Disembarking History


As I sat on the plane, flying back to America, watching all the adults around me grin with delight at the prospect of the free raspberry icy-pole a treat they would never voluntarily buy for themselves I mused on how often we are excited by small things. A parking space. Our queue moving faster than another queue. Free icy-poles.

Perhaps this explains why we let bigger things pass us by. Australia Day, for example.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Not that we don’t take advantage of the national holiday the chance to drink ourselves stupid on a weeknight and the pleasure of a shortened working week but how many of us actually know why we’re enjoying it?

My Australia Day celebrations were, I suspect, like many others: a barbecue in the still, wretched heat, cold beer aplenty, and television blaring out a tennis match. But out of sheer perversity, I asked every one of my fellow countrymen present, whether they knew what they were celebrating or commemorating.

Before I reveal that none of them knew none, not even one, and no one was close, unless guessing ‘federation of the separate States’ is close let me just say that gracing this particular barbecue were the following: a great grand-niece of Breaker Morant, a freshly minted Australian citizen who had attended her citizenship ceremony two days prior, a lad consumed by genealogy who revealed that his family had long been silent about his heritage because of a direct convict linkage (apparently his great great great grandfather had been shipped to Australia for assaulting someone), a gentlemen whose grandfather (an army captain) and grandmother (an aerial photographer) had met during the Japanese invasion of Darwin, a one-16th Aboriginal person, a first-generation Australian and several fourth-generation Australians.

Amongst this impressive lot and I didn’t know about their heritage until I started prying into what Australia Day might mean for their families it was surely reasonable to expect that someone would know a bit about Captain Arthur Phillip’s landing at Sydney Cove and his founding of the new British Colony of New South Wales in 1788. Apparently not.

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

I had expected some dissension about calling it a ‘celebration’ after all, there are usually multiple flag-burnings around the country on the day some Aborigines and Whites call ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day.’ I had expected some wag to tell me it was traditionally a commemoration in search of a fixed date and name; it used to be called ‘Foundation Day,’ and was held around January 26 depending on which State you lived in. Or that it wasn’t until 1946 that the Commonwealth Government, and the States and Territories agreed to the one national ‘Australia Day’ celebration, on the same date each year.

In short, I expected any sort of discussion about the origins of Australia Day rather than the complete blank I actually got.

Perhaps more telling was the fact that no one was particularly abashed by their error or ignorance. Annoyed at not being right, maybe. But not ashamed. Not concerned in any way. They simply didn’t care.

When I mentioned this strange state of affairs to my American husband, he was outraged much as he had been when he realised that kangaroos often end up as roadkill. ‘How could Australians not know what Australia Day is for?’ he cried, ‘Every American knows what the 4th of July commemorates!’

I refrained, for the sake of marital peace, from replying that the entire world knows when the USA scratches itself, but the point remained. We didn’t know what we were commemorating about Australia.

Can a disembarkation define us as thoroughly as Independence Day defines the Yanks? For better, and often for worse, America’s proud civil religion of ‘Democracy and Independence’ describes exactly who they fancy themselves to be and more often than not, precisely whom they’d like everyone else to be, too.

It might have been more logical for Australia to celebrate the date the former British colonies federated as a national holiday but given that we don’t, I wondered if we might see Phillip’s literal action a bit more metaphorically. Perhaps Australians, rather than focusing on how different or free we are, instead simply disembark the cargo the passengers and the history of those passengers and send it off into the wide blue yonder. Perhaps what makes us Australian, what makes us the nation we believe we are, is precisely our ability to let go of our history.

In that case, what we are, or could be, celebrating on Australia Day, is the disembarking spirit that sends so many of us around the world that allows us to view our own lives and even our holidays in the here and now, more than the there and then.

History is supposed to teach a country, a people, certain wisdoms yet perhaps to be always disembarking that history is precisely what it means to be Australian.

But then the seatbelt light came on and my train of thought was interrupted. It was time to land and disembark. Again.

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