Colonialism in South Australia began decades before formal annexation and later invasion with unregulated interactions between coastal Aboriginal people and European whalers and sealers. The book, with contributions by historians, anthropologists and linguists, traces the ongoing impact of colonialism on Aboriginal individuals, communities and their culture. Colonial theorists in Britain envisaged a process that would recognise pre-existing Aboriginal rights, but in practise it was no different or more sensitive than elsewhere in Australia.
From the 1790s onwards death and disease, in particular smallpox, have swept across Aboriginal South Australia, disrupting well-honed systems of kinship and marriage. The strangers, who came by sea and overland plundered as of right, violated cultural norms, bodies and country. When South Australia was proclaimed, after its borders had been determined by three straight lines, with no reference to the Aboriginal presence, coastal Aborigines knew what to expect. They had already 50 years’ experience of the white man.
White men already had desecrated sacred places, killed totemic animals, disrupted and dislocated families, abducted and raped women and caused venereal and other diseases. This also resulted in large numbers of Aboriginal women becoming sterile or miscarrying. Within ten years most of the Kaurna lands had been appropriated and its original inhabitants either succumbed to introduced diseases, were driven off their lands, moved to other areas or killed.
Although numerous Aborigines had been killed by settlers prior to 1849, only one, an ex-convict, had been found guilty. Early explorers, surveyors, pastoralists, police troopers and missionaries often reported large numbers of Aborigines in locations right around South Australia, some of them as many as 200, 300 and even 700. If these numbers are anywhere near correct one wonders what happened to them.
The original good intensions of the British government towards the Aborigines came to nothing as white settlers did it their own way. The South Australian government was more than lacks to the treatment of the inhabitants of the land they had invaded. After 1836 it were surveyors, explorers, tourists and men seeking land. They were followed by pastoralists, their workers with stock and guns. When sheep stations were established in the Port Lincoln area in the early 1840s it resulted in many deaths of Aborigines and a dozen whites, including explorer Charles Darke in 1844. Eyre Peninsula became South Australia’s most violent frontier.
The colonial government in Adelaide tried to impose its rule on all subjects, black and white, but it were the Aborigines who suffered most. By 1860 it were miners and farmers who became the next group of settlers. None of them showed any recognition of previous Aboriginal ownership.
From the early 1860 Moravian, Lutheran and other missionaries tried to improve Aboriginal life styles and convert them to their Christian religions. They also tried to minimise frontier conflict and the abuse of women by white men. Despite spirited resistance, death and disease reduced Aboriginal population to a fraction of their former number. Survivors often scratched out a precarious existence on the margins of white settlement and its economy.
At the same time Christianity added a new layer of complexity to Aboriginal lives. Many were attracted to it but just as many were not leading to additional problems and conflict. To keep the peace, some compromised but others did not. Many lost their language, marriage systems and rites associated with initiation and death. Children from traditional marriages were classed as illegitimate whereas those born to parents married in church were legally recognised.
Some early ration stations were established to distribute food, blankets and clothes. Deprived of traditional food and water sources most Aborigines came to depend on missions and government rations. Ration depots numbered 60 by 1870 but were often controlled by police or pastoralists, giving them control of cheap Aboriginal labour. For a time Protectors of Aborigines were appointed but most of their concern was with protecting the white settlers and controlling Aborigines. The position was abolished in 1857.
In 1860 it was stated that the Aboriginal race was doomed to extinction and for the rest of the century the South Australian government took little active role in Aboriginal affairs. By the 1870s it was widely believed that the ‘Adelaide Tribe’ was extinct but a number of them were still living at Point McLeay and
Point Pearce. In an effort to survive and to stay on their country Aboriginal people moved into roles that contributed to the running of cattle and sheep stations or any other business.
During these years authorities became less tolerant of Aboriginal presence in Adelaide or Glenelg and in December 1874 instructed the police to take action against them. Even during the 1890s Ngarrindjeri people continued to make camp in the Adelaide Parklands. The police considered them loafers and rogues even though many came to seek work or sell their craft. Others came for medical treatment or visit relatives in hospital or gaol. Many were arrested and sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. After being released they were sent back to Goolwa and Milang but soon returned, starting the whole process again.
Little of the Aboriginal history of Adelaide appears in any of the history books, even recent ones. The decade-long cat and mouse game between the Aboriginal fringe dwellers and the police in the late nineteenth century has been forgotten as have the tensions in the West End in the 1940s. Brutality and ill-treatment by police was not uncommon. Reports of Aborigines kept in neck chains, both for the alleged criminals and the witnesses were a regular occurrence especially in the northern parts of the state. Poisoned flour was used as late as 1936 and when a station owner was prosecuted in 1945 for cruelty, there was a public protest that it would undermine pastoralists’ control over their Aboriginal workers.
It was not until 7 December 1911 that an Act for the better protection and control of the Aborigines and half-castes of the state became law. However it took 130 years and a painfully slow road from segregation to self-determination when Aboriginal people finally could run their own institutions and regulate entry to their lands. In 1966 the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act was passed giving some Aboriginal communities a degree of control, subject to the consent of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
During the 1950s housing was made available to Aboriginal families ‘of the better type’. They covered such places as Naracoorte, Victor Harbor, Gawler, Salisbury, Port Augusta, Quorn, Copley, Beltana, Marree, Finniss Springs and along the River Murray.
Throughout the twentieth century we can read newspaper articles about the last of this or the last of that tribe. They were common expressions of the ‘extinction’ narrative characteristic of that time. It encouraged the view that Aboriginal people of mixed descent had been absorbed into the broader European community. While they may have disappeared of white consciousness, survivors and descendants of the dying race are still very much among us.
More progress was made during the Dunstan and Whitlam governments. Pastoralists were now required to pay equal wages, which in turn meant dismissal of Aboriginal people and the employment of white labour. The removal of Aboriginal children continued unabated though. Dunstan claimed that Aboriginal people on stations were the most underprivileged people in the state. Although only in power for a short time, the Whitlam government passed a whole raft of legislation to improve Aboriginal conditions. One of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation was the concept of ‘terra nullius’, which granted native title to Aborigines, under certain conditions.
Of added interest is that the book contains regional histories and Life Stories of individual Aborigines. Both help to illustrate the general points of Aboriginal lives, their problems with the government Protectors and other officials. When Tommy Walker died in 1901, his death was marked with lavish and affectionate obituaries and members of the Adelaide Stock Exchange paid for his headstone in the West Terrace Cemetery. It didn’t stop the State Coroner, Dr Ramsey Smith from secretly removing Walker’s remains before he was buried.
The regional histories emphasise different aspects of colonisation and its aftermath. The chapters covering the far north, north-west, north-east and Ooldea are very informative. Their contents range from physical violence and murder to segregation of Aboriginal people on reserves to forced assimilation, missionary interventions in religious and cultural life and most recently the Native Title Process.
This book is the first major history of Aboriginal South Australia published since the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993 and reflects an important and often overlooked aspect of the state’s history. Its focus is on the colonial history of South Australia which has framed the interactions between Aborigines, white men and government institutions and the ongoing impact on Aboriginal people and their communities. Its themes are an endless litany of disruption, displacement, dispossession, devastation, dependence, destabilisation, destruction, disputes and death.
Thanks to the Aboriginal Elders who have shared their life stories and allowed their personal histories and experiences to enrich the book, it has brought the history of Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations in South Australia into the twenty-first century, educating new generations into the complex and often fraught history of this state.
Despite catastrophic interventions in the lives of Aboriginal people during and following colonisation, many communities retain strong identities and cultural and linguistic knowledge, rooted in a deep connection to the land. Their stories also show that against all odds they have maintained their sense of identity as Aboriginal Australians. Not only that, many of the Aboriginal lands have been returned to their rightful owners all through South Australia because they could prove a continuous connection with their land.
This well researched and written publication has filled many gaps in previously unknown aspects of Aboriginal history and should be highly commended and required reading for anyone interested in the invasion and subjugation of a previously well-ordered society which has managed to enjoy life in an often harsh and unforgiving land and climate for at least 60,000 years.