The ship’s hold was dark, its smells vile. They had been there for months; so many had died.
Convicts in shackles—men, women and children—stumble up the ladder and into small wooden boats.
The convict settlement of Terra Australis begins.
Flat-bottomed boats struck sand. The men, in khaki and brown, splash their way ashore, dodging bullets and mortar fire.
Many fall before even reaching solid ground. Tumble and fall in the surf.
Australia comes of age on the shores of Gallipoli.
Dark-skinned men, women and children sway in the overladen boat.
The Australian Navy force them aboard orange life-rafts, turn them back to the open seas.
Australia’s borders are protected.
What is it about white Australia’s convict beginnings that we find so fascinating? Why the pride in having convict heritage?
What is it about a war that Australia only entered out of loyalty and affinity to Great Britain, that we deem to be when Australia, as a nation, was forged?
White Australia began as the off-casts and outcasts of British society.
White Australian identity was forged as we bore the brunt of the ineptitude of British commanders.
In some strange way, White Australian identity was forged and reinforced in arenas of victimhood, in situations in which we lacked control, in which we bore the consequences of the choices and decisions of others.
When white Australians look at the faces of those dark-skinned boat-people do we see ourselves? Is it their vulnerability that strikes an unconscious chord in our hearts and challenges the very identity we hold dear?
In these vulnerable people, is the fragility of our identity so challenged that we must turn them away lest we be forced to look at ourselves, lest we be forced to question the validity of our identity? Do we, in some strange way, see our own fragile beginnings, and we are confronted by it—we do not like to see ourselves this way.
I believe also that our white Australian identity is challenged by those whose own identity is strong.
Despite our best efforts, white Australia has never been able to destroy indigenous identity. Even when indigenous skin colour is almost white, indigenous identity runs deep and has never been destroyed.
The dark-skinned peoples who seek asylum in our country also have strong cultural and societal identities—and I believe white Australians are afraid of this.
We are afraid because our own identity is tenuous and fragile, forged in vulnerability and shame. I believe we are threatened and challenged by people who know who they are, whose identity is strong.
But I also believe that Australia as a nation has the opportunity to forge an identity built on the multiplicity of cultures and races that now call Australia home. It is about valuing everything and everyone who has come to this wide, brown land—by boat or plane or birth—who holds to the Australian distinctives of a fair go, egalitarianism, and looking out for your mates.
Come on Aussie—come on!