• Captain James Cook taking possession of New South Wales in the name of the British Crown, 1770. (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)Source: Hulton Archive, Getty Images
To colonial historian Dr Keira Lindsey, the story of Australia is, essentially, an epic ‘what if’ story writ large.
By
Sharon Verghis

22 Jan 2020 - 12:57 PM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2021 - 3:09 PM

What if Australia had not been colonised by the British but by a host of maritime rivals: the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch? What if we had remained a sovereign Indigenous nation? Who would we be now if we had come under the sway of Islam via Indonesian rule, or been colonised by China? 

To colonial historian Dr Keira Lindsey, the story of Australia is, essentially, an epic ‘what if’ story writ large.

As we approach January 26, Australia Day, it pays to remind ourselves that who we are as a nation has turned on the spin of a coin, a random convergence of factors, says Lindsey, an award-winning historian based at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The annual debate about the legitimacy of our foundation date aside, there is value in acknowledging that history is all about accidents of fate, sliding doors, matters of chance, forks in the road.

We would be a very different nation if Governor Phillip had not chanced on a warrior-free and deep water Sydney Cove; if Cook’s Endeavour had travelled up the east coast at a different time of the year eighteen years before and seen yellow and parched land rather than a lush gentleman’s park; if the First Fleet had decided to decamp after starvation hit the ranks in 1790; if the Rum Rebellion in 1808 on what is now Australia Day, featuring 400-plus soldiers marching to Government House and arresting Governor Bligh, had succeeded.

‘What if’ scenarios have more than just entertainment value, Lindsey says.

They allow us space to argue and debate, to imagine alternate ways of thinking and being, to embrace the fact that an absence of certainty about our foundation moment, so unlike what we see in other settler societies like the United States, is an asset that allows us room to grow and adapt and question.

Our start as a British penal colony on the world’s driest inhabited continent was certainly against the odds, says historian and ABC broadcaster Michael Cathcart.

“My key view is that the colonisation of a country the size of Australia by one country was so against the odds and so improbable it is unlikely to happen again.”

“My key view is that the colonisation of a country the size of Australia by one country was so against the odds and so improbable it is unlikely to happen again.”

To Cathcart, it makes far more sense to imagine an alternate reality of a colonised Australia more akin to a colonised Africa, carved up and ruled by rival colonial powers over a period of time.

Australia, according to its geography and climate, is essentially three countries, he says.

The fertile eastern fringe and the bottom corner of Western Australia could have attracted  the mercantile Dutch to stay permanently; the tropical Top End was a natural home for maritime traders from what we now call Indonesia and New Guinea; and the arid centre would have remained home to Indigenous communities who would have traded and integrated with these colonisers on the nation’s fertile fringes.

The British? They may have been relegated the consolation prize of Tasmania “in the same way they got the Falklands.”

What if the French had beat the British to the finishing line?

This was a real and present threat, says Lindsey: “French boats were anchored in the harbour so in terms of whole range of diplomatic and strategic and trade reasons, the stakes were high.”

What would a French-ruled Australia look like?

Lindsey is sceptical about the popular vision of a benevolent, sophisticated cultural outpost in the Antipodes.

French rule would have been unfolded at a time of violent upheaval, and been flavoured by its winds: “in a couple of breaths, you have the beginning of the French Revolution, the crisis in Catholicism, you have the Reign of Terror, so it would have still been a bloody colonial era.”

For all the grievous flaws of penal settlement, it must be noted that Enlightenment ideals - science and reason, universal education and abolition of slavery - held sway in Britain at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet.

You only have to look at Dutch rule in South Africa and Portuguese rule of Brazil to see that alternative European colonial masters would not necessarily have been any kinder, says Lindsey.

Between 1550 and 1888, at least three million African slaves were shipped to Brazil by the Portuguese; Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery. First Fleet journals provide accounts by convicts on a ship in Rio in 1787 of West African slaves rowing Portuguese traders in the harbour.

“Some of those colonial stories were extremely violent and without remorse… [there is no evidence] to show the English were necessarily any better or worse than any other European powers.”

“Some of those colonial stories were extremely violent and without remorse… [there is no evidence] to show the English were necessarily any better or worse than any other European powers.”

What, then, if we had been colonised by what is now Indonesia?

Cathcart imagines us now as a bustling modern South-East Asian outpost, growing out of that early contact between northern tribes with Macassan traders in the Top End: “So in 2020, we’d look like Indonesia, a mix of big cities and villages.”

It’s not so farfetched; there have long been cultural ties between the islands of the north and Indigenous Australia, says cultural historian, curator and editor Kevin Murray: look at the Macassan influence on the Yolngu language of East Arnhem Land.

Murray, incidentally, sees interesting cultural symmetries elsewhere. China – long a bogeyman on our national psyche – is a particularly intriguing ‘what if’ given the “uncanny” similarities between the Chinese dragon and the rainbow serpent: “there are mythologies that relate to China that resonate with Aboriginal culture.”

And what if we had never been colonised at all? Was this at all feasible, or was colonisation always a historical inevitability for this great southern land?

You can argue that the British never really colonised the whole of Australia anyway – particularly its arid heart, says Cathcart. Only Indigenous people have found ways of living on country in numbers.

You can argue that the British never really colonised the whole of Australia anyway – particularly its arid heart, says Cathcart. Only Indigenous people have found ways of living on country in numbers.

Although it can be tempting to imagine an alternate reality – one where that armada of  intrepid travellers who travelled along the Roaring Forties turned away in disappointment upon reaching the barren and uninhabitable west coast of Australia, their hopes for a new European pastoral utopia permanently dashed – it wasn’t ever likely, Lindsey says.

“The nature of shipping and exploration, the [determining of] longitude shifts the way you can explore the world.”

According to Lindsey, “whatever the random accidents of history, the key fact is that Australia remains sovereign Aboriginal land.”

“You could impose all kinds of layers of colonisation over this country from 1770 and onwards and it would never take away from that truth.”

NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe.

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