Perish the thought of how those who delight in being annually miffed about Australia Day might have fared under the French, Dutch or the conquistadors’ whips. Instead, and for the better, we were graced with British justice and institutions, from suffrage to cricket
There have been many brutal invasions throughout history, mostly driven by brutal regimes. We could start with the Vikings. Hannibal might get a mention. Hitler cleaned up Belgium and France pretty swiftly, tried for England – it would have been brutal – then set about taming Stalin’s own brutal backyard. The Allies’ own reverse invasion itself involved much carnage visited from the air upon cities such as Dresden.
Genghis Khan was a dab hand at invading, uniting many tribes across Asia with the single purpose of empire building. In this endeavour, the first of the Mongol Khans was singularly successful, and clearly, given his referencing in later epithets, very right wing.
Yes, building empires has been a real thing for much of human history. The methodology has generally involving military might more or less savagely delivered, occupation, subjugation of the innocent, domination, cultural imperialism, the killing of the rights of the suffering locals. In the case of the Jewish Babylonian exile, it was not so much occupation as their forcible shunting-off to another country.
To rebut Lenin, imperialism is decidedly not merely the highest stage of capitalism. Rather, it is part of the human condition. Fallen man tends to want geographical domination of tribes other than his own. The urge to invade also pre-dates by millennia the nation state and nationalism as moderns understand it.
So, one question in these late January days when dates of celebrations and, indeed whether there is even much to be celebrated, is – how did dear old Arthur Phillip (in the thumbnail above) and his successors, with names like Bourke, Darling and Macquarie that remain much splashed around the Aussie map, measure up against their illustrious fellow invaders?
I must declare an interest here. One of my forebears, a former Sheriff of Penrith and friend to early explorers and pioneers, was dragged off to the colonies and given seven years’ hardish labour for receiving stolen calico in his London then-abode. So Pierce Collits was not officially a part of an invading British “force” but brought along against his will. In other words, he was a victim of imperialism as a well as witness to it in “real time”, as we now say. He prospered, materially at any rate, in the colonies, and commenced a minor Aussie dynasty. I doubt he felt part of any “invasion”.
As invasions go, Arthur Phillip’s short nautical trek up from Botany Bay to Port Jackson on 26 January 1788 and his plonking of a Union Jack flag into the harbourside soil probably fell a little short of some of the other, aforementioned imperialisms. Brutal? Military? Freedom denying? Life-ending for the locals? Subjugatory? Enslaving?
Opinions on these matters clearly differ. History wars have been joined and Australian Research Council grants dished out to study this imperialism. As one-time adviser to Nick Greiner, Gary Sturgess, recently opined, by his reckoning it is now time to “recontextualise” Captain Cook. Recontextualise, eh? As George Orwell observed, own the language and you own both past and future.
I beg to differ with Sturgess. I think it is time to re-re-contextualise Captain Cook and that lot, and to do so in the innovative and liberal spirit of my great-great-great grandfather Pierce, himself no enemy of Aboriginal Australians.
By any measure, Phillip was not Hannibal or Genghis Khan or Hitler, nor did he resemble the Vikings of yore. The Brits, even if invaders, brought with them the legacy of Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, the fruits of David Hume and of Adam Smith (greater Scots even than Andy Murray). We owe them for little tidbits like the rule of law, free-ish markets, equality of opportunity, the benefits of free-ish trade, the gains of the Industrial Revolution. Later British contributions, such as universal suffrage, were simply passed on to the colonials, again free of charge.
Oh, and cricket! Must not forget cricket. The civilising impact of that noble sport, whatever damage its more recent practitioners, with their bloated bank accounts, have wrought remains a credit to Britain’s benign imperialism. Indigenous Australians, from Eddie Gilbert to Jason Gillespie, have savoured the opportunities provided by this benefit of British imperialism.
And whatever Churchill thought of Gandhi, and whatever the Brits of the Raj, like Sir Charles Napier achieved, both positive and negative, the Indians have now managed to achieve financial and official domination of the old colonial game. The British-planted institutions remain effective and in place, from parliamentary democracy to impartial courts and the presumption of innocence. After the recent Test series one might perhaps wish Kohli’s warriors had paid a littlke less attention.
Those who prefer the winter sports of either rugby code might also recall the British roots of these sports. Many young indigenous Australians, from the Ellas on the one hand to Artie Beetson and Laurie Daly on the other, have had their lives immeasurably enriched by the fruits of British craft. And indeed the lives of many later arrivals, including from the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, have been similarly enriched.
The British also mounted had a rock invasion, in the Sixties, led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, with talented backup by The Kinks and others. This, too, was largely benign, despite what the Beach Boys might have thought, and brought unalloyed joy to many. The Brits tend to do benign invasions rather well, it seems.
Actually, there is an invasion underway in contemporary Australia. It is not benign and will not end well. It is sanctioned by governments of all shades, indeed it is celebrated as being an outstanding example of “multi-culturalism”. Its march includes the annexation of islands, even the creation of new ones, in the South China Sea, brushes with the US Navy, a massive multinational capitalist expansion, the theft of other countries’ intellectual capital over half a century, real estate plays, the purchasing of foreign infrastructure, again apparently without local demur. As Clive Hamilton and the National Civic Council (an odd-couple pairing if ever there was one), actual spying through the use of the latest techno tools.
Visit haunts such as Sydney’s Eastwood to witness the apparently benign face of this invasion. While there is a physical presence to this invasion, it has many other hallmarks of imperialism, albeit imperialism by stealth. Paraphrasing Crocodile Dundee, what the Brits did was not an invasion, this is an invasion. I wonder how we will all fare in the wake of an invasion that brings not the gospels of Adam Smith or David Hume, nor the rule of law, Magna Carta and its descendant, limited government. Just ask Hong Kong how things might go under far less benign supervision.
Arthur Phillip was not a militarist’s militarist nor an imperialist’s imperialist, just a good and solid Brit bureaucrat who delivered many benefits to a land and its original and later inhabitants. Yes, a land that the Brits did indeed choose to occupy in that very late stage of a long ago millennia marked by harshly acquired empires. A land occupied, somewhat benignly.
The arguments will continue, no doubt, over dates and the nature of appropriate “celebration”. People of intelligence and goodwill can differ on this. But on the matter of celebration, I am pretty sure there is enough good that came from the Brits’ arrival on our shores to give pause to even the most anti-British types, including activist indigenes. Or there should be were they to place fact above aggrieved resentment.
Good Lord. It might have been the French! Or the Dutch! And perish the thought of what the Indigenous lot might have been had the conquistadores not been busy enslaving the native peoples of the Americas.
Those inquisitive Aborigines observing Arthur Phillip’s doings at Sydney Cove two hundred-and-something years ago saw the better Britain, which cannot be said of those who have since encounter those truly hideous, insensitive, self-satisfied, arrogant Brits of the Barmy Army. I would give much for them not to have invaded our shores. Ever.