Effects of Colonialism on Australian Aborigines

By: Mimi Frei

Australia, although not the smallest, least populated, or least interesting country in the world, gets less national recognition than almost any other. On the rare occasion that it is mentioned in the media, it’s more often than not about a bush fire, or another rare endangered species. Within this forgotten country, there are even more forgotten people. They are the ones who have inhabited Australia since before there were people anywhere else on Earth, other than the original spawning point in Africa. For 50,000+ years these indigenous people have resided on the most forgotten place on Earth and become more and more forgotten themselves. Although there have been more recent efforts to bring their story into the public eye, Australian Aboriginals have received arguably the worst treatment out of any indigenous groups in history.

All of their persecution and mistreatment stems back to British colonization of Australia. In the year 1770, Captain Cook and his team from England landed in Australia and claimed it under the British flag. After the ‘discovery’ of Australia, the English began their colonization of the country by sending their convicts there. Before this time, they had been using America’s 13 Colonies to contain these prisoners, but after the American Revolution this was no longer a possibility. Within 60 years following the initial ‘discovery’ of Australia, the British sent over 160,000 convicts to the country (National Archive). There is no official record of how many aborigines were living on the land at the time, but the Aboriginal Heritage Office estimates it to be around 750,000 people. This means that after British interference, Australia’s population was now 21% prisoners brought in from other countries (National Archive). When a civilization is already as small and fragmented as the original Australians were, a percentage like that takes quite a toll on the behaviors of a population.

Before being colonized by the British, Australian aboriginals were separated into tribes along the coasts. The tribes who first interacted with the English were the groups throughout the Sydney Basin. These tribes did not share conflict between one another because there was plenty of habitable land and resources to share. However, once the British starting exploiting their land, food sources were depleted, land was appointed ownership, and fresh water was polluted. This led to more conflict between tribes and between the natives and British, as well as a reduction in population within the Sydney Basin tribes.

Another threat to these aboriginal groups were the diseases brought over by the colonists. Because the Australians had been so isolated for so long, their immune systems had absolutely no exposure to diseases like small pox and influenza. Like seen in so many aboriginal stories from across the globe, the British brought those illnesses to the island, which devastated native populations. Less than a year after colonization, half of the Sydney Basin tribes had died from small pox (Aboriginal Heritage). The effects of colonialism had already taken a massive toll not even a year in and it was absolutely no coincidence.

At this time the British already had a reputation of systematically conquering and destroying land. Examples can be made from Ireland, who suffered so deeply from the Potato Famine because of British involvement, or lack thereof. The genocide seen in Australia was not a one-time occurrence, or an unlucky set of circumstances for the Aboriginals. It was a form of systematic oppression by the British empire that would be repeated through history.

Over time Australia became more of a resource to the British. While they were still using it primarily as a holding place for prisoners, they also saw the value of having ports in the Pacific. The geography of Australia allowed for a prosperous economy so more and more people began to immigrate there. The more inhabited Australia became, the worse treatment the aboriginals received. This type of progression has been seen many times throughout history. For example with American natives, once white settlers start moving in, indigenous people are expected to move out. Aborigines were rounded up, murdered, and tortured by the new settlers. They were shot, driven off cliffs, and even lured into comradery and then poisoned by the colonists. As has been seen in history time and time again, the settlers continued massacring people who they saw as less than themselves. It was not under any sort of special circumstances that these murders happened. It was a direct result of colonialism within the country from an empire with a history of destroying cultures across the globe. The genocide of indigenous Australian people does not get the recognition it warrants. These massacres, beginning in the 1780s, did not end until the 1920s. Some of these events even happened under governmental directions in an attempt to eradicate aboriginals from the country through to the 18th century (Australian Museum). In these cases, indigenous people were either outrightly murdered, or died in police custody over a longer period. Once a police force was established by colonists in Australia, things got worse for the already oppressed aboriginals.

The George Floyd murder from the summer of 2020 helped bring to light the police brutality that Australian aboriginals face in their lives. A particular story about an aboriginal man in 2015 who died in prison in Sydney has many parallels to Floyd’s. David Dungay was pinned down by officers, shot with a sedative, and then suffocated by officers in the prison in an attempt to restrain him from eating a biscuit (BBC). In addition to the heightened brutality that aboriginals experience while in prison, they also have twelve times the chance of being incarcerated than white Australians (BBC). While in 2021 aboriginal people only make up 3% of the national population, they make up 29% of the prison population. Because of years of racism and segregation, many of these indigenous people do not have the funds to afford good representation in court, or money to post bail. Once they are inevitably convicted and put into the prison system, most aboriginals experience neglect and/or violence by the guards.

Among all of the other injustices that these indigenous people face, possibly the worst comes from the Aborigines Protection Act. Originally enacted to regulate the lives of aborigines, an amendment added to the act in 1915 made it one of the most inhumane governing documents ever. The additions onto the act gave the Aborigines Protection Board the power to “remove such child to such control and care as it thinks best” (APPA). A government program had the authority to take children away from their parents just because they were aborigines. This disgusting display of power removed children from their families and put them into apprenticeships, institutions, or white households to ‘give them a better chance’. Aboriginal authorities estimate somewhere around 100,000 children were kidnapped from their homes; these children became known as the Stolen Generations. Children living in the governmental institutions often experienced mental, physical, and sexual abuse, resulting in higher rates of mental health diseases and suicide. To this day there are still members of the Stolen Generations that have not been reunited with their families (Australians Together). It wasn’t until 1969 that this act was abolished, and not until 2008 when the Australian government made any kind of apology for this crisis. This is just another example of how aborigines are being left behind by society.

The Stolen Generations crisis was a result of Australian government attempted to eliminate any aborigine culture from Australia. This exemplifies some of DuBois’ ideas on race. He said that because colonialists saw whiteness as the ideal, anything other than that was less than ideal. The aborigines were less than the ideal, and so in order to create a ‘better’ civilization, those impurities had to be weeded out. The basis behind the Stolen Generations was that removing them from their indigenous culture and forcing them to assimilate to white culture would lead to the death of aborigines as a political concept.

Australia’s aborigines have endured more abuse, discrimination, and de-humanization than almost any other indigenous group in the world. These people have literally been on planet Earth longer than anyone other than the very first humans, and yet the land they’ve had claimed since prehistoric times is taken away from them. Not only is their land taken, but their right to inhabit it. Their basic human rights are stolen in prison systems, their children ripped away, and their culture disrespected and unappreciated by the government they are forced to live under. Colonialism in Australia is what led to the death of Aborigine culture and genocide of their people. It is because of that initial conquest that indigenous Australians are to this day are having to fight to close the ever-growing gap between themselves and white Australians. Recent years have brought more of their struggles to light and therefore there is more and more action being taken to preserve aboriginal history, but nothing can take back what they were put through, simply because of their skin and culture.

Works Cited

A Brief Aboriginal History, https://www.aboriginalheritage.org/history/history/.

“Learning Curve British Empire.” The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/empire/g1/cs4/background.htm.

Mao, Frances. “Why Aboriginal People Are Still Dying in Police Custody.” BBC News, BBC, 15 Apr. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-56728328.

Sentance, Author(s) Nathan. “Genocide in Australia.” The Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/first-nations/genocide-in-australia/.

“The Stolen Generation.” Australians Together, https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/stolen-generations.

Mimi Frei

Mimi Frei is Altamont class of 23'.

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