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The First Fleet: A Shaky Start to the European Colonisation of Australia

Tuesday, 28 January 2014  | Geoff Wraight

John Smith (in his book Advance Australia Where?) suggested that Australia is still nursing some deep scars which may trace back to injuries inflicted two hundred years ago but which may well affect to this very day our view of ourselves, our world and our ‘gods’.

Between 1787 and 1868, 162,000 convicts arrived on the Australian shore. Half were sentenced for seven years and one-quarter for life. Historian John Ritchie described the founding events of this nation in this way:

“At daylight on 13 May, 1787 a flotilla weighed anchor at the Mother Bank off the Isle of Wight and sailed down the English Channel bound for the biggest penitentiary on earth. It comprised two warships, six transports and three store-ships; it carried sheep, pigs, poultry, rats, cockroaches and vermin; it also carried almost 1500 souls among whom there were officials, soldiers, naval and merchant seamen, together with 568 male and 191 female convicts, some of whom were being exiled for the term of their natural lives. One soldier and twenty-three convicts died on the journey.”

The fleet landed on 26 January 1788 (26th January is “Australia Day” each year) and christened the site of Sydney Town. During the next two days the male convicts were brought ashore; a week later women disembarked, rum was distributed and wild party started. The following morning the convicts and crew gathered in a clearing beneath the gum trees to endure the pompous ceremony of the convict colony’s official establishment.”

The brutality and cruelty of the soldiers in their treatment of the convicts in the following months caused Aborigines watching on (The Eora People) to feel disgust and weep with the sufferers. Unlike the first white Americans who imagined themselves on a mission from God, those first white Australians knew they were God-forsaken.

A Community of Exiles
Michael Goonan has suggested in his book (A Community of Exiles) that the key to Australian non-indigenous spirituality is to understand the experience of Exile that the convicts and millions of others who have come to our shores over the last two centuries have experienced.

The Biblical ‘macro story’ of Exile and Return is directly relevant here. The exile of the Jews in Babylon from 587 BCE onwards represented a crisis for their faith and sense of God’s presence. In exile the Jewish people were cut off from those places that had opened them up to their God and therefore the crucial element in the exilic experience was a loss of this sense of God’s presence. Is God faithful or absent? Even though God may seem absent, through time the people come to recognise that they are in no way abandoned in exile.

Goonan argues that for non-indigenous Australians this experience of exile has been a continuing theme in our last two hundred years of history. People have turned to Australia for refuge (and continue to do so despite government attempts to discourage them) to flee war, famine, unemployment and political oppression, or because they were regarded simply as human waste to be disposed of.

Could it be the case that the struggle of non-indigenous Australians to truly feel at home is the result of a ‘received tradition of exile’. Even after two hundred years of white settlement, non-indigenous Australians remain essentially strangers and alien to the land. Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet explores this struggle to belong through the simple yet powerful story of two families (the Pickles and the Lambs) who are exiled from rural Western Australia to a ‘great continent of a house’ in Cloud Street, in a coastal town which both families share.

The role of the Aboriginal person in the story of Cloudstreet is very significant. An aboriginal man, a kind of guardian angel, makes occasional appearances throughout the story with a message of the importance of belonging, both to family and to place. Quick Lamb (the youngest son) has a dream in which he sees his family and other people he doesn’t know, birds and animals, “all moving behind a single file of other people the colour of burnt wood.”

The Aboriginal man in this story functions as a Christ figure, especially in the role of conveying the message of the importance of family and community. The characters of Cloudstreet are called by their experience and by the guidance of the Aboriginal man “to see the deep connectedness of all human beings with each other and with the land, and to live in accord with this.[1] According to Goonan, the challenge facing the ‘exiles’ in Australia the message is similar:
...that exiles must see their connection with one another and with the land of their exile. As they see this and live according to it, the land will cease to be a place of exile for them. They will come to belong to the land. The primary activity is not doing, but seeing, responding and being in relationship with the land and with one another.[2]

Popular Anglo-Australian “Culture”
White anglo-Australians generally like to think of themselves as peculiarly ‘Aussie’ by a set of characteristics that the Media and the Tourist Industry love to promote. These are not all shallow and meaningless but sometimes these “classic” Aussie characteristics mask a deeper undercurrent of “unfinished business”.
• Laid back – easygoing
• Laconic (few words) and self-depreciating sense of humour.
• Mateship
• The “Land of the Fair Go"
• Sports mad
• Bush Culture (even though over 85% live in cities and over 75% within an hours drive of the East coast!)
• ANZAC Day as the commemoration of the “birth of our nation.”
• Materialistic and shallow.
• Beer, BBQs and the Good Time

All these images or characteristics inform how we see ourselves today, but it remains critical that we think more deeply about the undercurrents in our history and how being in dialogue with these will help us ‘grow up’ as a nation.

[1] Goonan, Community of Exiles, p. 75.
[2] Ibid. p. 77.

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