First Nations Australians don’t have to imagine an apocalypse — we survived one

Posted December 08, 2017 07:30:00

There is a shield in the British Museum, taken by Cook on his 1770 landing in the place he named Botany Bay, in what was to become New South Wales.

Called the Gweagal shield, it has a bullet hole near the centre. Oral history held by the Gweagal people says the man who owned that shield was shot.

Carved of wood, it was incapable of withstanding a threat his people had never experienced and almost certainly had never imagined.

It was never my intent to write apocalyptic fiction, to write about dystopias.

It was my intent to write a novel that would explain and contextualise the invasion of Australia in 1788 in such a way that it would help white people understand what the invasion meant for my people. I wanted people to have empathy for my people if they had not before.

But while writing that novel, Terra Nullius, I experienced a revelation that was to blow my mind.

Novels about the history of Australia are post-apocalyptic, because all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alive today are the descendants of people who survived an apocalypse.

Modern Australia is a dystopia if you look at it from our point of view — it’s only the “lucky country” for everybody else.

While writing my novel I came to the understanding that the only way to tell the story truthfully and with the impact I wanted it to have, was to embrace the post-apocalyptic imagery.

In 1788 boats arrived in Sydney Cove, and started unloading soldiers and prisoners, transportees on this continent, now called Australia. That is when the apocalypse began.

Over nearly 230 years the First Nations Australian people went from controlling the continent to constituting only around 3 per cent of the continent’s population. These were end times, the ending of a civilisation, of a culture, of a people.

More people died than you can imagine — most of the population died, and those of us living now are the descendants of a small number of survivors.

We can only imagine now, the violence, the pain, the suffering of my First Nations people.

Diseases imported from Europe would have been decimating and terrifying. Most of the white people were men and we know rape was commonplace. Many of those who survived the epidemics were massacred, the survivors of the massacres were rounded up, forced into concentration camps, had their culture destroyed and were often enslaved.

There were hundreds of languages spoken on this continent before white people came. Many of those languages and the information encoded in those languages are now lost. Things cannot be explained or remembered if there are no words to talk about them.

As a Noongar woman, my ancestral country is the south coast of Western Australia. I can say with certainty that I am alive only because my ancestors survived.

That is true of all people, everyone only lives because their ancestors survived.

In my case survival was a miracle. There were few survivors, and the attempted genocide of my people was almost successful.

I am a product of the resilience of two women — Binyan, also known as Fanny Winnery, and Harriet Coleman, her daughter.

However, it is not just how many people died, or the low chance of survival that defined the arrival of white people as apocalyptic.

An entire civilisation was destroyed along with our language and a lot of culture. It was destroyed because the people who invaded Australia — and it was an invasion — had no respect for the people who lived here.

White people brought their own culture, their own religion. Seeing ours as completely lacking in value, they used their military might and their control of the resources they stole, to force their culture on us. There are survivors, there is living culture — but so much, so very much, was lost.

In summary: white people stole our land, stole our children, attempted, and nearly succeeded in the complete destruction of our culture.

We, the Indigenous people of this continent, now live in a dystopia.

We are a tiny proportion of the population, only 3 per cent, therefore we do not have the political power to enact change within a democracy. This is one of the reasons why First Nations Australians have a life expectancy decades shorter than white people, often live in third-world conditions, and are on average significantly poorer than the national average.

Indigenous affairs are something done to us, not with us. Our small numbers and a history of hostile government has kept control of our affairs out of our hands.

We don’t have to imagine an apocalypse, we survived one. We don’t have to imagine a dystopia, we live in one — day after day after day.

Topics: indigenous-culture, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, community-and-society, history, books-literature, fiction, arts-and-entertainment, australia