Back in Australia’s Bicentennial, Aboriginal Australian Burnum Burnum famously planted the Aboriginal flag at Dover and claimed England in the name of his people. It was a superb piece of satire, provoking reflection on the basic issue of, by what right did one people claim the land of another? But the satire also provoked reflections that a great many Aboriginal activists today, not to say most of the “progressive” left, would find distinctly uncomfortable.

After all, colonialism is touted as the One Big Idea that supposedly explains everything about the world today. Everything, from imaginary “white privilege”, to the notable problems of many formerly colonised peoples, is blamed on colonialism and “stolen land”.

But there’s a problem with that narrative: there’s scarcely a square inch of land, outside of Antarctica, that hasn’t been stolen, often bloodily, from someone else. There are hardly a people alive who haven’t been conquered by someone else at some time — and a few peoples no longer living, such as the Moriori, who were conquered by the very people so loudly condemning colonialism today.

Which begs the question: if being colonised and oppressed is what condemns people to eternal “disadvantage”, why are so many recently colonised and oppressed people actually doing so well?

Especially we white folks?

After all, at the same time that Burnum Burnum’s ancestors were being dispossessed of their lands, so were many of my ancestors. Often as brutally as were the Aborigines: Ireland has only recently (and largely thanks to immigration) reached the population levels preceding the near-genocide of the Clearances and the Famine.

But, even before that, some of my ancestral peoples were subjected to a genocide equal in brutality to anything perpetrated in the New World.

The “Harrying of the North” was a campaign by the Norman conquerors of Britain in the winter of 1069-70. William the Conqueror’s knights laid waste to Yorkshire and surrounding shires: what had once been the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, long a hotbed of resistance to the expansionist kings of the south. While the southern regions of England were quickly subjugated by the Normans, the tenacious Northumbrians remained a direct threat to William’s rule.

After a series of William’s puppet-rulers, native English earls appointed by the Normans, were assassinated, he sent an army to conquer the region by force — only for them to be ambushed and slaughtered at Durham. By the end of 1069, the Normans were surrounded by enemies, the Northumbrians in the foremost.

After crushing the Welsh and buying off the Danes, William concentrated his full might on the North.

This time, instead of a single army, William divided his army into raiding-parties, who were sent out on a scorched-earth mission. Entire villages were razed and their inhabitants killed, livestock slaughtered and stores of food destroyed. The survivors were left with so little to scavenge that they were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats, and, eventually, human flesh.

The toll of slaughter remains disputed: a chronicler of the following century claimed as many as 100,000 deaths. Numbers in the tens of thousands (at a time when England’s population was around 1-2 million) are almost certain. A decade later, Domesday recorded one-third of the available land in Yorkshire as “waste”.

There can be no question that the Harrying was a genocide. William pursued two objects: flushing out and eliminating the Northumbrian rebels foremost, but also erasing the inhabitants and their resources so comprehensively that no future insurgents would have even the means to support themselves.

It might be objected that all that is ancient history. But, when Australia has a history of human habitation as long as 60,000 years, the Harrying might as well have been yesterday. As noted earlier, others of my ancestors were brutalised and dispossessed at exactly the same time as the Aborigines and Maori.

So, who do I see about reparations? Can I claim co-governance of Britain or Ireland?

Or does all this only work one-way?

“Hic Domus Incenditur” – Here a home is burned: a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Harrowing of the North. The BFD.

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Who Do I See about Reparations?

Lushington D. Brady

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In the last decade...