250 years ago, British explorer James Cook made landfall in modern day Sydney. The rest is a complicated history.

Celebrated annually in Australia, the anniversary of Cook’s arrival is considered a “voyage of discovery”, however, the holiday is regarded quite differently amongst Australia’s Aboriginal community. Cook was tasked with charting the east coast of Australia for Britain, later claiming it for the empire. However, the problem here was that Australia was already “founded” some 50,000 years prior to European discovery.

After over a decade later, a host of British fleets arrived on the continent to establish a penal colony. The indigenous community was subject to new diseases from smallpox to measles that wiped out significant portions of their population. They were displaced from their lands, forced to assimilate to a new culture and faced rampant violence and oppression from colonists. More colonies followed and soon after, Aboriginal Australia was no longer recognisable. Today, natives only make up 3% of the population.

Cook’s arrival is considered amongst many as a period of enlightenment. However, for Aboriginal people, it was the beginning of the end. History has glossed over the atrocities faced by Aboriginal tribes, revising the period as one that was “peaceful”.

In a statement released Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the anniversary “a merging of histories.” However, for prominent Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the day is far from celebratory.

Opposition Labour Leader Linda Burney said, “I’m not saying that Cook’s contribution to the world is not significant. But what today means for First Nations people was the beginning of… a very difficult period in our history.”

Aboriginal people’s relationship with Australia

What makes the anniversary particularly harrowing is that violence against Australia’s Aboriginal community isn’t a thing of the past. The population of natives still faces discrimination and are at disadvantage in several ways compared to white Australians. For example, Aboriginals have a lower life-expectancy than the rest of the population, higher rates of mental health issues and suicide and a lack of essential services.

The festive nature of Cook’s arrival is a reminder that Australia still has a long way to go in order to reconcile with its indigenous community, particularly as it remains the only Commonwealth nation that has no treaty with its natives.

How does Australia celebrate Cook’s arrival?

This year, Australia had plans to replicate the HMS Endeavour Royal Navy ship – a costly project of over £25 million – used by Cook to circumnavigate Australia. However, celebrations have been put on hold and exhibitions have been moved online due the ongoing global crisis.

The controversy surrounding the colonial anniversary, however, will continue until Australia reckons with its violent past and how it contributes to the disadvantages faced by the indigenous community today.

Aisha Mohamed