The fate and future
of Aboriginal Australians
The story of other people of colour in Australia: Kanaks,
Polynesians, Torres Strait Islanders, American and African Blacks
By Bob Gould
There is a lot of debate about the history and antiquity of
settlement in Australia. The question of establishing the date of
earliest settlement has become highly charged. There is a raging
academic controversy over dating and identifying a whole school of cave
art in Arnhem Land. One academic has even asserted that these paintings
were produced by some people other than the ancestors of the present
Aboriginal inhabitants, implying that these forebears would have been
too primitive to produce such complex and spectacular works of art. Tim
Flannery has constructed a sweeping narrative, attractive to many, that
ancient Australians almost single-handedly, by hunting and with the
overuse of fire, wiped out most of the extinct large animals such as
the dyptodron. This value-loaded story is contested by other scientists
and scholars such as Professor Marcia Langton, Dr David Bowman,
Professor John Chappell, John Benson and James Kohen, author of Aboriginal
Some of them make the powerful methodological point that it's an
extraordinarily wide-ranging, ideologically driven conclusion from very
limited and contradictory evidence.
A book by multi-disciplinary scientist Dr David Horton is very
important in this context. While Dr. Horton is a little slow to start,
and just a bit repetitive, he assembles from a number of inter-related
scientific spheres quite convincing evidence that the associated
theories characterising ancient Aboriginal populations as "firestick
farmers", and attributing to these ancient populations the
extermination of the megafauna, are both quite wrong. These two
theories have developed among some academics over many years and been
broadly popularised by Tim Flannery. Dr Horton advances, and
devastatingly documents from archaeology, a much more convincing
narrative in which ancient Aboriginal populations were a more modest
part of the ecosystem in Pleistocene Australia and used fire more
sparingly than Flannery and Pyne, etc, say.
The decisive episode in the extinction of the big animals was
uniquely extreme desertification event in Australasia-Sahul about
25,000 years ago. Horton very effectively points out how the romantic
narrative of early Aboriginal populations as "firestick farmers" and
successful hunters and exterminators of the dyptrodon and the giant
kangaroo is often used to minimise the importance of the devastation of
the environment associated with the British conquest of Australia.
Certain basic facts about Australian prehistory are clear. A
continent-wide Aboriginal society of considerable cultural complexity
and with a number of variations, has existed for a very long time, at
least 40,000 and probably even 60,000 years. Secondly, Australia, New
Guinea and Tasmania were one continent (called by scientists Sahul) for
a considerable part of this time, and were finally separated at the end
of the last ice age, about 6000 years ago. A fair amount of contact
took place between some parts of northern Australia and other places.
For instance, contact and cultural influences from New Guinea and the
Torres Straits, took place with Aborigines in the Cape York area, and
considerable contact, probably for up to 500 years, existed between
Malay fishermen from Macassar and Aboriginals in Arnhem Land, with much
cultural interchange, and even a certain amount of intermarriage.
Paul Sheehan's book Amongst the Barbarians promotes a
dubious version of Australasian prehistory that devalues the cultural
achievements of the first Australasians
Part of the methodology of Paul Sheehan's populist book is
finds "scholars" and "authorities" that generally devalue and criticise
the culture and achievements of the people that he regards as divisive:
Asian migrants, multiculturalists, Aborigines, etc. His "experts" on
Aboriginal culture are David Foster, Tim Flannery and an American
academic, one Stephen J. Pyne, who appears on the first four pages of Amongst
Pyne's theory is that the Australian Aboriginals were the greatest
firebugs in human history. In passing, Pyne says: "An entire continent
bypassed the Neolithic revolution, which had spread agriculture to the
Old World. Unlike the Americas no autonomous agricultural centres
developed in Australia."
In fact, Australian prehistory is by no means that simple.
discloses a certain ignorance. Australia and New Guinea were one
continent until 6000 years ago and all experts agree that agriculture
developed in the New Guinea highlands at least 9000 years ago and
probably earlier. There are some real puzzles in the prehistory of
Australia and Sahul, one of which is why agriculture did not spread
overland to other parts of Sahul, and also why there is such a distinct
linguistic and cultural break between Melanesian culture in New Guinea
and Aboriginal culture in Australia. Nevertheless, there was one
independent development of agriculture in Australasia/Sahul, and that
was in New Guinea.
Our continent did not bypass the Neolithic revolution, as Pyne
Sheehan say. They might have known this had they read, for instance, A
Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul by Peter White and
James O'Connell (Academic Publishers, December 1982), or the more
recent Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia: A Reader, edited by
Tim Murray (Allen and Unwin, 1998).
So much for Sheehan's experts, some of whome seem to be
the basic literature in the field. The inquiry into Australasian
prehistory has really just begun. In reality, the achievements of
Aboriginal society in Australia, and Melanesian society in New Guinea
were quite considerable. The very first, and most amazing achievement,
was getting to the continent at all, 60,000 years ago or thereabouts.
The ancestors of Aboriginal and Melanesian society seem to have
constructed boats or rafts and developed sufficient sailing skills to
cross the large sea gap between Asia and Sahul.
From the time of white settlement in 1788, the contact between
Australia and Aboriginal Australia has been brutal, ruthless and
imperial, qualified by constant and sometimes fairly effective
Aboriginal resistance to white conquest. Keith Willey's useful book, When
the Sky Fell Down
is a comprehensive reconstruction of what can be deduced about the
destruction of Aboriginal society in the Sydney region. Eric Wilmot's
wonderful novel, Pemulwuy, the Rainbow Warrior (Sydney Weldons,
1987) is an excellent artistic attempt to re-create the world of the
well-documented initial Aboriginal military resistance to white
This resistance, undermined and finally defeated by a
the military superiority in weapons and resources of the invaders, and
the devastating impact of the diseases introduced from white settlement
into populations that didn't have immunity to those diseases, recurs
throughout the history of white settlement all over Australia.
The disastrous impact of European diseases on Aboriginal
without immunities, is a common story in the Americas, the Pacific and
Australasia, but that does not stop some historical revisionists even
attempting to alter this history. There is even one medical historian,
who laborioriously tries to construct a narrative in which smallpox
didn't spread from white settlement, as almost all the witnesses at the
time said it did, but came overland from the Malay contact with Arnhem
Land. Predictably he, too, becomes one of Sheehan's "experts".
In this context, Sheehan ignores the definitive book on this
topic, Our Original Aggression,
by the late Noel Butlin, the distinguished Australian statistician and
economist (after whom the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra are named),
published in 1983, and his Economics and the Dreamtime (ANU
Press, 1994). In these thoroughly reputable and pretty well
unanswerable books, Butlin established quite clearly from the records
that the epidemics close to the settled areas of Australia spread from
the settled areas.
He also, as part of his research, using his skills as a
statistician, satisfactorily proved for most geographers and
anthropologists that the number of Aborigines in Australia at the time
of settlement was probably between 600,000 and a million, many more
than the 300,000 previously accepted as the likely figure.
Throughout the 19th century, as white settlement spread, there
frequent effort on the part of British colonial authorities in
Australia to kill off the Aboriginals, interspersed with much more
episodic and less effective moments of attempting to "protect" them.
Sometimes the protection was almost as bad as the more overt attempts
to exterminate. In Tasmania, the Protector of Aborigines, the earnest
and fairly well-intentioned George Augustus Robinson, eventually was
forced, more of less by circumstance, to preside over a desperate
scheme to create a reservation for the surviving Tasmanians, which
ended up being on a bleak and unpleasant island, unsuitable for such a
purpose, where the surviving full-blood Aboriginal Tasmanians died out,
the last survivor being Truganini.
The present Tasmanian Aboriginal community is descended mainly
a mixed-blood community that developed on the islands of Bass Strait
from white sealers and the Tasmanian women who they seized during the
brutal era of European conquest of Tasmania. Perhaps the most vicious,
appalling but effective feature of this war of extermination and
conquest, was the recruitment of Aboriginal mounted police from the
most brutalised group of young males from tribal remnants, who were
unleashed by white colonial society on tribes other than their own,
with a licence and encouragement to kill. Some of these ugly episodes
are covered in Bill Rosser's moving book Up Rode the Troopers, The
Black Police in Queensland (Queensland University Press, 1990).
Sheehan loathes critical Australian historians
The following short piece of purple prose is from the
second-last page of Sheehan's book:
"Thirty years of poisoning of the nation's history has taken
its toll. Many histories now parrot a hatred of Australia. The
politically-motivated accusations of racism, made hollow by overuse,
have been pumped up to include 'genocide' and 'holocaust'. The mud has
stuck. The nation's sense of certainty at the end of the century has
been eroded by the politics of stealth and division."
Well, at the risk of incuring Mr Sheehan's displeasure by
poisoning the nation's history, as he puts it, I hereby read into the
record some material from a historian, Sir Hudson Fysh, of whom Sheehan
The brutal butcher Kennedy and Sir Hudson Fysh
From the more civilised standpoint that is now happily
most Australians, it is quite difficult to remember just how barbaric
was the conquest of Australia from its original inhabitants, and how
sickening the celebration of this conquest by British White Australia
up until very recent times. I recently acquired at a book fair a
standard piece of the Australiana of the 1930s, a book Taming the
North by Hudson Fysh (Angus and Robertson, 1933), later Sir Hudson
Fysh, the founder of Qantas.
The version I have is the revised and enlarged edition
March 1950. This book ought to be reprinted as a reminder of the brazen
way British White Australia justified its ruthless suppression of all
Aboriginal resistance to conquest. The book is a biography of the quite
famous squatter, Alexander Kennedy, the Scottish settler who "opened
up" the area north and west of Cloncurry for white settlement.
This area was the tribal land of the warlike Kalkadoons. After
Kalkadoons had been constantly provoked by the squatters pushing
further and further into every corner of their tribal lands, they
finally speared a couple of the most offensive intruders. The vengeance
of the bloodthirsty squatters, aided by the native police, led by the
notoriously vicious F.C. Urquhart, who ended up Queensland Police
Commissioner, was absolutely awesome.
Using their superior firepower, they wiped out several hundred
Kalkadoons. What is most amazing about these brutal incidents is the
unctuous and brutally frank way Sir Hudson Fysh describes them and
other events in this war of extermination against the Kalkadoons and
praises the bloodthirsty Kennedy and Urquhart.
The illustrations and the cover of the book are also
expressions of the ideology of conquest that pervaded British
Australia. These illustrations portray the "rugged and manly" white
settlers, with their carbines, pursuing and shooting the "naked
savages". Fysh routinely repeats, as if they were true, the fairy
stories about Aboriginal cannibalism. He says:
There is no doubt that the blacks right through northern
Queensland were cannibals. Urquhart says that his boys always told him
the blacks did not like the taste of whites much — they were too salt —
but they relished Chinamen, hundreds of whom were killed when taking
provisions across the Peninsula to the Palmer River goldfield in the
early days following its discovery by Mulligan. This fact was put down
to the salt-beef diet of the early whites, while the Chinamen lived
mainly on rice.
The following extracts from Fysh's book celebrate several of
At last, Eglington, the white officer in charge, arrived on
the scene and soon the situation was under control. A brush with the
murderers ensued and many of the natives were killed, the rest making
their escape to the rough country. Kennedy returned about this time and
asked Eglington if he thought he had got all the murderers. "Yes," said
"Did you get a piebald black?" asked Kennedy.
"No," was the answer.
"Well, come along. That fellow is one of a mob that I have
eye on for a long time — a cheeky trouble-making chap. We shan't be
safe now till they are out of the district."
A long trip into the hills followed, the native police hot
trail and Kennedy as keen as the rest. A yell of defiance was heard,
the pursuers were discovered by the retreating party and hurled threats
from their supposed safety in the rugged hilly country. However, they
did not reckon on the deadly carbines of the whites and the native
troopers, who speedily shot the warlike bucks down.
The piebald lay dead. He was a most peculiar freak, normal
physique, build, and intelligence, but his dusky skin was patched here
and there with healthy, pinkish-white areas.
A later massacre
Kennedy was filled with a fierce rage and urged the speedy
following up of the murderers. This was the last straw. The killing of
his cattle was bad enough, but the loss of his partner ... showed that
nothing but a terrible lesson would suffice. ...
The blacks were finally located in a gorge and, though
hostility at first by hurling spears in an attempt to stay the approach
of the party, they broke and fled at the first sign of rifle fire.
There were natives behind boulders, behind trees, and up trees, and
every now and then they made attempts to sneak away to better cover
when the opportunity occurred. One small party got away over the spur
of a hill, being assisted in their flight by the cracking of the
carbines, which stirred up the dust around their feet. Kennedy borrowed
Urquhart's horse, Hamlet, and went off in pursuit. ... Kennedy was like
hell let loose that day ...
Some natives who had remained in hiding bobbed up here and
they made a dash for better cover. One fellow jumped up from behind a
boulder and raced for the nearest creek, and Kennedy, who was on foot
at the time, sprang after him. Reaching the steep bank the native
jumped into the water, meaning to make for the opposite bank. As
Kennedy reached the edge he took careful aim with his carbine, but the
weapon failed to go off. Hurling the carbine in after the native,
Kennedy jumped into the water, and commenced to grapple with his enemy.
Urquhart fired just in time to prevent serious consequences,
Kennedy could not swim. Two of Urquhart's boys went into the water and
brought Kennedy ashore. It took the boys two hours' diving to recover
The self-righteous Urquhart even wrote an execrable poem
the second massacre! Hudson Fysh's interest in Kennedy stemmed largely
from the fact that Kennedy was one of his first investors in Qantas,
and there is a picture in the book of Kennedy as an old man in 1931
getting out of one of the early Qantas planes. Never has Karl Marx's
aphorism that modern capitalism comes upon the scene "bloody in tooth
and claw" been more clearly demonstrated than in the reverent way
Hudson Fysh writes about the bloodthirsty Kennedy.
In a very real sense, part of the initial capital to develop
pioneer Australian airline, Qantas, was surplus value derived from this
conquest and massacre, that is, from the blood of the murdered
Kalkadoons. In my view, as an act of long overdue historical
recognition and repentance, Qantas should be renamed Kalkadoon.
No doubt Paul Sheehan has been reduced to appoplexy by recent
that Professor Colin Tatz, director of the Centre for Comparative
Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, has prepared a general brief
against previous Australian governments for genocide on four major
grounds. One of these is that the colonial authorities stood by or
authorised settlers or police to slaughter 4000 Aborigines in Tasmania
from 1806 to 1835, and some 10,000 in Queensland between 1824 and 1908.
P.P. McGuiness, as an "expert" on Aboriginal affairs
The editor of Quadrant and Sydney Morning Herald
columnist, the irascible, arrogant, pompous and chronically
self-congratulatory P.P. McGuiness, has in recent times appointed
himself as a bit of a pundit on Aboriginal affairs. One of his
preoccupations is ridiculing all notions of past genocide, which is a
pretty tall order, considering all the evidence for past massacres — of
which the incidents recounted above are only a few — many of which have
been documented by Henry Reynolds.
McGuinness associates this rejection of past genocide against
Aborigines with throwaway remarks questioning the genocide involved in
the recent massacres of Kosovar Albanians and East Timorese. He seems
to have a particular soft spot for the "civil rights" of "alleged"
practitioners of genocide such as the white British conquerors of
Australia, the Serbian dictator Milosevic and the Indonesian military.
To each their own!
McGuinness's other unpleasant obsession is his ridicule of the
notion that thousands of Aboriginal children were stolen from their
parents. He claims that (1) it wasn't a matter of government policy,
despite Robert Manne's documentation of national meetings of public
servants in Aboriginal affairs, where such lines of policy were
implicitly endorsed, and (2) he ignores or ridicules the personal
testimony of the many hundreds of Aboriginals who assert that they were
forcibly removed from their parents.
This second obsession is very offensive indeed to those who
forcibly removed and to many thousands of other Australians.
McGuiness's approach reached a kind of high point in the notorious ABC
program in which he gratuitously insulted Lois O'Donoghue, one of the
stolen children herself, in his most arrogant way, by pouring contempt
on the idea that any children were stolen. His extraordinary
performance on that occasion took many people's breath away.
Michael Duffy, another "expert" on Aboriginal affairs
The Murdoch tabloid directed at the less formally educated
sections of society, the Daily Telegraph,
retains three rabidly right-wing populist columnists whose function is
to cater to the perceived prejudices of the paper's audience, to whit,
Piers Ackerman and the Janissary journalists Miranda Devine and Michael
On the Telegraph opinion page of January 5, 2000,
Duffy has a carefully worded piece headed, Keep the H word out of
He goes out of his way to stress the Jewish origins of a number of
prominent public critics of Australian racism against Aborigines, while
of course disclaiming any anti-Semitism, in singling out these Jews.
Apparently Jews are more sensitive on these things because
here more recently and their familiarity with the Holocaust directed at
the Jews of Europe has made them overly preoccupied with such matters
and led them to exaggerate the magnitude of the atrocities perpetrated
on Australia's Aboriginal population. Get the message! Rootless
cosmopolitans don't understand Australian history as well as older
"real Australians" such as Duffy, who properly understand in their
bones that our treatment of the Aboriginals wasn't all that bad.
Duffy is worried that the Labor side of politics may be
momentum among liberal-minded Australians by its defence of Aboriginal
rights, and he bemoans the fact that the vigorous defence of Aboriginal
rights, and a vigorous focus on past wrongs done to the Aboriginal
population, is dividing Australia. He says:
The last thing Aborigines — or those genuinely interested in
their wellbeing — need is for their future to be affected by the
introduction of concepts and words which inflame and confuse our view
of those horrors which did happen here.
In the meantime, the best thing the rest of us can do is
resist attempts to polarise Aboriginal matters. This includes attempts
to change the meanings of words in common use.
Elsewhere he makes the extraordinary statement:
Most people would now agree that One Nation was in fact not a racist
So we had all better get the message. Pauline Hanson is not
and anyway, many of the people making a fuss about Aboriginal
oppression are a just a bunch of Jews. British Australia did some bad
things to the Aboriginal population, but we shouldn't exaggerate it.
After all, the main danger in Aboriginal affairs is not really the
oppression of the Aboriginal people, but the damaging possibility that
inflaming anger about injustices to Aborigines will interfere with the
Sydney 2000 Olympics.
In the Telegraph a bizarre competition is developing
Duffy and Piers Ackerman, with the two tabloid columnists trying to
outdo each other in the vicious extravagance of their comments on
Aboriginal affairs. Well, Duffy now has to be way in front in this
contest, with his contribution on March 25 to the debate on mandatory
sentencing. The following extract is something of a new low in nasty
tabloid treatment of these matters:
It is particularly nauseating that this new racism has been
practised in the name of virtue. Many of these sanctimonious whites,
this small army of lawyers, anthropologists, public servants and
journalists, have lost touch with the spiritual roots of their own
culture and have tried to redeem themselves by feeding off Aboriginal
issues, which they pervert to suit their own decadent spiritual
requirements. Their new religion is anti-racism, and everything is
interpreted as a racial issue, no matter how wrong and destructive of
Aboriginal interests this might be. It is time these white moral
maggots were shaken off the body of black Australia, from which they
have sucked so much life.
White maggots, indeed! White maggots of Australia unite!
couple of days of Duffy's extraordinary outburst in his column, an
opinion poll was published in the newspapers of March 28, showing that
more Australians opposed mandatory sentencing than supported it, and
many more again opposed mandatory sentencing of adolescents. I'm
considering having a badge made for public sale, with the slogan, "I am
a white maggot".
It almost goes without saying that it would be fascinating to
Duffy down on a couch and try to draw out of his mind by psychoanalysis
what ghosts and demons are running around in his head about "rootless
cosmopolitans" and "white maggots" "interfering in Aboriginal affairs".
The saga of Jack and Lallie Akbar
A brutal and instructive episode in both Aboriginal affairs
Australia's race policy relating to Asians, sharply refutes McGuiness's
proposition that no state policy was involved in the stolen children
saga. A moving and informative book by Pamela Rajkowski called Linden
Girl, a story of outlawed lives
(UWA Press, 1995) recounts the extraordinary saga of an "Afghan"
(actually an Indian Muslim from the Punjab), Jack Akbar, who married a
young Aboriginal woman, Lallie, in Western Australia in the 1920s.
This scholarly and thorough book documents how the notorious
Australian "Protector" of Aborigines, Auber Octavius Neville, had Jack
Akbar and Lallie, who ultimately produced a family of three children,
imprisoned several times for the "crime" of marrying each other. It is
an extraordinary story of human courage and endurance. The devoted
couple escaped a number of times, on one occasion making an
extraordinary journey across the Nullabor Plain with Lallie pregnant,
and which they only survived because he was an experienced camel driver
and she, coming of a tribe of desert Aborigines, was used to living off
Eventually they beat the rap, so to speak, for their marriage
"crime", and lived happily for many years after the Department of
Aboriginal Affairs eventually gave up trying to separate them out of
The significance of this book in relation to the stolen
that the author found repeated and constant references in "Protector"
Neville's private papers to the policy of removing mixed-race children
from their Aboriginal parents in an attempt to "breed the colour out".
One of Neville's objections to the marriage between Akbar and Lallie
was that in his racist universe they were both coloured, and therefore
a union between them would only perpetuate the continuation of
undesirable coloured races.
Auber Octavius Neville was by far the most forceful person in
adoption of the stolen children strategy in Aboriginal affairs. In the
minutes of the meeting of Protectors of Aboriginals from the different
states and territories that in 1937 adopted the policy as official
strategy, he emerges as the most forceful, domineering and articulate
advocate and practitioner of this terrible government practice.
The history of Aboriginal resistance to the war of conquest,
has been carefully covered over in the past, but Forgotten rebels:
Black Australians who fought back, by David Lowe (Permanent Press,
Melbourne, 1994). Black War by Clive Turnbull (1948), and Aboriginal
by Lyndall Ryan (Allen and Unwin, 1996), and in particular the
wonderful and ongoing work of Henry Reynolds, describing the many
episodes of Aboriginal resistance, have gone some distance towards
correcting the historical record.
Australia's collective repressed memory. Sexual relations
conquerers and conquered produced multitudes of mixed-blood Australians
from the first moment of settlement, and many of them have been
absorbed by "white" Australia
Despite the very real attempt at extermination, Aboriginal
displayed an extraordinary resilience in some ways. From the first days
of settlement, sexual relationships between whites and Aboriginals
produced many mixed-blood offspring, who survived because of their
immunity, inherited from the white parent, to imported diseases. Many
of these were absorbed, because of the shortage of women, into white
colonial society, giving rise to a very widespread but often hidden
Aboriginal ancestry among working-class and rural populations.
Recently, even the well-known television personality Ray Martin has
discovered a remote Aboriginal ancestor.
This question of the amount of "racial" mixture in older
populations has been constantly repressed in the collective memory.
There can be very little doubt about the widespread Aboriginal
contribution to "white" Australian population, particularly in the
older settled areas and in rural and pastoral areas.
Particularly during the explosion of pastoralism beyond the 19
counties around Sydney, from the 1820s onwards, all observers noted
constant sexual relationships between ex-convict shepherds and
Aboriginal populations. Even the rapidly developing distinctive
Australian version of the English language was strongly influenced by
the interplay between Aboriginal idiom and Irish Celtic speech on the
pastoral interface between Aboriginal and European Australia.
Conflicts over women were flashpoints for many of the physical
conflicts between whites and Aboriginals. "Half-caste" girls, in
particular, were in great demand for domestic labour and sexual
services in the bush. The Aboriginal contribution to the gene pool of
"white" society is substantial in much of rural Australia.
In pastoral Australia the curious institution developed very
of the "drover's boy", in which Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal women
travelled with drovers, dressed as men. This has been immortalised in
Ted Egan's popular song. As in the American South, this question of
some black ancestry is the haunting refrain that exists in the recesses
of many family histories. The explosion in numbers of people asserting
Aboriginal identity in successive censuses is the surfacing of this
widespread repressed family memory.
Many other mixed-blood people became part of a surviving, and
reviving, Aboriginal society in many parts of Australia. In Victoria,
southern South Australia, Tasmania and NSW there are very few
full-blood Aboriginals left, but there is now a large and vigorous
Aboriginal society of mainly mixed ancestry.
In the 19th century, a sometimes well-intentioned, but often
vicious, white paternalism emerged in relation to Aboriginal affairs
and the anthropological study of Aborigines. The work of Protectors cum
anthropologists, such as Daisy Bates and T.G. Strehlow, has been used
to justify some paternalistic practices and to defend essentially
conservative policies in relation to Aboriginal affairs. Recently an
anthropologist working in Aboriginal affairs, Ken Maddock, has
attempted to use his anthropological prestige to buttress the
reactionary Quadrant project in relation to Aboriginal affairs.
Even a well-known, prize-winning, although rather opaque
David Foster, has made spectacularly reactionary public statements on
Aboriginal issues, once again, quickly seized on by Paul Sheehan in his
book. A theme that was begun in the 19th century by the fantasist Daisy
Bates, was that of "the passing of the Aborigines", which she
associated with a wild exaggeration of perceived barbaric rituals and
practices in traditional Aboriginal society.
The eccentric and tortured Daisy Bates became a byword for
themes, and her largely invented stories of ritual infanticide came to
be a core element in the conventional European view of traditional
Aboriginal society, which she kept repeating forcibly was dying anyway.
Dick Hall, in his wonderful and effective book Black Armband Days
(Random House, 1998), thoroughly and comprehensively "deconstructs" the
previously all-pervasive Daisy Bates legend.
Some of the bones of allegedly ritually eaten Aboriginal
Daisy Bates sent to the South Australian Museum, were later found to be
the bones of feral cats, and a lot of the other bones can't be traced.
The impact of the Strehlow-Bates school of Aboriginal
has been enormous. The ease with which someone like Pauline Hanson or
the authors of the book Pauline Hanson, The Truth (Pauline
Hanson Support Movement, 1997), just reel off wild assertions implying
that tribal Aboriginal eating of babies was an almost normal dietary
practice, underlines the unpleasant ideological impact of this
thoroughly white paternalist, shoddily researched, or even falsified
Daisy Bates style "anthropology". Whenever some racist wishes to
abolish ATSIC, like Pauline Hanson, or cut off funds for Aboriginal
health and welfare, its become almost routine for them to throw in
dubious anthropology about Aboriginal "baby eating" and other
barbarities alleged to be part of traditional Aboriginal culture.
The main figure in this paternalistic extinctionist attitude
Aboriginal culture and affairs was the extraordinarily talented,
prodigiously energetic, but possibly slightly mad, anthropologist T.G.
Strehlow. There is no question that Carl Strehlow and his son, T.G.
Strehlow, put together a thorough record of the Arrernte culture
through their anthropological efforts over many years. Nevertheless,
both Strehlows' thoroughly racist preconceptions led them to exaggerate
perceived brutal aspects of Arrernte culture. T.G. Strehlow's racist
Eurocentrism made him the originator of a general theme that has become
almost a mantra of racists who wish to appear learned. His view was
that Arrernte society, although brutal and in parts even Satanic was,
nevertheless, in its own way, authentic. (T.G's father, Carl was head
of the Finke River Mission, at Hermannsburg, in the Northern Territory
from 1894-1922, and T.G. was raised and individually taught by his
father to the age of 14.) He had absolute contempt, however, for
mixed-blood people, who he regarded as degenerate, not authentic
Aboriginals, and demeaning to the white "race" also.
This Strehlow view of Aboriginal traditional society as cruel,
brutal, authentic but doomed, and half-caste society as loathsome and
degenerate, has become the accepted ideology on Aboriginal affairs of
many racists and bigots in Australian society. The many variations on
this theme permeated most attempts to address the problem of Aboriginal
society until very recent times. The state project of stealing
mixed-blood children from their parents (the stolen generations) stems
from the Strehlow view that half-caste society was vile. The
Hermansburg Lutheran Mission, where Strehlow's dramas were played out,
was one of the saddest and most contradictory of Christian missions. It
certainly acted as a kind of refuge for Aboriginal people trying to
survive the widespread physical attacks on them, but the price they
paid was a constant assault on their cultural traditions by the narrow
and bigotted Lutheran missionaries, who regarded Aboriginal traditional
religion as Satanic.
The important book by the infuriating postmodernist, Paul
Carter, The Lie of the Land
(Faber, 1996), is very illuminating on this. Ploughing through Carter's
maddeningly obtuse text is, in this instance, well worth the effort.
The chapter "A Reverent Miming" is an extraordinary mine of information
about what happened at the Hermansburg Mission.
Carter describes, in a pathetic and moving way, the constant
pressure on the Aboriginal elders and religious leaders by the
Christian religious maniac, Pastor Albrecht, to surrender to him the
traditional Aboriginal religious artifacts, the tjurungas. He also
describes the official Lutheran ceremony of "desacralisation" of the
Manangananga Cave in which these objects had been preserved for many
hundreds of years. Both Strehlows accumulated a collection of thousands
of these looted Aboriginal sacred objects, and many of the Aboriginal
people in central Australia are still fighting a vigorous battle with
the Strehlow estate to get them back for the Aboriginal people before
they are dispersed via Christies or Sothebys to rich collectors around
The account of these events in Carter's book is supplemented
by the account in One Blood
(Albatross Books, 1990) by the Anglican, John Harris, who provides a
perceptive overview of the experience of Christian missions in
Australia played a bloodthirsty role in the South Pacific.
Nevertheless, 150,000 people from the South Pacific now live in
From the time of white settlement, Sydney became the main port
the British looting and conquest of the South Pacific. British ships
out of Sydney supplied guns to Maori chiefs in New Zealand and to many
tribal chiefs throughout the Pacific, using their trade in guns to
increase British political influence, and to thereby facilitate their
looting of the area.
This activity was almost universally bloodthirsty. The
activities of Samuel Marsden, the Anglican minister, flogging
magistrate and missionary gun-runner, and the later "blackbirding" of
many thousands of Melanesians as semi-slave labourers to Queensland,
are only the best-known examples of a whole system of conquest and
A typical event was the incident in 1837 when, without
men of Sapwauahfik Atoll (then called Ngatik) in Micronesia were killed
by the crew of a trade ship, out of Sydney, who wished to steal a cache
of valuable tortoiseshell possessed by the islanders. This is recounted
in the fascinating book, The Ngatik Massacre (Smithsonian
Institute, 1993) by Lin Poyer
The story of this community is, in its own way, just as
a story as that of the Pitcairn Islanders. After the massacre, several
of the European murderers settled on the island and were joined by a
collection of other Pacific beachcombers, who cohabited with the female
survivors of the massacre, giving rise to a vigorous new community with
its own complex culture, which now numbers some hundreds, descended, in
a way, from the murderers and the surviving widows of the murdered men.
Needless to say, a collective memory of the massacre is an important
part of the cultural history of the island.
Quite a lot of South Pacific history is like this, containing
terrible memories of past atrocities mixed with the extraordinary
resilience of the surviving indigenous people, recreating a life and
culture for themselves from whatever is left to and available to them.
In the light of this bloodthirsty Australian participation in
Pacific history, an interesting feature of the racial history of
Australia is the presence, today, of vigorous communities of indigenous
people from all over the Pacific. For a start, people from the Torres
Strait Islands, who are mainly Melanesian with some Polynesian
influences, have scattered all over northern Australia, from Darwin to
Brisbane, and there are even communities in Sydney and Melbourne.
There are maybe 30,000 of these people. The descendents of the
Melanesians (Kanaks) who managed to avoid deportation from Queensland
between 1900 and 1910 have developed into a vigorous, self-confident
community, nearly 20,000, mainly in Queensland centred on Mackay.
More recently, large communities of people from Polynesia have
settled in Australia: Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders and others, and
some Melanesians from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. There are now perhaps
40,000 people of this background from the Pacific in Australia. There
are also about 60,000 Maoris from New Zealand and quite a scattering of
descendants of Africans and West Indians, sent to Australia as convicts
in the 19th century, or who came, like the black Americans at Eureka,
during the gold rushes. (In an article in the Journal of Australian
No 16, Ian Duffield calculates that 1% of the convicts sent to
Australia were African or West Indian blacks. This makes a total of
almost 2,000 black convicts. In Watkin Tench's account of the early
colony, there are nearly 20 mentions of different black convicts. In
"Australian Race Relations 1788-1993" published in 1994, Andrew Markus
records: "Sir Frank Villeneuve Smith, at various times
attorney-general, premier and chief justice of Tasmania, and the first
president of the Tasmanian Club, was of part-African descent".)
The complexity of the history of the infusion of people of
into the Australian community is underlined by the nasty hullabaloo
directed at the head of a well-known and successful Western Australian
Aboriginal writer, Colin Johnston, and the noted academic, Bobbi Sykes,
whose detractors claimed that they didn't have the right to classify
themselves as Aboriginal because their coloured ancestor was actually
from somewhere else, despite the fact that they had identified from
childhood with the black community. If you take together all these
people, plus the more than 350,000 people who now identify themselves
as Aboriginal according to the census, you have a community in
Australia of indigenous people of colour from Australia or the South
Pacific, of more than 600,000 people.
The phenomenon that has taken demographers by surprise, and
conservative racists to fury, is the explosive numerical expansion of
the self-identified Aboroginal population at the past few censuses. At
each census the number of Aboriginals has gone up far more rapidly than
either natural increase or even intermarriage can account for. What has
actually happened is that many Australians who have a family memory,
often concealed for survival reasons, particularly in the rabidly
racist 19th century, having rediscovered and come to terms with their
Aboriginal ancestry, feel sufficiently at ease to acknowledge it to the
The racists, of course, ascribe this to the (very limited)
advantages, available to people of Aboriginal ancestry, but the more
obvious explanation is the same kind of thing that drives other people
who engage in the now widespread, very human preoccupation with family
history, to proudly proclaim the convict ancestry, which was once such
a terrible stigma. Recently, Paddy McGuiness has put a new slant on
these things, asserting that because a majority of Aboriginal people
appear currently to marry non-Aboriginal people, the existence of
Aboriginal identity is questionable and the rapid complete
"assimilation" of Aboriginals is likely. This McGuiness slant is not
very useful in making an accurate projection for the future.
The overwhelming majority of children of unions between
people and non-Aboriginal people tend to identify mainly with the
Aboriginal part of their heritage, and even if they don't, are often
forced to do so by the residual racism in Australian society. In real
life there is no prospect at all of Aboriginal identity dying out
because of intermarriage.
The stolen children
The stolen children is the issue that most sharply embodies
brutal history and the unacknowledged guilt of white racism in
Australia. To assist in the process of the widely acclaimed "passing of
the Aboriginals", the racist authorities in British Australia in the
19th century began a process of stealing Aboriginal children from their
parents to turn them into a docile labour force for the emerging
Australian capitalist society.
Over the past 150 years, nearly 50,000 Aboriginal or mixed
children were stolen from their parents in one way or another. The
process of the descendants of this child stealing rediscovering their
Aboriginality is a part of the explosion in Aboriginal numbers in the
census. In addition to this, in the early years of settlement, and in
fact all through the 19th century, other mixed-blood people disappeared
into the underclass of white society, often into the Irish Catholic
section of it, where they were more accepted and could partly avoid the
rabid racism of the British ruling class in colonial Australia.
The extraordinary popularity among white Australians of Sally
Morgan's wonderful bestseller, My Place
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987) about her experiences tracing her
Aboriginality, clearly indicates that many people are beginning to come
to terms with the sorry history of white Australia in these matters.
Another very moving book on this topic is The Lost Children
(Doubleday, 1989) edited by Coral Edwards and Peter Read, which is the
life stories of 13 stolen children told by themselves.
The definitive overview of the whole question of the
disruption of Aboriginal life involved in the stolen children policy,
is the magisterial and comprehensive new book, Broken Circles.
Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000 by Anna Haebich
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000).
Another feature of colonial Australia was the intermarriage
Aboriginals of some migrant groups that had few women among them. Quite
a few Chinese married Aboriginals. In central Australia very many of
the "Afghan" camel drivers (they were mostly actually from the
north-west frontier of what is now Pakistan, but crude British
shorthand classified them as Afghans) married Aboriginals, and there is
a community in central Australia, which mainly forms part of the
Aboriginal community, with Pakistani names, who are descendants of
The explosion of Aboriginal numbers in the recent censuses is
obviously a coming together of the delayed results of all these past
practices and events. The antagonistic response to it from some of the
more backward and racist white Australians is obviously a product of a
very bad conscience about Aboriginal relations in the past. For me,
these matters have acquired a strong personal aspect in the last few
years, because, as I describe elsewhere, an inquiry by one of my
relatives into our family history has produced a hauntingly
circumstantial, but difficult to document, inference of some probable
remote Aboriginality, from an Aboriginal ancestor who may have
deliberately disappeared into the more accepting Irish Catholic working
class of the 19th century.
Indigenous Australia and white Australia
It is obvious that my starting point in these matters is the
imperative need for Australians to take a determined stand in defence
of the interests of indigenous Australia against the current explosion
of racism and attacks on the material interests of Aboriginal
Australians. It seems to me absolutely clear that it is a reactionary
diversion for essentially conservative people such as Pauline Hanson
and Paul Sheehan to make indigenous Australians, Asian migrants and
others scapegoats for the problems of modern Australia. Such attempts
must be opposed, fought and defeated.
Hundreds of thousands of white Australians are prepared to
the rights and interests of indigenous Australia, as is shown by the
enormous response to the events such as Sorry Day, Queensland
pastoralists who have spoken up for Aboriginal reconciliation, the
thousands of people who have spoken out against mandatory sentencing,
and even the statements of conservative figures such as Malcolm Fraser.
Nevertheless, having said this, there are real, if episodic,
conflicts of interest between some ordinary white Australians and some
indigenous Australians, and that is one of the factors that gives
momentum to the racist diversions of the people such as Pauline Hanson.
These conflicts of interest are real and can't be glossed over.
For a start, many Aboriginals live either in poorer working
areas of major cities or in provincial cities or country towns of high
unemployment, low income and limited facilities and prospects for
everyone. Because of past oppression, and current social problems, the
unemployment rate among Aboriginal youth, with the concommitant social
dislocation, is much higher than that of any other social group.
Problems such as alcoholism and drugs are proportionately
among Aboriginal youth. The health problems of Aboriginal communities
are worse than those of whites, and the life expectancy of Aboriginals
is lower than that of whites. In addition to this, and for all the
above reasons, the proportion of Aboriginals in the prison system is
far higher than the proportion in the community. (This has been the
case for the last 30 or 40 years. Before that, for the whole of the
19th century and the early part of the 20th century, the Irish
Catholics numerically dominated the prison system, out of all
proportion to their numbers in society at large, much to the mock
horror of upper-class British Australia, which got very worked up about
the criminal propensities of Catholics. The reason for this
over-representation of Catholics in the prisons was exactly the same as
the current over-representation of Aboriginals. At that stage Irish
Catholics were the poorest of the population, at the bottom of the
social heap. In Paul Sheehan's book, he also makes great chauvinist
mileage from the proposition that Vietnamese, Arabs, Turks and Maoris
(Sheehan's codeword for Maoris is "New Zealanders"), recent immigrants
from poor countries or poor circumstances, are somewhat
over-represented in the prison system. So what's new?)
The widespread presence of an often physically obvious
Australasian community, in the poorest sections of Australian society,
gives rise to very sharp and quite human conflicts of interest. In some
country towns a heavy concentration of mainly unemployed youth, a fair
percentage of them black or brown, is a prominent feature of life. In
some towns it is difficult to run a small business because of the
desperate behaviour of unemployed youth. Such problems don't lend
themselves to easy or short-term solutions, and it is not useful or
intelligent to treat the sometimes racist responses of poorer white
Australians to these circumstances as racism of the same sort that
Pauline Hanson expresses. Such conflicts of interest are to some extent
conflicts among the people, and should be treated as such and
approached as realistically and humanely as possible, trying to take
account of the real interests of all concerned.
Such conflicts aren't so acute in major urban centres such as
Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, but they exist there, too. In some
areas of Sydney, for instance, quite a lot of house burglaries are
committed by unemployed indigenous youth, and a fair percentage of the
current wave of minor hold-ups in newsagencies and convenience stores,
with knives or syringes, are committed by brown or black youth, often
driven by narcotics habits, as are their fellow white armed robbers.
While the human tendency to urban myth often exagerates the proportion
of burglaries and hold-ups performed by Aboriginals or Pacific
Islanders, nevertheless, in my patch, the inner west of Sydney, these
conflicts of interest between ordinary Australians are quite real. I
have been a retailer, with a large, late-opening, seven-day-a-week shop
in King Street, Newtown, for the past 12 years.
We have been burgled three times, and we have been robbed or
half a dozen times in those 10 years. One of the burglars was caught,
and he was white. Four of the hold-up men or robbers were brown or
black. Luckily no one was ever injured, and we never lost too much,
because, as a matter of routine, we don't keep much money in the till.
Many other small businesses in the inner west have had similar
experiences, as have many householders. There is no doubt that these
experiences inflame a certain amount of racism directed at indigenous
people, who are perceived by many to be the main perpetrators. It's a
mistake to put this response of ordinary Australians to real problems
in the same category as the Pauline Hanson response.
In my experience, this kind of problem comes in waves, to do
the constantly changing demographics of the inner-city. In my 10 years
on King Street, I have seen several generations of very young
Aboriginal kids "working the strip", so to speak, and finding outlets
for their frustrations in thieving and vandalism. Like any other
shopkeeper, when a new bunch of young kids, white or black, starts
appearing full of the obvious unemployed adolescent testosterone, I go
on a bit of a war footing until they pass on to other things. I've
outlasted quite a few groups like this. On one occasion, seeing the
telltale signs, with a couple of young kids causing a disturbance,
while another one tried to get behind the till, I confronted the group,
and told them to leave because I knew what they were up to. One of them
said to me, "Oh, are you a racist?" To which my response was, "This is
my bit of turf. I don't give a fuck whether you're a Koori or an
Eskimo, I know what you are up to, so piss off." On that occasion they
all burst out laughing, and did leave and never came back.
On another occasion, a few years ago, I was sitting outside
on the bus seat for 10 minutes, on a muggy Saturday afternoon in
spring, drinking a Coke before I went back inside to get on with my
work, watching the world go by, when I saw the following fascinating
tableau. A very well-built, gleaming, tough-looking young black bloke
about 17, stripped to the waist, wandered along the other side of the
street, rather out of it, high on something, talking to himself in a
loud voice, carrying a short iron bar, which he was banging on the
walls and doors as he passed, much to the consternation of the people,
for instance, inside the cafe opposite.
When he reached the houses opposite, after the cafe, which are
inhabited by students from Moore Theological College, he disappeared
down the path of one of them, with what appeared to me malicious
intent. As the Moore College students are my neighbours, I quickly
adopted a kind of Neighbourhood Watch approach, crossed the road, and
gingerly followed him down the path, where he had already commenced
trying to make entry through a door with his iron bar. I yelled out to
him: "Stop that mate!" until he stopped. Then I hastily retreated, as
he groggily came back down the path and wandered further off down the
He then stopped, turned around and started throwing stones at
one of which hit me hard, from quite a distance. He was a pretty good
stone-thrower, that bloke. He then wandered off down King Street,
towards his own patch, still grumbling to himself, still waving his
iron bar. I felt a certain satisfaction that I'd protected the
neighbours from robbery without too much fuss or any real danger to
myself, and I hoped he wouldn't inflict too much harm on anybody else,
Other small robberies have been more threatening and less
and I and other staff members have been several times threatened with
knives or clubs. On these occasions I've had no compunction in calling
the coppers. I only call the police if there's any physical threat to
my staff or myself. If the poor bugger who has tried to hold us up,
driven by his addiction, ends up inside, whether he's black or white,
that can't be avoided.
This unfortunate choice is despite the fact that I know that
prison system doesn't solve anything, except that it gets the immediate
threat off the street, if and when the bloke is caught and convicted. I
try to handle these matters realistically, without contributing further
to the race prejudice in our society. I know a number of other small
business people in this area, for instance, the newsagent in
Chippendale, the next suburb, who shares my non-racist views, but has
nevertheless been held up on a number of occasions, and takes a similar
matter-of-fact approach to these problems.
However, my experience in these matters has given me a bit of
insight into all sides of these problems. The racist form of the
response of victims to some of these urban problems is by no means the
same thing as the belligerent, deliberate racist scape-goating of
Pauline Hanson, and one of the real tasks in relation to
Aboriginal-white relations is to address these kind of current problems
in a very concrete way, without either pandering to racism, or lightly
shrugging off the real concerns of the working class and middle class
victims of urban crime.
One of the most dangerous but poignant incidents close to me
happened several years ago. A planning meeting for the Campaign against
the Third Runway was being held in the house of my daughter, who also
lives in Newtown. At the end of the meeting, walking up to King Street,
a bloke from the International Socialists who had been at the meeting,
a bloke I know quite well, a serious-minded, quiet individual, also the
trade union delegate for his fellow workers on a university campus, was
assaulted from behind and robbed. He woke up a few days later in
hospital, in intensive care, and he was three months off work.
Eyewitnesses to the incident identified his assailant as brown or
black, and the motive appears to have been robbery. (The assailant was
actually picked up by the coppers a few hours later.) The bloke
assaulted is back at work and once again engaged in his intense trade
union, political and anti-racist activity, and more power to his elbow.
He is, however, probably a bit careful about dark streets at night.
All of this leads me to my major conclusion. The problems of
Aboriginal society in Australia are, historically speaking, products of
the imperialist British conquest of this continent. The rights and
interests of Aboriginal and other coloured Australians have to be
vigorously defended by all other Australians, as well as Aboriginals.
All attacks on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the
Wik and Mabo decisions, and on funding for Aboriginal welfare, and the
repellant phenomenon of mandatory sentencing, which bears down so
heavily on Aboriginal youth, should be vigorously opposed and defeated.
Considerable funds and resources should be devoted to getting at the
sources of the problems in Aboriginal society, as they should at the
problems in Australian society as a whole, particularly youth
unemployment. All racism should be defeated and condemned. However,
real conflicts among ordinary people that derive from these historic
oppressions, should be treated with realism, sensitivity and care,
taking into account the real interests of all Australians, pink, yellow
or black, working class and middle class.
June 7, 1999, updated April 7, 2000