Friday, March 15, 2013

Aboriginals, Colonisation and Contact History

Here are some resources that we will be referring to in class as we examine the topic Aboriginals and Indigenous Peoples, Colonisation and Contact History.

An important sub-heading for this unit of work could be "The History Wars". It is important both to be sensitive to the perceived history and identity of people, and also to ask whether the views being advanced are historically correct or serve a political purpose.

1. Governor Davey's Proclamation is a picture created in Tasmania in 1830. The idea was that it be shown to the local Aboriginal population, and convey to them the idea that the "white man's justice" applied equally to both populations. If a white man killed a black man, the same punishment would be meted out as in the situation where a black killed a white.

2. In the period ending Governor Macquarie's tenure, barely 3000 square kilometres had been officially granted to settlers. However, starting in the 1820s, land grants exploded, nearly doubling within the decade. Around 1826, the formal limits of the colony were set down as the "Nineteen Counties". It was deemed too hard to provide governance over the lands beyond these counties, such as police, schools or churches. Here are a couple of images showing the counties and their larger context within New South Wales:
Note this land extends up past Port Stephens in the north, out past Mudgee and Bathurst in the west, and down past the Shoalhaven river in the south. Have you visited any of these places. How many hours away are they, even by car? This total area was the extent of the "official" colony in the 1820s.
Aboriginal peoples certainly lived in these areas at this time. The government of the day did not consider that there was any obligation to compensate Aboriginals as they were pushed out of these areas, and in 1836 the Governor made first use of the term "Terra Nullius", meaning "land that belonged to no one".

3. When studying history, we can gain a lot by turning to contemporary accounts of life and attitudes. Such sources have value, but we should also remember that they are documents of their time. As well as containing truth, they reflect the attitudes and assumptions of that era.
A great source is a booklet written by two men in 1893.

Titled "NOTES ON THE ABORIGINES OF NEW SOUTH WALES". It was written by George Thornton (who was a Sydney Mayor and NSW Parliamentarian) & Richard Hill (a founding member of the Aboriginal protection board). Both men had had a long association with Aboriginals and spoke simultaneously with warmth towards them, and the condescension characteristic of the age. Click this image of the front cover to access a copy in PDF format.

In areas of settlement, and especially in the squatter lands beyond the 19 counties where the laws were loosely applied (or not at all), there were instances of conflict between Aboriginals and settlers. The degree of violence is disputed, and forms the basis for what are now called the "History Wars"; arguments among historians about both historical facts, and what they say about our national character, and relations between Europeans and Aboriginals. We must examine claims that at times seem completely contradictory.

We will watch in class one (possibly more) episodes of the SBS documentary series "The First Australians". Here is the first part of episode 2, and the SBS site has links to all the others.

What are the History Wars?
When approaching controversial topics, we should expect that there are opposing views. We should learn discernment. Is the view intended to serve a political purpose? Is the view supported by documentary sources? Is there genuine ambiguity about the motivations of people in the past because their inner thoughts are not recorded for posterity? To what degree can we infer historical facts and motivations?

There are some strident critics of the "orthodox" view that Aboriginals were deliberately massacred with the tacit approval of the governing authorities in the 1800s, and of the view that Aboriginal children were stolen from their families in huge numbers for no reason until well into the 20th century. One such historian is Keith Windschuttle. He has written a number of books where he claims stories of Aboriginal massacre are hugely over-estimated, and that the "Stolen Generation" story has likewise been overblown, for political purposes. He offers his own analysis of historical sources to back these claims.

Here is an important point: Where there are opposing views that both claim to be based on facts, we must evaluate each side properly. Reading histories that routinely claim that there was widespread genocide in early Australia (the worst possible crime that can be claimed) without evaluating opposing views is unwise.

Here is a website with some information about these opposing views:

Another controversy relates to the name adopted by Aboriginal people in North Western Sydney. You may remember an assembly or other civic function where recognition is given to the "Traditional custodians and inhabitants of the land, the Darug people."
A local historian, G.E Ford has advanced a theory that this term, Darug was invented by a (white) historian in Blacktown and first mentioned in a book in 1993, and that no Aboriginals in north west Sydney had used this term to apply to themselves before that time. Another people, the Dharug people (note the spelling), were from the Georges River area, but were unrelated. G.E Ford suggests that the correct name for the Aboriginals in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas is Darkiñung. Here is a link to Ford's analysis of historical sources and oral histories.


  1. What do you think about the growth of the Australian nation? Should we be proud of it?
  2. What do you think about the treatment of Aboriginal people since the First Fleet. Should we be proud of it?
  3. What might we say about the motivations (if not the outcomes) of many who formed policy towards Aboriginals?
  4. Can historical controversies be hijacked by people with "an axe to grind"?
  5. Why is it important to look at both sides of a story?
  6. Discuss this statement: "Although we can argue about history, it is more important that we treat the people around us now with respect."
Some Definitions

Squatting: One who occupied a large tract of land not formally granted by the Government in order to graze livestock.  Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first (and often the only) Europeans in the area. These lands may or may not have been inhabited by Aboriginals.

Genocide: The deliberate killing of a large group of people, esp. those of a particular ethnic group or nation.

Massacre: In indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people

History Wars:  The public debate over the interpretation of the history of the British colonisation of Australia and development of contemporary Australian society.

Black Armband View of History:  The argument over whether accounts of Australian history tend towards an overly negative or an overly positive point of view.  (The opposite is suggested to be the “Three Cheers” view” – Geoffrey Blainey)

Black War: Even though there were many conflicts between Aboriginals and settlers around Australia, historians usually use this term to refer to a period of conflict in Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s.

Dispossession: To have one’s property, and specifically land, taken away without compensation.

Treaty: A formal agreement between two peoples or nations to settle a conflict, or to set out rights, obligations or compensation.

Question: Who is bound by a treaty?
Why was there a treaty in New Zealand between the Maori and the settlers, the treaty of Waitangi in 1840, but no treaty in Australia?

Comparing Texts

We need to learn to compare evidence and decide how persuasive it is.  Sometimes this evidence is contradictory. We will be looking at this in more detail in class, but here are some examples relating to one part of Aboriginal History, the conflict between settlers and Aboriginals in Tasmania during the 1820s and 1830s.

Compare what these two sources are saying:
Source 1: The first massacre of Tasmanian Aboriginal people occurred at Risden Cove in 1804, when Lieutenant John Bowen and his troops fired on a group which included women and children. By 1806 clashes between Aboriginal people and settlers were common. The Tasmanians speared stock and shepards; in retaliation Europeans gave them poison flour, abducted their children to use as forced labour, and raped and tortured the women.
Source 2: "[There is a claim that] in the four years between 1804 and 1808 British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land . However, if you look up her source for this, the diary of the colony's chaplain Robert Knopwood, you will find he only recorded four Aboriginal deaths in that period... 
[There is a claim]
-->Tasmanian settlers killed Aborigines by offering them poisoned flour. Their sole source for this is a diary entry by George Augustus Robinson in which he recorded a conversation between a superintendent of the Van Diemen's Land Company and his convict shepherds. If you go back and check the original source in Robinson's diary entry of August 8 1830 you find him recording that the convicts asked the superintendent for some poison. He asked them why they wanted it. Robinson's diary continues:
 They said: “Oh sir, we will poison the natives' dogs"
These two sources are at odds. They are interpreting what they both claim are the primary sources of historical data, which is documents, records, diaries and soforth.
Which is correct? Our responsibility is to dig, to explore further, to see the evidence ourselves and to be persuaded by one side or another (and sometimes, both sides are wrong!).

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