On Australia Day we celebrate the permanent arrival of civilisation to Australia on 26 January 1788.
There had been, of course, various exploratory visits to Australia by the Dutch, French and English from the first recorded landing in March 1606 by the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon. The National Library’s exhibition on maps has evidence for these earlier exploratory visits.
While various tribes of Aborigines lived on the continent prior to 1788 it was in a state of terra nullius – under the sovereignty of no country, although the High Court in Mabo used novel arguments to find in favour of limited native title even though the many tribes then extant did not exercise political control and there was no authority to which Arthur Phillip could sign an agreement as, for example, in New Zealand with the Treaty of Waitangi.
The arrival of civilisation in Australia had profound implications for the continent. The extant tribes were living in a stone-age society and had not adopted technologies such as copper, bronze and iron. In fact, there are good reasons to consider that the absence of trade due to the Australian continent’s isolation had inhibited the natural progression of technology.
While there have been regrettable incidents, the arrival of civilisation has been the most important and positive change in human society in Australia over 40,000 years. Some individuals, even some groups, have suffered, just as when major structural changes occur around the world.
Some from the left imagine that the status quo ante – pre 1788 – was superior, although few choose to embrace that life in all its aspects. This is simply a romantic notion, like that of the noble savage. If it had not been the British in 1788, it would have been someone else, perhaps the French. It is a truth universally acknowledged that former British colonies have a better time than former French colonies.
Today all of us, whatever our ancestry, share in the glory of that day in 1788. We are today far better off than the people living in Australia on 25 January 1788. Greco-Roman civilisation fanned by Italian, French and British enlightenment is what circulates through our arteries and veins. We should be thankful that Australia’s move to civilisation was during the enlightenment.
And here is Louis’ map of Australian Aboriginal tribal areas pre 1788: