(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Australian Aborigines first came to Australia from south-east Asia when the two continents were almost joined by a land bridge. Aborigines are thought to have started migrating to Australia about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. At that time, they already knew how to make stone tools and other implements, fire, and canoes, which would have got them across the narrow channels of water that separated the two continents. The earliest remains found so far are those of Mungo Man at Lake Mungo, 450 miles west of Sydney in 1974. Migration stopped when sea levels rose about 600 feet after the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Before the arrival of Europeans, there were at least 300,000 Aborigines living in Australia. Recent archeological evidence suggests a figure of 750,000 people would have been possible. They lived in about 600 tribes or groups averaging 500 to 1,000 or more members. Each tribe was divided into smaller bands of fifty or so people. Each band had its own territory and hunted within those boundaries. Sometimes nearby bands and tribes got together for special ceremonies. There were about 260 languages in Aboriginal Australia, many with two or three dialects.
Their society was organized and well structured. Marriage was subject to strict rules, with each tribe being divided into two halves. A man and a woman in the same half couldn’t marry. Marriages were usually arranged, although sometimes women were traded for boomerangs, ochre and other goods, while abduction was not unknown. Some men had several wives. Parenting was shared between mothers and fathers, and uncles and aunts. Everyone was involved in the search for food. The men would hunt the larger game with spears, clubs and boomerangs, while the women gathered plant food and hunted smaller animals. At night, they sat around their camp fire and exchanged stories, often those associated with the Dreaming. This was their religion, with stories going back to a creation time, as well as those on the Rainbow Serpent, yowie and bunyip.
Aborigines had minimal contact with the outside world before European settlement. Fisherman and traders from what is now Indonesia visited Australia since at least the seventeenth century. The Aborigines also had contact with the early explorers. It was sometimes violent, with spears thrown and shots fired, and could result in deaths on both sides. On other occasions, Aborigines would lead explorers to fresh water and offer them food.
When the First Fleet arrived at Sydney in January 1788, relations were cordial. The Aborigines either kept out of the way or ignored the newcomers. The first serious incident was in May of that year, when two convicts were killed at Rushcutters Bay. In the following year, an outbreak of smallpox resulted in the death of more than half of the Sydney Aborigines. Most of those that survived left the area. Scuffles continued in the outlying areas of the settlement. Strong resistance to white settlement in the Hawkesbury River and Parramatta areas to the west of Sydney resulted in “The Black War”, which lasted six years from 1799. The term was often used by settlers elsewhere in succeeding decades. Slaughter of Aborigines in Tasmania began in 1804 with about fifty killed by whites at Risdon Cove.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie was keen to make peace with the local population. In 1814, He put an Aborigine called Bungaree in charge of a farm for his people. It failed but he was given a brass breast plate that read, “Bungaree, King of the Blacks”. It marked the start of a tradition of giving inscribed breast plates to Aborigines if they had done something the whites felt was worthy of reward. Macquarie set up a school for Aborigines at Parramatta, but it too failed.
When seven whites were killed by Aborigines at Bathurst in 1824, Governor Brisbane imposed martial law. Soldiers and mounted police arrived and about 100 Aborigines were killed. The Myall Creek massacre in 1838 resulted in the deaths of 28 Aborigines by twelve stockmen. In Tasmania, Governor Arthur tried to round up all Aborigines and confine them to the Tasman Peninsula. But they knew the bush well and were too elusive for the 2,000 soldiers who formed a “Black Line” to try and catch them. One woman and one boy were caught at a cost of 35,000 pounds.
The massacres continued as Europeans spread across the country and took over traditional hunting grounds with cattle and sheep, chopping down forests, which meant less game. Aborigines had no concept of private ownership. If an animal of any description stood in a field, it belonged to whoever killed it. They would carry or drag it back to their camp, cook it, and eat it. They would later be killed themselves when settlers discovered they had lost stock. If Aborigines didn’t die in massacres, they often died of smallpox or various other diseases introduced by whites, or they starved to death.
By mid nineteenth century, Aboriginal Protectorates, bands of Native Police, and missions were set up around the country. But early protectorates were often regarded as a waste of time. The Native Police were little more than groups of Aborigines employed and rewarded by the whites for dispersing indigenous people seen as troublemakers. The Maloga Mission was set up in 1874 as a refuge for the remaining 9,000 Aborigines in New South Wales. In 1868, an Aboriginal cricket team toured England. In Tasmania, the last full-blood Aborigine, Truganini, died in 1876 aged 73.
In the last decades of the century, various missions, reserves, and protection boards were established for Aborigines, with limited success. Various tribes were shifted from their traditional homes to reserves, often hundreds or even a thousand miles away. This factor, together with language and cultural differences between the tribes, led to a great deal of friction and unhappiness. Traditional life was finished and Aborigines were expected to adopt white people’s lifestyle and become “civilized”.
The massacres didn’t stop. For example, 100 were killed at Richmond River in New South Wales in 1864, between twenty and 150 at Dampier in Western Australia in 1868, up to ninety at Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory in 1874, 200 at Mount Isa in Queensland in 1884, and an unknown number from various skirmishes and massacres in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Commonwealth Constitution, drawn up when the colonies of Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901, stated that “in reckoning the numbers of the people … Aboriginal natives shall not be counted”. Aboriginal affairs weren’t explicitly specified as a Commonwealth power and were therefore left as an issue for each state. Reserves, missions, and protection boards were set up in each state and the Northern Territory. For example, the Queensland Government established a community at Cherbourg in 1904 and one on Palm Island in 1918. In Western Australia, reserves were set up, protectors were appointed, and rules for Aboriginal employment were put in place.
“Protection” effectively meant that children were taken away from their families and placed in foster care in a white family or sent to an orphanage. It was felt at the time that the Aboriginal race faced extinction and that the children should at least be given a chance in life. The ideology presumed that Europeans were superior to Aborigines. Those of mixed blood were often taken away too; for example, it was reported that many half-caste children born during the Ghan railway construction in South Australia and the Northern Territory had been abandoned. Some of the policy’s supporters were worried about a mixing of the races and that it threatened the stability of civilization. The children so taken would become known as the Stolen Generation.
Massacres continued until the late 1920s, especially in Western Australia. Many Aborigines were killed in the Kimberley region from the 1890s to the 1920s, including along the Canning Stock Route in 1906 and 1907, at Mistake Creek in 1915, at Bedford Downs in 1924, and at Forrest River in 1926. There was a massacre of 32 Aborigines at Coniston, Northern Territory, in 1928. The turning point came in the early 1930s. Two whites were killed by Aborigines for rape at Caledon Bay, Northern Territory. A party of whites was planning to head to the area with the intention of killing as many Aborigines as they could find, but the issue was resolved in the courts.
A policy of assimilation of Aboriginal people into the wider community was launched in 1937. Part Aborigines were assimilated whether they liked it or not. Detribalised Aborigines would receive an education, while the rest would stay on reserves. Aborigines were expected to attain the same level of living standards as other Australians, enjoy the same rights, have the same responsibilities, and observe the same customs and beliefs. Progress was slow, but by the 1960s, state expenditure on Aboriginal health, education, and housing has increased substantially. Legislation was altered to remove discriminatory provisions. Aborigines became eligible for social security payments in 1960. They could vote in federal elections from 1962. Legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol was removed. Full award wages were to be paid to Aborigines. The assimilation policy was abandoned in the 1970s in favor of a more multicultural approach, allowing people of various ethnic backgrounds, including Aborigines, to retain their identity.
In a referendum on 27 May 1967, 91 per cent of the Australian people voted to end constitutional discrimination against Aborigines. The Constitution was amended to include them in the five-yearly national census, and to allow the federal and state governments to share legislative responsibilities for Aborigines.
In the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971, the Northern Territory Supreme Court ruled that Aborigines did not own the Arnhem Land Reserve under Australian law, despite being the traditional owners. As a result, an Aboriginal “Tent Embassy” was set up on the lawns of old Parliament House in Canberra to pursue land rights issues. They wanted legal title and mining rights to large amounts of land across the country, preservation of sacred sites, and compensation payments for land that couldn’t be returned to them. The demands failed and the embassy came and went over the years.
The 1971 ruling stood until the Mabo case in 1992 where the High Court of Australia made void the concept of “terra nullius”, or “land belonging to no one”, which had been in place since the first white settlement in 1788, and to recognize native title. The decision allowed Aborigines to register claims of native title over certain land and give them particular rights as to the uses of the land.
The issue of apologizing to the Aboriginal people for taking their children away from them in earlier times had simmered for more than a decade. A report found that about 100,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families by government agencies and church missions between 1869 and 1969. State and territory governments had apologized for their role in 1997-2001, but the previous Liberal-National Party federal government had refused to do so. New Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the Stolen Generation in February 2008.
Today, there are about 455,000 Aborigines in Australia, according to the latest (2006) figures, up from 410,000 in 2001. Numbers had fallen as low as 30,000 to 50,000 in the 1920s. While numbers have surged, Aborigines continue to struggle in a society dominated by a culture very different from their own. Their cause has not been helped by past atrocities. Compared to the rest of the population, Aborigines have poor health with average life expectancy of around 50-60 years, lower education levels, higher crime rates, high unemployment, and often substandard housing. Governments are concerned about the high consumption of alcohol, drug use, and child abuse in many Aboriginal communities. Various programs are in place to assist Aborigines, with mixed results.