26 January what it means to me as a Greek Aussie and to Aboriginal people

When the oppressed become the oppressors. 

I will come back to this statement later. For the moment, I want you to read on, without prejudice. For those who are adamant that we cannot move 26 January as Australia Day, that is fine; I see the comments on social media and the rage in some people on both sides of the debate. It kinda defeats the purpose of having a day for all Aussies to celebrate when many argue and bicker, mostly with strangers, about 26 January.

If you are a supporter of the date, please don’t berate me or call me a malaka on social media. Have a coffee with me, call me, let’s chat. We are in the same country and we want to celebrate the diversity and achievements of Australia, not divide us.

Here is my pitch, and I want you to understand where I am coming from. 26 January is a momentous day. India has its national independence from the same overlords, Britain. Here in Sydney though, it is the date of the Rum Rebellion in 1808, when the government of his majesty was overthrown. William Bligh, fresh from the Bounty Mutiny, was once again subject to a coup. The first coup under white rule, until the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal coup. The takeover lasted for almost two years in the New South Wales colony. Hence, coincidently, 26 January is a day of coup in Sydney.

Speaking of colonies, did you know that Australia never existed in the first century plus of British rule? You see, this continent was a series of colonies. Penal colonies to be fair, for convicts. The first colony was created in 1788 when the First Fleet landed, followed by Norfolk Island in the Pacific.

The colonies grew until, on 1 January 1901, federation brought all of the colonies together to become AUSTRALIA. Yes indeed, Australia was actually born on that date. Truly. In 2001, I inked my first ever tattoo, a Federation of Australia tattoo, which is on my back. Why would I do that? I am a proud Aussie, despite the 80’s and 90’s being an era where I was called a Wog, Greasy Greek, go back to your own country, and you get the drift. I love Australia and I felt that this date represents my nation. Hence the tattoo was a proud choice. We already have fireworks and parties on New Year’s Eve, therefore why not celebrate the birth of our nation as Australia, on 1 January as well? Need another public holiday, why not select a day in January or February to recognise the role of migrants? Migrants Day or a day of diversity and inclusion for all? 

Speaking of migrants, or rather forced migration, the First Fleet was filled with slave labour, convicts. People who did not want to be here. Sent to the colonies for stealing loaves of bread, or political dissent ala the Irish and a while later Greeks from the Ionian nisia. This was a case of Britain and their elites getting rid of the poor, the hungry and those who pose a threat to British rule. The empire sent tens of thousands of people to colonies worldwide to work for free, a form of slave labour for minor crimes. These poor convicts would probably have groaned and kept their heads down when Botany Bay was in front of them. Many of their fellow convicts died on the eight months journey or became violently ill, with scurvy and other diseases. Beaten by soldiers if they complained.

18 January, however, is the proper date when the fleet entered Botany Bay, with a landing party going on shore. Yes, the date is 18, not 26. Sighted by peaceful Aboriginal people, it did not lead to a permanent landing as the area didn’t appear to be fertile enough. Governor Arthur Phillip decided that this was not the place to settle and dispatched an exploration party on the 21st to explore other areas. They actually MOVED on to what we know as Port Jackson (in the Eora nation), with a proper landing taking place on 27 of January! Yes indeed, 27 January 1788, not on the day that is celebrated.

Colony secretary David Collins wrote of the landing, “disembarkation of the troops and convicts took place from the following day (27 January 1788) until the whole were landed.” Though, the British flag had been planted the day before, it may also have been planted in Botany Bay days earlier and of course when Captain James Cook visited. Contrary to a statue in Sydney, the great Cook did not “discover” these lands, he was one of the few white explorers after the Portuguese and Dutch to visit. They were all wayyyyyy behind the Indigenous peoples of the lands, who were always here.

Note, 26 January came to be viewed as the national day in 1935 and in 1994, Paul Keating made it official across every state and territory. In my view, possibly his only mistake as Prime Minister. NSW governors celebrated that day from the 1820s, though Aboriginal people came to see it as, Invasion Day.

The formal establishment and proclamation of the colony actually occurred on 7 February by Phillip in the name of King George. 7 February, just to repeat the date, not the 26th.

What is it with the 26th? There were no landings anywhere else on the continent, yet the whole of Australia minus Indigenous people celebrate 26 January. Like sheep, there appears to be no thought of when settlements by colonialists were established in what would become other colonies. I find it amazing that the Lucky and Clever country misses that point. What became Sydney in the Eora Nation, and is the only place where the colonists arrived, on 18 January! 

Speaking of having a point, I recall Jimmy Barnes posted his opposition to 26 January. Barnesy, a real working-class man, a real Aussie if ever there was one, an immigrant and a genius, was blasted by many of his social media followers. Barnesy is entitled to his opinion, especially a man of his stature who helped build the culture of Australia. His opposition is more to do with Aboriginal people losing their lands, rather than the importation of British culture.

Speaking of culture, let me introduce you to some of the most cultured people on earth. First Nations people, people who have lived here at least 60,000 years, maybe double that. My grandparents lived under the brutal Ottoman regime; my parents came to Australia and suffered racism, “go back to your own country dirty wogs,” and whose children are proudly born in Australia. “Look out, more wog kids in the neighbourhood.” We empathise with Aboriginal people, as these were and are their lands. They never ceded them, and they never signed a treaty to relinquish their entire ownership. The Ottomans kicked out and killed millions of my grandparents generation out of their traditional lands; their successors in Turkey did the same in Constantinople, occupied Cyprus, Sea of Marmara, Imvros and Telendos. We condemn this behaviour, yet, many of my fellow second and third generation Greek Aussies find it hard to understand the pain Aboriginal people go through. A similar pain to what we went through. We were the oppressed, both in Ottoman/Turkish times and during the decades of mass migration from Europe. When did we go from being the dirty wogs, the oppressed, to joining the oppressors? I do note that this racism has essentially vanished, but it was there until the 90s or more, especially if you looked like me. For an Aboriginal person, the racism remains. In their lands and in 2021.

In years gone by, I have spoken to and worked with a range of Aboriginal elders. I learned a lot, about their stories, and their ancestors. The pain of the Stolen Generations. Why do the kids need to be taken from their parents? In the 1800s, if Indigenous people weren’t being wiped out, many were chained up to stop them from leaving farms and lands that they were assigned to work on. Slavery. How is it possible to be that cruel? 

I sat down with a friend, a Bundjalung man who now lives on Darug lands, Uncle David Williams. He is one of the most decorated navy personnel this country has ever seen, with three decades service, Uncle taught me about his culture, the lands, real reconciliation between Aboriginal people and whites, especially the first reconciliation; this was held on Prospect Hill between Aboriginal women aligned to the warrior Pemulwuy and white colonialists on 3 May, 1805. I used to watch him, and the custodians who were born in Darug lands preside over Reconciliation Day, for many years. They would open their hearts and pain of what has happened in their lands. 

Uncle David is one of the greatest people I ever met. What he does for veterans, young people, Aboriginal people and the broader community is almost peerless. He never pushed me to learn about 26 January or Aboriginal culture, he inspired me to do my homework. No topic was ever off limits with him and he has no compunction telling it how it is. 

This goes for all people from the First Nations. Just imagine your lands are taken away, no compensation and we eliminate your loved ones. Sound familiar, this is what the Ottomans did to us. Australia didn’t even see them as citizens until 1967. The least we can do is listen to their pain. Have a positive conversation.  Aboriginal people were oppressed and, in many ways, still are. Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to the Stolen Generations, but it is not enough. I challenge you to learn about their sufferings and see if there is a solution that includes all of us, white, black and everyone in between.

Uncle makes it clear; 26 January is a colonial celebration.  “We can’t change the past; we can change the future so that all our children feel included,” when I ask him about the day. Uncle makes it clear, how much he loves Australia, he is a proud black man, Australian, Aboriginal. He feels that the school curriculum needs to do more to recognise the history of the people and the lands before 1788. He asks how many people know about the exploits of Aboriginal men fighting in WW1, with up to a thousand men involved, for example? “When Malcolm Turnbull threw the Uluru Statement in the bin, he set us back years, decades. We need to be in (every) Parliament, we also need to support teachers more than we do to teach all of the history,” he laments. As for Australia Day, “we were never consulted….. It’s a colonial celebration, we need one for everyone that includes all of society.” He indicated that, until there is an alternative, of course most people will celebrate the national day. We talked about my favourite day, ANZAC Day. Those, we, sitting at the table of an RSL, had already stood for Lest We Forget. For me, this has always been Australia Day, a day when young people did what they could for the defence of Australia (and empire).

I spoke to my friend and sports partner, Josh Staines, about 26 January and he made it clear what a difficult day it is.

“As an Aboriginal person, this day is painful. It’s a celebration on false pretences and often glances over Indigenous history. Many racists would like to think this country was discovered by Cook and then later settled on January 26th, but that just isn’t true.”

“Similar to Greeks who don’t look lightly at the invasion by the Ottoman Empire, I feel sorrow when reflecting at the invasion of Australia. When Australia was invaded, Indigenous people were told that their spirituality (religion and way of being) was wrong. Indigenous children and young women were court ordered to work for free in the houses, estates and properties of non-Indigenous people, for no wage. Aboriginal babies were buried up to their necks and their heads were kicked off for sport. These are some of the atrocities that Indigenous people have faced. We have survivors in our community today that were removed as children and given numbers instead of names because of their Indigenous heritage (Kootamundra girls home, Kincela boys home).”

“Lots of Indigenous Australians view January 26th as Survival day for this reason. As most Non-Indigenous Australians celebrate the birth of this country, Indigenous Australians reflect on surviving through invasion and oppression. Ironically we all love this country and want what’s best for everyone.”

“As a Wiradjuri man living in Sydney, I don’t celebrate Australia Day but I do look forward to a date that will see us all walking together. Personally, I like May 8 (maate!).”

This year, we will celebrate 26 January. I want you to spare a thought for the people who lived here for tens of thousands of years. Spare a thought for the convicts. For the disgraceful Rum Rebellion. For the real date when the country of Australia was created in 1901. Think about 18 January 1788. Don’t hate me for pointing out the facts. Have a conversation with me. Reach out to Aboriginal people too, ask them how they feel. If you still think that 26 January is the best date to celebrate our nation, then that is fine. I hold no grudges. We as Greek descendants were denied justice from the Ottomans and Turks; I will do my bit to stand with Aboriginal people for they have suffered cruelly, been oppressed. We have more in common with First Nations people than you realise. They don’t hold parts of our Acropolis either and refuse to give them back ala Britain where many Aboriginal artefacts are kept too. Aboriginal people just want to live in their own lands as Hellenes have similarly wanted to live in their lands, peacefully and free of oppression and subjugation.

SPECIAL NOTE, in 1829 Britain sent seven Greek men as political prisoners to Sydney on a convict fleet, they were eventually pardoned. Two stayed and the rest returned home.

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