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Tag Archives: Australian Aborigines

Was Australia invaded or settled?

Was Australia invaded or settled?

This article was first drafted this time last year in response to a passionate debate around Australia Day on whether Australia was settled by the English, or invaded.

The view has long been held, hardly without question, that the English indeed settled in Australia in 1788. Many Indigenous Australians beg to differ; often quite vociferously around this time of year. Fuelled by emotion rather than evidence, they insist it was an invasion.

They may be right.

From a legal perspective there are a couple of arguments in their favour, the first of which takes us back to 1770 and everybody’s favourite explorer, James Cook. Our history books tell us of Cook’s every adventure. But not of his intentions.

We begin …

In 1770 under Customary Law and Maritime Law it was illegal to usurp, occupy or repopulate lands of First Nations and treaties with these peoples were hence the legal norm and …

Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook had instructions to negotiate with the Natives and gain their consent to occupy land. From April to August 1770, without the consent of the Indigenous Peoples or consultation Captain James Cook landed at a number of sites on the eastern coast of Australia claiming it for the British Crown. On the 22 August 1770 on Possession Island off Cape York, Cook took possession of the whole east coast in right of his Majesty King George the Third (cited from The Other Side of the Coin by Tony Kamps).

But a treaty or any negotiation was, in Cook’s opinion, not a privilege to be afforded to ‘savages’ and he subsequently breached his instructions.

Before 1770, the construct of the Aborigine saw them positioned in the landscape as a savage: a subsequent depiction that evolved in the minds of European imagination. The English, especially, considered themselves well credentialed. As the first Englishman to encounter Aborigines, William Dampier instilled in other Englishmen’s minds the preconceptions about these people when he wrote that they were “the miserablest people in the world.” And the image of the Aborigine was to leave no impression of excitement or significance on Cook, merely accepting the Aborigines as Dampier had earlier reported. Cook had brought with him images of indigenous peoples as noble savages, largely the antithesis of Europeans. Cook was probably also influenced by the writings of Rousseau, whose saw native peoples as unadulterated by the evils of civilisation.

Cook and Joseph Banks themselves were to add “naked and treacherous: a collection of cowardly, unfriendly and vindictive savages belonging to the lowest order in creation.”

Whilst it is acknowledged that Cook had acted improperly towards the Indigenous occupants it eventually mattered not to his peers. By declaring the continent “no man’s land” (the doctrine of which was later to be referred to as terra nullius) the English found a legal lie to take custody of it.

Because the observable Aborigines did not grow crops and because Cook assumed there were no fishable rivers inland, he erroneously concluded that the land’s interior was empty. Banks, meanwhile, thought that the Aborigines would run away and abandon their rights to land. A totally stupid assumption, especially given that after an encounter with local people in Botany Bay Cook wrote that “all they seem’d to want was us to be gone.”

Regardless of Cook’s failure to negotiate a treaty or gain consent to occupy this new land, it became apparent shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 that Aboriginal people were treated little more than impediments standing briefly in the way of inevitable white progress. The failings of Cook and the contravention of the aforementioned Customary Law and Maritime Law were conveniently ignored.

The second event takes us forward to 1841 and the case R. v. Bonjon in the Supreme Court of New South Wales before Willis J., 16 September 1841, Melbourne from where I’ll add further to the claim that the continent certainly was invaded. The following three paragraphs are a summary of the proceedings. Bear with me. They are complex.

Bonjon, a Wadora man, was charged with the shooting murder of Yammowing, of the Colijon people, at Geelong. The proceedings before Judge Willis began with evidence as to the capacity of the defendant to plead the jurisdiction of the court, and to plead guilty or not guilty.The court then heard argument on the question of whether it had jurisdiction to hear a charge of murder by one Aborigine of another.

Arguing against the court’s jurisdiction, Mr Redmond Barry, for Bonjon, said that there is nothing in the establishment of British sovereignty in this country which authorises the court to submit the Aboriginal natives to punishment for acts of aggression committed inter se. New South Wales was occupied by the British, he argued, rather than conquered or ceded. Occupation gave the Crown a right to the soil, but not to any authority over the Indigenous inhabitants as subjects, unless there be some treaty, compact or other demonstration of their desire to come under English law. This does not interfere with the right of the sovereign to punish Aborigines who attack the persons or property of British settlers, or the reverse. No statute states that Aborigines are British subjects, and there is no treaty or compact showing their submission to British authority; their assent was necessary. Nor is there any reciprocity between them and the Crown to render them amenable to the criminal law. It is impossible to apply the whole of that law to them. Aborigines have their own modes of punishment, under their own regulations. Their regulations, like those of all societies, extend to murder. The Aborigines live in self-governing communities. English law, then, was not the only law in the colony, and it could not be imposed on them by terror.

Mr Croke, the Crown Prosecutor, replied that it is lawful for a civilised country to occupy the territory of uncivilised persons, so long as they leave them sufficient land to enable them to acquire subsistence. As a consequence of such settlement, the common law of England was transferred to the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. All persons within that area owe a local allegiance to the Queen, and are bound by English law even for conflicts inter se. They are protected by the law, and bound to obey it. Sufficient land having been left for them, they have no original rights to the territory of Port Phillip, but merely an easement over the soil. Bonjon is as much amenable to English law as a British subject.

The argument from Mr Barry that New South Wales was occupied, not conquered, was founded on this claim upon by the defence:

On the shore appeared a body of savages, armed with spears, which, however, they threw down as soon as they found the strangers had no hostile intention.

This may have been a lie (in order to save his client), as what has been conveniently ignored is the fact that the spears were thrown down after shots were fired by the English. The local Aborigines, in throwing down their spears, were actually signalling defeat. Technically, this means that the land was invaded. The English were the aggressors as was confessed by the British Government not two years prior to this case, voicing the sentiments that:

You cannot overrate the solicitude of Her Majesty’s Government on the subject of the aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to overrate the conditions and prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest of commiserations. I am well aware of the many difficulties which oppose themselves to the effectual protection of these people, and especially those which must originate from the exasperation of the settlers, on account of aggression on their property, which are not less irritating because they are nothing else than the natural results of the pernicious examples set to the aborigines, and of the many wrongs of which they have been the victims. Still it is impossible that the Government should forget that the original aggression was our own. (My bold).

The small amount ethnographic evidence I have uncovered suggests that from Day 1 there was aggressive behaviour from the English (even before their so-called settlement of Australia). This country was not peacefully settled as the school books tell us. The first Australians wanted the first British visitors gone. Through aggression from the outset they got to stay.

They were, by the looks of it, invaders.

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Do some research and you’ll find it’s OK not to be black enough

Aborigines face the unending task of resisting attempts, on the one hand to cut them off from their heritage, and on the other to bury them within it as a thing of the past. This statement is indicative of the struggles that Indigenous Australians face in the constructions of their own Aboriginality.

This was never more evident than during the Andrew Bolt case where:

… in two famous columns in 2009 he took a swipe at “political” or “professional” or “official” Aborigines who could pass for white but chose to identify as black for personal or political gain, to win prizes and places reserved for real, black Aborigines and to borrow “other people’s glories.”

More recently, Tony Abbott reignited a similar argument when he foolishly described Western Australian Liberal MP Ken Wyatt as “not a man of culture”. Ken Wyatt is an Indigenous Australian.

I would have hoped that both incidences found their way into the dustbins of history, but they haven’t. Bolt’s comments, in particular, have entrenched themselves into our vernacular. Never before have I had the displeasure of hearing so many degrading comments aimed at our Aboriginal brothers and sisters as I have since the Bolt case. “He’s too white to be an Aborigine”, “She’s white but calls herself an Aborigine”, or the ultimate insult “He’s only a half-caste” are common speak.

Hence this article.

If people/journalists/politicians are prepared to make wild exaggerations about Aboriginal Australians then they should be prepared to at first learn where and how they belong in our society. Perhaps then they’d remain silent. Respectfully silent.

Bolt asserted that the hue of one’s skin is the only thing that matters when a person identifies themselves as an Indigenous Australian. He for one had failed to do some simple research and as a result of his laziness – and his influence – Aboriginal people are now being ‘classified’ like never before in the last decade, as I alluded to earlier.

I have done the research and this is what I have found.

If we cast ourselves back to 1788 we would embrace an environment where Aboriginality did not exist, but was to soon be invented by the colonising power. The European invaders constructed Aborigines as an ethnic category based on their own notions of culture and saddled Aboriginality on the Indigenous Australians, and European ideology continued to shape European ethnic perceptions. Prominent among the perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood.

Over the next hundred years European ideology continued to shape the whites’ perception of Aborigines. Among these perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood, that culture was the external indicator of biological ancestry and culture, and that cultural characteristics, either heredity or unchanging, separated human groups from one another.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that before the arrival of Europeans, numerous distinct groups had occupied the Australian continent. Although these groups shared physical and cultural features and had ties of affinity, trade, and religious cooperation, these societies were distinguished by geography, language, and culture. With the benefit of hindsight, the ethnographic evidence failed to recognise that in determining identity, Aborigines traditionally attributed greater importance to culture and genealogical ties to heredity. Groups were differentiated on the basis of presence or absence of certain beliefs and behaviours, and of spiritual ties between people and land.

Basing their construction of Aboriginality on inadequate theories of culture, early anthropologists defined Aboriginality as constituting a pristine and timeless and cultural condition. Some still saw them as savages, remaining noble, despite constraining nature and unbending adherence to rules; the Aborigines typified a fossilised and primitive stage of social evolution. Ethnocentrism further led to the attribution or projection of negative characteristics. Even to this day – again, refer to my earlier claims – many people have a stereotype of Aboriginal people as being very black, standing on one leg with a spear and living in the desert.

Up until recently, the social and cultural practices in Australia rendered Aboriginal people invisible. As a consequence, while Anglo-Australians have continued to ‘know’ about Aborigines they have known them only by report. Even in the rural Australia, local Aboriginal people have been ignored in favour of ‘real Aborigines’, supposedly living in a tribal life in the bush. The public has been largely dependent on representations of Aborigines to be found in the statements of various ‘authorities’, the work of painters and photographers, the printed and recently the electronic media, or even artifacts aimed at the popular and tourist markets.

Such representations of Aboriginality called into doubt the special status of those who called themselves Aboriginal, but lived in urban settings, practised no traditional arts or ceremonies, and generally failed to ‘look the part’. Such people had constructed their Aboriginality in other modes, primarily by reference to proximate ancestors and living kin. Some have identified it as a major component of what is called ‘the Aboriginal commonality’, implying as it does a continuous network embracing all Aboriginal people throughout the continent.

Regardless, under the doctrine of Social Darwinism it was always expected that the Aborigines would not survive alongside the presumed European superiority. However, only Europeans had selected Aborigines for extinction. Nature had not. While Australia was told that Aborigines were not going to die out, it was also given to understand that Aboriginality was doomed. Timeless and unchanging, Aboriginal culture was incapable of coexistence with the modern world: the old Aboriginal cultures are collapsing everywhere under the impact of while settlement, mining exploration, pastoral expansion and the effects of State assimilation policies.

Managing Aboriginal people under one guise or another, the State has been in a position to influence their public constructions. Not only has it determined who should have access to them, but it has played a major role in the assembling of information about them, has commissioned much of the research conducted by experts on them, and has acted as patron for artistic representations of them. Consider, for example, the Western Australian interpretation of what constituted an Aboriginal person. Every person who is:

  • an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, or
  • a half-caste who lives with an Aboriginal as husband or wife, or
  • a half-caste who, otherwise than as wife or husband habitually lives or associates with Aborigines, or
  • a half-caste child whose age does not apparently exceed sixteen years, shall be deemed an Aboriginal within the meaning of this Act … ” (Western Australia Aborigines Act of 1905, Section 3).

Aborigines are no longer silent objects of study, but increasingly challenge the very terms in which they are written about. However, it is not easy to re-examine the intellectual heritage; a heritage that is a body of knowledge understood by those sharing the same discourse and built into our contemporary consciousness in many intricate and hidden ways. Aborigines are exploring their own Aboriginality and are finding that the white Australia cannot accept their own view of themselves. You can’t define Aboriginality in terms of the colour of their skin or in terms of what genes and chromosomes were inherited. Aboriginal people have a very strong spiritual heritage: above anything else it is the essence of being an Aboriginal.

Consider how different an Aboriginal interpretation of Aboriginality compares with the political or social construction. The emphasis on spiritual and cultural unity is absolute. They identify the following characteristics as common to all Australian Aborigines:

  • descent from the original inhabitants of Australia; a shared historical and cultural experience, particularly that arising from relations with non-Aborigines;
  • the Dreaming, or Aboriginal worldview; intimate familial relationship with the land and the natural world, and knowing the pervading moulding character of these in all matters Aboriginal’;
  • social interaction based predominantly on the mutual obligations of kinship; observance and social importance of mortuary rituals; and
  • bi- or multilingualism.

Whilst these elements constitute Aboriginality, Aboriginal values such as reciprocity and individuality could also be included although these are not unique to Aborigines. However the list provided could be considered typical of cultural inventories: they constitute a coherent set of characteristics that are present and enduring in all Aboriginal people. However, significantly, the operative definition of Aboriginality has shifted from biological to the cultural. The Aboriginal emphasis on kinship and behaviour in determining identity is apparent. Another notable characteristic of Aboriginal social life is the self-conscious identification with notions of sociability and behaviour ascribed to Aboriginality, a world view with definable social values, attitudes and cognitive orientations.

In denying people the right to relate to themselves through their bodies and where notions of kinship are organised around cultural notions of the body is denying Aboriginal a major aspect of their Aboriginality. The dominant theoretical prescription of ideal Aboriginality would act to prevent Aborigines from creating their identities out of the body and out of biology, and would also in effect prevent them talking descent and moreover reinventing their notions of descent.

The assertion of Aboriginality is part of a political process. Although the legal and social status of Aborigines has changed significantly, they are by no means equal participants in Australian society. They still suffer severe social disadvantage and defacto discrimination; in the eyes of many whites, being Aboriginal is still a social stigma. Against this background, many Aborigines are consciously and actively working to establish positive images of themselves and their cultures. This involves the rejection or reversal of dominant European definitions; the promotion of colour as a desirable feature rather than a taint; and the revival, invention, or adoption of distinctively Aboriginal cultural behaviours and symbols … the construction of a new identity in which all Aboriginal people can share.

In other words, it’s OK not to be black enough.

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