A planetary phenomenon and an earthly invasion


YOU’LL forgive Aboriginal people for not jumping over the moon today at the Transit of Venus. One of the last times the ‘Evening Star’ got between the Earth and Sun, it was used as the pretext for invasion.
Ever a suspicious lot, the British had long wanted to claim the ‘Great Southern Land’ for themselves, which they were sure existed thanks to the hard work of explorers from other countries. But they didn’t want to tip off other countries to what they were doing.

So they bought themselves a small ship, did it up a bit, renamed it The Endeavour, then hired a non-descript but intelligent junior naval officer named James Cook.

Rather than instructions to go forth and expand the glorious Empire, he and 93 others set sail with orders to view the Transit of Venus.

Cook and his crew duly headed for Tahiti, viewed the Transit and then opened their sealed second orders.

They were to head south, to find ‘Terra Australis’.

And find it they did, although of course it had already been ‘discovered’ some 60,000 years earlier, and was inhabited by hundreds of nations of Aboriginal people.

The rest, as they say, is history, black armband view or otherwise.

Apparently, Cook was not only very good at cartography (making maps), but he was also an accomplished mathematician, hence his choice for the mission.

So, given that it’s ‘all about the numbers’, and given we won’t see the Transit of Venus again for a very long time, I thought it appropriate to use them to explain what followed from Cook’s voyage.

Since Cook witnessed the transit, it’s been visible from Earth on three other occasions – 1874, 1882 and 2004.

Three is the same number of times that the federal government has suspended its own Racial Discrimination Act in order to do something racist to Aboriginal people (Hindmarsh Islands in 1996; Wik in 1998; and the NT Intervention in 2007).

Cook departed Plymouth on August 26, 26 being the number of times Aboriginal youths in NSW are more likely to be jailed than non-Aboriginal youths.

Cook’s boat, the Endeavour, weighed 368 tonnes. That number is very close to the prevalence of rheumatic heart disease per 100,000 head of population in Central Australia (around 350). For the uninitiated, rheumatic heart disease is another third world condition which besets a first world country. Aboriginal people have the highest recorded rates on earth.

368 is also close to the number of Recommendations of the Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (339), which was held in the 1990s amid the appalling jailing rates of Aboriginal men and women in prison.

That rate today is far worse – Aboriginal people make up about one quarter of the national prison population.

The MV Bark Endeavour.

And speaking of which, the authorised ship’s company for the voyage was 85 sailors – only slightly more than the percentage of Aboriginal people who make up Northern Territory jails (around 82 percent).

On board Endeavour when it left Britain was 250 barrels of beer. That’s roughly the same number of Aboriginal nations that, a few years later, would have their title to land declared invalid. The farce that is native title notwithstanding, that’s pretty much the situation that endures today.

Also on board the Endeavour was 17 barrels of rum – in 2005 that was the average number of people living in a single dwelling in Wadeye, the sixth largest town in the Northern Territory, but which happens to be almost exclusively Aboriginal, thus it goes without many basic services.

And there was 44 barrels of brandy on board as well – which is just two shy of the average life expectancy of a male in Wadeye in 2005 (at 46).

There was three tonnes of sauerkraut onboard Endeavour, the famous ingredient Cook used to stave off scurvy in his men. Three is roughly the amount of times Aboriginal people are more likely to take their own life than non-Aboriginal people.

Endeavour also left with five tonnes of flour – today we jail black males in Australia at a rate more than five times greater than South Africa did during the dying days of Apartheid.

There was 6,000 pieces of pork on board Endeavour – 6,000 is about the same number of Aboriginal men and women who served during WWII (half in Australia, half overseas) but were governed by the Flora and Fauna Act at the time, and thus did not qualify for pensions, land grants or even entry into the RSL at the conclusion of the war.

My point being, the sort of numbers that math genius James Cook has created are by any standards, both extraordinary and shameful. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

It will be 105 years before the Transit of Venus is visible from earth again. Doubtless I probably won’t be around to witness it, but given the current direction of the Australian Government – with the implied approval of the Australian people – I have a terrible suspicion the lot of the nation’s most disadvantaged probably won’t have changed all that much.

For as we speak, the federal parliament is set to pass the Stronger Futures legislation, which seeks to extend the most odious parts of the human rights abusing Northern Territory intervention for another 10 years.

And not just in the Northern Territory. It’s being rolled out across the nation.

Among other things, the legislation empowers the government to place Aboriginal people on ‘income management’ – a process which further disempowers the nation’s most disempowered, and quarantines half their welfare entitlement to ensure they spend it in ways in which the government approves.

It also links the provision of welfare entitlements to school attendance. That’s the despite the fact school attendance in NT intervention communities has dropped since the disastrous policy was launched five years ago, and despite the fact many people on income management actually have no children.

At least when Cook set sail from Britain he knew roughly where he was going. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin enjoys no such luxury. She’s making this stuff up as she goes along.

And just as Aboriginal people never had a say in Cook’s ‘discovery’ of their lands, they haven’t had a say in legislation that will impact on them for a decade and beyond.

Their only hope is that ordinary Australians take as much interest in the laws being thrust upon Aboriginal people as they do in a planet transitioning in front of the Sun. And then make a noise about it.

You can read more about the legislation and what it will do the ‘numbers’ here. And you can read more about the numbers here.

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.

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