The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are Australia’s first people or the original Australians. However, British colonization led to the near extinction of the First Nations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Till this day, there are reports that they continue to face discrimination.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, or First Nations, arrived in Northern Australia about 75 000 years ago. The common theory is that they arrived on the island from Southeast Asia in primitive boats.
This makes them the oldest population of humans living outside Africa.
In 2017, a genetic study of 111 Aboriginal Australians took place. The results showed that all shared a common ancestor who belonged to a distinct population that arrived with the first inhabitants.
Moreover, their culture is the oldest surviving culture in the world. They continued a stone tool technology dating to the earliest inhabitants. There never was an ‘iron age’ or ‘bronze age’. The terms ‘palaeolithic’ and ‘neolithic’ were not used. Therefore, their stone technology did not progress in the same way the rest of the world did, emphasizing the uniqueness of the culture.
Just like all religions, they believe a god or gods created people and the surrounding environment. This happened during the Creation Period at the beginning of time.
This is the very beginning, where the deities created landforms, plants and animals. Aboriginals interpret dreams as memories of what happened during the Creation Period. Therefore, the term Dreamtime describes the Creation Period. Aboriginal culture is full of legends related to the Creation Period. Often, they come with lessons or a moral tale.
The British Empire in Australia
During the Age of Exploration, Europeans discovered and mapped Australia’s land. The explorers ranged from being Spanish, Dutch and English.
However, it was not until Captain James Cook on his first Pacific voyage was the land truly explored in 1770. He claimed the land for Great Britain and named it New South Wales. Upon his return, he reported the land was suitable for growing a variety of crops. As well, his reports made the land sound suitable as a penal colony, a colony designed to settle and reform convicts. Losing their North American colonies had Australia acting as their replacement.
On January 26th, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established the first colony with 11 ships carrying convicts.
The convicts were assigned work based on their skills. They planted the seed of the first European settlement to colonize the Australian continent.
At times, Great Britain sent criminals who committed small crimes to the penal colony, as well as unwanted citizens.
Within the next 50 years, more settlers arrived and they were not convicts.
The British Empire expanded on the Australian continent, and six colonies formed:
- 1784 – New South Wales.
- 1828 – Tasmania
- 1829 – Western Australia
- 1836 – South Australia
- 1851 – Victoria
- 1859 – Queensland
These later became the states of the Australian Commonwealth.
The First Nations Reactions
The First Nations (Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders) reacted just as any would when unknown people claim their land: with aggression. They wanted to make the European settlers leave, to protect their land. Over time, they realized the superiority of the settlers’ weapons. They fled the settler’s areas, now known as Sydney. Many did try to include European settlers into their way of life. However, the settlers had their own way of life and did not take on the First Nations traditional way, except for the escaped convicts.
It is evident that the First Nations highly respected the land. The behavior of the early settlers made the First Nations believe they were greedy, selfish and lacked respect for the land. Certain tribes could not understand the need to destroy the land to live, angering them, resulting in many conflicts.
European settlers attacked the First Nations, reports that they would kill the elderly, women and children when the men hunted.
To retaliate, the First Nations warriors used fire to destroy the settlers’ infrastructure, such as their farms. Many were caught and imprisoned, chained with metal collars and shackles.
The more the settlers expanded, the most land and sacred sites they destroyed. It led to more conflicts, resulting in more destruction and deaths.
Captain Phillip and the First Fleet arrived with not only new people, innovations and lifestyles, but new diseases as well. These diseases included smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza, measles and the common cold. The sexual exploitation and abuse of First Nations women and girls led to the spread of venereal diseases.
In 1789, the First Nations experienced a smallpox outbreak, taking the lives of many.
Within the next ten years, the First Nations population decreased by 90%.
As the settlements grew, so did the First Nations’ exposure to new diseases. They tried traditional medicines to fight the diseases but they proved unsuccessful. Their traditional methods were not strong enough. The settlers destroyed many of their resources normally found on the land to relieve illnesses.
First Nations fell into two categories: those who worked for settlers and those who maintained their traditional way of life. Both suffered.
The new industries brought to Australia needed workers, such as businesses and livestock farms. The First Nations that worked for settlers received the daily payment of flour, sugar, tea and the occasional meat bits. These were basic rations, inadequate compared to traditional diets. For some, the rations added to other food found on the land. For others, it was all they had.
Those that tried to maintain the traditional way of life suffered due to the settlers’ developments. The land was destroyed and, therefore, their food supply. They could not hunt or gather food as they normally would. Trees and plants were either removed or destroyed, waterways dirtied and large animals fled at the sight of the growing settler population.
Not only did these factors lead to the deaths of family and friends, but aided to lost links of past generations and the loss of a spirit for life.
The First Nations continuously resisted the European settlers. These disputes often led to the deaths of tens of thousands of First Nations, by mass shootings of driving groups off cliffs, with settlers’ deaths in the thousands. There are accounts of settlers giving First Nations food laced with arsenic and other poisons.
Cultural misunderstandings were one of the reasons for mass killings.
An example is the Coniston Massacre, the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal Australians.
Fred Brooks was a white dingo trapper. In 1928, his dismembered body was in a shallow grave, surrounded by traditional weapons.
A reprisal party formed of white civilians and police, led on horseback by Constable George Murray.
For several months, the party killed 60 Aboriginal men, women and children at different sites in the Central Desert region. They arrested two men for the murder, but were later acquitted. Eye witnesses pointed to Kamalyarrpa Japanangka, also known as ‘Bullfrog’, as the killer.
Bullfrog killed Brooks because he broke the Warlpiri marriage laws. Brooks did not have an Aboriginal wife. The first-person accounts said he placed demands on Bullfrog’s wives. Secondary accounts suggest he sexually assaulted one of his wives. Breaking Aboriginal laws is a punishable offense and, therefore, Bullfrog saw that he acted lawfully. However, it led to the deaths of the Warlpirir, Anmatyerre and Kayletye people.
The Stolen Generations
Between the 1910’s and 1970s, due to new government policies, officials forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families. It was the government’s plan to assimilate them into white society.
The 2002 film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, gives accounts of what children faced while in institutions, from being taken from their families to the outcome of their fighting. Based on a true story, it tells of two sisters and their cousin, who were brought to the institutions and planned an escape. It shows their journey, the people that helped them and what happened to all three of them by the end of the 1970’s. A.O. Neville appears as well, played by Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Auber O. Neville (1875 – 1954) became Chief Protector of Aborigines and helped shape Aboriginal policies in Western Australia. He supported the ‘absorption’ policy of those that were half-Aboriginal or ‘half-castes’.
In his term, he tried to control the population. What many claimed as a favorable method was the assimilation of mixed children, half-white and half-Aboriginal. Due to their lighter skin, it was strongly believed that mixed children had a stronger chance to easily adapt. This forcibly removed children from their families. As well, they dubbed Neville ‘Devil’ because instead of protecting them, he hurt them by separating families.
Many never realized they were taken. They were told their birth parents were abusive, had died or abandoned them. Even outside of the institution, they never knew or found their birth families.
Additionally, the assumption is that their lives would be better if part of white society. The First Nations would ‘die out’ through natural elimination of assimilation.
Forcibly taken from their homes, officials place the children in institutions. While in those institutions, they face abuse and neglect.
Nuns taught them to reject their heritage and forced them to adopt a white culture. They changed their names and forbade them from speaking their native languages. The living conditions were highly controlled. Their punishments were harsh and frequent. They were cold, hungry and received little to no affection.
During their baths, the nuns scrubbed their children’s bodies hard in an attempt to scrub away their darker pigment. Weekly, pastors checked to see if their skin lightened. If so, Neville placed them as second-class citizens in white society or had them adopted by white families.
As a result, they developed high rates of depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress, suicide and poor health and socio-economic outcomes. The adopted families psychologically, physically and sexually abused the mixed children, giving them lifelong trauma. Taught to reject their culture made many ashamed of their First Nations roots, its stories and legends. They disconnected from their culture and did not pass it on to their children. Moreover, they received low-level education. It was expected of them to be manual laborers and domestic servants, leading to lifelong economic issues. The Stolen Generations could not assist their own children with schoolwork and education.
Children, grandchildren and future generations of the Stolen Generations survivors are at risk of Intergenerational Trauma. They have a disconnection from their extended family and culture, leading to stress. This type of trauma passes down from generation to generation.
There are approximately 40 000 Aboriginals in Australia. According to reports, oppression continues till this day.
The United Nations (U.N.) handed reports on Australia’s lack of effort to improve the current Aboriginal rates of suicide, incarcerations, health and education.
Aboriginal Australians live in rural or remote areas. Primarily, they occur in run-down districts in cities. It is common for one or more families to live in one household, especially due to the high birth rate. Subsequently, it can be seen as part of the tradition of hospitality. Their homes are open to families and friends.
Unemployment is a major problem.
If they do find employment, it is at a low level due to racism and poor education. Many work for accommodation, food and low income. The majority depend on unemployment benefits and welfare. As a result, it leads to a prejudice among non-Aboriginal Australians that Aboriginals live off the government and do not attempt to look for a job.
Many Aboriginal children have never attended school or attend on an irregular basis. It could be due to the inability to pay school fees or an impaired education system. Nevertheless, it hinders their opportunities to obtain a job.
However, there have been government programs that helped tens and thousands of Aboriginal students in their studies.
There have been wrongful deaths, unlawful arrests and detention of Aboriginals. Reports stated that questions go unanswered, leaving families and friends heartbroken in not knowing what truly happened to their family members and friends.
Many say that colonialism helped to advance the world of Indigenous people. It gave them innovations, an education, medical care and better clothing to battle the elements.
Others say colonialism brought nothing but destruction to land and indigenous culture. This is primarily due to the fact that many feel the past has not been rightfully rectified. An example is how many see Australia Day, January 26th, as ‘Invasion Day‘.
The changes made accommodate those of different races, cultures and faiths. However, it is close to impossible when one feels that the past never ended.
We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.
-Aboroginal Australian proverb.