Australia: What’s in a Name?, by Bruce Buchan

As he lay dying on 19 July 1814, the last of the epic labours of his all-too-short lifetime only just completed, Captain Matthew Flinders received but never saw the publication that had consumed the last years of his life: the Voyage to Terra Australis. This was the polished journal of his epic circumnavigation of Australia between 1801 and 1803. Long overshadowed by illustrious contemporaries, Flinders deserves a special purchase on our national consciousness, if for no other reason than for the audacity of his imagination. Thanks to his imagination, the First Peoples of the land he so meticulously charted were named Australians.

It was the great patron of Britain’s scientific and colonial Enlightenment, Joseph Banks, who insisted that Flinders rein in his imagination and use for his journal’s title the then somewhat archaic name for the Southern continent: Terra Australis. Flinders had audaciously imagined and desired a different name, as he explained in a footnote to his Introduction:

Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.

Though not quite the first to use the name, Flinders recommended ‘Australia’ on the basis of sonic style and the consistency of continental nomenclature. In spite of Banks’ obstinacy, or just as likely because of it, Flinders’ recommendation stuck. The land would become, in time, Australia.

The irony—one that often lies concealed in names—was that Flinders’ Australia was a name he wished to innovate for the people he had done more than many to colonise. The Australians were, in Flinders’ imagination, the First People he found inhabiting the land, and the people whose reactions to his abrupt presence he invited his readers to imagine. In doing so, Flinders boldly innovated a name by employing the venerable contours of well-worn colonial imagination. In his and so many others’ colonial imaginings, the Australians were the subjects of ‘savage’ apprehension, frozen in awe at their confrontation with colonial superiority.

Not all colonists indulged in Flinders’ flights of colonial imagination. Some saw all too clearly that the First People of Australia were neither frozen nor inferior, in any sense. Yet we should not deny either that, although the contours of colonialism were inscribed in Flinders’ imagination, there was a beguiling universalism too.

When Flinders recalled one confrontation near the harbour he named Port Lincoln in 1802, he reflected on the native reticence of the ‘Australians’ by inviting his readers to consider that:

Nor does this conduct seem to be unnatural; for what, in such case, would be the conduct of any people, ourselves for instance, were we living in a state of nature, frequently at war with our neighbours, and ignorant of the existence of any other nation? On arrival of strangers, so different in complexion and appearance to ourselves, having power to transport themselves over, and even living upon an element which to us was impassable; the first sensation would probably be terror, and the first movement flight. … Such seemed to have been the conduct of these Australians…

The universalism of Flinders’ imagination was thus the medium for an astonishing double manoeuvre in rhetoric. He named a people for a land whose coast he was charting, thus consigning them, like the landmarks on his charts, to the realm of nature revealed by expert vision, defined by European knowledge, rendered familiar by colonial imagination.

Today we have all but forgotten the audacity of Flinders’ imagination. The casual flagrance of our forgetting hides our own, greater audacity. We who so nonchalantly name ourselves as the national inhabitants of the land Flinders named have assumed another’s name. But what’s in a name?


When the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) recently declaimed that the possibility of a treaty or treaties with Australia’s Indigenous people was ‘unlikely’ to command the support of ‘the majority in the Liberal party’, the reason offered was that such a form of recognition would divide the nation, effectively denying that ‘Indigenous Australians are Australians’.

Australians are the inheritors of a uniquely long, indeed ancient history of human habitation on and occupation of this land. Many Australians, myself included, know painfully little about this history. Most Australians do not speak any of the languages that Indigenous Australians used to name and inhabit this land. Although we adopt the name and the language of those who claimed their own occupation of this land after 1788, many Australians know little about this history either: of what was suffered and what was accomplished by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in those early years of colonisation.

The IPA itself appears to know very little of that history, for it decries the call for a Treaty as an indulgent whim of ‘radical identity politics’—a claim that reduces history to the partisan nostrums of contemporary ‘culture wars’. There is nothing radical about treaties with Indigenous peoples and nations, and the astonishing absence in Australia’s colonial history of any such treaty belies the prosaic reality. There was nothing radical about the possibility of a Treaty in 1788 either.

Treaties were by then a well-worn mechanism of negotiation over land, resources, military alliance, taxation and legal jurisdiction between a variety of European imperial powers (and their successor states) with Indigenous peoples from the seventeenth to the twentieth century in Africa, in India, in the Americas and, of course, in New Zealand. Those treaties were frequently fraudulent, disingenuously negotiated, compromised by vested interest, twisted by high policy or ruined by low deceit. Indigenous peoples regularly, but not always, found themselves on the weaker side of the negotiating table, but even when they didn’t they too often discovered that the clauses of their treaties were meaningless because they were circumvented, or powerless because they were unenforced.

For all their too-evident failings, these treaties did have their benefits. At the least, they preserved a record of Indigenous presence and voice. They inscribed into law and diplomacy Indigenous meanings and values, sometimes in the language of subtle metaphor and arcane procedure, at other times by bold and insistent objection and defiance. Not often, but at times, treaties could be used as tools to curb colonial ambition and to prick colonial conscience. Perhaps most importantly, though, treaties served to constrain colonial imagination—they made it impossible for colonists to imagine that they had the land to themselves. Treaties required colonists to regard their history as colonial—to know that the land they claimed had been another’s, rather than to imagine it conveniently abandoned.

In 1788, Treaty was possible here. Treaties too numerous to mention had been signed by the British elsewhere. Perhaps they did not want the complication of treaties in Terra Australis, and perhaps they saw no point. Perhaps the fateful failure of Treaty in 1788 was not a consequence of British colonisation but of the unwillingness or inability of the French or the Dutch to colonise here as well. Whatever the case, the legacy of that failure means that to be Australian today is to be continually invited to indulge the lie that hung like an albatross around the neck of that infant colony.

In 1788 and thereafter the colonisers found peoples inhabiting and occupying every square inch of the land. They found peoples fully possessed of identities and interests; peoples as richly endowed as any other on the face of the earth with laws and lore, languages and life-ways. They found a complicated tapestry of peoples who knew better than any other, and better than we have long been willing to acknowledge, how long they have been here. What the colonists found in 1788 were peoples as completely in command of themselves and their heritage as any other people could possibly be. If sovereignty does not mean this, then what’s in a name?


As far as the colonists in 1788 and subsequently were concerned, there was no Indigenous sovereignty here. Flinders’ Australians were a people without sovereignty, who could only be imagined as aimless nomads, or as warring savages, or as terrorised primitives. Throughout most of the history of the Australian nation, the abiding sentiment towards Indigenous Australians has been precisely to eliminate the grounds of their sovereignty—by denying their interests, by erasing their identities, by destroying their families and communities, by deriding their heritage, by removing their land. That bitter legacy endures, but still we are told that Treaty should not be our response.

Treaty isn’t needed, we’re told, because Treaty-like agreements are already in place that recognise an Indigenous jurisdiction in the provision of local services or the management of Native Title. That is undoubtedly so, and those hard-won jurisdictions are crucial for communities to achieve and defend a measure of autonomy. But jurisdiction is not self-determination. Jurisdiction is not representation. Jurisdiction is not sovereignty.

Treaty-like is Treaty-lite.

Treaty is the eternally absent presence in our nation’s modern history: it refuses to budge, it knocks uncomfortably and unerringly, and it continually resurfaces. Treaty, like the people who have called for it again and again, has wilfully, stubbornly, triumphantly refused to die.

And yet we are told, even now in the era of globalisation, that sovereignty must be one and indivisible. A nation cannot cede its sovereignty in whole or in part. A nation cannot make a treaty with itself. After thirty years of relentless neoliberal retrenchments of the state, of liberalisations of global finance, of independence for corporate powers, of privatisations of militaries and war making (not to mention policing and prisons also), and of indemnifications for tax evaders and minimisers the world over, sovereignty offers but a tawdry, tattered and threadbare cloak of legitimacy for Treaty deniers.

Sovereignty has always been a ‘mad god’s dream’. Hovering between myth and reality, the sovereignty of states is supposed to be the ne plus ultra of a nation’s existence. A nation lives and prospers, so the nationalist narrative runs, only when it conforms itself into a sovereign state and declares its will to the world. Globalisation has deranged that narrative from its purpose. The globalising states of the capitalist world have been selling off their sovereignty in job lots for decades in favour of a different kind of order: the sovereignty of the market or its dominating factions. In our world, sovereignty is a contradiction: a receptacle of dreams, a refuge for illusion, a leaky vessel.

At this point in our nation’s history, Treaty should not be a cause for lament or resentment. Treaty should be a cause for optimism and opportunity. A Treaty will not serve if it excludes and divides. A Treaty will succeed precisely because it calls us all to the table. The point of Treaty is not to resurrect a long-dead sovereignty but to reimagine and repurpose it. A Treaty will not erase the past, but nor will it require us to live in it. A Treaty is a call for us to be mindful of our past, and to make a new way forward.

It would be foolish to deny the difficulties that lie in the path of Treaty, and it would be unwise to think it will obviate future problems. But it is folly to imagine that different futures are not possible because the mystique of sovereignty mandates timidity, or worse, duplicity. If the experience of globalisation, and the recent adventures of neoliberal governance have taught us anything, it is that there is no power residing in words or names that prevents their reimagining. This is the question that Treaty poses: sovereignty, what’s in a name?


When Matthew Flinders described the peoples he encountered near Port Lincoln in 1802 as ‘Australians’, he tried to imagine them. His effort was noble but compromised. The realities of the colonisation for which he was a leading agent made it impossible for him to see the Australians as anything other than a figment of his imagination. We are all creatures of our time and place, and it would be wrong to demand of Flinders or anyone else an Archimedian capacity to step outside the world and see it as it really is. Our imagining is never unbound.

For all his limitations, we have good reason to be grateful for Flinders’ imagining. He imagined a name for a new land and its peoples. It’s a name that stuck, and so too have its origins in our colonial imagination. Australians have long imagined this land to be something other than it is: empty, untouched, uninhabited, wilderness, unoccupied, hostile, ours. In recent years Australians have been invited to imagine Australia differently by acknowledging colonial history and its bitter legacies. In the wake of the Uluru Statement we have been invited to imagine a different future, a future like any other fraught with uncertainties and difficulties, but different from the one bequeathed to us by colonial imagination.

Yet still that colonial imagination claims our indulgence. There should be no Treaty, it is said, for we are all ‘the same’ and we cannot divide ourselves. Flinders also imagined that the Australians he encountered were the same as him and his European readers—so much so that he thought those readers might imagine themselves as Australians. But in doing so he relieved his readers of the burden of that encounter. They might have been imagined the same, but they were not imagined equal. Is it any wonder that the IPA has also denied Treaty on the grounds that we are all ‘the same’? To imagine that we are the same is to deny the distinction of Indigenous presence and voice. This was the clumsy historical compromise inscribed in treaties: a recognition that the parties to it were not the same and were likely to clash, but their accommodation required an acknowledgement of presence and voice. Now the question of Treaty has been raised again, and we are once again challenged to confront the limits of our imagining. We imagine that we are sovereign over a land for which we were named: Australia. Do we imagine that a land and a people so named by colonial imagining can continue to evade the return of Treaty?

Australia: what’s in a name?


Research for this article was supported by a Riksbankens Jubileumsfond project grant with Dr Linda Andersson Burnett entitled: ‘The Borders of Humanity: Linnaean Natural Historians and the Colonial Legacies of Enlightenment’.

About the author

Bruce Buchan

Bruce Buchan is an Associate Professor of History in the School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences at Griffith University.

More articles by Bruce Buchan

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