I’m a great fan of the TV show Vikings. The series is historical fiction – based on the real historical events of the early Viking raids of England and France, but with characters and storylines that are a mixture of fiction, myth and legend and historical facts.
Vikings’ characters aren’t modern heroes. They commit dreadful acts – they rape and pillage, keep slaves, kill and mutilate innocent people, cheat, lie and torture. And that’s not just the Vikings. The English and French are cut from the same brutal cloth. Yet the characters are engaging and even endearing, with stories full of complexity and moral ambiguities. The series simply depicts how people lived, interacted, thought and behaved in and around the North Sea over a thousand years ago. As they were. Warts and all.
Recently, a mini-storm erupted over the University of NSW’s Diversity Toolkit, which provides language guidelines when referring to events in Australia’s history. In particular, it recommends using the term “invasion” rather than “settlement” to describe the way the British came to control and govern the Australian continent.
The ensuing uproar clearly demonstrates that describing British colonisation as a “invasion” strikes a very raw nerve amongst non-Indigenous Australians, even more than two centuries after the event.
Let’s get real here. The indisputable fact is that my Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin ancestors experienced an invasion. Armed foreigners entered their countries and took possession of their lands through fear, intimidation, trickery and/or violence, under the authority of a foreign government. Their choices were to flee or remain in subjugation.
How is it that learned minds can look at this scenario and conclude there was no invasion in a geo-political sense? Because of the way Britain thought about Australia and its first peoples.
Britain assumed Australia’s first peoples didn’t claim ownership of the land. They saw nomads living in unstructured societies with no recognisable civic or legal systems; who moved seemingly randomly over vast areas but didn’t claim any particular territory for themselves. Britain designated the continent as terra nullius, the land of no-one; a territory no nation claimed sovereignty over.
This assumption was wrong. In 1788 Australia had hundreds of nations, each with their own languages, laws and governance. And each knew what was their country and what was the country of another group. The British didn’t recognise or understand this. It wasn’t until 1992, through the Mabo decision, that the idea of terra nullius was finally rejected.
I accept that most of the British colonists didn’t see themselves as invaders. The First Fleet’s objective wasn’t to launch an attack; the British soldiers weren’t deployed to wage war. Their mission was to establish a penal colony. But taking land and subjugating the people of the Sydney Basin was essential to this mission. And so it went on across the continent for well over a century.
In an address to the House of Commons in 1916 on the success of Britain’s aerial forces, Winston Churchill concluded with the now famous comment:
“This truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is.”
History, too, is incontrovertible; it cannot be changed or undone. Australian law now recognises that in 1788 Australia was inhabited by people who occupied, possessed and enjoyed particular areas of land and sea to the exclusion of others which was inherited and succeeded to subsequent generations. Our ancestors didn’t invite or welcome British colonists to occupy their lands. People may resent this, deride it or try to distort it but, in the end, there it is.
The teaching of Australian history has evolved from mistaken assumptions and bigotry. The facts, experiences and lived realities of our ancestors have been absent or wrongly portrayed. It’s right to remedy this oversight. But we don’t need thought-police or politically correct language. Just teach the facts and the ambiguities; and teach them all.
History shouldn’t be sanitised or edited to suit an agenda, to make people feel worse or to make them feel better. History is messy and brutal. People need to learn about past events, in full and as they happened, regardless of whether the details might offend someone. This should include both the Indigenous and European perspectives, the context in which events took place and also the positive contribution that Europeans have made to building the modern Australian nation. Portray people of Australia’s history – its first peoples, invaders, colonisers, settlers and migrants – in their full depth, not as heroes and villains, but as real people who displayed a range of successes, failings, weaknesses and virtues.
I’m sure the Scandinavians, British and French can watch Vikings today without feeling grievances or guilt. Australians too should move past the emotion of historical events and see them as they are, not as they might wish them to be.
This article was published in The Spectator on 9 April 2016 and in The Koori Mail.
Yes, we were invaded
9 April 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine