The Breaking Down of Aboriginal Society-3

Aborigines And White Settlers

The Breaking Down of Aboriginal Society



The Impact of Settlement

Such actions hastened the decline of Aboriginal groups during the nineteenth century, though the decline went on even where there was friendship and trust on both sides. The decline came despite the setting up of government ration-stations to distribute flour and blankets to needy aborigines, and despite the work of missionary establishments and official protectors of Aborigines. It came, too, despite the often spirited resistance of Aboriginal people to the seizure of their land and the attacks on their culture. the land question lay at the heart of the decline of traditional Aboriginal society. The declared attitude of the British and colonial governments remained clear: the land, ‘waste and uncultivated’, belonged to the whites, even if they had not yet occupied parts of it. Even where some land reserves were set aside for Aborigines, the colonial governments claimed actual ownership of the reserves and white pastoralists could often graze their stock there. Only a few whites admitted that Aborigines were being dispossessed of their land.

The Aboriginal people regarded white settlement as an unjustified intrusion on their lands. Sheep and cattle began to eat out the native grasses and drive off the game which provided essential meat food. The situation was made worse by the white pastoralists’ determination to control the existing waterholes, soon fouled by stock. There was an increasing upset in the balance between Aboriginal population numbers and the available food supply. the white intruders showed no desire to compensate, and did not acknowledge the food-sharing practices found among the Aboriginal people themselves. The situation, of course, was not simply an economic one, since whites and their stock were occupying sacred Aboriginal places, such as the totemic sites to which Aborigines were reverently attached. It was little wonder that Aborigines began their own campaign of spirited resistance on the frontier of settlement. They speared stock which were on their haunting-grounds and which they thus believed they were entitled to hunt. In many areas a bitter racial conflict began, in which Aborigines were at a disadvantage in arms, especially when whites could make greater use of rifles in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first interest of white governments came to be to provide protection from the Aborigines, rather than of them. Police action, punitive raids and began enforcement were some of the methods used. It is no exaggeration to conclude that actual warfare thus took place over a long period in Australia.


One Law for All

In legal proceedings Aborigines were at a considerable disadvantage. Because Aborigines were regarded as incapable of understanding the oath in European courts, their evidence was not accepted. When this situation was later corrected, Aborigines were still greatly disadvantaged. No Aborigine appeared as prosecutor, juror or judge. Court procedures and the legal code were European, and bewildering to Aborigines. Translation of Aboriginal languages caused problems in court, and Aboriginal customs and law were not taken into account. The position was made worse by the Aboriginal tendency to look for, and give, the answer required by the prosecution. Aborigines also became victims of bias and prejudice in courts, which were anxious to uphold white dominance and did not acknowledge Aboriginal title to the land. the punishment system made matters for worse – its basis w3as not understood and it left Aborigines confused and very fearful.

The Europeans’ failure to consider Aboriginal law and customs was part of the pattern of white supremacy. this made no allowance for Aboriginal practices. In traditional society, of course, Aborigines were bound by strict obligations and codes of conduct, which whites simply refused to recognise. Aborigines settled disputes by different means, involving actual or ceremonial punishments and not detention. the idea was to restore normal group life as quickly as possible. Whites were unwilling or unable to understand the Aboriginal system. They failed to observe obligations which Aborigines thought should apply to whites as well as themselves. This caused much Aboriginal resentment – especially the practice of whites trespassing on Aboriginal land and the troubles arising from the whites’ desire for relationships with Aboriginal women.


The Breakdown of Aboriginal Society

As white colonists seized Aboriginal land – land with its spiritual as well as economic importance – there began the assault on traditional Aboriginal society. Beliefs, social customs and morale were weakened as Aboriginal numbers declined. No longer did the social system firmly support Aboriginal groups, ritual duties were no longer performed with the old vigour. The spiritual basis of Aboriginal life was undermined. The whites’ desire to educate and convert Aborigines hastened the breakdown of Aboriginal society. Whites usually described that society as primitive. Aboriginal beliefs and customs were ridiculed, as attempts were made to replace them with European culture. this culture puzzled rather than satisfied Aborigines, to whom it had little relevance. Aborigines found adjustment difficult. Their own world was one in which tradition was highly important – unlike whites, they placed no emphasis on change. In turn Aborigines were criticised for their apparent unwillingness to live according to ‘civilised’ ways. Meanwhile Aboriginal social life continued to decline. white missionaries, by discouraging initiation ceremonies, hindered younger Aborigines from being accepted as full participants in traditional life. whites encouraged Aboriginal marriages which cut across traditional kinship rules. Other patterns of behaviour, so important in regulating Aboriginal social life, decayed.

White settlers usually concentrated on the material problems of colonial life. In the clash for land, especially in remote parts, the settlers’ fear of Aborigines was noticeable. The Aborigines seemed part of a strange land with distinctive fauna. (Aborigines were even described as ‘wild’ or ‘time’, while the term ‘savages’ survived from early days.) Then, after the stage of clash between the races, came the decline of Aboriginal traditional life. With their control of the land gone, Aborigines drifted to the edge of towns, pastoral stations and mission stations, attracted by European material items and by food, drink, and tobacco. Hand-outs of ration food and clothing were periodically made, emphasising the unfortunate and dependent state to which Aborigines had been reduced. The availability of alcohol and tobacco began to take a severe toll of Aboriginal health.



Disease played a vital role in the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal societies. In fact introduced diseases have often been suggested as the major cause of the disappearance of many Aboriginal groups, with a much greater impact than physical violence or any other factor. Before the Macassan visits and the arrival of Europeans, Aborigines had been relatively free from diseases, their chief trouble coming from eye and skin complaints. The marsupials they hunted did not transmit their diseases to humans. but after the coming of other peoples and their stock, Aborigines began to suffer badly from the new diseases, to which they had no natural resistance. Smallpox, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and leprosy had disastrous effects, while milder diseases such as influenza, measles, whooping-cough and the common cold could be just as deadly to a people with no previous contact with them. Several descriptions stated that in some areas most, or all, of the children died from disease.

Diseases in fact often drastically reduced a local Aboriginal population even before the full pressure of white settlement was felt there. Smallpox destroyed the majority of Aborigines close to Sydney within three years of white settlement in 1788. the disease spread down the Murray to south Australia, shattering she health and numbers of Aborigines as it went. the ‘smallpox song’ that Aborigines sang was powerless to stop the deadly disease. the death of the traditional Aboriginal ‘doctors’ and the destruction of medicinal herbs by introduced stock removed the traditional Aboriginal sources of relief from illnesses. by 1850 the results of disease were already being felt in the settled areas of southern Australia, where whites were noticing the decline in the Aboriginal population. Disease robbed Aboriginal people of their spirit and ability to survive. By reducing numbers it broke down the strength of the kinship system and the links between the generations. The birth rate was lowered. Surviving groups were left unable to carry on in the former manner as strong social units. The impact of disease on the social structure of Aboriginal groups and on total numbers was profound.


‘Soothing the Dying Pillow’

As the rapid decline in Aboriginal population took place, few whites tried to suggest reasons. One who did so in 1886 described the grim process and some of its causes:

Experience shows that a populous town will kill out the tribes which live near enough to visit it daily in from two to ten years … in more sparsely-settled country the process is somewhat different and more gradual, but it leads to the same end. In the bush many tribes have disappeared, and the rest are disappearing. Towns destroy by drunkenness and debauchery; in the country, from fifteen to five-and-twenty per cent fall by the rifle; the tribe then submits, and diseases of European origin complete the process of extermination.

This description showed a general pattern. the process varied in intensity according to districts, and was slowed by the efforts of a few determined showed a general pattern. the process varied in intensity according to districts, and was slowed by the efforts of a few determined whites to help Aborigines. Not all the Aboriginal groups died out. but long before 1900 most whites thought it was only a matter of time before the Aboriginal people ceased to exist. This apparent dying-out of the whole race helped to end earlier ideas – held mostly by whites in towns – about Aboriginal assimilation into the white community. Instead of different approach was suggested. Its goal was to make the passing of the Aborigines as peaceful as possible. the approach was termed ‘soothing the dying pillow’. To those who cared, the policy seemed a worthy one, though it was also a policy of despair. As early as 1868, when more than three-quarters of Victoria’s Aborigines had already died out, a Melbourne editor summed up the policy:

Let us make their passage to the grave as comfortable as possible – let us do our best to civilize them and convert them to Christianity; but let us not flatter ourselves that, up to the present at any rate, we have succeeded. something may be done with the half-castes, but the case of the full-blooded aboriginal is, we fear, hopeless.

Whites tended to make a fuss of the last Aboriginal members of a group, just as they did of those they described as ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of a particular group. In practice, however, few whites, or their governments, did much towards Aboriginal welfare. Mission stations and government reserves became the enforced homes of many surviving Aborigines, where they were supplied with medicine, shelter, a minimum of food, and the customary blankets. some schooling and elementary training in practical skills could also be provided. governments favoured this policy of segregation, declaring that it would enable Aborigines to avoid contact with the worst of the whites. Yet by encouraging the isolation of Aborigines this policy also enabled white society to avoid Aborigines and the ‘problem’ of Aboriginal welfare. the idea of ‘soothing the dying pillow’ was easy to accept, for it helped to satisfy the few whites who were concerned about the Aborigines’ position. It also left other whites free to pursue their own tasks on the land taken from Aborigines.


This Brilliant article by Jane Resture

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