Faculty of Arts Department of English
and American Studies English Language and Literature
Aboriginals under the White Supremacy
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: PhDr. Jitka Vlčková, Ph.D.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor, PhDr. Jitka Vlčková, Ph.D.,
for her kind help, valuable advice and guidance of my work.
Table of Contents
Colonial Australia: Terra Nullius and Other Myths 3
Intercultural Clash: ‘Noble Savages’ vs. Sophisticated White 14
The Changes of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century 22
The Stolen Generations: Effects and Consequences 30
Coming to Terms with the Past 38
Works Cited 47
Resumé (Česky) 51
Résumé (English) 52
"There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land."
Euripides, 431 B.C
Aboriginals1 lived in peace on their own land for about 40,000 years until the white conquerors came, stole their land, slaughtered them without any punishment and destroyed their culture and traditional way of life. The oldest living culture in the world was overrun by the world’s greatest empire and the Indigenous people suffered under the white dominance ever since.
The social position of Aboriginals deteriorated considerably after the colonisation of Australia. Thus to fully comprehend their contemporary situation it is essential to concentrate on the primary causes. As Garth Nettheim points out “primary causes lie in the history of the colonisation and settlement of Australia, of which contemporary disadvantage is legacy (7).” The history of colonisation needs to be addressed as well as the subsequent devastation of Aboriginal culture, their resilience and struggle to achieve equality and cultural recognition in order to understand the present and shape the future.
The main aim of this thesis is to analyse the devastating consequences of the British invasion and to examine current social position of Aboriginals. Even though their social position is slowly improving, the practices and legislations imposed on them still have an immense influence on their life. To do so, the most significant political changes and historical events of the Australian history will be analysed. Moreover, this thesis also aims to take into consideration how the changes are reflected in selected films: Alinta: The Flame (1984), Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Samson and Delilah (2009).
Furthermore, the reason for the analysis of the selected films is that the portrayal of Aboriginals in films is related to their historical representations and thus reflects reality. The film Alinta: The Flame describes the first contact between Aboriginals and European settlers and the fatal consequences of their arrival. Moreover, the film highlights the unique customs and culture of Aborigines and mainly the differences between Indigenous and European cultures. Rabbit Proof Fence deals directly with the policy of forcible removal of children, however, it also presents the effects of this policy on the future life of the main characters. Samson and Delilah presents major social problems regarding contemporary Aboriginal society – poverty, social dysfunction, oppression, unemployment and petrol sniffing. The goal this thesis is to examine whether any differences or improvements can be observed in their way of life after the path to reconciliation begun and first steps were taken.
This thesis will also seek to indicate the direction in which the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations develop and change the Australian society. Despite the fact that some steps towards better living conditions of Aboriginals were undertaken the shared future is predicated upon mutual respect and equality. The constitutional recognition will remain only an empty gesture unless the efficacy is guaranteed. The European invaders destroyed Aboriginal culture in several decades and it will take not decades but merely centuries to redress the past errors. It will not happen overnight.
I would like to point out that the two hundred years of the Aboriginal struggle against the superior white culture is such a broad topic that it is impossible to cover everything within the scope of my thesis; therefore only some aspects of this rich history will be covered.
Colonial Australia: Terra Nullius and Other Myths
Contemporary life is always shaped by history and culture. To understand the living conditions of Indigenous Australians, a historical and cultural background is essential. Australia was settled without serious consideration of prior ownership rights of its Indigenous peoples2. Since white people first came to Australia in 1788, Indigenous people have experienced displacement, been the targets of oppressive policies and practices and had families destroyed through the forcible removal of children. They still continue to face the stresses of living in a racist world that systematically devalues Indigenous culture (Dudgeon et al. 25-38). The colonisation of Australia has profoundly changed the life of the Indigenous people in many ways. However, the changes were not for the better, but mainly for the worse. Aboriginal people were regarded as unequal by the European settlers ever since. Many Aboriginal lives were lost and the land was taken from them as the European invaders attempted to impose new social, economic and religious values (Reynolds 86).
There has been prevailing ignorance and exclusion of Indigenous Australians since colonisation. Historians either ignored the Aborigines or dismissed them as a part of ‘prehistory’. Aborigines were not considered part of the white colonial history and historians, social commentators and also public consciousness paid little heed to Aborigines (Tomlinson 21). It is often said that history is written by the victors. Indeed, the foundations of Australia, as we know it today, have been built on the white victory. Consequently, people tended to believe that the real history of Australia began when Captain Cook applied the terra nullius doctrine. Thus the Australian history was a history based on the denial of the truth, misinterpretations and the neglect of Aborigines.
This ignorance of the presence and significance of Aborigines and their interaction with white society lasted until late 1960s. Anthropologist W.E.H.Stanner3 referred to this period of academic inattention to the Indigenous peoples as ‘The Great Australian Silence’ (Tomlinson 22). Stanner further argued that the neglect of Aboriginals turned into a “cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale” (Gunstone 1). Australia has suffered from some kind of historical amnesia since colonial times. Aboriginal history has been significantly rewritten in the last thirty years, and Aboriginal people have become visible in new ways - thanks to the Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal historians including Henry Reynolds, Marcia Langton, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Peter Read and many others (Nettheim 5). Despite the fact that this silence has been broken, some of the issues brought up to life by colonialism still continue to live. The white way of presenting the historical facts to common Australians created the prevailing image of Aboriginals - a race doomed to die out anyway. People were provided only with limited information about Indigenous and non-Indigenous history and some key historical facts were ignored.
Even though most of these facts were already denied (e.g. terra nullius), this image of Aboriginals remained deeply embedded in the social beliefs. These beliefs, which have run through the heart of the culture for more than two centuries, still have an immense influence on general thinking of many people in Australia. As Gunstone points out “the wider Australian community still remains woefully ignorant of the historical facts concerning Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Australia” (2). Bain Attwood summarised these myths as follows:
Australia was founded by the British in 1788 when Governor Phillip declared British sovereignty and took possession of the entire continent. This was in accord with legal convention because prior to the coming of the white man the continent was inhabited by a relatively small number of nomadic savages … The process of colonising the new land was, by and large, peaceful, and although Aboriginal society was more or less destroyed, this was largely unforeseen consequence of introduced disease and tribal conflict … Besides, Aboriginals’ decline was inevitable because they were a weak, inferior, archaic and unprogressive race which was incapable of adapting to the presence of the white man (qtd. in Nettheim 5).
The first and the most serious mistake was that Captain James Cook claimed possession of Australia for Britain under the doctrine of terra nullius – the assumption that the continent was not really occupied. Instead of admitting that he was invading the land that belonged to Aboriginal people, he acted as if he were settling an empty land. Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their own land and exposed to many atrocities committed upon them by whites because Australia was considered to be a ‘no man’s land’. The fiction of terra nullius was believed to be true for over two centuries. Garth Nettheim correctly emphasizes that “the fiction was too convenient to be foregone” (“Native title” 72).
Moreover, no treaty was signed, in marked contrast to other British colonies, including the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand (Hollinsworth n.pag). The pre-existing land rights were recognised in most lands that came under the sovereignty of Britain. For instance, treaties were signed for non-Indigenous people in some parts of North America and the Treaty of Waitangi4 was negotiated for New Zealand. Nowadays, the treaty stands as a basis for reconciliation. Meanwhile, in Canada, the national government continues to negotiate treaties with particular peoples who were not covered by earlier treaties (Netthaim 23).
In 1992, the High Court of Australia brought down its decision in Mabo and Others v. the State of Queensland, a decision which rewrote Australia’s law on the impact of colonisation (ATSIC 2).It recognized Aboriginal peoples’ rights to the land and confirmed that they were the original owners of the country. The Mabo decision5 holds profound political and symbolic significance; it was a turning point in Australian history. It gave all Aboriginals – the victims of much of Australia’s history since 1788 – a measure of dignity and justice, and once again made land rights and important national issue (ATSIC 2). In response to the judgement, the Australian Parliament enacted the Native Title Act 1993. ‘The Act’ recognized native title rights and implemented strategies to facilitate the process of recognising native title. (ATSIC 6). The fiction of terra nullius was finally rejected. “This landmark legal decision to recognise the pre-existing property rights of Indigenous Australians created shock-waves across the nation as non-Indigenous Australians were forced to confront the fiction of terra nullius” (Collins and Davis 4). Despite the fact that Mabo decision produced national ‘shock of recognition’, the colonial attitudes that kept the terra nullius fiction alive still remained almost as compelling as they were back then (Collins and Davis 4-5). It takes time to make the national mind shift.
Another fiction widely believed to be true was that Aboriginal people were only passive recipients of European brutality. Thus they allowed white intruders to steal their land and kill off their tribes without any defiance. Henry Reynolds disproves these conventional beliefs and claims that “the Aboriginal response to the invasion was much more positive, creative and complex than generations of white Australians have been taught to believe” (Reynolds 198). Reynolds, in his book The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), presented a study of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations based on the previously unpublished documents and oral evidence. At the time of the publication, Reynolds challenged other historians and also common Australians to reconsider not only the interpretation of Australian history, but also the implications for the future relations between Aboriginals and white Australians. He suggests that “if we [white Australians] are unable to incorporate the black experience into our national heritage we will stand exposed as a people still emotionally chained to our nineteenth century British origins, ever the transplanted Europeans” (200). His book significantly contributed to the development of a debate over the interpretation of the Australian colonial history, nowadays known as the ‘History Wars’.6
Several of Reynold’s crucial findings about the Aboriginal response to the European invasion can be observed in the film Alinta: The Flame. However, before analysing this film, it is necessary to note that this film belongs to the so called pre-Mabo cinema7. In this era of film-making in Australia, most of the films were narrated from the white perspective. Moreover, Aboriginals were usually represented as unpredictable, primitive or “as genetically responsible for their own situations” (Moore and Muecke 38). Alinta: The Flame is set in 1824 and describes the first contact of the Nyari people with two escaped convicts, who are washed up on the beach. Although this film is not based on a true story, it still provides a valuable insight into the situation after the white intruders came to Australia. The Nyari people are played by the people of Lake Evela (N.T) who travelled to Victoria to portray the spirit of those who once were the owners of South Eastern Australia (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame). Thus the language, gestures and traditions portrayed in this film are original. This film will be used to demonstrate how could the initial encounter between Aboriginals and group of white settlers, who want to settle their land. Furthermore, it emphasizes the consequent destructive impact of their invasion.
Despite the fact that Alinta: The Flame (1984) is an example of the pre-Mabo cinema, “the dominant ideological representation (as simple, savage and dangerous people) goes against the grain of what is known about Aboriginal societies” (Moore and Muecke 43). As the film is made after the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginals are displayed as “proud and defiant in the face of relentless oppression from white society” (Moore and Muecke 43).
As has been mentioned above, scholars had long assumed that “the blacks were a uniquely passive and incurious people and that they reacted to the sudden appearance of whites with the calm apathy” (Reynolds 25). However, the reaction of the Nyari people to their first contact with whites indicates that it was the other way around. No signs of passivity and incuriosity can be observed (Reynolds 29).
The arrival of the whites provoked rather an apparent fear, interest and curiosity relating to the mystery of their true origin. For instance, the Nyari people seem immensely disturbed by their first encounter with the ‘faces-of-clay’ when they discover them lying on the beach. Moreover, they consider them to be ghosts judging by their pale and nearly transparent appearance. Reynolds develops this point in detail and explains that for Aboriginals “white is a colour widely associated with death” (32). Furthermore, according to Aboriginal understanding of the world referred to as the Dreaming,8 Aboriginals believe that they belong to their country and that “the earth is a vast dreaming organism” (Mudrooroo 54). As for their spiritual bonds with the land, the unexpected arrival of Europeans caused many Aboriginals to conclude that they too must have belonged to the land, or at least know of it, in a previous life. Thus Aboriginals tended to assume that these ghosts were re-incarnated blacks (Reynolds 32).
Such an explanation is crucial in order to understand that, in perceiving the whites as re-incarnated blacks, Aboriginals considered the ‘faces-of-clay’ to be their relatives returned from the death. Consequently, Aboriginals readily absorbed the whites into their tribes, applied their customary law on them and expected them to understand the Dreaming. Subsequently, this delusion produced expectations that the whites would recognize the same values and mutual obligations as other members of the tribe. They assumed that, as their fellow tribesmen, they would behave in compliance with their law. “In many cases Aboriginals punished Europeans as though they were fellow blacks in an attempt to impose on the newcomers the moral standards and social obligations of traditional society” (Reynolds 86). For example, when Findlay tries to rape an Aboriginal girl and thus violates the law, he is speared. All Aboriginal tribes have very strict rules and any transgression is severely punished, mostly by death (Ward 17-8). Later, McNab joins the white settlers, who want to settle on the sacred land of the Nyari people and establish white settlement here. Although he is familiar with the beliefs of Nyari people, for whom the needs of tribe are more important than their individual needs and desires, he is speared because he breaks the law. He is too greedy, does not respect the land and wants to profit from it. Unfortunately, Aboriginals did not realize and understand the true nature of the white intruders soon enough.
Moreover, for a long time, Aboriginals “continued to believe that Europeans were under a moral obligation to share their abundance, both because sharing was so central to Aboriginal values, and to provide compensation for the loss of land, water and game” (Reynolds 118). Aboriginals were not hostile to whites and treated them as if they were equals even though whites were strangers for Aboriginals and posed a threat to the tribe. Not only they did not overlook these uninvited guests, but they were also willing to help them, provide them with food, water and shelter. Two examples of this behaviour can be observed in Alinta: the Flame. First, when McNab and Findlay are found on the beach, the tribe decides to let them stay with them.
Second example appears later in the film, when the Nyari people meet a group of white settlers led by Goodman. First of all, they are irritated when they find out that the whites entered their territory because Aboriginal customary law does not allow entering another tribe’s territory without invitation or excuse. The transgression of these rules was usually punished by spearing (Ward 17). For instance, when Murra first comes to visit the Nyari people, he is standing on the hill and he has to wait until someone notices him and invites him to join them. Still, Aboriginals are not hostile to uninvited white guests. They approach them and try to negotiate with them. Finally, whites are allowed to stay on Aboriginal land but their peaceful coexistence does not last for a long time. The white settlers then violate Aboriginal rules, start to steal their food, water, animals and exploit their land to survive. This lead to a violent conflict between the Nyari people and white settlers which ends with annihilation of the tribe (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame).
When it comes to the topic of colonisation, another widely believed myth was that the colonisation was peaceful. As mentioned earlier, Aboriginals were incorrectly presented as passive people and thus there was no resistance and the colonisation was considered to be peaceful. The prevailing notion was that Europeans dispossessed Aboriginals of their land and they did not even defy the white intrusion. Whites truly believed that their culture was superior to other cultures. They did not take the Indigenous tribes into consideration as they were “seen as savages, somewhat above animals” (Mudrooroo V). Thus Aboriginal culture was seen to be too primitive to cope with the challenging and sophisticated white way of life. Aboriginals would vanish because their culture was too backward, unchanging and incapable to keep up with the rapidity of the changes introduced by Europeans. Moreover, tribal conflicts and introduced diseases were seen as another major factor of their decline. However, these assumptions turned out to be incorrect.
First, Aboriginals courageously fought back even though their weaponry was not advanced and could not compete with whites’ firearms. Ward stresses that “the tribes, though perhaps the bravest, were certainly equipped with the worst weapons” (19). Still, as portrayed in Alinta: The Flame, the Nyari people bearings are fearless and manly. As one of the tribesmen affirms: “We must fight them [the group of white settlers], we must drive them off our land” (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame). This behaviour manifests their faith in their own culture and their determination to face their enemies although they do not stand any chance. It is important to note that throughout the colonisation process, many Aboriginals, not only the Nyari people, continually resisted the suppression of their rights to their land, and its impact on their culture (Reynolds 83-6).
Second, Europeans believed they were legally entitled to occupy the land on the premise that the land belongs to no-one. They treated Aboriginals as if they were only an obstacle to be destroyed. Europeans attempted to establish the settlement by persuading the Aborigines to give up their land and submit themselves. Goodman’s aim to purchase the land and his promise to bring new animals for the Nyari people was only an empty gesture to make a good impression on them. He clearly emphasizes that “this land will be settled whether they desire or not” (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame). Moreover, they forced other tribes off their land to more remote areas. This loss of land posed great danger to Aborginals who were left with no place to live and nowhere to hunt. This was something completely unknown to Aboriginals as “any Aboriginal tribe ever seems to have conceived the notion of stealing any part of its collective property or territory” (Ward 18). Nonetheless, the settlers took away their land, natural food resources and thus the order of a nomadic life from Aboriginals. When Nyari people started to be a problem for the settlers they attacked them during night and murdered the tribe. They took everything from them – their land, essential resources and even their lives. It was the most simple and effective solution to their problem – to get rid of this problem. Luckily, Alinta and her little daughter survived this massacre and managed to escape.
The uniqueness and significance of Alinta: The Flame is that it manifests the strength and invincibility of Aboriginal culture. Even though whites destroyed many Aboriginal tribes and their cultures, there still was a hope for Alinta ‘The Flame’ and her daughter to carry the torch for her culture and future. Through her and her daughter the culture will survive for other generations. Alinta is a symbolic hope not only her tribe, but for all Aboriginals. “The open end, or rather ‘unfinished’ end, stresses an ongoing process” of the two hundred year old Aboriginal struggle for their right (Moore and Muecke 48). The ending is left open for contemplation about the future of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.