TAKING ISSUE with Dave Kirner
Dusty books on the shelves of history
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee written in 1970 by American historian Dee Brown chronicled atrocities in the name of progress during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American West's Indian wars in the United States of America. As I re-read it recently, the importance of the need to chronicle for public consumption the history of conflict against Aboriginal people in Australia came into sharp focus. Late last year I bought and read a $2.00 book written in the 1840s by a retired Victorian Clerk of the Courts. The book specified and recognised invasions, atrocities, skirmishes and battles that were totally unknown to me, even though I was born and bred in that State. Even my parents were unaware of the silent history. Areas where I had holidayed as a child and teenager had an entire history of terrible violence against Australian Aboriginal people in pursuit of Aboriginal land. Another such book detailing violent attacks on Australian Aboriginal people is (The Coming of the Strangers) written by Baiba Berzins, produced by the National Library of NSW, which I purchased for $7.00 in a second hand bookstore in Hutt Street Adelaide. It gives us insight into what seems to be the first major battle of the great war of the nation that has never surrendered, and of the nation that has never been officially apologised to, the massive and predominantly unreported names and numbers of people who died in it. Berzin writes briefly of Aboriginal structure: "The basic unit of organisation in Aboriginal society was the band, which ranged from small family units to groups of up to 100 people centred around married and related individuals. Everyone also belonged to a clan, which bound them spiritually to a particular territory and its sacred sites. "In some areas, for example around Sydney Harbour, there was no distinction between bands and clans; in others, individuals could move freely between bands and the bands themselves consisted of people from different clans. Their societies differed from each other in their organisation, beliefs and practices, and in 1788, over 200 languages were spoken." And then the war commenced. In 1770 a white man named Captain James Cook arrived from Great Britain, and declared Australian Aboriginal-owned land British on behalf of the Empire. Eighteen years later in 1788, 1300 convicts, soldiers and settlers funded by the British Government arrived in a fleet of ships at Botany Bay. Within a short period of time tree clearing for the new white settlement commenced. As a display of military strength to show the Botany Bay Aboriginal clan the Empire's standard of technological warfare, rifles called muskets were fired in demonstration at Aboriginal war shields propped up against trees, ripping holes through the bark in the first calculated warning shots for what was to become the longest running and highest casualty war on Australian soil in Australia's 40,000-year history. Australia's harbour-side killing fields The killing fields of the British Empire were profound and deadly and spared neither man, woman nor child. Accompanying the rattle of sabres and the crash of gunfire crept another, silent killer bringing death and destruction. The Aboriginal clans of the Sydney Harbour area were cruelly decimated, when in 1789, only one year after settlement of Botany Bay, the deadly disease smallpox, introduced to the country by the colonists, killed over half of the Australian Aboriginal population of the Sydney Harbour region. Army commanders and naval officers who had sailed with the First Fleet were reportedly shocked when they returned from long distance voyages to see no live Aboriginal people around Sydney Harbour in May 1789. They discovered a great number of dead Aboriginals in every part of the immediate surrounds. Reports filtered in from other parts of the nation, from as far as areas today known as Queensland, Victoria and eventually South Australia, where the scarred faces of Aboriginal sufferers of smallpox were testimony to the perhaps not completely unintentional germ warfare of the era . Hostages and Retaliation After two convicts were speared to death at Rush Cutters Bay, the British Empire's representative, Governor Phillips, sought and arranged a meeting with 200 Aboriginals to seek truce. The truce did not last long however, as the new British colonial government moved to take Aboriginal captives, ostensibly to test educational theories on native learning capacity. Two clan members, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanie were taken hostage but both escaped from custody. Military parties searched for them and when they were found and again threatened with being taken as hostages, they speared Governor Phillip. The Governor reportedly retreated and arranged reconciliation meetings, using two children orphaned by smallpox as intermediaries. They both reportedly later went voluntarily to Britain, where Yemmerrawanie died. Bennelong later returned to Sydney Harbour to his traditional lifestyle. War continued along the river regions of the new settlement and in 1790 a clan leader, Pemulwy, is alleged to have killed Governor Phillip's gamekeeper, for unknown reasons. Governor Phillips ordered two successive punitive expeditions to kill any six innocent Aboriginals in retaliation. But the orders were never carried out. Disgruntled military officers were said to be offended by the slaughter of innocents for others' alleged crimes. Rights and Reservations A number of areas were set aside for the clans and Governor King granted a small reserve near Georges Head to Aboriginal leader Bungaree from the Botany Bay clan, making a statement recognising that the Aboriginals are the real proprietors of the soil. The government knew well from previous colonisations where true land ownership lay. If agreements were unable to be made violence would suffice, but Australian Aboriginal people in most cases refused to sign over land and ownership, prompting forced removal, gun barrel action and incarceration. (Even when `dispossessed', however, the Aboriginals retained their belief in their rights to the traditional lands), the Estonian navigator, Thaddeus Bellinghausen, noted when he visited Sydney in 1820. "The `natives' remember well their former independence. Some expressed their claims to certain places, asserting that they belonged to their ancestors. It is easy to understand that they are not indifferent to having been expelled from their own favourite localities. Despite all the compensation offered them, a spark of vengeance still smoulders in their hearts", he noted. The Australian Aboriginal war, beginning in earnest in 1788, had set the pattern of violence against the Australian Aboriginal people. In just 40 years the war had killed more than half of the Aboriginals of the clans around Sydney Harbour. It did not take the rest of the country long to follow in the footsteps of destruction: the armies, police and the militias of the landed gentry creating havoc, the bodies of the dead growing. Punitive measures against Australian Aboriginal people for fighting back, as well as government and military rape, hostage taking and sexual assault brought the agony of technological war, atrocity, starvation and genocide to Australia. The coming of the strangers in 1788 was a turning point in the history of Aboriginal Australia. Of the estimated 550,000 Aboriginals in Eastern Australia, only 225,00 remained in 1835. Actions have taken place throughout the nation that in any other logical context or other country, under proper application of law, would be seen as either serious war crimes or criminal actions. Our current Federal Government's refusal to apologise, redress and compensate for the terrible ill deeds of the past remains a blight on our nation's political and social landscape.