It is fashionable in certain quarters to argue that white settlement devastated a utopian Aboriginal society and replaced it with two centuries of racism, murder, oppression and neglect. Those who make such arguments almost always present a sanitised version of traditional Aboriginal society; fail to acknowledge the great developments of white settlement; and judge the past by the standards of the present.
There was nothing utopian about traditional Aboriginal society, which was characterised by tribal warfare, violent punishments, sexism, superstition, and famine. The Aboriginals were essentially a stone age society, failing during a period of 50,000 years to develop any form of writing, agriculture or wheeled transport.
White settlement brought to Australia all the advantages of one of the greatest civilisations in history: democracy, law, philosophy, art, literature, science, technology, agriculture and music. All these factors have been developed over 200 years to produce a nation which is the envy of the world. The distinguished historian Paul Johnson wrote:
The development of Australia rates as one of mankind's greatest achievements. Australians have created one of the most advanced and prosperous societies on earth. It is an achievement with few parallels in the history of human adventure.
At the same time it cannot be denied that many Aborigines suffered severely because of white settlement. But it is not acceptable or intellectually honest to judge the actions of the past by the standards of the present. The White settlement of Australia occurred only a few months before the French Revolution, which was, of course, characterised by the bloody murder of hundreds of people simply because of their social status.
That example illustrates the historical epoch in which the white settlement of Australia occurred, The pursuit of political policy by violence was universally accepted. And that is not to suggest that the white settlers of Australia set out to murder every Aboriginal. The evidence does not support such a conclusion, except in isolated cases. Moreover, much Aboriginal suffering was the result of unintended consequences of white settlement, such as alcoholism and disease.
There are four main benefits of white settlement. Firstly, the white people have not only augmented, but actually replaced most of the indigenous foods. Secondly, the coming of the white settlers had done away with the periods of starvation in a land prone to droughts. Thirdly, the white authorities have broken down the geographical barriers between the lands of local groups. For the very first time in Aboriginal history, black people could wander about freely in Australia, without any danger of being killed when they crossed any sacrosanct local group borders. Fourthly, some inhuman and brutal customs have been abolished.
Aboriginal communities do indeed face enormous social problems, especially unemployment, alcoholism, inadequate education and poor health. More than half the potentially employable Aborigines are out of work compared with a figure near 12% for white Australians. Their life expectancy is 52 years, compared with 70 or more for white persons. However it is untrue to say that nothing has been done. They now have equal rights as citizens. They now own 16.4% of the land in Australia, much of it rich in minerals (though they only comprise 1.5% of the population.) They have access to special housing and education grants.
The government spends millions on grants to Aboriginal communities, though only a fraction of this amount reaches full blood Aborigines and caters to their basic needs in housing, health and education. Most of the money is creamed off by bureaucrats, researchers and activists, as is the case in the welfare industry at large.
The Absurdity of Sacred Sites
There is a tendency by some to portray the old Aboriginal communities as idyllic societies which should be re-created to return the Aborigines to their old culture. However, the same people reject some aspects of the tribal culture, especially when this undermines the position of the tribal chiefs which was central to the old laws and customs. They support the abolition of traditional punishments such as spearing and other penalties of tribal lore. This is not written to defend these practices but to show the selective nature of the resort to traditional customs and practices.
What is the logic in supporting sacred sites while at the same time opposing the rights of chiefs and elders to administer the traditional punishments and penalties?
Much is written about the glories of Aboriginal culture and religion, and the beneficial effects of "tribal law" at its best. They lived in an excessively dry land. The harshness of "tribal laws" was well known, perceived and feared especially by the younger generation of black men and women.
Vindictive punishments (including death) for breaches, even unwitting ones, against religious observances ("sacrilege") led from time to time to the commission of deeds of brutality against whole groups of innocent people.
Jack Waterford Deputy Editor of the Canberra Times in an article "You Can't Say That" criticises journalists for making no-go of a number of Aboriginal issues. (waterford:1993:32). He denounced their:
"romanticization of life in many Aboriginal communities, the tendency to blame any deficiency on others, and the sullen public silence about issues such as family breakdown, violence and dishonesty."
He also complained that the degree of censorship applied to journalists entering areas covered by land rights legislation was stricter than that enforced by the military in wartime.