19 Feb 2017

Text: Corinna / Translation: Miriam & Daniel

#Colonial power meets Aboriginal People

In 1788, the first fleet of British convicts reached the Australian continent under the command of King George III. The British called Australia ‘Terra Nullius’ (‘land belonging to no one’) and staked their claim over it. However, the continent soon turned out not to be uninhabited – the first settlers came to Northern Australia over 60,000 years ago. Leading up to the British invasion in the 18th century, up to 500 aboriginal tribes with an approximate total of 750,000 people had formed. Each one of these tribes had their own language and traditions.[1]

Photo: CC-Lizenz Wikimedia

The newly-arrived ‘whites’ were shocked by the ‘blacks’ ‘ appearance and their way of life. They decided that the Aboriginal people weren’t real humans and that they were useless for society’s development. The land they were settling on was, however, anything but useless, and so their expansion continued. Diseases such as the flu, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) were brought to the island by the settlers. Additionally, livestock breeding became more and more important for the colonial rulers and so, they continued to invade further parts of the country for more land, leading to new conflicts with the natives.[2]

#Violence against Aboriginal People*

Unlike other cases of genocide, violence against the Aboriginal people didn’t manifest itself in systematic mass violence or concentration camps, but assumed genocidal dimensions nonetheless. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 indigenous peoples died from massacres or other violent conflicts. Thousands more died of disease, forced labour, theft of their land, isolation, forced assimilation and because of further acts of violence. Many of the natives were ousted from their sacred and vital land in order for the settlers to be able to expand their breeding of livestock. In return, the indigenous people defended themselves by attacking said livestock. That, in turn, led to acts of vengeance by the white settlers, who surrounded the natives’ camps and killed all their inhabitants.[3]

Great Britain’s official colonial politics expressed opposition to genocidal acts and exhorted the settlers to live peacefully with the natives. The order was, however, rejected by governor Arthur Phillip due to the fact that the British government in England was unable to assess the events on the island realistically. The colonial government overlooked the violence against the Aboriginal people and did not avoid it.[4]

Violence against the indigenous people varied by settlement; mercy, however, was not granted to any:


Some of the most violent crimes against the Aboriginal people were committed in Queensland. So-called death squads were formed to spread fear and panic amongst the black population. Women were raped, children were used as forced labourers and the men were rounded up in the bush and shot. They were called ‘vermin’, ‘wild animals’, ‘inhumane’ or ‘nuisances’. The historian Henry Reynolds estimates that, between 1824 and 1908, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 ‘blacks’ were killed in Queensland. Legal sanctions imposed upon the Aboriginal people, which often led to their social death, still existed up until the late 19th century.[5]

Photo: Aussie~mobs/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


The situation in Tasmania can be viewed as a prime example of colonial genocide: The 3,000 to 15,000 natives on the island were eradicated completely. From 1824, settlers were permitted to shoot the Aboriginal people like cattle. In 1828, the governor passed a law of war, allowing soldiers and inhabitants to arrest or shoot ‘blacks’ should they enter settlement areas. In any instance where an Aboriginal should resist, the militia would in turn ensure the extinction of their entire family. Between 1828 and 1834, the last survivors were brought to Flinders Island for ‘humanitarian reasons’, where they died from bad living conditions, as well as European civilisation diseases, alcohol consumption and depression. The low birth rate among Aboriginal people could not make up for the high number of deaths.[6]

#Central Australia

Between 1860 and 1895, approximately 20% of the Central Australian Indigenous people died of European diseases and approximately 40% were shot.[7]

#South Australia

The first contact between the British settlers and the Aboriginal people was particularly brutal in South Australia. Kidnappings and murders happened on a daily basis. From 1836, only few were shot or poisoned; instead, a cultural genocide was performed: natives were henceforth forbidden to own any land, or to practice their culture, religion or language.[8]

#Forced assimilation – the ‘stolen generations’

After losing access to their lands and water to the colonial rulers, the Aboriginal people were assigned reserves. They were, however, state-dependent, especially regarding food. The number of ‘pure-bred’ Aboriginals in the reserves decreased over time and the number of ‘half-breeds’ increased. The government didn’t want to fund the ‘half-breeds’ with the lighter skin colour anymore and decided to introduce them as labourers to the white society instead. Due to the Aborigines Protection Act, only ‘pure-bred’ Aboriginals and ‘half-bred’ Aboriginals over the age of 34 were entitled to state aid. With that, all ‘half-breeds’ under 34 were violently ousted from all missions and reserves – regardless of whether they were married, had relatives there or in a particular state of need.[9]

Photo: Aussie~mobs/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

Between 1910 and 1970, it was Australia’s official government policy to take indigenous children away from their parents to ensure their extinction. The state, the church and welfare organisations forcibly separated families and introduced them to white families or orphanages. They were to grow up as ‘whites’ and thereby one day be able to integrate into society as farm workers or housekeepers. The children were often abused and traumatised, as well as robbed of their identity, culture, religion and language in these institutions.

‘This way its eventually possible to forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia.’ – O.A. Neville, Protector of Western Australia 1915-1940[10]

Pursuant to the Aborigines Protection Act, children could officially be taken away from their families, even without parental consent or a court order. Due to a lack of documentation, it is impossible to say how many children were wrested from their families, but it is estimated that three out of ten children were affected by this racist policy.[11]

#Bringing them home

In 1995, a national committee of inquiry was formed to investigate the former procedure. In the 500 page report, Bringing them home’ (1997), the committee concluded that Australia and its politics are guilty of genocide according to Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention. The article states that ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’ falls under the definition of a genocide. Furthermore, the report stated that three out of ten indigenous children were taken away from their family because Aboriginal people were viewed as a disgrace for white Australia. The victims still suffer from mental disorders, depression and low self-esteem. They are more vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, are more likely to commit crimes or to commit suicide, and are unable to form a bond with their country and culture.[12]

It was decided in 1998 that, in order to commemorate the Aboriginal people and their ‘stolen generations’, an official public holiday would be introduced. Since then, the ‘National Sorry Day’ has been celebrated annually on the 26th May. However, it was only in 2008 that then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, officially apologised to the Aboriginal people for what transpired during the ‘stolen generations’. The recognition of the crimes as genocide is, however, controversial in the Australian society to this day.[13]

Photo: Carol Neuschul/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Aboriginal people today

123 years after the Aboriginal people first came into contact with the British colonial rulers, the total population has decreased from approximately 750,000 to 31,000 (1911). Despite the fact that the Aboriginal People, Torres Strait Islanders and South Sea Islanders still lead in all negative statistics, such as cardiac diseases, cancer, diabetes, respiratory infections, depression and suicide, the total population has risen tenfold. During a national census in 1996, a total of 352,970 people identified themselves as Aboriginal (314,120), Torres Strait and South Sea Islanders (28,744) or both (10,106). Nevertheless, their life expectancy of 50-55 years for men and 55 years for women is still significantly lower than the average of the Australian population.[14]

Even today, Aboriginal people still have to fight against racism in the form of violent assaults or disregard of their rights. What is shocking is that, in 2015, approximately 15,000 indigenous children lived in ‘out-of-home-care’ – five times more than during the ‘stolen generations’.[15] You can read more about the situation of Aboriginal People at Survival International’s page.

*In order to maintain fluency of the text we mostly speak of Aboriginal people but Torres Strait Islander, as well as South Sea Islanders must also be considered.

Sources and more information:

# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.

# National inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (1997) “Bringing them home”. Available at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf (Stand 11.01.2017)

# Tatz, C. (1999) „Genocide in Australia“. An AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper No. 8. Available at: http://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/products/discussion_paper/tatzc-dp08-genocide-in-australia.pdf (Stand 11.01.2017)

# www.news.com.au (2014) „Australia in the grip of a ‘new stolen generation’, indigenous children forcibly removed from homes„ by Matt Young, available at: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/australia-in-the-grip-of-a-new-stolen-generation-indigenous-children-forcibly-removed-from-homes/news-story/88e06e6db098dfddf39e8412674734c0 (Stand 11.01.2017)

# www.sbs.com.au (2015) “Explainer: Removal of Indigenous children: facts, figures and terms you need to know”, available at: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/explainer/removal-indigenous-children-facts-figures-and-terms-you-need-know (Stand: 11.01.2017)

# www.theguardian.com (2014) “Another stolen generation: how Australia still wrecks Aboriginal families” by John Pilger, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/21/john-pilger-indigenous-australian-families (Stand 11.01.2017)

# www.theguardian.com (2016) “Indigenous kids are still being removed from their families, more than ever before” by Larissa Behrendt, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/commentisfree/2016/feb/13/eight-years-after-the-apology-indigenous-kids-are-still-being-removed-from-their-families (Stand: 11.01.2017)

[1]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 7-8
[2]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 119
[3]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 119
[4]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 119
[5]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 119, Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 15
[6]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 120, Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 15
[7]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 17
[8]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 16
[9]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 24-25
[10]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 24-25
[11]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 24-25
[12]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 24-25
[13]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 121
[14]Tatz, C. (1999) pp. 9-10
[15]www.sbs.com.au (2015) / www.theguardian.com (2014 + 2016) / www.news.com (2014)

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