I always feel a strong and painful need to apologise to Australia’s Indigenous people, especially when I talk of my own family history. I apologise on my own behalf, but I also feel guilt on behalf of my first ancestor here; about the way he and his British ilk took over Australia. He was on the first fleet as a Lieutenant in the British Navy and does not seem to have been be a character with too many redeeming features. But why does this surprise? Britain would not have wanted to send their best and brightest on an adventure from which they were unlikely to return.
But I feel less need to apologise on behalf of the ancestor that I would like to remember here. John Williams arrived on the second fleet and his life has been well investigated. He was a convict, here unwillingly. We have the records of his Court Martial when he was sent to Australia as punishment as an army deserter. It appears he, 19 years old, was grateful to be spared the death penalty for his second desertion, in 1805, from the British Army that was fighting against Napoleon. If it meant he had to come to a far flung land that he did not know, so be it. And he embraced his life here with enthusiasm.
He married Sarah, the daughter of the first mentioned relative, Lieutenant William Nash. Lieutenant Nash had brought with him, on the voyage, his common law wife Maria and some older children but Sarah was born after his arrival. She was born in Richmond, Australia.
John Williams was emancipated and was given a land grant. He established a sheep station in the Monaro area. He thus supported Sarah and their family for many years and he died in 1854 at the age of 67 by “perishing in the snow” whilst riding home across the plains near Jindabyne.
John and Sarah had a son, Robert Williams, who also ran a sheep farm on the Monaro. He, like his father had done, went on to sire a large family which included another John. That second John Williams was the father of my own grandfather.
A few years before my mother’s younger sister died at the age of ninety she flew across from W.A, where my grandparents had long ago settled, and we took her, at the time of the Bicentenary of the settlement, to a re-enactment of the Nash wedding, the first Colonial wedding ceremony in Sydney. We met a large contingent of the Williams family some of whom are still working on the land in the Monaro district.
Is is easy for me to see how both the feeling of belonging to Australia and my pride in this nation and the positives that have been accomplished, sit uneasily alongside a sense of guilt about our annexation of this land tended for years by the Indigenous people and whose home it still is. And I have a strong feeling of shame about the treatment of those Indigenous people. But six generations of my ancestors lie buried in this soil that I have always called my home. I will be the seventh. It feels like part of my DNA. This is my home too.
And many early Australians were like John Williams. Whether convicts or free men obeying the orders of their masters they had little choice in the matter and just did what they could to survive in a very strange country and then later prosper. I can forgive them for that.
Once here early settlers were fighting for their survival.
Paralleling what we now know about Aboriginal people, my own grandfather had some interesting oral history. He told stories of the trials and tribulations of the settlers including this great grandfather of his. He also recounted some of his own experiences in his youth during the gold rush which he would tell to his amazed children and their children. My grandfather was an extremely kind, generous and accepting person. He was well read. He was a school teacher for many years. But sadly where there was no possible matching of stories from the dreamtime and settler stories was in the strong Christian philosophy which imbued him and had also imbued that settlement with ideas of salvation for all. In this Christianity there was no room for the Aboriginal philosophies.
I can understand how these views formed some of the negative or superior attitudes of settler Australians towards the Aboriginal people well after “colonisation”, “settlement” or “annexation” had occurred. Is that not still a problem in today’s wider society causing major difficulties of understanding between those who deeply believe in different forms of ” eternal salvation”?
In my later working life I was very privileged to work with some indigenous consultants. My experience there leads me to now apologise deeply for my attitudes over the years. Whilst, like my grandfather, I try to be kind, I have not made sufficient effort to understand and redress imbalances. But yet again, much as I admired the consultants and appreciated the insights I was given into their customs and communities, it filled me with sadness. My sadness felt the same as the sadness I was filled with at my beloved grandfather’s lack of insight, except for the fact I recognised and acknowledged the difficulties the consultants had suffered with their customs and practices having been disrespected for so many years. But eventually I realised that, in my sadness, I was doing exactly the same thing from my own undoubtedly flawed perspective. It was not surprising they spoke of a strong wish to laud and return to practices that had never been properly acknowledged or understood and that had sometimes been destroyed by settlers. I was devaluing their views with my own personal emphasis on “scientific method and research”. And here I was talking to descendants of people who, not only have the oldest explanatory legends and myths, but who, we now know, were the earliest culture to use principles of scientific observation.
When communicating and deciding things together we should be looking, not at personal ideologies, but at the things valued by all humanity. These include the care and protection of our young , loyalty to our friends and family – the mob- and love of nature and the country in which we live.
In the spirit of John Williams who would not lie down under the yoke of his masters, and for those first settlers some of whom who were victims almost much as were the Indigenous Australians, I plead for an end to racism, an end to bickering, proper and fulsome recognition of Aboriginal people’s voices in the Australian Constitution and the running of this country. I also want an Australian Republic which removes the taint of British colonisation.
And just a little final personal wish. It has not the huge importance of the above, but wouldn’t it be lovely to have a flag which would genuinely represent every single person who lives in this great southern land? I would personally love a plain, sky blue flag with the southern cross upon it. Each of us lives under that southern cross and can pick it out in our wonderful sky so easily. The Indigenous people have lived under the southern cross for many thousands of years. Many of our families have lived under that cross for many hundred years, and all the newcomers can look up and marvel at its beauty as they get accustom to its presence there above us – looking down on us all as equals in this wide brown land we love.