Australia Day Approaches

Monday, January 20, 2020
As Australia Day approaches, the Uniting Church has been asked by our Assembly to hold a Day of Mourning. We were asked to use a liturgy prepared by the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and investigate the local history of First Peoples in our area. I started with the 1980's lyrics of a song by the Australian band Goanna, Solid Rock, Sacred Ground.

‘They were standin' on the shore one day,
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn't long before they felt the sting,
white man, white law, white gun’

‘Don't tell me that it's justified,
'cause somewhere, someone lied
Yeah well someone lied, someone lied,

And now you're standing on - solid rock
Standing o-on a sacred grou-ound
Living o-on borrowed ti-i-i-ime’

In his book: 'Life Selected Writings', Tim Flannery comments on Australia's history. He writes of the time before the Europeans sailed across the ocean and set up colonies in this country in his 2002 essay called ‘The passing of the Birrarang’. I draw on the information in his essay in what follows.

This word Birrarang might be familiar to you. There is a park called Birrarang Marr in the city just near Federation Square. Birrarang is the original name of the region where Melbourne now has developed.

If we could travel only 200 years back in time, the country would appear very different from what we see now …

John Murray sailed past the bay in 1802 and named the waterway beyond. He described a beautiful bountiful region. He described ‘billabongs and swamps teeming with brolgas, magpie geese, swans, ducks, eels and frogs. So abundant was the wildlife that we can imagine a kind of temperate Kakadu with the Yarra River flowing through the region over a waterfall…what was once located at the foot of Market Street in the City.’ (Flannery 2002)

The people who lived in this country knew their Creator. They knew of Bungal, the Creator Spirit who flew like an Eagle down the river valley. So when they heard the words of our Christian scriptures they sensed a resonance with the Creator they already knew about and the deep peace that springs up from country, from the ground:

‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
Creator will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.’ (Psalm 85)

The early settlers came to this country and wanted the land to yield its increase, just like the Psalmist said. But they did not see or respect that the country was already inhabited by others who already knew about the yield of this land that springs forth when righteousness and peace kiss each other. They were already in the land.

There was a moment when John Batman in 1835 attempted to make a treaty with the locals. He is said to have traded land for trinkets. The local tribes had no sense of land ownership, and are unlikely to have thought that they were selling their country, rather trading access to the land. As Melbourne developed Batman sold the land he thought he had acquired to settlers assumed they owned their patch and started clearing and building, farming and running stock that destroyed the land of the First people.

It is quite telling that ‘the first, so-called criminals, to hang in the Melbourne jails were Aboriginal. Yet of all the massacres, rapes, and poisonings that marred that time, not a single European was brought to justice.’ (Flannery 2002)

Derrimut, a local tribal leader, told a local magistrate of the land that once belonged to his people having being taken away and destroyed. He points to all the land along the Yarra River that once belonged to his people.

‘You see Mr. Hull, Bank of Victoria, all this mine, all along here Derrimut’s once. No matter now, me tumble down soon…You have all this place… me tumble down and die very soon now.’ (quoted by Flannery 2002)

‘A fragment of his vast tribal estate’, writes Flannery, ‘was returned to him when he was buried in the Melbourne Cemetery. The generosity of the city even extended to a headstone.’ (Flannery 2002)

1837 near the Botanic Gardens, there was an aboriginal settlement created, but it was only 3 years later when the land became too valuable and they were relocated to a place near Narriwarren. This was a disaster for the tribes as it was used as a recruitment ground for the black police who used to hunt other aboriginals. Later they were moved Warrandyte and Mordialloc, both settlements failed. Next 23,000 acres were allocated on the Goulburn River where the people prospered for a time until the land became too valuable and was sold to the whites.

In 1859 the remaining Woorawang people requested land Acheron River in Central Victoria, but this attempt at independence also failed because they were pushed further downriver to less attractive land due to hostility by white squatters. Eventually, that site too was abandoned.

Flannery tells us ‘A brief halt to this hideous tale of greed, dispossession and official incompetence occurred in 1863 when Coranderrk reserve hear Healesville was gazette for Aboriginal use.’ (Flannery 2002)

The 200 remaining people from the once 5 Melbourne tribes established a successful community. They developed a business growing hops where they even won prizes at the Melbourne agricultural show. But once more the land was taken out of black hands in 1886 all people of mixed blood were ordered to be removed which destroyed Coranderrk.

William Barak was a boy when Batman landed and the last leader of that Aboriginal community. 40,000 years of Aboriginal occupation in the Melbourne area had come to an end. When William Barak died in1903 only a small number of the Victorian Aboriginals remained. We pay tribute now to the survivors. Those elders past present and emerging.

‘While Melbourne’s environment of pristine wetlands and birdlife as was on its way to oblivion, the land was purchased by whites and it's valued was booming.’ (Flannery 2002)

There was a frenzied at auctions where people became rich as land was bought and sold. Gold was discovered and the city was built on the wealth of the earth. A bridge went across the Yarra in Hawthorn and people came with their gold money to build these grand churches we now inhabit. Big houses for the wealthy and cottages for the workers… The Aboriginal people nowhere in sight.

In the churches of Melbourne's east, I am a minister. Back then as we do now, people read passages from the bible calling them to love. They would have heard Paul’s words in his first letter to John when Paul was encouraging desperate communities to learn to live in harmony: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ (1 John 4: 16)

If God is Love, then people must live lives reflecting God’s love. Paul says that ‘Love is perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment because as God is, so are we in this world.’(1 John 4: 17)

If God is love, and we are called to live as God loves, then surely, if there is to be a day of judgment, we will be judged by the extent to which our lives reflect God’s love. When we hear what happened to the original inhabitants of the Birrarang, Melbourne, I am left wondering how the early European settlers made sense of this call to love. I wonder how we can justify our wealth, built on stolen ground. The First People were certainly not treated with love. Paul says ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.’ (1 John 4: 18)

Perhaps they sat in these churches full of fear, and their fear cast out love. They did not love the Aboriginal people of this land, but feared them, cast them as ‘other’ dangerous to be despised and destroyed. But when Paul calls us to love he says we ‘love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ (1 John 4: 20)

We have no choice but to confess and lament those early settlers of Melbourne did not consider Aboriginal people their brothers and sisters. In fact, they were not even considered human, with no basic human rights, they were considered part of the flora and fauna of this country. Our forbears sat in this church and hated their black brothers and sisters. Are we liars?

'The commandment we have from God is this: Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. (1 John 4: 21)

How does knowing the story of our countries’ history impact how we hear the scripture? Until we tell the truth, there is no hope for reconciliation, there is no hope for the love of God to abound in our communities. Will we continue to choose to do what our ancestors did and ignore the Aboriginal presence in the country?

Will we continue to count only those with white skin as our brothers and sisters?

Perhaps the psalm will help us as we pray:

‘Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Let us hear what God will speak, for God will speak peace to all people,
and all those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely God’s salvation is at hand
and the glory of the great Creator Spirit may dwell in our land.’ (Psalm 85)

Let us lament with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. As Australia Day approaches, let’s tell the truth, and let us love one another.

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