The Ides of May*

Recently a member of one of the family networks I am part of posted an image of a plaque which marked the departure of the First Fleet from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787.

The plaque’s heading states “THE BIRTH OF AUSTRALIA”, which of course is historically incorrect and I commented as such on the post.  As the plaque had been unveiled by the Queen in 1987, it illustrated to me that the message that Australia was NOT ‘terra nullius’ had, at that stage, still not been recognized by the British establishment. 

It reminded me of reading of a similar instance where one of my ancestors, Elizabeth Pulley, is described as one “who had helped found Australia” in the museum at Wymondham Bridewell.[1]  Again this is misleading and historically incorrect.

What the plaque above does commemorate is my ancestors’ departure from Britain, an event which I do celebrate as, at least in Elizabeth’s case, she was not “hung by the neck till she be dead”.

Since writing my comments on the post I’ve reflected on timing; how the month of May has special relevance for me, not the least of which is that RECONCILIATION WEEK also occurs during this month, and how that has influenced the way I react to the ignorance of ‘official’ versions of what occurred in and around 1788 and since. 

As with Australia Day, the month of May can be a conflicted time for some of us whose ancestors arrived on the First Fleet:  one of wanting to honour and celebrate life events of those ancestors and at the same time one of wanting to remember and acknowledge the devastation and havoc it caused, and in some cases is still causing, for the First Nations of this country and their descendants.[2]  Some of these events include,

13th May 1787 – the departure of the First Fleet from Portsmouth

19th May 1788 (one year later) – Anthony’s and Elizabeth’s marriage

April/May 1789 (one year later) – reports begin coming in of many local First Nation people dying of smallpox, which was brought in by the First Fleet.  According to Governor Phillip “judging from the information of the native now living with us…one-half of those who inhabit this part of the country died” and those who left the area carried it further. [3]

Fast forward to 20th century

27th May 1967 – Referendum that saw more than 90 per cent of Australian voters chose ‘Yes’ to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the census and give the Australian Government the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  It is unimaginable to think that before this referendum Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did not officially exist, let alone in many instances did their original names and countries/nations of origin, and that the rest of Australia had to agree to this to make it happen???

3 June 1992 – Mabo decision by the High Court which recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land that existed before British arrival and still exist today; the date now marking the end of Reconciliation Week.

1993 – Inaugural Week of Prayer for Reconciliation involving Australia’s major faith communities.

27 May 1996 – Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation launched Australia’s first National Reconciliation Week to be held each year from 27 May to 3 June, recognised by the Parliament of Australia; the dates chosen to include the Referendum and Mabo decision.

26 May 1997 – Bringing them Home report of the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families tabled in Federal Parliament; a practice that has not ceased.

26 May 1998 – National Sorry Day inaugurated to commemorate the anniversary of the Bringing them Home report and the grief and longterm effects forced separation has on their families and their descendants.

28 May 2000 – Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia.

26 May 2017 – Uluru Statement from the Heart released to the Australian people at Uluru, Central Australia after a two year consultation period with over 1,200 representatives of different Indigenous Nations around Australia.  The document summary is an appeal from the hearts of First Nations people to the hearts of all Australians, requesting Voice, Treaty, and Truth(telling).[4]

The juxtaposition of our ancestors’ life events and the call for recognition and acknowledgement of important life events in the history of Aboriginal Australia, which is really the history of us all, has not been lost on me.  So how to hold the two together?  I think the answer is held in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  I think we need to take this document seriously, listen to what it is saying and requesting, and act on it. [5]

To begin with our country needs to recognise the First Nations of this country as First Nations in our Constitution. How could we not and why would the rest of us need to be asked?  It is self-evident.

Then, the rest of us need to support the call for a constitutionally recognised Indigenous Voice on all matters relating to Indigenous communities.  This is not going to affect the rest of us in any way, shape or form.  The programs that have been directed from the top-down over the last 230+ years with an Eurocentric mindframe have not worked and seem to be continually making the situation worse.  There are differences in cultural behaviour and understandings that keep being ignored.[6]  Those who have developed and run successful programs in communities from and on the ground are telling authorities there are workable alternatives.  It is time the rest of us listened, supported what is being developed and hand back control and responsibility.  The rest of us do not know better. There are increasing numbers of First Nations descendants making successful inroads in so many areas.  It is in good hands.

And we need to ensure that all schools and educational institutions teach the truth of Australia’s history.  We also personally need to know the full history of the area in which we live, and learn the traditional names and stories if still known.[7]  We need to respect that the names and stories predate the rest of our arrival by tens of thousands of years.

I believe that if the Australian people can do this as a start, the rest will follow.

One of the core requests of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a call for Makarrata, a Yolungu word which encapsulates something like ‘two parties coming together after a struggle to heal the divisions of the past to make peace…acknowledging that something was done wrong and working on making it right‘ (my interpretation).

As Jolleen Hicks[8] writes in a recent post,

“Australia is on a Reconciliation journey. Reconciliation is an aspiration. For us to reach Reconciliation, individual Australians need to personally decide to join the journey. Making that decision involves a commitment to the two steps that precede us reaching Reconciliation, Truth, and Healing. We must understand what it is we are Reconciling. We are not Responsible for the broken relationship that needs to be reconciled. But we do have the Responsibility to recognise that broken relationship, understand it, and take the action required to reconcile it. We accept this responsibility because we know better than those responsible, it’s the right thing to do, and we want better for our kids. Yours and mine.”

How could we as a country and as individuals do otherwise?

*I am using ‘ides’ here metaphorically to designate days around which the rest of the month turns; a sense of the day(s) being ‘central’ or ‘key’…and I like how it sounds.


[1] Annegret Hall’s In For the Long Haul.

[2] I can’t begin to imagine how First Nations descendants feel about these events. Journalist and leader Stan Grant (Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi), often addresses these conflicts in his writing and orations.

[3] The Indigenous Australians called it ‘devil devil’. The question ‘where did it come from?’ remains unanswered. Smallpox has a 10-14 day incubation period so it is unlikely to have come directly from the fleet’s human cargo.  Test tubes of scabs were apparently brought in for inoculation purposes and probably stored in the hospital laboratory, although there are questions about whether it would have remained active for the length of, and weather changes during, the journey. So either someone accidentally or purposefully let it loose or it came from somewhere unknown.  I doubt, from reading his letters home in the Historical Records and other journals at that time, it would have been on Phillip’s orders. However, he had enemies and those officers, let alone the rest of the rabble, were out to cause trouble and did target the First Peoples.

[4] This is simplified.  If you wish to know more about this document and its history, George Williams and Megan Davis have just released Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

[5] As Professor Megan Davis said at the end of her Henry Parkes Oration in 2018, “it is an invitation to the Australian people. It’s an important statement that will kickstart a reform so that perhaps finally after decades and decades and decades my people, our people, will find their rightful place in our own country”. Or, as Pat Anderson is reported as saying in her 2021 Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration in Adelaide recently, it seeks to “change the narrative about who we are as a nation”. 

[6] Victoria Grieves (Warraimaay), Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal Philosophy, The Basis of Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing and Nola Turner-Jensen (Wiradjuri) on Cultural Mindsets.

[7] a number of local councils run special events led by elders and Indigenous representatives during Reconciliation Week.  Reconciliation Australia and NSW lists numerous events during this time as well as during the rest of the year.  For 2021 Reconciliation events visit, https://nrw.reconciliation.org.au/calendar/.

[8] Jolleen Hicks is a “Cultural Education Provider – Indigenous Engagement, Director, Author, Advocate for Aboriginal People, Teacher, Mother, Living and Walking in Two Worlds, Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Australian”.