundings they live in as a settlement, as a colonial import, as a perpetuation of military prowess and white supremacy. This is the case even though before every event they declared that the land we were on was Aboriginal land, noting even the name of the displaced native tribe or people.

“But at some point settlers also become natives,” I said, adding my contribution to the sociopolitical analysis of their cognitive dissonance between their comfortable lives and their ceremonial declarations.

In saying all this, I’m aiming at something that I’ll address in the future. At this point I’ll add that on May 1, in the city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s southern island, only 30 or 40 people came to a rally to show solidarity with a struggle against the Western Australia authorities, who intend to stop funding health, education and infrastructure to remote Aboriginal communities, thus causing their disintegration. One sign read “boycott Australia,” while another read “boycott Australian sport.”

“This isn’t a very new slogan, but boycotting Australia isn’t possible due to the tight commercial links we have with it,” a local radio correspondent told me.

“On the other hand, one could imagine boycotting sporting events – the boycott of South Africa’s rugby team during the apartheid years is still very much alive in people’s memories. On the other hand, rugby is a religion here and fans won’t support a boycott very easily,” he said.

“However, some of the best players are Maori, New Zealand’s Aboriginal people. Maybe they will demand a boycott. Ultimately, the call for a boycott is important even as a token, since it raises awareness and international pressure.”

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