The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were Australia’s first people, the original Australians or First Nations. British colonization led to the near extinction of the First Nations in the 19th and 20th centuries. To this day, there are reports that the current generation of Aboriginals continues to be discriminated against.
The 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 of Africa.
In 2017, a study of 111 Aboriginal Australians showed they all shared a common ancestor from a distinct population of first inhabitants.
Additionally, their culture is the oldest surviving culture in the world. They continued a stone tool technology that dates to the earliest inhabitants.
In their evolution, there wasn’t an iron age or bronze age or the use of the terms ‘palaeolithic’ and ‘neolithic’. Therefore, their stone technology didn’t progress in the same way the rest of the world did, which emphasizes the uniqueness of their culture.
Just like all religions, the Aboriginals believe that a god or gods created people and the surrounding environment during the ‘Creation Period’ at the beginning of time.
The Creation Period is when the deities created landforms, plants and animals. Aboriginals interpret their dreams as memories of what happened during the Creation Period, where ‘Dreamtime’ describes events of the Creation Period. The Aboriginal culture is full of legends related to the Creation Period, often coming 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 came from Spain, the Netherlands and England.
However, it wasn’t until Captain James Cook’s first Pacific voyage in 1770 was the land thoroughly explored. He claimed the land for Great Britain and named it New South Wales. When he returned, he reported that the land was suitable for growing a variety of crops.
Additionally, his reports made the land sound suitable as a penal colony to settle and reform convicts. After losing their North American colonies, Australia acted as their replacement.
On January 26th, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established the first colony with 11 ships carrying convicts. They were assigned work based on their skills and planted the seed of the first European settlement to colonize the Australian continent.
There were times when Great Britain sent criminals who committed small crimes and unwanted citizens to the penal colony.
In the next 5 years, more settlers arrived that weren’t convicts.
As the British Empire expanded on the Australian continent, they formed six colonies in 70 years:
- 1784 – New South Wales.
- 1828 – Tasmania.
- 1829 – Western Australia.
- 1836 – South Australia.
- 1851 – Victoria.
- 1859 – Queensland.
These later became states of the Australian Commonwealth.
The First Nations Reactions
The First Nations reacted just as any civilization would when unknown people from a different land claimed theirs: with aggression. They wanted to make the Europeans leave to protect their land.
Over time, the Aboriginals realised the superiority of the settlers’ weapons. They fled the settlers’ areas, now known as Sydney. Many tried to include European settlers into their way of life, but the settlers had their own way and didn’t take on the Aboriginal’s traditional way, only when it came to the escaped convicts.
It’s evident that the Aboriginals highly respected the land. How early settlers treated the land made the Aboriginals believe they were greedy, selfish and lacked respect for the land. Certain tribes couldn’t understand the need to destroy the land to live. This angered them and led to many conflicts.
European settlers attacked the First Nations. Reports state that they killed the elderly, women and children while the men hunted.
To retaliate, the First Nations’ warriors used fire to destroy the settlers’ infrastructure, such as their farms. Many were caught, imprisoned and chained with metal collars and shackles.
As the settlers expanded, they destroyed more land and sacred sites, resulting in more conflicts, destruction and deaths.
Captain Phillip and the First Fleet arrived with not only people, innovations and lifestyles but with diseases. The 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 that took many lives.
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 because they weren’t strong enough. The settlers destroyed many 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, such as businesses and livestock farms, needed workers. The First Nations that worked for settlers received a daily payment of flour, sugar, tea and occasional meat bits. These were basic rations that were inadequate compared to traditional diets. For some, rations were 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 because of the settlers’ developments. The land and their food supply were destroyed. They couldn’t hunt or gather food. Trees and plants were either removed or destroyed, waterways dirtied and large animals fled at the sight of the growing settler population.
These factors led to the deaths of families and friends and aided in the loss of links of past generations and the spirit for life.
The First Nations continuously resisted the European settlers. These disputes often led to more deaths by the tens of thousands of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders by mass shootings or driving groups of cliffs. Settlers’ deaths were only by the thousands. There are even accounts of settlers giving First Nations foods laced with arsenic and other poisons.
Cultural misunderstandings were one of the reasons for mass killings.
For example, 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 found in a shallow grave surrounded by traditional weapons. A reprisal party of white civilians and police formed and were led on horseback by Constable George Murray.
For several months, the reprisal party killed 60 Aboriginal men, women and children at different sites in the Central Desert region. They arrested two men for the murder who were later acquitted of the crime. Eyewitnesses pointed to Kamalyarrpa Japanangka, also known as Bullfrog, as the killer.
Bullfrog killed Brooks because he broke the Warlpiri marriage laws. Although Brooks didn’t have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander wife, first-person accounts said he placed demands on Bullfrog’s wife. Secondary accounts suggest that he sexually assaulted one of Bullfrog’s wives.
Breaking Aboriginal laws is a punishable offence. Therefore, Bullfrog saw that he acted lawfully, but it led to the deaths of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kayletye people.
The Stolen Generations
Between the 1910s and 1970s, because of the new government policies, officials forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families as part of their plan and attempt to assimilate them into white society.
In the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, each scene shows what the stolen children faced while they were kept in the institutions, from being taken from their families to the outcome of their fighting for survival.
The film, based on a true story, tells of two sisters and their cousin, who were brought to an institution and their plan and will to escape. Their journey after escaping from the institution, the people that helped them and what happened to all three by the 1970s are depicted.
A.O. Neville is a particular figure in the Aboriginal children’s assimilation. He is also featured in the film and portrayed by Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Auber O. Neville (1875 – 1954) was the Chief Protector of Aborigines who helped shape Aboriginal policies in Western Australia. He supported the ‘absorption’ policy of those that were half-Aboriginal, or ‘half-castes’.
During his term, he tried to control the population of half-castes. What many claimed as a favourable method was the assimilation of mixed children, half-white and half-Aboriginal, into white society. Their lighter skin led to the strong belief that they had a stronger chance to adapt and, as a result, they were forcibly taken from their families.
Additionally, the children dubbed Neville as ‘Devil’. Instead of protecting them, he hurt them by separating families.
Many of the children didn’t realize they were taken. They were told their birth parents were abusive, had died or abandoned them. Even when outside of the institution, they never knew or found their birth families.
The common assumption is that their lives would be better if they were part of white society. The First Nations would ‘die out’ through natural elimination by assimilation.
The Stolen Children
After being taken from their homes, the children were put in institutions, where they faced abuse and neglect.
Nuns taught them to reject their heritage and forced them to adopt white culture. They changed their names and forbade them from speaking their native languages. The living conditions were highly controlled and their punishments harsh and frequent. They were cold, hungry and received little to no affection.
During their baths, the nuns scrubbed the children’s bodies hard to scrub away the darker pigment of their skin. Pastors would check if their skin lightened every week. If it did, Neville placed them as second-class citizens in white society or had them adopted by white families.
The children 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 them, giving them lifelong trauma.
Being taught to reject their culture made many ashamed of their First Nations roots stories and legends. They disconnected from their culture and didn’t pass it on to their children.
They also received low-level education. It was expected of them to be manual labourers and domestic servants, which led to their lifelong economic issues. The Stolen Generations couldn’t even assist their own children with schoolwork and a decent education.
The future generations of the Stolen Generations survivors are at risk of Intergenerational Trauma. The disconnection from their extended family and culture results in a type of stress that can pass down from generation to generation.
There are approximately 40,000 Aboriginals in Australia and, according to reports, they continue to face oppression.
The United Nations drafted reports on Australia’s lack of effort to improve the current Aboriginal rates of suicide, incarceration, health and education.
Aboriginal Australians live in rural and remote areas, primarily in run-down districts in cities. It’s common for one or more families to live in one household, especially due to the high birth rate. It can also be seen as part of their tradition of hospitality. Their homes are open to families and friends.
Unemployment is a major problem due to the level of racism and poor education. Many work for accommodation, good and low income. The majority depend on unemployment benefits and welfare. This leads to prejudice among non-Aboriginal Australians that Aboriginals live off the government and don’t attempt to look for a job.
Many Aboriginal children have never attended school or attended on a regular basis, either due to the inability to pay for tuition or an impaired education system. This is one of the major contributions to the low unemployment rates that Aboriginal Australians constantly face on a growing basis.
However, there have been government programs that helped tens of thousands of Aboriginal students in their studies.
There have been wrongful deaths and unlawful arrests and detention of Aboriginals. Reports state that questions go unanswered and leave families and friends heartbroken by not knowing what happened to their loved ones.
Many view that colonialism helped advance the world of Indigenous people by giving them innovations, education, medical care and better clothing to battle the elements.
Others say colonialism brought nothing but destruction to the land and indigenous culture. This is primarily due to many feeling the past hasn’t been rectified. An example is how these individuals see Australia Day on January 26th, which they dub ‘Invasion Day‘.
The changes made accommodate different races, cultures and faiths. However, it’s close to impossible when one feels 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.
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