“Where Sydney Cove her lucid bosom swells,
Courts her young navies, and the storm repels” — Erasmus Darwin
In the 1980s, North America was invaded. Mad Max tore up our screens. AC/DC tore up our eardrums. Foster’s flooded the streets. Crocodile Dundee showed us what a knife was and Men at Work told us where they came from. Yes, the Australians had taken over.
But despite the flood of Australian culture into our own, what do we really know about the land down under? As Stuart Macintyre puts it in his Concise History of Australia, for early Europeans navigators, Australia was a “place of mythical beasts and fabulous wealth in the imagination of those who had long anticipated it, a blank space where their fantasy could run free.” This could still be true. After all, Australia is staggeringly far away from us, its indigenous animals are unique and, as Bart Simpson discovers, the toilets do not even flush in the same direction.
Australia is a lot like Canada too. Australia has a similar history with its native population, our dollar is usually on par with theirs and they share an ambiguous relationship with England. Many of us also know that, unlike Canada, Australia started out as a penal colony for the British Empire.
In 1786, 15 years after James Cook charted the Eastern shores of Australia and named the area New South Wales, the British government decided to settle. They had recently lost the North American colonies as a place to ship convicts off to, and were looking to establish a new penal colony. Why they chose Botany Bay, which would become the site of Sydney, is debated. Perhaps it was because a social problem like crime could never be too far way from England, or because it would provide a naval base helpful in expansion, or because the site was rich in timber and flax, both necessary for ship-building and thus a centre for Southern whaling. Whether for social, military or economic reasons, and it was most likely a combination of the three, the penal colony was established in Botany Bay, renamed Sydney Cove.
As Brian Fitzpatrick points out in The Australian People 1788-1945, shipping convicts off to faraway lands was common practice among European powers. The British had been sending 500 convicts a year to the North American colonies before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Portuguese had used Brazil for penal settlements since the early 16th century and while Canada was a French colony, the French had been sending convicts there. These are only a few of the many examples of convicts being used to form settlements in faraway lands. So it would seem that the one fact about the formation of British Australia that most people know is hardly noteworthy at all.
These first “convicts” were not exactly the hardened criminals that would normally be associated with the word. There were of course a number of these ruffians, but the group of fewer than 1,000 was also made up of teenagers who were banished from England, maniacs, men and women of over 70 years, and the feeble poor who could not work. These people were all accompanied by four companies of marines to control them and to enforce military rule.
This expedition was led by Captain Arthur Phillip, who was also the first governor of the new colony. When they arrived in Sydney Cove, Phillip found the soil infertile and earlier accounts of the potential for a harbour overstated. However, just to the North, Phillip found a more natural harbour, to be called Port Jackson.
Frank Welsh describes in Australia — A New History of the Great Southern Land the hard life faced by the ragtag bunch of misfits forced to survive in a strange and inhospitable land. He says “Any children of convicts could claim that they descended, not from the dregs of British society, but those who had survived, and had demonstrated remarkable qualities in so doing.”
Of course, they were not alone in this strange land. Despite Phillips’ attempts to maintain friendly relationships with the Aborigines and in his words “live in amity and kindness with them,” relations were uneasy. The relationship with the Aboriginals was strangely ambiguous, speckled with bouts of violence followed by periods of mutual assistance. The colonists were nevertheless the foreign invaders, and both sides, at times, felt impinged upon culturally.
Not that this conquest was entirely the fault of the colonists. The British had classified the territory as “terra nullius,” or land belonging to nobody. This meant that the colonists thought they were entering a land without a population, and certainly not a population who had legitimate claim to that land. James Cook had recorded that the Aboriginals were few in number and that they were nomadic inhabitants. This came as great surprise to the colonists, who found an organized society, complete with local government. It would not be until the Mabo judgment of 1992 that the Australian government would give legal recognition that the Aborigines had owned these lands. Of course, such recognition could only be symbolic, and not really count for much by that time.
Australia is not a land of magic and romanticism; that is only the idea of Australia. This idea can only be deflated. For example, the episode of The Simpsons entitled “Bart vs. Australia” is a perfect example of this deflation. When the Simpsons actually go to Australia, they find it full of stereotypes. Upon realizing that Australia was founded by British convicts, Marge says to Lisa “watch your camera.” Lisa turns around to find several Australians creeping up behind her. In a local tavern, the bartender can’t understand Marge’s order of a cup of coffee as anything other than beer. Later in the episode, Homer and Bart are chased by the cast of The Road Warrior, a famous Australian movie.
However, the idea of Australia still remains. In the tavern, Homer orders “one of those famous giant beers.” When he receives it he says “It’s pretty big . . . I guess,” and looks disappointed. The truth is, no size of beer would ever live up to the idea of a giant Australian beer in Homer’s mind. Later, when Homer and Bart are fleeing, Bart suggests that they can escape in kangaroos’ pouches. Understandably, the next word is “Ewwww.”
But the idea of Australia still remains in Canada too. In reality, Australian history is a lot like Canadian history and its people very similar. But we’re still adding some “’Roo to our do,” and as 46,000 people in Winnipeg can attest, still tearing up our eardrums.