When Europeans settled in Australia in the late eighteenth century they had little knowledge of its prior occupants. Some of the Dutch and English seamen who had chanced by the shores of the Great Southern Land had encountered the indigenous inhabitants. Some of those encounters were amiable and some were hostile. But, by and large, coming from a Europe that was just beginning to embrace the Industrial Revolution, confronting a people who were largely naked, knew little of agriculture, and could manufacture nothing more sophisticated than a boomerang or a bark canoe, it was not surprising that they were labelled as “primitive”.
Before European settlement, it is fair to say that Australia was very sparsely populated. Some historians studying the prehistory of Australia have suggested that, at the time of European settlement the indigenous population numbered no more than 300,000. Some favourable environments, for example the northern and eastern coastal margins and the Murray valley, permitted more concentrated populations. The arid interior however could only sustain very low population densities, often as low as one person per 35 square miles (approx. 90 square kilometres).
Survival in the harsh Australian conditions required a much different response to human development than that required to prosper in the temperate climes, fertile lands and generous rainfalls of most European communities. So although they never had the resources or the knowhow to invent the steam engine, the Australian Aborigines had nevertheless adapted to one of the harshest environments on earth and survived.
As the wonderful Australian historian, D J Mulvaney proclaimed:
The dispersal of the Aboriginals throughout this vast land, their responses and adjustments to the challenges of its harsh environment, and their economical utilisation of its niggardly resources, are stimulating testimony to the achievements of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Estimates vary, but it seems some 300 tribes occupied Australia at the time of European settlement, varying in size from less than a hundred in the most arid regions to several thousand where conditions were more favourable. Their long separation resulted in many languages. (In view of all this it seems somewhat euphemistic to bestow the title of “first nations” on these disparate tribes as some are wont to do.)
Despite the European settlers disparaging the primitiveness of the indigenous inhabitants, they had adapted admirably to their harsh environment and managed to sustain their livelihoods in circumstances that would often prove fatal to the newcomers. And although not understood by Europeans until a century or more after they first settled in Australia, the indigenous population had devised techniques, including the strategic use of fire, to maintain their environment in a way that enabled them to harvest its resources in a sustainable way.
Now although our anglocentric slant on history would have us believe that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia, we know that many seafarers, particularly the Dutch, had stumbled on our shores well before Cook’s 1770 voyage. We also know that for some centuries before Cook’s venture Asian trepangers made annual visits to Australia’s northern coastline to harvest trepang, sea creatures which are regarded as culinary delicacies in their societies.
The English colonisers of Australia were ill-informed about the indigenous population, but at least to begin with they seemed to be mostly willing to engage them peacefully when circumstances allowed. Although they had skirmishes with the indigenous folk and had formed some ideas about the nature of these people, one early encounter served to remind them of the humanity that they shared with the original inhabitants. This encounter was with Bennelong, chief of the Wangal clan that resided south of the Sydney Cove settlement.
In Eleanor Dark’s exemplary novel, The Timeless Land, the young Bennelong from atop the cliffs watches the “boat with wings” come from over the horizon bearing Captain Cook to his first landing place on our continent.
Later Bennelong was brought to the settlement at Sydney Cove by order of Captain Philip. Philip had been commanded by his King, George III, to establish relations with the indigenous population. Bennelong has many adventures, alternating occasionally between the English colonists and his traditional tribal background. He learns English, provides useful service to Governor Philip and late in his life even sails to England.
The historian Tom Griffiths writes:
It was Eleanor Dark who conjured Bennelong alive again for twentieth century Australians, and who framed his life as a tragedy, with help from the original Sydney Gazette. Inspired by the real Bennelong for whom she had looked in historical documents – and Dark was to write The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on him in 1966 – she imagined him as a cheeky, curious, strategic man grappling with circumstances and a sense of destiny, but caught and lost between two cultures. In her ADB entry she wrote that, following his return from London in 1795, the sources are scanty but ‘it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance either among his countrymen or the white men’.
As the European settlers gradually infiltrated the Australian continent they increasingly impinged on the indigenous population in their traditional lands. And of course there was inevitable conflict. This gradual, but inexorable dispossession began to take its toll. The European farmers and pastoralists coveted the most fertile and well-watered country. Indigenous people were forced into more marginal territory which made their struggles to maintain a livelihood more difficult.
It is hard to deny that there was violence at the frontier that marked the forward march of the unstoppable wave of European settlement. One has only to look at a map to see such unedifying place names as Murdering Point, Massacre Swamp, Nigger’s Leap or the Convincing Grounds. In retrospect such bloodshed was typical of colonisation wherever it happened and the British experience in Australia was no worse and perhaps a little better than most other examples. Nevertheless it was the source of much tragedy and suffering. And even though the indigenous people often wrought havoc on the settlers they were unable to inflict the losses that the weapons of the settlers could.
But despite this it would be easy to make a case that the biggest impact on the indigenous population from white settlement came from the introduction of new diseases and their displacement from their preferred places of settlement.
As a result of these privations, it was a commonly held belief amongst those in authority that Australian Aboriginals were doomed to extinction. Fortunately that has not been the case.
Until the second half of the twentieth century the history of the white settlement of Australia was very much told through the eyes of the colonists. Accordingly, the European explorers of Australia and the early settlers that followed them were promoted as the heroes of Australian settlement.
In my youth I read as widely as I could of my local history and regretted that most of the history I was taught at school was more broadly British history rather than Australian history. At quite an early age (certainly pre-teen) my father introduced me to the writings of Ion Idress. His popular works canvassed a lot of Australian history and often included material on indigenous people. My favourite, I recall, was Nemarluk: King of the Wilds which was the story of an Aboriginal outlaw.
Wanting to understand more about our indigenous fellows and intrigued by their long history in Australia, as a young graduate I acquired a copy of D J Mulvaney’s The Prehistory of Australia which seemed to me then (and which I continue to believe even though modern research might question some of his findings) is a fabulous book.
But in the second half of the twentieth century, indigenous history began to be viewed differently. Historians became influenced by the concepts of post-modernism. This led some of them to believe that history could never be the objective truth but was always shaped by the viewpoint of the historian.
With respect to Australian history, the postmodernists maintained that what we had come to accept as “the truth”, was only the point of view of the British colonists and there was another “truth”, which was that perceived by the indigenous population.
In trying to articulate the indigenous point of view, such historians encountered a problem. Whereas previous histories relied on verified data and official records, constructing a history from the indigenous point of view relied on folk-memory, accumulated tradition and word of mouth. Whilst I would be the first to admit that we might gain great insights from such sources they are often hard to defend academically.
What’s more, in trying to give our indigenous fellows a point of view, postmodernist historians have allowed that fiction has also a role to play in elucidating our history, particularly from the indigenous viewpoint. I am not averse to this notion but we should also acknowledge its limitations. For example I instanced Eleanor Dark’s work The Timeless Land above. Her deep knowledge of Australian history informed that work and I am sure any reader would absorb some of that history from reading her novel. But we need to be very careful here that the pendulum hasn’t swung too far so that indigenous history might be unduly romanticised by those who have sympathy towards the indigenous cause but don’t have Dark’s understanding of our history.
But out of this movement came a conflict among historians. It was called the “History Wars”. A major point of contention in this dispute between traditional historians and the postmodernists was about the extent of the indigenous casualties from violence as the settlers took over the land inhabited by the original occupants. It, in essence, hinged about whether the European settlers had colonised Australia with relatively minor conflict or whether the settlement constituted an invasion marked by major conflict resulting in the mass genocide of the original inhabitants.
The trigger to this altercation among historians occurred when Keith Windschuttle disputed Henry Reynolds assertion that 20,000 indigenous people had been slain in violent confrontations as a result of European settlement. Without going into detail, Windschuttle was particularly scathing about the number of indigenous deaths claimed for Tasmania.
In Tom Griffith’s words:
His (ie Windschuttle’s) concerns were that the distinctions between history and fiction were being dissolved and that the past had been deemed unknowable.
Whether you agreed with Windschuttle or not, it was hard to argue that Australian history was now being configured to look more favourably on the role of the indigenous participants and to hold to higher account the actions of the white settlers.
In the early twentieth century, many indigenous Australians were struggling against entrenched racism and cultural and economic disadvantage. Indigenous people had been subject to removal of children in their care to be placed in the care of “white” families. This resulted in what was called “the stolen generation”. Whilst some of the relocated children doubtlessly benefitted from this gross intervention, it caused great angst to indigenous families and is reflective of the paternalistic treatment often meted out to the indigenous population.
The referendum of 1967 provided that indigenous people should be counted in the Australian census whereas previously they had not. Whilst Aboriginals had the right to vote by then, voting was not compulsory for them as it was for other Australians until 1983.
Whilst indigenous people still faced disadvantages, many were starting to take an important place in Australian society. Neville Bonner became our first indigenous representative in the Federal parliament in 1973. There have been quite a number since. A steady stream of indigenous youth were now entering our universities and graduating taking responsible roles in the professions and in government bureaucracies.
But countering this movement of the integration of indigenous peoples into mainstream Australian society was another movement that has set their cause back immeasurably.
Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was a very distinguished Australian. In 1949, Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley appointed Coombs to be Governor of the Commonwealth Bank. When later that year Menzies led the conservatives to power, to the surprise of many, he kept Coombs on. In 1960, when the Reserve Bank was created to take on the central banking functions, Menzies appointed Coombs as its first Governor.
Coombs retired from the Public Service in 1968 but maintained an active interest in the Arts and more particularly in Aboriginal Affairs.
Coombs early life was in Western Australia where he had engaged with the Aboriginal community and became concerned for their welfare. This developed into a lifelong passion for him.
In 1968 he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs which was set up essentially to prosecute the changes which were brought about by the 1967 Referendum mentioned above. He subsequently became a close advisor to Gough Whitlam who was then leading the Labor party. It is said that he essentially wrote the Labor Party’s policy on Aboriginal Affairs which it took to the 1972 election which it won, ensconcing Whitlam as Prime Minister.
Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the proposition that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.
As a consequence of Coomb’s recommendations the Government of the day facilitated the establishment of remote Aboriginal communities, ostensibly to return indigenous people to their homelands where they were expected to hone a living from traditional foraging and hunting augmented by commerce associated with traditional art and culture and hopefully tourism. The Government provided generous economic support of such communities in anticipation that they would eventually become self-sufficient.
Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (It is difficult not to infer in Coombs philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”) Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare. What’s more their social and cultural mores have declined (as the appalling statistics regarding unemployment, the incidence of domestic violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, educational outcomes, rates of suicide and the burgeoning rates of foetal alcohol syndrome will attest). It seems therefore unlikely their circumstances can be improved without again some paternalistic intervention.
In an Australian University working paper in 1979, Coombs proclaimed that the so-called homeland settlements would be “autonomous and self-sufficient economic units”. He proclaimed that “production, including hunting and gathering will be directed to home consumption and the reduction of dependence on imported goods”. Of course he was gravely mistaken and the remote indigenous settlements have continued to be a drain on the resources of the Federal Government, and what’s more they have become dysfunctional enclaves which have caused great suffering to indigenous peoples and created many barriers which have prevented them from partaking in the normal lives enjoyed by other Australians.
The separationist philosophy of Coombs was highlighted by his recommendation that the curriculum of the indigenous schools in the remote communities should be restricted to basic literacy and numeracy “to minimise assimilationist influences.”
Following the efforts of Nugget Coombs, the issue of Aboriginal land rights came to dominate the domain of indigenous politics. The efforts of the Aboriginal land rights movement culminated in 1992 when the High Court of Australia handed down its decision on the Mabo case. This decision rejected the application of terra nullius upon Australian settlement and recognised that Indigenous people were in possession of a system of laws and practices governing their communities.
Whilst Native Title has provided some Aboriginal communities with a revenue stream from resource companies exploiting mineral deposits in their traditional territories, it has seldom led to opportunities to develop economic ventures of their own. And unfortunately, the largesse provided has often been wantonly wasted with those charged with the governance of the distribution of such funds blatantly benefitting themselves and close relatives without being directed to the advancement of their indigenous fellows.
In the last half century, following these events, a huge “Aboriginal industry” has been set up comprising government departments, welfare agencies, not-for-profit organisations, consultants, academics and left-wing opinion leaders all supposedly devoted to aiding indigenous Australians overcome their disadvantage. The most insidious effect of all of this has been to convince many indigenous people that they are victims and that it is somebody else’s (generally the state’s) responsibility to “save” them. The growing acceptance by so many of our indigenous fellows that they are passive recipients of their own fates with no sense of an internal locus of control has made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And of course the Aboriginal industry has no incentive whatsoever to try to cultivate a sense of agency amongst indigenous folk because their continued influence, not to mention their continued funding, is largely dependent on the sense of indigenous victimhood.
Countering this overwhelming influence attempting to keep our indigenous population in child-like dependency are a handful of courageous commentators on indigenous affairs and some of the more enlightened from the indigenous community itself (e.g. Noel Pearson; Marcia Langton; Bess, David and Jacinta Price; Anthony Dillon; and even cartoonist Bill Leak) who are urging indigenous people to take control of their own lives.
The romantic vision of Coombs has proven to be flawed. His desire was that within “the security of the homeland context, the young would grow up capable of making use of what white society offers but remaining essentially uncorrupted by it.” Reality, in fact, has displayed just the opposite of this in the remote communities. The young are in fact corrupted by the worst of white society, (alcohol, drugs, pornography, indolence and irresponsibility) without assuming the best (industry, ambition, and social responsibility).
And now recently, of course, we have had the controversy regarding the treatment in detention of young people (who are largely indigenous) in the Northern Territory (and latterly also in Queensland). There are two principal elements to this story. The first is about how those young people who have broken the law and, failing any other likely means of correction or redemption, have had to be incarcerated.
The second issue is why so many of these young people are indigenous.
In previous essays I have tried to argue that the societal failings of these young people, whatever their racial background, can be largely attributed to poor parenting. Most of those who are ensconced in juvenile detention centres come from dysfunctional families that have been poor role models for how to live the life of a responsible citizen. It has been largely this failure that has led to their incarceration.
The second question is the most difficult to confront. Despite the fact that many indigenous parents do an admirable job in bringing up their children, the unfortunate fact is that the reason there is a disproportionate number of indigenous children in detention is that many indigenous parents are failing in their duties as parents. As Bill Leach found, despite this fact being indisputable, to raise it (even in a satirical way in a cartoon) ensures you will be labelled as racist. And therein lies the major problem with dealing with the issue of indigenous disadvantage. Most of the commentators are not prepared to address the real issues that underlie this vexing issue. And those who are courageous enough to “bell the cat” are confronted with confected offence and racial slurs.
Bennelong faced a great dilemma. He had been invited into “white” society and had manufactured for himself a role under the sponsorship of Governor Philips. He had sometimes been feted by the settlers and yet seems to have been able to come and go in the traditional Aboriginal community. But in the end he seemed an outcast from both indigenous and European societies. He had availed himself of the largesse of the European community, culminating with a journey to the UK. Bennelong, on reflection, seems a tragic figure who anticipated the malaise of indigenous people who could not assimilate, or who later under the influence of Coombs chose to glorify traditional culture over the benefits that Western society might offer.
As I have written previously, the welfare of the individual seems to be enhanced when he/she accepts the role of citizen ahead of any other claims to identity. To seek a meaningful role in society provides meaning to our lives. To be good parents offers the joy of seeing a new generation prosper. To accept the law ensures an orderly and safer environment. These are among our primary responsibilities as citizens.
There is nothing inherently wrong in identifying with our origins and celebrating our inherited history and culture. It is common in many of our migrant communities to see this happening as well as among our indigenous population. By all means let us celebrate our roots, but let us ensure it does not distract us from our responsibilities as citizens.
Many of those in our remote indigenous communities seem to want to avail themselves of the hedonistic pleasures and the indulgences that wealth allow without contributing to wealth generation. Many want to avail themselves of the freedoms and entitlements that a modern democracy offers without meeting the attendant responsibilities of citizenship on which such democracies are built.
It always seems a shame to me that there is so much media focus on indigenous dysfunction. Whilst it is undeniably a huge problem, as a result we continually are reminded of the unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, poor education attainment, the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome and so on of the disaffected remote communities and some of the indigenous suburban ghettoes, but we seldom see the efforts applauded of the numerous indigenous achievers, who contribute productively to the community, care for their children and generally uphold the law.
But I suppose it is hard to escape the cost financially, physically, psychologically, and spiritually, of those who live in such dysfunctional array.
In the 2014 report by the Productivity Council on Indigenous Expenditure, it was reported that the cost of supporting our indigenous population amounted to $43 449 per person compared with $20,900 for other Australians. Gary Johns in a recent article reported that “there are 1000 public servants in (the PM’s) department administering the affairs of Aborigines..”. And to what benefit to indigenous people? This gives an indication of the scale of the issue. (The recent Centre for Independent Studies report on indigenous programs has again reinforced how ineffectual our expensive indigenous programs are and consequently how little value we derive from such expenditure.)
So, in essence, we are paying this hideous cost largely (under Coombs’s recommendation) to allow a cohort of indigenous Australians to pursue a traditional lifestyle and maintain their indigenous culture – except that they don’t! The residents of these remote communities are not being sustained by traditional hunting and gathering pursuits; they are being sustained by welfare payments and often a goodly portion of those are wasted on alcohol and drugs.
As for the much vaunted Aboriginal culture, Bess and Jacinta Price have eloquently displayed how that male dominated way of life has resulted in terrible suffering and indignities to indigenous women and children.
It seems to me time to abandon Nugget Coombs’s romantic notion of a return to indigenous culture and insist that all Australians, even those of indigenous background, buy into the responsibility of citizenship and celebrate their cultural heritage in more appropriate ways.