Relations between Aborigines and colonists
Friends or foes?
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
Not a good fence builder
Mary Anne Bugg
Justice or resistance?
Contemporary racism against Indigenous People
Convicts and their legacy
How the past shapes the present
Regrets and floggings
Power and morality
White Man Black Woman
Was the nature of contact between Europeans and Aborigines in colonial Australia all bad and if so, what should have been done different to realise more harmonious relations?
The questions are important because perceptions of the past influence how people are seen in the present. For example, because contemporary historians typically define the nature of contact as universally bad, indigenous Australians of mixed heritage are often viewed as the descendants of European rapists and Aboriginal victims. Such perceptions can be seen in the work Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, authors of High School textbooks, who wrote:
"Today's surviving Indigenous Tasmanians are mostly descendants of Indigenous women who were kidnapped and enslaved by white sealers."
Likewise, Kay Merry, from the Department of History at Flinder’s University, wrote:
"Anarchy prevailed and countless Tasmanian Aboriginal women were kidnapped as slaves and concubines by the sealers who pillaged, raped and murdered, unchecked, for more than three decades...Despite the prevailing myth that the Tasmanian Aborigines did not survive the invasion of the British, in the mid 1970s, historians, such as Lyndall Ryan and Anne McMahon, wrote about the emergence of a new Aboriginal community in Bass Strait, descendants of predominantly white sealers and the Tasmanian Aboriginal women whom they abducted and forced to work as slaves."
Perhaps Indigenous Australians are not bothered by the perceptions that they are descendants of rapists but there is some reason to doubt the accuracy of primary sources that indicate that sexual relations between European men and Aboriginal women were always based on rape. One account that can be questioned concerned the removal of sealers and Aboriginal women from Kangaroo Island in 1819. The reasons for the removal were explained by Commander George Sutherland in The New British Province of South Australia:
"They are complete savages, living in bark huts like the natives, not cultivating any thing, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines, and getting spirits and tobacco in barter for the skins which they lay up during the sealing season. They dress in kangaroo skins without linen, and wear sandals made of seal skins. They smell like foxes...They have carried their daring acts to an extreme venturing on the main land in their boats and seizing on the natives particularly the women and keeping them in a state of slavery cruelly beating them on every trifling occasion and when at last some of these marauders were taken off the Island by an expedition from New South Wales these women were landed on the main with their children and dogs to procure a subsistence not knowing how their own people might treat them after a long absence. There are a few even still on the Island whom it would be desirable to have removed if a permanent settlement were established in the neighbourhood."
Although Sutherland proposed that the settlement was broken up out of a desire to save the Aboriginal women, there are numerous reasons to suspect he didn't have Aboriginal welfare at heart. Firstly, he insulted the sealers for living like the natives, which indicated that he lacked any respect for Aboriginal people. Secondly, it was planned that Kangaroo Island would be the site of the first free colony in South Australia. Pre-existing people, Aboriginal or sealers, would have complicated the settlement process (Kangaroo Island had no people in 1788). Therefore, an excuse was needed to remove the people on the island. Thirdly, once "liberated" from the sealers, the Aboriginal were dumped on the mainland where the commander acknowledged they might struggle to survive. This would indicate that their welfare really wasn't high on his agenda.
In Tasmania, many negative accounts written by the chief protector of Aborigines, GA Robinson, can also be questioned as being made in the pursuit of an agenda. One such account was the story of an Aboriginal woman named Bulrer, who Robinson alleged had been kidnapped by sealers when she was learning to crawl. According to Robinson, Bulrer remembered men rushing her campfire and carrying away 6 women. Robinson also told of her mistreatment and quoting her saying,
"the white men tie them and then they flog them very much, plenty much blood, plenty cry."
There are numerous reasons to doubt Robinson’s account. Firstly, Robinson's story proposed that Bulrer was stolen when she was learning to crawl. If true, she probably could not recall her theft. Secondly, if stolen as a baby, she would have been raised by the sealers. In which case, she would probably speak cockney English rather than Aboriginal pigeon English.
Aside from its implausible aspects, the story can be doubted due to Robinson’s attitude to Aboriginal women. Specifically, Robinson was a deeply religious man who wanted to relocate Aborigines to a closed religious community on Flinders Island. He managed to convince some Aboriginal men to move to the Island and then decided that they needed some women for the mission to have a future. To provide the women, in 1830, Robinson seized 14 Aboriginal women who were living with sealers with the plan of marrying them to Aboriginal men on his Flinders Island mission. The women's desires were no concern of his.
The sealers responded by sending a representative, James Munro, to appeal to Governor Arthur. Munro argued that the women wanted to stay with their sealer husbands and their children rather than marry Aboriginal men unknown to them. Arthur ordered the return of the women. The fact that the sealers would appeal to the governor indicated that they didn’t feel that they had anything to feel guilty about and that the accusations against them were baseless.
After losing the women, Robinson’s description of the sealer became even more critical. In 1831, Robinson wrote colonial secretary James Burnett in which he stated,
"The natives claim in bitter terms of the cruelty and to which they and their progenitors have been subjected to by the merciless white men, and also complain of their women having been forced away, and the put the question of how white men would like black men to steal white women."
Like his story of Bulre, there are numerous reasons to question Robinson’s honesty. Firstly, stating that the black men were asking how white men would feel if the situation were reversed seemed to be a case of Robinson making an argument that would resonate with Burnett. It was not; however, a reflection of how Aboriginal sexual customs suggested that the Aboriginal men would likely have felt. Specifically, in hunter gatherer culture, women were exchanged as commodities and/or forcibly seized from other tribes. If black men were aggrieved with Aboriginal women living with whites, it was probably more likely that they were aggrieved that white men had taken/traded for black women but not provided white women in return.
Mr Robinson's first interview with Timmy
Benjamin Duterrau painted Mr Robinson's first interview with Timmy as a tribute to Robinson. Duterrau believed that Robinson was a hero who persuaded Aboriginal people to ‘to quit barbarous for civilised life’. He shows Robinson surrounded by Aboriginal warriors with spears, but in the position of authority. With one hand, he firmly holds Timmy’s limp hand and with the other, he elevates it as if giving a lecture.
It is impossible to ever be sure how the Aboriginal women ended up with sealers and even how they felt about it. It is quite possible that the sealers did in fact rape and abduct Aboriginal women. The experiences of Convict women on the Lady Juliana demonstrated that colonial society didn't exactly have chivalrous attitudes to women. If Convicts or free migrants saw soldiers rape European women, they may have felt justified raping Aboriginal women. It is equally possible that the sealers simply traded for the Aboriginal women. In Aboriginal society, trade of women was custom and the sealers may have just assimilated those customs. Ironically, such trade could be defined as being open-minded to Aboriginal cultural practices. It is also possible that the sealers fell in love with the women and used kindness to persuade them to live with them. Sometimes those who are victimised go out to victimise others and sometimes they rebel against their victimisation to treat others with kindness. Consequently, just because authorities had less-than-enlightened values didn’t mean that those values were universally shared. Some evidence than perhaps Convicts and ex-cons had more enlightened attitudes to women comes in the story of bushranger Mathew Brady, which seemed common for bushrangers. According to one literate Convict,
"They have seldom been guilty of outrages on women, and sooner or later are invariably killed or taken or hanged." (4)
In the case of the sealers and Aboriginal women, the probability is that the true nature of the relationships were much like they are today in that some were based on pragmatic need to survive, some based on abuse and some were based on love. Using contemporary morality, the later couples were the most enlightened people in the colony.
Unfortunately, the authorities could only ever explain a relationship between a white man and black woman in terms of abuse. This explanation was used to create missions governed by a designated white "protector" who prevented whites having any contact with blacks (this even included white men associating with black men). These policies were refined by state governments and continued as recently as in 1962 in South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory. Even though they didn't stop sex across the colour line, they made it very difficult for the parents of mixed race children to form a family. Tens of thousands of mixed-race children ended up in orphanages and missions as a result of their parent's relationships being criminalised. In short, the most enlightened people in the colony were stigmatised and oppressed instead of receiving support. Their children were subsequently raised to believe that they were the bastard offspring of rapists.
1 - Cathy Bedsen, Robert Darlington, Alek Kwaiatkowski and Alan Wiggs, Humanities Alive Second Edition (2010)
2- quoted in The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia By James Boyce
3- George Sutherland in The New British Province of South Australia :
4 - J.F Mortlock, Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Dying for liberty
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
A larrikin and a hero
Australia's Greek Moment
World War 2
The eastern chapters
The expression of transnational identities
Values and policies of Australian leaders