We stole your land, your language and your wages, but hey let’s celebrate!

“To change the date of Australia Day would be to deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history”. – Owen Laffin


“Australia Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all of the things we’ve achieved.” – Tony Abbott


Whichever way you choose to look at it, everything changed for Aboriginal peoples on January 26, 1788.

Their land was stolen from them on that day, and more of it would continue to be stolen for generations to come.

The first fighting in what would become known as the Frontier Wars took place several months after the landing of the First Fleet. That fighting would continue for another 146 years, resulting in the deaths of at least 20,000 indigenous Australians (some estimates go much higher) and around 2,000 Europeans.

The loss of land meant the loss of Aboriginals’ traditional hunting grounds, which led to their starvation. And the introduction of European diseases like smallpox, the common cold, flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis, hitherto unknown by Aboriginal peoples, had an even more devastating effect. Smallpox alone is estimated to have halved the Aboriginal population of eastern Australia, even before settlers crossed the Great Dividing Range and moved west to steal more land.

Before January 26, 1788, more than 250 Aboriginal languages existed in Australia. Today, only 60 of them are still considered healthy. Your language is the primary means of passing on cultural knowledge, so the loss of a language means the loss of culture, and of connection to ancestors.

We all now know that between 1905 and 1969, the Aboriginal Protection Board forcibly removed what were referred to as “half-caste” children from their families, known as the Stolen Generations. But did you know that from the late 1800s until the 1970s Aboriginal workers were basically enslaved labor, denied access to their wages which in many cases were simply stolen by corrupt officials?

During that period, Aboriginal people who worked for white people did not receive their wages directly. Their earnings were paid to the Aboriginal Protection Board, who “administered” their finances. The employers themselves might dole out tiny amounts of “pocket money” to their Aboriginal workers, but that was it.

For example, in Queensland, an Aboriginal stockman named Jubilee Jackson worked for 60 years from the age of ten, and the only money he ever received was a small amount of pocket money at rodeo time. He and his family were told the rest was held in a trust account. But when he died in 1967 there was barely $100 in his government controlled account.

It is estimated that the state of Queensland alone owes around $500 million to Aboriginal people, with some individuals owed close to half a million dollars in today’s terms.

Gary Highland, the national director for Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, has said,

When I was in school, I was told that Australia developed on the sheep’s back. I now know that it developed on the backs of thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children.

I heard that line about the sheep’s back when I was a kid too. I never heard about Jubilee Jackson’s drained bank account though.

Over nearly a 100 years, monies were skimmed out of Aboriginals’ accounts, including child endowments and benefits, savings, inheritances, soldiers’ pay, aged or invalid pensions, and workers’ compensation payouts.

In Victoria, there is evidence that the Aboriginal Protection Board actually withheld wages as punishment to Aboriginal workers.

But wait, it gets worse.

The government even misappropriated Aboriginal wages to cover the costs of removing Aboriginal children from their families. Did you get that? Aboriginal workers were unwittingly paying for the removal of their own children.

Not only did this dreadful injustice make the Australian farming sector very wealthy, it locked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into an unending cycle of poverty. Marjorie Woodrow, an Aboriginal stolen wages claimant, said, “We could have had our own homes from the wage we are owed, and had the ability to set things up for our children. It breaks your heart to see our children still struggling.”

By denying them their rightful wages, we have entrenched intergenerational poverty, making it impossible for many Aboriginal people break out of the stereotype of being welfare-dependent. Journalist, Kristie Smith writes, “The majority of Australians have yet to acknowledge the evident link between settlement life, stolen wages and the lack of education and employment in today’s society.”

Returning to the quotes I began with, I was challenged by Owen Laffin’s suggestion that changing the date of Australia Day from January 26 would be to “deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity as on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history”. I understand he’s arguing for a more nuanced and sophisticated reading of history, but the very thing we have “achieved together throughout our history” has been accomplished on land stolen from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and funded by their stolen wages.

That’s what makes the former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott’s comments this week so galling when he said,

What happened on the 26th of January 1788 was on balance, for everyone – Aboriginal people included – a good thing because it brought Western civilisation to this country, it brought Australia into the modern world.

A good thing? What we did has not only left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders without land, without language, and without wages, but turned them into the most incarcerated people in the world, with a mortality rate 10-17 years less than other Australians. I wouldn’t have thought that pointing this out contributed to a “simplistic narrative of shame” at all. In actual fact, there is plenty to be ashamed of.

And yet, many Australians consider a call to change the date of Australia Day as merely a confection of trendy inner city lefties or an example of that dreaded “political correctness”. But defending January 26 as the date of Australia Day without knowing the price Aboriginal peoples paid to build this nation is the height of ignorance.

Why is it so difficult to see how offensive it is to force indigenous Australians to just get over the past, to smile along with us on January 26, to listen to an Australian music countdown, to enjoy the annual lamb ad, and to celebrate “all of the things we’ve achieved”?





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32 thoughts on “We stole your land, your language and your wages, but hey let’s celebrate!

  1. Hi Mike,

    Great article. The whole fiasco is a horrid national shame – we should feel ashamed – perhaps a great sense of national shame will drive some change.

    The sheep quote is a great one – and you can take it deeper. Recent works such as Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu: Black Seeds – agriculture or accident” & Bill Gammage’s “The Greatest Estate on Earth: how the aborigines made Australia” show how, not only was European sheep grazing built on the back of Aboriginal labour but Aboriginal people’s actually created the conditions for pastoralism to be successful in the first place.

    Comments like Tony Abbott’s are just a continuation of white british mindset that saw land ripe for the picking. The Australian history we’ve all been taught in schools has been carefully edited to ensure that it underpins legal doctrines such as terra nullius – and the early Europeans absolutely knew what they were doing.
    As for “western democracy” being a good thing – western civilisation is not really a shining example of conflict free peace & joy! Yet – the first peoples of Australia managed to thrive on/in and improve a harsh & complex landscape, all without destroying each other for perhaps 60,000 years! – to the point where the most common description given to the Australian landscape was that it resembled a wealthy English gentlemans parkland. Further, many accounts of white explorers show the the Aboriginal people to be generous and open.

    Much like what is happening with asylum seekers at the moment – Australia is telling itself the story it wants to believe. It remains to be seen how long we can keep lying to ourselves as a nation.

    1. Totally agree, David. “The Greatest Estate on Earth” blew my mind! Honestly, I had bought the whole nomadic hunter/gatherer thing they had taught me as a kid. Gammage’s book was such an eye-opener.

    2. Bruce Pascoe certainly opened my mind to the lie of Terra Nullius. This land was settled, farmed and managed by a people who learned how to survive and thrive in this country over 70,000 years including 500 years of drought and a number of ice ages. It’s way past time when we started learning from them.

  2. It’s hard for modern Aussies people to admit their deep, raw shame that the to this very day have profited from land, labour and resources never paid for and at the cost of people who kept this place going for 60,000 yrs without needing to troddle off and colonise others…so they get quite upset to have a mirror held up. Not sure if you have noticed?

    You get a lot of “but but but we are more advanced” (er, the Murray Darling is ruined in 200 short years) or “oh that was a long time ago, get over it” (care to pay the true owners rent + compound interest, starting now, with a new property tax?).

    I love this article for putting the focus on them. The day Australia grows up, becomes a republic, signs a treaty with its cohabitant nations and foots up for the bill they owe…that’s the day we can all celebrate. Wrong righted. United. Nation.

  3. Yep. Growing up in Northern Ireland has given me a sobering perspective on “shoving your triumph in peoples’ faces”. hard to believe it was the year I was born that Aboriginal people were considered Australians.

  4. Thanks Mike,
    As always, incisive, thoughtful and provoking. So, I’m wondering about the issue of changing the date – if all we want is music, a smile, some larrikin comedy and some celebration, any day would do.
    So I was pondering whether a Bible story might provide an analogy for the move. This one might. Isaac and his redigging of the wells of Abraham. (Gen 26). A few times he dug wells and the neighbouring herders contested the site, and he moved on.
    Finally, he dug a well about which there was no contention. He gave it a good name and settled there. To my mind, in the Australia Day wrangle we’re looking for a congenial, acceptable waterhole to be refreshed at. There are 364 other possible ones – some, perhaps taken – but a plethora left. And if there’s contention, let’s move on. There are plenty of waterholes about. Let’s find the one where we can settle and enjoy a drink, and some tucker, and a bit of fun.

    1. And it was called ‘Room Enough’ – Together…

  5. it is also well known that good bosses took the lot into town and paid them to get new clothes and stuff. not only did prices jump dramatically but change was often short as well. where i grew up all aboriginals had the land filled with soldiers, mostly yanks who pretty much destroyed the land and saved australia from the japs, they left behind many explosives, bullets, hand-grenades ect. many an explosion or bullets going off in campfires and burn off. but mostly only blacks so it didnt matter. … also hunting was ruined so they were put on the station . those that could work, did so for a bit if tea, sugar and tobacco. a chunk of beef once a week. kids sent to school on the back of the truck. if they fell off, serves them right for not hanging on. the rest who could not work had to walk into town edge and raid the 44 gallon drums where the single mens mess left over foods were dumped. usually covered in crows, hawks and maggots. when full they were picked up for pig swill. . . a nine year old was told to sweep them f******* leaves. when the boss came back, he had not done it. so kicked up the bum by the boss wearing riding boots, he swore and no one swears at the boss. he was shot. all the aboriginals went bush. the boss rounded them up and said he would shoot any that didnt return. it went to court and was proved an accident. no one game to testify. not even the woman who tried to throw her body in front of her child. the bullet went thru her hand. in 1967 there was a referendum and aboriginals were included in the sensus and considered australians. the station owner refuse to pay the black bastards and kicked them all off the station. he then sold it. they had no where to go. most land was owned by whites. . so they suffered as nothing and
    no ones and serves then right. according to the policies. … i was born and grew up treated a little better as my white father was a respectful man. i was born in 1948… . . i shot thru and joined defence and did 20 years. it has been hard . i had a good life but many treated me like i had mated with a dog, or raped their sister or something.** get over it. ** not a lot i could do. i was mostly white anyway. . . i suffer from ptsd, depression, forced one foot after another and worked. also paid my taxes. .. the lady who got shot thru the hand died a few years ago. does not matter, she was only black. . so did the lady camp cook who used to cook on mustering times and keep the boss warm. she had many kids to him. she was only black too. true yarn… bugger the captain cook saga. i got my problems since 1948.

  6. So many issues, so many rightful outrages. Especially the old chest nut ‘it happened so long ago, get over it’. That comment only serves to turn over a wound and causes it to fester further as the fresh side is also exposed to the flame of pain and suffering.

    But I have a question, what are we going to do about it? And what do traditional land owner, elders need for healing to begin for their people. Every one seems to be outraged but no one seems to be putting solutions forward.

    We need to hear form the traditional land owner, elders. They are the only ones who have the right to spell out what the way forward is for all Australians. When that happens, all Australians must listen. I believe what they provide is great wisdom and it is a wisdom that would usher in healing.

    1. To the argument of ‘get over it’, ‘it happened so long ago’ I say two words… ANZAC Day

  7. Awesome article of truth.

  8. I have never heard the term frontier wars before (in context of Australia). Could someone direct me to sources?

    1. See ‘Forgotten War’ by Henry Reynolds

      1. I was going to suggest Henry Reynolds, too. Picnicking with Natives is another account of the slaughter in the Eastern States.

    2. See Newcastle University’s interactive map, detailing all the massacres associated with the Frontier Wars. https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php

  9. Hi Mike,
    Great article.
    I saw a post on Facebook last year by a young man of indigenous heritage, whose suggestion was:
    Utilise the time from dawn to 11am in memory of the manly aboriginal lives and futures lost upon invasion of Australia by the Brits and pay our respects to the Aboriginal community, elders, past, present and future.
    Then from 11am onward celebration for everyone in Australia for what has been achieved, that personally we are alive and instilling hope for the future of all Australians.
    If we cannot openly acknowledge the past travesties, recognise the trauma and damage it has caused and strive to make a better future, Australia Day is just a tokenistic day off from work.
    I would also like to say that it is not that long past. I went to high school with a lovely young aboriginal girl who had been taken (stolen) from her family and placed in an orphanage. The impact on her life then and now still, is very real and current.
    So many people don’t realise or are ignorant of the facts, only every alluding to “it happened in 1788, you weren’t even alive then.” There is still unacceptable, inappropriate treatment of indigenous Australians occurring on a daily basis. This is a current issue, not a past issue and we collectively need to do all we can to repair the wrongs and promote healing.

    1. Yes, I’m inclined to agree. If changing the date is just too divisive maybe we could change the tone of the day to something similar to ANZAC Day – a solemn and dignified remembrance of the horror of the past and a resolve to right the wrongs.

      1. Michael, I totally agree with the ANZAC day approach. Too much has gone on and too many people don’t know the truth or the full history. So many will never get to be on country to learn.
        The idea of dawn services acknowledging all the wrongs quietly and peacefully. Mornings spent learning from the local tribe about what has gone before. The new generations carrying on a legacy of respect and recognition.
        Afternoon can then be open to continue recognition or to celebrate what we have become as a country and a combination of so many nations, both indigenous and newcomers.
        If I could witness that in my twilight years and see my grandchildren carry this on then I would have a warm heart

  10. Very informative. Never knew about the withheld wages. Disgusting. So nothing has changed really. The Intervention (blatant land grab & more removal of children) is still ongoing & now cashless welfare cards have & are being introduced (more withheld $ & forcible shopping in expensive stores.)

  11. Hi Mike,

    You start off with a simple but flawed premise. What is most interesting is that the original settlers (convicts etc) didn’t arrive on the 26th January 1788 as commonly believed.

    They arrived after enduring what was one of the world’s greatest sea voyages – eleven vessels carrying about 1,487 people and stores had travelled for 252 days for more than 15,000 miles (24,000 km) without losing a ship. Forty-eight people died on the journey, a death rate of just over three per cent.

    The colonists arrived between the 18th – 20th January due to differing boat speeds. It was then found that the landing place (Botany Bay) was not as suitable as expected so they tried to find a better place to set up.

    Incidentally the French landed on the 24th January and stayed around until March. They thought they’d find a thriving colony, not a few people in huts, tents and lean-to’s. Any idea where Captain La Perouse hung out before trying to return home? (FYI – he and his crew never made it back to France, but luckily he sent letters and notes etc back with the British.)

    On the 26th January, after a fierce storm and some exploring, the British First Fleet with its convicts moved from Botany Bay around to Sydney Harbour – the harbour was originally called Port Jackson and the area is Sydney Cove.

    Did we do as you document? Yep, it all probably happened just as you stated.
    However it didn’t start on 26th January 1788. It started between the 18th and 20th January. So that means we actually need to look at what does the date signify?

    Actually we are not celebrating on the day we invaded, settled or arrived. We are celebrating the day they decided to move to a more permanent and suitable location.
    It is probably as random as any other day, but due to misconception and poor education (or simplified education due to trying to explain to kids that the settlers arrived over a 3 day period) it is commonly misunderstood.


    1. I don’t think premise is flawed. January 26 was the day Arthur Philip “claimed the land” for England in the name of King George, and thereby set in train everything I’ve mentioned in this post. It wasn’t his, England’s or King George’s to claim.

      1. Hi Mike,

        Unfortunately it’s again a misconception.
        The flag raising ceremony was on the 7th February, with a speech by Gov Philips given that day.

        From the National Library of Australia:
        “Published biographies of Arthur Phillip make no mention of this significant speech. This seems a remarkable omission if the text was, in fact, recorded anywhere. Historical Records of New South Wales also contains no reference to the speech.

        The original source of the quoted excerpt is in fact The History of New South Wales by Roderick Flanagan supposedly “compiled from official and other authentic and original sources”. However, other commentators such as G.B. Barton, author of History of New South Wales from the records. Vol. I, Governor Phillip, 1783-1789 are firmly of the belief that this speech is “a work of the imagination” by Flanagan.

        Additionally, three eyewitnesses to the flag-raising ceremony on 7 Feb 1788 all recorded their memories of the proceedings independently but none of them mentioned anything like the words in this “speech” having being said.

        The speech quoted in the Flanagan book was supposedly made on February 7, not January 26 1788. It is the only version of a speech in the few days around the landing that seems to be in existence. On page 29, the Flanagan book simply states that, on January 26, “the principal officers and others assembled round the flag-staff, drank the king’s health and success to the settlement” with no indication of the words that were said.”
        Original source: https://www.nla.gov.au/faq/where-can-i-find-a-speech-given-by-captain-arthur-phillip-on-january-26-1788


        1. This account confirms the 26th January date. According to this letter by John Campbell, the Governor took possession of the land, flag hoisted, guns fired etc:

          “… About 12 Miles to the Northward he found Out a very good Harbour for the Shiping & better Ground Called port Jackson the 26 Sailed & Arived the Same day the Governor went on Shore to take Possession of the Land with a Company of Granadeers & Some Convicts At three A Clock in the Afternoon he sent on board of the Supply Brigantine for the Union Jack then orders was Gave fore the Soldiers to March down to the West Sid of the Cove they Cut one of the Trees Down & fixt as flag Staf & Histd the Jack and Fired four Folleys of Small Arms which was Answered with three Cheers from the Brig then thay Marched up the head of the Cove where they Piched their Tents”

          1. Hi Gareth,
            Thanks for the information but I think your source has some issues.
            According to yours it seems they sailed and arrived the same day – being the 25th – from that account. Pity they arrived between the 18th -20th. It seems this account has some serious issues. Especially as it is documented that the Lady Penrhyn arrived on the 20th January. https://firstfleetfellowship.org.au/ships/hms-lady-penrhyn/

            While I admit your source is interesting to read it does not show the event on the 26th as being a large affair. In fact it seems to be similar to my source which states that on January 26, “the principal officers and others assembled round the flag-staff, drank the king’s health and success to the settlement” with no mention of a large fanfare.

            The flag raising ceremony was on 7th February, as stated in my source “three eyewitnesses to the flag-raising ceremony on 7 Feb 1788 all recorded their memories of the proceedings independently” which is more than your source which seems to have errors within accepted history.


  12. An excellent article. I’ve always believed if what happened to Aboriginal people occurred today ie some group came, took over and did all those terrible things, our national day of celebration wouldn’t be on that day. But, we don’t have a long or rich history of education about Aboriginal history or the truth and many people opposed to changing the date seem to take it and don’t even know what happened and how it’s still relevant today. Sure, history is history. There are terrible things that happened that none of ‘us’ did but there are many many policies and practices that ‘we’ have done and are still doing. I think there’s a terrible fear that if ‘we’ change the date it brings us closer to the very hard questions – we’ve said sorry, we’ve changed the date, we’ve had royal commissions, we’ve got close the gap, we’ve had and got a bunch of other ‘initiatives’, the army was sent in FFS, but here we are… the figures speak for themselves (education, prison, violence against Aboriginal women, poverty, mortality, health, adult and child suicide, trauma etc etc). Governments have failed because they don’t listen, they impose, they repeat history and disempower communities. Changing the date should be part of a reconciliation. We need to bring people together. I don’t know how

  13. I fully agree with Mark Frost’s understanding of celebrating our nationhood on 26 January, to symbolise the arrival of the First Fleet. Not only does this day symbolise the need for Britain’s ruling class to relieve their overcrowded jails but also their disdain of the lower echelons, using convicts as cheap labour in the hope their new colony would be economically viable. In this sense it was a social experiment showcasing their dependence on a mixture of opportunism and self -gratifying exploitation. It is that greed, lack of empathy and sense of economic privilege that the British occupation of this country represents to me. What happened to the indigenous population is collateral damage and our Australian leaders today proudly keep the tradition alive.

    1. Are we still British occupiers?
      When are we allowed to not be guilty of the things done Centuries and Decades ago?
      I am not saying what was done was good.
      What do Aboriginal people need, or feel they need, from White Australia for what has gone before?
      What does White Australia need, or feel they need, to do to not feel like jerks for something they didn’t do, yet certainly benefited from?

      Should a child born out of wedlock, or even from a rape, feel shame every time their birthday happens?

      When can we celebrate being Australians, even whitey’s who live in a great land that was violently taken from brownies?
      Or can we never?
      Or do we forever have to recognise the jerk things our ancestors did, every time we try to remember that we are an amazing nation of people?

      Are some sins not forgiveable?

      You’ve pointed out issues, but I don’t think you’ve given any accompanying solutions.
      Or do we live a normal life most of the rest of the year, but just sit in an unresolvable guilt for a few days?

      My question isn’t directed to you alone.

      But how sorry is sorry enough?

  14. There is so much the current citizens and residents of Australia don’t know about our past and that is wrong. What happened and what is still happening is a common thread around the world with other indigenous peoples who have been “civilised”, again this is wrong.

    We can,t blame or throw abuse at the general public for what has gone before, but we can hold them to account for what happens into the future. The government and public services, industry and commerce leaders should be accountable for what happens in the future.

    Ok, so let us recognise the arrival of the first fleet, but as mentioned in a previous comment, lets have from dawn till noon a remembrance ceremony of what has gone before. A time of reflection, learning and apology, a time when out young become acquainted with what really happened and who was responsible. Then all Australians can get together and celebrate how great this country is in the way they feel is appropriate.

    Around 65 years ago my elders and teachers taught me that the aborigine was not the owner of the land but the caretaker, as no one could ever be the owner. It was their role to care for and honour country, as it should be all Australians who have come and who will come in the future.

    Celebrate but remember first

  15. […] with it another wave of pain. Reading Michael Frost’s important but devastating article We stole your land, your language and your wages but hey let’s celebrate about how indigenous people in Australia have been treated since white people settled there had me […]

  16. Australia day on 26th of January is so wrong to Indigenous Australians. The day of Federation January first should take its place, celebrate it on the 2nd. This is when white Australia became a country. There should be a day to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, perhaps the coming day in the future when a treaty is signed will be that day.

  17. What did Jesus say to the abbos before he ascended into heaven?
    “Don’t do anything until I get back”.
    Most primitive culture on the planet. Did nothing in 65,000 years. They’re soooo lucky the British civilised them and they should pay us reparations.

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