I was listening to this song launched in 1987 by the Australian rock band Midnight Oil, when I realised that it would be a nice way to introduce the use of present continuous with ‘when and while’ for low levels of English, along with a bit of English and Australian history to explain the meaning of the song (for higher levels). The single, which belongs to the album Diesel and Dust, hit the charts in many countries, however, few were aware that it was a protest song in support for giving the native Australian people their lands back.
In order to understand this, we’d have to refer to the issue of colonisation, concretely, British colonisation that came into existence during the sixteenth century by the hand of Henry VII. By the time the nineteenth century had arrived, a vast list of territories had been placed under the Crown (or should I say grabbed and forced under it?). Colonisation had actually little or nothing to do with ‘helping the world to become a better place’ as Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ claims. Rather than this, it was mainly a matter related to economic interests.
Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania came under British rule in 1770 when Captain Cook happened to discover the coast of Australia and claimed it for Britain, however, it must be said that the first European sightseeing of Australia had been by the Dutch. Up to that moment, the British had been sending their prisoners to the American Colonies, but after the independence of the these, this was no longer possible. One day, some bright spark suggested sending them to Botany Bay (New Wales, Australia) and in 1788, Britain started sending boatloads of convicts to the newly acquired territories. Years later, on gaining their freedom, the British prisoners could not go back to Britain as they lacked the means to do so, and they had nothing to look forward to in their mother country, so they started settling.
As the living conditions for the British colonisers improved, word went round that Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania could offer a better life and farming opportunities to the landless surplus population of the British Isles, resulting in the immigration of thousands of British families. This not only meant important changes to the environment, but also to the lives of the native people who were gradually being forced towards unwanted areas.
It wouldn’t be too long when the white population would heavily outnumber the native people and conflicts on issues such as the distribution of land and the establishment of a common language would result in ethical and political conflicts. Soon, relocation laws were past along with others that aimed to eradicate the indigenous culture through the prohibition to speak native languages and the infamous practice of removing children from their homes to be brought up by white families (Stolen Generations).
Midnight Oil is singing against such policies and is denouncing situations such as the relocation of the Pintube, who in 1984 were forced to leave their traditional way of life. So, the song means much, much more that a chorus to sing to while headbanging and having a couple of beers. It conveys a message related to human rights which have too easily been ignored and silenced throughout times. Beds are Burning discusses these issues through Peter Rober Garret’s extraordinary voice, who not only is a musician, but also an environmentalist, activist and politician.
You may want to see some comments left about this song on the following link.