Witness a scene on a beach, in a bay around half way up the east coast of Australia. It is 1770, and forty year old Yorkshire-bred fellow by the name of James Cook stands there with two or three other uniformed white gentlemen. Cook is Captain of the bath-tubbed shaped British barque the Endeavour. Cook and his men have just sailed across the Pacific Ocean in their 32 metre long wooden sailing ship, watching Venus transit over the sun while in Tahiti, and then mapping the coast of New Zealand for six months. They are excited to be standing on the mythical Terra Australis Incognita, that land that the Greeks had surmised must exist in the southern hemisphere to balance the lands of the northern hemisphere.
Cook and the others look inland at another group of men further up the beach. These men are very dark skinned, have no textiles hanging from their bodies, have very thick beards, less hair than the white fellows on other parts of their bodies, and are holding three metre long spears.
Two worlds stand, suspended in mutual incomprehension.
Let the two worlds stand there for a moment.
The old Australian is nomadic. He enjoys the prospect of changing horizons and shifting skies. He is part of a tightly bonded human community. His community is by no means utopian, and its treatment of women is to be lamented. But his people know no huge gap between rich and poor. He uses his hands to make tools and to paint pictures. When Cook throws down trinkets and ribbons at his feet as a sign of peace and amiability he is indifferent and shows no gratitude. He is ecologically literate and he reads the shapes and patterns of the natural world with consummate finesse. He hunts with his brothers and engages all his senses while moving with stealth through the leafy and shadowy present. His language grew on this land, and its fault-lines fit the fault-lines of this land with an intimate clasp. His forefathers and mothers have lived full and satisfying human lives here for around fifty thousand years.
The prudish interloper, swaddled in colourful wool and cotton, is loyal to king and country, to King George and to England. He comes from a society that stopped being nomadic a long time ago, and settled down to agriculture. His society grew in numbers, got itself a king, and became feudal. He comes from a world of lamentable inequality. A young boy has the noose placed around his neck on a scaffold in a London square for a minor theft, while aristorcrats dance to Mozart around the corner in an opulent ballroom. Convicted British men work as shackled slaves on the banks of the Thames river. Recently the light of science has started to shine in his land, and a public sphere is forming where people read newspapers in coffee houses, and debate the issues of the day. Punishments are slowly becoming less inhumane. Englishmen like the botanist Joseph Banks, the tall man back on the ship, are full of the wonder of science. Cook comes from a land of ancient and small-scale mixed farms that do no harm to wildlife. He comes from an economy with a rich diversity of skilled and non-polluting trades and professions, like wheelwrights and shipwrights. This man speaks my mother tongue.
Two cultures, standing still in time, staring at each other.
Both cultures are deeply imperfect. But both cultures have much to be remembered. Both cultures have much to be celebrated.
I love both cultures because both cultures help to make me who I am.
I am Australia.