Celebrating the conquistadors

I’ve been away from Australia for nearly a year. Currently, I teach English to children and adults in Mexico City, having been travelling in Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay and Brazil. And, if the conversations I have with people who regularly ask me where I am from are anything to go by, Australians have a glowing reputation in Latin America for being friendly, smart people from a prosperous, peaceful nation.

There’s one thing that baffles people who probe further and ask about our political structure and history, though, and that’s our apparently unbroken relationship with the British arrivistes of 1788. For many modern states like Mexico, revolutions and the birth of republics mark the ‘natural’ history of a people becoming a sovereign nation, and are thus tied to the personal identity of citizens as proud and independent people.

I’ve been asked ‘when was your revolution?’ and ‘why do you still have a queen?’. I hope that my potted history of Australia’s formation, from the invasion of Indigenous lands and the genocide of Indigenous peoples to the White Australia policy to multiculturalism to the imminent annual celebration of Australia Day, fills in some of the gaps in the general impression of kangaroos, boomerangs, beaches, and social and financial wealth.

Generally speaking, the story I tell about Australia is not one my interlocutor has heard, and people’s responses range between enlightened, curious, surprised and shocked. People are surprised that there is little engagement in Australia with the history of Indigenous society before invasion, and that having both Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage is not celebrated as mestizaje (mixed-race nationality), as it is in Mexico.

People also express particular shock when I explain that our national day is celebrated in memory of the day the British arrived and claimed possession of the country. In the words of one of my English students: ‘you celebrate the day the conquistadores came?! ……why?!’ For my student, a citizen of a country that annually celebrates its independence from colonial rule, Australia’s celebration of imperial invasion sounds retrograde, if not downright bizarre. When I told her that there’s long been a movement to #changethedate, but we don’t ever seem to quite get there, my student saw it as a mark of stalled progress in my country.

Mestizaje, republicanism, independence and revolution are all part of the official story of Mexico; a story that, like most authorised national stories, also functions to repress dissent and oppress those whose existence is inconvenient to its domination. We’ve seen this in our country as another Australia Day rolls around – between lamb ads and billboards we struggle to tell a story of belonging to this nation that includes the genocidal conditions that made the nation possible. In this sense, as Celeste Liddle argues, changing the date of Australia Day from 26 January could ‘be little more than celebrating the invasion and genocide of Indigenous people on another day’.

So why should we #changethedate? In order to be considered a real nation in the global community of states? While I did feel some shame when my student noted so plainly that we actively celebrate colonisation where her country celebrates its rejection, the good face of liberal progress is not my concern here. Rather, it’s that we non-Indigenous Australians, especially descendants of white settlers like me, answer the sorts of questions raised by Anita Heiss:

Is it appropriate to celebrate a day that relates to the colonisation of a nation? Should we celebrate a date that is linked to the dispossession of land from its original owners and the displacement of those same people? Do you feel comfortable celebrating a date that marks an invasion that saw warfare across the continent?

If, like me, your answer is No, it’s not appropriate, we shouldn’t celebrate, and I don’t feel comfortable, we might yet build an official story of Australia that is at least more truthful, that at least does not mark the precise moment of invasion. And a national story that firmly and collectively rejects the myths of terra nullius, ‘nothing but bush’, and peaceful settlement that regularly show up in debates around changing the date.

That would be something better to tell curious students on the other side of the world.


Image: still from ‘A safety message about AUSTRALIA DAY’ / Juice Media

Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine, PRI.org’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Ann Deslandes ›

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  1. What a fascinating article. It changes the way I think about the comparison of the two countries – I love something so strong as to change my thinking.

    It also reminds me of the way Mexico is so proud of its extraordinary pre-hispanic sites: Chichen Itza, Tulum, Teotihuacan … to name a few. A lesson for Australia where we have extraordinary sites too, many rock art sites being tens of thousands of years old. And we let mining companies destroy them.

    Thank you, Ann.

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