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The Extinction of the Aborigine (1933)

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The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate (NSW), Saturday 22 July 1933



By R.H. Croll in the “Australasian.”

As a sporting people we Australians are proud of our records; for such a handful of folk, scattered over a huge area, we have done rather well in quite a number of ways. But, unfortunately, some of the achievements are records of a kind, any country would rather be without, and perhaps the worst is that of our treatment of the original owners of the land we now possess.

What a shocking tale it is! Never mind for a moment who has been to blame; take just the plain, fact that in less than 150 years the black population has been reduced from an estimated 300,000 (a report to Exeter Hall in 1840 gave it as 1,400,000) to about 59,000 and these remnants are going fast.


Tasmania, leads the way; not one of the interesting race which once peopled that pleasant island remains alive to-day. Whites settled there first in 1803; the Tasmanian race was extinct by 1876. It is always difficult to gage the numbers of a shy, nomadic people, but there seems to be little doubt that the native Tasmanians numbered something like 2,000. Brough Smyth described them as a mild, kindly folk, diffident, willing to be friendly. Captain Cook said they showed neither fear nor distrust. An early writer, the Rev. T. Dove, remarked that harmony and good humour reigned generally among the members of the tribe; and that “the force of the parental instinct was strong enough to render the main tenance of their offspring a care and a delight.” He added that, looking to “the methods which they devised of procuring shelter and subsistence in their native wilds, to the skill and precision with which they tracked the mazes of the bush, and to the force of invention and of memory which is displayed in the copious vocabulary of their several languages; they claim no inconsiderable share of mental power and activity.”

They seemed on the whole rather afraid of the invaders of their territory until escaped convicts and ticket-of-leave men began to steal the black woman, and settlers began to occupy their lands. Then the spears, flew and a bloody war of extinction started. Brough Smyth, the historian of the Victorian blacks, writing in 1876, has some, caustic things to say about this: “If they had not been men and women, if they had not been human creatures, if they had been quadrumanous, every detail connected with them would have, undoubtedly, been thoroughly investigated and recorded. But they were indeed human; and they were the enemies of the white man because they wished to live in places where cattle and sheep would thrive, and it was deemen necessary to exterminate them; and they have been exterminated.”

Leading up to that the famous “line” was drawn in an endeavour on a large scale to drive the whole of the aborigines into one corner of the island. Despite the thoroughness of the preparation the attempt was a signal failure, the entire result being the capture of one native. The others slipped through the cordon. That was in 1830. More pacific, and suitable methods were then adopted by some well-disposed citizens, and in the succeeding five years the remaining Tasmanians were gathered together and placed on one of the islands in Bass Strait. In 1854 there were but 16 survivors. Truganini, last of her race, died in May, 1876.


Estimates of the number who existed in Victoria before the coming of the European vary considerably. One early investigation placed it at 7,500, another at 6,000, another at 5,000; the lowest was 3,000. An official return to the Legislative Council made it 6,000; by 1851 that was down to 2,693; the 1871 census set the total as 1,330. Sir Thomas Mitchell, in his excursions through. Australia, saw very few natives, but early as his journeys were, one of the gifts of the white man to the black had already been given; smallpox had been introduced and had destroyed a great many of the original inhabitants.

It seems certain that in Gippsland there were more than, a thousand blacks. In 49 years they had dwindled to 200. The two Melbourne tribes in 1838 tallied 292; there were 20 left in 1876. When the first settler camped on the Barwon the Geelong tribe was about 200 strong; at the end of 20 years 34 remained alive. To-day, in the whole of the State, there are certainly not more that 100 fullbloods— the official figure is 45 as the number under the cape of the Aborigines’ Protection Board of Victoria.

But in this matter the history of one State is the history of all States. At the 1921 census the New South Wales numbers had come down to 1,597 from 4,287 in 1901, and those of South Australia to 1,609 (the estimated number of the southern portion alone, when the colony was founded in 1836, was 12,000), while Queensland still had 12,614. Western Australia had 25,597, and Northern Australia 17,349. The next census will assuredly show further decreases, for civilisation so far, in whatever form it has touched these wild peoples, has been deadly in its effects.

It was inevitable that there should be clashes between invaders and invaded in this, as in every other country. In many places, though, where bold exploratory nations have pushed a way in, they have had to contend with people armed and organised, whose powers of resistance made them formidable opponents. Not so the Australian. His tribes were in small, scattered groups, speaking many tongues, and quite incapable of unity because of these and many other reasons, such as the huge distances separating the parts. The black had his spear and his boomerang against the gunpowder and weapons of precision; it was the Stone Age against the Age of Armaments, a baby against a grown man.

Nomadic they were, these native Australians, but nomadic only within well-defined areas. ‘My country’ was a very definite place to which the owner was bound by sacred ties hardly to be understood by a European, and wherein he looked for his means of living. That means were the native animal, the fish, the root, the berry, whatever flourished in his domain. Strangers must not enter there, save by formal sanction or at the risk of challenge of battle. Suddenly the tribes found men stalking about their immemorial territory, asking no sanctions, disregarding or pushing a side the aboriginal owners, uprooting the trees, and building huts, despising all that the tribes held sacred. More and more of these intruders came, they travelled inland, and, behold the native game was destroyed, fences criss-crossed the land, and new animals cropped the grass where the kangaroo had fed. Deprived of his natural food, forbidden to roam at liberty, across his old hunting grounds— what was the blackfellow to do? He did what the white man would have done in like case — he killed a sheep or one of the cattle and filled his empty stomach.


An English doctor travelling in the Mallee, wrote in 1851: ‘The result of my investigations as to the treatment of the blacks by white men was a profound pity for the blacks, and indignation against some of the whites for their, cruel neglect of, or barbarous behaviour to, the defenceless aborigines, whose hunting grounds have been rendered useless by the myriads of sheep and cattle introduced, which had utterly driven away the kangaroo and emu, upon which, they had principally depended for food; and, while their, main sources of food were thus destroyed, not the slightest attempt at compensation had been made by the powerful aggressors, who shot down mercilessly any tribe which, impelled by hunger, dared to touch a single sheep or cow of the vast flocks and herds, a round them.”

In killing a beast the black broke the white man’s law, and he must be taught the lesson. If within reason able distance of settlement he was brought in (often strapped to the stirrup of his captor — even as some tunes happens to-day, in certain remote parts of our Commonwealth) and put through a meaningless (to him) court ceremony which ended in imprisonment. Or, when the law did not conveniently function, the station might muster its hands and make a raid upon the nearest camp, shooting wherever a head showed. Retaliation followed; the lonely shepherd was speared in his hut and occasionally a homestead was attacked in force. Then the battle between white and black joined indeed. Once a state of war was established, the stockmen went armed to protect himself, and organised raids were made where ever the natives were known to be gathered together.

With no intention of discussing the merits of a case which had been closed, readers may be reminded that within the last four years a policeman in Central Australia, who went out to arrest a native for killing a white man, stated in evidence that his party shot down 17 blacks and a little later another 14. The court of inquiry officially justified the action — but the pity of it! It seems incredible that there was no better means of bringing a black criminal to justice than by the indiscriminate shooting of 31 of his tribe. By virtue of his office the constable was a protector of the aborigines!


Detailed tales of atrocities in the younger days of colonisation are plentiful enough. Many awful deeds were done by the blacks, but, as E. R. Cribble points out in his ‘Problem of the Australian Aboriginal,’ it must be remembered that they naturally resented the presence of the invader of their land, an invader against whom they were powerless in any other way — moreover, every dark deed perpetrated by the natives was duly recorded, but not every case in which whites were the culprits.

In 1843 an Assistant Protector of the Aborigines in what is now north-western Victoria reported that he had gone carefully into the question and had found that from 1833 to 1842 the blacks in his district had killed eight white men, the greatest number slain at any one attack being two, while in the same period and locality 43 natives were done to death by the whites — as many as 14 being destroyed at one tune. ‘This you will perceive exhibits a fearful preponderance against the whites,” remarks the assistant protector.

Edward John Eyre, who in 1845 was resident in charge of the most densely populated native district in South Australia and lived there for three years, reported on certain acts of aggression by blacks : ‘I believe were Europeans placed under the same circumstances, equally wronged, and equally shut out from redress, they would not exhibit half the moderation of forbearance that these poor untutored children of impulse have invariably shown.”

It may have been the massacre of some 40 aborigines, young and old, male and female, at Myall Creek, in New South Wales, a massacre for which seven white men were hanged, that caused the Governor of the day to issue a proclamation in 1839 that a special Act had been passed “to put a stop to the atrocities which have of late been so extensively committed both by aborigines and on them.” He went on to say that he had received instructions from Her Majesty’s Government to cause an inquest or inquiry to be instituted in every case wherein any aboriginal inhabitants may come to a violent death in consequence of a collision with white men, and that he meant to make no distinction in such cases whether the aggressors or parties injured be of one race or the other, but to bring all to equal indiscriminate justice. His Excellency concluded by stressing the importance which he and the Government attached to the just and humane treatment of the aborigines, and he declared earnestly and solemnly his deep conviction that there was no subject or matter in which the interest as well as the honour of the colonists were more essentially concerned.

Two years earlier it had been found necessary by the Governor to threaten landowners in the outlying districts with cancellation of their licences to occupy Crown lands, and with the intimation that prosecution would follow as well, if the practice on the part of “overseers and other persons in charge of sheep and cattle” of detaining by force in their huts black women of the neighbouring tribes were not stopped. “It is an offence,” remarked His Excellency, “not only of a heinous and revolting character, but in its consequences, leading to bloodshed and murder.”

There he touched up one of the most frequent causes of hatred of white by black. Again, what possible recourse had husband or tribe, in their ignorance of Government proclamations and powers, but the spear? Here may be mentioned, the half-caste. “God made the white man; God made the black man; the Devil made the half-caste,” says the Indian proverb. Half-castes. belong to neither race; they are customarily disowned by both. Hard indeed is their lot, unjustifiably hard. As a statesman once said in the Victorian Parliament: “It is not the child who is illegitimate; it is the parents.” Though the full bloods decline, the half-castes steadily increase in Australia. In Western Australia his numbers leaped from 900 to 2,853 in 25 years. That is typical.


But enough of assaults and atrocities. While it is clear that the aborigine has suffered cruelly in that regard, it is equally true that he has been injured by many of the well intentioned efforts at kindness. Civilisation and he, as the two are now brought together, have proved them- selves definitely incompatibles. To take the naked black, accustomed to the constant exercise of his faculties in the pursuit and procuring of food, living altogether under the sky, knowing no restraint upon his freedom, and place him in a stuffy hut with a tin to open instead of a kangaroo to catch, clothes to keep him dirty and unhealthy, is to invite him to a quick death.

Again I would record my conviction that the missionaries, earnest, self-sacrificing, and well-meaning, are among the very few who are doing any practical work in the interest of our natives. But again I would protest against some of the practices which strike me as ill-advised. One was referred to by Dr. Elkin in his address “Understanding the Australian Aborigine,” when he said: “We do need to realise that the family spirit is a real thing in aborigine life, and that, therefore, any system which separates the children from, their parents for long intervals is unwise, unless it be while the parents are on walk-about. The dormitory system, according to which the children sleep, perhaps behind locked doors, and eat away from their parents, is not necessarily in the best interest of the children, their parents, or the tribe.”

Bad, too, is the insistence upon the wearing of clothes where natives have always been unclad. Centuries of exposure to cold and heat have inured them to what a white man would call very great hardships. A naked black has been seen to sleep in the sunshine, apparently without discomfort, when the temperature was so high that a bar of iron beside him was too hot to hold. And in the Macdonnell Ranges the tribes lie, quite uncovered, by their tiny fires when frost is thick on the ground, and again are seemingly content. Assuredly they need no covering or they would use the skins of the furred animals they are constantly hunting and killing. But too often the missionary, moved by compassion as much as by a sense of decency, demands that clothes shall be worn.

“Consumption,” states D. Ramsay Smith, “which is inseparable from the habits of clothing and housing, is responsible for a large number of deaths. It has been remarked that while many die from our diseases, a great many also die from treatment.” Decency could be honoured by the adoption of a short skirt or loin-cloth, leaving the body otherwise free. Comparison of pictures of a native in his natural state with photographs of the rag-clad mendicants who advertise our Commonwealth so disastrously to tourists on the East-West railway line should prove a liberal education to those who are interested but do not know the aborigine at first hand.


But what like were these savages to whom the coming of the European has proved so disastrous? Definitely, as a people, they were not warlike. They had no chiefs; all was an old man government. To avoid any hint of sentiment, let me quote from a scientist’s description: “One can hardly be said to have seen human grace of carriage who has not seen an aboriginal walk ? The voice is soft and musical and rich in inflections. .. Mentally the aboriginal in his native surroundings is observant, self-reliant, and quick. As a race the aboriginals are polite, proper in their behaviour, modest, unassuming, gay, fond of jokes and laughter, and skilful mimics. They are by nature frank open and confiding and cheerful under all sorts of privations. Some times they show great delicacy of feeling. In many things the aboriginal is scrupulously honest; and his morality according to his lights and teaching is as high as among the generality of uneducated white people.” Thus, Dr. W. Ramsay Smith, permanent head of the Department of Public Health of South Australia.

Charles Pickering in his book “The Races of Man” tells us that “strange as it may appear I would refer to an Australian as the finest model of the human race I have ever met with; in muscular development combining perfect symmetry, activity, and strength; while his head might have compared with an antique bust of a philosopher.” Spencer and Gillen testified to the generosity of the natives. Mathew described them as a peaceful, kindly people. Many are the explorers who have spoken in glowing terms of black friends.

Professor Gregory, in his “Dead Heart of Australia,” after recounting how the natives with him offered to go without tea and sugar (the most precious of things in that country of bad water) when they found the supplies for the white men were running short, remarked: “The popular conception of the mental and moral characters of the Australian aborigihies is as erroneous as in the caricature of their personal appearance. The extreme kindness of the people, especially to the old, is one of their most striking characteristics. Instead of being cruel and without affection, they show a fondness for their children and a generous consideration for the old and infirm members of their clan, unusual among primitive people.” He concluded, as so many of the scientists do to-day, that the Australian is of Caucasian origin— that is, he belongs to the. same race-group as ourselves.

To paraphrase Kipling:—

"They ain't no blooming angels
 And they ain't no blackguards, too,
 But simply human beings
 Most remarkable like you."

An interesting commentary on the foregoing is contained in an official report by the chief protector of aborigines in South Australia. Of a certain reserve he said: “The aborigines on this land are practically untouched by the vices of civilisation.”


A few of the mission stations are now reporting small increases in the number of full-bloods under their charge. These are but drops in the ocean of waste — still the tribes melt away! A century and a half of effort on the part of the Governments, missions, and numerous organisations and individuals had had no better result than this — the tribes continue to vanish! Professor Wood-Jones has pointed out that all through the story of the settlement of our continent runs this declaration, almost wearying in its reiteration, that “something must be done” in way of repayment, the resolve that we must deal fairly with the blackfellow. “To-day these protestations are made with equal fervour,” he adds: “to-day, as yesterday, they beget ready sympathisers. Were the aborigine to find salvation in pious wishes, or were he to derive prosperity from sympathetic resolutions, then indeed we would have to rank him as a chosen people, so blessed would be his lot.”


It is time, much more than time, that protestation and sporadic effort alike were put an end to. The regeneration of the black is a nation’s job and can never be accomplished by any section, however earnest. Obviously it is a Federal matter, and one that the Federal Government should undertake promptly if it is to retain the world’s respect.

Many are the suggestions which could be made as to the lines on which action should proceed. One basic essential is the employment of a scientist, the best man the world can produce, one preferably with successful experience in the ruling of native races, a man of the Hubert Murray type, who should be given first a free hand regardless of expense (bear in mind we owe these people for the whole of a continent), and then the power to carry out his findings. That will do for a beginning.

Is it too much to expect any good results at this stage? Listen to one of our greatest authorities: ‘Those who think that the Australian aboriginal race is doomed to die out, and the sooner the better; those who think the effort to save him is not worth the making; and those who deceive themselves into imagining that in Australia we already have native reservations, should go to Gallup in New Mexico and see for themselves the Navajo Reserves, in which an interesting and nomadic race is flourishing and increasing.’ And as a final word: ‘No man should be entrusted with the care of captive kangaroos unless he has some understanding of the ways of kangaroos. Much more, no man should be entrusted with the care of a native race unless he under stands the lore, the legends, the beliefs, and the prejudices of the people who are placed under his jurisdiction.’

Written by macalba

June 11, 2013 at 8:00 am

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