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Issue #1902      February 10, 2020

Editorial: The Bicentenary

The replicas of the first fleet sailed in and the Union Jack was run up again as it was 200 years ago. Some wore the soldiers’ uniforms of the times to help capture the right atmosphere.

But on this occasion, the backdrop was the tall buildings of Sydney, the Opera House, and the Harbour Bridge. Royalty was in attendance this time which was not the case in 1788. To cap the day of non-stop ceremony and entertainment, a spectacular fireworks display lit up the harbour.

Throughout 1988, there will be many events to mark this anniversary and much will be said and done which will be worthwhile and positive as well as the jingoism, nationalism, and racism of some.

In the last 200 years, buildings rose up, European culture was imported, and many struggles were waged to better society. However, this does not alter the fact that for at least 40,000 years before the first fleet arrived, the Aboriginal people lived on the land and developed their own culture and beliefs.

Despite the undoubted achievements, a shadow lies across the celebrations which has been there throughout those 200 years. It will not go away until the wrongs have been righted.

The very first act committed this wrong. The act of planting the British flag in Sydney Cove and claiming the continent for the British empire was an invasion of the land owned and occupied by the Aboriginal people. It was no less an act of aggression and colonialism than planting the British flag in India, Africa, New Zealand or the Americas.

Maybe a few Aboriginal people watched the original ceremony in 1788 but they could not have comprehended the significance of that event.

As the original settlement on Sydney Cove expanded, the Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land. Thousands were murdered and much of their culture destroyed. They were relegated to the fringe of the new society. Savage racism was practiced and is still rampant. Over a period of decades, the Aboriginal people were robbed of a whole continent.

By failing to redress this wrong before now and by re-enacting the original ceremony, the wrong is being perpetuated and despite some high-sounding words, very little if anything is being done to eliminate the original crime.

The Aboriginal people have now learnt what the flag raising ceremony meant in 1788. It is summed up in the fine words of Galarrwuy Yunupingu:

“We are being asked to celebrate the killing of our own people in the defence of our country … How can we forget the past when we are still denied the recognition of our rights as the first owners of this country? ... We want peace in this country, and we want justice.”

To protest at the invasion, the biggest ever assembly of Aborigines also gathered in Sydney last Tuesday. Supported by thousands of non-Aboriginal people, they marched the streets, not to confront white society, but for justice, freedom and hope and to declare – “We have survived!”

The march organisers declared: “Aboriginal people want to live in their communities beyond 1988 without increased future harassment. We must care for the aged and the young and remember the need for safety and support for all people throughout 1988. We choose non-violence as a challenge to 200 years of racist violence.”

The bicentenary celebrations will come to an end. The brilliance of the fireworks will fade, the party will be over – but the shadow will remain.

The demand of the Aboriginal people for recognition and land rights, for respect and dignity will have reached a new level of determination, unity and maturity.

It is the duty of progressive organisations and people in the non-Aboriginal community to join hands with the Aboriginal people to eliminate this 200 years’ long shadow.

White workers and progressives have waged many struggles against the ruling circles of the colonisers for an end to the convict system, for democratic and political rights at Eureka, for the establishment of trade unions and other organisations of workers. The responsibilities of white workers have not ended.

One of the most important current tasks is to win land and political rights for the Aboriginal people. Many years ago, Karl Marx wrote: “Labour in a white skin can never be free while labour in a black skin is enslaved.”

This editorial originally appeared in the Guardian, January 1988.

Next article – BICENTENARY: Look Back – Look Forward

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