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Commentary on: European invasion and settlement »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

They said it was no one's land...

1788 - Europeans arrive on the Australian continent, subordinating the Indigenous population to their rule

Captain Arthur Phillip commanded the First Fleet, comprising a considerable number of convicted felons (convicts) and their armed military guard. He raised the Union Jack flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.

The Europeans who came to the Australian continent in the late eighteenth century brought with them a set of ideas, values and beliefs which were to determine much of the development of relations between different cultural groups over the next two hundred years. There was diversity amongst these values, and they did change over time. However the most important and far-reaching assumption was that the Indigenous people had no system of land ownership, agriculture, animal husbandry or fixed dwellings. They lived in this sense "off the land", but not "on the land". In this regard they were seen to have the same relationship to the land as wild animals - and thus the land was said to belong to no one - it was, in the Latin phrase of the time "Terra Nullius".

The British government representatives were however charged by London with the protection of the Indigenous people they found. But disease, conflict with settlers over the invasion of their lands and attacks on Indigenous women, and systematic executions and battles, meant that the Indigenous population, despite their resistance, were relentlessly subdued and subordinated to European rule. Many hundreds of thousands died in the generation after first contact with the British.

Andrew Markus, a Melbourne historian of Australian race relations, has identified six main factors accounting for the broad pattern of race relations during the first generation or so of colonisation:

i. The Aboriginal and European economies and ways of life were incompatible;

ii. The Aborigines lacked the military strength to impose their will on the Europeans, or to force Europeans to modify their behaviour to take Aboriginal needs into account - despite the fear Aboriginal resistance generated amongst many Europeans and the merciless revenge they took for Aboriginal attacks;

iii. Most Aborigines had no place, a few Aborigines a lowly place, in European society;

iv. Aborigines were little attracted by the Europeans' social structure and value system, or for the most part, the lowly jobs available to them;

v. Most Europeans found that they could only secure their claims to ownership of land taken from Aborigines through the use of force, and through ensuring Aborigines lived continually in fear of Europeans;

vi. The government was willing to sanction the use of violence against Aborigines by private citizens, the police and the army, despite the fact that Indigenous people were under the protection of the Crown.

Governor Arthur's instructions - Imposing British justice in Tasmania

In Tasmania, one of the first governors, George Arthur, faced rising warfare and resistance from the local people. In cartoons - such as the one on this screen - distributed to local Indigenous people, he tried to explain to them the meaning of British justice: the idea that everyone was equal before the law, and that they would be hung if they killed any white invaders (and whites would receive the same punishment if they killed them).

Van Diemen's Land was named and claimed for Holland by a Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, in the seventeenth century and only later named Tasmania by the British. With settlement in 1803, attempts were made to manage the reality that, whatever else it was, it was not a "terra nullius" - the British knew that it was an inhabited land which strictly speaking should only be settled with the agreement of the local population. Given that this agreement could only be extracted by force, the Tasmanian invasion was also a sustained imposition on the Indigenous people of a foreign set of rules, laws and ideologies, and a totally different economic system.

By 1804 Europeans were firing on peaceful Aboriginal groups, beginning a period of brutality, murder and child-stealing, culminating in open war by 1830. By the mid 1820s the then Lieutenant Governor George Arthur sought to intervene by imposing British law on both the Indigenous people and the whites who harassed them. He issued proclamations with the intention of explaining to the Aboriginal people in picture form that the law would protect them from European aggression, but would punish them if they retaliated against the whites who brutalised them. The strategy did not end the war of resistance.

Further reference:

Markus, Andrew Australian Race Relations, 1788-1993, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Reynolds, Henry Fate of a Free People, Melbourne, Penguin Books Australia, 1995.

Reynolds, Henry The Other Side of the Frontier, Melbourne, Penguin Books Australia, 1982.

Yarwood, A T and Knowling, M J Race Relations in Australia - a history, Sydney, Methuen, 1982.