As my regular readers may know, I have been reading Bill Bryson's Down Under (2001), about his travels through Australia. At various points, he brings up the issue of race relations vis-a-vis Aborigines and white colonists. It makes for pretty upsetting reading. Generally, his questions about the native populations, to white Australians, were met with remarks such as this:
"They want hanging, the lot of them!"
Yikes on bikes! As if that wasn't bad enough, he finds out that most of the authoritative histories of Australia dedicate little more than a paragraph to the history of Aborigine people, often with very disparaging remarks to the effect of describing them as "no better than wild animals", "subhuman" or "vermin". Understandably not at all satisfied with that highly unfavourable and pejorative treatment, he does some digging and dedicates a large part of a chapter to them. I've reproduced that below (indented/quoted), with comments in square brackets. (Given that Bryson's historical and scientific statements aren't always accurate or reliable and the book is over two decades old, I've fact-checked his claims, the results of which can be found in the "resources" links at the end of this post. While interesting to the point of mind-bending incomprehensibility, the arrival of the first Australians isn't what most held my attention or compelled me to reproduce his paragraphs. It's the widespread casual violence that still goes largely unacknowledged that did/does.)
One of the most momentous events in human history took place at a time that will probably never be known, for reasons that can only be guessed, by means that seem barely credible. I refer, of course, to the peopling of Australia.
Until fairly recently, accounting for the presence of human beings in Australia was not such a problem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was thought that Aborigines had been on the continent for no more than four hundred years. As recently as the 1960s, the time frame was estimated to be perhaps eight thousand years. Then, in 1969, a geologist named Jim Bower (from the Australian National University in Canberra) was poking around on the shores of a long-dried lake bed called Mungo in a parched and lonely corner of western New South Wales when something caught his eye. It was the skeleton of a woman, obtruding slightly from a sandbank. The bones were collected and sent off for carbon dating. When the report came back, it showed that the woman had died twenty-three thousand years ago, at a stroke almost tripling the known period of occupation of Australia. Since then, other finds have pushed the date back even further. Today, the evidence points to an arrival date of at least forty-five thousand years ago, but probably more like sixty thousand.
The first occupants of Australia could not have walked there [although there's the usual ever-popular land bridge theory], because at no point in human times has Australia not been an island. They could not have arisen independently, because Australia has no ape-like creatures from which humans could have descended [or at least none have been found in the fossil record]. The first arrivals could only have come by sea, presumably from Timor in the Indonesian archipelago [subsequently disproved/disputed], and here is where the problems arise.
[For one, the genetic origins of Aboriginal peoples have not been known for a long time and geneticists had difficulty finding a common link to/with those of the people in surrounding regions.] In order to put Homo sapiens in Australia, you must accept that, at a point in time so remote that it precedes the known rise of behaviourally modern humans, there lived in southern Asia a people sufficiently advanced that they were fishing inshore waters from boats of some sort, rafts presumably. Never mind that the archaeological record shows no one else on earth doing this for another thirty-thousand years. [New evidence disproves/disputes this.] We have got to get these people waterborne.
Next, we have to explain what led them to cross at least sixty miles of open sea to reach a land they [presumably] could not know was there. [As Bryson notes in another of his books, the land bridge hypothesis does dispense with the need for this, of course, which is why it's always so popular and over-used any time ancient peoples migrating across a large body of water needs explanation.] The scenario that is invariably invoked is of a simple fishing raft — probably little more than a floating platform — accidentally carried out to sea, probably in one of the sudden squalls that are characteristic of this part of the world. this craft then drifted helplessly for some days before washing up on a beach in northern Australia. So far, so good.
The question that naturally arises — but is seldom asked [or satisfactorily answered] — is how you get breeding stock out of all this. If it's a lone fisherman who is carried off to Australia, then clearly he must find his way back to his homeland to report his discovery and to persuade enough people to come with him to start a colony. This suggests, of course, the possession of nautical skills sufficient to shuttle back and forth between invisible land masses — a prowess few historians are willing to grant [probably owing to the human tendency to view our ancestors as far more incapable/inferior than that for which we give them credit, called Chronocentrism]. If, on the other hand, the trip was one way and accidental [which it wasn't, according to Aboriginal origin stories], then it must necessarily have involved a community of people of both sexes swept out to sea, either all together on a large raft (though very unlikely) or in a flotilla of small rafts, and after successfully weathering a storm and at least a few days at sea, they were washed up on proximate parts of the north Australian coast, where they regrouped and established a society. [Given the distance to be covered and the sheer size of Australia, the latter seems even more unlikely.]
You don't need vast numbers of people to populate Australia. Joseph Birdsell, an American academic, calculated that a group of twenty-five founding colonists could have produced a society of three hundred thousand in a little over two thousand years, but you still need to get those twenty-five people there [in one time and place] — more than can be plausibly accounted for with a raft or two blown off course.
Of course, all of this may have happened in any number of other ways, and it may have taken generations to get fully underway. No one can possibly say. All that is certain is that Australia's indigenous peoples are there because their distant ancestors crossed at least sixty miles of fairly formidable seas tens of thousands of years before anyone else on Earth dreamed of such an endeavour, and did it in sufficient numbers to begin to start the colonisation of a continent.
By any measure, this is a staggeringly momentous accomplishment. And yet, how much note does it get? Well, ask yourself when was the last time you read anything about it? When was the last time, in any context concerning human dispersal and the rise of civilizations, that you saw even a passing mention of the role of Aborigines? [Bryson's thirteen or so pages are most likely the first time that I have.] They are the planet's invisible people.
A big part of the problem is that for most of us, it is impossible to grasp what an extraordinary span of time we are considering here. Assume, for the sake of argument, that that the Aborigines arrived 60 000 years ago (that is the figure used by Roger Lewin of Harvard in Principles of Human Evolution, a standard text). On that scale, the total period of European occupation of Australia represents about 0.3 percent of the total. In other words, for about the first 99.7 percent of its total inhabited history, the Aborigines had Australia to themselves. They have been there an almost unimaginably long time. And here lies their other unappreciated achievement.
The arrival of Aborigines in Australia is, of course, merely the start of the story. They also mastered the continent. They spread over it with amazing swiftness and developed strategies and patterns of behaviour to exploit or accommodate every extreme of the landscape, from the wettest rain-forests to the driest deserts. No people on Earth have lived in more environments with greater success for longer. It is generally accepted that the Aborigines have the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world. It is thought by some — the respected historian John Mulvaney, for instance — that the Australian language family may be the world's oldest. Their art and stories and systems of belief are indubitably among the oldest on Earth.
These are obviously important and singular achievements, too. They provide incontestable evidence that the early aboriginal peoples spoke and cooperated and employed advanced technological and organisational skills at a time much earlier than anyone had ever supposed. And how much notice do these achievements get? Well, again, until recently, virtually none. I had this brought home to me with a certain unexpected forcefulness when, after [...] flying to Sydney, I went, for an afternoon, to the State Library of New South Wales.
There, while browsing for something else altogether, I came across a 1972 edition of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Curious to see what it had to say about the findings at Lake Mungo three years earlier, I took it down to have a look. It didn't mention the Mungo findings. In fact, the book contained just one reference to Australia's Aborigines, a sentence that said: [sic] "The Aborigines also evolved independently of the Old World, but they represent a very primitive technical and economic phase."
That was it — the entire discussion of Australia's indigenous culture by a scholarly volume of weight and authority, written in the last third of the twentieth century. When I say [sic] these are the world's invisible people, believe me [that] they are the world's invisible people. And the real tragedy is that that is only the half of it.
From the first moment of contact, the natives were a source of wonder to the Europeans. When James Cook and his men sailed into Botany bay, they were astonished that most of the Aborigines they saw sitting on the shore or fishing in the shallows from frail bark canoes seemed hardly to notice them. They "scarce lifted their eyes from their employment", as Joseph Banks recorded. The creaking Endeavour was clearly the largest and most extraordinary structure that could ever have come before them [at that time], yet most of the natives merely glanced up and looked at it as if at a passing cloud and returned to their tasks.
They seemed not to perceive the world in the way of other people. No Aboriginal language, for instance, had any words for "yesterday" or "tomorrow" — [presumably] extraordinary omissions in any culture. They had no chiefs or governing councils, wore no clothes, built no houses or other permanent structures, sowed no crops, herded no animals, made no pottery, possessed almost no sense of property. [It's not difficult to see why, from a Western perspective, they were considered/described as "primitive".] Yet they devoted disproportionate efforts to enterprises that no one, even now, can understand. All around the coast of Australia, the early explorers found huge shell mounds, up to thirty feet high and covering, at the base, as much as half an acre. often, these were some distance inland and uphill. The Aborigines clearly had made some [considerable] effort to convey the shells from the beach to the mounds — one midden was estimated to contain 33 000 cubic metres of shells — and they kept it up for an enormously long time: [an estimated] 800 years in one case. Why did they bother? No one knows. In almost every way, it was as if they answered to different laws.
A few Europeans — Watkin Tench and James Cook, notably — viewed the Aborigines sympathetically. In the Endeavour Journal, Cook wrote: "They may appear to some to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans. They live in a tranquility that is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: The earth and the sea, of their own accord, furnish them with all the things necessary for life ... they seemed to set no value on anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with anything of their own." Elsewhere, he added with a touch of poignancy: "All they seem'd to want was for us to be gone."
Unfortunately, few others were so enlightened. For most Europeans, the Aborigines were simply something that was in the way — "one of the natural hazards", as the scientist and natural historian Tim Flannery has described it. It helped to regard them as essentially subhuman, a view that persisted well into the twentieth century. As recently as the early 1960s, as John Pilger notes, Queensland schools were using a textbook that likened Aborigines to "feral jungle creatures". When they weren't subhuman, they were simply inconsequential. In the same period, a Professor Steven Roberts produced a fat and scholarly tome entitled A History of Australian Land Settlement, which managed to survey the entire period of European occupation and displacement without mentioning the Aborigines once. Such was the marginalisation of the native peoples that, until 1967, the federal government did not even include them in national consensuses — did not, in other words, count them as people. [Emphasis mine.]
Largely for these reasons, no one knows how many Aborigines were in Australia when Britons first settled it. [That many were massacred for a long time thereafter surely hasn't helped matters.] The best estimates suggest that at the beginning of occupation, the Aboriginal population was at about 300 000, though possibly as high as a million. What is certain is that in the first century of settlement, those numbers fell catastrophically. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of Aborigines was probably no more than 50 000 or 60 000. Most of this decline, it must be said, was inadvertent. Aborigines had almost no resistance to European diseases: Smallpox, pleurisy, syphilis, even chickenpox and the milder forms of influenza often cut swathes through the native populations. But where Aborigines remained, they were sometimes [more like often] treated in the most heartless and wanton manner.
In Taming the Great South Land, William J. Lines details examples of the most appalling cruelty by settlers towards the natives — of Aborigines butchered for dog food; of an Aboriginal woman forced to watch her husband killed, then made to wear his decapitated head around her neck; of another chased up a tree and tormented from below with rifle shots. "Every time a bullet hit", Lines reports, "she pulled leaves off the tree and thrust them into her wounds, 'til at last she fell lifeless to the ground." What is perhaps most shocking is how casually so much of this was done, and at all levels of society. In an 1839 history of Tasmania, written by a visitor named Melville, the author relates how he went out one day with "a respectable young gentleman" to hunt kangaroos. As they rounded a bend, the young gentleman spied a form crouched in hiding behind a fallen tree. Stepping over to investigate and "finding it only to be a native", the appalled Melville wrote, the gentleman lifted the muzzle to the native's breast "and shot him dead on the spot". [Just because he could, no doubt. "Respectable gentleman", my left foot!]
Such behaviour was virtually never treated as a crime — indeed, was sometimes officially countenanced. In 1805, the acting judge-advocate for New South Wales, the most senior judicial figure in the land, declared that Aborigines had not the discipline or mental capacity for courtroom proceedings; rather than plague the courts with their grievances, settlers were instructed to track down the offending natives and "inflict such punishment as they may merit" — as open an invitation to genocide as may be found in English law. [Emphasis mine] Fifteen years later, [...] Lachlan Macquaire authorised soldiers in the Hawksbury region to shoot any group of Aborigines greater than six in number, even if unarmed and entirely innocent of purpose, even if the number included woman and children. Sometimes, under the pretense of compassion, Aborigines were offered food that had been dosed with poison. Pilger quotes a mid-nineteenth-century government report from Queensland: "The n*s [were given] ... something really startling to keep them quiet ... the rations contained about as much strychnine as anything and not one of the mob escaped." By "mob", he means about one hundred unarmed men, women and children.
The wonder of all this is that the scale of native murders was not far greater. [That's assuming that all of them were reported, and reported accurately.] In the first century and a half of British occupation, the numer of Aborigines intentionally killed by whites (including in self-defence, during pitched battles and [arguably] in other more justifiable circumstances) is thought to be about 200 000 altogether — an unhappy total, to be sure, but much less than one tenth the number of Aborigines who died from disease.
That isn't to say that violence wasn't casual or widespread. It was. And it was against this background, in June 1838, that a dozen men on horseback set off from the farm of one Henry Dangar, looking for the people whom had stolen or driven off some of their livestock. At Myall Creek, they happened on an encampment of Aborigines who where known among the white settlers of the district as peaceable and inoffensive. Almost certainly, they had nothing to do with the rustled cattle. Nonetheless, their captors tied them together in a kind of great ball — twenty-eight men, women and children — led them around the countryside for some hours in an indecisive massacre, then abruptly and mercilessly slaughtered them with rifles and swords.
In the normal course of things, that would almost certainly have been that. But in 1838, the mood of the nation was changing. Australia was becoming an increasingly urbanised society, and city dwellers were beginning to express revulsion for the casual slaughter of innocent people. When a campaigning Sydney journalist named Edward Smith Hall got hold of the story and began to bray for blood and justice, Governer George Gipps ordered the perpetrators tracked down and brought to trial. When arrested, two of the accused protested, with evident sincerity, that they hadn't known killing Aborigines was illegal.
Despite clearly damning evidence at the subsequent trial, it took a jury just fifteen minutes to acquit the defendants. But Hall, Gipps and the urban public were not to be lightly pacified and a second trial was ordered. This time, seven of the men were found guilty and hanged. It was the first time that white people had been executed for the murder of Aborigines.
— Chapter Thirteen; pp. pgs. 245 – 253
Wow, just wow! Ignorance of the law is not an adequate justification for breaking it. Besides, surely it would occur to you that murdering other people (or otherwise treating them like shit) for no good reason is morally wrong, never mind the legality of it. Clearly, I'm in a minority in that regard, given the extent of appalling atrocities (including genocide) that colonial whites have committed against BIPoC throughout the centuries and on many continents.
I'm cutting it short there, since I'm unfortunately running out of time to get done the other things I need to do today. I highly encourage you to read the remaining five pages I was originally going to include, but I will leave you with this quote from someone to whom Bryson spoke in a town near Myall Creek Station:
"Well, you've got to understand that there was nothing all that special about Myall Creek. Aborigines were slaughtered all over the place. Three month before the Myall massacre, 200 Aborigines were killed a Waterloo Creek, near Moree. Nobody was ever punished for that. They didn't even try to punish anybody for that. [...] All that was different about Myall Creek was that white people were punished for it. it didn't stop them killing Aborigines. It just made them more circumspect. You know, they didn't boast about it in the pub afterwards. It's kind of ironic when you think about it. Myall Creek's not famous for what happened to the Blacks here, but for what happened to the whites. Anyway, you wouldn't be able to move in this country for memorials if you tried to acknowledge them all."
— Paulette Smith; The Advocate (local newspaper); Ibid; pp. pg 257-258
Thanks largely to things like the White Australia Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia Policy, (which was still in effect around the 1970s, as far as I know), many white Australians are deeply racist. Don't get me wrong here; I generally like Australians (at least those with whom I've interacted), but I wouldn't put them on a team that's meant to represent a multicultural society and help deal with its issues. To my mind, that's just asking for trouble. Hell, I would be reluctant to put myself on such a team (and I consider myself fairly to reasonably savvy, but I've still got a lot to learn.)
Thumbnail image: Sketch of Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts; Phiz; Copyright National Museum of Australia