ABORIGINAL RESISTANCE

 

Aboriginal statues
Aboriginal statues in Wyndham

 

 

 

 

 

 

'A right of occupancy! Amiable sophistry! Why not say boldly at once, the right of power? We have seized upon the country, and shot down the inhabitants, until the survivors have found it expedient to submit to our rule. We have acted exactly as Julius Caesar did when he took possession of Britain. But Caesar was not so hypocritical as to pretend any moral right to possession. On what grounds can we possibly claim a right to the occupancy of the land? We are told, because civilized people are justified in extending themselves over uncivilized countries. According to this doctrine, were there a nation in the world superior to ourselves in the arts of life, and of a different religious faith, it would be equally entitled (had it the physical power) to the possession of Old England under the "right of occupancy;" for the sole purpose of our moral and social improvement, and to make us participants in the supposed truths of a new creed.'

 

The Bushman, Life in a New Country, Edward Wilson Landor

 

Initial contact between Europeans and Aborigines appeared to be peaceful, but as settlements were established and farmland developed, conflict was inevitable.

 

Aborigines gathered around settlements (and according to written records), began to steal food. Shots were fired to drive them off and one person was fatally hit. This led to a series of tit for tat killings.

 

The name of the first Aborigine killed in this conflict remains unrecorded (the first legal execution of an Aborigine took place on July 10th 1840). The first settler to die was 19 year old George Mackenzie who was speared near the Murray River on July 17th 1830. He was apparently killed for fencing off tribal fishing grounds and for putting a building on a sacred site.

 

It became obvious to the Aborigines that the white people intended to stay on their land and so they were assumed to come under Aboriginal law. In Aboriginal society it was normal for those who had little to take from those who had more and this was quite acceptable as everything was shared.

 

When Aborigines took food from the whites, the whites regarded this as stealing and so defended their property. If an Aborigine was killed then their law called for a 'payback' killing and this could be carried out on any member of the opposing 'tribe'. In this case this meant any white person singled out for execution. This was incomprehensible and quite terrifying to the settlers.

 

As the Aborigines greatly outnumbered the first settlers (only some 200 in number) the question can fairly be asked, why did the natives not immediately drive the newcomers into the sea as soon as they arrived? They certainly had the numbers and the opportunity to do so.

 

The answer is to do with the difference in skin colour. Aborigines initially thought that the settlers were long dead relatives returned from beyond the sea the sea having washed the colour from their skin. The settlers were initially treated as returned relatives and honoured guests. Had the land been settled by people with dark skins, the Aborigines would have seen them as an immediate threat and there would have been open warfare from the start.

 

By the time the Aborigines realised their mistake it was too late.

 

'This daring and hostile conduct of the natives induced me to seize the opportunity to make them sensible to our superiority, by showing how severely we could retaliate their aggression.'

Irwin.

 

By 1832 the Aboriginal raids had become more organised and the Aboriginal warrior Yagan came to the notice of white authorities. Yagan was the son of Midgigeroo a tribal Elder of the Beelair. His mother, Moyran, was also a high ranking member of the tribe who had always been suspicious of the 'white spirits' that were taking over the land.

 

The next major incident, when trouble flared up again, was over flour. Aborigines had been given small amounts of flour and when the supply dried up, the Murray River tribe raided the flour mill in the Swan River Settlement (Perth), held George Shenton at spear point and took 980lbs of flour. The local Aborigines saw the raid as an incursion into their territory and helped identify the raiders who were captured and flogged.

 

Killings started again with the spearing of Trooper Hugh Nesbit on July 24th 1834 (1) (some accounts list him as a settler not a trooper but in actual fact he was a servant of Lt. Adam Armstrong at the time he was speared and had been a trooper in 1831.) The killing seemed odd to the settlers because Nesbit had befriended the Aborigines and handed out flour. With the Aboriginal system of 'payback', being friends with the Aborigines made no difference. Tribal law over-rode any familiarity that may have existed. He was lured into the bush and speared many times and his head badly mutilated. (Further research indicates that Nesbit had been involved in the wounding of a native during an attack on the barracks at Mandurah in 1831 but it is open to interpretation as to whether the attack on him was actually a revenge attack for his earlier action. He was only 19 when he was killed.)

 

'Although we have ever been the advocate of a humane and conciliatory line of procedure, this unprovoked attack must not be allowed to pass over without the infliction of the severest chastisement;'

 

Perth Gazette

 

On October 27th 1834, James Stirling, John Septimus Roe, Thomas Peel and Captain Ellis accompanied by a party of 21 police and soldiers, began to track the killers down and located them on the 28th not far from the current site of Pinjarra. Ellis was speared (he died of his wounds 2 weeks later) and a battle ensued which in some accounts 30 Aborigines were killed and 30 to 40 wounded, many being women and children (one source refutes this stating that care was taken to avoid shooting women and children and that only one woman and one child were killed. Yet another source quotes one woman and several children being killed. Another says 10 men, three women and one child. I'm sure you get the idea'.). There continues to be disagreement about the numbers killed during this confrontation. One thing is certain, the Aborigines lost (see Pinjarra for more information).

 

Despite this example of European firepower, the violence and stealing continued for some time. Five months later Stirling called a conference with the Aborigines to settle things back down. It was explained that the stealing and payback killings had to stop or the full force of the colonists would be used and the tribe would be wiped out. At this meeting the Murray tribal leaders pledged their support for the Governor's decisions - they really had little choice.

 

Although this 'battle' settled things down in the Swan River and Murray areas, the tribes around York continued to take items from settlers and killings soon escalated there as well. Knowing what effect the battle of Pinjarra had, the settlers in York took the law into their own hands and handed out similar treatment to the York tribe. Things became so bad that at one point fully one third of the entire garrison of troops were stationed at York.

 

The Aboriginal system of payback was proportional, one life for one life, but when the settlers embarked on payback it was to completely incapacitate the opponents and destroy their ability to fight back. This is a typically European response and it has to be said that by and large it worked.

 

The settlers could never understand the Aboriginal system of justice. The tribal system held that if a life was taken then a life was forfeit, it didn't mater if the life taken was the one responsible for the original crime or not. This (perhaps understandably) terrified the settlers as they knew they could be speared to death for something they did not do. Also, Aborigines had no concept of disease and even accidental death was regarded as the work of some enemy. Every life lost had to be avenged in some way because there had to be someone responsible for it. This appears to have been a way to control the power base of each tribe and ensured that no tribe ever greatly outnumbered any other.

 

A continual cycle of vendettas had existed well before the Europeans turned up and now that they had, they were included in it.

 

Another misunderstanding (that undoubtedly led to deaths in the north west) was that European explorations were men only affairs. To the Aborigines a group of men travelling alone without women or children was a war party and could be attacked without warning. This was regarded as treacherous behavior by the Europeans but to the Aborigines it made perfect sense.

 

The differences between the European and Aboriginal cultures were apparent even to the early settlers. The following passage, while less than diplomatic by today's standards, was also written by Edward Wilson Landor. It is interesting in as much as it points out the difficulties faced by the imposition of European law on the Aboriginal people who were simply obeying their own laws in their conduct.

 

'The gentleman who was then Governor of Western Australia, was Mr. John Hutt, a man of enlightened mind, firm, sagacious, and benevolent. From the first, he adopted an admirable policy with regard to the native inhabitants.

 

Exhibiting on all occasions a friendly interest in their welfare, he yet maintained a strict authority over them, which they soon learned to respect and fear. The Aborigines were easily brought to feel that their surest protection lay in the Government; that every act of violence committed upon them by individual settlers was sure to be avenged by the whites themselves; and that, as certainly, any aggression on the part of the natives would call down the utmost severity of punishment upon the offenders. By this firm administration of equal justice the Aboriginal population, instead of being, as formerly, a hostile, treacherous, and troublesome race, had become harmless, docile, and in some degree useful to the settlers.

 

But it was not the policy of Mr. Hutt merely to punish the natives for offences committed against the whites; he was anxious to substitute the milder spirit of the British law in lieu of their own barbarous code; and to make them feel, in process of time, that it was for their own interest to appeal for protection on all occasions to the dominant power of Government, rather than trust to their own courage and spears. This was no easy task, and could only be accomplished by firmness, discrimination, and patience; but in the course of a few years, considerable progress had been made in subduing the prejudices and the barbarous customs of the Aborigines. Although it had been declared by Royal Proclamation that the native inhabitants were in every respect subjects of the British throne, and as such entitled to equal privileges with ourselves, and to be judged on all occasions by the common and statute laws, it proved to be no easy matter to carry into practice these views of the Home Government. People in England, who derive their knowledge of savages from the orations delivered at Exeter Hall, are apt to conceive that nothing more is requisite than to ensure them protection from imaginary oppression, and a regular supply of spiritual comforts. They do not consider that whilst they insist upon these unfortunate creatures being treated exactly as British subjects, they are placing a yoke on their own necks too heavy for them to bear in their present condition. Primitive and simple laws are necessary to a primitive state of society; and the cumbrous machinery of civilized life is entirely unsuited to those who in their daily habits and their intellectual endowments are little superior to the beasts that perish. By declaring the savages to be in every respect British subjects, it becomes illegal to treat them otherwise than such. If a settler surprise a native in the act of stealing a pound of flour, he of course delivers him over to a constable, by whom he is conveyed before the nearest magistrate. Now this magistrate, who is an old settler, and well acquainted with the habits of the natives, is also a man of humanity; and if he were allowed to exercise a judicious discretion, would order the culprit to be well flogged and dismissed to his expectant family. But thanks to Her Majesty's well-meaning Secretaries of State for the Colonies, who have all successively judged alike on this point, it is declared most unadvisable to allow a local magistrate the smallest modicum of discretion. He has only one course to pursue, and that is, to commit the offender for trial at the next Quarter Sessions, to be held in the capital of the colony. Accordingly the poor native, who would rather have been flayed alive than sent into confinement for two months previous to trial, whilst his wives are left to their own resources, is heavily ironed, lest he should escape, and marched down some sixty or seventy miles to Fremantle gaol, where the denizen of the forest has to endure those horrors of confinement which only the untamed and hitherto unfettered savage can possibly know.

 

Among savages, the 'Lex talionis'--the law of retaliation--is the law of nature and of right; to abstain from avenging the death of a relative would be considered, by the tribe of the deceased, an act of unpardonable neglect. Their own customs, which are to them as laws, point out the mode of vengeance. The nearest relative of the deceased must spear his slayer. Nothing is more common among these people than to steal one another's wives; and this propensity affords a prolific source of bloodshed.

 

They have also a general law, which is never deviated from, and which requires that whenever a member of a tribe dies, whether from violence or otherwise, a life must be taken from some other tribe. This practice may have originated in a desire to preserve the balance of power; or from a belief, which is very general among them, that a man never dies a natural death. If he die of some disorder, and not of a spear-wound, they say he is "quibble gidgied," or speared by some person a long distance off. The native doctor, or wise man of the tribe, frequently pretends to know who has caused the death of the deceased; and the supposed murderer is of course pursued and murdered in turn. This custom necessarily induces a constant state of warfare. Now it is very right that all these barbarous and unchristian practices should be put an end to; but, whilst endeavouring to suppress them, we ought to remember that they are part and parcel of the long-established laws of this rude people, and that it is not possible all at once to make them forego their ancient institutions and customs. The settlers would gladly see punished all acts of violence committed among the natives in their neighbourhood. Were they permitted to inflict such punishments as are best suited to the limited ideas and moral thraldom of the Aborigines, these, without cruelty or injustice, might gradually be brought within the pale of civilization; but when the law declares it to be inevitable that every British subject who is tried and found guilty of having speared his enemy shall be hanged without benefit of clergy, the colonists out of sheer humanity and pity for the ignorance of the culprit, refrain from bringing him to trial and punishment--a proceeding which, by the way, would cost the colony some fifteen or twenty pounds--and thus he goes on in his errors, unreproved by the wisdom or the piety of the whites. Sometimes, however, it happens that the officers who exercise the calling of Protectors of the Aborigines, anxious to prove that their post is no sinecure, make a point of hunting up an occasional law-breaker, who, being brought to trial, is usually found guilty upon his own evidence--the unfortunate culprit, conscious of no guilt in having followed the customs of his ancestors, generally making a candid statement of his offence. The sentence decreed by the English law is then passed upon him, and he would, of course, be duly subjected to the penalty which justice is supposed to demand, did not the compassionate Governor, in the exercise of the highest privilege of the Crown, think proper to step in and commute the sentence to perpetual imprisonment. As it would have entailed a serious expense upon the colony to have had to maintain these prisoners in a gaol in the capital, his Excellency determined to establish a penal settlement at Rottnest; and this he accordingly accomplished, with very good effect...

 

...Full of these noble and ennobling sentiments, the emigrant approaches the scene of British-colonial cruelty; but no sooner does he land, than a considerable change takes place in his feelings. He begins to think that he is about to place his valuable person and property in the very midst of a nation of savages, who are entirely unrestrained by any moral or human laws, or any religious scruples, from taking the most disagreeable liberties with these precious things.

 

The refined and amiable philanthropist gradually sinks into the coarse-minded and selfish settler, who is determined to protect himself, his family, and effects, by every means in his power--even at the risk of outraging the amiable feelings of his brother philanthropists at home...

 

...When we first arrived, we were philanthropists, in the usual sense of that term, and thought a good deal about the moral and general destitution of this unfortunate people; but when we first encountered on the road a party of coffee-coloured savages, with spears in their hands, and loose kangaroo-skin cloaks (their only garments) on their shoulders, accompanied by their women similarly clad, and each carrying in a bag at her back her black-haired offspring, with a face as filthy as its mother's--we by no means felt inclined to step forward and embrace them as brethren.

 

I question, indeed, whether the most ardent philanthropist in the world would not have hesitated before he even held forth his hand to creatures whose heads and countenances were darkened over with a compound of grease and red clay, whose persons had never been submitted to ablution from the hour of their birth, and whose approach was always heralded by a perfume that would stagger the most enthusiastic lover of his species...

 

...We must confess we were somewhat appalled at this first view of savage life, as we looked upon the sharp-pointed spears, wild eyes, and well-polished teeth of our new acquaintance. Although, in truth, they were perfectly harmless in their intentions, we could not help feeling a little nervous as they drew nigh, and saluted us with shrill cries and exclamations, and childish bursts of wild laughter. Their principal question was, whether we were "cabra-man " or seamen, as we afterwards discovered their meaning to be. After a good deal of screaming and laughing, they passed on their way, leaving us much relieved by their absence. They seemed to be, and experience has proved to us that they are, the most light-hearted, careless, and happy people in the world.'

 

It is evident from reading these passages that the two societies were so far apart that there was never any hope of them coming to some sort of amicable agreement. Other writers make the case even more forcefully. A.F. Calvert in his work 'The Aborigines of Western Australia' wrote as follows:

 

'It is their misfortune to have stood in the way of colonization, and it is scarcely to be wondered at if they have endeavoured to avenge occupation, invasion, and robbery of their hunting grounds by deeds of bloody atrocity. It must not be forgotten, however, that the colonists were the aggressors, and that they were oftentimes guilty of crimes against the natives of even more ferocious cruelty than those of the savages themselves. It is, indeed, a humiliating reflection, that British colonization has alone much to destroy, and British Christianity but little to save, the aborigines of Australia.'

 

In the northwest, one of the best known of the Aboriginal resistance leaders was Jandamarra who is remembered more by the nickname of Pigeon.

 

In the 1890s, he organised an armed uprising against settlers in the Jandamarra region. The revolt was due mostly to the terrible treatment metered out to the local Aboriginal people by the pastoralists. Aboriginal land was seized and tribes denied their traditional hunting grounds. They were forced to work on stations and if they speared a sheep for food they were put in chains and marched to Derby. There they worked out their sentence chained by the neck.

 

Pigeon (apparently named because he liked to 'wring his victim's necks') was forced to work for the police as a tracker and even made to act against his own tribe - something which was not normally done.

 

Contrary to popular belief, there was a great deal of resistance from Aboriginal tribes to white settlement. Many tribes were involved in an extended struggle, which due to the limitations of their weapons, could only end one way.

 

To begin with the settlers didn't have it all their own way. On Lennard River station in 1889 over 2000 sheep were speared. On other stations the total was over 4000. The irony of all this is that many stations in the north could not have survived without the Aboriginal people. The black trackers and stockmen were essential to life in the north and in some ways secured the demise of their own culture.

 

Aboriginal people were denied access to water. If they speared cattle they were themselves hunted down, while the whites were free to kill native game and deprive the traditional land owners of their food source.

 

Before the whites arrived, Aboriginal people did not need or have a national identity. They had no external pressure put on them from another racial group and sources of conflict were between neighbouring tribes. White settlement changed all that, and to some extent has forged an Aboriginal Nation that could not have existed before.

 

Although general European attitudes to Aboriginal people were at best paternalistic and at worst degrading and hostile, there were some enlightened attitudes including the explorer George Grey who wrote;

 

'To have fired upon the other natives, when they returned for the wounded man, would, in my belief, have been a piece of unnecessary piece of barbarity. I already felt deeply the death on him I had been compelled to shoot: and I believe that when a fellow-creature falls by one's hand, even in single combat rendered unavoidable in self defense, it is impossible not to sincerely regret the force of so cruel a necessity.'

 

This from a man who had just been speared in the thigh.

 

There was a conscious effort by the colonial authorities to treat Aborigines fairly and humanely but in practice the law tended to favour the settlers. Of the 14 murders of settlers committed by Aborigines from 1862 to 1873, ten of the offenders were put to death, two imprisoned and two acquitted. Of the eight settlers charged with the murder of Aborigines, none were put to death and instead served prison sentences from three to twelve years.

 

The first European to be tried and sentenced to death for the murder of an Aborigine was Richard Bibby in October 1859.

 

There was never any hope of the two societies managing to survive side by side. It was inevitable that the Aboriginal tribes would be overwhelmed by the technology and increasing numbers of European settlers. In the first six years of colonisation 163 ships arrived carrying 2,218 settlers, this would only continue to increase as time passed.

 

At the time of colonisation the concept of 'tera nullius' - that no one owned the land, made it acceptable for the English to lay claim to it. The idea is ludicrous to our modern day sensibilities. It was not even taken seriously by many people at the time. A.F. Calvert's 'The Aborigines of Western Australia' gives just one example of this:

 

'Although the natives do not cultivate the soil--subsisting entirely by hunting and fishing, or on wild roots and fruits--it must not therefore be supposed that they have no idea of property in land. Every tribe has its own district, and any intrusion for hunting, or other purpose, by another tribe, is liable to be resisted by force of arms.

 

These particular sections of their tribal districts are recognized as the property of individual members, as are also the wild animals found upon it; and each "landowner" is naturally very jealous of his rights, and pugnacious in upholding them. Trespass for hunting purposes is punished with death if the hunter is caught in the act; if the trespasser is tracked by footmarks, and so discovered, he is killed, if alone and in a defenceless state., but if he is attended by his friends, justice is satisfied with a warning spear-thrust through the thigh. The possession of friends has the tendency, as among more civilized folk, to somewhat mitigate the rigour of the law!'

 

The 1946 Strike

 

It is important for modern day Australians to understand what happened to the Aboriginal people of Australia and that long after Europeans took possession of the land by force, the original inhabitants were callously used by the 'establishment' to increase their own wealth and position.

As late as the 1940s it was illegal (in W.A.) for anyone other than 'authorised officers' to be within '5 chains' (100 metres) of a 'congregation of natives'. The law was designed to keep liberal minded people away from Aboriginal people so that they could be exploited for the benefit of the settlers.

Aborigines working on pastoral stations were paid little or no wages and if they left, the police were used to return them by force.

Don McLeod in his book, 'How the West was lost' states:

'The West Australian establishment viewed the land and the labour of the Blackfellows as their own capital, to be converted into personal fortunes at the earliest possible moment.'

Aborigines in the north of Western Australia were constrained in conditions that amounted to little more than slavery and the police were complicit in the system that tried to ensure that the Aboriginal people never had the chance to challenge the status-quo.

The first rumblings of discontent started in 1942 with a meeting at Skull Springs. This developed over time, into a fully fledged strike in 1946.

The first phase of the strike started in May 1st 1946 and continued until August 1949. During this time a great deal of pressure, intimidation and even illegal practices were used against the Aboriginal people by the authorities in an attempt to break their spirit and drive them back to the stations.

More that 60 Aboriginal 'ringleaders' were imprisoned for their part in the strike. It has to be remembered that this was the 1940s but even so, Aborigines when arrested could expect to be put in chains and marched off to prison.

Station owners have long complained that the lack of wages paid to Aboriginal workers was more than made up for by the owner's support of the non-productive family members of the aboriginal workers.

The fact is that station owners were never compelled to provide any amenities for Aboriginal workers and their families and there was no form of sanitation, housing or even proper water supplies.

All station owners had to do was 'satisfy the Commissioner for Native Affairs' and since the Commissioner was part of the system that held Aboriginal people in a type of bondage, there was rarely a problem with the level of satisfaction.

 

The Missions

 

Another method used in the subjugation of Aboriginal Australians was the establishment of missions.

Missions were usually established in places where there was a good water supply, these places were often Aboriginal sacred sites and the missions, either deliberately, or through ignorance, changed the nature and use of these sites.

Tribal structure and continuity was broken down. The Lawmen lost their authority and families were often deliberately split up.

Some missionaries may have gone with good intentions but the overall result of the missions was the destruction of a way of life that had existed unchanged for thousands of years.

 

The debate about who the land belongs to and the Aboriginal population's 'land rights' goes on. There is firm evidence that the Aboriginal people have been here for well over 40,000 years, but there is also archaeological evidence that they were not the first Australians, and that they displaced a population which existed here long before they arrived.

 

The Aboriginal people are first and foremost survivors. They have adapted to many changes over their long history and they will, in the end, survive the coming of the white man.

 

Some people to this day, insist that the colonisation of Australia was not an invasion, so I will leave the final words on the matter to James Stirling himself who wrote the following in a report in 1827:

 

'They seemed angry at our invasion of their territory.'

 

 

 

 

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