This post has been proferred by Imogen, a reader of Blak and Black.
When the members of the First Fleet stepped off their cruise ships and on to Australian soil back in 1788, things changed forever. A group of Brits, convicts, sailors and officers, stepped off those ships after their arduous eight-month journey, and into the unknown. There were 1000 of them, plus animals, and each one of them was entirely alien to this land and, no doubt, utterly bewildered by it, its animals and its people. The arrival of the colonists would change their own lives and those of every Aboriginal person on the continent forever.
The Aboriginal people
In 1788, there were around one million Aboriginal people living across Australia. They lived in 300 clans, and spoke 700 different dialects. They had been there for tens of thousands of years, and they knew exactly how to live on the land they occupied. The Australian bush is harsh to those who do not understand it. Aboriginal people lived by the coast and in the interior, and they lived by hunting, fishing and gathering. They moved around when they needed to, as they did not have any concept or need for land ownership. Their lands belonged to all of them.
In contrast, the British people who arrived in Australia came from an industrialising agricultural society. People lived either cheek-by-jowl in busy, chaotic cities, or they lived in rural areas, on land they either owned or paid rent for. They had domesticated animals and grew their crops in fields. When they arrived in Australia, they proclaimed it to be a no-man’s land, which had no owner, as it did not have any owners in their sense of the word.
Change and colonisation
The British did not value the Aboriginal way of life or their way of living. They saw the Aboriginal life as being a poor and primitive one. They believed that it was their right to take control of Australian land. One member of the First Fleet described how they landed:
The governor immediately proceeded to land…in order to take possession of this new territory and bring about an intercourse between its new and old masters.
The Aboriginal people were seen by the settlers as the land’s ‘old masters’ as soon as they had landed.
For both groups, the first years of the colony were very difficult, with Europeans struggling to adjust to the conditions, and the Aboriginal people falling prey to European diseases, particularly smallpox, and trying to fight the colonists without the guns that they had. Both groups suffered from shortage of food as the new population upset the balance of the land and the sea.
Past to present
The Aboriginal people were not seen as important by the settlers. To them, they were just another problem, and there were some among them who believed that it was desirable for the Aboriginal population to be wiped out entirely. Those living close to Botany Bay almost were. Those early attitudes and conflicts between Europeans and Aboriginal people were to set the tone for the history of the two cultures ever since. Much has changed since 1788, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. The balance of power in Australia is firmly with the white man, both in tangible and intangible ways. The two-hundred year-old clash of cultures has failed to heal itself.
Some progress has been made. Aboriginal people now have citizenship rights, and their children are no longer removed from their communities. However, the fundamental difference of cultures still exists. Aboriginal people are living surrounded by a dominant culture which is very different from their own heritage. While Aboriginal people have the vote, there are very few Aboriginal people in public life. Aboriginal communities suffer from high rates of homelessness, poverty and alcoholism. Theirs is the story of a people who are simply not part of the dominant culture in which they live.
Cultures change over time, naturally, and every person alive today once came from a tribal culture which lived on the land just as the Aboriginal people did. People adapt slowly to huge changes, and they need to feel in control of them. The great difficulty faced by Aboriginal people today is that the culture of the place in which they live has been entirely changed in what is, in comparison to the many thousands of years that went before it, a blink of an eye.
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