Aborigines And White Settlers
The Breaking Down of Aboriginal Society
Differences and Racial Clashes
Aborigines in early Sydney and other districts could see little point in many European practices. They did not need to cultivate the soil or keep domesticated animals, since the natural environment provided for their wants. Similarly they saw little need for European learning and religion – they had their own skills and their own explanations of the world around them. In fact Aborigines often proved the better teachers. they show3ed white settlers the trees that provided the best timbers for various purposes and how to cut and treat bark for hut making; they showed how to obtain bark fibre, valuable for rope, and other skills. Above all Aborigines proved excellent guides, especially to white explorers, in strange country.
The whites claimed that physical clashes occurred because Aborigines were naturally wicked and loved fighting. The claim was not accurate. Aborigines in their own society were a peaceful people. Fighting among them was usually on a limited scale, often stopping when the first blood was drawn. there was nothing like the wars known among European people for territory, nor did Aborigines form large-scale combinations for fighting. And Aborigines could scarcely have been impressed by what they saw among the new arrivals, for convict society offered daily examples of harshness and ill-treatment. White people also claimed that Aborigines had no idea of land ownership, therefore white settlers could not be dispossessing them. why, they asked, did Aborigines resent the new arrivals so much? Part of the answer was already apparent to Governor King, who became governor of New South Wales in 1800. He realized that loss of land was a major reason for trouble, although settlers continued to claim Aborigines had no land of their own. Whites would not learn from the example of Bennelong, the Aborigine they knew best, who repeatedly declared that the island of Me-mul (Goat Island), near Sydney Cove, was his own and his family’s home. Like other Aborigines Bennelong was deeply attached to his land. to be forced from their group land meant that Aborigines lost their spiritual homes as well as their source of food. In occupying Aboriginal land, whites drove off game, destroyed vegetation, fouled waterholes and showed no respect for sacred places. A modern writer, Professor Colin Tatz, has shown the nature of what was happening:
For Aborigines … land is a spiritual thing, a phenomenon from which culture and religion derive, it is not sellable or buyable. Land is not private property … Land was and is endowed with a magical quality, involving a relationship to the sun and the water and the earth and the animals all put together – for the collective use of all. the notion of a fence to separate portions of the land was unknown to them for fences defaced the land. They could not, and some still cannot, understand the concept of making land into private property and giving its ‘owners’ the right to bar everyone else … And so bloody conflict and massacre developed … because whites ‘took’ what Aborigines did not comprehend could be ‘taken’.
As white settlement spread after 1800, clashes continued. Officials in Britain and New South Wales thought the matter was simple. the British Crown was held to own the land. People of both races inhabiting the land were claimed to be British subjects. Aborigines were neither consulted nor given a choice. They were actually declared to be under the protection of the law, but this proved little. In fact whites were those who clamoured for protection and who received it most. With the wool trade becoming more prosperous, settlers then began settling on new grazing land after the Blue Mountains were crossed. In more distant areas official protection of either race was more difficult and often not attempted. violence – ‘guerilla warfare’ – extended again along the frontier of settlement. guns were at the ready, or were used, on many pastoral properties. Aborigines, too, took to arms, using spears against settlers and stock. Inevitably, clashes ended in the taking of Aboriginal land and the subjection of the people.
A bunyip, drawn by a River Murray Aboriginal in 1848. The bunyip, much dreaded, was believed to live in deep waterholes or swamps.
The nature of relations between Aborigines and Europeans varied in different districts and was not always violent. European diseases were often the most destructive agent in the decline of Aboriginal groups. Surviving Aborigines began to live in towns as well as country areas. European missionaries sought to break down Aboriginal beliefs and convert Aborigines to Christianity, but they also tried to provide some relief to suffering Aborigines. Yet by the 1830s relationships between Europeans and Aborigines were at a critical stage. European settlers had seized great stretches of country in New South Wales. some pitched battles and other incidents were of major significance. In northern New South Wales in 1838 a group of station-hands killed twenty-eight bound Aborigines in what became known as the Myall Creek Massacre. In this case, unlike many others, the seven station-hands held to be responsible were convicted and hanged for their crime, despite white sympathy for them. Many whites seemed to share the view of a writer a little earlier “Speaking of them collectively, it must be confessed I entertain very little more respect for the aborigines of New Holland, than for the ourang-outang … ‘they would have shared his further opinion:” ‘They would have shared his further opinion: ‘We have taken possession of their country, and are determined to keep it …’
The Other Colonies
In Van Diemen’s Land the position was even worse. In 1804, soon after white settlement began, some ‘innocent and well disposed’ Aborigines were murdered at Risdon Cove, starting a chain reaction of unpleasant incidents. Lawless sealers and convicts, in murdering Aborigines and kidnapping Aboriginal women, provoked Aborigines to hatred and a desire for revenge. The settlers wanted to solve the Aboriginal question decisively; some simply wanted to exterminate all Aborigines on the island. they looked to the governor, Lieut.-Colonel Arthur, to take strong action. After several futile measures, Arthur tried to outlaw Aborigines from the settled districts. Soon he declared martial law and began in 1830 an amazing military operation, in which five thousand whites attempted to drive the remaining Aborigines into the Tasman Peninsula. This so-called ‘Black War’, said to be extremely costly, failed dismally – only two Aborigines were captured. It was left to George Robinson, a bricklayer of simple faith, to attempt a government policy of conciliation. Making contact with surviving groups, he persuaded Aborigines to make their home on flinders Island. though this provided some physical safety, Aborigines now lacked the spiritual comfort of their own lands. Urged to accept strange European customs and learning, Tasmania’s Aborigines continued to decline in numbers. By 1850 few survived.
In Western Australia, settled in the 1820s, the early aims of protecting, Aborigines and offering them the benefits of European learning and religion were, as elsewhere, soon outweighed by other concerns. governor Stirling allowed whites to take strong measures against Aborigines said to be causing trouble. Stirling personally took part in the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’ to punish Aborigines of the Murray River district south of Perth. Once again the Aborigines faced strong pressure from whites determined to occupy the land and use arms if they chose. At Port Phillip Bay in 1835 an initial attempt was made at land negotiations. John Batman, an ambitious pastoralist from Van Diemen’s Land was anxious to secure good grazing land near the Yarra for himself and his partners. Unable to win official approval to settle there, Batman simply bargained with local Aborigines for a large tract of land. the New South Wales governor declared this private treaty illegal, and although settlement at Port Phillip expanded quickly and profitably for other whites, Batman obtained no benefit from his curious deal. Nor did Aborigines, who soon found their traditional life decaying and their numbers declining. This was despite the appointment of official protectors of Aborigines, the founding of mission stations and schools, and an attempt to form a ‘Native Police’ force which recruited Aborigines themselves for police work.
Great hopes were held that South Australia, settled in 1836, would be free of the racial troubles elsewhere. In Britain officials influenced by the humanitarian movement of the time were anxious to give South Australia’s Aborigines much greater protection and the blessings of British ways and the Christian religion. they believed South Australia could be a model colony in this respect. Although a protector of Aborigines was appointed and although a good deal of humanitarian talk about kindly treatment took place, efforts and results were feeble. The Kaurna people around Adelaide was soon shattered as a unit. Aboriginal groups surviving longer felt limited benefit from occasional educational, missionary and welfare attempts. Far from being a model colony in its relations with Aborigines, South Australia resembled the other colonies in the rapid occupation of Aboriginal lands, the physical violence between the races, and the settlers’ ignorance of the nature of Aboriginal society. And once again the original idea of giving protection to Aborigines soon gave way to settlers’ demands for protection from Aborigines, especially after clashes involving overlanders bringing stock to South Australia.
In northern Australia Aborigines and whites engaged in an often violent struggle in the Moreton Bay district (part of the future colony of Queensland). White settlers often resorted to poisoned food and guns along the very troubled frontier. As settlement advanced, the Native Police force – used before in Victoria and New South Wales – became prominent. These mounted Aboriginal troopers, enlisted from remote districts to use their skills of bushcraft against their own race, were trained to enforce peace, ruthlessly as pastoral holdings were developed. For whit3es, the possession of potentially valuable grazing land in the Darling Downs and other areas was at stake; for local Aborigines, this was traditional land and the lifeblood of their existence. Only on stations where their labour was valued were Aborigines welcome; elsewhere they were likely to be attacked indiscriminately. In the Northern Territory things were no better. From the time of John McDouall Stuart’s explorations, the Northern Territory was a scene of racial conflict, a conflict marked by mistrust and violence in which guns, spears and staghounds often featured. Administrators made only feeble efforts to calm the situation. Matters were left to the settlers themselves or entrusted to police leading punitive expedition and forces of Native Police. Cattle spearing would often be the reason given for such an expedition, frequently leading to loss of Aboriginal lives.
This Brilliant article by Jane Resture