The land at the end of the world

THE INVASION OF Australia just didn't make any sense. A huge, dry, bulbous tile, sitting at the end of a chain of shards that dribbled out from Asia. Unlike the smaller islands in the chain, it had no exotic spices to entice and numb the European palate. It played no role in the highways of trade and culture sketched across the oceans between Africa and Siberia. The most advantageous position of this great sullen landmass – its top-left shoulder, which looked west to the Indian Ocean – was ignored. The colonisers instead chose the opposite corner: a stubbled coast that looked east and south to the almost empty vastness of the Pacific and
the Antarctic.

The strangers who came here embodied the restless madness that had infected the other side of the globe. They, who had leaked rivers of blood and tears fighting over the most crowded corners of the second-smallest continent, had discovered that the world was bigger than they thought, but not limitless. They fanned out across the world's oceans in the greatest real estate race in history, unable to countenance greedy neighbours snapping up islands, deltas, rivers and straits first. The people who already lived in these pieces of new-release real estate didn't count. They weren't part of the great race. Their land was fair game.

The people sent to seize this land at the end of the world were used to life under low grey skies; low and grey were their prospects too. A life on teeming cobbled streets, followed by an eternity in crowded fetid ships, to reach a place of dazzling emptiness – the agoraphobic shock of the first colonials became a thread that ran through the generations of immigrants who followed. Those they pushed ever backwards have never shaken off the claustrophobia caused by these restless, avaricious newcomers.

The first encounter between the immigrants and natives echoes down the generations. This land, for its original inhabitants, was a universe of meaning, an endless chain of wisdom and being. There was nothing beyond, before or after. For its new inhabitants, this land was a nullification, banishment beyond consciousness, a place with no past, a desert of meaning mocked by the universe of significance on the other side of the world. Only a deafening present, and a future defined by a yearning for a return to meaning and significance.

AS THE YEARS passed and the original inhabitants were pushed back, the new arrivals found what they regarded as valuable in this land at the end of the world. Soon those arrivals who had no choice were outnumbered by those looking for better lives. For them, this was no push over the edge of consciousness but a new start, a clean slate. Their sense of terra nullius was not so much about the legalities of possession and dispossession – it was about imagining this new land on their terms, imprinting it with their future, without having to acknowledge that this land had already been imagined by those who had always been there.

The newcomers had wrenched Australia into the world, the last frontier in a new universe of bitter competition. A bigger, dangerous world. Before 1788, for eons, it had been a universe to itself – a totality, not part of something bigger.

From the start the new arrivals felt small, isolated, vulnerable. This vast silent continent constantly echoed these feelings back at them. The unimaginable distance between them and where they had come from became a splinter in the brain, a birth trauma to rage and worry over. This new invention, Australia, became a yearning for elsewhere, for transformation – and always, ultimately, for connection.

The world that Australia had become a part of was unforgiving and avaricious. Out beyond the horizon were others who wanted to take this new discovery for themselves. That no other country could be seen from anywhere in Australia only diffused and deepened the dread. Machinations and confrontations on the other side of the world were amplified by the distance. Each ripple in Europe's balance of power assumed huge importance for who would own the land at the end of the world.

Australia's birth was the result of the spasms that engulfed the world from the end of the fifteenth century. The first was the sudden breaking of a millennium-long siege of Christendom. The followers of the Cross had become used to defending their faith behind sullen stone walls from waves of powerful unbelievers. The depths of their despair had come in 1453, when the Ottomans finally took Byzantium, the great eastern rampart, the inheritor of the original covenant of Constantine. But within a generation the Ottomans' fellow Muslims had been pushed out of Europe's western rampart, with the final conquest of Granada. At just that time, Christendom's fervour had boarded a new revolution in ocean-going vessels, taking its piety and avarice to all of the earth's continents.

The next contraction came quickly, splitting a newly resurgent Christendom down the middle, pitching Europe into paroxysms of medieval savagery. A new type of Christian emerged – surly and sober, humourless and determined. Perhaps not by coincidence, this new Christianity sunk stubborn roots in the frozen, unforgiving north. They defined their purity against the sensuous Babylon of a resurgent Catholicism with its heels in the warm, exotic Mediterranean. The Protestant urge was separation and escape, first to the rocky islands off Europe's coast, the Arctic peninsula, then the pilgrimage across the Atlantic. In America, the restlessness and disgust with Europe only grew more intense, and the westward escape continued.

The third contraction took longer to arrive, but was the biggest. It called into being a world of cities and steel and smokestacks and pitiless striving. Its logic was the denial and demolition of limits, a mania with no scruples. It had a bottomless appetite for coal, ore, people, land, beliefs. The more it consumed and destroyed, the hungrier it became. The logic of limitlessness quickly outgrew the British islands and within decades had brought all the world's continents into its voracious orbit.

Australia's conception, gestation and birth came from expansion and schism, escape and avarice. Little wonder its new settlers built their own meaning – and that of the place they lived in – around how they fitted into the global convulsions that had spawned them. Their great sullen land was soon discovered to have in abundance what was wanted by the continent they had left and longed for. Wood, flax, wool and gold flowed to the other side of the world, and the money and knowledge to build a new nation flowed back. Australians started to become very rich – not a good look for a penal colony.

THE NEW AUSTRALIA'S journey now had a narrative that predisposed it to another convulsion in Europe. Humans were no longer sacred, but animals like those they farmed and ate and petted. They had come not from an act of God but from millennia of mutation and competition. Those who survived and prospered were the most highly evolved – a pitiless law of the universe of living things. Here was a new way to explain why all the other humans the Europeans had encountered on their global expansion looked different. To some, it also explained why on no other continent or island did they encounter furnaces and factories, telegraphs and trains. Survival, prosperity, dominance had an evolutionary explanation – superiority flowed in the blood.

Race replaced God in explaining human fate. Societies were destined to compete. With only the fittest surviving, competition became ever more pitiless. The schism of Christendom soon gained a racial narrative. The Protestants reached back to the account of Germania written by the Roman historian Tacitus – a proud, indomitable people, imbued with traditions of equality and self-government. They had carried their democratic genius in their Saxon veins as they invaded England; later they had refused to be serfs to the invading Normans. A defining moment was the Magna Carta, from which flowered the Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty, laws and democracy. There was no accident about the supremacy of the British race: its stability, prosperity, inventiveness. Britons never would be slaves. And it was the unfolding of the logic of evolution that this most supreme of races would take possession of swathes of the world's temperate zones: North America, southern Africa, Australia.

Here was the meaning of Australia: it was an expression of the genius and destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. Every triumph of the English-speaking peoples was celebrated in its cities and towns. Australia's responsibility was to maintain the purity of its society against the teeming lesser races to its north, and to play its role in the evolving global drama of the British peoples. It was a natural transplantation, playing an important role in the onward march of a great and ancient race. Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato was the motto chosen by the nation's first university: the same mind under different stars. The wars of Britain were the wars of the entire race, and in glorious sacrifice was born the nation's founding myth: Anglo-Saxon courage and resilience against overwhelming odds.

The Nazis gave race a bad name but Australians were still proud of their Britishness, until the British began redefining what it meant. To the horror of many Australians, Whitehall had started to define the subjects of Empire as British – irrespective of colour or religion – and many had decided to take up residence in Britain. Luckily the mantle of leadership had passed to another, surging English-speaking people, who had proclaimed its global dominance by reference to those values that Tacitus had observed in ancient Germania: liberty, democracy, laws, enterprise. Australia's narrative stayed intact. Just as its wood and flax had provided masts and sails for the British navy, now its vast interior played a key role in testing nuclear weapons. The Anglo-Saxon preference for rules would be put to good use in designing the new global institutions of Pax Americana, and a new wave of prosperity would flow from the rebuilding of the world's economy under the imperium.

THIS WAS A story that should have had no end. The combination of liberty, laws, democracy and enterprise was supposed to be the elixir of success. In the post-racial world, any society with the good sense to adopt the simple Anglo-Saxon formula would flourish.

The land at the end of the world saw in its first turn of the millennium with a burst of light. Its position meant it was one of the first to leave the old millennium; its fireworks preceded those in Europe and America. Its harbour city played host to the great symbol of the world the West had made: a festival of sport and commerce hailing back to the birth of the West.

But this millennium isn't proceeding to script. Time's arrow came to ground before the end of the first decade. Liberty turned to vulnerability as planes crashed into the World Trade Center and diplomatic secrets became common reading. Societies began to choke on their laws. Democracy fell into bitter and trivial division. Enterprise unfettered took financial systems past the capacity of any to comprehend or regulate, and brought the world the West had built crashing down.

This is a moment of profound disorientation for the land at the end of the world. Its internal story – privilege, wealth, safety – continues to play out, but the back story – of the strength and success of the far continents that built the world – has crumbled. Australia's wealth no longer comes from the strength and success of those that built it. Its minerals and energy now feed those that are remaking the world. Its schools and universities pass on knowledge and confidence to the architects of a different order, training different minds under the same stars. Its beaches are host to people who never saw time as an arrow, the unfolding of a single, timeless design to ever greater glory. For those who now bathe in the pristine isolation of the land at the end of the world, time is a cycle – and the cycle is turning.

This will be a time of reinvention for this place on Asia's rim. Its role in the world has been recast from the outside in. Once it was peripheral; now it is central to the world's changes. One day soon, it will recognise the cards it has been dealt. It is a newborn society in a neighbourhood of ancient civilisations and rivalries. It is an old set of institutions in a neighbourhood where others are desperately building new ones. It has in abundance what the overcrowded continent to its north will soon fight over.

Where once the land at the end of the world defined its purpose to fit a narrative written elsewhere, now its narrative will come from within. The lords of this millennium will have no single story. Australia's purpose will emerge as part of a new story, one not of yearning and transformation but of confidence and purpose.

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