Marxist Interventions

‘Difficult to get into a black-fellow’s head’

Black resistance in colonial Australia

This summarises the work of other historians, most importantly Henry Reynolds, whose books are now the indispensable starting point for any study of black-white contact and conflict in the Australian colonies. I wrote this as part of a wider project, now abandoned. It’s pieced together out of several draft chapters, and may therefore be a bit jerky. I have no special expertise in this area and would welcome criticism, but I thought it would be useful to provide this text online as an introduction to the topic. - Tom O’Lincoln.

Across a vast stretch of northern Australia, extending at least from Borroloola to the Kimberley, Aborigines tell the tale of a murderous white man. He stands for whites in general, and is cast as an invader. According to Hobbles Danaiyairi, a Yarralin man in the Northern Territory, he is ‘shooting all the people’ as part of ‘getting ready for the country, trying to take it away.’ He ‘should have asked’ … but of course he didn’t. He began in Sydney, progressed to Darwin, later returning to Britain but sending others after him; different versions have him travelling elsewhere, kidnapping or killing the inhabitants. In his greed, violence and dishonesty this figure represents European law as seen through black eyes. (Rose 25-35)

The white man is Captain Cook, European "discoverer" of Australia. The Aboriginal saga carries a message for everybody, since the violence and coercive power of the state is decisive in shaping any new capitalist society. Because the rise of capitalism benefits only a tiny minority, they must impose it on everyone else.

In Britain, whence the first white settlers came to this continent, enclosures were driving farmers off the land. As they joined the urban labour force, arrogant bosses and new police forces broke them to the discipline of daily factory work. When their frustrations found an outlet in drunkenness, unruliness or crime amidst the squalor of the new industrial cities, the state stepped in to restore order and protect the property of the rich. Behind every aspect of capitalist development stood the magistrates, the police, the hangmen and the jailers, indispensable in carving a work force out of rebellious human material.

A hundred years’ war begins

The white settlers had invaded a world quite unlike their own. The black people who had inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years had a different relationship to their physical environment, and different relationships to each other. They lived in relative harmony with the land, plants and animals, which is not to say that this was an undifferentiated ‘hunter-gathering’ economy. The indigenous peoples’ economies and settlement patterns were diverse. Population densities varied widely, and while some survived from hunting and gathering, there were also the Dharuk who cultivated yams along the Hawkesbury River, while along the Murray the Yota-Yota and others ‘had developed such sustained harvesting of the rich fish, game and plants there that they lived virtually sedentary lives in villages which were observed by the earliest white explorers.’ Grassland dwellers used firestick farming and on the Darling River, ‘engineering works like the extensive Brewarrina fisheries were constructed to maintain a consistent yield of fish no matter how dry or flooded the rivers might be.’ (Goodall 11-12)

But while the notion that Aborigines ‘did nothing with the land’ was nonsense, the social context was very different. Association with the land was more a matter of key sites than the sharp boundaries that white property-owners enforced. Whites misunderstood this and took it to imply there was no fixed relationship at all. In reality social relations were expressed through relations to land, while knowledge and tradition were closely linked to location. Work was also different. Blacks often worked until they had enough for their immediate needs, then turned to ritual or social activities which they considered just as useful. The capitalist imperative to work and accumulate wealth as ends in themselves did not drive their lives.

Social organisation was relatively egalitarian. Certainly some people had special status, and males and females assumed different roles. However nothing in those customs resembled the entrenched subordination of women typical of European societies, and class divisions were unheard of. Each clan had its territory and clashes might occur at the margins, but territorial conquest was virtually unknown, since ties to specific territories were not conceived in terms of ‘ownership’, let alone capital accumulation. No wonder the whole idea of some people dominating and exploiting others struck them as irrational and tragic when they encountered it among the whites. They had well-defined identities around language and location, but no notion of nationality or race, and upon deciding after some initial doubts, that the European settlers were human, tended to regard them as people like themselves who had developed curious customs and acquired an odd skin colour. They often tried to fit the whites into their kinship systems. It was the invaders who taught them what tragic divisions racism could bring.

Early contacts at Sydney Cove seem to have been largely friendly, and there are reports of amicable relations between explorers and blacks in other parts of the continent. We are told that Phillip was well-disposed towards Aborigines and that he tried to apprehend a white convict who killed one. But the local blacks soon learned that when basic issues were at stake, the whites would use brutal force against them, as the colonial authorities did against their own lower class.

Almost immediately the new arrivals sowed the seeds of conflict, over control and use of the land and natural environment. The first fleet having brought only limited supplies, the colonists had to exploit the surrounding landscape. When a party set off to clear the ground to channel water, its leaders noted that ‘the natives were well pleased with our People until they began clearing the Ground at which they were displeased’ and that some Aborigines were enraged at the sight of convicts cutting down trees. (Quoted in Grimshaw et al: 22) The blacks themselves sometimes cut down trees, for example to make canoes. But they had noticed the whites doing something quite different and seemingly irrational: piling up logs and stones, clearing large tracts, erecting unwieldy structures. It was their first experience of that drive to accumulate wealth that was to transform the continent.

In the early stages, however, the capitalist dynamic of the colony was still uncertain. Officially, it was intended to be no more than a prison with a periphery of small farms, expanding but only slowly. The rapid growth of pastoralism and the conquest of the continent were still distant prospects, so relations between black and white were still ambiguous.

The early Governors and other white leaders had hopes of assimilating the blacks into the new society. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Enlightenment philosophy suggested that all races were equally intelligent, with cultural differences stemming from environmental causes. Aborigines might in fact turn out to be Noble Savages (though nevertheless intended for a fairly low rung of the social ladder). Such ideas coexisted with a Christian humanitarianism which appealed to some settlers until it came up against economic self interest.

So schemes were hatched to bring blacks into a ‘civilised’ environment; this was the first Stolen Generation. Phillip arranged the kidnapping of five Kooris (including the famous Benelong) aiming to acquaint them with white ways and use them as intermediaries. In 1789, Lt David Collins wrote of the colonists’ mission as ‘establishing civilisation in the savage world; by animating the children of idleness and vice to habits of laborious and honest industry...’ (in King: 120) Perhaps, some thought, they could be used as wage labourers. At times the white authorities tried to exercise restraint in the interests of good feeling.

It was all a fantasy, since there was no logical reason why the Kooris should acquiesce in the theft of their land. Collins sounds idiotic complaining after one clash that ‘we had not yet been able to reconcile the natives to the deprivation of those parts of this harbour we occupied’. Since conflict was inevitable, it was equally inevitable that it should spread since, as Phillip himself recognised, you couldn’t crush black resistance without punishing the innocent along with the ‘guilty’. When the black warrior Pemulwuy speared Phillip’s gamekeeper, the Governor ordered punitive expeditions with the aim of infusing ‘universal terror’. (Both quoted in Reynolds, Frontier: 36)

Even the friendliest contacts contained the seeds of conflict and oppression. Benelong, along with his wife Bangaroo, had the privilege of dining at Government House and sought to establish some sort of kinship relation with the whites. Yet this had begun with a kidnapping. Moreover, three of the five blacks who were kidnapped as part of a strategy to improve communications subsequently died, which convinced the Aborigines to avoid contact with whites as much as possible. Bangaroo hoped ‘to give her child a future in a world where so many Aboriginal clans had been destroyed by the [1789] small pox epidemic, and where the British, who had some sort of power over this illness, now dominated.’ (Grimshaw et al: 11) This is the crucial point about the epidemic, often ignored in debates over whether Europeans or Macassan traders introduced the disease: either way it weakened the blacks and entrenched the power of the whites.

Watkin Tench’s journal records that after convicts tried to attack some Aborigines, Phillip ordered the offenders flogged. Arbanoo, one of the kidnapped Kooris, ‘was present at the infliction of the punishment; and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on this occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only.’ (Quoted in King: 115) Even where the aim was supposedly justice for the blacks, they were more likely to be repulsed than heartened by the Europeans’ grotesque cruelty towards members of their own lower orders.

This pattern -- vague paternalistic-humanitarian notions and ineffectual attempts at assimilation, undermined by the inherent logic of an invading force seizing territory -- prevailed until the 1820s. Lachlan Macquarie sometimes recognised that Aboriginal attacks were caused by ‘Provocation or Aggression’ and hoped that better treatment would soon bring them into ‘Civilisation’. (Quoted in Grimshaw et al: 61) To this end he set up a Native Institution to educate Aboriginal children and allowed a few blacks to farm. By 1816, after clashes along the Hawkesbury, he was already taking a harder line, issuing a proclamation restricting the blacks’ freedom of movement, their right to assemble and carry weapons, and even to settle disputes in traditional ways. In return, however, they were to receive passports, protection by the white authorities, some access to land, an opportunity to work for the settlers. Still hopeful that they could be turned into proletarians, he called on them to ‘relinquish their wandering, idle and predatory habits of life to become useful and industrious members of a community.’ (Quoted in K Fry: 45) He followed this up with the first of a series of Aboriginal Congresses, at which he singled out prominent males to become chiefs and paraded the children from the Native Institution.

But none of this could work. Even where the authorities sought to restrain white violence, the dispersed nature of settlement frustrated them. The settlers carried guns and didn’t hesitate to use them. Moreover, it was not unusual for Governors faced with appeals for military support to tell settlers to take matters into their own hands. Macquarie himself announced that if blacks displayed weapons or refused to leave settlers’ properties, they were to be ‘driven away by force of arms by the settlers themselves...’ (Quoted in Reynolds, Frontier: 39) So it is not surprising that on the Hawkesbury the settlers used the passport system to harass and sometimes murder blacks.

Where Aborigines of either sex found roles in white society, they were a source of misery and humiliation. Even where they were lent a touch of glamour or prestige it only served to reinforce their status as curiosities at the social margins, as when John Macarthur rode to a ball at Government House with his Aboriginal bodyguard in gaudy uniforms. Small wonder blacks drifted away from these roles, whenever they were no longer desperate for the economic benefits that went with them.

While some of the Native Institution’s pupils did very well at their studies, they eventually turned their backs on white culture. By the end of the 1820s, the Macquarie’s Aboriginal Congresses had declined to a rump affair, because the black populations of the area themselves were in decline as the settlers marched beyond the Sydney region with their livestock, their diseases and their guns. The rapid growth of a capitalist economy after 1820, particularly the pastoral industry driven by British industry’s insatiable demand for wool, now began to transform a localised, erratic conflict into a genocidal ‘100 years’ war’.

Although early relations between black and white in Van Diemen’s Land are poorly documented, what we know provides a similar picture. A clash on the Derwent in 1804 seems to have been the whites’ fault, judging from comments by David Collins, who was there and who worried that Aborigines would now consider all whites their enemies. In 1808 the government declared that anyone attacking Aborigines would be prosecuted, but nobody was. Even if they had wanted to, the authorities could not control every settler, let alone the bushrangers, who sometimes collaborated with the blacks but more often cruelly abused them. To the north, meanwhile, sealers routinely abducted black women for slave labour. In 1819 Governor Sorrell issued a proclamation after outrages committed near the Plenty River where settlers had kidnapped two black children. He argued that the blacks were peaceful, saying they could not be blamed for responding violently under such circumstances. He then ordered the children transferred from the settlers’ hands, not back to their own people, but to his government, as if that were a happy ending.

Until the twenties, however, the white settlements were tiny. As on the mainland, systematic warfare against the indigenous people only got under way when the capitalist economy began to boom in the twenties and thirties. (On Van Dieman’s Land see Robson, ch 3)

Since the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations, a debate has raged over whether to call the founding of New South Wales ‘settlement’ or an ‘invasion’. Of course it was an invasion; what else do you call seizing someone’s country by force? But there is also an organic link between the two aspects, and this is an important part of understanding the killing and the racism. Settlement necessarily meant the violent destruction of traditional Aboriginal society precisely because the conflict was more than a race war. It was also a conflict between two incompatible modes of production and the cultures that accompanied them. Capitalism could not flourish without crushing the resistance of people who wanted to live differently, in every corner of the globe. Private property, wage labour and the drive to accumulate capital were incompatible with Aboriginal society.

Fighting capitalism

The economic dynamic of NSW was uncertain until around 1820. From that time on, the economy began to grow based on the export of wool for British industry. Thus capital accumulation was driven from quite early on by the needs of global capitalism. To run sheep, of course, required more and more land. Consequently the Aborigines experienced at first hand a fundamental truth of the age, that ‘what happened to land determined the life and death of most human beings in the years 1789 to 1848.’ (Hobsbawn: 180). It was the local settlers who drove them off the land; yet their dispossession ultimately flowed from industrialisation in Britain itself. In fact they had something in common with Celtic clans forced off communal lands in the Scottish highlands to make way for capitalist sheep runs, after which Celtic bards lamented that ‘nothing was heard but the bleating of sheep and the voices of English speakers’. (Quoted in Reynolds, Frontier: 193.)

Nothing could stop this conquest driven by the imperatives of capital accumulation. Governor George Gipps might still, in the tradition of earlier Governors, spout ineffectual sentiments about the plight of the blacks; but when he first met G.A. Robinson, the recently appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines, he told him bluntly that ‘nothing was to interfere with the improvement of the colony’. He held up publication of a well-meaning but vague proclamation asking colonists to show kindness towards the blacks for well over a year because of pressure from the landowners. (Quoted in Reynolds, Frontier: 41; on the proclamation see Foster)

Shepherds in such widely separated locales as Port Phillip and the infant Swan River settlement routinely carried guns, and had ‘the appearance of soldiers on duty’. (Reynolds, Frontier: 14.) On some stations women carried firearms as well as men. There was sometimes even an atmosphere of paranoia in the towns about attacks by Aboriginal raiders; in 1832, drunken idlers discharging firearms set off a panic in Perth.

This was a process of settlement, but it was also an invasion. One small town pioneer wrote in 1869 that his community ‘had its foundations cemented in blood’, and an early historian added that ‘every acre in these districts was won from the Aborigines by bloodshed and warfare’. A third 19th Century commentator remarked: ‘In the first place the meeting of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia and the white pioneer, results as a rule in war, which lasts from six months to ten years...’ (All three quoted in Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: 50) The consequences of the fighting, compounded by other forms of violence, disease and impoverishment, added up to genocide, and there were those among the whites capable of recognising it. Richard Bligh, who became a Commissioner for Crown Lands in 1847, heard and initially accepted tales of black ‘outrages’ against whites. But by 1849 he had learnt better, recognising that Aboriginal actions were in response to white attacks, and that the blame must be laid ‘fearfully against the white population’. (Goodall: 32)

The 1838 Myall Creek massacre exemplified the violence of the white advance as well as the contradictions of the invading society. After a dozen white men killed thirty blacks at the Myall Creek station on the Gwydir River, eleven of the whites, all convicts, faced prosecution and seven went to the gallows. The other, a pastoralist’s son, was not arrested. The remarkable fact that any whites were punished points to the trial’s peculiar political function. It placed the blame for frontier violence on the shoulders of convicts rather than free settlers; the more liberal elements among the authorities could congratulate themselves on their compassion and on the impartiality of the law; and at the same time the event distracted attention from another set of killings authorised around the same time by Major James Nunn. Nunn was of course acquitted. The settlers, meanwhile, switched to using poisoned flour, something nearly impossible to prove in court.

In 1795 the NSW Corps had smashed the Dharuk warriors in a battle near Richmond Hill on the Hawkesbury; two years later they inflicted a major defeat on the Eora at Parramatta. Even so it was only after the death of the black leader Pemulwye in 1802 that serious armed resistance came to an end. And while this broke the back of resistance in the Sydney region, it was only the opening act in a ‘100 Years’ War’ which saw successive Aboriginal clans wiped out or driven from their land.

After the defeat of the Dharuk and Eora, fighting subsided for about 15 years until pastoralism took off west of the Blue Mountains. Then determined resistance by the Wiradjuri people in the Bathurst area forced Governor Brisbane to declare martial law and send extra troops before the Aborigines were beaten in 1824. In the 1820s fighting also raged along the Hunter River, and by the end of the 1830s a sort of war frontier stretched from northern New South Wales to western Victoria. Shaken by terrible defeats, the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi clans in this region formed an unprecedented alliance and used a co-ordinated strategy against the invader, with some temporary success.

In Van Dieman’s Land, conflict between black and white had been sporadic before the 1820s, but systematic war against the Tasmanian clans began after whites set about carving out large tracts of land for farming and sheep runs. Sheep numbers in the island colony were around 436,000 in 1827, rising to 680,000 three years later; by 1836 they were approaching a million. (Robson: 260) There was no room for Aborigines in this capitalist landscape, yet they fought back.

In the early 1920s, a Koori from the Hawkesbury named Musquito led a band of Tasmanian Aborigines against the whites. He had earlier helped to track down the famous bushranger Michael Howe, but then discovered that the authorities had no intention of keeping promises to send him home. Despised and taunted by white convicts, he turned to local blacks and shared his knowledge of white society and technology. ‘Indeed, so skillfully planned were Aboriginal raids and so unified were their military tactics that many Europeans insisted they were being led by a white man.’ (Wise: 4) Mosquito became a fearsome symbol for whites; when eventually caught, he was framed on a murder charge and hanged.

By 1827, with sheep numbers mounting, Arthur’s military began providing systematic support to settlers. Though acknowledging that whites were the initial aggressors, Arthur nevertheless moved a year later to declare martial law. The concept meant nothing to the Aborigines, but it created the climate for an all-out attack by the whites.

Among the black resistance fighters was Walyer of Emu Bay. Like Musquito she knew something of the whites, having been a captive of the sealers and seen two of her brothers killed. She escaped and returned to her people, leading them in last-ditch attacks on white settlers. Walyer ‘was said to stand on a hill and give orders to the Aborigines when to attack the whites’; she also ‘boasted to the other women how she taught the Aborigines to load and fire off a musket, and instructed them how to kill plenty of Europeans ...’ (Robson: 227 and 238) When banished to Penguin Island she tried to kill her captors en route. Finally she was sent to the ‘Friendly Mission’ on Swan Island, where she again tried to organise a revolt before dying of influenza in 1831. But no amount of cleverness or bravery could stem the onslaught. Although Arthur’s attempt to capture the remaining Aborigines by marshalling the colonists in a long ‘Black Line’ sweeping the island ended in comic failure, the growth of white capitalism ensured the blacks’ demise.

As the Aborigines began to understand the economic basis of white society, they waged economic warfare to undermine it, raiding livestock and attacking loaded drays in an attempt to starve out the more isolated settlements. They targeted horses, having seen how the whites depended on them. They used fire. Pioneers were driven off stations all over the continent at one time or another. When Thomas Mitchell was exploring northern NSW in the 1840s he wrote of one district where ‘humiliating proofs that the white man had given way were visible in the remains of dairies burnt down, stockyards in ruins, untrodden roads’. (Quoted in Reynolds, Frontier: 22)

These tactics assisted the Wiradjuri in driving the settlers out of the lower Murrumbidgee (they allowed one friendly white couple to remain), no small achievement given half of the local black population had been wiped out by smallpox some years before. But within two years the white settlers had struck back, using poisoned food and water as well as armed force. The Aborigines were too fragmented and lacked the technology to win the ‘Hundred Years’ War’, particularly as their numbers began to decline and ever greater numbers of whites arrived on the continent. The last great stand made by black warriors was that of the Kalkadoons around Mount Isa in the ten years up to 1884, a year which saw their destruction by white troops at Battle Mountain.

Everywhere the frontier had ‘opened’ with violence. To ‘close’ it required strategies to consolidate domination and exploitation. In this, God became an ally.

Aborigines were relatively immune to missionary activity as long as they could move away from whites, or even maintain elements of their culture as fringe dwellers. ‘It was therefore no coincidence that it was in Van Dieman’s Land, at a time when three long years of martial law ... were breaking Aboriginal resistance and every inch of fertile land had been sought out by pastoralists and farmers, that the Aboriginal people were obliged to submit themselves to the missionary experience.’ (Kociumbas: 147) At the same time the authorities, having recognised that the blacks had no enthusiasm for assimilation into the capitalist economy, concluded that Christianisation would have to precede integration. This was the ideological background to the relocation of blacks to Flinders Island, though the practical objective in most settlers’ minds was simply to get them out of the way.

The last Tasmanian Aborigines accepted transfer to Flinders Island in 1833, on the basis of terms negotiated during G.A. Robinson’s ‘Friendly Mission’ to the west and northwest coasts. The terms apparently included promises that the exile would be temporary, or at least that the exiles would have the right to visit their native districts; these (along with commitments about living and working conditions), were not fulfilled until disease and demoralization had killed off many of the blacks. There was some resistance. In 1837 a group of women who had previously been involved with sealers, and so were more experienced in dealing with whites, tried to challenge Robinson’s authority. Later, in 1847 the survivors addressed a petition protesting against hardships imposed by one of the white superintendents, Henry Jeanneret. It was the first written document of black protest in Australian history. (See Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, chapter 1.)

The Aboriginal clans resisted white settlement out of a struggle for survival, but also in an attempt to maintain their traditional relationship with the land, and out of hostility to the oppressive and exploitative aspects of the invading society. This hostility was sometimes quite explicit. In 1843 two blacks intent on attacking a sheep station ‘approached a hutkeeper near Glendon and asked for the property owner. When told he was mustering sheep in another part of his property, they then enquired if the hutkeeper was a convict or a free settler. The hutkeeper replied that he was a former convict. He was then told by the Kooris that it was fortunate for him, because he was forced to come to their lands and was not like the free settler who came and took over the land and gave the Kooris nothing in return.’ (Miller: 51) Similarly a pioneer squatter told in 1861 of a case where blacks killed a bullock then ‘advanced on the hut of the beleaguered squatter with the animal’s kidney fat stuck on their spears. They called out to the whites offering them a share of the fat saying "that they were not like the whites themselves -- greedy."’ (Quoted in Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier 56-7)

Since Aborigines traditionally shared the fruits of their labour, they had difficulty understanding the European approach to private property. ‘Their system of socialism’, lamented a Queensland clergyman, was a barrier to progress because it hindered ‘any improvement or rightful ownership.’ The cultural differences were especially great when it came to the land, which the indigenous people did not see themselves as ‘owning’ in the capitalist sense. A plantation owner who used black labour complained that there was ‘no means by which I could persuade them into sudden acceptance of a daily routine of toil’, and in WA, Governor Hutt thought black attitudes to labour were the ‘chief and serious difficulty’ preventing assimilation. ‘Nothing’, commented a woman settler from New England, ‘can really repay them for performing any labour beyond that necessary to procure them enough game to enable them to exist from day to day’. When blacks did work on her property, ‘they all looked on working for us as a personal favour, and gave us to understand as much’. It was partly in an attempt to socialize black children into ‘a habit of labour’ that schemes were hatched as early as 1840 to separate them from their parents. Blacks also refused to accept the inequalities of white society. A Victorian clergyman wrote that it was ‘difficult to get into a black-fellow’s head that one man is higher than another’. If individual black workers were paid more for greater efficiency, they immediately shared the payment with kin. (All quotes in Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: 117, 118, 119)

Initially the Aborigines did not see the conflict with white colonists in racial terms. Whites were treated as just another clan, or set of clans. Since payback killings were traditional between clans, if a black was killed they would kill a white, thinking friendly relations could then resume. Whites at another location would not be the object of black hostility and the Aborigines expected Europeans to adopt a similar attitude. In discussing one battle, the Western Australian Advocate-General commented that previously local blacks had believed Europeans would be ‘content if we took a corresponding number of lives to those taken by them’, until a massive onslaught by whites had caused ‘the complete annihilation of this idea’. In the wake of such experiences Aborigines began to see the conflict as one between all whites and all blacks, concluding ‘that white people were mutually accountable for each others’ actions and therefore fit subjects for Aboriginal attack. Colour alone was now enough to identify the enemy.’ (Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: 62-3)

Of course not all black people waged such resistance. Given the debilitating effects of violence and disease, many weren’t capable of physically confronting the invaders. Some turned to sorcery. Others looked for ways to co-exist and gain benefits from the emerging white society. The seeming alternative to the ‘Pemulwuy option’ of open defiance was the ‘Benelong option’ of seeking a place in the new social order. As for the white authorities, by and large they claimed to seek assimilation. South Australian Governor Hindmarsh told the local clans: ‘We wish to make you happy. But you cannot be happy unless you imitate good white men. Build huts, wear clothes, work and be useful.’ (Quoted in Summers: 296)

Yet it was not so easy. For a start, even this option was often linked to coercion and violence. John Batman kidnapped two Tasmanian boys from their parents and insisted on keeping them, saying they were ‘as much his property as his farm’. (Quoted in Reynolds, With the White People: 166) More commonly, however, blacks actively looked for ways to gain advantages from the whites without surrendering too much of their independence.

Some began eating European food, became dependent on tobacco or alcohol, or sought access to tools such as metal axes. To obtain these things they accepted, often just temporarily, the need to wear clothes or to work for whites. Away from white settlements they would remove the clothes, and once they had toiled enough to get things they needed, they would work no longer. Sometimes they would beg or steal -- at least, that is how the whites viewed it. From the black point of view, sharing was traditional, and anyway the invaders owed them something for taking the land.

Another option was the activity Europeans called prostitution. Initially black women had slept with white men on the basis of customs of Aboriginal hospitality, expecting a similar response by white women. This never came, and the brutal realities of unequal relations soon became more apparent, often enough in the form of rape. Blacks sometimes responded pragmatically: by sleeping with white men, Aboriginal women could secure sufficient payment to ensure survival or modest comfort for their clans. Some also chose, or were forced, to live with white men. The full costs of these liaisons -- disease and social dislocation -- were only gradually understood.

Venereal disease killed many blacks and reduced the fertility of others; this in clans already hard hit by other infectious diseases. At the same time, black women’s partial and contradictory integration into European social and sexual patterns disrupted those of the Aborigines. Reduced availability of young females meant black men had trouble finding partners, and the position of older men who had traditionally married young women was shaken -- at a time when white seizure of hunting lands undermined black men’s economic role.

Notwithstanding all these horrors, the black resistance was by no means entirely futile. They held enough ground to force the British authorities to address the issue. After the ending of slavery in 1833, humanitarians in the home country were turning their attention to indigenous people in the colonies just as reports about massacres of Aborigines reached London. Under British pressure, colonial governments began to intervene. NSW established a Protectorate for Aborigines, with blacks’ land and cultural interests and hunting practice being recognised for the first time. These measures were limited and paternalistic, but significant as a partial recognition of what today we know as Land Rights.

References

Works by Henry Reynolds:
The Other Side of the Frontier, An Interpretation of the Aboriginal Response to the Invasion and Settlement of Australia, James Cook University, Townsville, 1981.
With the White People, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990.
Fate of a Free People: A Radical Re-Examination of the Tasmanian Wars, Penguin, Melbourne, 1995.
Frontier, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987.

Other:
Bell, Diane, Daughters of the Dreaming, McPhee Gribble/Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990.
Fry, Ken, Beyond the Barrier, Class Formation in a Pastoral Society, Bathurst 1818-1848, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1993.
Goodall, Heather, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1872, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996.
Grassby, Al and Hill, Marji, Six Australian Battlefields, The Black Resistance of Invasion and the White Struggle Against Colonial Oppression, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988.
Grimshaw, Patricia et al, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1994.
Hobsbawm, E.J., The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Mentor, New York, 1962.
King, Jonathan (ed), The First Settlement: The Convict Village that Founded Australia 1788-90, MacMillan, Melbourne, 1984.
Kociumbas, Jan, The Oxford History of Australia, Vol 2, 1770-1860, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991.
Miller, James, Koori: A Will to Win, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1985.
Robinson, Feargus and York, Barry, The Black Resistance, Maryborough, 1977.
Robson, Lloyd, A History of Tasmania, Vol 1, Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times to 1855, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1983.
Rose, Deborah Bird, ‘The Saga of Captain Cook: Morality in Aboriginal and European Law’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 1984.
Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonisation of Women in Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1975.
Wise, Christine, ‘Black Rebel: Musquito’, in Fry, Eric (ed), Rebels & Radicals, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983.

Back to opening page