Warnings of change – from 1770 to 2020

6 Jan 2020

From seeing the apocalyptic scenes of fierce orange-red glows and pitch-black... surely these fires and their billowing smoke convey more warnings.

Mariko Smith

Welcome to 2020: a year that marks the beginning of a new decade, and also one particular anniversary in Australia’s colonial history which will prompt Australians to remember and reflect – but perhaps not in the way that some, including the government and media, have been gearing up for.

In the lead-up to 2020, the Australian Government announced ‘a package of measures to mark the 250th Anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to Australia and the Pacific in 1770’. During this year, celebratory attention will be drawn to the role that Cook played in navigating the HMB Endeavour and claiming possession of the east coast of the country now known as Australia in the name of the British Crown. Cook’s voyage was effectively the preamble for the arrival of the First Fleet eighteen years later.

But as Archival Decolonist Nathan Sentance wrote in 2019, ‘we should utilise anniversaries to better understand the present and better understand the historical context which we live in’. And as we usher in 2020 to the horrors of Australia burning in the current bushfire emergency, Australians have been grappling with not only facing the red-hot reality of climate change, but also the consequences of disregarding Indigenous Sovereignty and the impact of colonialism on land management practices in this country.

We need to see the 250th anniversary for what it is, ‘a colonial cultural marker’ presenting and protecting a strategically selective history which doesn’t sit easily with 60,000-plus years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence and occupation. It seems as though the “reset” button was pressed when the British came, giving the impression that there was a relatively clean slate for the New South Wales colonial project. Take for instance how the official national day is directly tied to the coming of the First Fleet, and also the recent comments made by Federal Government Minister Sussan Ley MP who flippantly referred to ‘200 years of human settlement in this relatively young continent’ on the ABC’s AM program in December 2019. She has since apologised, claiming she misspoke.


In 2020, we will remember and reflect upon how 250 years ago, British visitors came across pristine ecosystems that were sustainably balanced and managed by Aboriginal peoples using land management practices that had been developed and adapted over countless generations in reference to local resources, conditions, and seasons. Waterways were not exploited, polluted or drained like they are now. Fire was an accepted part of the landscape, its use underpinned by a holistic philosophy around respecting and understanding your local Country and environment in order to prevent dangerous out-of-control wild fires, as Aboriginal fire practitioner Victor Steffensen discussed in this video.

Line of Fire: Victor Steffensen

Indigenous fire practitioner, Victor Steffensen, who runs workshops on land management, shares his views on how Indigenous practices could help prevent bushfires.

Posted by SBS Australia on Tuesday, 26 November 2019


With rapid and dense urbanisation as part-and-parcel of colonisation’s reach across the land, practices inevitably need to evolve. But a key factor remains, that is the need for control being handed back to First Nations peoples in caring for Country.

On 19 April 1770, Cook and his crew first saw land in the East Gippsland region, home of the Bidhawal and Gunaikurnai peoples, and the Endeavour then headed north along the coastline, across what we now know as the states of Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. Over the course of their voyage, they observed smoke coming off fires lit by various Aboriginal groups.

According to oral histories passed down in both coastal and inland communities, these were signal fires, which, in conjunction with on-foot messengers carried urgent warnings advising groups further afield of what was coming.

Many of these areas that Cook and his crew saw, the headlands from which Aboriginal people kept surveillance on the strange vessel, are now being completely annihilated by destructive bushfires.

I wonder how different the country will look during the Endeavour replica’s circumnavigation of Australia, within the space of only 250 years.

Mob have been saying how this is the Ancestors awakening the Country. From seeing the apocalyptic scenes of fierce orange-red glows and pitch-black skies even during daytime, and experiencing the poor air quality outside, surely these fires and their billowing smoke convey more warnings. Which brings me back to thinking, what are Australians actually celebrating with this anniversary? The birth of a nation or the pathway to its demise?

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