Monday, April 9

A tiny slice of Australia history

The first Australians

I vividly recall descriptions of aborigines from my early school books depicted as small tribes of nomadic hunter gatherers utilizing Stone Age implements and whose only shelter from the elements were primitive temporary shelters constructed from branches and the bark of trees.
A marked indifference to their culture ( with a few notable exceptions ) ensured only oblique references to their colorful carvings on the rock faces or the occasional news item about corroborees ( a ceremonial dance) or to “payback punishment " handed out to an offender of a tribe violating ancient law. Looking back to the 1950’ we find the first Australians did not rate a mention in a typically chronicled “A short history of Australia", notwithstanding an existence stretched back maybe 70,000 years. Those references that did make their way in the history books inevitably were prone to superficially. The significance of dreamtime stories which gave meaning to successive generations and ensured an ongoing affinity with the land was mostly overlooked as was their system of law. Prescribed penalties under their law were administered by the victims or their kinship groups under the watchful supervision of elders which generally meant a satisfactory end of the matter. Hence they saw no need to set up powerful rulers which was interpreted as a lack of human development

The fact the first Australians were able to survive successfully for so long under such a harsh environment was due to their optimum use of very scarce resources. This was achieved by trading between nations where abundant food and resources seasonally available in one region were traded with those exclusive to another over a vast network of tracks. Communication was via a painted message stuck to afford safe entry to the negotiators; meetings were then arranged to co-ordinate important ceremonial events or resolve tribal disputes and set up trade negotiations.

But the colonizers never contemplated any form of negotiations from the moment James Cook first proclaimed Australia as land belonging to the motherland. Even so, any such negotiation over who owned land would have seemed an anachronism to the aborigines as to them the land owns us as it was bestowed in the dreamtime. During the early period of the colony, according to historian Geoffrey Blamey, the colonizers formed a rather grand view the indigenous inhabitants would willingly forgo their culture and way of life to join what was imagined could be a utopian state. In other words a resplendent bi product of Mother England minus the ugly parts given the benefit of hindsight. But to the aborigines this must have seemed simply bizarre, watching in horror routine hangings, floggings and observing an almost comical inability to live off the land.

Various experiments were subsequently undertaken with young aborigines who were educated and dressed in fine clothes on the expectation upon returning to their tribe (extolling the virtues of the colonizers) they would likely act as a catalyst for aborigines to join in to help build the enlightened colony This experiment worked to the extent their learning exceeded expectations, but, at the very first opportunity, the young men bolted to return to their tribes. Acutely homesick, life amongst the tribe was indeed idyllic in comparison to the drudgery of work.

As the colony expanded from large scale immigration beginning in the 1830’s the aboriginal numbers were already in rapid decline, decimated by disease (over which they had little natural defense) alcoholism and conflicts with the pastoralists. An excellent introduction to aboriginal history in the far north coast region of NSW at Nambucca is included in the early chapters of Valley of the Crooked River from historian Norma Townsend. The numbers of aborigines in Australia must remain purely hypothetical since no census was ever undertaken. Townsend refers to the economist, Noel Butlin, whose demographic and ecological modeling posits a much higher figure than what was previously believed. From his analyis, according to Townsend, he estimates a population of 250,000 in 1788 for only just Victoria, which sadly by 1840had declined to 75,000.
As the pastoralists took over larger tracts of lands a type of guerrilla warfare broke out with power and might ultimately winning out without any lingering sense of injustice until 200 years later.
By the time European settlement was putting down its first tentative footprint, except for small isolated pockets, the first Australians way of life was already irretrievably in rapid decline.

Whilst Archeologists have more recently uncovered extensive stone buildings in Victoria used during seasonal eel faming and found evidence of agriculture (grasses similar to maize were seasonally planted and harvested) this has all come too late to counter prior notions of inferiority. This ubiquitous feeling (except for a few who fought for their rights and culture)of inferiority underpinned a nihilistic governmental attitude for assimilating aborigines into a European culture although it must be noted there was not an intention to cause all of the subsequent pain and suffering.

Under both Federal and State government administered programs Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from families to white families or church-run institutions under a cultural reprogram aimed at assimilation that only ended in the 1970s. It has been reported almost all Indigenous families had at least one child taken away. If you view the old newsreels there was no room for self doubt- smiling young aboriginal children are introduced to the cameras as delighted youngsters who now have a much brighter future.

Theses injustices remain as an ugly scar but were at least acknowledged finally in 2007- to the nation’s collective sigh of relief – when the government of the day simply said it was sorry.

Today encouraging signs are emerging - particularly from large scale mining companies who include traditional owners to serve on sustainable development advisory panels. Hence we are beginning to realize the importance of environmental performance, social investment and community development including the need for more employment for indigenous workers and contractors.
An example of some of the postive work now being undertaken is from Woodside who, under their Reconciliation Action Plan, engage indigenous populations over issues relating to employment, business participation, social investment and heritage to foster long lasting positive relationships.
Key achievements last year were: 45% increase in the indigenous work force, cultural awareness training for employees, cultural competency program for senior managers, leadership programs to better equip the companies commitment in relation indigenous participation, training programs for supervisors of indigenous employees, indigenous employees mentoring programs, encouragement to staff to promote membership in the Reconciliation Interest Group.

Other groups such as Fortescue have been particularly active in increasing employment facilitated by a partnership with the Department of Education and Workplace Relations and Pilberra TAFE. Fortescue employed an additional 300 indigenous workers last year.

The Fortescue approach is based on community engagement, the guaranteeing of a job after successfully completing training and ongoing development support with tailored literacy and number programs for employees or contractors

From Colony to nationhood

The first settlement in 1788 in Sydney was beset with problems founded principally on unwilling convict labour with those few settlers ill prepared for the harsh Australian landscape which was unsuited to their English farming methods. Little wonder the colony soon teetered on the brink of starvation before food rationing and provisions from abroad saved the day. A tentative foothold was finally achieved to brutally power ahead and the colony gave birth to the first newspaper in 1803 which was named the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser.

The paper was dominated by Official Notices and Orders. Its masthead proudly proclaimed that which was replicated on papers from the motherland: Published by Authority.
Nevertheless those attempting to eke out an existence must have experienced hard times judging by a notice of intended land seizure for unpaid government debts representing over 50% of settlers who were either unable or unwilling to pay their quit rents. There were further stern admonishments advising that slops would no longer be provided to the working convicts unless overdues for suits supplied were promptly settled with the authorities.

Beneath this veneer of civility the Sydney gazette was a mouthpiece for an administration with a disposition to brutality and which made no allowance for clemency. Around that time successive Irish immigrants fuelled numerous rebellions which were all put down although one in 1804 very nearly succeeded as widespread looting, seizures of guns and ammunitions gave rise to a sizeable armory. Retribution was always swift and brutal with public hangings.

Mostly migration in the early days was of convicts transported from Britain, Ireland and British colonies but by 1830’s a growing number from those same countries came under their own steam or by means of support from the various schemes available.

Under these increasing waves of new settlers and aided by exploration which made available large tracts of land in other states full scale agriculture evolved. The colony was exposed to the boom and bust of primary produce prices fluctuations but rescued to a large extent by the discovery of gold. Remarkably as farming became much more productive from new harvesting inventions combined with labour saving devices by the time Australia became a Federation in 1901, it's standard of living exceeded anywhere else in the world.

Despite a growing number of Chinese residents living in Australia then, the first step for the newly convened Federal parliament was to legislate the so called ‘White Australia policy’ to effectively ban Asian migration for the next fifty years.

It was not until the 1950's; Australia began to relax this policy until finally in 1973 – under a change in administration, Australia adopted a ‘multicultural’ immigration selection based on merit which later evolved to one predicated on skill and business experience.