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Soon after last summer’s Olympics in Sydney, indigenous Australian senator Aden Ridgeway said the “groundswell of good feeling” from the reconciliation theme of the games and aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman’s gold medal victory, heavy with symbolism, were responsible for a new commitment to a treaty between Australians and Aborigines setting out native rights.

Last December 4, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a council of community leaders promoting reconciliation, recommended adoption of a treaty and constitutional amendment that recognized the Aborigines as part of Australian culture.

With growing popular support for a reconciliation treaty, Australian politicians are seizing a chance to confront the country’s shadowy and turbulent past, one that includes the massacring of Aboriginal villagers, state-sponsored efforts to eliminate the Aborigines by “breeding out the color,” and massive dislocation and dispossession.

Veteran investigative reporter Phillip Knightley, Austalian-born member of the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, explores the plight of the Aborigines, among other topics, in his latest book, Australia: A Biography of a Nation.

“Writing this book,” said the British-based Knightley, “I was surprised to discover another country, one that seethed with passion, one full of love, hatred, conflict, terrorism, secret armies and a class and religious struggle, that was frequently on the brink of rebellion and civil war.”

In this edited excerpt, Knightley discusses the institutionalized racism and murder endured by the Aboriginal inhabitants.


The Australian desire for progress, for egalitarianism, for a better life and “a fair go” for all did not extend to one important group, the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginals. Defeated in the Aboriginal Wars of the 19th century, they had become a forgotten race — reviled, murdered, harassed, discriminated against, and subjected to cruel and unusual punishments. It remains one of the mysteries of history that Australia was able to get away with a racist policy that included segregation and dispossession and bordered on slavery and genocide, practices unknown in the civilized world in the first half of the twentieth century until Nazi Germany turned on the Jews in the 1930s.

The figure of six million Jews killed during the Holocaust has been reached by comparing the known Jewish population of Europe and the German-occupied territories of [Eastern Europe] before World War II with the known population of the same areas after the war. No such comparison can be made for the Australian Aboriginals for two reasons.

First, the size of the Aboriginal population when the first white settlers arrived is only an estimate. Next, Aboriginals were not included in census taking until 1967, when there were disputes over the definition of an “Aborigine.” So any figure for the numbers of Aboriginals killed by white settlers in the wars and massacres of the 19th and 20th centuries can only be intelligent guesswork. But experts I have consulted say 50,000 would not be an exaggeration. It could be as high as 100,000. Given the small size of the Aboriginal population, the loss of even 50,000 of its people was devastating.

The killing began early on. In December 1790, after Aboriginals had speared one of his servants, Governor Phillip decided on a punitive raid on the offending tribe “in order to convince them of our superiority, and infuse an universal terror.” He ordered Captain Watkin Tench to take with him 50 men and capture two Aboriginals and kill and cut off the heads of ten others. Tench persuaded him to reduce the number to be captured to six, of whom two would be hanged and four deported to Norfolk Island, a territory of Australia. But if none could be captured alive, then all six would be shot and beheaded.

This was not government policy. But as writer Padraic P. McGuinness asked 200 years later, “What did the colonial authorities think would happen when they populated Australia initially with a mix of criminals and other desperates, especially those such as the Irish who themselves had a history of oppression and dispossession . . . In Australia, the poor and ignorant settlers were forced into close relations with the Aborigines, upon whose goodwill they depended while having no understanding of how they thought and no chance of comprehending them ever. So the most elemental accommodations of rape, abduction and violence were the only means of getting on.”

As casually as kangaroos

In many states in the early days, these settlers cleared Aboriginals from their land as casually as kangaroos. They shot them, poisoned them and clubbed them. In Tasmania, they succeeded in wiping them out entirely. In the rest of the country, over a period of 150 years the Aboriginal population declined from an estimated 300,000 to about 75,000. Smallpox, tuberculosis and malnutrition took their toll, but many were murdered by the settlers.

If the Aboriginals hit back, they were punished with a reprisal raid disproportionate – as in Governor Phillip’s case – to the offence. A settler in Queensland described how a raiding party of Native Police in the 1880s would carry out such a raid. “A white man, an ‘officer and a gentleman,’ at the head of half a dozen black murderers, watches a camp of blacks all night. The cool dawn of the morning comes, and the slender smoke circles up among the trees by the waterhole as the unsuspecting blacks wake to prepare their morning meal. Suddenly a shrill whistle, then the sharp rattle of Sniders, shriek on shriek, rushing to and fro: then ammunition gone, the struggle at close quarters, and well-fed lusty savages, drunk with carnage, hewing down men, women and children before them.”

It is amazing that Australians managed to keep from the rest of the world the fact that they were massacring the Aboriginals. In 1968, anthropologist William Stanner gave a series of lectures, “The Great Australian Silence,” in which he took to task Australian historians for showing no interest in what had happened to the Aboriginals. And it was not really until 1998, with books like This Whispering in Our Hearts, by historian Henry Reynolds, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV series Frontier, that the silence was broken.

Reynolds took his title from a legal argument defending the right of white settlers to dispossess the Aboriginals by any means they chose. The argument was prepared in 1842 by a young settler, a barrister named Richard Windeyer, who had the courage at the end of his brilliantly reasoned case to question his own logic. “But how is it that our minds are not satisfied?” he asked. “What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Christians encouraging murder

The puzzling point is that Australia was a Christian nation, yet most of its Christian leaders either encouraged – if not the murder – certainly the dispossession of Aboriginals. At the very least, they proved indifferent to their fate. The few who spoke out were reviled, attacked, treated as deranged, had their careers ruined, or were driven into exile. The general attitude was: How dare they criticize the way Australians treat the Aboriginals? The white settlers come from a superior race, the Aboriginals from a weak, useless one. “Is there room for both of us here?” an outback farmer wrote to the weekly Queenslander in 1880. “No. Then the sooner the weaker is wiped out the better, as we may save some valuable lives by the process.”

Those who protested at views like this understood only too well the process of rationalization that made murder and dispossession possible. George Robinson, who held the title of chief protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip, Victoria, had made it clear in his writings that Aboriginals had a strong and clear view on land possession. He told of meeting an Aboriginal elder along the banks of the Murray River in South Australia. The elder had stamped on the ground and exclaimed: “Belonging to me. Belonging to me. My country.” The lawyer Windeyer would have none of this. Aboriginals had no right to the land – ownership belonged to the person who first bestowed labor upon it.

Turned into non-human property

But defamation and demonization had turned Aboriginals into non-humans, the property of white landowners to dispose of at will, like slaves in the southern states of America, accounted for along with the animals when a sale took place. Mary Bennett, the pro-Aborigine feminist, understood human nature only too well: “The criminal cannot forgive the victim he has wronged.”

Western Australia was probably the worst state for the murder of Aborginals. In 1834 British soldiers under the command of Capt. James Stirling, the state’s first governor, butchered a sleeping camp of 80 Aboriginal men, women and children from the Nyungar tribe near Pinjarra.

The worst recorded massacre was in New South Wales in 1838. Angered at the loss of their land and at the kidnapping of their women by white settlers, the Kamilaroi tribe in northern New South Wales mounted a series of attacks on local farmers and their stock. When the farmers demanded action from the state government, Col. James Nunn led an expedition of mounted police on a reprisal raid. They encountered a large group of Aboriginals at Snodgrass Swamp and, over a period of three days, killed over 300 men, women and children – a number unmatched in other recorded massacres of Aboriginals in Australia. Even worse, Snodgrass Creek was then renamed Waterloo Creek, recalling Britain’s victory over Napoleon in 1815.

Massacres went on well into the next century and became so common they hardly made news. There were at least two in the 1920s. In the East Kimberley region in July 1926, a boundary rider ordered an Aboriginal called Lumbia and two women to leave the Nulla Nulla cattle station in the Forrest River area. When Lumbia and the women were slow to go, the boundary rider dismounted and began whipping Lumbia with his stockwhip. As the rider remounted, Lumbia hurled a spear at him, puncturing his lung and killing him. Fellow boundary riders found the body late the next day, partially eaten by predators, and raised the alarm at Wyndham, the nearest town. A party of four whites, two mounted constables, two policemen and seven Aboriginal trackers in police employ left the following day to find Lumbia. However, locals who noted that the group took 42 horses and mules and more than 500 rounds of ammunition knew immediately that this was also to be a punitive expedition.

The men moved from camp to camp along the Forrest River for the next week, killing as they went. When they entered a camp they first shot all the dogs, then the men, then the women and children. At one camp the women were chained to trees and forced to watch their menfolk being shot and the bodies burned. Then they were marched for several miles before being shot and burned themselves. Estimates of Aboriginals killed ranged from 20 to 100.

In August two years later, at Coniston station, 140 miles from the small town of Stuart in central Australia, two Aboriginals killed dingo trapper Fred Brooks, claiming that he had taken one of their women and had refused to return her or supply the gifts expected as part of the exchange. Brooks’s two Aboriginal assistants reported the killing and a punitive patrol under Mounted Constable George Murray, a Gallipoli veteran, set out to arrest the culprits and punish their tribe, the Waribiri. [It was at Gallipoli that Australian, New Zealand and other British-led troops fought Turkish forces during World War I.] Over the next three months, Murray’s patrols killed between 30 and 70 Aboriginals, including women and children. To save cartridges, the children were killed by a blow to the back of the neck.

First verdict favoring Aborigines

Both massacres turned out to be historically significant. A Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the Forrest River massacre found for the first time in Australian history in favor of the Aboriginal victims and not their murderers. And at the trial of the two men charged with Brooks’s murder at Coniston (they were acquitted) the court listened with deep unease as Murray, still a Gallipoli hero to most Australians, testified with what can only be described as nonchalance to killing 17 Aboriginals himself. “You mowed them down wholesale,” commented the judge.

The trial made news in Britain and the Anti-Slavery Society established a sub-committee to monitor Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginals. Five years later, the press agitated for a punitive expedition to Arnhem Land to avenge the death of a policeman, but public opinion would not stand for it. Coniston thus became the last officially sanctioned punitive expedition against Aboriginals. How widespread they were can be gathered by what Northern Territory anthropologist Dick Kimber told me in 1983: “Every Aboriginal in this part of the country can state, quite correctly, that at least one of his relatives has been shot by a white man.”

The massacres were over but the war went on in other ways. Since the Aboriginals were dying out, the Australian authorities argued, then those children among them who had some white blood needed to be saved.

But how should they be saved?

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