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Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin Noongar woman whose ancestral country is in the south coast of Western Australia. In 2016 she was awarded a Black&Write Indigenous Writing Fellowship for a manuscript she wrote while travelling around Australia. Her novel Terra Nullius was published in September 2017 with Hachette Australia.
I searched the Internet for my name on a fine January morning, it can be the only way to find reviews of my work. I found my name somewhere unexpected, in an article by Keith Windschuttle in Quadrant (“Australia Dystopia”, Quadrant, January/February 2018). He quoted me, which is OK although I would prefer not being used to further his vitriol. He also called me a ‘hypocrite’, which is not ok.
This article evolved from the Twitter rant that I felt compelled to write in response to such an attack. It was a hard decision, maybe it would have been better to let it disappear rather than give that personal assault extra respect by responding to it. However, it’s important I say these things as we get close to the date that White Australia calls “Australia Day” and that I, and many other First Nations people, call Invasion Day.
The core of Mr Windschuttle’s argument, of his attack on me, is that if the Whitefella had not invaded this continent (he would say colonised) I would not be literate, I would not have the opportunity to be an author and therefore complain about the invasion. He is not the first Whitefella to make this argument, not even the first to say it to me.
There are several problems to unpack his attack; rooted as it is in the, too common, belief, often implied rather than stated, that First Nations Australians are better off after the invasion. Firstly, if the English had not invaded there would still have been storytelling as there had been for longer than white people can even imagine. The oral history held by Aboriginal people goes back tens of thousands of years.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly is something I never see discussed. Even if we assume European civilisation is superior to what we had before invasion, and even that is a stretch, there is another possible vector for the infiltration of European civilisation and innovations such as literacy and publishing into Indigenous cultures. That vector is trade – the same way the British gained access to the technologies they used to dominate the world.
It was not the British who created writing and the letters we use today, those letters came to use in Britain from the Romans, who did not invent them either. You should have learned that in school.
If the British had traded with us rather than invading and subsequently colonising it would have resulted in Indigenous societies gaining all the advantages that European society can give without the terrible things that happened to us. Trade might have also benefited the British, we almost certainly had something to offer, cultural artefacts, technologies, manners of thinking, forms of agriculture and aquaculture that nobody else had ever discovered. We can never know what the British missed out on because what happened instead was an attempt at cultural erasure and the loss of much Indigenous culture; a fate that was suffered more in some places than others.
Instead of peaceful contact and trade, instead of the friendly exchange of technologies the English decided to occupy land with two immoral acts, invasion, including the attempted genocide of another culture, and the transportation of petty criminals for life.
No matter what you think about the influx of “civilisation” and technology there is no avoiding the fact that the invasion was immoral. Apparently not well known is a fact that white historians know and seem willing to ignore, the French, the Dutch, the Macassans, among others, were here before the British.
We know from historical records that the French and particularly the Macassans, from what is now part of Indonesia, had friendly relations and even trade with the first inhabitants on this continent. We know the Dutch came again and again. Only the British made the immoral and arrogant decision to invade. That calls into question an assertion made often by Whitefellas, that ‘colonisation’ by the British was better than the alternative, invasion by somebody else.
It would have been worse, Whitefellas say, if France, the Netherlands or some other European power had colonised this continent. This is a ridiculous argument. Those other colonising powers were here long before the British, those other colonising powers from Europe came here to visit but did not stay; they did not fail to invade the continent of my ancestors, they chose not to.
So don’t attempt to tell me we are better off after the invasion, don’t try and justify the actions of Britain and of the earliest settlers who ignored orders to treat the First Nations people with respect. It was immoral and criminal to invade this continent, to attempt to exterminate the owners of this land and to attempt to erase our cultures. We are justified in our disgust at the flag-waving on January 26 – for us a day of mourning. We are allowed to be angry.
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