“Discovered” or “Invaded” – The Power of Words

“Discovered” or “Invaded” – The Power of Words

Colonisation was a brutal undertaking, not least in Australia. It’s horrifying and embarrassing to think that indigenous people were systematically oppressed, raped and killed by non-indigenous settlers, and now it’s everyone’s responsibility to help ensure that these atrocities are never repeated. And this starts with acknowledgement.

Unfortunately for everyone, The Daily Telegraph has dragged the conversation a few steps backwards in the last few days. A front-page article accused the University of NSW of rewriting history when it was discovered that students are taught to acknowledge that Australia was “invaded” by the British. The Daily Telegraph cited a historian named Windschuttle who maintains that James Cook “discovered” Australia, despite the fact that indigenous Australians have lived here for at least 50,000 years (and more than likely a lot longer).

Of course there were numerous voices of agitation and ridicule as a result of the article, which reaffirmed that parody websites are better places to consume news than actual newspapers.

But the controversy didn’t end there; a follow-up article from The Daily Telegraph claimed political correctness stifles free speech, again blaming Australian universities. The piece, which republished the previous day’s cover, reaffirmed that the DT doesn’t care to acknowledge the indigenous experience of colonisation.

As travellers, it is our duty to understand and acknowledge multiple experiences of history, especially in regard to colonial projects. This begins with the (sometimes unintended) power of words.

Take “discovered” – as in, what Captain Cook supposedly did to Australia. Discovered has multiple meanings:

  1. Become aware of (a fact or situation)
  1. Be the first to find or observe (a place, substance, or scientific phenomenon)

In the case of James Cook, the first definition is accurate, but the second isn’t. He discovered Australia in the same way your little brother discovered drugs: they existed for a long time before he started taking them, but he still felt the need to tell everyone about them.

Though the first definition of “discovered” is technically correct, in the case of Cook, the other, incorrect definition makes it a bit deceiving. “Invaded” is obviously a much clearer way of describing what British colonisers did. This is important because it acknowledges more than one experience – that although non-indigenous people arrived in 1770, their arrival was irreversibly damaging to indigenous culture.

“Migrant” and “expat” also cause problems. A migrant is usually a person of colour who leaves home seeking work or better living conditions. An expat is reserved for white people, even if they leave home in similar circumstances or for the same reasons. Why is it that an Australian family living in Singapore are expats but a Singaporean family living in Sydney will always be migrants? Even “refugees”, “asylum seekers” and “boat people” are heavily loaded terms, let alone more overt examples, such as “the N-word” and the Australian equivalent.

When the public discourse is controlled by talk and text, refraining from using loaded words isn’t a threat to political correctness; it’s a measure for creating safe spaces. To acknowledge that the British invaded Australia is not only factual, it acknowledges that there was something here to invade.

Words have power, that’s why we must use them correctly.

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