OPINION: by Paul Fitzgerald AMNews Weekly
Time to reclaim Australian history
, June 12, 2010
My interest in the Australian Aboriginal people started in 1963 when I spent time in the centre and north of Australia. During that period I painted the portraits of two Aborigines in an Aboriginal reserve near Alice Springs and was taken on an extensive flight for 10 days with Eddie Connellan - the founder of O'Connell Airlines.
Eddie invited my wife and me to join him with Sam Calder (the House of Representatives member for the Northern Territory) and Bernie Kilgariff (the NT senator) for 10 days, travelling all over the north and west of Australia.
For some years I have observed with disquiet a plethora of publicity, in most cases from sincere and well-meaning people and sources, proclaiming the plight of our Aborigines since white settlement began.
It is now generally accepted, not only by the Aborigines but also by the media and most of the white population, that they were persecuted and very badly treated by the British colonisers, and that they should have been allowed to continue to be the custodians of the land over which they had lived and hunted for thousands of years.
Not only is this false history, but also it is very detrimental to the future and well-being of the members of that most endearing race.
In the light of our history, this attitude is not only erroneous but, instead of encouraging a positive and enterprising approach to their lives, it engenders a negative outlook in many Aboriginal people by imbuing them with a victim and dependent mentality.
This attitude is demoralising and gives rise to a debilitating and defeatist spirit - the very last thing we want to nourish in our indigenous people.Be positive
The best thing for their future is to do what the Knights of Malta are doing in Western Australia - build their dignity, self-confidence and education level. The primitive aboriginal lifestyle did not change over thousands of years.
It is hard to believe but there are idealistic people who think the simple aboriginal life-style offers a better mode of living than our Western ways. Admittedly, they did not tie themselves to any of the restrictions of our Western society. They built no houses, let alone townships.
Where climate permitted they wore no clothes. They camped, and when the campsite became polluted they simply moved on. They lived off the land and the wildlife. By starting bushfires in order to flush out the wildlife to be hunted, they inadvertently nurtured the land.
They certainly did nothing to desecrate it as we Westerners have in many cases done; and they learned that bushfires ultimately benefited the growth.
They had their law, and although it was of the "eye for an eye" variety and its sanctions brutal, it kept order within the tribe. Even if we stretched our credulity to the limit and conceded that the idealists were right, the reality is that Western life and culture have taken over this country and the only future for the Aboriginal people is to become absorbed in it - just as so many have successfully done.
No matter how much some vocal Aborigines and Aboriginal representatives agitate for the establishment of a separate Aboriginal government for the survival of the Aboriginal lifestyle, from the moment the Western nations started seeking new lands and empires, the Aboriginal lifestyle was doomed.
The Australian Government has been giving just on $2 billion a year towards addressing the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage. I am sure the government authorities have had the best of intentions in their endeavour to help the Aborigines adjust to the world of today.
Nevertheless, it was obvious years ago that the methods used were not working. On the government Aboriginal reserves you were greeted with what can only be called surly looks. On the other hand, on most of the missions we were greeted with warmth and smiles.Missions disparaged
When I hear journalists and commentators disparaging the missionaries, I bristle. I saw the sacrifices these people were making; how so many of them lived in hot and primitive conditions, and had set up schools in which the aboriginal children were obviously happy and contented - as were the Aborigines living there. The Daly River, Melville Island and Bathurst Island missions were conspicuous in this regard.
Unfortunately, many of the more loquacious promoters of the victim propaganda, in order to gain the benefits given to Aborigines, have a mere sprinkle of Aboriginal blood.
The present situation of many claimants of Aboriginal ancestry is quite ridiculous. If a man had one English parent and one Aboriginal he might reasonably claim to be either English or Aboriginal. If, however, he were to have an English mother and father, four English grandparents, one English great-grandfather and one Aboriginal great-grandmother, it is absurd for him to claim, as is so often the case, to be Aboriginal and not English.
Australia being a convict settlement with months of journeying from England and the Continent, there were many pretty rough characters on the loose. Their treatment of many Aborigines was detestable, and, from the perspective of present-day values and conceptions, was abhorrent.
Nevertheless most of the claims and demands of the present Aboriginal activists for extensive compensation are clearly unsustainable. Before examining the rights or wrongs of any of the atrocities committed, the question has to be asked, "Should the British be condemned for occupying this country in the first place?" In any consideration of the present position this vital factor has to be borne in mind.British settlement
When the English first settled here, according to my research, it is estimated that only about 500,000 Aborigines occupied this great continent. For thousands of years they had roamed over it and hunted the wildlife.
They neither planted nor sowed. In the two centuries since settlement, this country has grown to support over 20 million people - that is over 40 times as many. The large majority of the early settlers - the Irish, who fled from the potato famine, and the Scottish crofters, who, with their families, were driven from their homes - might have perished had the land in Australia not been available to them.
Would it have been morally acceptable to let them starve and die when so much arable land was uncultivated and unproductive? Counting the Scottish crofters, the Irish and the convicts, it appears that about 80 per cent of the first settlers came out here against their will or desire - the convicts by force and the Irish and many Scots for survival.
Now the idea that a relatively small number of Aborigines could continue to tie up a whole continent indefinitely is grossly wishful thinking. Without the slightest doubt, Australia would have been taken over either by the Portuguese, French, Dutch, Germans, Spanish or Japanese. All of these were far more ruthless colonisers than were the English.
The track record of the colonising of these other countries shows that the Aborigines would certainly have been treated very much more harshly and more than likely would have been wiped out.
There was much sympathy in England then for the plight of the indigenous peoples throughout the empire. It was, after all, the British who stopped slavery, even going to war with the French on this issue.
Wilberforce was an idealist who was against any sort exploitation and slavery. Slavery was abolished in England in 1807 and in all the colonies by 1833, while slavery persisted in America until 1863. Under the influence of Wilberforce the instructions from Britain to the authorities in Australia were quite explicit - "The rites and customs of the Aborigines were to be respected and any crimes against them were to be appropriately punished".
There was nothing like this in any of the other colonising countries. Governor Phillip issued a proclamation to that effect by displaying posters of an Aborigine spearing a white and then being hanged and then a white shooting an Aborigine and his being hanged.
This threat in the proclamation, where possible, was carried out - one such case was that of the eight white men who were hanged after the Myall Creek massacre.Conflict
It was natural that many Aborigines would resist. It was inevitable that there would be conflict and that the victory would go to the more powerful, in this case the Whites. There would be very few countries in the world whose history would show that similar circumstances did not apply.
England set up special "Protectors of Aborigines" to help and look after their interests.
Unfortunately, the strictly-laid-down policy from England in many instances was transgressed; but as Professor A.G.L. Shaw, in his commendable 1996 Redmond Barry lecture, pointed out, "In the circumstances of the time, bearing in mind the lack of good communications and the inadequacy of the forces available to the authorities, it is not easy to see, realistically, what more the government might have been able to do."
The efforts of the early missionaries to civilise the Aborigines and allow them to adopt the lifestyle of the white settlers were not particularly successful. The large majority of these peaceful men of God did all they could to improve the lot of both the Aborigines and the convicts.
It must be remembered that the convicts were treated very much worse than were the Aborigines. The main atrocities against the Aborigines were carried out on the frontiers, most of the inhabitants there being wild adventurers or ex-convicts, shepherds and cattlemen.
It was these rough characters that, by and large, were exposed to the attacks of, and retaliated by committing inexcusable crimes against the Aborigines. Some of the Aborigines, I might add, committed some equally reprehensible deeds on the Whites: some were cannibals.
My research shows that colonists killed about 1,000 Aborigines while another 1,000 died in tribal conflicts or at the hands of the police, the native police being amongst the worst offenders.
The tribal conflicts were frequently due to many tribes being forced off their land into the territories of other tribes. That totals 2,000 deaths out of the 500,000 Aboriginal populations.
By far the greatest killer however was disease - probably to the figure of ten times. Disease was very prevalent amongst the Aborigines prior to the white man's arrival; but the introduction of many new diseases, to which the Aborigines were not immune, greatly accentuated the death toll.False impression
Some historians give a false impression of the true history. Henry Reynolds is a case in point. His book, This Whispering in Our Hearts
(1998), gives a very one-sided description of our early history. He presents the diaries, letters and reports of a retinue of government welfare agents appointed to look to the Aborigines' interests - those I referred to earlier.
They vividly describe many of the horrors perpetrated on the Aborigines, but never detailed any of those committed by Aborigines. Reynolds only once referred to them when he excused them by writing, "I do not wonder at the spearing of cattle and murder of shepherds."
Reynolds prints letters to the Governor and higher authorities from these agents in which they express their revulsion and frustration, but he does not print the replies and explanations, most of which were sympathetic to the writers. They genuinely expressed with regret their having no manpower and equipment to rectify the situation.
There have, of course, been individual cases where Aboriginal law and British "rule of law" have clashed and misunderstandings have occurred; but justice usually prevailed. One such case, and one that I was particularly interested to read in Reynolds' book, was that of the trial of the Aborigine, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda (known as Tuckiar), who speared and killed a policeman in 1932.
A very colourful but eccentric old lawyer cousin of mine, W.J.P. Fitzgerald, defended Tuckiar and was most critical of Judge Wells who heard the case and found Tuckiar guilty. We had no doubt that W.J.P. was right in his criticism, but from what we knew of the said W.J.P., we would have been more than surprised if any of his clients got off.
At least justice was eventually done, for the High Court squashed the conviction and was quite scathing on the judgement of Wells - also incidentally, on the inadequacy of the defence counsel.
Another issue in which history has been distorted is that of the "Stolen Generation". The highly publicised picture painted of the wholesale wrenching of little babies from their mothers by government authorities or the missions and putting them into institutions, or into the care of foster parents, is a sad one.
There were probably isolated cases, but this is not the whole picture. The recent case of the Aboriginal leader Lowitja "Lois" O'Donoghue AC is a typical example of an Aborigine who claimed to be one of the "Stolen Generation".
When confronted by journalist Andrew Bolt with the fact that she, her sister and brother were given by her white father to Colebrook United Mission, she admitted that she was not one of the "Stolen Generation". The mission's records from that time show that no children were taken from their homes without good cause. It is interesting to see that Lowitja O'Donoghue is now claiming again that she is one of the "Stolen Generation".
Every child had either been booked in by their parents for schooling or been rescued from "the possibility of demoralisation or premature death".
Another example is that of the famed and first Aboriginal author, Mudrooroo Narogin. He spoke of himself and his brothers and sisters living in terror of being taken away from their parents, which they eventually were. The truth came out that his father was not Aboriginal but half African-American.
His father abandoned his mother, who was English, and she gave Mudrooroo up to a mission because she was unable to support him. There have been several instances where members of the "Stolen Generation" sued the government.
The judge in the Gunner and Cubillo cases said that he could find no evidence that any children in the NT were stolen.
There were very few cases where, rightly or wrongly, Aboriginal children were taken from the parents against their will; but, with those few exceptions, it was with the welfare of the children in mind.
Truly and emphatically - there was no
To sum up: From the unfortunate events of our early history it is clear that Australia would have been invaded and colonised by some nation. That was inevitable. It was fortunate for the Aborigines that the successful invaders at that particular time were the English. Many Aborigines naturally resisted the invasion of their lands. The colonists would retaliate, so there was bound to be violence. The stronger force, the colonisers, were bound to win the conflict. And the only realistic future for our Aboriginal people is for them to be absorbed into our Western way of life. So many have shown that this can certainly be done very successfully.Reality
Professor Shaw expressed the reality succinctly when he wrote: "While many individual incidents were clearly wrong and their perpetrators are rightly subject to severe criticism, even on the standards of the day, one should not forget that the squatters as well as the Aborigines ‘had a case' - as well as ‘a case to answer'."
And so the Aboriginal tragedy emerged, and like all true tragedies was a result not of a conflict "between right and wrong" but between "right and right".
Of course we must endeavour to see that much of the Aboriginal culture is preserved. Let us also be proud of our Aborigines who have achieved distinction - Sir Douglas Nicholls, Lionel Rose, Evonne Cawley, Cathy Freeman, Neville Bonner, Noel Pearson and so many others.
These achievers should be held up as role models for Aborigines. The onus should be on our society, not to demean the Aborigines by giving them welfare handouts, but rather to build up their confidence, dignity and self-esteem through education and training.
This is not an easy task, but it can, indeed is being done successfully in many parts of Australia. With that resolution in mind, is it not time for us to forget all the hurts and injustices committed - by both sides - in the distant past?
Surely it is now time for the Aboriginal people of Australia, plus the diverse peoples who have come to Australia since European settlement, to come together as one people, to acknowledge and be proud of the achievements of the sterling men and women who have contributed to the building of our great nation.
Should we not all work to maintain the beauties of our land and together fashion a prosperous future to make our country a better place for all Australians?Paul Fitzgerald AM is a world-famous Australian portrait-painter.