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The British came to the smallest, most isolated, continent on earth and gave it the form we know today as `Australia'. This was achieved with the help of: Captain Cook, the English language, Westminster system, Queen Elizabeth II, Union Jack, Labour Party, cricket, Baden-Powell, Rudyard Kipling, the BBC, Monty Python, etc.

Since the second world war, waves of migrants have come to Australia from places outside the British Empire. Despite this influx of new cultures, their presence makes little difference to the official identity of Australia. In the film Strictly Ballroom, a traditional Aussie world is disrupted by new codes of dance coming from the Spanish migrant community. None of this reaches the official realms. Laws, politics, language -- all remain grounded in the British models. So it would appear.

For some this situation is a source of alienation, for others it is the fresh promise of a new country that puts the past behind. From an creative point of view, this cultural dissonance is a relatively untapped source of ideas and inspiration. One way of drawing out this line of creativity is to speculate on the other possible histories of Australia: what would this land look like if a different nation -- not Britain -- had colonised it.

Turn the page
There's a point to this speculation.

For nearly two hundred years, Australia has governed itself according to the British model. During that time, artists such as John Glover pictured the land in terms that English men and women could understand. But will Australia always have a British monarch -- its public property be known as Crown land, and its biggest cities named after distinguished members of the British Isles?

There are, of course, many reasons why this question is now being asked. It is more difficult nowadays to celebrate the colonisation of Australia as testimony to the glory of the British Empire. This is partly due to increased awareness of the effects of this colonisation on pre-existing aboriginal cultures; the natural right of the British to claim this land as their own has been brought into question.

The introduction of Mabo legislation and debate about the possibility of Australia becoming a republic demands a new way of thinking about nationhood. The problem is that British culture adheres to Australia almost like a skin which contains the life of the nation. It is difficult to imagine this continent without the trappings of British colonisation.

There are obvious signs of this inheritance. The Union Jack in the left hand corner of the Australia flag ties the land to the United Kingdom which incorporated England and Scotland in 1707. Dividing the land mass of Australia is a series of lines which demarcate administrative units which hearken back to the homeland (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, etc.). These are simply two of a large array of elements which construct an Australia out of a British imagination. The more subtle influences include the vision of the wide brown land as an opportunity to test out an individual's character, particularly their level of perseverance. A stiff upper lip presents a stoic vision of flies and hardship.

Metaphor Of Soil

Earth, land and soil are enduring symbols of national substance. It is the ground which we are seen to share. At Tandanya (National Aboriginal Cultural Institute) during 1994 Adelaide Artists' Week, Doreen Mellor curated an exhibition titled `Moving Sands' which linked Aboriginal art directly to the ground on which they stand.

For Aboriginal people the ground and its rhythms provide an enduring expression of powerful spiritual forces which are recognised and experienced, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly, through the movement and structure of the earth.

This sensibility is shaped by the food practices particular to Aboriginal communities. Land for the invaders, bringing modern agriculture, means something quite different: soil is a substance to be trained and nurtured. It is part of the annual cycle of farming to turn the soil so that it might be oxygenated and refreshed for the sowing of new seed.

By analogy, Australia seems at a point where its identity requires new focus. To prepare for a new beginning, an exercise which entertains alternative possible histories to the English settlement of Australia would be most useful. Such an imaginative exercise promises to `turn the soil' so that a new identity has fresh soil in which to grow.


Copyright 1995 Kevin Murray

Last modified 12 October 1996

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