Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries

Buckely's Chance

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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Aboriginal War
Friends or foes?

History Wars
Denying contestability

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

Contemporary racism against Indigenous People

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


William Buckley

Cultural reflections: cowboy battles indian for America. Convict joins Aboriginal tribe in Australia.

Fabricated myths in Aboriginal history

" During the intervals of duty, our greatest source of entertainment now lay in cultivating the acquaintance of our new friends, the natives." Military officer Watkin Tench

Australian Aborigines have suffered at the hands of various colonial, state and federal governments as well as the institutions that governments have wielded their power through. Such suffering has included being targeted with legislation that has restricted their freedom of movement, taken their land, placed restrictions on land ownership, made their children wards of the state, prevented the economic exploitation of land, criminalised their social relationships, controlled their wages, pushed drinking underground, exploited their labour like slavery and defined their stereotype using statistics of social failure.

Not only have most contemporary historians avoided naming the individuals who devised the policies, they have avoided raising awareness of the policies entirely. Instead, the historians have fabricated myths of unnamed white Australians committing genocide on the "frontiers" and denying citizenship to their Aboriginal countrymen. Such myths have dominated discussion of Aboriginal history and shaped contemporary political action.

Arguably, the historians have been motivated by two agendas in their approach to history. The first has been to help individuals and institutions evade responsibility for past and present policies. This has been achieved by focussing outrage on unverifiable actions by unknown Australians rather than real actions by identifiable people and institutions. The second agenda has been to engage in a kind of socio-economic prejudice. By placing culpability on the "average" white Australian, the historians have been able to portray themselves as morally and intellectual superior in comparison. Anyone who has supported the historian's narrative has subsequently been able to share in this prejudice and thus able to see themselves as a superior class.

Ironically, the cultural record suggests that not only has the "average" Australian not been guilty of the injustices they have been accused of, but they have actually tried to gain status of their own by associating themselves with Aboriginal culture. In other words, whereas one class of Australians has tried to gain status by defining themselves as the Aborigines' great white protector, the other has tried to gain status by using Aboriginal words, place naming, music and customs as a way of building their identity as Australians.

Primary sources relating to indigenous issues

Fabrication 1 –Racism against Aborigines started with Convicts wanting to feel superior

Historians like the idea of denouncing Convicts (and Australians by extension) as racist because it allows them to feel non-racist by comparison and thus demonstrate that they are of a superior class. The evidence in support of Convict racism perhaps stems from a naïve understanding of psychology that proposes that membership of a low status group will breed prejudice against another social group. For example, historian and art critic Robert Hughes proposed,

‘galled by exile and humiliated by poor status and, therefore, hated and ill-treated Aboriginal people because they desperately needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves’ (19)

If Hughes' assumptions of human psychology were true, then it would be expected that black American slaves would have been prejudiced towards Indigenous Americans as they too would have needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves. In fact, it would be expected that any victimised minority group would become the most prejudiced groups in society.

In reality, the pattern of prejudice predicted by Hughes does not occur. This is because the victim-becomes-a-bully psychology occurs when people are individualistic in their thinking and are trying to find a place in an individualistic hierarchy. Theories such as Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) propose that adopting a social identity actually counters much of the individualistic thinking so that instead of prejudice being displaced onto a weaker group, values are defined in a way that allow it to be reflected back at the oppressor.

 In Australia, the Convict class was multi-racial and all Convicts (irrespective of their colour, religion or national origin) shared the Convict stain together. Skin colour was irrelevant in comparison to the stain. Newspaper reports of the time talked of divisions between emancipists (freed convicts) and exclusives (free settlers). This would suggest that prejudices were directed against each other, not Aborigines. For example, one report stated:

"Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights. " (20)

There is also some evidence to suggest that some Convicts would have looked upon Aborigines as potential allies in their causes. Firstly, after the American war of independence, the British discontinued Convict transportation to Canada as it was felt that the Convict class was subversive, rebellious and would side with anti-British interests in Canada. Perhaps this fear was based on observations of Convicts in the US or just the logical expectation that treating people inhumanely would not breed loyalty. It would therefore be a reasonable assumption to make that Convicts would have been sympathetic to Aborigines and/or wanted to join them. Some Convicts, such as John Casor, William Buckley and John Wilson, escaped to live with Aboriginal tribes. Mixed-race sealing communities were also often described as being composed of ex-Convicts and these communities were often broken up by the military.

There is also some evidence that there was a Convict identity which aligned itself with Aborigines. Such evidence can be found in  the words of one literate Convict, JF Mortlock,:

"I sympathized with a few unfortunate aborigines, transported hither from New South Wales, for resenting the intrusion and aggression of the English, by some of whom they have been known to be shot as food for the dogs. Nothing but a mixture of prudence and quiet energy could enable me to steer a course offensive neither to the authorities nor to a class of persons among whom fate had cast me on terms of equality - or rather inferiority- for these desperadoes looked with much contempt upon new-comers, who did indeed live far more wretchedly (unless mechanics or officers,) than men accustomed to existence in the bush."


Fabrication 2 - Competition for resources forced Aborigines and colonists into conflict

Due to the lack of written records of "frontier wars" in Australia, many historians have written about competition for resources as the evidence that frontier wars must have occurred. For example, Benjamin Madley from Yale University argued:

“Conflict between indigenous people and settlers often revolves around two interlocking economic issues: access to natural resources and control of territory. Both groups need natural resources and land to achieve their definition of economic success. The loss of their food supply and land threatened both Aboriginal society and their physical survival.” (5)

Similar myths are common in popular culture. For example, the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia (which relies on academic consultants such as Dr Michael Cathcart from the University of Melbourne) said,

“Aborigines were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining.” (1)

Finally, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities proposed (20):

"conflict was the result of competition for land which settlers required for crops and the grazing of sheep and cattle; Aboriginal people relied upon the same land for food and water (Kidd 1997:14). The initial response by the Administration was to dispatch troops to police the frontier, but the expanding area of land to be covered made this an increasingly difficult task. A lawless frontier environment soon existed where it was impossible to control the conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. In response to this challenge the Administration ordered settlers to defend themselves and ordered Aboriginal people to stay away from European habitation. There is no evidence that Aboriginal people understood and agreed with these orders to stay away from European settlement as the conflict on the frontier continued."

Such explanations for conflict were perhaps naively applied to Australia because they were the foundation of conflict in other colonial countries such as the USA. To be more precise, because Americans slaughtered bufalloe in the thousands and deprived the Indians of food in the process, it is presumed the same thing must have happened in Australia. In reality, over 90% of Australia is dry, flat and arid and almost three-quarters of the land cannot support agriculture in any form. In these areas, it was only possible to live off the land as a hunter gatherer. In short, 3/4s of Australia has never had farmers wanting the land thus the Aborigines on the land never had colonists competing with them for resources.

The land's lack of suitability for agriculture is the chief reason why Australia has almost no significant inland cities and why Australia never developed American-style pioneering stories of colonists heading west and founding new towns. It is also why Australia's farming regions have very low density populations.

In areas where agriculture did develop, colonists and Aborigines ate different things so there was little competition for food. Among other things, the Aborigines ate kangaroos, ants, roots, moths, grubs and lizards. The early colonists were starving and would have eaten the Aboriginal food if they knew how to find it and were prepared to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Because most were not prepared, or able, to live a nomadic life, they farmed imported crops and animals such as cows, chickens, goats, sheeps, and pigs. (Many went feral where they perhaps became an extra food source for Aborigines.)

As well as not being conducive to high-density farming communities, the Australian environment also contained a host of native animals that increased as a result of farming. The kangaroo was one such animal. The farmers' dams gave kangaroos permanent water supplies that helped them survive drought. Even though farmers wanted to kill the kangaroos as pests, or build fences to keep them out, the kangaroos simply jumped the fences, drank the water, ate the grass, and then hopped back into the bush where they remained a valuable food source for Aborigines. Consequently, the colonists and natives didn't have to fight over food as they did in other colonial countries.

Finally, once Convict transportation came to an end, farmers looked to Aborigines as their best chance of getting workers. Few free settlers wanted to live in the harsh outback to do low paid work associated with Convicts (who had previously been used as a kind of slave labour on farms); however, the Aborigines already living there were prepared to work in exchange for some European items like blankets, axes and flour (which they desired.) Reflecting these exchanges, tens of thousands of Aborigines were born on cattle stations. Furthermore, 70 per cent of contemporary Aborigines live in urban areas because their ancestors graviated to urban areas to find the things they desired.

In regards to Aborigines being pushed off land due to mining, contrary to Lonely Planet Guide book stereotypes, most of Australia isn’t a mine site. Less than 0.02 percent of the Australian land mass is mined. So little of the Australian land mass is mined, or has been mined, that most Australians have never even seen a mine. In the colonial era, mining was even less advanced.


Kangaroo and buffalo - One species likes to congregate in small groups near woodland and flees in different directions when scared. One species herds in the thousands on the plains. One increased in numbers after colonisation. One was decimated.

Fabrication 3 – Because colonists had guns, they were able to defeat Aborigines in battle

There is a presumption that white colonists were able to brutalise Aborigines. The presumption is perhaps based on a racist belief that whites are naturally stronger or a naive belief that they had guns at their disposal. For example, Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, authors of High School textbooks, wrote:

"Gangs of escaped convicts raided Indigenous camps, killing men and kidnapping women." (13)

The stereotype of the Convict’s strength over Aborigines is probably derived from American movies showing muscular men who have grown up fighting in gangs. In truth, most Convicts were malnourished and had skills in things like picking pockets - not deflecting Aboriginal spears using their leg irons. Furthermore, most didn't have guns because if they had been supplied with them, they could have shot their masters.

An account by Watkin Tench illustrated how unarmed and malnourished Convicts accustomed to petty theft fared against people who had been engaging in hand-to-hand combat for 60,000 years:

"March, 1789. Sixteen convicts left their work at the brick-kilns without leave, and marched to Botany Bay, with a design to attack the natives, and to plunder them of their fishing-tackle and spears: they had armed themselves with their working tools and large clubs. When they arrived near the bay, a body of Indians, who had probably seen them set out, and had penetrated their intention from experience, suddenly fell upon them. Our heroes were immediately routed, and separately endeavoured to effect their escape by any means which were left. In their flight one was killed, and seven were wounded, for the most part very severely: those who had the good fortune to outstrip their comrades and arrive in camp, first gave the alarm; and a detachment of marines, under an officer, was ordered to march to their relief. The officer arrived too late to repel the Indians; but he brought in the body of the man that was killed, and put an end to the pursuit. The governor was justly incensed at what had happened, and instituted the most rigorous scrutiny into the cause which had produced it. At first the convicts were unanimous in affirming, that they were quietly picking sweet-tea (2), when they were without provocation assaulted by the natives, with whom they had no wish to quarrel. Some of them, however, more irresolute than the rest, at last disclosed the purpose for which the expedition had been undertaken; and the whole were ordered to be severely flogged: Arabanoo was present at the infliction of the punishment; and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on the occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only." (4)



Castle Hill Rebellion

Contemporary stories of Convicts raiding Aboriginal camps to kill the men and carry off the women are based on an assumption that Convicts were stronger fighters than Aborigines. In truth, most accounts of Convicts  indicate that they were bloody awful in battle, which was understandable considering most were malnourished thieves. In 1804, about 330 of the Irish Convicts launched a full scale insurrection. Some were armed with guns after breaking into farm houses but most just had pikes (spears) or farming tools. After being engaged by 57 British soldiers, the stunned mob was fired upon. After 15 minutes of confusion, it fled to the bush. The dispirited Convicts surrendered over the next few days.


Fabrication 4 – There is a lack of awareness of frontier wars because Australians are too embarrassed by them

There is no doubt that there was conflict amongst individual members of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society but until recently, no one had believed that there had been conflict between groups necessary to categorise a conflict as a war. In fact, one early account of settlement had military officer Watkin Tench writing,

" During the intervals of duty, our greatest source of entertainment now lay in cultivating the acquaintance of our new friends, the natives."

Henry Reynolds, a research professor at the University of Tasmania, was the chief historian responsible for proliferating incorrect myths of a frontier war. In 1999 Reynolds said,

"We all played cowboys and Indians and we all knew names of chiefs and tribes and yet we knew very little about what had happened in Australia, because we -- never in the 20th century were we comfortable with the idea that war was going on" (3)

Even if what Reynolds said were true, he didn't explain why Americans, Argentinians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and South Africans had been comfortable with the idea of war between colonists and natives but "we" Australians were not. Likewise, Reynolds didn’t explain why other colonial countries were so proud of their victories over the natives that they created national holidays and movie genres to commemorate them, while "we" Australians were so ashamed that "we" had to pretend to be friends.

Battle of Blood River

In other colonial countries, battles between colonists and natives were celebrated in art, songs, poetry and national holidays. For example, in South Africa The Battle of Blood River was said to be a battle between 500 Afrikaneers and 20,000 Zulus in 1838. Legends developed that only 3 Afrikaneer fell for the 3,000 Zulus that were killed. The Afrikaneers celebrated their victory as an example of divine intervention and for most of the 20th century, the date of the battle had been observed as a public and religious holiday by the white South African government. If colonials in Australia had been killing Aborigines, at the very least, they had a very different public morality towards it.

Ironically, Reynolds seemed unable to grasp the significance of Australians playing cowboy and Indians instead of stockmen and Aborigines. Nor did he grasp the significance of Australians singing patriotic songs like Waltzing Matilda that used aboriginal words like jumbuck, coolabah and billabong to build its patriotic credentials and most of rural Australia adopting Aboriginal place names like Wagga Wagga and Mullumbimby instead of the names of European dignataries. Nor did Reynolds grasp the significance of old colonial farmhouses being located in isolated areas without any evidence of precautions being made to protect the inhabitants against attack by Aboriginal people (e.g, cross shaped slits in walls to fire a gun.) Finally, Reynolds never grasped the significance of Australian colonial paintings rarely depicting battles against Aborigines and if conflict was depicted, it tended to be sympathetic to Aborigines. It seemed as though the only evidence of war was in Reynold’s writings. The wider cultural fingerprints of the frontiers painted a very different picture. Unfortunately for Reynolds, history is not only recorded in the pages of a book and therefore it can't just be fabricated by writing fiction as if it were history.

Admittedly, there has been the occasional example of a region being named to glorify a white massacre of Aborigines. For example, in the Myall Creek region of NSW, colonists named Vinegar Hill, Slaughterhouse Creek, and Gravesend in tribute to themselves for killing Aborigines in those locations. Although these namings do reflect the fact that certain areas celebrated the killing of Aborigines, it needs to be acknowledged that such namings were rare and attitudes seemed to change once the murderers were prosecuted. On the whole, Australia was named in a way that seemed to indicate that colonists wanted to respect the fact that the areas they were moving into already had names and people living there.

The Australian authors of Lonely Planet Guide books have also been fond of promoting the war narrative as they try to sell Australian holidays to the world. According to the 2009 edition, which consulted Dr Michael Cathcart from the University of Melbourne:

"When Captain Phillip's penal settlement came to town, kidnappings and punishment became the norm, with the explicit aim of terrifying Aborigines into submission...but there was resistance in other forms: Aboriginal freedom-fighting groups began to spring up, led by storied indigenous leaders including Bennelong, Pelmuwuy and Mosquito, a warrior from the Broken Bay people. The freedom fighters were eventually crushed as the settlers resorted to more barbaric methods to achieve total domination."

Indeed there were three kidnappings (Bennelong, Colbee and Arabanoo) under Phillip's rein, but the intention of these was for Governor Phillip to open a dialogue with the locals. Once a dialogue was opened, each of the Aborigines was free to leave. There were also punishments but these were mostly inflicted on Convicts who wronged Aborigines, not the other way around. These barbaric punishments did terrify Aborigines, not because they feared meeting the same fate, but because they were savage. As told by military officer Watkin Tench:

“At first the convicts were unanimous in affirming, that they were quietly picking sweet-tea (2), when they were without provocation assaulted by the natives, with whom they had no wish to quarrel. Some of them, however, more irresolute than the rest, at last disclosed the purpose for which the expedition had been undertaken; and the whole were ordered to be severely flogged: Arabanoo was present at the infliction of the punishment; and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on the occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only." (4)

As for Bennelong (who the Lonely Planet Guide defined as a freedom fighter) he took a fondness to European clothes and started lecturing other Aborigines on the need to dress in a dignified way. In response, they mocked his pompous manners. He eventually died from alcohol abuse. Pelmuwuy was shot and beheaded but it is debateable as to whether he fought a war or just tried to uphold tribal law. In 1897, Governor Hunter met several parties of Aborigines near Botany Bay. Pemulwuy was among them. According to one report, Pemulwuy,

‘spoke with one of the gentlemen of the party; enquiring of him whether the governor was angry, and seemed pleased at being told that he was not.’

Musquito made enemies amongst both Aboriginal and colonial communities. After killing and mutiliating Aboriginal women, other Aborigines captured him and passed him over to colonial authorities, who wanted him for raiding settlers' farms. Rather than execute him as they would a European Convict, the authorities transported him to Norfolk Island and then Tasmania. He then went bush and joined a gang of outlaws.



William Buckley

Convict William Buckley escaped from the Sorrento penal settlement in 1803. The settlement was then disbanded and with nothing heard of Buckley, it was presumed that he had died. 33 year later, a farmer came upon a strange white man speaking an aboriginal language. He had a extremely long beard and wore possum skins. Once the man learnt to speak English again, he informed the authorities that he was William Buckley and had spent 33 years living with the Aborigines. His story amazed the colonial population. He was pardoned and became a respected civil servant. Buckley’s story had some parallels with the American movies Dances with Wolves and Avatar, except Buckely was pardoned, rather than ostracised, for his relationship with Aborigines.


Drysdale Ruins

Drysdale The Ruins (1965): An Aborigine stands over the failed attempts of colonists to expand inland.


Fabrication 5 - In Tasmania, the Aborigines were exterminated due to a “black line” of genocide

A lot of historians like the idea that genocide occurred in Australia’s past. As a consequence, they shape the facts of the past to fit their desire for genocide. A great example of the distortion is the "black line" of 1830, which was an 'Aboriginal hunt' that cost £30,000, involved 5,000 men, and lasted for seven weeks. White historians have seized upon the figures to portray Tasmania's colonisation as a holocaust of European savagery. One of these white historians is Jennifer Isaacs, a self-defined expert on Aboriginal culture who has set herself up as a consultant to government. In an emotional account, Ms Isaacs wrote in 1987:

"In Tasmania the white invasion and occupation was complete and the whole Aboriginal population was systematically annihilated. A few children survived to be secretly reared as stockmen on the mainland, but the survivors of the ‘Black Line’ led an isolated and heart-rending existence in forced exile in a small white supervised community on Flinders Island where they died one by one. Today a small stone church marks the spot on a cliff where the last of the Tasmanians sat in their Victorian costumes looking over the sea towards Tasmania." (6)

In reality, the black line was a complete failure and it did not result in the "systematic annihilation" of Aborigines, as Isaacs declared. Despite the cost, the time, and the manpower invested in it, the line only netted one man and one boy. In that regard, it was a bit like America spending billions of dollars on the invasion of Afghanistan, yet failing to eliminate Al Qaeda or catch Osama Bin Laden. In the context of war propaganda, America's failure was demoralising for themselves, but inspiring for their enemies. Likewise, the ability of the two tribes to outwit their adversary was potentially far more inspiring history than that of a weak race passively going into oblivion. The fact that Isaacs choose to portray Aborigines as victims of the black line, instead of victors over it, revealed a great deal about her ideology and moral character. Perhaps it also indicated her desire to tell a story in an emotional way for racist or commercial reasons, instead of an honest way for educational reasons.

In addition to omitting the fact that the line failed, the historians have omitted the true purpose. It was not designed to exterminate Aborigines, rather, it was designed to relocate two of the nine tribes on the island to uninhabited country from where they would no longer be in conflict with the whites, or be "corrupted" by whites. According to Governor Arthur (the man who devised the line), if Aborigines were not relocated, they would become extinct. In his own words:

"It was evident that nothing but capturing and forcibly detaining these unfortunate savages ... could now arrest a long term of rapine and bloodshed, already commenced, a great decline in the prosperity of the colony, and the extirpation of the Aboriginal race itself."

Because it was a policy of relocation, rather than eradication, it had more in common with the partition of Palestine that led to the creation of Israel than it did with the Nazis' final solution for the Jews. Maybe the people in the United Nations who divided Palestine were selfish and facilitated the cultural loss of the Palestinians by depriving them of access to sacred sights but that didn't change the fact that they believed division was the best way to achieve peace.

Today, around 16,000 Tasmanians define themselves as Aborigines, which is significantly more than the estimated 2,000 to 5,000 that existed at the time of colonisation. Admittedly, none of the present-day Aborigines are full-bloods and none live a lifestyle that even remotely resembles the Aborigines at the time of colonisation. In that regard, Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes are extinct, as Isaacs declared in 1987.

European diseases and interbreeding explain the reasons for the Aborigines' extinction. Because the Aborigines had been cut off from the mainland for 10,000 years, they had become inbred with little genetic diversity. This lack of diversity was disastrous when exposed to new diseases. Tribes also suffered breakdowns due to women being traded to white men in exchange for sugar, flour and axes, or choosing to live with white men. In a very short period of time, the loss of members to disease and loss of women to whites resulted in the tribes losing the ability to reproduce themselves in both the cultural and physical sense.

In 1833, George Augustus Robinson (a Christian missionary) persuaded around 300 Aborigines to move to Flinders Island with the promise of food, housing, and clothing. Over the following 14 years, 250 died of the flu or other diseases. The last one, Truganini, died in 1876.


Davey's proclaimation

Posters erected in Tasmania in the early 19th century. The posters aimed to communicate that blacks and whites would be treated equally by the British justice system.

Tasmanian Aborigine Tasmanian Aborigine

Tasmanian Aborigines - The Tasmanian Aborigines looked like Africans. The African appearance is an interesting fact that provides food for thought on the history of human migration as well as the unique characteristics of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes. Unfortunately, most Australians today are not aware of this uniqueness because contemporary historians have focussed more on alleged crimes against the Tasmanians rather than studied the type of people they actually were. Victimising a people is a very easy way to avoid learning anything about them.

Fabrication 6 - Colonists ignored the existence of Aborigines in order to steal their land

In the 1992 Mabo vs Queensland judgement, the High Court of Australia was asked to consider whether Queensland's annexation of the Torres Strait in 1879 had extinguished the land rights of the people already living there. The High Court said the annexation had not and that the same principles would apply to Britain's annexation of mainland Australia in 1770.

When justifying his verdict, one of the High Court judges, William Deane, said that Aborigines had been treated as a

"different and lower form of life whose very existence could be ignored for the purpose of determining the legal right to occupy and use their traditional lands."

Deane’s words were the classic example of how indignant words have been used to place culpability onto the average Australian rather than an institution that had the power. Specifically, Deane didn’t denounce the British laws that allowed British people to forcibly take land around the world and the laws that he made a career out of supporting. Instead, he denounced unnamed Australians for using racism as an excuse for incorrectly applying British laws.

Under 18th and 19th century British law, it was perfectly legal to invade countries and take land. In 1865, the doctrines were spelt out by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. According to Blackstone,

"Plantations or colonies, in distant countries, are either such where the lands are claimed by right of occupancy only by finding them desert and uncultivated and peopling them from the mother country; or where, when already cultivated, they have been gained by conquest, or ceded to us in treaties. And both these rights are founded upon the law of nature, or at least upon that of nations."

In regards to countries gained by conquest, Blackstone wrote

"But in conquered or ceded countries, that have already laws of their own, the King may indeed alter and change those laws but, till he does actually change them, the ancient laws of the country remain, unless such as are against the law of God as is the case of an infidel country."

In regards to terra nullius (unclaimed) lands, Blackstone wrote:

"But there is a difference between these two species of colonies with respect to laws by which they are bound. For it hath been held, that if an uninhabited country be discovered, and planted by English subjects, all the English laws then in being, which are the birth-right of every subject, are immediately in force."

Disregarding William Deane's proselytising, the High Court basically said that the colonists had treated Australia as unclaimed land (terra nullius) when they should have treated it as a conquested land. Therefore, Aboriginal land laws could still have been in existence at the time of the Mabo versus Queensland judgement in 1992. Although past governments had extinguished some Aboriginal land laws by granting title to colonists, and the present government of Australia could extinguish the rest if it wanted to, any Aboriginal laws extinguished after 1975 would need to consider the Racial Discrimination Act introduced by the Whitlam Labor government.

Deane's evasive tactics about colonists dehumanising Aborigines proved to be very beneficial for himself and the government of the day. A Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, subsequently appointed Deane to the position of Australian Governor General. In his position as Governor General, Deane gave speeches that promoted his judgement and whipped up hostility towards the "racist" Australians that questioned it.

Deane's speeches also served Keating. Before the judgment was delivered, Keating was being pressured to implement the Labor Party’s five principles approach to land rights that proposed: 1) Aboriginal land be held under freehold title 2) full legal protection of Aboriginal sites 3) Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land 4) access to mining royalty payments and 5) negotiated compensation for lost land.

While the principles were noble in theory, implementing the principles was politically difficult. Some groups (farmers and miners) didn't want Aborigines to claim land they were working on and some environmental groups didn’t want Aborigines to sell or economically develop wilderness if their title was recognised over it.

Deane’s proselytising and his judgement provided an easy way out for Keating. Firstly, to claim land, Deane passed laws that stipulated that Aborigines had to demonstrate continous association since 1788. The association would be assessed by tribunals. Secondly, if ownership were recognised, it would be in the form of a distinct title that forbade Indigenous people from selling their land or individually subdividing it. The consequence was that it became very difficult to economically develop the land.

Warren Mundine, head of NSW Native Title Services, later expressed frustrations with the restrictions when he stated:

"We own a couple of billion dollars' worth of land and it means sweet bugger-all for the Aboriginal community."

Richie Ahmat, chairman of the Cape York Land Council, went further and explained in more detail how  it reflected a vision of how Aborigines were expected to live in the landscape:

"Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS (The Wilderness Society) has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.
If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support."

In short, Keating's party platform had called for compensation for lost land, freehold title and economic empowerment. Keating used Deane's judgement as an excuse to water down the platform so that Aborigines would get tribunals that would assess claims if Aborigines had a continous association since 1788. If it was, there would be restrictions over future land to ensure it would be used in the manner non-Aboriginal groups wanted it to be used. Specifically, non-commericial.

In so many ways, Deane’s judgement was like those of previous generations of Aboriginal protectors in that it was based on a belief that Indigenous people can't be trusted to make decisions for themselves. Specifically, past protectors believed that Aborigines couldn't spend their money wisely so the protector had to control their wages and give them permission to buy things. Likewise, they believed Aboriginal people couldn't make good relationship choices so they had to ask permission of the protector before they could marry. In Deane's case, it was a belief that Indigenous people might sell the land or make poor deals with potential business partners; therefore, restrictions were needed to ensure their land would be used in the "correct" way.

John Batman

In 1835, John Batman made a contract with the Kulin people to buy land. There were numerous justifications for colonial authorities not to recognise the contract. One justification could have been to define the contract as unconscionable because Batman’s offerings of axes and food did not reflect the true value of the land. A second justification could have been that the Aborigines were not able to fully comprehend what they were doing. They were being asked to sign a British contract relating to land ownership when they had little familiarity with British contracts or European conceptions of land ownership.

Neither justification was used to invalidate the contract. Governor Bourke invalidated it because he deemed that all land belonged to the crown and not Aborigines. This would suggest that Aboriginal land laws had been invalidated by the British prior to the annexation of the Torres Strait by Queensland in 1879, which the High Court passed judgement on. Whether Queensland ever invalidated the laws of the agricultural Torress Strait Islanders was a different issue.

Fabrication 7 -Aborigines were not allowed to vote until 1967

There is a widespread myth that until a referendum in 1967, Aborigines were not allowed to vote in Australia and were not Australian citizens. This myth has been promoted by many white Australians, including Phillip Noyce, the director of the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. According to Noyce,

“Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens.” (8)

Ironically, Noyce said his movie was about giving a history lesson:

"For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim."

Something similar was said by historan Itiel Bereson. In Bereson's words:

" the refendum...gave Aboriginals the right to vote in Federal elections. But Aboriginal people still had a long struggle ahead of them." (10)

Despite their interest in making historical movies and writing history books, it seems neither Noyce or Bereson were interested in the basic facts of history. In reality, when the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW framed their constitutions in the 1850s, they gave the vote to all male subjects over the age of 21, Aborigines included. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn’t know about their voting rights and perhaps didn’t care. It wasn’t until the 1890s that any Aborigines actually commenced voting.

When the various colonies federated into one nation in 1901, Aborigines were not given the federal vote. However, they did retain their state voting rights and these state voting rights gave them federal voting rights. Under section 41 of the federal constitution, any person who held a state vote also held a federal vote. Legally, Aborigines in NSW, Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia have been allowed to vote in all federal elections. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn't know about their federal voting rights and perhaps didn't care. For people living in the bush, there are more interesting issues to think about than Question Time in Canberra. This lack of interest in politics was seen when Aborigines were given their own representative body in the form of ATSIC. In 1990, only around 10% of Indigenous people actually voted in ATSIC elections.

The Menzies Liberal and Country Party government officially gave the Commonwealth vote to all Aborigines in 1962. The states of Queensland and WA gave Aborigines the state vote around the same time.

Contrary to what Noyce and Bereson told people, the 1967 referendum had nothing to do with voting rights. The referendum asked whether Aborigines should be included in the federal census and whether the federal government should be given the power to make race-specific laws for Aborigines. Previously all Aboriginal issues had been left to the states because they were deemed to have more specialised knowledge regarding the needs of the individual tribes of their respective states.

In regards to citizenship, Aborigines attained British citizenship in 1770 when Captain Cook claimed eastern Australia for Britain. Australian citizenship did not exist until 1948 and Aborigines attained it at the same time as every other Australian if they chose to apply for it.

It was difficult to explain how Noyce could be ignorant about such a basic fact of Aboriginal history, yet still get government funding to direct an Aboriginal history movie. Perhaps Noyce lied because he wanted to exploit Aborigines to further his own political agendas. Alternatively, perhaps he wanted to make his movie appear more emotive by trying to provoke outrage at human rights violations. Either way, it was morally dubious for such a man to make an Australian history movie like Rabbit-proof Fence.  

The reasons for not counting Aborigines in the federal census has also been debated. Some have argued that it was intended to reduce the influence of Queensland and Western Australia by not counting their significant Aboriginal populations. Historian Keith Windschuttle took a different view and argued that it was intended to pressure Queensland and Western Australia into giving Aborigines the vote. Windschuttle explained that Section 25 of the Constitution stated:

"For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State, all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that state shall not be counted."

According to Windschuttle, because NSW, Vic, SA and Tas gave people of Aboriginal descent the state vote, the states gained greater representation in parliament. These states wanted to use this power to pressure Queensland and WA to give Aborigines the vote in the hope that there would be universal franchise laws.

While a cynic may still argue that the politicians in NSW, Vic, Tas, and SA were more concerned about their own power than Aboriginal welfare, it can't be denied that they supported a system that would have given WA and Queensland more power if they chose to give their Aboriginal populations the vote.

As for the merits of the referendum itself, in accordance with the doctrine of egalitarianism, 90% of Australians voted in favour of it. Even some dissenters had pro-Aboriginal ideas for voting no. Some argued that a yes vote would be a form of forced assimilation of Aborigines and destroy their free lifestyle. Some dissenters were also uncomfortable with the idea of making policies specifically for one racial group. They were happy for Aborigines to be counted in the census, but they liked the idea of the government not being able to make laws targeted at them.

Ironically, the referedum basically exended a law that had originally been created to give the federal government the power to discriminate against Chinese and Pacific Islanders during the era of the White Australia Policy. Arguably, a more progressive question would have been to strip the power of the federal government to make race-specific laws, not extend it.

Not all Aborigines were happy with the result of the referendum either. The chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu said:

  • The historic 1967 referendum - where Australians voted overwhelmingly to make Aborigines citizens and for federal government powers to legislate on their behalf - had been forced upon the Aboriginal nation.
  • Aboriginal people have never wanted to be equal with the white people of Australia.
  • The referendum had been inspired by guilt and had never considered the rights we Aboriginal people really had, or who we really were.

Aboriginal Vote

The 1967 was more about symbolism than substance. It was sold as a gesture of goodwill towards Aborigines. In hindsight, it seems symbolism and gestures of goodwill were not sufficient to stop Aborigines being defined by statistics of disadvantage. The goodwill existed. The logical plan did not.

1967 Referendum Concerning Aborigines

Most Australians believed the 1967 referendum was about equality of rights, not extending the Federal government’s power to make race-specific laws.


Fabrication 8 - Disadvantage in Aboriginal communities today stems from cultural loss

What constitutes disadvantage is a subjective judgement. Specifically, what is advantaged in the eyes of one person is disadvantaged in the eyes of someone else. For example, since the central government of China has regained control of Tibet, the life expectancy of Tibetans has almost doubled from around 32 years to 65 years. Nevertheless, the massive increase in economic opportunities and life expectancy has not stopped many Tibetans feeling that something has been lost and things should be done differently. Likewise, the wealthy puritan that lives to 90 but dies alone is more likely to be defined as advantaged by researchers than is the smoking boozing fornicating larrikin that dies at 50 surrounded by friends. Despite living the statistically disadvantaged life, it is the larrikin that has the life that popular culture would suggest holds the greater admiration.

The value-laden nature of the word “disadvantage” has been recognised by Posselt (2000 p 6), who wrote:

“Measuring socio-economic disadvantage is not a straightforward exercise because disadvantage is a relative concept which involves value.”

Labelling Aborigines with the word 'disadvantage' has some prejudicial elements because it implies that non-Aborigines are the model that Aborigines should aspire to be like. Most non-Aborigines blame themselves (or the bogans of their race) for Aborigines being unable to achieve the benchmark that they set. They argue that Aborigines are victims whose lowly position stems from two centuries of land dispossession, racism, and cultural loss.

While the self-blame position is in the majority, a few individuals have argued that the statistics of disadvantage are in fact related to the prevalence of traditional culture. Indeed, statistics back up the claim. Broadly speaking, the more urbanised the Aborigine, the less likely they are to be defined by statistics of disadvantage. Likewise, most disadvantage occurs in the northern part of Australia where Aborigines have had land title recognised and where they still maintain traditional ways. Disadvantage is lowest in the heavily populated south-east regions where the cultural loss and land dispossession has been the most severe. In other words, in areas where their lifestyle is most like non-indigenous Australians, their socioeconomic statistics are most like non-indigenous Australians.

It should be noted; however, that despite rural Aborigines being more prone to be defined as 'disadvantaged,' research by the ABS (quoted by Robinson 2010) (11) has found that Aborigines in rural areas are more happy with their own lives than are Aborigines in the cities.

Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

The politics of suffering: Indigenous policy in Australia since the 1970s - Peter Sutton

"Eminent epidemiologist Stephen Kunitz (1994:187) has said that: failure to at least acknowledge the possibility that it is not simply poverty and oppression -real as these may be - but one’s own culture that may contribute to some of the problems that confront so many communities may limit the likelihood of growth and positive change."




3)Race wars written out of Australian history: historian -

4)A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson by Watkin Tench

5)BENJAMIN MADLEY Journal of Genocide Research (2004), 6(2), June, 167–192 - Patterns of frontier genocide 1803–1910: the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia

6)ISAACS, Jennifer, Australian Dreaming. 40000 years of Aboriginal history. Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1987

7)Keith Windschuttle, The fabrication of Aboriginal history

8)Rabbit-Proof Fence: Phillip Noyce's Diary


10) Bereson, Itiel, (2000) Australia in the 1960s, Echidna Books

11) Robinson, N (2010, September 30). Indigenous urban dwellers better off but not happier The Australian Accessed 2010

12) Posselt, H (2000) Socio-economic disadvantage across urban, rural and remote areas. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

13) Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, Humanities Alive Second Edition (2010)

14)Martelle, Scott (June 28, 2006). "A Different Read on 'Mockingbird'; Long a classroom starting point for lessons about intolerance, the Harper Lee classic is being reexamined by some who find its perspective limited", The Los Angeles Times, p. 6.

15) - January 2009

16) - January 2009


18)War brewing over indigenous alcohol bans February 06, 2013

19) Hughes, R. The Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, London, 1987

20) 1) Australian Heritage Database;place_id=105869 Accessed March 2013

21) From Chronicle Of Australia 2000
Penguin Aus.





John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)