Australians must know their history to appreciate it
With Australia Day once again around the corner, it’s worth brushing up on the hard-earned blessings of being Australian.
In classrooms, Australians ought to learn about our history. Furthermore, it is important to be cautious about how we teach the past, partly due to the risk of over-simplifying it.
The teaching of history, however, goes far beyond classrooms. Though schools have a role to play in teaching heritage, it is to be found elsewhere. Memorials, monuments and museums dotting cities everywhere tell of the stories of the nations they inhabit. So does something as simple and common as a banknote, and ours do a magnificent job at that.
Australians ought to know who the people on our banknotes are. Among them are David Unaipon, an Aboriginal preacher, and Edith Cowan, the first woman to serve in an Australian parliament.
The stories of those who travelled on the First Fleet, the friendship between Arthur Phillip and Bennelong, or the significance of the 26th of January — the national holiday — are worthy of being known. There are some who would confuse the roles of Governor Arthur Phillip and Captain James Cook in Australia’s history. It would be a shock, however, if any American struggled to identify the significance of the 4th of July.
For many countries — much more than for us — it can be hard to develop a common national identity backed by a wholistic understanding of the past. However, it’s necessary to foster unity and avoid sectarianism.
This task is, in fact, quite straightforward for us. One can easily trace the national story from our heritage as a penal colony to today. It becomes apparent we’ve done quite well for such a starting point!
Our understanding of the past, and the story of progress despite the considerable hardships, serves as a basis for national unity. No nation should be shamed for the difficulty of its upbringing, in the same sense that a child born into a broken household shouldn’t be indicted for having to struggle to succeed.
There’s no better day to recognise and revel in all of this than our national holiday.
The early colonial heritage of Australia is documented by lieutenant Watkin Tench in his book 1788, a must-read for anyone interested in Australian history. He records the arduous eight-month journey of the First Fleet and life in the fledgling colony of New South Wales, established on the 26th of January.
As he recounts, the colony was barren and famine-bound, and populated largely by convicts. It was from its first moment on its last legs. In a few years, however, it attracted free settlers. Before long, people were streaming in from across the world to pursue opportunity in the Great South Land, and more colonies sprang up in due course.
The potential bounty of the Australian continent was known to some far-seeing people prior to settlement. In 1783, the sailor James Matra remarked in A Proposal For Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales that:
The climate and soil are so happily adapted to produce every various and valuable production of Europe, and of both the Indies, that with good management, and a few settlers, in twenty or thirty years they might cause a revolution in the whole system of European commerce, and secure to England a monopoly of some part of it, and a very large share in the whole.
It should be noted here that Matra’s vision of settlement in Australia involved resettling American loyalists, Chinese and South Sea Islanders. In reality, settlement was initially driven primarily by convicts. The convicts were treated with fairness by governor Phillip, who distributed rations equally among both convicts and officers and gifted emancipated convicts with large tracts of land. Could this be an early display of the egalitarian spirit Australians have come to so eagerly associate themselves with?
Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales and a man who can be well described as Australia’s founding father, embodies the perseverance Australians have come to be known for. The colony struggled with crop failures, but survived.
Those on the First Fleet withstood the punishment of the seas to come to a land far from home and generally to stay permanently. Many more, first by boat and then by plane, have followed in their footsteps.
The day of this country’s founding as a lonely colony is used as a proxy for everything that came after. That is fair, but only if it applies to the positive as well as the negative that followed as a logical consequence. Australia Day is a gift that encourages us to reflect on ourselves as a country. It can be harnessed to encourage Australians to be better to each other.
Does that mean it’s wrong to, say, get drunk on the national holiday? Absolutely not. Drink to the country and its story!
Australians have always been a people who seek unity and practical solutions. Sometimes, it so happens that the best solution is to embrace that which we already have.