Bearing Witness to Australia Day in London

Last Friday morning, a 25-metre banner was hung from Westminster Bridge in central London. It read: “Abolish Australia Day”. To coincide with the morning of the 26th of January in Australia, activists stood in solidarity with thousands of people who will be protesting this Australia Day.

For some, Australia Day represents an opportunity to bask in the peak summer heat and celebrate everything that makes Australia one of the most privileged countries in the world. ‘The lucky country’ they call us. For many, it is. Melbourne, my city, has been named the world’s most liveable city seven years in a row. Minimum wage is high, health care affordable, universities accessible. White Australia has been, undoubtedly, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the British Empire. But Australia Day is fundamentally a day that marks the beginning of British colonialism, a project inextricably linked to the dispossession, exploitation, and genocide of Australia’s indigenous people.

The 26th January officially marks the arrival of British settlers in 1788, when Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack at Sydney Cove. It’s a strange experience to be in London, the former heart of the British Empire, on this day.

Here, at King’s College, we study next to Australia House every day; it is an imposing monument that symbolises the significant ties between our states. Aussies abound in the British capital – it feels, more or less, like home. But Australia’s relationship with Britain is complex. Despite gaining independence from Britain in 1901, white Australians are clearly heirs to Britain’s project of colonial expansion, being undoubtedly one of the greatest beneficiaries of the British Empire. In 2014 David Cameron spoke of Australia in the language of sibling closeness: “We may live on the opposite sides of the planet, but it is hard to think of another country to which the British people feel so close,” he said. Cameron didn’t mention the violent colonial origins of that “closeness”, but he didn’t have to.

Australian politics and culture is still deeply imbued with British flavour. A 1999 referendum to become a republic was defeated. Former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott chose our national day in 2015 as an opportunity to provide Prince Phillip with a knighthood. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding in 2018 garnered an Australian audience of around 4 million. In fact, Brexit, in all its turbulence, poses many advantages for Australians: ease of accessibility to visas, streamlines at immigration, advantageous trade deals. Cumulatively, this is symptomatic of our imperialistic nostalgia that prevents us from abandoning, or changing the date, of Australia day. But friendly attitudes towards Britain are not merely an anachronism of conservative Australian politics: it is a pervasive, far reaching attitude that manifests most insidiously in Australian education curriculum, which manages to comprehensively neglect indigenous history and politics. Leaving students to arrive at University with a warped, imperialistic vision of history that has the British Empire as its focal point.

Alyssa Carp, an Australian exchange student at King’s College, describes this detachment: “The irony is we don’t grow up learning and talking about this brutal history until we get to University. It’s as if we are still living in this state of ignorance and not acknowledging these atrocities,” she said.

“When I have spoken about Australia Day to those in Britain, the reaction has generally been one of surprise and bewilderment – why on earth would a country celebrate the day it was colonised?,” said Eda Seyhan, spokesperson for the London Australia Solidarity Activism Hub, who orchestrated the Westminster Bridge protest.

It should be shocking. We are, in essence, celebrating colonisation. But a significant chasm exists between Britain and Australia regarding Australia day and it’s social and political symbolism.

“I don’t think a lot of people in England would even know Australia day exists, or understand the controversy,” says James Brooke, a UCL Geography student who studied abroad in Western Australia, “We aren’t taught the full story of our colonial dominance in our education”.

Ruva Takawira, a second year history student, reinforces this sentiment: “Colonialism was never a part of our secondary school curriculum,” she said. “Even when we did learn about the empire, it was about the industrial benefits we brought to the colonies.”

Today, there is still a 10-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Since the beginning of 2019 alone, there have been eight suspected suicides of young aboriginal people and at least six who were all under the age of 15. It’s impossible to separate Australia day from the undisputable violence and atrocities committed in the name of British expansionism. The University of Newcastle has documented a staggering 250 massacres committed in Australia between the 26th January 1788 and 1930. This was an active policy of mass murder that saw officials such as Governor Lachlan Maquarie declare in 1816 that: “All Aborigines from Sydney onwards are be made prisoners of war and if they resist they are to be shot and their bodies hung from trees…so as to strike terror into the hearts of surviving natives.” It’s difficult to fathom how a country can celebrate a day where indigenous people were denied their humanity.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility, as an Australian in the UK, to shift this discourse. Its invasion day, not Australia Day,” says Alyssa Carp. Eda Seyhan echoes this sentiment: “After all, the prosperity enjoyed here is built on he wealth stolen from there”

Until we reckon with the state of indigenous welfare and health, until we establish a treaty and foster meaningful dialogue with our first peoples, Australia day will never be untarnished by our colonial legacy. January 26th must be considered invasion day, survival day, and a day of mourning. Australia is a wonderful, diverse, rich country that should be celebrated, on another date. On the 26th January, we must respect this history, wherever we are in the world. 

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