The Plight of Aboriginal Culture Is Studied

By Peta Abdul
St. Hilda's School
Queensland, Australia
(Special Thanks to Mr. P. Ch'ng
and Mrs. D. McWhirter)

In 1788, European civilization made its way to Australia. It was a culture, a way of life in strong contrast to that of the indigenous people. The British law was transported to Australia with its people, and it became the law of this new land. What the Aborigines had enjoyed for thousands of years was now being taken away from them; their fishing, hunting and food gathering were being restricted as the new settlers took up more and more land.

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The concept of land among the Aboriginal people was different from that of the European in that the Aboriginal land was communal land. Land has spiritual significance among the Aboriginal people. It was chiefly the forceful and unfair acquisition of land by the Europeans which was the cause of a generally, acrimonious relationship between the two parties. In their endeavors to expand for greater pastures, the two sides came into hostility. During the course of this invasion for land, Europeans brought diseases, destroyed fruit bearing trees, killed off native wildlife, replaced old ecological practices, disturbed sacred sites, and killed the Aborigines with guns and poisons.

The ill-treatment and injustices to the Aborigines were wide spread in Australia. Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory all have stories of the massacres of Aborigines. The following accounts are examples of the bloodiest massacres and most shameful acts in Australian history.

Tasmania was where the first massacre occurred. Some three months after settlement of the colony, approximately 300 Aborigines were seen approaching the settlement with a herd of kangaroos. The Aborigines were unarmed. At first, the colonists panicked. They had never seen such a large group of Aborigines before. However, they soon settled down after seeing that the Aborigines were unarmed. Then, Lt. William Moore of the New South Wales Rum Corps decided that it would be a good joke to "see the niggers run." He ordered his troops to fire, and the bullets hit some Aborigines in the back, killing them. Others were wounded. Between 30 and 60 Aborigines were killed that day, although Lt. Moore claimed only three had died.

There was a bureaucratic cover-up that the Aborigines were armed and heading towards the camp, that the attack was premeditated despite the reports of witnesses such as this account given by Edward White, a servant. He said that he "saw 300 Natives come down in a circular form, and a flock of kangaroos hemmed in between them."

In New South Wales, atrocities began with the settlers trying to cross the Blue Mountains. However, in 1813 a party of three, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson managed to reach the other side with the help of the Aborigines. They found prime, grazing land with pastures and rivers. The Aborigines of the Wiradjuri tribe did not see the Whites as a threat.

Later, surveyors came but in small numbers, and neither side saw the other as a threat. The Governor at the time, Lachlan Macquarie, knew that to settle the land they would have to move carefully and slowly. He allowed a small settlement of 114 people to cross the mountains but held back big landowners, such as John Macarthur. The Aborigines lived in harmony with the settlement for a time. Then orders from Britain came that the pastures were to be properly settled. In three years, the number of settlers skyrocketed to 1267. Land was being taken; sacred sites desecrated. The Wiradjuri saw what was happening to them and the the land on which they had lived for thousands of years.

They started to fight back in minor skirmishes at first. However, after three years there was a full-scale war. Aborigines were attacking isolated stations while Whites, blaming all, were killing any Aborigine they saw. The government even allowed the murder of Aborigines. There were trial facades without reports of the massacres. One landowner, William Cox, said "the best thing that can be done is to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses. That is all the good they are fit for!"

This was the general attitude of the majority. The massacres were long and bloody, and the Wiradjuri were being driven to extinction. A group of soldiers found a small Wiridjuri encampment at the Bell Falls Gorge. They fired shots into the air and the Wiradjuri, afraid of death, ran. They fled into the bush, but the soldiers followed in a pincer movement. The Wiradjuri were trapped. In front of them were soldiers; behind them was the deadly leap down to the falls. They made their choice. Those who were able grabbed their children and loved ones and leapt, plunging to their deaths. Between 20 and 30 innocent people died, never to be remembered. The Wiradjuri suffered so much. They gave up, surrendering to the Whites. They turned to alcoholism and some died of European diseases. By 1850, few survived.

The situation in Queensland was similar. A man named Patrick belonged to the local police force. He rode round the countryside terrorizing the Kairi people. Jesse Gregson started a station near the Comet River. He was against the Kairi and forced them off his land. Later that year, Patrick, who always visited the new settlers, visited Gregson, and the two spent many hours around the campfire discussing the Kairi. A few days later, Gregson noticed that approximately 300 of his sheep were missing. He and Patrick rode out to look for the missing sheep and found the Kairi herding them. They followed and saw the Kairi take them back to their camp.

Gregson and Patrick assumed that the Kairi had stolen the sheep, but the Kairi had found the sheep which had wandered from the herd and thought that Gregson had thrown them away. It was a simple misunderstanding that led to so many deaths. Patrick and his men, along with Gregson, rode into the camp and started firing. The number of deaths was enormous. Few survived the attack, and those that did fled. Now the Kairi had a reason to attack. They wanted revenge for the deaths of so many innocents.

The instruction to Governor Phillip dated 23 April, 1787 was that, "you are to endeavor by every possible means to open up an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence."

It would appear that had the above instructions been enforced, the number of atrocities might have been minimized; however, the lack of regard for the rights of the Aborigines and their land caused great hostility.

Today, such blatant racism is not tolerated by the Aborigines or the government. There are no more bloody massacres. But there is a "silent massacre." Deaths of Aborigines in custody today are higher than those of the average, white criminal population. There have been 59 deaths in custody since 1990, reaching an all- time high of 15 deaths in 1995. The lack of housing and health care, below that of third world countries, has resulted in a high infant mortality rate. The recent spread of HIV among the heterosexual Aboriginal community further poses grave danger to this already suffering community.

Subtle racism underlies the facade of goodwill among Australian people today. Not all of the population discriminates, but a remainder of the same colonial attitude, that caused the massacre of so many people, continues.

Recent Mabo legislation, made law by the previous federal Labor government, is a step in the right direction. However, by jailing them, 'civilizing' them and treating them in the European way, we have stripped the Aborigines of their culture and helped destroy them by taking away their reason for existence: their land.

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Last Modified: 13 May 1997

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