The Other Kind of Alt-History

What do you call it when a military power, sends it’s navy and troops to somewhere else, lands there and claims the land as its own and under the direct control of that power?

You can call it lots of things but if you are in Australia just be really careful that you don’t call it an “invasion”. This is one of those issues where if you are outside of it the issue is simple and if you are inside it – well it is still simple but also a weird world of shibboleths.

Before I continue, I’d advise reading some of these links:

You’ll probably have noticed the strange topsy-turvy way in which people refering to an invasion as an “invasion” is denounced as “political correctness” by the people who typically denounce “political correctness” but usually reserve that term for when other people want to control language.

Why am I mentioning this now? Mainly because it ties in with the previous post about the US, the “South” and attempts to control history.

In the case of Australia there is a national myth – indeed more than just as a myth as it was enshrined as a principle “Terra Nullius” within Australian case law – that Australia was an empty place. Hence, according to that myth, it wasn’t anybody’s and hence when Britain claimed (and named) New South Wales it wasn’t an invasion per-se because the land was just sitting there. The myth is false, obviously, and eventually rejected by Australian courts in 1982 in the landmark Mabo case

Yet here we are and apparently rational people will vehemently tie themselves into rhetorical knots to claim that an invasion wasn’t an invasion. Even given the willingness of some on the right to boldly assert irrational claims, you’d think they would avoid such an obviously silly one. The most powerful navy in the world (at the time) plonks a full on colony of citizens half-way round the world, displacing the people living there and claiming the land as its own is somehow NOT an invasion is such a silly claim that you might assume no public figure would be willing to make it.

However, the absurdity almost makes the ‘controversy’ stronger. After all, if you can boldy talk nonesense and demand that people listen to you and more sensible people nod their heads and concede that your point should be given due consideration, well what better expression of power and privelege can there be? To quote the Simpson’s movie “Have you ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring nobody listens to you.”

So we have an issue that requires little more than a basic grasp of English and some fairly simple moral principles to settle:

  • The word “invasion” means something and it is a decent fit to what Britain did to Australia.
  • Stealing people’s stuff (including land) is wrong.

Really, unless your ideology is stealingpeoplesstuffiscoolism this should not be a moral conundrum.

So why the rightwing passion in the opposite direction (a passion that commits them to arguing that words don’t mean what they mean and stealling is OK sometimes)? Now part of it is a natural knee-jerk defence of one’s ancestors – except, in the case of Australia:

  • It was Britain that did the invading and Australia isn’t Britain.
  • Many of the first settlers were transported criminals – Australia was (at least partly & initially) settled by settlers their against their own will.

So whereas we might look at blowhards in other nations trying to edit their nations history into hagiographic sequence of events where the nation or its originators only ever did good things and the bad things they did were always justified and for the best etc etc, you’d think that the Australian version of such people would still be able to rationalise the original British invasion (sorry “settlement”) without having to rewrite the dictionary.

But they can’t and they won’t. Because it isn’t about the distant past but about the recent past. To accept that the events 1770 and 1788 amounted to an invasion would require them to accept that modern Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

It’s not a syllogism and “invasion” isn’t the premise, but the conclusion they are trying to avoid remains the same: Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

16 responses to “The Other Kind of Alt-History”

  1. We get something like that with conservatives in the South, here in the US. Only recently have (some) cities and towns, including mine, begun to remove Confederate monuments and tributes, all of which are clearly tributes to white supremacy. And by “clearly,” I mean the historical records are clear — that’s why my kid’s high school made their mascot the Rebel; that’s why those statutes were placed in Lee Circle, and so on.

    But when we acknowledge that, and agree that our country should not be celebrating the legacy of white supremacy, our conservatives piss themselves screaming about what the monuments “really” mean, and how removing them is historical revision.

    You can argue with this sort of person, but (as I’ve found) you’ll get nothing but screaming rage and personal attacks. This is the same group that claims it makes no sense to offer retributions for slavery or Jim Crow because “no one alive today was ever a slave.” But then they melt down over their ancestors being acknowledged as racists and white supremacists.

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  2. “Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.”
    Those people died a long time ago. Nobody stole from the ones alive today.
    By the way, where are my reparations for the Highland Clearances? I’m sure somebody owes me a bundle, by your reckoning.


  3. Some of the Brexiteers are just old enough to remember when Britain still had the end of the Empire, but I don’t know where the younger ones think it’s going to come from. It’s not like India and Kuwait are going to ask Liz 2 to rule ’em again, and even she doesn’t want the Empire back because she’s not an idiot. They’re not the biggest army and navy any more, they can’t feed themselves, and they have no industrial base to speak of. The big international finance institutions are all gonna move to Germany, leaving them with… lots of nifty castles and stuff for tourists to look at, plus terrible weather?

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    • I’ll never get this whole Empire nostalgia. Okay, so Germany had an Empire only for about twenty years and behaved so abominably that is for the best it didn’t last longer. Nowadays, all that’s left are some museum exhibits, a neat monument in my hometown, which has since been recast as a anti-colonial monument with an added monument for the victims of colonialism, quaint German style towns in Namibia and China that are now tourist attractions and the Tsingtao brewery in China, which was originally built and operated by Becks.

      It’s not just the big finance institutions that are leaving the UK. BMW has already announced they will be moving the production of the Mini to Austria, Arcelor Mittal has cancelled investments in one of the last remaining British steelworks and I suspect the British Airbus plants will be closing down sooner or later as well.

      Besides, ever since last summer I have experienced a notable uptick in requests to translate British birth and marriage certificates (you need a court approved translator for that and I am one) for Brits applying for German citizenship. Most of these folks have been living in Germany for years, if not decades, have German partners and are worried about their status post-Brexit.

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      • Ireland is experiencing a massive application rush by Brits who had Irish grandparents, digging out Granny’s old documents, their parents, and theirs, so that they can get dual citizenship. Most of them aren’t going to move to Ireland. Some of them live in Spain, Germany, France, etc. and just want to be EU citizens. A lot of them are staying in jolly old England, but are getting the Irish passports to make it easier to travel for business or pleasure — use the Irish one within the EU and the British one elsewhere.

        (Americans are doing the same if possible, so they have a passport from a country people like. Sadly, the husband is one generation too many or we’d get ’em too.)

        The German overseas empire was as terrible as the other overseas empires, just didn’t last as long. Someone else in mid-20th century tried to start a German empire in Europe, and we all know what a bad idea that was.

        Read that link from Stross about how all the dirty work of Empire was sanitized as the Brits left.

        At least the US apologized to the Japanese-American internees and paid some reparations, and Germany’s done a fine job facing up to its actions of 1933-1945. Canada is dealing with its problems as well.

        But the Brexiteers seem to apply the old “wogs begin at Calais”, so they don’t care about, say, the Indian famine under Churchill, killing Malaysians, non-personing Australians and Native Americans/Canadians, the horrific British behavior that caused the Mau Mau uprising, etc. So the Empire is just all jolly good fun to them, nifty red uniforms, G&T, servants…

        (The Scots, who voted Remain, remember that they were the first country conquered to start the Empire.)

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