I believe that the crimes of our fathers should be passed onto ourselves. It is easy to deny my responsibility for something that happened before I was alive, but the change from the plural “our fathers” and “ourselves” to the singular “my” and “I” is an attempt to deny the existence of a collective of which I am a part.
I readily lay claim to being a part of a larger collective when I proclaim to be Scottish and talk about the time that we beat Netherlands 3-2 in the football World Cup. Or that we invented the telephone and television, or that we beat the English in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. I was alive for none of these, can claim no contribution to their success, and can’t even say that I know anybody who was involved in any of them. Yet, I still take part ownership of these achievements when I say that we gave the world the first cloned sheep. We cannot proclaim our achievements and wriggle away from mistakes or failures.
When hosting external meetings or even formally organised internal meetings, I give an acknowledgement of who the traditional owners of the land are. This is standard practice for many organisations. Although the words said in the acknowledgement may differ slightly, they all acknowledge Aboriginal people as the traditional owners or custodians of the land. My organisation’s script acknowledges this and also the sorrow of the Stolen Generations and the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In Cambodia, I half-heartedly joked that it was good not to be French and feel the guilt of colonisation. Australia’s colonisation was so complete that the outcome was worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia than for Cambodians during colonisation. In Cambodia, Cambodian society and culture survived colonisation, and they won independence and a chance to rule their land again. There has been no handing back or independence given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; independent rule was given to the people who were doing the colonising.
Australia has a National Sorry Day to apologise for the generations of Aboriginal children stolen from their families. It has struck me how remarkably low key it is. It is not a national public holiday and last year seemed to pass without major news coverage. I felt that the other meaning of the word sorry could be applied to this day, as it is a sorry day that such occasion passes unremarked. Years after Sorry Day was first marked, Australia’s then Prime Minister gave an apology on behalf of Australia’s federal government; the first to do so.
Whilst much happened after independence for Australia to be sorry for, the colonisation, killing and stealing began under a different government: the British government. My government.
My family is from Glasgow and some Glaswegians proudly recall the days of Glasgow being the “Second City of the Empire”. It was so-called because its industry built many of the boats in which the colonisers sailed. Glasgow was the steam engine that drove the Empire’s global reach and Glasgow did well out of it with wealth erecting magnificent buildings. I wonder if I will see those buildings in a different light the next time I pass them by. The settlers themselves were often Scottish and great Australian men such as Lachlan Macquarie were Scottish.
When I give the Acknowledgement of Country, I now add a phrase. I acknowledge the sorrow of the Stolen Generations and the impact of colonisation by my people on the people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities. It as an apology.
Like the message of the cartoon above, when I first heard that a formal Acknowledgement should precede every meeting, I wondered whether it was a cheap way of trying to make up for the past. The ambiguity of the phrase “traditional custodians of the land”, or even sometimes “traditional owners”, infers something historic but not current. This was tackled directly by one speaker who omitted “traditional” because he said Aboriginal people were still the rightful owners, and another speaker went further and said that they “always have been and always will be”. There conference broke into applause, including from me. Shortly afterwards, I questioned myself.
I am a Scot but the land of my birth was not always mine. The Scotti were a Gaelic tribe from the island of Ireland that raided the west coast of Scotland in the 4th century. Gradually, their dominance grew, pushing the Picts northwards and eastwards. By the 11th century, the land which had once belonged to the Picts was now Scotland. The land had not always been Scottish and it may be difficult to argue that it will always remain so given that since 1707, you could say it was British.
Over the eons of human existence, change does happen. Empires rise and fall; tribes fight and triumph; languages explain and then disappear. In the age of our lands, humans are a brief visitor arriving in the last five minutes of a long day.
However, accepting that change can happen is not the same as accepting invasion as a legitimate method of change. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been living and caring for this land for 50,000 years before invasion. In a very short time it was then ripped away from them. Acknowledging this fact may not repair the death and hurt caused by that, but in a country that has still not resolved how to deal with its past, it keeps the issue alive.
Discussions about what Australia should be doing to recognise and recompense for past misdeeds continue in fits and starts, but they continue without the UK acknowledging our role. The UK should not hide from our past failures because we can only do so if we also deny our achievements and the very being of us as a nation and collective. By acknowledging our forbears, we accept their feats to celebrate and their failures to apologise for.