The Guardian February 14, 2001


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.

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