I’m Not American, But The Anger Around Columbus Day Still Hits Close To Home
Every year around Columbus Day, the holiday to commemorate Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus' contributions to what's now the United States of America, people ask why we still even have the holiday at all, which most only observe with a day off work. Arguments begin: that Columbus Day is a celebration of a violent process that led to the mass extinction of Native Americans, not to mention the lingering racism against Indigenous people in the United States, and that this violence shouldn't be commemorated at all.
For me, this is a very familiar debate. Australia, my home country, has its own colonial history, and its own national dialogue about the annual holiday designed to "honor" our country's beginnings.
Australia Day, on Jan. 26, is a national holiday that observes the day in 1788 when English settlers arrived in Sydney and began to found the first European colony. The harbor in Sydney, where I grew up, teems with boats blaring songs over the water. It's the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so beaches fill up and people get drunk in parks during the day off work. (No fireworks, though, as they're illegal in almost every state due to fire risk.) People paint their faces in the national colors of green and gold, or with the Australian flag, which still has the English Union Jack in the corner to symbolize our status as a British colony.
The holidays echo each other in painful ways. Just as in America the arrival of Columbus brought violence to Native American people who already inhabited the land, the English settlers in Australia deliberately decimated the population of Aboriginal people who'd been settled in Australia for tens of thousands of years. The legacy of that campaign is appalling, and Australian society is still dealing with its repercussions today.
Despite the horrific, lasting impact of colonization both in the United States and in Australia, these holidays are often described as "just a day off" or "a bit of fun." But in observing how each country chooses to mark these occasions as important to the national narrative, I've seen how this messaging continues to erase the violent history of each country, as well as in other post-colonial countries that observe similar holidays.
I left Australia as an adult in part because of the country's obvious and structural racism, particularly towards Aboriginal people.
I was born in 1988, 200 years after Australia was first declared terra nullius, or "nobody's land," by settlers, despite 60,000 years of Aboriginal life on the continent. I'm too young to remember the protests of that year as people demanded that the holiday be renamed Invasion Day. I grew up dancing around in the green and gold, glad for a holiday, blissfully unaware of how complex the holiday actually is.
But I left Australia as an adult in part because of the country's obvious and structural racism, particularly towards Aboriginal people. The happy-go-lucky reputation of modern Australia as full of laidback surfer charm sits uneasily alongside anti-Aboriginal sentiment, the legacy of centuries of slaughter and astonishing brutality. The death toll of Aboriginal Australians from 1788 onwards is estimated by experts to be in the hundreds of thousands. The 19th and 20th century policy of taking Aboriginal children from their parents and rehoming them via institutions created entire "Stolen Generations" of children and was supported by governments until 1970. That was only 48 years ago.
And the policies that make people so angry about Australia Day still occur to this day. In 2007, when I was 19, the right-wing Prime Minister John Howard, seeking re-election, decided to look for approval from his base by sending in the army to a majority-Aboriginal area that had become "dangerous" in order to "keep the peace" — a policy, known as "the intervention," that is remembered as a "dark time," according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It took until 2008 for then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to provide a formal apology for the Stolen Generations. People of that era aren't even our grandparents' age; they're our parents' age.
In some ways, America is further forward in acknowledging the violent history of its holiday than Australia. Columbus Day has been renamed Indigenous People's Day in several states as a way of making amends for the erasure Columbus Day represents. In my country, challenging Australia Day has become a strong movement, with tens of thousands turning up to mass protests in 2018. But it remains a divisive issue, with one politician telling protesters to "crawl under a rock" for "making us feel guilty about it."
Australia Day is now meant, according to the official government literature, to make Australians contemplate the past and the current state of the nation. It's supposed to be a day of reflection rather than a party, though most people don't observe it like that. But, like renaming Columbus Day, it's a step. It's important that ex-colonial countries openly acknowledge bloody pasts while also counting blessings — and learn from other places dealing with the same issues.