On July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, thirteen colonies in North America declared independence from the United Kingdom, 169 years after the first colony was established. During British rule, not only did these colonies receive an influx of merchants from across the Atlantic, but also convicts, sent away from home to work in plantations all over the east coast of North America. However, the independence of what would become the United States of America brought the convict shipments from Britain to an abrupt end. Scrambling for a new penal colony, in 1787 London sent out eleven ships to the extreme south of the other side of the globe. Eight months after leaving Europe, the ships – known as the First Fleet – arrived in Botany Bay, then Sydney Cove a week later in the southeastern part of Australia known today as New South Wales, marking the beginning of British colonization in the remote continent. These Britons, however, were not the first Europeans to come to Australia.
182 years earlier in 1606, the Dutch became the first Europeans to step ashore on the Australian continent, thus naming the unknown land “New Holland”. In 1770, James Cook – who is also credited for the first European contact with Hawaii – sailed along the east coast of Australia, named it New South Wales, and claimed the land for the United Kingdom. He made contact with the Gweagal clan of the Tharawal tribe who had traditionally been living around Botany Bay near modern-day Sydney for millennia. This marked a period of British-Aboriginal early contacts which resulted in the establishments of a new penal colony as well as conflicts between the Europeans and many Aboriginal groups whose sheer diversity was only properly understood in modern times.
Arthur Phillip, the commander of the First Fleet, became the first governor of New South Wales a few weeks after all 11 ships made landfall. The convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers, and free people onboard the ships built settlements on the new land from scratch, suspiciously watched by the Cadigal people – the indigenous clan who once inhabited what is now downtown Sydney. The British chose to transport convicts out of their home country since capital punishment was failing to reduce the crime rate, and also since their human labor could be harnessed for cultivating cash crops in their colonies. When their sentences had expired, or upon being granted pardons, the former convicts in Australia were able to enjoy the rights of free settlers, including land ownership. The exclusivists (including many free settlers, military officers and civil servants) frowned upon the idea of integrating former convicts into society. On the other hand, these former convicts and other settlers who believed in equal rights were called the emancipists.
The fifth governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, was an emancipist himself. The shortage of skills in the colony convinced him to embrace former convicts and appoint those with special talents to important positions. Francis Greenway, an English architect who forged a financial document back home, was transported to Australia in 1814 after having his death sentence commuted. Two years later, while still a convict, Greenway was tasked by Governor Macquarie to design a lighthouse. Soon after the lighthouse’s completion, Governor Macquarie pardoned Greenway and gave him bigger responsibilities including the construction of Hyde Park Barracks.
The increasing number of convicts in Sydney prompted Macquarie to build the barracks in 1819 with the purpose to control, feed and house up to 600 male convicts in the city. In 1822, under the leadership of new governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, many convicts were removed from town, leaving only the most troublesome in Hyde Park Barracks. This was largely due to the British government’s push to cut costs and encourage pastoral expansion in Australia. Less than two decades later the increasing criticism of the convict system led to the closure of the barracks in 1848, amid the rapid growth of commerce and industry in Sydney.
Unlike Sydney, which began as a penal colony, Melbourne was purchased by a businessman called John Batman through a negotiation considered delusive by many. The native Wurundjeri people had been in contact with outsiders even before Batman’s arrival in Port Phillip (present-day Melbourne) in 1835. They gave visitors to their ancestral land a wooden token as a permit to stay temporarily. Batman, who wasn’t aware of this custom, paid flour, blankets, tomahawks, knives, scissors, glasses, handkerchiefs, shirts, jackets and clothes to the Wurundjeri elders instead, in return for 600,000 acres of land. This was only one of many problems that arose between White Australians and the Aboriginal people for more than a century. Smallpox introduced by the British claimed the lives of many indigenous people, many Aboriginal children were snatched from their families for the sake of “assimilation”, and the white settlers’ institutionalized discrimination marginalized Aborigines in their own homeland.
Over seven decades, the White Australian policy was eventually rolled back and completely dismantled. But to ensure that today’s generation will not repeat the same mistakes, Australian museums took a radical approach in presenting the history of the nation: narrating real-life stories and events as they really happened, regardless of how dark and shameful they were. In the Melbourne Museum, apart from sections showcasing the city’s history, one particular exhibition called Bunjilaka was very eye-opening and thought-provoking.
In the beginning James and I were introduced to the diversity of Aboriginal languages spoken in the state of Victoria through interactive buttons. Then a warrior appeared on a screen, inviting us to walk through different periods of time in the history of the Aborigines. The calls of an eagle welcomed us as we entered a dark cave with a kinetic sculpture as the centerpiece. It mimicked the movement of a bird’s wings and changed colors following the story of Bunjil the Creator, the mythical eagle in Victorian Aboriginal mythology. Then as we explored deeper, stories about the way of life for the indigenous peoples before and after the arrival of the Europeans became the focus. Some parts of Bunjilaka forced me to think about the relations between the majority of Indonesia and the Melanesian people in the extreme east of the country. So much homework still needs to be done.
Meanwhile, Melbourne’s Immigration Museum addressed the namesake issue, from the arrival of the Chinese during the gold rush period to the influx of immigrants from a multitude of countries – Greece, Lebanon, Vietnam, and the Baltics to name some – which have shaped the face of modern Australia. A room was designed to emulate real interviews in different periods of Australian immigration policy. A case in the 1920s, for instance, showed how restrictive the racially discriminatory policy was. On the other hand, Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks provided a sobering view into how life was like for convicts who called this austere building home. Public humiliation and forced labor were a part of daily life until convict transport ceased altogether, followed by greater roles for emancipists in the society. If there is one lesson we can take from the museums in Sydney and Melbourne, it is that equal treatment of human beings, regardless of their racial backgrounds, helps make Australia a thriving nation today. It is so prosperous that our Australian host in Colombo, Sri Lanka two years ago half-jokingly said, “I’m glad my grandfather stole that chicken!”