Stories that must be told

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  • Published 20140506
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Unique – Having no like, equal, or parallel;
one and only; unmatched; unequalled…’

I AM NOT an historian, merely a retired high school teacher-librarian. But over the past two decades, in my retirement and, more recently, alone for the first time in many years, I have had time to ponder on the relevance of my own family history to the elusive answer of that perennial question: what is the Australian identity?

Through family stories – my bourgeois maternal British grandparents, my father from the non-commissioned ranks of the British Army, my husband escaping from the post-war ruins of Europe – I have been overcome by a sense of the history through which that identity will be revealed; what I will call simply, if daringly, ‘the real history’. There are the stories that must be told, the stories that have been expunged, and the stories that have never really been admitted.

The stories that have been expunged are those of our convict beginnings and the stories that have never been admitted are those of the Immigrant Nation. These stories are part of the real history, the stories of Australian people.

A glance at the globe brings home the wonders of our country: the smallest continent but the whole of it ours; the largest island, a chunk of land floating isolated at the bottom of the earth amid vast oceans. A place known for almost all of human time only to its scattered inhabitants and to random fishermen from the volcanic tropical islands to the north.

Our place, to any other than these few people, was just a myth. Then the Europeans sailed into the southern seas and myth became reality. The Great South Land was ‘discovered’ by the Europeans and a new nation was born, its genesis as unique as all its other wonders: not one homogenous tribe with a history of kings and wars, but, from its improbable beginning, made up of many peoples of many origins and impulses…’common people’ often fleeing poverty or terror or injustice…or simply wanting a better chance.

That is our real story: the stories of the many peoples who have come here. But how do we find, in this mixture of people, that elusive ‘Australian identity’? I believe we can find it only if we look in the right places, in the right times. We must go back into our history: back past Gallipoli, which seems to have become, by default, the starting point, back to the beginnings of European settlement, to the convict stories that have been expunged, and the stories of the modern Immigration Nation that have never been told.

No wonder our identity is a mystery when we know so little of our history. As a former history teacher I wonder how we are ever to fill this gap in our knowledge, especially for the generations that have come from countries all over the world, from places with ‘rich’ histories of tribes and wars and conquests, to a country that seems to have little to tell.

IN AUGUST 2008, in a little-reported speech delivered at Port Arthur convict prison, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proudly proclaimed his own convict ancestry: ‘not just one, but seven distinct convict lines… I am almost a thoroughbred when it comes to my convict past. One of my forebears from seven generations back was transported to Sydney in 1789…’ (Thomas Rudd was carried here in one of the death ships of the infamous Second Fleet).

How unique is that? The one nation founded as a penal colony, ‘populated by the cast-offs of an empire’, where two hundred years later the Prime Minister can proudly declare his own family’s place in that foundation story, hopeful that enough of his compatriots will understand the implication: ‘Be proud with me of our country’s beginnings, for only there will our national ethos, our national identity, be found.’

I cannot remember being taught any history in my state primary school in the 1930s. If there was it was surely basic stuff. I vaguely remember it as spun largely round stories of the explorers. I cannot remember learning any appreciation that we had entered ‘civilisation’ as a convict settlement. In high school British history prevailed: romantic, thrilling stuff of wars, kings and queens, castles, beheadings, Roundheads and Cavaliers, and Bonny Princes. I can still rattle off the names and dates of all the Tudor and Stuart rulers.

By comparison Australian history – of which there was not much – was a dull affair of settlements, governors (and later governments), industry, commerce and ‘progress…the last three taken as synonymous. I knew Australia rode on the sheep’s back and can still recite the stops along the Brisbane–Cairns railway line and the little geographic knowledge attached to each station: Brisbane, Nambour (pineapples), Gympie (gold), Maryborough, Bundaberg (sugar and tomatoes)…

Dates were important, as were prosaic facts. Even the explorers’ stories, which were surely adventures, were woven around the legend of commerce; the finding of land was for further settlement, for sheep, for the digging of gold and coal and other metals. (In the story of Burke and Wills, for example, I do not remember any acknowledgement of the amazement the Aborigines must have felt to see these men starving to death in the midst of plenty; I remember the pathos of the ‘DIG’ tree.)

Even the Eureka Stockade, our one little revolt, was recast into a mainly commercial/administrative affair, concerned with a matter of licences. The growing, ever-changing population was almost invisible. There was little recognition of the original inhabitants; little of the drama of the hazardous comings of new peoples to our land; little hint of the political turmoil rife in Europe of the 1840s, the stir of new ideas of democracy, freedom and hope that were being imported from America and France by later immigrants lured here by gold.

The heart of our country, its legend, founded on its people, was missing and is still largely missing from the education of young Australians.

IN THE LATE ’60s I discovered Australian history was – or could be – more than this bland recital of material progress. I bought a copy of Russel Ward’s then recent book, The Australian Legend (Oxford University Press, 1958), for the history department’s reference shelf.

What a revelation that book was. This was Australian history as I had never known it: not dates and dull accounts of economic and administrative development and doomed explorers and acts of Parliament, but a look into the very core of the nation – the dreams and self-imagining of its people, the ache and longings at its heart.

Russel Ward wrote that he sought ‘not to give yet another cosily impressionistic sketch of what wild boys we Australians are – or like to consider ourselves – but rather to trace and explain the development of a national mystique’, which he defined as the vision Australians had of themselves.

Relatively short and accessible to the non-academic, Ward’s book went right back to ‘Old Botany Bay’ to discover the genesis of the ‘national character’ which ordinary Australians were prone to foster: anti-authoritarian, believing in mateship and ‘a fair go’ for all, forged not in our material progress, but in the ethos of the convict, the bush worker, the currency lads and lasses and of course the Diggers. It was a history that honoured ‘ordinary people’.

I may have found Russel Ward’s version of Australia’s story inspiring but to many orthodox academics, and to the establishment generally, it was anathema. At this time the archives available to academics contained many convict statistics rather than characters and narratives. Both Ward and Manning Clark – who also sought the soul of the nation through the stories of its people – were scorned by conservative historians as being whimsical and left-wing. They were accused of dwelling too much on the suffering of the ‘vanished’ Aborigines, of ‘glamourising’ the ‘national stain’ of the founding fathers (and mothers), while ignoring or criticising the brilliant achievements in commerce and industry of the successful settlers.

In fact, this was merely a re-joining of a battle which had seemed won a hundred years before, which had started back in Britain in the eighteenth century. We have no hope of discovering our national identity now unless we acknowledge its beginnings in the horrors of that time: early industrial Britain.

I GREW UP loving the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and the movies made from them. My delight is tempered now; behind all the manners and protocol of the middle classes I cannot ignore the dire poverty and the cruelty of the class system of the time, invisible to the comfortable gentry that it served.

Take Jane Eyre. For me, after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, became a metaphor for all those who were victims of the system, who were colonised and brutalised, who provided our nation’s founding fathers and mothers, who were ‘the cast-offs of an empire’.

We sanitise the whole story of the convict transportations (‘the dainty stolen handkerchief, the voyage overseas, the new life’), but we should know something of its reality, of its causes and its details in eighteenth century Britain.

In Britain, the eighteenth century was a time of great economic and social upheaval: the industrial revolution with its harsh working conditions; its destruction of cottage industries; its Enclosure Acts that removed the rights of commoners to pasture, to fish and hunt, shutting them out from the common lands with fences (a procedure soon to be repeated on the Aboriginal lands of Australia); the punitive Poor Laws and Poor Houses; and a general withdrawal of any element of noblesse oblige… As a result there was growing poverty in the lower classes, for whom survival could mean theft, poaching, highway robbery, or for women, prostitution. For the poor, life was hard and punishment severe: death or servitude beyond the seas in the American colonies.

In 1776, the colonists’ victory in the American War of Independence shut off that outlet, and convicted criminals were stored in foul and squalid conditions in prisons and prison hulks, the stench of which invaded the nostrils of good citizens in nearby ports. Something had to be done. New South Wales was remembered and strongly advocated by Joseph Banks as the new penal repository. This meant much longer journeys of up to ten months but the need was desperate.

The conditions on the ships were dire: the low-ceilinged prisoners’ decks on the transports often awash with sea water up to the convicts’ waists; the dark, the stench, the shackles, the utter powerlessness, the poor condition and sea-faring experience of the convicts, the lack of knowledge of their whereabouts and destination as the ships lurched and groaned their ways across the oceans…

In late January 1788 the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales, with our founding fathers – and mothers: eleven ships of the line (two naval, six convict and three supply), with some 780 convicts, 580 sailors and marines, fourteen convict children and 46 wives and children of marines. Seven babies born during the voyage survived. The voyage of 24,000 kilometres had taken 252 days. Forty-eight people had died during the journey, a death-rate of just over 3 per cent. The amazement of the Eora people, watching this arrival, must have been profound.

Much has been written about the horrors of the convict system, yet for many of the convicts – for a majority – Australia proved to be a land of opportunity, compared with their homeland.

The air was fresh and pure, and the prison was mostly ‘open’; the convicts often walked free under a wide sky. They were encouraged to marry, were given land grants when they did, and extra land for having children. Skills and manpower were in short supply; a good man could be paid for extra work he did as an assigned servant. Ticket of leave men filled many government appointments. In the first hungry years, Captain Arthur Philip decreed equal rations for all, convicts and free, perhaps implanting first ideas of equality. Men who would have had no chance of owning land in Britain could do so here. They ate meat, and multiplied (big families were common), and a new race began to be recognised: taller, as cornstalks are; resilient, wry, with an already changing accent.

In the new century free settlers began to arrive in small but growing numbers. By 1817, the population of New South Wales was about 16,000, comprising 5,795 convicts, 5,000 emancipists (as the ex-convicts were called), 3,500 children (born mostly to convicts) and 2,000 ‘born-free’ (government and military personnel and a handful of free settlers).

As transportation continued, a growing number of the convicts were what we would now call ‘political prisoners’: Irish patriots, Scottish Martyrs, Canadian and American patriot-democrats, agricultural rioters, Welsh rebels, arsonists, Chartists. The ‘Berkley Poachers’ in Gloucestershire, of sturdy British yeomanry stock, including a lawyer and farmers, would have been cognisant of the American and French Revolutions, would have adapted easily to the democratic ethos of the land…

To quote historian Babette Smith, writing of Sydney in 1832: ‘The mores in the streets, the pubs, the shops, among the locally born professional and business men, the seamen, tradesmen, labourers and servants were those of the prisoners –a confident, hard-drinking, blasphemous, humorous society, but energetic and optimistic, confident that they had found a place which they could make their own. On 26 January, regattas were held to celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, and at the dinner on Anniversary Day the most popular toast was: ‘The land, boys, we live in’.

ANOTHER ENCAPSULATION OF history. There had been factions quite early in the colony, between the New South Wales Army Corps and the governors (especially Bligh), early resentment from the Exclusionists (their name says it all) of the liberal attitudes of Philip and later Macquarie towards the emancipists and expirees. These tensions continued as the numbers and voices of more affluent free settlers grew and in 1819 the British government appointed a Commissioner, John Bigge, to report on all aspects of the colony, including whether transportation still operated as a punishment, or should be abolished. In the old world, morality was astir about slavery, to which the evils of the convict system were compared: as breeding grounds of debauchery and immorality, homosexuality and prostitution. Rev Ullathorne, a Catholic priest, declaimed that in transporting convicts, ‘We have been doing an ungracious and ungodly thing.’

As the emancipists got on with their lives, trouble was brewing, enemies were mustering: critics and moralists overseas, ambitious men at home.

Bigge recommended the granting of larger areas of land to settlers with capital, the abolition of land grants for emancipists, cessation of their appointment to positions of trust in the government. The economic, social, and political power began to drift to the wealthier free settlers. Macarthur, the exclusionist, and Wentworth, the prominent emancipist, lined up as leaders for the two sides. Emancipists resented the arrogance of the exclusionists towards them and their offspring, the rightful owners of the country, who had built the society, but the new paradigm was being set.

Land was the great source of wealth, the means to respectability and prestige. Free settlers with capital were encouraged to migrate; laws for the ownership and use of land and the exploitation of convict labour became more favourable to immigrants with capital than to the emancipists and native-born. And from all these sources there came a demand for the transfer of power from London to Sydney.

Between 1831 and 1850, assistance was given to 200,000 free workers to migrate. This posed a potential threat to the workforce but in fact ‘new chums’ and ‘old hands’ found much in common. The continuing labour shortage (especially after transportation was abolished) ensured a measure of independence for the workers. And working together, often isolated in the bush, a man was judged by his performance and loyalty to his mates, rather than by his wealth. The working class new chums tended to absorb the ethos of the old hands.

In 1840, the British government abolished transportation, to the jubilation of the residents of New South Wales. The convict system had served its historic purpose.

OVER EIGHTY YEARS of transportation, from 1788 to 1868, 138,000 male and 25,000 female convicts had been transported to the colonies. Then, in 1851, gold was discovered in Ballarat. With this discovery, in 1852 alone, over twice that number of free immigrants arrived. Most of them were working people seeking to escape poverty, class barriers, religious or political persecution, and find wealth in the new land. Many of them had been involved in the political upheavals of the 1840s in Europe. None of them had letters to the governor entitling them to land grants or sinecures.

By 1871, the population had quadrupled from 430,000 to l.7 million.

This era is depicted nowhere more graphically than in Henry Handel Richardson’s classic Australian trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

The story starts on the Ballarat goldfields in 1851: ‘This hurly-burly of thieves, bushrangers and foreigners, of drunken convicts and deserting sailors, of slit-eyed Chinese and apt-handed Lascars, of expirees and ticket-of-leave men, of Jews, Turks and other infidels.’ Into this hurly-burly comes Richard Mahony, doctor-cum-storekeeper, escaped from genteel Irish poverty, and his friend, larrikin extrovert Purdy Smith, each adapting in his own way to this new life, the new opportunities.

Advance to the 1860s: old Mr Ocock, a successful small businessman, about to marry a Mahony in-law, confides to the doctor that, ‘up till six months back he had been obliged to… well, he’d spit it out short and say, obliged to report himself to the authorities at fixed intervals…’

In plain English, Ocock – his son a solicitor – was ‘confessing’ to being an old ‘government’ man, as the emancipists were now called, worried, in the advancement of bourgeois respectability, by his convict ‘stain’, but decently wanting his bride to know the truth. The world of convict society was in the process of being well and truly negated by respectable society; but it was remembered in the under-current.

A SAMPLING OF stories that must be told:

As the free settlers continued to arrive, largely from the poor and dispossessed of the world, the pattern continued: daring seekers for gold, for peace, for freedom of religion, for the chance of a decent life. Germans, Italians, Russians fleeing revolution, displaced persons from World War II, Vietnamese boat-people, more recent escapees from dire poverty and war, lured here by the promise of a land down under that strives for common wealth, and human dignity.

Blogger Hamish Alcorn recently declared his heritage: ‘an Australian…of mongrel breed, from Irish and sundry stocks in a culture which our rulers have liked only when it fought in wars for them, built railroad tracks through impassable wilderness, dug mine-shafts…a culture our rulers have otherwise hated for its basis of ‘a fair go’.

Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick, the man with the donkey who rescued many of his mates at Gallipoli, was cited by Brendan Nelson as one of our ‘greatest wartime heroes’. He was actually an ‘illegal’ Pommy migrant who jumped ship in Melbourne and was always a strong Union man. He was killed after only three weeks at Gallipoli.

Mary Bryant was a convict on the First Fleet. She and her husband and two little children, with seven companions, escaped in a small government cutter (actually, the governor’s cutter, sailed out through Sydney Heads under the very eyes of the soldiers in 1791). They reached Koepang on Timor in a journey Tom Keneally, in The Commonwealth of Thieves, called ‘one of the two longest open-boat excursions in maritime history’. I would rather read of that voyage than that of Captain Bligh two years before. The Bryants and their companions showed incredible courage, preparation and fortitude; theirs was one of hundreds of attempted escapes, a few of which were successful. Inspired by the possibility of freedom, convicts stole boats, sailed to New Zealand, sailed the Pacific with spirit and determination, smuggled away on American whalers, on Dutch vessels…

Our founding fathers, and mothers, were brave and spirited people, yearning for freedom and dignity. I want to hear their stories; I am sick of the telling and re-telling of the stories of the lives of the ‘rulers’; I thrill to Mary Bryant’s story, not to Bligh’s…

We have no native-born royalty, no aristocracy to beset us and demand homage. We are all just ‘ordinary people’, often doing extraordinary things; we or our forebears come from many and varied places, fortunate to be in so beneficent a nation.

Our history as a nationis in the stories of its people, beginning with the convicts. As I hope I have shown, this whole story was subverted in the mid-nineteenth century by bourgeois ideas of success and respectability and, more recently (until the truth of global warming began to dawn) of ‘aspiration’; but lately an extraordinary thing is happening. It seems the wheel is turning again.

The stories that must be told are staging a revival.

After Russel Ward’s book was published, the ‘history wars’ were still fought for two decades or so, and it seemed that globalisation and capitalism had subsumed all.

In the dull conservatism of the Howard years, the ship of state was turned around, irrevocably it seemed, to follow the star of individual ‘aspiration’, of greed and consumerism. Over twelve years, citizens were converted into ‘clients’, society into ‘economy’. The national mystique was metamorphosed into a triumphalist celebration of success-cum-consumerism, admixed with a jingoistic version of our often-tragic military adventures. The national mystique that Ward sought, the soul of Clark’s search, was converted into a jingoism that culminated in incidents such as the Cronulla race riots of 2005, the wrapping of youths in flags, the veneration of Gallipoli, the rejection of ‘unsuitable’ newcomers (ironic when you remember that we are an Immigrant Nation). Economic rationalism created a vision for us that is only recently being challenged.

Perhaps this change, this swing back to sanity, started with the growing interest in family history and the stories thus disclosed. Geneological societies flourished, on and off the internet, as Australians sought out their forebears, many of them discovering hitherto unknown convict ancestors. In the 1999 Census, 2.1 million Australians claimed convict ancestry and almost the same number expressed the possibility of such an ancestry.

Many now proudly proclaim Aboriginal heritage. I remember the pride and joy on National Sorry Day in 200 when Kevin Rudd delivered the long overdue apology to the stolen generation. (Incidentally, I am always struck by how many Aboriginal leaders have Irish surnames. There must be many untold chapters in our history as these two outcasts of the outcasts came together.)

With the availability of air transport, Australians are travelling enthusiastically to the lands of their forebears to find pre-migration stories, the factors that pushed their ancestors here: persecution and famine in Ireland; enclosure of the commons in England and Scotland; rigid and unrelenting class systems with punitive ‘justice’ systems – and that was only in Britain. People from other countries have fled genocide, war, starvation, injustice, and Australian families want to know what brought their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents here. There seems to be a growing realisation that Australia is defined, more than any other nation, by its people: that all our stories are important and must be told.

In 2003, Ward’s The Australian Legend, for many years forgotten, was reprinted with a foreword by historian John Hirst, who suggested that it is ‘time to recover the lost world of convict society with all its ramifications’.

Other recent historians are saying much the same. James Boyce in Van Dieman’s Land (Black Inc, 2008) avers that our connection with the land is not based solely on commerce; that ‘the merge of a pre-industrial pre-modern European culture with an extraordinary natural world and black culture’ should be acknowledged. That acknowledgement was underway, he says, in the mid-nineteenth century when it was ‘defeated…by the colonial authorities’. Defeated, it now turns out, ‘but not destroyed’.

In Australia’s Birthstain (Allen & Unwin, 2008), Babette Smith wonders what Australia ‘might have been like if…convict society had made a gradual organic transition not only to political democracy but to its own version of respectability at its own pace.’

What if the Aborigines’ knowledge of land, the wit and stoicism of the convicts and early settlers were restored as the beginning of our true identity, built on by the courage of the millions who have come here over two centuries since.

What if – instead of being subverted in the mid-nineteenth century by bourgeois ideas of success and respectability and, more recently, of ‘aspiration’ – a true Australian psyche had been recognised?

But perhaps this psyche is at last on its way to being recognised, not only by individual Australians, but on an official level.

Old Parliament House in Canberra has been reorganised to include a Museum of Australian Democracy where, to quote actor William McInnes, chair of the museum’s advisory council: ‘everybody, whatever age, whatever part of life they are from, (can) reacquaint themselves with the history of Australia’s democracy, to understand where we have come from and where we may be headed.’

Last year, twenty-one Australian convict sites were inscribed on the World Heritage List, named as heritage of ‘outstanding universal value’ to humankind, representing as they do the beginnings of ‘forced mass trans-ocean migration’.

In 2006, the combined convict records of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia were recognised as rare documentary heritage of world significance, and inscribed on the Australian UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register as one of the most important and extensive penology archives in the world. The bureaucrats who compiled these records left a unique picture of the physical condition, personal history and fate of a slice of the eighteenth and nineteenth century working class: their crimes, their lives, the conditions of their transport, their outcomes in the new country. No wonder research into family history research is so popular in Australia.

UNESCO has obviously recognised that the Australian identity lies hidden in the real story of its founding, and the stories of the people who have come since… I repeat, we are an immigrant nation. For a hundred and fifty years Australia bore the ‘convict stain’; today we need to be proud of the founding story of our wonderful, unique country – and its beginnings.

LET ME TOUCH briefly on the family stories that started me on this search for the ‘Australian identity’.

I described my mother’s family as ‘bourgeois’; her father Alfred was English, her mother Elizabeth, Welsh. An older brother had acquired land in the Allora district of Queensland and the lure of land brought Alfred and Elizabeth as a young couple to Australia, but Grandad ended up as town clerk of South Brisbane. Their stately Queenslander at East Brisbane had a double-sided stairway, a tennis court and spacious verandahs. Gran was busy in the small city’s social life and the wartime Red Cross. Of the three girls, only Eva, ‘the clever one’, worked, at her own insistence, in the telephone exchange. The only son, Alf, was in ‘the Bank’, until he went to ‘the War’.

Alf was wounded three times in France and he was gassed. He could not settle back into his old life. He wanted to go on the land and Grandad’s old dreams revived. He retired, sold the Brisbane home, and bought a farm at Eudlo, where my grandparents, their shell-shocked son, his ex-teacher wife Dolly, and one still unmarried daughter lived jammed together in a crude two-bedroom cottage up on stilts. There was tension between the two assertive wives. The Great Depression hit; I can remember Mum telling Dad that ‘the Markets had paid Alf in postage stamps for a consignment’. The old couple moved to a tiny cottage at Wynnum, where Grandad, whose other dream had been to re-read all of Dickens, lost much of his sight. Alf and Dolly stuck it out on the farm.

Some years ago I found Gran’s diary; it recounts family quarrels, marriage break-ups, miscarriages and dead babies – troubles I never dreamt of with the middle-class family. Like most Australian families, their lives had been torn apart by the flux and change of war and the Depression.

My mother was a great Royalist; my father an ardent Republican (‘parasites’, he called the royal family and the British aristocracy), but that did not mean he could approve of my wedding to a penniless Displaced Person, just landed in the city after two years of contract labour in the bush.

‘Bloody Balts’, they were called, or ‘Beautiful Balts’, according to one’s attitude to them. Refugees from the aftermath of Hitler’s war, they were the first large-scale non-British immigration wave –guinea pigs –with their blue eyes and fair complexions and stateless condition (their homelands occupied by the Soviet Union).

They were imported in a mixture of compassion and pragmatism (populate or perish) to do the hard post-war yakka for which there were not enough native-born: cane-cutting, coal mining, factory assembly lines, steel works, zinc works, hospital orderlies, road work… If the Anglophile Australians accepted them, thousands more could follow them. And indeed thousands did: 170,000 in two years – Yugoslavs, Poles, Dutch, Italian, Greek – an intake more numerous than the whole of the convict transportation over eighty years.

Anton cut sugar-cane at Ingham, stacked railway sleepers at Barakula in the west, worked at the Brisbane abattoir. In time he bought a milk run (hard yakka that), then a newsagency. Our father gave us his blessing when I became pregnant, and we had managed to buy a house. (‘Hardly pissed here, and bought a house,’ his co-workers at the abattoir ribbed him). We had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren…

And here I must exclaim: what a wonderful country this is, born of tolerance, thriving through eventual intermarriage, with many heritages and ancestries honoured and respected. As long as deep divisions of class, wealth, power or race are not allowed to corrupt it, the process will continue… Our nation is built on loss and dislocation, of the Aborigines, of the convicts, of many of the immigrants who have arrived since, and we should acknowledge that pain, should give it room. But it is a land of the people, like no other, and we should remember that.

ABOUT A CENTURY ago Mary Gilmore wrote, in verse, passionately and succinctly, what I have laboured to express here in prose:

I’m old Botany Bay, Stiff in the joints, Little to say,
I am he Who paved the way, That you might walk At your ease today;
I was the conscript Sent to hell To make in the desert The living well;
I bore the heat, I blazed the track – Furrowed and bloody Upon my back.
I split the rock; I felled the tree; The nation was Because of me!
Old Botany Bay Taking the sun From day to day …
Shame on the mouth That would deny The knotted hands That set us high!

Let us do away with humbuggery and silences; let us start to find ourselves, through full recognition of the First People, through the real stories of the Convict Colony, and of the Immigration Nation. In the process we will discover our Australian legend and our national identity.

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About the author

Betty Birskys

Betty Birskys was born in Toowoomba, grew up on Manly Jetty. She served in the Australian Army Medical Women's Service in World War II. She...

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