A 'Land Without People'
Despite the presence of native inhabitants, Australia in 1788
was declared void by the British First Fleet of any pre-existing
civilisation under the doctrine of terra nullius -
essentially, a land without people. Without recognisable systems
of ruler and ruled, of religious ceremony or worship, of permanent
settlement, ownership and organised trade, the land was deemed
to be empty.
The devastating effects of this assumption are still felt
today. It has meant that the land to which the Aboriginal
people are bound by intricate webs of totemism (clans
who believe in totems - revered natural objects) has been
cleared and developed, its natural resources depleted and
its spiritual significance disregarded. Though having no notions
of private property in the European sense, the native Australians
were in fact fiercely territorial, dependent upon their ancestral
land for both physical and psychic survival.
The basis of this intensely spiritual relationship with the
land -The Dreaming, or Dreamtime - is a rich and complex
pattern of belief, interwoven with accounts of the ancestral
beings who created the world and its inhabitants and who ensure
the protection and continuity of Aboriginal life. This elaborate
mosaic of faith did not find expression in idolatry or purpose-built
places of worship, but in song, dance, art and speech. The
Australian natives carried their notion of the sacred within
them, and imbued the landscape with it in a powerful mutual
relationship. The significance of ancestral land could not
simply be picked up like a picnic blanket and spread out on
some other piece of ground - the land did not belong to them,
but their intense attachment to it stemmed from the fact that
they belonged to and were dependent upon it.
Victims of Colonialism
Dispossessed of this land, lacking immunity to foreign diseases
such as small pox, tuberculosis and influenza whilst their
food sources were destroyed or diminished by exotic animals
and European farming methods, the Aboriginal people became
more dependent on the white settlers for their existence.
Forced to eat unaccustomed foods high in sugar and starches,
they fell prey to malnutrition, obesity and diabetes, heightened
by the ravaging effects of rum.
As the young colony grew, Aborigines were reviled, harassed
and murdered - both by bitter convicts, seeking an outlet
for their frustration and by settlers in the grab for land
on which to make their farming fortunes. Active resistance
was met with punitive raids and massacres - the worst recorded
taking place in 1838, during which 300 Aborigines were killed
over the course of 3 days. The killings continued well into
the 20th century and it is estimated that in the 150 years
after settlement, the population of Australian natives was
reduced from approximately 300,000 to about 75,000. In Tasmania,
full-blooded Aborigines were wiped out altogether.
Fate of the Stolen Generation
Based on these figures and on notions of Darwinism, it was
assumed that the Aboriginal population was dying out. 'Protection'
policies for the survivors in the early 1900s amounted to
segregation and restrictions on freedom. Since it was believed
that the full-blooded race would soon disappear anyway, the
government focussed on breeding out Aboriginal culture. "Assimilation",
as the policy was called, sanctioned the forcible removal
of non full-blood children from their families. These children
were placed in institutions where they were expected to learn
European values and trades, integrate into white culture,
breed with other "half-castes" or whites and ultimately
eliminate the Aboriginal blood line. These Stolen Generations,
as they come to be known, are to this day campaigning for
recognition of what they suffered in being literally kidnapped
from their families and often mistreated by their new guardians.
The banishing of adult Aborigines to camps and missions was
intended to force the Aboriginal people to adopt the economic
and cultural values of white society, while abandoning their
own distinct cultural beliefs. Yet Aboriginal culture proved
to be remarkably resilient, and this 'herding' together actually
facilitated some form of organised resistance to be mounted
against their treatment at the hands of the whites.
Fighting Back and Landmark Victories
Consequently, in the 1960s, Aborigines petitioned to demand
land rights and improved living and working conditions. The
publicity these attracted led to 'assimilation' being increasingly
criticised and eventually abandoned and in 1967 a referendum
was passed granting Aborigines citizen status for the first
time. Finally, in 1972, a policy of self determination under
the Whitlam government was instigated which granted Aborigines
the right to actively participate in the making of decisions
which would impact on their lives.
However, the doctrine of terra nullius was still upheld
in response to land rights claims. Only in 1976 was legislation
passed in the Northern Territory which gave very limited recognition
of a prior indigenous claim on unused land. Similar legislation
was subsequently passed in other states.
Not until 1992 was terra nullius finally denounced
as legal fiction in the Mabo court case. It was recognised
instead that Native Title had existed before the introduction
of European law. Despite being a landmark case, the decision
did little to outline exactly to what extent Native Title
exists or is extinguished by introduced law. The later Wik
case stated that Native Title can exist side by side with
European law - however, where the two are in conflict, the
European law will prevail. Amended legislation in 1998 improved
the position of the Aboriginal people to some extent, but
still gave extensive benefits to later land-users.
Despite these small concessions, the consequences of European
invasion and Aboriginal dispossession are still felt and observed
today. The Aboriginal people have a mortality rate that is
far higher than that of their white Australian counterparts
and are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, living in
poverty and to die in custody. The psychic scars left by 200
years of murder, displacement, spiritual upheaval, abuse and
assimilation, combined with the appallingly low standard of
living that many Aborigines experience today, have led to
well-publicised problems of substance and alcohol abuse, often
resulting in aggression.
However, this is far less widespread than some white Australians
would like to believe. Many Aboriginal communities impose
a ban on the possession or consumption of alcohol on their
lands and many others have instigated rehabilitation programmes.
Only around 30% of people identifying themselves as indigenous
Aborigines live in urban areas, where they may have adapted
to white culture in so far as they work or study in this environment,
while maintaining kinship ties, religious beliefs and use
of native language. However, continuing racism is often heightened
by these efforts to remain distinct and by government attempts
at 'positive discrimination'. This racism, plus the high-visibility
of Aboriginal drinkers (many are unemployed and homeless and
are seen outdoors drinking cheap alcohol) leads to an incorrect
and unjust stereotyping of all Aborigines as drunken and lazy.
Recent years have seen increasing pressure on the Australian
government to take the process of reconciliation forward by
issuing a national apology for the treatment of the Aborigines
at the hands of the white invaders and subsequent generations.
The current Prime Minister, John Howard, has repeatedly
refused to take such a step on the basis that today's Australians
cannot be held responsible for what their predecessors did
in accordance with the policies of the day. Regardless of
his reticence, thousands of Australians have signed apology
books, but the general feeling is that there is still a long
way to go before progress will truly have been made.