Thousands of Australians yesterday attended “Invasion Day” rallies across the country, calling for a rethink of national day celebrations they say are disrespectful to Aborigines.
The annual Australia Day holiday commemorates the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788, but for many Australians it marks the beginning of the colonial oppression of Aborigines.
Several thousand people joined the annual march in Melbourne chanting: “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land,” and holding placards reading: “Australia is a crime scene.”
Thousands more joined similar demonstrations in major cities around the country, calling for a change of date, or for the day to be abolished altogether.
“Why would you want to celebrate this concept called Australia? It is founded on lies, founded on genocide, founded on murder,” Melbourne protestor Dominic Guerrera said. “There’s nothing to celebrate in that.”
Divisions have deepened over the past few years with increasing calls to change the date.
Amid the heightened sensitivities this week Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced government funding of a voyage to mark the 250th anniversary of explorer Captain James Cook’s first journey to Australia.
Canberra pledged about US$6.5 million to a circumnavigation of Australia in a replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, which in 1770 brought the British into contact with eastern Australia and foreshadowed the colonization of the continent.
The story of Cook’s voyage and his “discovery” of territory declared New South Wales on the east coast has stirred debate in Australia, with Aborigines inhabiting the land for more than 60,000 years before the first European explorers arrived.
Meanwhile, the uncovering this week in London of the remains of British explorer Matthew Flinders, who is credited as the first person to circumnavigate the Australian continent in 1802 and 1803, has added to the controversy.
An Aboriginal aide to Flinders named Bungaree has been largely eclipsed by his British captain, but historians now believe he played a crucial role in the voyage’s success.
Morrison, who has resisted calls to change the date, yesterday said that Australia cannot “walk away” from its past.
“Australia is the story of being overcome, to be able to see the better nature of Australians and the values we hold together, all races, all peoples, all cultures, all religions, all languages even,” Morrison told reporters.
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged Australians, with higher rates of ill-health, imprisonment and poverty than any other community.
Australia Day is also celebrated across the county, with picnics, traditional Aboriginal performances and citizenship ceremonies, where more than 16,000 new Australians yesterday pledged their commitment to the nation.
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