Anthem Antics

Much is being made of the Government’s decision to change the words of the national anthem to appease the loud voices of black victimhood.

Like much else that has occurred in this space, this is a politically correct gesture which will have no impact on improving the lot of disadvantaged indigenous people, Will it help more indigenous children to attend and complete school? Will it in any way help curb the senseless domestic violence which is endemic in remote indigenous communities? Will it help with indigenous housing or indigenous health issues? Of course not!

Bur a well-meaning community, whose views are shaped by the strident voices of those who indigenous academic Anthony Dillon calls the “blacktivists”, give themselves a congratulatory slap on the back for being sensitive to the concerns of our indigenous fellows.

Now the spurious reasoning behind the change is that, while the previous words of the anthem stated “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free”, the complainants maintain we are indeed not young because indigenous people had inhabited this land for 60,000 years prior to European settlement.

But, at the risk of stirring up some controversy, I find it hard to give the title of Australians to the indigenous peoples who preceded European settlement. They were certainly not a nation but a group of perhaps two hundred or so disparate tribes. There was no sense of a single people sharing a common homeland. They had little knowledge of the geography or the peoples that existed beyond their own local confines. There was no common language and few common cultural practices.

What does it mean to be Australian? There are two possible (but not equally convincing) answers to this question.

Are you Australian because of the geographic accident of where you were born?

Or are you Australian because you acknowledge a common nationality, allegiance to a government who makes laws that apply nationwide and largely share a common language and set of values?

In the sixteenth century European cartographers and explorers surmised there was a land mass of considerable size in the Southern Hemisphere undiscovered by Europeans. It was given the tentative name of Terra Australis Incognito (the Latin term for the “Unknown Southern Land”). Early Dutch discoverers who stumbled on to the West and North coasts of the continent and subsequently explored parts of our coastline called the land New Holland.

In 1803 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated our continent mapping our coastline with astounding accuracy. When his diaries were subsequently published he referred to the land that he had circumnavigated as Terra Australis. It is said that Flinders personally preferred the nomenclature of “Australia”. Governor Macquarie subsequently adopted the name Australia, in official correspondence after receiving a copy of Flinders journal, A Voyage to Terra Australia, published in 1814.But however you view it there was no geographic concept of Australia until the nineteenth century. Consequentially even if you prefer this weaker concept of “Australian”, there could have been no Australians until the nineteenth century.

However if being Australian implies nationhood then it could be argued that the epithet of “Australian” could not appropriately apply before the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Pre-colonial aboriginals might only be called Australian in the sense that they lived within the lands that later became known as “Australia”.

Our anthem itself implies it had this second definition in mind. It used to say that “we are young and free”. Being “free” almost universally is associated with democracy. As early as 1823, the British Parliament enacted The Charter of Justice which laid the foundation for a limited form of representative democracy in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New South Wales. By the 1850’s colonists in Australia were demanding that they be allowed to elect representatives to state parliaments to at least influence law making in the colonies. Over the next fifty years the states of Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia were established each subsequently being given the right to self-government and establishing democratically elected parliaments. Finally on the first of January, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed initiating a democratically elected Federal Parliament. This created a “free” nation able to determine its own destiny through democratic processes at all levels of government.

Prior to European settlement indigenous Australians existed in largely patriarchal communities that could hardly be called “free”.

Even more tellingly the national anthem in its second verse (unfamiliar to many) states:

“Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands.”

This equates Australian identity with being part of the Commonwealth of Australia.

So the notion of being “Australian” and in any sense being “one” could only properly apply for a little over a century. But even if you accept the geographical definition of “Australian” even then it could be argued that there were no “Australians” prior to Flinders and the notion of “Australian” would be little more than two centuries old which is still “young” in historical terms. But do we really expect our national anthem to be an authentic anthropological record of our pre-European history? I think not.

But certainly as the words unequivocally state, the National Anthem is designed to celebrate our Nationhood, and that Nationhood came about with the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

All that said, I have no objection to replacing the word “young” with “one”. I have argued many times in my essays in support of the universality of humankind.

This does not detract from the fact that we should acknowledge indigenous peoples of having long occupied this continent before European settlement. But seeking to change the national anthem because it labels us as “young” is mere sophistry.

8 Replies to “Anthem Antics”

  1. Regarding the aborigines never being a nation, it really annoys me that some people have done the usual mindless copying of North American concepts and now refer to First Nations.
    I have much compassion for all that happened to the aborigines, but that experience does not validate the use of this foreign term.

  2. I have always had a problem with the word young in our anthem and it has nothing to do with aboriginal recognition. I agree fully with your analysis Ted, even though I was not nearly as aware of the historic details before reading it. My problem with “young” is that it locks our nation in time. Our nation will surely not always be young which means our anthem can’t stand the test of time. That to me is a good enough reason to change a word now. Just maybe it will save us from a full rewrite that I can assure you will only be partly in our national tongue.

  3. Personally I am still p***ed off with the Brits for defeating my Scottish ancestors at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. If the Jacobites had won, my life today would no doubt be so much different. What compensation is the current British government going to provide me with for this massive injustice?

    And then there is the line for the Monty Python Movie “The Life of Brian” that asks “what did the Romans ever do for us?” I’d ask the same of the British in introducing their way of life to the land we now call Australia.

    Yes, any National Anthem is designed to celebrate Nationhood. Let’s celebrate that while addressing other problems that exist in today’s society.

    1. Well said. One could also ask why Aboriginal peoples were so traumatised by colonisation when the English had been colonised many times, and brutally so, and yet managed to not just survive but to thrive. The concept of ‘inter-generational trauma’ appears to be highly racist since pretty much every human on the planet is descended from the traumatised, abused, dispossessed, colonised and indeed, the colonisers, including Aboriginal peoples who also colonised this land.

    2. Geat comments Mark. I am of course a republican but because of my Scotch ancestry always maintain that if there has to be a monarchy it should be populated by the descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie (not the descendants of our own current pathetic Prince Charles)!

  4. The country and nation we call Australia did not exist before the British and European settlers created it. And yes, Aboriginal peoples too were a part of that creation whether they wanted to be or not.

    Before 1788, this vast island continent was inhabited by various groups of peoples, descended from different and earlier waves of migration and colonisation. As the article states,t hey did not have a common language and often no common language source. There were estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 of such peoples, dubbed first Indians by the British, then Natives and finally Aborigines, divided into around 350 different groups. Some were big enough to be tribes but most were no more than family clans.

    Nation is a modern, Western concept and indeed, neither Germany or Italy were nations until the middle of the 19th century so to talk about Aboriginal nations is not simply wrong, it is delusional.

    First Nations is an Americanism, which originally applied to a confederation of some Indian tribes and did not mean nationhood in the way we define it today. However, the mere fact of talking about Aboriginal peoples as First Nations and their descendants, even those who are barely 1% Aboriginal in ancestry, as First Nations people, is to divide Australia into tribalism, where all those without Aboriginal ancestry are Second ‘nation’ people. It creates a tribal ranking order which has no place in a modern democracy.

    There is only one nation and has only ever been one nation – Australia.

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