On our recent vacation in Australia, my partner and I stumbled upon an unusual open-air exhibit of the continent’s history. In the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, under the shade of giant forest red gums, and nestled between grass-trees and tree ferns, is a poignant monument of history recorded from an Aboriginal perspective.
In it natives of Sydney narrate the tragedies that fell upon them after a fleet of 11 ships from Britain carrying convicts, soldiers, and government officials, arrived in Botany Bay in 1788.
Within just one year of the arrival of “the Strangers,” Sydney’s local inhabitants, the Cadigal, found themselves dispossessed of their land, starving because of competition for food sources, and in conflict with the British. But the worst was yet to come … smallpox. The outbreak of this disease, introduced by the British, decimated the local Aboriginal population.
When the Commonwealth of Australia was founded in 1901, Aboriginal Australians were considered to be a dying race. Living on the fringes, they were neither consulted nor invited to vote on the founding of the nation. A White Australia Policy was introduced, with a desire that “coloured” people would eventually fit into the Anglo-Saxon Christian society.
To deal with the Aboriginal “problem,” an Aboriginal Protection Board was created to forcibly remove children from their families and assimilate them into the white community.
Things started turning for the better in 1965 when about 30 Sydney University students undertook a 3,200 km bus tour of New South Wales to protest the discrimination against Aboriginals.
In a referendum two years later, Australians overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to give the country’s original inhabitants citizenship rights.
Then, eight years ago, Australians celebrated their first National Sorry Day at the gardens where we viewed this exhibit. Since then, in a spirit of reconciliation, May 28 is marked as Sorry Day, giving all Australians a chance to express their regrets about injustices past and present.
I added my sorrow to that of countless others. I am sorry for the devastation of a defenseless people and their valuable heritage.
I realized that we Americans have not expressed similar remorse as a nation about the depredation of our native tribes. I am sorry about the treaty violations, disease, and impoverishment brought upon Native Americans.
I am also sorry for the displacement of the tribal folk of the Narmada Valley, whose livelihood and identity is inseparable from their ancestral lands.
Expressing remorse is a first and necessary step towards reconciliation between people, and Australians are showing the way.