European settlement of Australia didn’t really begin until 1788, and was founded upon a lie; the legal fiction of terra nullius (a Latin term meaning “nobody’s land”) - even though there were as many as 750,000 people already living here - maybe more. Their communities, beliefs, and cultures varied greatly, and there were approximately 700 different languages spoken. Yet no matter what they believed, or however they talked, they were all people. Like you and I they hoped, wept, and dreamed of making love in the warm afternoon sunshine. They had children, and dogs, and enjoyed chasing sticks together.
This picture was probably taken sometime during the 1920s. It’s a fountain erected in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a sixty year period which witnessed the Aboriginal nations’ decimation by a combination of disease, loss of land (causing starvation), and outright murder. An estimated 90% of the indigenous population died during this time, and it was widely held, even among those sympathetic to the Aboriginals’ plight, that Australia’s indigenous peoples would soon become extinct.
The fountain is still standing, and last weekend we strolled around it just like the people in this picture. In the base are bronze panels of Aboriginals, who are depicted as demurely (and oh-so obediently) underpinning the civilization above. There’s no record of who the models were; I doubt that their names were considered worth recording by the socialites who commissioned the fountain. These survivors of a century-long attempt at genocide were nothing more than the vestiges of a superseded race, about to vanish into history forever.
But they didn't, and I’ve grown haunted by their faces.
Especially this man:
Rest in peace, mighty warrior. Your people have survived, and your land still sings the story of your blood. Pray for us, the descendants of those who brought your people death, that we might be cleansed from our sin. Forgive us, for we are sorry.