a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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The Empires make contact...

Long before the Invasion - Asian seafarers and traders make contact with Indigenous Australians

Praus (fishing boats) from around Indonesia (Macassar being the name given to the people most likely to have travelled to the northern coast of Australia), such as the one in this 1940s image from the Northern Territory, were one of the ways in which the outside world made contact with the Indigenous people of Australia.

Asian seafarers and traders made contact with the Indigenous people of the continent hundreds of years before the Invasion. They traded for the right to harvest trepang or sea cucumbers from the shores of northern Australia, but they did not seek to settle or claim the land for themselves. In the seventeenth century, explorers from a number of European empires touched on the shores of the continent, sometimes as a consequence of their ships being wrecked, sometimes by design. But none sought to claim it for their distant empire until in the late eighteenth century an English naval officer, Captain James Cook, sailed his ship into a wide bay on the south-eastern coast. On a beach he sank the flagpole on which he raised the flag of his monarch and declared the land in all directions was now the property of this monarch. His instructions were these:

You are also with the consent of the Natives to take possession, in the name of the King of Great Britain, of convenient Situations in such Countries as you may discover, that have not already been discovered or visited by any other European Power... But if you find the Countries so discovered are uninhabited, you are to take possession of them for His Majesty.

Without their knowledge or consent, hundreds of thousands of people who lived in the land became subject to the power and interests of this king and his descendants and heirs, and would face over the coming centuries the full impact of this power. One of the first things that happened was the disappearance of their diversity, for the Europeans soon saw them all as one people - they would all be known as Aborigines (Ab - meaning from; Origine - meaning the beginning), and in the main their rich individual cultures would be denied and destroyed, their resistances massacred, and their attempts to retain self-respect and cultural integrity despised.

Further reference:

Rolls, Eric Sojourners - the epic story of China's centuries old relationship with Australia, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1992.

Reynolds, Henry "Native Title and Historical Tradition" in Attwood, B (ed) In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1996.