The indigenous inhabitants of Australia

The continent of Australia was settled about 60,000 years ago. Before European settlement, most of the inhabitants of Australia were isolated from the rest of the world.

The indigenous or 'first people' of Australia were labeled 'Aborigines' by the British settlers. Aborigine is a Latin word from 'ab' meaning origin, and 'origine' meaning from the beginning. They account for about 2.5% of the modern Australian population. (Aboriginal people from New South Wales refer to themselves as the Koori).

The Aboriginal population of Australia at the time of European settlement has been estimated at between 300,000 and as many as 1 million. They lived in small communities with social and religious customs in common. Like all other societies, their technology, food and hunting practices varied according to the local environment.

Most lived in the southern and eastern regions in the Murray River Valley, the same coastal regions most heavily populated today. Those who practice traditional aspects of Aboriginal life currently live in desert areas where European settlement is sparse.

From the late eighteenth century, during the powerful and imperialist British conquest the indigenous population was dispossessed of their land and died in very large numbers. The interpretation of this history in Australia is disputed and debated in what they call the 'History Wars', with conservative historians arguing that the horror and brutality of the past is being exaggerated for political reasons.

British policy 1788 to 1900

The British began its colonisation of Australia in 1788. Massacres accompanied the expansion of their frontier. Although many indigenous communities resisted the settlers, the Aboriginal people of Australia suffered one of the biggest attempted exterminations in history.

Between 1788 and 1900, the indigenous population of Australia had been reduced by 90%.
The disappearance of the Aborigines in southeast Australia was so rapid that it was believed that they would all soon die out.

Apart from loss of access to land, and death by violent force of arms, infectious diseases like chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles killed many. Indigenous Australians had a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the land, so being forced off traditional land, caused the disintegration of social cohesion.

Settler policy in the twentieth century

In the first part of the twentieth century, the racial theories of Social Darwinism were popular in Australia and were used to justify settler treatment of the indigenous Australians, as 'subhuman', 'primitive' and an 'inferior race'.

The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 established camps to provide a place for the 'doomed race to die off' as Aborigines would 'inevitably become extinct'.

Settler policy allowed many Aborigines to be treated like experimental animals. In the 1920's and 30's thousands of indigenous people in communities all over Australia, were subjected to 'scientific' investigation into brain capacity and cranium size. Australian fascination with eugenics is similar to the obsession of Nazi Germany society in relation to the Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s.

An Australian Professor of Anatomy said in 1926 that Aborigines were:

'Too low in the scale of humanity' to benefit from 'the civilising influence of Anglo Saxon rule'.

In 1929, an Australian anthropologist wrote that:

'...Some races possess certain powers in greater degree...than do others. Thus, the Australian Aborigines and the African Negroes are human and have their powers, but they are not necessarily equal to the white or yellow races'.

Scientists at the British Museum in London became interested in studying a people they saw as being on the 'brink of extinction.' The Aborigines were subjected to scientific research to establish if they were closer to apes than humans.

Extermination in Tasmania

A shallow sea separates the island state of Tasmania from the rest of Australia. In 1777 the British landed on Tasmania and soon established it as a colony. They began a deliberate campaign to exterminate the indigenous Aboriginal population, which they called The Black War. By 1830 the indigenous Tasmanians were almost completely wiped out.Those who survived were rounded up and removed to Flinders Island, off the northeastern tip of Tasmania. The official stated aim of this isolation was to 'protect and save them'.

A current tourism website advertising Tasmania states that in 1830 George Augustus Robinson, British Protector of Aborigines, started 'his mission to protect Aborigines' and take them to a settlement on Flinders Island.

In 1856, the few surviving Tasmanian Aborigines on Flinders Island, including a resistance hero called Truganini, were moved to another settlement. Truganini was the sole survivor of this group, and she was moved to yet another settlement. She died three years later, and was buried. After two years, her skeleton was exhumed by the Royal Society of Tasmania and placed on public display. In 1976, on the centenary of her death, her remains were finally cremated and scattered in the sea in accordance with her wishes.

Social Darwinism is by no means dead. For example, the Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite CD Rom 2003 Edition states that 'The original Tasmanians were an anthropologically interesting Negritoid people, with the widest nasal index ever recorded and shorter and broader heads than the Aboriginal peoples of the continental mainland.' It is interesting to note that the 'original British' are not described in terms of their physical appearance!

The Stolen Generations

Children of mixed Aboriginal and European descent were labelled 'half-castes' and a threat to so-called 'racial purity'. A policy based on eugenics theory had these children taken away from their parents 'to breed the blackness out of them'. Between 1910 and 1970 up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their families. Parents were not told where their children were and could not trace them, and children were told that they were orphans.

The racist government assumed that the Aborigines were 'dying out' which would solve the 'problem'. The 'assimilation program' was introduced to eliminate those of mixed descent. This was done by the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. These children are often called the 'Stolen Generations'. Settler policy believed that white, Christian families and boarding schools was the best environment in which to raise Aboriginal children. They believed they were doing what was 'protecting them' and was 'best for them', whether the children or their parents liked it or not.

The hit film Rabbit Proof Fence brought the issue of Australia's 'Stolen Generations' to the world's attention, if you have time, try to watch it. Another good film to watch is Australia.

A National Inquiry was set up in 1995 and found that forcible removal of indigenous children was a gross violation of human rights. It was racially discriminatory, and an act of genocide.
The issue is extremely controversial in Australia.

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