Indigenous Law Resources
Reconciliation and Social Justice Library
Bruce McGuinness and Dennis Walker wrote perceptively in 1985, that:
Aboriginal heroes, of course, in the main remain nameless... Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth ... are depicted as being intrepid explorers who found their way across the Blue Mountains in the greater expanse of Australia. Of course this isn't true. Aboriginal people showed them the way. Without those Aboriginal people they wouldn't have been able to get across those mountains. Those Aboriginal people remain nameless, yet the 'intrepid explorers' are forever glorified by statues and throughout the history books of Australia. There do exist, throughout those historical accounts of what occurred throughout Australian history, many examples of Aboriginal involvement in the blazing of trails, in the establishment of settlements, and in every area of Australian advancement. However, they're hidden within the historical accounts that exist. They remain nameless people.
During the bi-centennial year of 1988, opponents of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' cause argued that while non-indigenous settlers had pioneered the land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had made no contribution to the creation of the modern nation. Indigenous Australians made significant contributions to the economy from the earliest years of settlement: they were part of the workforce which created the great outback industries. The indigenous pioneer, overlooked so often in historical accounts, stands on the common ground where indigenous and other Australians will have to share histories as part of seeking reconciliation.
The first expeditions inland from the infant European settlement at Sydney Cove were accompanied by indigenous guides who provided a range of services - they conducted the Europeans along the most convenient routes, often along traditional pathways; crossed rivers at well-known fords; found water; prepared temporary bark huts; and, of greater importance, they acted as interpreters and diplomats and negotiated passage through the country of resident clans met on the line of march.
In contemporary terms indigenous guides were expert consultants who greatly eased the process of European exploration and discovery. Almost every party - official and private, large and small - which ventured into new country was assisted by indigenous guides, both men and women. The only major expedition to eschew advice and assistance from indigenous Australians was that of Burke and Wills and their suffering and death was directly related to this fact. The European exploration of Australia must therefore be seen as a collaborative endeavour and not simply one of European endeavour and heroism.
Indigenous Australians' bushcraft - the ability to navigate over unknown country, to find water, travel light and live off the land - was of enormous value to European settlers. They learnt the lessons well; the legendary Australian bush man owed a great deal to what was learnt at first or second hand from indigenous Australian guides. For their part, indigenous workers rapidly mastered the skills needed in outback industries. They became expert horsemen and horsewomen, skilled managers of sheep and cattle and crack shots. Not surprisingly, young indigenous bushworkers were in demand by squatters, prospectors, bullock drivers and by colonial police forces. Native police forces played a major role in preparing the ways for European settlement in much of eastern Australia - from Gippsland and the Western District in Victoria to Cape York in north Queensland.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were of vital importance for the economy everywhere in north Australia in the absence of convict labour. The northern pastoral industry was totally dependent on indigenous stockmen and stockwomen, shepherds and domestic servants. In the more remote areas of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers outnum- bered non-indigenous workers by five or six to one. The great outback pastoral industry was doubly dependent - it used land expropriated from indigenous Australians at little or no cost and it was heavily dependent on largely unpaid indigenous labour.
Indigenous expertise and labour was used in other ways as well. Prospectors working in remote areas were usually accompanied by indigenous guides who were, as often as not, the actual discoverers of new mineral deposits. Indigenous men and women provided much of the domestic labour in the towns and settlements of north Australia -they chopped the wood, fetched the water, scrubbed the floors and minded the children.
Around the north coast, from Broome in the west to Townsville in the east, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women provided the labour which allowed the development of significant maritime industries based on pearls and pearlshell, trochus shells and beche-de-mer. They swam for pearls and shell, and collected, processed and smoked beche-de-mer. The majority of the wealth was never shared with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Without this large, and largely unpaid, work force, the industries would have been unviable.
The great contribution made by indigenous Australians to European exploration and settlement of the country has rarely been recognised. It has often been the case that both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, for reasons of their own, have disowned the thousands of men and women who worked as trackers, troopers, stockmen and stockwomen, pearldivers, shepherds and domestic servants, and whose lives and work undermine the more simplistic versions of Australian history. A proper recognition of their role and a celebration of their lives should be a major aspect of the process of reconciliation.
Museums and monuments could recognise the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts in the history of European discovery and exploration. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labour should be celebrated. A most appropriate project would be to include a major display of Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen in the Stockmen's Hall of Fame in Longreach and the Outback Workers Museum at Barcaldine. A major display about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers in maritime industries could be established in Broome and Thursday Island, and at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. Thursday Island would have the advantage of allowing for a concentration on the history of the Torres Strait Islanders.