Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies


Intercultural Clash: ‘Noble Savages



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Intercultural Clash: ‘Noble Savages vs. Sophisticated Whites

When white settlers arrived at Australia, the interaction of the two vastly different cultures, with such different attitudes to the land, made the conflict inevitable. The clash between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples set the tone for the history of the two cultures ever since. “These conflicts were triggered by tension and misunderstanding, by the possessiveness of Europeans towards the land and water, by competition over women and by diametrically opposed concepts of personal property” (Reynolds 94). It is indisputable that there was a European input into almost every source of Aboriginal misery. To put it another way, all the atrocities that Aborigines suffered from were results of the European invasion.

Besides colonisation, the incompatibility of the two different cultures needs to be addressed as another main cause. Europeans themselves were not the primary problem. However, their arrival was a trigger of the devastating intercultural clash. European and Aboriginal cultures differ not only in the perception of land but also in the understanding of the world, traditions, law, education and structure of society. Both cultures are based on different values. Newly arrived Europeans tried to understand Aboriginals within the scope of their own beliefs. Similarly, Aboriginals applied their traditional beliefs on Europeans. In other words, it is a matter of cultural differences and diverse values and traditions. Unfortunately, neither Europeans nor Aboriginals could seldom begin to understand each other because these two cultures were incompatible (Ward 12).

First, the most significant difference between Indigenous and European culture is in the understanding of land. Non-Indigenous people, not only of European descent, consider land to be something they own, a commodity to be bought, sold and to make a living off it. For Aboriginal people the connection to land is much deeper. “Land is fundamental to Aboriginal people, both individually and collectively. Concepts of land ownership were and are different from European legal systems” (Dudgeon et al. 26). Controversial Aboriginal writer and activist Mudrooroo defines the meaning of land as follows:

We Aboriginal people believe that in the Dreamtime our traditional way of life was established by ancestral spirits. For us Aboriginal people, the land has special meaning, for all over the land, rivers, gorges, rocks and mountains are reminders of the great Spirit Ancestors of our Dreamtime creation … Land to us Aborigines is not a possession in material terms, as the white man looks upon land, but responsibility held in sacred trust. Life came from and through the land and is manifested in the land. The land is not an inanimate thing: it is alive (200-1).

Mudrooroo then continues that these beliefs “represent reality and eternal truth” (201). “Hence land was not owned; one belonged to the land” (Dudgeon et al. 26). This vary greatly from the superficial and purely materialist white understanding of land. Europeans desired only to profit from its utilization as their society was “based on the sanctity of private property” (Ward 12). It is generally believed, that non-Indigenous people cannot understand Aboriginal close relationship with land because they think of it only as a commodity. For instance, in Alinta: The Flame, Goodman, the leader of white settlers, wants to purchase the Nyari peoples land. Findlay, who lives with the tribe for many years and speaks their language, explains to him that there is no such word as ‘purchase in the language of the Nyari people (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame). In fact, Ward further develops this point with an explanation that also “no Aboriginal language had words for any numbers beyond two or three. If there is no private property, there is no need to count its worth and no one felt the need of words to do so” (Ward 15). This indicates that land is not owned by Aboriginals, on the other hand, land owns them. Thus they cannot sell it to someone else. It would be unimaginable for them to lose their land as “it is synonymous with their existence” (Mudrooroo 209). Maintaining this connection is vital for Aboriginals. The overwhelming impact of dispossession for Aboriginal people will be analysed later on the example of ‘the Stolen Generations.

Second, more cultural differences exist between European and Aboriginal culture than only in the perception of land. Even though the main difference lies in their attitude to the land, other major distinctions are grounded in their traditions, law, education and structure of society. European society is hierarchical, some people have more power and influence than others. Ward exaggerates this fact by emphasizing that “white invaders simply could not conceive of a human society in which there were no kings, priests, chiefs, nor any other kind of formal authority structure” (16). On the other hand, Aboriginal society is egalitarian and classless. There are no chiefs, hereditary or elected, no classes except two – males and females – while males generally dominated. (Ward 15). When McNab and Findlay disrupt the life of the Nyari people, the tribe elders discuss together what they should do: “Will we keep them or send them away?” (Ricketson, Alinta: The Flame). Nevertheless, tribe elders also listen to the opinion of Towradgi, who is worried about what will happen if they stay. Towradgi, as an older woman, is experienced and thus respected by the tribe elders.

Moreover, Aborigines have a complex and sophisticated kinship system. This system places each person in relationship to every other person in the group and thus determines the behaviour of an individual to each person (Dudgeon et al. 26). For example, at the beginning of Alinta: The Flame, Towradgi, Alinta and other Aboriginal girl are discussing who the messenger is while they say “hello, brothers” to three other Aboriginal boys, who are not their brothers. Their kinship system structures their relationship towards other members of the tribe, therefore, they could address their cousins, aunts or uncles as their sister, mother or father. As Dudgeon et al. points out “there were codes of behaviour between each person outlining their responsibilities and obligations towards others” (26). The maintenance of extended family ties is of immense importance to Aboriginals. On the other hand, what Aboriginals see as an essential feature of their culture, Europeans perceive as “barriers to entering the so-called mainstream … and useless social structure getting in the way of remaking Aboriginals in white image” (Mudrooroo 27-31).

Besides different traditions and customs, Europeans brought ideas and attitudes towards native people that were mostly supremacist and racist because they genuinely believed that their culture is superior. Since colonisation, Aborigines were neglected and strategically excluded from the white Australian history. Unlike sophisticated Europeans, Aboriginals were seen as inferior, backward and archaic. These beliefs “were underpinned by the influences of Social Darwinism9, where cultural groups or ‘races’ were seen to be at different stages of evolution” (Dudgeon et al. 30). Social Darwinism was based on the idea of evolution, defined by Charles Darwin, and natural selection. According to these ideas, Aboriginals were placed on the lowest of all stages of human evolution as they were unable to progress to civilisation. Their anticipated extinction was seen as the ‘survival of the fittest’, rather than as the result of violence, malnutrition and the impact of introduced diseases (Hollinsworth n.pag).

Furthermore, these ideas of the white superiority and inferiority of any other race or group dominated in European society at the time of colonisation. These ideas, which later resulted into killing of Aboriginals, played a role in “dehumanising Indigenous Australians and justifying their dispossession” (Hollinsworth n.pag). Aboriginals were presented as a primitive nation and, “throughout Europe, many enlightened people believed in the cult of the noble savage” (Ward 36). Even James Cook admired the idyllic simplicity of their life and romantic notions of the noble savage. Similarly, Arthur Phillip believed that if Aboriginals could be kept separated from their primitive society they could be educated and civilised and act as emissaries to black society to bring about its change (Read 17). However, in Aboriginal communities, “knowledge is passed from generation to generation” (Mudrooroo 112). When whites tried to separate and educate Aboriginals in their way, these Aboriginals were subsequently not respected by their tribe anymore. Thus the tribe would not listen to them and their newly possessed knowledge of the white world. These ideas came to fruition later with the forcible removal of children which will be discussed in the following chapter.

Not only Aboriginals but also other native people (e.g. North American Indians) were seen as uncivilised people who lived in accordance with nature and its law (Ward 36). Their life was seen as more simple in comparison to the sophisticated European civilisation. This led to the assumption that Aboriginals, as well as other noble savages, need to be civilised and the white values and their way of life should be imposed on them.

Moreover, Europeans truly believed in their superiority and they thought that “they genuinely offered their culture and religion to the blacks” (Reynolds 147). During the era of colonialism, this urge to rule over other nations for their own benefit was known as the ‘white man’s burden’10. As has been mentioned before, these aspirations to improve and industrialise other undeveloped nations served mainly to legitimize Britain’s claim of the new land. They asserted that they brought civilisation to the uncivilised native people to help them become a part of the civilised world. Indeed, they brought their civilisation and their values to Australia but the main question is whether they brought it for Aboriginals or only in order to follow their own interests. However, the dispossession of Aboriginal land, annihilation of whole tribes, removal of children and many other examples could be named to show that all these attempts were undertaken for the benefit of the whites and not Aboriginals. As Reynolds claims “for all their fine words colonial elites were not offering equality to the blacks but merely space on the lowest rungs of society” (Reynolds 147-8). Nowadays the majority of Aboriginals still occupies the lowest rungs of society.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Europeans began to consider ways of dealing with the ‘Aboriginal problem’. The expectations, based on Social Darwinism, that Aboriginals will die out because they are predestined to, were not fulfilled. Jensen points out that “when Aboriginals refused to die out, succeeding governments sought to ‘whiten’ them out of existence” (27). After the attempts to get rid of Aboriginals failed, they were to be assimilated into the dominant white society. These efforts and racist ideas were supported by oppressive legislation. State control of Aboriginal life was extreme. According to Dudgeon et al., “Australian history demonstrates how racist beliefs became legislation. Aboriginal people were believed to be less than human, and legislation was used to control them and confine them away from the public” (30).

Soon after Australia became a federation, Australian states and territories gained control and responsibility over Indigenous Australians (Dudgeon et. al 30). The first law enacted by the new Australian Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 which established the embarrassing ‘white Australia policy’11. Even though this policy was primarily aimed against the unwanted immigrants it was a ‘white policy’ and thus any other than white race received unfavourable treatment, especially Aboriginals. As Read claims “in the long term, Aborigines were not wanted – anywhere” (22). Aboriginals were generally seen only as an object of pity and an obstacle to create new unified white nation. Moreover, many legislations (called e.g. Aborigines Protection Act), that sought to strictly control the lives of Aboriginals and thus assist in their inevitable extinction, were passed. These ruthless laws regulated where Aborigines could or could not live or go, whom they could marry, whom they could work for and for what pay, what they could own, what schooling if any their children received, and most aspects of their daily life (Hollinsworth n.pag).

Many scholars agree that Australia has a long legacy of racism and it was an integral part of the new national identity (Collins and Davis 4; Dudgeon et al. 35; Ward 126). As has been mentioned before, most of these attempts to terminate, assimilate or prevent the reappearance of the Indigenous people were purely racist. Race provided “the point of origin for all these tactics, emphasized further by the perpetrators’ assumptions that all these behaviours are reasonable” (Morrissey 191). All Aboriginals were affected by this, although obviously in different ways. Moreover, living with racism became a central and defining element in the life of marginalised people. In many ways, life is a struggle for people of colour, in this case for Aboriginals. Racism is still a reality even for those Aboriginals who have ‘made it’ in the white world and have overcome obstacles. Racism is inescapable (Dudgeon et al. 36-7).

However, Australia consists of two vastly different cultural traditions, values and perceptions of Australian history whilst one of them was always superior to the other. Whiteness, the fact that one has a white skin “became to be apprehended as an invisible norm against which other races were judged” (Moreton-Robinson vii). This concept of whiteness pervades the Australian history since the arrival of the first wave of European invaders. The colonial stereotypes of weak, inferior and unadvanced nation has slowly turned into the contemporary prevalent perception of Aboriginals as dirty, drunk and useless people. Despite the considerable changes in Australian society, the fundamental differences between these two cultures still exist. Aboriginal people are living surrounded by a dominant culture which is very different from their own heritage. These two conflicting cultures need to find a mutual adjustment, embrace and appreciate one another, heal and develop resilience to historical trauma and its consequences. As controversial Aboriginal writer Mudrooroo stresses, “we [Australians] should exult in diversity, not try to impose one system, one ideology, one philosophy, one vision of sameness on all” (19).



  1. The Changes of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

The situation of Indigenous Australians did not improve for most of the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century. Earlier, the oppression of Aboriginals related mainly to the technological advancements of Europeans. Subsequently, they were repressed because of constant legislative and economical control. The first positive changes saw the second half of the twentieth century. The 1967 Referendum is considered to be a turning point in the history of Indigenous Australians and their pursue for justice. As has been suggested in chapter two, Australian history was a history written solely by white man and about white man. Thus there was a considerable ignorance of Indigenous Australians since the arrival of white intruders. Furthermore, Aboriginals did not share their knowledge with the newly arrived Europeans and still some aspects of their life and culture remain secret to white Australians. Aboriginals have always relied on the oral transmission of stories and knowledge to maintain a historical records and sustain their culture and identity (Attwood 252). So there is no written evidence from which the history could be derived from an Aboriginal perspective. This fact makes it difficult to piece together the history of Aboriginals under the white supremacy as most sources provide only the white point of view.

European colonisation brought very rapid changes into the Aboriginal society which resulted in a drastic decline in the Aboriginal population. By the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 it is estimated that there were about 750 00012 Aborigines on this continent – give or take 50 000 or so. The policies imposed on Aboriginals – dispossession of land, newly introduced diseases and repressive and often brutal treatment by white invaders, cultural and social disruption and disintegration – caused that a century later, in 1888, the Aboriginal population had been rapidly reduced to about 60-80 000 Aboriginals. It was widely believed that Aboriginals are a ‘dying race’ (Ward 127).

The Aboriginal history of the nineteenth century is mainly a history of the ongoing battles13 between Indigenous tribes and the white intruders. These stories form a part of the untold history of Australia and involve hundreds of incidents and thousands of people. One of these numerous attacks is depicted in Alinta: The Flame, when the Nyari people are killed off by white settlers. It stands as an example of how these attacks could look like. Nevertheless, these disputes over food and land led to killings on both sides (Hollinsworth n.pag). The most notorious of these clashes is known as the ‘Myall Creek Massacre’ which happened in New South Wales in 1838. This massacre is significant not for its brutality but because it was thoroughly investigated and documented than other similar conflicts. Thus it provided irrefutable evidence and showed the values and assumptions of white society at that time – the Aboriginal people were seen as less important or even less human by the settlers. Twelve armed colonists brutally slaughtered a group of Aboriginals, mostly women and children, and the remarkable fact is that the murderers were arrested, brought to trial and seven of them were eventually hanged. The colonial press and part of the public could not understand why anyone should be hanged for murdering Aboriginal people. “The whole colony was in an uproar – not with horror at the massacre but with sympathy for the murderers. Most white people found intolerable the idea that killing of Aborigines could be regarded as a crime, let alone a capital one” (Ward 129). In 1928, one of the last officially sanctioned massacres took place near the Coniston cattle station in Northern Territory. First, a European dingo trapper was killed by an Aboriginal and the massacre occurred as a revenge for his death. A series of reprisal killings resulted in the slaughter of about seventy Aboriginal people, including a few women and children. Although none of the murderers were brought to justice, the Australian public was outraged (Ward 262). Even though no one was punished for such a horrible crime, the publicity that the case obtained ensured that the bloody history of massacres committed upon Aboriginals had come to an end. Moreover, the massacre in Coniston happened ninety years after the bloodshed at Myall Creek and a shift in the public perception of these massacres can be observed. In 1838, Australians were outraged by the execution of their fellow whites, but on the other hand, ninety years later they sympathized with innocent Aboriginals who were ruthlessly slaughtered.

Besides the massacres of Aboriginals, examples of Aboriginal resistance also exist and are documented. One of the most significant stories regarding the conflict between white settlers and Aboriginals is a legend of Jandamarra14 (also known as Pigeon). He was a leader of an organized armed revolt against the European settlers in 1890s. The police tried to pursue Jandamarra after his raids but he always found a way to elude capture. His ability to appear out of nowhere and vanish without a trace became legendary. After three years, he was eventually killed and he became a symbol of Aboriginal resistance in the following decades. He has been remembered in stories and songs of his people ever since (Kinnane 142-57).

The beginning of the twentieth century represents another turning point in the Australian history. However, Aboriginals were as always left behind. Australia became an independent nation on the first day of the new century, 1 January 1901. The British Parliament passed legislation allowing the six Australian colonies to govern in their own right as part of the Commonwealth of Australia. Federation is usually described as a birth of new nation. Nevertheless, this new nation independent from Britain saw a Constitution that excluded Aboriginal peoples from the national census. It stated that the Commonwealth would legislate for “any race other than the Aboriginal race” (qtd. in Hollinsworth n.pag). This meant that Aboriginals were still regarded as less human and thus less equal. There were no signs of improvement of the Aboriginal status in society after the 1901 Constitution. On the other hand, the political development of Australia as such went hand in hand with the progress of Aboriginal issues. In fact, no progress at all could be seen in their situation and the worst years were yet to come. The ambition for Federation was to accomplish their dream of unified ‘white nation’. The first legislations, which neglected Aboriginals, formed the direction of the new nation’s policy. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the legislations passed after 1901 were purely racist and supported the ‘white Australia policy’.

However, it should be noted that Indigenous people have continued to resist and struggle for their rights since colonial times. They were not passive and did not obey the rules imposed on them by ‘white Australia policy’. However, they also realised that violence is not a long-term solution to their problems and that they have to engage more in political struggle. The movement for Indigenous rights began in the 1920s, with the establishment of Aboriginal political organisations, in particular the Australian Aborigines League led by William Cooper and the Aborigines Progressive Association led by William Ferguson. Over time, many Indigenous political and support groups were established across the country but the major victory came with the 1967 Constitutional Referendum (Dudgeon et al. 30-1). As one Aboriginal activist commented on their situation:

The pigs were counted, the horses, the emus were counted – but the Aboriginal people were not. We really had to work hard. We had a body of Aboriginal people going out and speaking to the community and pleading to the public. We said we are here, we have been here for a long time and for God’s sake, somebody look at us, accept that our colour is different. We are human beings and we want self-management (qtd. in Hollinsworth n.pag).

Hollinsworth then continues and states that “most referendums in Australia failed, but this one gained a record 90.77 per cent ‘yes’ vote and allowed the national government to make laws about, and for the benefit of, Indigenous people” (n.pag). From this time onwards “there have been significant shifts in the politics of representation, identity and cultural debate within the academy, the metropolitan press and other cultural institutions have also begun to promote a new vision of Australian identity – particularly since the late 1980s” (Anderson 19). Even though the Referendum brought symbolic and real benefits to Aboriginals, the damage was already done. This new era of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations did not improve “the unspeakable conditions in which most Aboriginals had long lived” (Ward 302).

The theoretical climax of the situation of Aboriginals can be seen in the policy of forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families in the attempt to get rid of ‘the Aboriginal problem’15. Under several federal and state programs the government forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families and sent them to white institutions and homes. It was widely believed that it was for the best interests of the child, however, motives for their separation were not so noble. The numbers of so-called ‘full-blood’ Aboriginals continued to decline, but on the other hand, the population of ‘half-castes’16 started to rise. They came to be seen as a threat to the creation of white Australia (Hollinsworth n.pag). As the extinction of Aboriginals did not seem to occur naturally, the children were removed to be ‘bred out’ and disappear through mixing with low-class whites. The policy continued until the 1970s and the lives of several generations were affected. The children, who were taken away from their families, are collectively referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’. Even though the removal of children was eventually banned by the authorities, the devastating consequences of this shameful chapter of Australian history still endure. In removing the Aboriginal children, white people stole Aboriginal people’s future, their language, tradition, knowledge and spirituality because this could only live if passed on to their children. “The ‘Stolen Generations’ have become an enormously powerful symbol (along with Mabo decision and Deaths in Custody17) of relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia” (Read ix).

In 1997, National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families produced the report Bringing Them Home which stated the following findings:

The National Inquiry formally investigated the devastating and persisting effects of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children. The report claimed the following: Nationally we can conclude with confidence that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970. In certain regions and in certain periods the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten. In that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal (confirmed by representatives of the Queensland and WA Governments in evidence to the Inquiry). Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children. (“National Overview”)

The main goal of this report was to formally investigate the devastating consequences of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children. The report made various recommendations, including the need for a public apology to the affected families and for the financial compensation. Nevertheless, none of these recommendations were met until February 2008 when newly elected premier Kevin Rudd delivered the Apology18 to the members of the ‘Stolen Generations’. Previous Prime Ministers (e.g. John Howard) had refused to apologize in part because they did not think they should apologize for past wrongs that they did not commit and in part because it would imply guilt on the present generation (Read 186). Still, Rudd’s Apology was only a symbolic gesture which did not include any material compensation but it was a significant first step within the long journey towards redressing the wrongs committed upon Aboriginals. In 2013, Kevin Rudd proclaimed in his speech to support the Constitutional recognition that “The apology was about getting it right for the past. Constitutional recognition is about getting it right for tomorrow”.




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