To find out how the story ends, we need to understand how it began. How have our brutal beginnings endured to this day, and how do we reckon with our history of dispossession? When did we start to see ourselves as a bunch of battlers, larrikins and top blokes in the land of the fair go? And what fibs, both big and small, help our leaders stay in power? Santilla Chingaipe shares an opening address on Australia’s foundational myths.
A transcript excerpt of a podcast recorded for MWF in 2021.
Where do I begin? As a migrant to this country, I grew up being told, and listening to, various stories about Australia. From the cute and lovable stories about the wildlife that can be found across this continent, to the horrors of colonisation and colonists bringing with them death, dispossession and disease. Alongside these narratives were tales of larrikins, battlers, bushrangers and feminists that were celebrated—and in some cases—revered as Australian folk heroes that seemed to exclusively hail from the Anglo Empire. They spoke to our sense of identity, and in an unspoken way, enforced the idea of Australianness—who was, and what was, deemed Australian. Even as a child, I knew that a lot of these stories weren’t talking about me, or people that looked like me. I began to accept this as though it was a fact. I was technically Australian, but not really.
There are many foundational myths upon which constructions of the Australian nation have been based, and it is from these that we determine what constitutes Australian-ness, and who is included—or excluded—from these identities. One of the foundational stories I’ve been increasingly drawn to is around colonisation, and the singular story of Europeans settling on this continent. This curiosity took me deep into the historical archives, and I’ve spent a lot of time asking a lot of questions, and while I’ve emerged on the other side with even more questions than answers, what is evident is we are yet to begin to tell the full story of how this colonised country came to be. It is not a single story, but a complex and complicated one. Working with the archives has given me insight into some of these complexities.
The process of going through the archives is as much personal, as it is part of my job. I’ve long been fascinated by, and tried to make sense of, my African-Australian identity. Much of that has been shaped by dominant narratives that have sought to paint a negative picture of what it means to be African-Australian. As a journalist, I’ve always been driven by the truth, and that led me to the historical archives, where for the past four years, I’ve been uncovering the stories of people of African descent that were transported to Australia during the first few decades of the penal colony. As a Black African migrant to this country, my sense of belonging has always been questioned. I was born in post-colonial Zambia, and have made my home in a post-colonial settler country. My own life has been shaped by the legacy of the British empire, and my own family’s history as colonial subjects. The stories I discovered in the archive were life-changing for me on a personal level—for the first time, I didn’t feel like an outsider in the place I call home. I could see myself—and people that looked like me—in this country’s history.
A foundational myth I’ve heard repeatedly is surrounding the events of colonisation. Almost every Australian knows the story—on the 26th of January 1788, a fleet of British ships arrives in Sydney Harbour to begin the colonisation of the traditional lands of Australia’s First Peoples. But what’s less well known, and what my research has led me to discover, is that on the six convict ships that made up the fleet were at least ten convicts of African descent. Depending on the historian, the number is estimated to be between 12 to 14 convicts of African descent. My conservative estimate is based on the convicts that I could verify as having African ancestry. These men and boys stepped off the ships and were set to work building the modern nation of Australia. They would, in the years that followed, be joined by hundreds of other men, women and children of African descent that would be transported to our shores as convicts.
Last year, I interviewed some of the descendants of a man of African descent who arrived on the First Fleet of ships. John Randall was among those men of African descent that were transported to set up an open-air prison camp by the British in the new penal colony of New South Wales. More than two centuries later, his descendants, who now identify as white, would speak fondly of their relation to this man. They were white, with a Black ancestor. I’d later find out that John Randall’s descendants today number in the tens of thousands—that’s a lot of white people with African ancestry. I met with John Randall’s descendants as part of a documentary I produced—together with my colleagues Tony Jackson and David Collins—called Our African Roots. The documentary, which airs on October 17 on SBS, is an invitation to begin telling the full story of Australia’s modern origins. These origins are more complex and diverse than we’ve been led to believe, and the documentary unearths Australia’s forgotten African history and reveals the central role people of African ancestry have played in events that shaped our nation—from the First Fleet to the Eureka Rebellion and beyond. This isn’t rewriting history—it’s what I like to call an act of reparative justice. Correcting historical wrongs that for so long have deliberately omitted the stories of First Nations people and people of colour from our national history, despite the fact that the evidence of their existence can be found quite clearly in the historical archive.
Our African Roots is also an act of historical truth-telling because it interrogates the myths of Australia’s white foundation narratives and reveals modern Australia’s origin story to be a complex, multicultural and multiracial affair. My research has since uncovered hundreds of African convicts and free settlers who arrived on these shores, and their presence is irrefutable proof that Africans have been part of Australia’s story since Governor Arthur Phillip first raised the Union Jack at Sydney Cove. These men and women—and their descendants—left an indelible mark on Australia, becoming bushrangers, feminists, entrepreneurs, Eureka rebels, ANZAC heroes and sporting stars. Although their stories have largely been overlooked, they played a pivotal role in the emergence of modern Australia. And it’s not just people of African descent—looking through the archives, I found evidence of people from just about every corner of the world documented in colonial Australia.
So why have these stories been overlooked, and is this erasure from our foundational stories unconscious or deliberate? Why don’t we know about the names of these men and women? I have a few theories about this—chief among them being racism. The legacy of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, better known as the White Australia policy, meant that for a long time, we told ourselves the stories that reflected who we wanted to be—a reflection of a belief in the superiority of an Anglo Empire. Any story that didn’t fit this monocultural myth was excluded.
Some might argue that these ugly parts of our history are not who we are anymore and that those that espouse white supremacist ideals are but a handful of ‘bad eggs’ that don’t know any better. But to that my response would be that while it might not be who we are today, it’s about where we are now, and how the legacy of these histories continues to play out in the lives of so many Australians today. As I write this, Australia’s security intelligence agency, ASIO, has raised concerns about the number of young Australians joining neo-Nazi groups, with claims that they plan to make Australia a ‘white ethno-state’. The head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, has warned that right-wing extremists have emerged as the most challenging security threat currently facing Australia, with fears that a terror attack in Australia is ‘probable’. Rioters have taken to the streets in Melbourne in recent weeks to protest against vaccinations and lockdowns, with reports that some were far-right nationalists. They allegedly left, in their wake, stickers that read: ’Australia for the white man’. But Australia has never been for the white man. As a matter of historical fact, it’s beyond laughable that this monocultural myth persists in 2021. Despite the absurdity of notions of white superiority, history shows us that these fictitious narratives can be deadly, dangerous, hateful and disadvantage communities well into the future. So how did ideas arrive on our shores with the colonisers, and why does racism continue to underpin the very foundation of colonised Australia? While it’s not preserved in our cultural memory, some of the answers to these questions can be found in the archives.
My ongoing research into slavery and colonialism in Australia, which is due to be published as a book in the new year, is an attempt to tell the truth about colonised Australia, by highlighting the stories of people of African descent in Australia’s foundational stories. It is an important and timely story—a much needed opportunity to expand the notion of what constitutes an Australian story. It asks us to confront some of the ugly truths of our history—slavery, colonialism, and racism—and work to correct their legacy. It also aims to question prevailing narratives around Australian identity, and highlights the role that history plays in reminding us of the importance of what the past can teach us when dealing with contemporary challenges around migration and belonging, and who gets to be labelled as Australian. Writing back into our history the stories of the people that were excluded from the national mythologies, and asking that we fully confront our past, is vital if we have any chance of reimagining a better future for all Australians.
Santilla Chingaipe is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. She is a regular contributor to The Saturday Paper and serves as a member of the Federal Government’s Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations. Her first non-fiction book is forthcoming and her documentary based on the book Our African Roots will air later this year on SBS.