Next week, 13 January 2019, will be the 80th anniversary of one the worst natural disasters in world history.
Paul Robinson (8 years old), Vera Robinson (10 years old), Mary Robinson (12 years old) and Teresa Robinson (13 years old) burned to death when trying to flee from the Black Friday fires. They had panicked, and tried to outrun the fire along the track they took to school. Their father found their bodies. He, his wife and four other children survived, huddling on a small patch of bare earth outside their house. The Royal Commissioner reported ‘After seeing the place it is hard to understand how he and the remaining family got out with their lives, the place was simply a raging inferno’ (p. 832-C). Had they survived the fire, the four dead Robinson children could still be alive today. This tragedy is still within living memory.
On Friday, 13 January 1939, the state of Victoria was consumed by what is still one of the worst and deadliest bushfires in history. That day was Black Friday – and 71 people burned to death. South-eastern Australia has a long tradition of natural fire disasters, and it is now customary to call them ‘Black’: Black Sunday (Victoria, 1926, 20 deaths), Black Tuesday (Tasmania, 1967, 61 deaths), Ash Wednesday (it already had its Biblical name when 78 died in South Australia and Victoria) and then the most recent of them all, Black Saturday (Victoria, 2009, 176 deaths).
One of the victims of Black Friday
From about the 1950s, it has been customary for those in the United States to call the day after Thanksgivings, when many retailers offer sales and discounts, ‘Black Friday’. American firms that email advertising to consumers worldwide use the term, even though countries outside the USA don’t really use it. In Germany, the English phrase ‘Black Friday’ was even trademarked in 2013: while the trademark has been cancelled, the decision to cancel has been appealed. If a term can be privately owned, it is not, by definition, commonly used. There are various theories for the origin of the American term: heavy traffic, retailers ringing up profits and thus being ‘in the black’ or even to note the deaths of shoppers trampled in the rush to be the first to enter stores.
To use ‘Black Friday’ in Australia to promote a money-making opportunity is tasteless and culturally tone-deaf – and just plain odd since the same retailers don’t bother to offer a Thanksgiving holiday on the preceding Thursday. Australian retailers who understand their culture use other terms, like the retail chain Harris Scarfe, who have a ‘Black Label’ sale. Words have different meanings in different cultures, and we need to respect those meanings.
George Santayana, an American whose outlook was worldly rather than local, wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – a principle worth keeping in mind, as we find ourselves in the middle of another Australian bushfire season.
On that day, it appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday in many places, it was as dark as night . . . Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise, all that they touched. Houses of brick were seen and heard to leap into a roar of flame before the fires reached them. (Report of the Royal Commission to inquire into the Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January, 1939)
A house bursts into flame; the aftermath of the fires in Healesville, now a suburb of Melbourne
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