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​Australia Day message to staff

26 January 2021

Michael Pezzullo AO
Secretary, Department of Home Affairs

Time Forgets No Land – Australia, Time and Reflection

Time forgets no land. It is always present, whether memorialised or not. Time enfolds the land and the sea, the climate and the heavens, and all living beings. ​None who have ever drawn a breath have been outside of time.

It is ahistorical to think that this land was forgotten by time, until Europeans began to explore it from the early 17th century. This is to ignore the long duration of time. 'Australia' has always been present in time for its inhabitants, and for those in surrounding lands, as well as for those in the broader Indo-Pacific region, of which 'Australia' has long been a part. It was also long present in the minds of Europeans, who imagined Terra Australis before they came in their ships.

Certainly, our land does not bear the common marks of time – the pyramids, ancient cities, abandoned settlements, and the records and ruins – which memorialise other lands. An unthinking and ahistorical view elides the truth of an ancient Australia.  Simply because Australia's first peoples lived outside of the agrarian, sedentary, metal-working and writing civilisations which emerged elsewhere around 5,000 years ago does not exclude them from time.  Oral cultures leave their mark and memorialise the land in their own ways – its members have their own atlases and encyclopaedias, and what we would term 'narratives', 'datasets' and 'techniques'.

In a politico-legal sense, Australia is of course a 'young' nation. However, most nations embed politico-legal time within their consciousness of the long duration of the past. Think of Peru (independence in 1821); Mexico (independence in 1821); Greece (independence in 1830); Italy (unified in 1861); Germany (unified in 1871); Iraq (independence in 1932); India (independence in 1947); China (became a republic in 1949); Egypt (became a republic in 1953); and Iran (became a republic in 1979). Their citizens would not imagine that their land's history commenced at these points in time. In different ways, they would all have a consciousness of the long duration of the past.  Whether of the civilisations of China, the Indus Valley, the Andes, ancient Greece and Rome, Egypt, Germania, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel or elsewhere, most of humankind has a historical consciousness which is measured in millennia.

This is not to say that all would have the same, uncontested view of the past. To the contrary, history and national identity is a constant process of argument about the past – of events and disruptions, of revolutions and wars, migration and conquest, and even the occasional periods of peace.  Reflection on the past should be encouraged. Research will throw up new discoveries. Forgotten histories will be recovered and remembered. New perspectives will illuminate the path behind us.

Youthfulness as a trope of Australian identity can be traced back to the 19th century. In the decades leading up to Federation in 1901, a prevailing sentiment emerged that a 'young and free' nation was being formed. A new land of opportunity that would leave the miseries and errors of the 'old world' behind. This mood of high idealism and optimism was of a piece with the Victorian era's astonishing material progress and its scientific advances, but was given particular, and often poetical, expression in the six British Australian colonies.

To mark the occasion of Federation, in October 1900 The Times of London published a poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled The Young Queen.  He wrote of the imagined ritual of the creation of Australian nationhood: “…in the Hall of Our Thousand Years/in the face of the Five Free Nations…" (that is, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Cape Colony of South Africa), the 'Young Queen out of the Southland':

“…kneeled down at the Old Queen's knee

And asked for a mother's blessing on the excellent years to be".

Such was the romanticised spirit that animated Federation. Whatever might be said of the sentiment, and of the imagery, this sense of Australia's youthfulness, and of a people with an eye always to the future horizon, expunged the past into a forgetting, outside of time.

In recent years, we have started to properly piece together the story – which consists of three broad parts: the history of Australia's first peoples; European settlement; and the emergence of a multicultural modern Australia. While these broad brush strokes are correct in chronological terms they are not entirely distinct phases. Important nuances sit in between, and overlap the edges of, the three parts.

To properly fill out this historical understanding, we need to view what some French historians have called la longue durée – the long duration.  On this view, a more complete historical understanding is required which builds in geological and climatic time, the landscape, the evolution of technology and human settlement, and more besides.

Our view of the past will necessarily shift if we change the scale of view. With the publication of works such as Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997) and Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014 in English), broader-brushed history, anthropology and evolutionary biology are once more coming into vogue. Hopefully future scholars will be inspired to apply longer perspectives to their work in relevant fields of research, so that we may better fill out our view of the long duration of Australia's past.

Think about 65,000 years of continuous human existence. Do not compress the idea into a prefatory talking point about Australia's past.  Think about 650 centuries of human presence. Of deep functional and mythical knowledge of country.  Of living without what we call 'technology'. The time before European arrival was not timeless. A number of recent and popular works of history have helped to broaden the field of view – such as Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011); Geoffrey Blainey, The Story of Australia's People: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia (2015); and Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (2018). They stand on the shoulders of previous scholarship.  More research and historical explanation is needed, not least in relation to the intriguing question of the path of maritime migration to Australia over 65,000 years. Perhaps further field research, including in the Wallacea bio-geographical region in Southeast Asia, will yield answers in the decades to come.

Another talking point, that of 'European discovery and settlement' (Cook in 1770 and Phillip in 1788), veils what was likely to have been significant contact between Australia's first peoples and others in the broader Indo-Pacific world. Northern and western Australia was for centuries the eastern edge of a vast trading zone, which stretched from East Africa to the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, through the archipelago to Australia's north, and into southeast Asia and China. Is it conceivable that there was not contact with the traders and seafarers who plied the busy waters of the Indo-Pacific?

We know something about the trade between Australian first peoples and the trepanging (sea cucumber) fishers of Makassar in southern Sulawesi. There would have been other links with the peoples of modern day Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia, and hopefully future research will fill in the details.

Contact is likely to have been extended through trading links into faraway lands. In 2018, research was published regarding four drawings of cockatoos in a 13th century book on falconry, now in the Vatican Library.  The book had been owned by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The birds had been gifted to the Emperor by the Egyptian sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty.  By some means, the depicted birds had been taken from their original habitat in southern Papua New Guinea or northern Australia to Java, thence by way of China and the Silk Road to Europe. We have only begun to scratch the surface of these intriguing connections. More research here too is warranted.

Australia also long existed in Europe's geographical imagination. From antiquity, Europeans had a conception of a great southern land in the opposite hemisphere, a Terra Australis Incognita in 'the antipodes'. Europeans had voyaged to Australia in their minds long before they set sail to 'discover' it.

Recorded European contact can be traced as far back as 1606 (Willem Janszoon in the Duyfken in 1606). Some have argued for earlier contact. In 2013-14 the National Library of Australia presented a magnificent exhibition: Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia. It drew on some of the greatest collections in the world. One was able to gaze on the most extraordinary collection of rare and unique maps, atlases, charts, globes and scientific instruments and see 'Australia' in the European imagination.

In the era of Google Maps, the Earth seems to be compact and coherent. Instant mapping and navigation is automating and mechanising our sense of direction, place, terrain and nautical position. It was so very different in the late 15th century when the Europeans started to explore and 'discover' the world beyond. Cartographical knowledge was fragmentary and incomplete. Charts were precious and over time they became secret matters of state. Once the era of European maritime exploration began, and especially after Vasco da Gama rounded Africa in 1497, and Magellan circumnavigated the globe in 1519-22, it would be only a matter of time before Europe's gaze fixed itself directly upon Australia, as Europeans searched for, or encountered, the great southern land.

From the European perspective, the spaces had to be filled. Trade was the greatest impetus, driven by the lure of the spices and resources of the 'East Indies'. Such was the Age of Empire, which saw the expansion of trade, and the establishment of bases, ports, and trading depots across the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific and, ultimately, Australia. (Although in the latter case, it was the British decision to establish a penal colony which immediately and directly saw the sending of the First Fleet.) Our own history includes these processes of imperial expansion and colonisation, as well as these feats of navigation, seamanship, cartography, surveying and mapping.

Flinders published his General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia in 1814, and revised and corrected it in 1822. With it, he recommended that the name 'Australia' be given to this continent. It should be better known that the term 'Australia' had been used almost three centuries earlier in cartography in 1538 (in Mercator's 'World Map' no less) and in a book published in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1545. How do we fit this into our history – an antiquarian curiosity, or something to be further researched and comprehended?

If 'Australia' was for so long imagined, why was no earlier attempt made to colonise the land, before the sending of the First Fleet?  Was it simply because early European accounts of an arid and unpromising land, based on the first unfavourable observations of the northern and the western parts of the continent, stood unquestioned for those centuries? Why did the British ultimately take a different approach from the mid-18th century, as opposed to the approaches taken by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish and the French? Was it simply a question of penal accommodation, or were there other drivers, related to empire and naval supremacy? These questions too are a part of our history.

Today is an opportunity to take a long view, one which takes in the complexity, the nuance, the forgotten fragments, and the elided histories. This should not be solely the province of map collectors, maritime enthusiasts, historians and archaeologists. A view of the long duration provides the necessary perspective and, where required, the corrective to the myths that we live by.

Time forgets no land. Australia has long been a place of abode, of human migration and exchange, of imagination and enterprise, of maps and contact. Historical consciousness is a deeply human trait. To know where we are going, we have to be clear about whence we have come, because since creation time has enfolded everything, and it forgets no land.