Treatment of Aborigines

Treatment of Aborigines


On Friday 17 January 1890, the Christian Colonist wrote that; 'It must be anmitted that the treatment of the Aborigines in Australia is far from satisfactory. We can remember the time, not so very far distant, when in the settled districts near Adelaide, the blacks were numerous. When a boy in the hills the writer has often visited their camps, seen the men nimbly climb the loftiest trees in search of opossums, and afterwards observed the process of cooking the game in the ashes. This is now a thing of the past forever.

Of all the tribes which inhabited the Adelaide plains and the adjacent hills, not one single individual is now left. With the exception of a few hundreds round the lakes, and a handful on Yorke's Peninsula, there is scarcely a blackfellow left south of Port Augusta. In Victoria, where tens of thousands once roamed, the whole number of surviving aborigines is scarcely more than a few hundreds, while in Tasmania the Aborigines are represented by one sole surviving individual.

There are larger numbers in New South Wales and Queensland; and in this colony, including the Northern Territory, it is estimated that there are yet between 6,000 and 7,000 aborigines. What is to be done with these wards of the nation: Have we done our duty when we have doled out to them an occasional ration, and once a year a new blanket, leaving them to the tender mercies of the vicious and unscrupulous whites who are always to be found in the van of settlement?

We fully recognize the value of such work as that being done at Point MacLeay, Point Pearce, and Poonindie, in the South, and at Killalpaninna and Hermannsburg, in the North. We think the results achieved on these stations show that the Australian Aboriginal is not so low down in the scale of civilization as was supposed, and that he readily adapts himself to the ameliorating influences of religion and education.

There are, however, large regions in the West, North-East, and far North where there are large numbers of Aborigines, who are now perishing before the advance of the white man, and on whose behalf absolutely nothing has been done. The tale told by the Luthern missionaries from the Finke is as horrible and blood-curdling as anything ever told in the annals of Australian colonization. It is almost incredible that such atrocities should be possible within a few hundred miles of our doors.

Yet the missionaries tell a plain, unvarnished tale, and indulge in no exaggerations or flights of imagination. They told us that the natives could not co-exist with horned cattle, one or the other must go, and of course it is the natives who must give way. A native who was accustomed to fish in a certain water hole was warned by a stockman not to do so; the native persisted, and was shot. He came subsequently to the mission station and exhibited the gunshot wounds in his breast to the missionaries.

The missionaries desired the arrest of one very troublesome native; the police came to capture him, but failing to do so secured three others, one of whom was suspected of rolling stones down a hill with a view to injure a squatter who was mustering cattle. The three captives were brought to the mission station chained together; they agreed at the request of the missionaries to go quietly with the police. Their bodies were found soon after, still chained together, just outside the boundary of the mission station, where they had evidently been shot.

The missionaries were of opinion that the police had encouraged the natives to make an effort to escape, that they might have an excase for shooting them, and so avoid the trouble of taking them to Port Augusta. They also told other stories of atrocities by the police upon natives. They said the boys who are capable of being useful are as a rule well treated. The women and girls are taken possession of by the whites as concubines, while the men are, as a rule, maltreated.

Mr Taplin told of a whole camp of blacks, on the Barwon, New South Wales, having been poisoned by the people of an adjacent sheepstation. It is intolerable that such things should be permitted in a Christian state under our very eyes: the whole case demands immediate and efficient redress. The police protection at present extended to the natives is evidently of no value, for on the showing of the missionaries the police are often the worst offenders.

It is evident, therefore, that some new departure is necessary to protect those blacks not at present on any existing mission station. Mr 0 E Taplin, the second son of the late Rev. Geo Taplin, and brother of the late Mr F W Taplin, of Point MacLeay, who has been brought up amongst the natives, and had charge for a time of the Brewarrina Mission Station, on the Barwon River, N.S.W., is interesting himself on behalf of the Aborigines here. He proposes that reservations of public lands be set apart in different localities and placed under the charge of competent officials.

That all the aborigines of the district shall be ordered on to these reservations, where they should be educated and taught to earn their living. The Superintendent would act as guardian to all natives in his district, and would be a party to all agreements between natives and whites. Should the different Christian denominations agree to give religious instruction on these reservations, well and good, but not more than one denomination should be allowed to send teachers to any given reservation.

Some plan of this sort is necessary to wipe away the reproach which at present rests on the colony in regard to its treatment of the blacks; to prevent the extermination of an interesting race, and to extend to an ignorant and benighted people the blessings of education and religion. The case has been remitted to the Aborigines' Friends' Asssociation, at whose hands we have no doubt it will have early and prompt attention. We trust that the wrongs and needs of the weaker race, whom we are rapidly displacing in Australia, will excite the sympathy and pity of every benevolent colonist, and that all will unite to do what is necessary for their humane and just treatment.

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A hundred years later, Henry Reynolds wrote as part of a forword for Ian Clark's book Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803-1859; Frontier violence was an inescapable feature of Australian society for almost one hundred and fifty years, beginning on the fringes of the fledgling settlement at Sydney Cove within a few weeks of the Europeans' arrival.

Almost every district experienced conflict between resident clans and incoming settlers. Where the terrain favoured the Europeans, their horses, guns and racial solidarity allowed them to crush overt resistance in a short time. In rugged, mountainous country the conflict lasted far longer and exacted a proportionately greater toll on the colonists and their economy. Growing European confidence in the bush and rapidly improving weaponry tilted the balance towards the settlers as the nineteenth century wore on.

Nineteenth-century writers often highlighted frontier conflict. It was part of the exotic nature of Australian life. Historians likewise had no doubts about the extent, duration and importance of frontier skirmishing. They varied in their assessment of its origin and causes but they all agreed that it was central to the saga of pioneering. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, the Aborigines were written out of the story.

With them went much of the violence. Australia came to see itself as a uniquely peaceful place. Many writers felt sorry for the 'dying race' but in doing so treated the Aborigines as children or at best simple-minded adults who were incapable of fighting effectively against the Europeans. There was a strong reaction against traditional historiography in the 1960s and 1970s. In the process the Aborigines were brought back onto the centre of the stage. Frontier violence accompanied them - violence which had never been forgotten in Aboriginal communities.

The first phase of the work was to remind mainstream Australia that the frontier had been a violent place. The earliest accounts were sweeping in scope and broad in generalisation. Moral condemnation flowed together with political radicalism to highlight the hidden history of atrocity and dispossession. Following close behind were regional studies of many and widely separated districts. The fine detail varied significantly but the overall assessment was virtually unanimous. Settlement occasioned mass violence. It grew out of the barrel of the gun.

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On 13 February 2008, the Australian Government finally said SORRY to the stolen generations. They apologised also for their past mistreatment of the Indigenous population causing profound grief and suffering. In South Australia we are told that we treated Aborigines far better than any other colony or state. Not so! A minimal amount of research will show how we dealt with, and protected, the original inhabitants. So, what has changed since 2008?.....Very Little.

While doing some research on this topic in 2009, I had to ask the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division for permission to access files held at the State Records. Approval was granted, eventually, but, on the condition that the information could be used only by me but not for publication.

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