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Australia Day And Our Fijian Constitution

January 26 is designated Australia Day on the island continent –one of the most stable, multicultural, modern democracies of our contemporary world, with timeless human roots and rock carvings. History
28 Jan 2018 15:15
Australia Day And Our Fijian Constitution

January 26 is designated Australia Day on the island continent –one of the most stable, multicultural, modern democracies of our contemporary world, with timeless human roots and rock carvings.

History

In January 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove with several ships carrying their human cargo of 500 men, 250 women.

Transportation of prisoners to the Southern Land had begun after the British lost their American colonies in 1776.

Until then the American colonies were the prison destination of many, including slaves from the African continent, recently described by the American President in colourful, lewd language.

That evening in January, the British flag was unfurled officially ashore.

Governor Phillip, with his principal officers and others, drank to the King’s health and to the success of the first settlement of the First Fleet.

Sydney Cove became the fatal shore, terra nullius, and changed the fate of so many.

And what a fate it’s been.

Sydney is perhaps the most beautiful city in the Southern Hemisphere and harbours almost a third of Australia’s 25 million inhabitants, from 180 countries and 200 cultural backgrounds.

We’re in Australasian waters and islands primarily because of the momentous decision made by a natural scientist, Joseph Banks, a traveller on James Cook’s voyages.

The date of arrival was January 26, 1788. 230 years later it’s celebrated as Australia Day–the most significant day in the island continent’s calendar.

It’s a recent invention.

Australia also boasts of the oldest continuous living culture of its original inhabitants.

Connection

January 26 is also the Republic Day of India.

India claims to be the world’s oldest multicultural civilisation and, of course, now the largest democracy.

Yet no, two nations could be more different in their origins than these two Asia-Pacific societies washed by the waves of the Indian Ocean and human migrations.

Both have a connection with our lives in Fiji shaped by the forces of the British Empire.

But in the long-term, geography may prove more vital to our survival than history.

As far as I can see, there’s no region like Australasia.

One has a special feeling for it as it’s really now the region of our mind and consciousness.

And there are connections, obvious and subterranean.

One would have thought Australia Day is worth celebrating.

Inhabitants

The continent is ancient; the nation is young.

The original inhabitants, the Aboriginal People, have lived on this land for many millennia.

Their rock carvings are carbon dated at least 65, 000 years; their Dreaming and Songlines are stuff of legends beyond the civilisation of any continent.

To have survived for that long is in itself a cause for celebration for any people in any country.

Australia Day, therefore, should be a day of deepest reflection and contemplation. How have we become what we have become?

Whence did we come?

Wither are we going together?

History’s wounds, our own humanity and inhumanity, are part of our values.

Every nation has shame and pain in its record, written and unwritten, in its arteries and veins.

But a National Day is more than a date with history.  History doesn’t change; human beings do.

It is, above all, about values and visions, about freedom and peace, about transformation and evolution, about memory and imagination.

And, above all, about the living present and its webbed realities.

Most civilisations, like nations, are built on greed and guilt, grief and glory of being human.

Every country has its dark side, some darker than others.

In short, on Australia Day one thinks of:  What it means to be an Australian?   

And how the definitions keep changing like the shapes of the seas that surround the islands, big and small.

Naming of course changes a lot–the old world slowly disappears and the falsification of its oral history is transformed in new words and thought.

Aborigines

Although Aboriginal People have been living on the continent for many millennia, not a word was written until a little over two hundred years ago by them.

Writing has created another reality and we enter it through it multifarious forms and manifold voices.

Many Aboriginal people have excelled in their gift for self-expression, creating a literary culture of great beauty, variety and complexity, using a language that once was foreign but now an integral part of their lives like their religion.

Writing, as it were, is the gift of the gods and in the beginning was the Word, we’re told.

What will be at the end, we’re not told.

Perhaps Mr Trump’s Last Twitter!

European exploration and colonisation changed the contours of the continent and configurations of the realities in which we’re entangled.

No culture or people escaped the ‘civilising missions’ of a proselytising religion, and the military and economic power of Europe.

But it’s really the power of ideas, fed by many sources,  that have shaped our apprehension of the universe, both for good and ill.

Discovery

The world had not experienced anything like it–after 1492 when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America–the flat Earth acquired an overpowering rotundity.

In between the bloody pages are scribbled our history of the times: history that continues to haunt us today.

There’s now in Australia a considerable movement to change the date of Australia Day.

Many, and not exclusively Aboriginal people, regard  January 26 as a day of invasion and conquest–a day of dispossession and deplorable killings, although no native person was killed on January 26, 1788.

The history of every nation has its terrible side.

It’s a common thread that goes through the eye of the needle and creates the complex tapestry of human history: India, the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia, the countries I’ve lived in and care for, are part of that human condition bound in chains of justice and injustice.

Fijian community

Fiji is no exception: look at us – barely a million people since the beginning of human presence on these islands, and see how shabbily we’ve treated certain segments of our communities.

So when one celebrates a Day what does one really celebrate: is it more a commemoration or a combination of both?

There is no Day of untainted joy that we can really celebrate.

Everything is mixed like our lives: every dawn is stained; even at Christmas we’re aware of the crucifixion, 33 years later; in Diwali we become saddened by the subsequent treatment of Sita.

Indian independence Day brings harrowing pictures of millions killed, displaced.  And twin nations born in a bloody birth.

Thinking future

So to celebrate Australia Day we must pause to think of the past, the present, and how we envision the future.

A day in a nation’s life is far more complex that an individual’s birthday: even at the birth of a child one’s touched by the pain of childbirth.

The Prime Minister of Australia wants the date to continue–where history is debated, not denied: a Day worthy of a nation’s achievements despite so many black blots on the landscape of our mind and on the nation’s body-politic.

Australia has the historical habit of ‘commemorating’ defeats and failures.

I’ve always liked that idea–it requires greater understanding to celebrate failures and build something more deeply enduring from them.

Gallipoli, of course, is a telling example.

Mahatma Gandhi’s life and death is another.

But what concerns me here is how does one celebrate a National Day?

National Day

What Australia Day, January 26, signifies, I think, is that no nation or community has its history unsullied by violence and destruction of one kind or another.

And that is why January 26 is a creative day: it must remind us of the pain and pride, the suffering of a people and the resilience of a nation to rise from the agonies of history and embrace it various components in its inclusivity reflected in human dignity.

Of all countries, Fiji is an example: it was ceded and became a Crown Colony.

But Fiji was shrewd enough to merge this day into its Independence Day.

So October 10 is Fiji Day.

Last year I was invited to a Book Launch in the Federal Parliament.

The title of the volume was ‘The Forgotten People’, edited by two very articulate people.

The plea is that the First inhabitants of this ancient land should find a mention in the Australian Constitution.

That remains the great lacuna in the supreme law of the land: something significant is missing in the document.

During the brief discussion, I couldn’t but raise how the new constitution of Fiji gives recognition to all citizens of a small nation in its Preamble.

Needless to say that no-one present at that function had read Fiji’s Constitution.

Perhaps this Australia Day they should read it and see how Fiji, after its trials and tribulations, has finally given us all something to think about, praise and pray for. And feel Fiji is a living homeland.

It makes Fiji Day worthy of our respect: celebration and commemoration–the many sides of a priceless coin: our national conscience given value in the constitution of the country and the endless conversation of the people it purports to protect in a place called home.

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan,  is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, writing an historical novel set in three cities. His volume Gandhianjali will be published on May 15.

Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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