Some of them didn’t have a choice. Keziah came to Australia alone as a teenager after being abused and prosecuted by the rich family she was a servant to. She met her husband William after arriving – he had been here already for two years after a series of circumstances beginning with his need to steal food in order to survive. Hannah was forced to leave her two young sons behind and never saw them again. James was fleeing from conscription into a war that he didn’t want to fight.
Others made the choice to come because they wanted a better life for themselves and their children. William was a baker by trade, Thomas a shoemaker. Eber was involved in the now-hated practice of whaling but still we let him in.
Some died on the rough sea journey. Jane arrived with her father after watching her mother and two brothers die on the way. Some had people help pay the huge costs to those who owned the boats they came on. Thomas could even be seen as a “people smuggler” given that he was in charge of bringing a ship full of poor people who didn’t want to come.
These are the stories of my family. My family came to Australia as boat people. It’s just that these boat journeys took place between 1788 and 1840. Did my family members all come with the proper travel documents? Did they all have the permission of those living in Australia at the time? Were they all worthy, deserving, acceptable people? Some. Perhaps. Maybe. No. Did the people who were already living here get to decide who came and under what circumstances they came? Certainly not.
Boat people. Two simple words. One describing a method of travel and the other the common humanity we all share. Two words that could describe the majority of people who have come to this country throughout its history.
And yet it seems today these two simple words together make a phrase that is used to imply all kinds of other things. Unwanted. Different. Threatening. Illegitimate.
Why are the people who travel this way today seen so differently? What gives me the right to make judgments about their suitability to live here when I am only here because nobody made those same judgments about my family members?
I understand the issues are not quite as simple as they once may have been. (On the other hand, some of the issues of the past were far worse). But people are people, whatever time period they are living in. What makes us so arrogant in 2013 to think that suddenly we have the right to treat people in ways which our families were not treated when they came in the same way?
I’ve enjoyed researching my family history over the past few years and learning some of the stories of those who came before me. I’ve discovered that every single member of my family who was not born in Australia came here by boat. I’m wondering what that means for me, and what the impact of me telling my story using these words is. Does it change how I respond to the stories I hear in the media about those who are defined by the way they come today? Should it?
I think about the stories I am hearing of real people, people with hopes and dreams just like my family members had, people who have made difficult decisions and difficult journeys. People who have travelled here by boat. People who are locked up and treated as criminals, as nothing. People who are demonised and politicised. And I wonder, what will it take for us to see them as people just like my family? As people just like me? How can we even begin to have a conversation in this country about this issue unless this is our starting point?
UPDATED: I’ve just discovered our former Governor General and High Court Justice Sir William Deane has this week urged Australians to do just this: reflect on our own migrant histories. See this article. I’d love to hear your story too – do you have boat people in your family tree? What do you know about their stories? Does that change how you think about those who come by boat today? Should it?