It was Australia day, yesterday. Now, that happens to be celebrated on the same day of the year as the First Fleet landed the first British convict settlers at Sydney Cove, marking the start of the nation that is modern Australia. The continent was there before that, and will be long after the even memory of humans have vanished. There were people here before that, descendants of long, long ago settlers – because ALL humans are settlers and colonists or descendants of the same. There were many different nations and clans, and strictly demarcated territories and many different languages. Australia was, if anything, more complicated than Europe, and the people who lived on the continent were all living on one continent but were no more the same nation than Estonians are quite the same as Spaniards – and the distances between some groups was far larger and less traveled than those in Europe. Rousseau’s imaginary noble savage remained illusionary. As with all pre-metal cultures everywhere, it is unlikely in the extreme that lifespans were anything but short, with death –particularly in childbirth and among children, taking a bitter toll. Life was harder for them and indeed those convicts than any modern human in Australia experiences.
I suspect those convicts didn’t do a lot of celebrating – except maybe to get off that ship. It was a harsh and alien place relative to what they were familiar with. However, it certainly became a day huge celebration, of pride, of joy, to many millions of people. You see, we’re a nation of immigrants, colonists if you like – many of whom came to Australia from pretty dire circumstances. And they range of course from the poor of Italy to escapees from behind the Iron Curtain, from Vietnam or Africa — it became the day on which, traditionally, they had their citizenship ceremony and became full citizens of our great nation, with all the rights and responsibilities of the native born. I am one of them, and it is a day that will always have a personal and deep resonance for me. I’d found sanctuary for me and mine, and I cherish and love it for that great gift. I try very hard to become what has been conferred on me. My ancestors didn’t pay blood and treasure to make this nation, prosperous, free, tolerant and generous, giving me and mine shelter, security and a future. There is a debt of gratitude owing for that I can never pay back, and Australia Day is very symbolic of that, to me, and indeed to millions of Australians like me, who now call this home.
When we arrived on the island – legal migrants, but needing to fulfill our residency time (four years) and pass the citizenship exam – we’d been here just on two weeks before Australia Day. As the people at church had told us we should go, and that we’d be very welcome, we went to the island Australia Day party up at Killiekrankie beach… not knowing what to expect or how welcome we’d actually be.
Well, very welcome.
It was a great day for three nervous ‘New Australians’. We met people from all over the world – the UK to Philippines, as well as people whose families had been here for as long as the islands have been settled and continuously populated (not all that long ago, as Tobias Furneaux first charted the island in 1773, and they had no residents – a situation that had been true for thousands of years. They were once part of a land-bridge to Tasmania, back when sea levels were at least 50 meters lower… and the Great Barrier Reef was existent… but not where it is now.)
I picture it still, my son playing beach cricket with the other youngsters, us enjoying the free barbecue put on for the celebration. We were essentially broke from the huge cost of legal migration, poor as church-mice, and wondering if this very alien place in which we really knew no-one could actually become home. The meat was very much appreciated, but the friendly welcome far more so. It was basically the first time I actually stopped wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. But everyone seemed to get on, all the kids played together, and we felt not so much outsiders as a part of the celebration. It remains as clear as a snapshot in my memory, and I treasure it. It’s an important day to me, and always will be.
Of course various activists saw this day as opportunity, and now we have some calling it ‘Invasion Day’ for the fact that the First Fleet brought settlers to Aboriginal land. They offered no alternative to celebrate unity or welcome or achievement. Just their grievance, for which they want attention. Well, you can see that as you like, but the end result has been… I don’t think quite what they wanted, or anyone else does. Instead of binding a nation, or garnering support among any but those who supported them anyway, it’s just ended up being divisive, and resulted in celebration to which anyone was welcome being either muted, or cancelled… or defiant.
All of this is hard on the millions of New Australians like me, to whom this was an important day for us becoming citizens. We didn’t choose to settle Australia originally, even if we became part of her history and baggage, as well as her benefits when we did.
As a writer of Alternate History (which takes a fair amount of historical research, as well as following logical progression…) I have to point out that if you decided to start your alternate history with a storm that sank that First Fleet, Australia might well have ended up with… exactly the same British Colonists in another fleet, or as the French and Dutch were both exploring the area — either of the above — or more than one European power dividing the continent. It’s massively unlikely that none of them would have settled and conquered. I suggest those who think this might have been better study the colonial history of these nations.
If you had to choose a different historical split (which would have even less to do with Australia Day) and somehow exclude those European Nations and Empires from the Southern Pacific… You’d have had Spain. Was that better for the colonized? Getting Spain out of your timeline would be difficult, but let’s assume you did. You’d then have the reality of non-European states all actively expanding and colonizing (because that’s what humans do) at that time who were… sweetness and light, and never conquered anywhere, and merely came and gave benefits generously to all and sundry and went away… yeah. And the moon is made of green cheese and Epstein killed himself. I suggest looking up Chatham Islands for a more realistic picture of historical non-European colonization
But given the myriad possible universes I suppose someone could come up with an alternative where the various nations living in Australia before 1788 somehow repelled the various inevitable invasions. Of course those successful in fighting off these invaders remained peaceful ‘noble savages’ and never invaded their neighbors lands when their populations grew. Australia as a nation would not exist, any more than Europe is a nation. And I wonder if any of those nations on the continent would have welcomed migrants, or provided comfort, security, healthcare or social welfare?
Maybe someone will write it someday. Maybe some people want to read it. It would be a challenge to do well and make appeal to broad audience, but who knows? Maybe it could be done.
But while alternate history remains fascinating, I suppose the lesson in this for us as writers is that which bound us together made us stronger and more able to provide support for the outliers and newcomers. The activists of the writing world seizing grievances as an opportunity to exclude and divide – a thing that they have successfully foisted on Trad publishing – has not strengthened that (it’s weaker and poorer than it used to be, with declining market share), and, as a result, other than in the very short term not going to benefit them.
Let’s keep Indy a place where opportunity at least is equal.