A Question of Genocide



There are two interesting items in the “News of Yesterday’’ this week. They are the death of Pemulwuy on 1st June 1802 and the Marbo decision on 2nd June 1992.  These two anniversaries provide an opportunity to examine some of the circumstance behind the treatment of the original inhabitants of this land by the invading British people from 1788 onwards.

Do you remember a time when you looked at a map of the world and a third of it was red?  Today there are 196 recognised nations on Earth and 54 of them belong to the British Commonwealth of Nations. In other words 54 of the nations on Earth were once members of the British Empire. While many of these were acquired as the booty of war, most were the result of conquest when an Englishman planted the Union Jack on foreign soil and claimed it as British Territory.  In doing so Great Britain invaded lands occupied by indigenous peoples and conquered them by force. At some point of time the conquerors usually signed a treaty with the original inhabitants of the land. The Treaty of Waikiki in New Zealand was one example. In Australia there was no treaty.  Instead, Governor Burke invoked Terra nullius in 1835 when he proclaimed that Aboriginal people could not buy, sell or acquire land other than that granted to them by the crown. Terra nullius means that a particular stretch of land is not owned by a sovereign nation and could be acquired by any country occupying it. So, with his signature on a document, Governor Burke disinherited a people who had lived in Australia for over 20,000 years.

Although this declaration took place 47 years after Captain Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in NSW,  Terra nullius was presumed in the instructions given to Phillip before he sailed to Australia. He was commissioned as “Our Captain General and Governor  in Chief of Our Territory called New South Wales”  The Territory  stretched from the East Coast and its islands westward until  longitude 135 o east. This was approximately half of the Australian continent.  Phillip was instructed to protect the Aboriginal people’s lives and livelihood and to encourage friendly relations with the settlers, convicts, soldiers and government officials. There was no recognition of the custodial rights of the indigenous people.

Of course friendly relations were hardly likely to take place.  The first European colonists were not well prepared to interact with a native population. They were a poorly educated mostly male population with a fondness for alcohol. Many had criminal tendencies and few had travelled far their place of birth. At Sydney Cove they considered the local inhabitants to be savages, scarcely human, more akin to animals. They were almost naked, spoke a foreign language and lived in a manner which was considered primitive.  They were affronted, afraid and unwilling to understand that the native population had lived comfortably and sustainable off the land for thousands of years.  The aboriginal people were initially curious. When their women were raped, their fish and animal stocks depleted, their water polluted and their lands taken the aboriginal people began to fight back.   Pemulwuy was one of their leaders. In 1790 he speared Governor Phillip’s gamekeeper John McIntyre.  McIntyre was thought to have killer several aboriginal people.

Phillip sent troops to capture Pemulwuy but although they captured and killed several of his kinsmen, Pemulwuy escaped. He invited several tribes to join him to drive out the invaders. For the next ten years Pemulwuy attacked the outer settlements of Parramatta, Prospect, Georges River, Toongabbie and Hawkesbury River.  They stole crops and generally harassed the settlers.  The settlers lived in fear but in reality spears were no match for guns and the damage inflicted was minimal. In 1797 Pemulwuy was shot. With buck shot embedded in his skull and wearing leg irons Pemulwuy escaped from hospital. He became a legend among his people who thought he could not be killed.

In November 1801 Governor King offered a reward for the capture or death of Pemulwuy. Henry Hacking shot him on 1st June 1802. His head was severed, pickled in spirits and taken to Governor King. King sent it to Joseph Banks in England as a gift.

Violence between colonists and natives continued for at least the next hundred and thirty years. The native people of this country were not considered to be part of the population until the referendum of 1968. They were counted for the first time in the 1971 census. They were not regarded as having sovereignty over this land until the Marbo court decision of 1992.  That decision effectively overturned the proclamation of Governor Bourke when it acknowledged that the aboriginal people had sovereignty over the land of Australia.

We are affronted by the atrocities committed in the Holocaust, in Cambodia, South Africa, Yugoslavia and many other places. Coupled with the horror there is a tendency for Australians to take the high moral ground. Such things could never happen here.  But they did and not just in the distant past. Estimates vary as to the number of people living in Australia before European settlement. They range from 250,000 to 1,000,000 people.  It is estimated that the full blood native population had dropped to 60,000 by the 1920’s. At best this is a 76% drop over a 135 year period. Most of the depopulation resulted from the diseases and alcohol introduced by white man and as a result of starvation, poor living conditions and psychological problems from the trauma of their ill treatment and eviction from their lands. However, at least 20,000 died from violent deaths many associated with massacres. They occurred periodically from the beginning of settlement to well into the twentieth century and in all states. They were perpetrated by men from all ranks of society. Some say that Australians should not wear a black armband. Whilst this generation cannot be held responsible for the sins of our fathers, surely we can acknowledge that Australia is not immune to genocide.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.