7 uncomfortable truths about invasions, conquests, and imperialism
As most Australians are about to celebrate Australia Day this Friday, and other Australians refuse to celebrate the Invasion Day, some arguing that we should not be celebrating Australia on the anniversary of colonisation, and some arguing that there is nothing to celebrate about Australia on any day of the year, it’s time to face some historical realities. The past is often dark and bloody, which is why it’s not a good place to live in, particularly today, but it’s also quite more complex and ambiguous – and inevitable – than we would like. Hence, these truth, which should be self-evident, but often aren’t:
1.Imperialism has been a part of human history since time immemorial. Those stronger, more technologically advanced, more dynamic, or more aggressive have always invaded those less so, sometimes just to raid and pillage, but more often than not to permanently occupy and subjugate – or dispossess, or even exterminate. Blame the original sin or Darwinian struggles, instincts to dominate and do violence have been a feature, not a bug, of the homo sapiens societal software.
2. Imperialism is not a white-only thing. Imperialism is colour-blind at both ends; ethnicity, religion, culture have no bearing on it; it’s an equal opportunity drive and curse. Countless empires have existed in every part of the world, including the Incan and the Aztec ones in the Americas, the Zulu and the Assante in Africa, the Arab and the Ottoman in the Middle East, and the Mongol, the Chinese and the Japanese in Asia. We tend to – incorrectly – see Europe’s overseas empires as somehow unique, or uniquely gruesome, possibly because of they are the most recent examples and their consequences are still with us – and of course because we feel responsible for them.
3. Europe has been both the conqueror and the conquered. And so we also tend to forget that virtually every part of Europe has been at one time or another repeatedly conquered and incorporated into someone else’s empire too. Before the British Empire, most of Britain was invaded and occupied by the Romans, the Germanic tribes, the Danes, and the Normans. Large parts of the south-eastern and south-western Europe were for centuries parts of Islamic empires, large parts of the Eastern one the Mongol and the Tartar ones. Looking at just the modern times, my home country of Poland was partitioned and colonised by Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary. In the twentieth century, Poland was briefly a part of the Nazi empire and then, for longer, the Soviet one. Millions of Poles died, millions were dispossessed. My extended family lost their homes and everything else when parts of eastern Poland were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945 and their Polish population expelled en masse.
4. With the exception of a few “lost” tribes in the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, virtually every other indigenous population around the world has been colonised by someone sometime. In the end, Australia was colonised by the British, but at various times over the past half a millennium it might have been colonised by the Asian Muslims, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the German or the Japanese. Without defending or whitewashing imperialism in general, it is fair to say that British colonies have generally fared better than others, and British settler colonies the best, and that includes for those colonised. Which leads to the next point.
5. The conquered are both the victims and eventually also the beneficiaries of the conquest. The conquest bring death, disease, dispossession and the end of the traditional way of life, but over time it also brings and diffuses more advanced technology and institutions, which lead to a higher standard of living, again, including for the descendants of those colonised. Indigenous disadvantage is a tragedy and a challenge, but even at the most disadvantaged against the “white” society, Indigenous people in Australia by and large and on average lead longer, healthier, richer and more opportunity-filled lives than those their hunting and gathering ancestors have led. Many things have been lost, many things have been gained.
6. Most conquered are also the conquerors. And not just in a sense that in most parts of the world those colonised by the Europeans have previously been themselves conquerors and colonisers of their own neighbours. It’s the fact that in Australia, the overwhelming majority of people identifying as Indigenous have at least one and often several European ancestors. This means their heritage is both of those invaded and of the invaders. It would be truism to say that none of them would be alive but for the fact of the European settlement. This, again, is not meant to exculpate colonialism, but merely state a fact. You can choose your identity but you can’t choose your ancestors, nor deny all the ambiguities of life that come with it.
7. You can’t unscramble the eggs. You cannot unsettle Australia. Indigenous Australian cannot return to their hunting and gathering past. You cannot combine Stone Age culture with modernity and try to cherry-pick the best of both. Feeling guilty for something that happened a long time ago is as useless as apologising for something that you’re not personally responsible for. Symbolism is not a substitute for policy; changing the date of Australia Day will not make one Indigenous person live longer and healthier, and get better educated and employed. Particularly since those most disadvantaged – Indigenous people in rural and remote areas – are precisely those who care the least about trivia like the dates, while the city-based activists delight in the theatre of politics. You really want to help Indigenous Australians? Commit your time, energy and resources to help “close the gap”, so that Indigenous people can live lives as long, healthy, safe and rewarding as the rest of us – so that Australia no longer tolerates the existence of pockets of developing world disadvantage in the midst of a developed world prosperity. Focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Be practical and realistic. Don’t be a witch-doctor’s wife.