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Aboriginal

Australians
FIFTH EDITION

Richard Broome

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The photograph used on the chapter headers is of rock art representing early maritime
contact at Old Man’s Hand Site near Red Lily Lagoon, Manilakarr Clan Estate, western
Arnhem Land.

This edition published in 2019


First published in 1982

Copyright © Richard Broome, 1982, 1994, 2002, 2010, 2019

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in


any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever
is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

First published in 1982


Reprinted ten times.
Second edition published in 1994
Reprinted four times.
Third edition published in 2002
Reprinted seven times.
Fully revised fourth edition published in 2010
Reprinted twelve times.
Fifth edition published in 2019

Allen & Unwin


83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Australia
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Email: info@allenandunwin.com
Web: www.allenandunwin.com

A catalogue record for this


book is available from the
National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 76052 821 8

Internal design by Lisa White


Maps by Mapgraphics
Index by Trevor Matthews
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CONTENTS

Preface vii
Prologue: Endings and beginnings 1

1 Reflections on a Great Tradition 5
2 The Eora confront the British 15
3 Resisting the invaders 36
4 Cultural resistance amid destruction 57
5 Radical hope quashed 81
6 The age of race and northern frontiers 100
7 Working with cattle 122
8 Mixed missionary blessings 149
9 Controlled by boards and caste barriers 172
10 Fighting for civil rights 195
11 Struggling for Indigenous rights 227
12 Hoping for equality 255
13 Under siege 283
14 Crisis, intervention and apology 320
15 Seeking a Voice 351

Notes 379
Select bibliography 419
Index 425

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P R E FA C E

The first version of this book appeared in 1982. It has been in print ever since,
with new editions in 1994 and 2002, which each contained an added chapter.
In 2010, the original thirteen chapters were completely revised for the fourth
edition and a new Chapter 14 added. The book has now sold 65,000 print copies
in four editions over 36 years. Elizabeth Weiss, my publisher, requested a further
chapter for a fifth edition covering the decade since 2008.
My own life, now of 70 years, has paralleled a slow and hesitant upward
trajectory in the outcomes for Aboriginal people. I was born in the same year
as the Declaration of Human Rights and during the early years of the decolonisation
movement, both of which eventually helped improve the wellbeing of Indigenous
people. In my early years, most Aboriginal people lived on reserves or in fringe
camps, managed by a special Aborigines Welfare Board in NSW, and an unofficial
caste barrier operated, especially in country areas. In Sydney, where I grew up,
some Indigenous people lived in Redfern and elsewhere, but most resided in
Welfare Board housing at La Perouse on the shores of Botany Bay, near where
James Cook landed in 1770.
I recall when I was about five, in the early years of Paul Hasluck’s federal
assimilationist push, I was on a Sunday drive with my grandparents—good,
small-business people who worked hard and were respectable and god-fearing.
As we approached La Perouse, my grandmother, who played the organ in the
Tempe Methodist Church for over thirty years, leaned down and whispered:
‘That is where the darkies live’. Nothing more was said, and nothing needed to
be, for that significant sentence caught up the tropes of blackness and the sense
vii

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viii A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

of Otherness that had circulated in Australian society for over a century and
elsewhere for far longer.
When I attended Canterbury Boys’ primary, I encountered the ‘pioneer
legend’ in my copy of G.T. Spaull’s Social Studies for the Fourth Grade (1952c),
in which Aboriginal people were impediments to white settlement.1 Even at
UNSW, in 1967, we used Gordon Greenwood’s Australia (1955), which was
virtually silent on Indigenous people.2 Only when tutoring at the University of
Sydney for Heather Radi did I encounter different perspectives on Indigenous
people.
In 1977, I joined the staff at La Trobe University and commenced teaching
the first tertiary Aboriginal History subject in Australia, created in 1974 by the
late John Hirst. I began to research Aboriginal history, first interviewing
Aboriginal boxers and then writing the first edition of this book, as I learned,
day by day, more about Aboriginal history along with my La Trobe students.
In the 70 years since my birth, a transformation has occurred in the condition
of Indigenous people, their wellbeing, their rights—both civil and Indigenous—
their economic position, and the respect in which they are now held. In that
time, they have been freed from special acts, gained civil rights, land rights, and
cultural and heritage protections. This book tells the story of the world that
created the words that fell from my grandmother’s lips; and the world since my
birth and university life, where through researching, teaching and writing
Aboriginal history I learned to think differently. Each person in Australia is
facing challenges and changes in their own thinking as Indigenous people assert
their rightful place in our country and as other Australians learn to listen.
In its five editions, this book has not only been enlarged, but was reimagined,
especially in its fourth edition. Early editions told the story of Indigenous peoples
as victims of colonialism, although it also related their fight back and survival
stories. But my ongoing teaching and research showed Aboriginal people were
also agents in their own making, and that their adaptations to the European
presence were more diverse and complex than I had first realised. Indeed, the
fourth edition revealed the significant transformations Indigenous people made
to the challenges of an altered world. This book reveals the conflicts, adaptations
and transformations Indigenous people have made over 230 years.
Books, even those with single authors, are joint enterprises. Like icebergs,
they are supported by a greater mass than is seen. Much has changed in the
terrain of Aboriginal history since 1982 and this new fifth edition, with its
additional Chapter 15, reflects that. As with earlier editions, it owes enormous
debts to all those historians who toil in the field of Aboriginal history. Dr Heather

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PR E FAC E ix

Radi, who originally inspired this book, and Dr John Hirst, who assisted its first
edition, both sadly now passed on, should not be forgotten. My colleagues at
La Trobe University and other universities have given me great support over
the years—more than they can ever realise. Many generations of students at La
Trobe University helped shape this book. Aboriginal friends and acquaintances
have provided inspiration and assistance. Professor Lynette Russell, Director of
the Indigenous Research Centre at Monash University, read the recast fourth
edition. She also read the new Chapter 15, as did my friend and colleague Dr
Leonie Stevens. Elizabeth Weiss, the publisher at Allen & Unwin, who encouraged
this fifth edition, has long been supportive of this book. Courtney Lick expertly
guided it through publication.
The images in the fourth edition, seen here again, were generously provided
by those acknowledged in each caption. New images have been added for Chapter
15, and acknowledgment given in the captions. A new chapter header image of
a sailing vessel, captured by an unknown western Arnhem Land rock artist, has
been used for this fifth edition to symbolise the new worlds Indigenous people
have experienced since 1788. The cover photograph, taken in 1942 by Axel
Poignant on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, reveals the agency,
resolve and dignified confidence Indigenous people displayed as they encountered
these new worlds.
My family and friends have given me great succour during the writing of this
fifth edition. Our Burmese furry friends—Sandy and Cocoa—have slumbered
alongside my keyboard, brightening my labours during the last three editions.
My adult children, Katherine and Matthew, were not born when the first edition
was written, but have emerged into fine adulthood as this book appeared in its
various editions. They continue to display bemused tolerance over my obsession
with the past, as my newspaper scrapbooks mount steadily to 85 volumes. Now
I have grandchildren to reveal the passing of time. My wife and great friend,
Margaret Donnan, provides unyielding support and constant interest in what I
do, despite her own demanding career. The first edition was dedicated to her.
This is the one part of this book that will never change. To Margaret, another
decade on, I again dedicate this book, with heartfelt love and affection—always.

Richard Broome
July 2019

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N O T E O F WA R N I N G

This book, which is a history, contains many references to deceased Aboriginal


people, their words, names and sometimes their photographs. Their words used
here are already in the public domain and permission has been sought to use
photographs. Many Aboriginal people follow the custom of not using the names
of those deceased. Individuals and communities should be warned that they
may read or see things in this book that could cause distress. They should
therefore exercise caution when using this book.

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Torres Strait Islands
Goulburn Island
Bathurst
Island
Darwin Oenpelli Yirrkala Weipa
Groote Aurukun
Forrest River Roper Eylandt
Kalumburu River
Drysdale River Daly Mornington
Kunmunya River Borroloola Island
Beagle Bay Yarrabah
Wattie Creek Doomadgee
Broome Palm Island
Noonkanbah
Tennant Creek
Port Hedland NORTHERN QUEENSLAND
Roebourne Strelley TERRITORY
Skull Springs
Alice Springs
Jigalong Hermannsburg Woorabinda
WESTERN Ernabella
Cherbourg
AUSTRALIA
SOUTH Brisbane
AUSTRALIA
Mount Margaret Ooldea Brewarrina Myall Creek

Moore River NEW SOUTH WALES


Perth Wellington
Lake Mungo
Adelaide Sydney
Cummeragunja
Raukkan
ACT
N Edenhope
VICTORIA
Coranderrk
Melbourne
Framlingham Lake Tyers

Flinders Island
Cape Barren Island
TASMANIA
0 200 400 600 kilometres Oyster Bay
Hobart
0 200 400 600 miles

Location of key places in Aboriginal Australia.

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Prologue
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS

In Dareton, New South Wales, in 1965, eleven-year-old Malcolm Smith and his
brother Robert ‘borrowed’ pushbikes leaning against a bus shelter and went joy-
riding. This small act led to the involvement of the police, welfare officers and
the court. Malcolm’s widowed father, who was in seasonal work and thus not
always present, was judged as an unfit parent. The boys were taken and placed
in a series of homes and foster care placements, where their Aboriginality was
undermined, even denigrated. As a confused youth, Malcolm found himself
behind bars, where his Aboriginal identity was somewhat affirmed by other
young Koori men. The gaol door revolved and he was finally reconnected
with family, as best any fostered youth could. In 1980, in the hope of pleasing
and defending his sister, he outraged her by killing her boyfriend, who had
been bashing her. He was sentenced to four years for manslaughter. In Long
Bay gaol he expressed interest in the Bible and was given a tape of the book of
Matthew. He began to paint religious images but became delusional, said he was
Jesus Christ, then claimed he was evil. Mental turmoil mounted, reflecting his
alienation from family and his Aboriginal cultural roots. Self-hate engulfed him
and, driven by the passage in Matthew: ‘And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it
out’ (Matthew 18:9, King James Bible), he drove the handle of an artist’s brush
into his eye and brain while in a toilet cubicle, collapsed and died. He became
one of 99 cases investigated in 1990 by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody.1
How did a joy-ride unleash such a terrible chain of events? The short answer
is that Malcolm was a colonial subject—although it is a little more complex, as
his brother Robert did not suicide. However, both took a joy-ride that led to
1

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2 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

their being taken out of their family and placed into a system that managed
young Aboriginal people because their culture and Aboriginality was viewed as
inferior and requiring of alteration—even eradication. His father’s love and
desire to have him back was of no account. Malcolm was a victim of the practices
of colonialism and the ideas of superiority and racism embedded within. The
psychological pressures of this set of colonial practices led to defiance through
repeated crime, to be sent back to his Koori mates in gaol; and then to self-hate:
the twin responses to colonial pressures first identified by Frantz Fanon and
Albert Memmi in their 1960s classics about the colonial condition.2
This book will trace Australia’s history of its colonial relationship with
Aboriginal people, for as an earlier version of this book stated in 1982: ‘until
recently the Aborigines rarely appeared in our history, so that we have been
presented with half a history’. This retelling of our history, begun by many
historians in the 1970s and synthesised here, will reveal how colonialism created
practices that refashioned Aboriginal people into the colonised and oppressed,
and other Australians into coloniser oppressors—but not entirely so. Aboriginal
people also resisted these practices, physically, mentally and culturally, while
some white Australians resisted assuming the role of colonisers. This book will
tell this 200-year story, which ranges over diverse cultural groups, living under
seven colonial/state regimes and one federal regime, in as much complexity as
is possible in one volume.
This is a story of how settlers in overwhelming numbers, bearing new
diseases, plants, animals and new technologies, and with the blessing of the
British Imperial Government, supplanted the original owners of a continent.
Ecological change, disease, violence and force of numbers swept away Indigenous
economies and supplanted them with new forms shaped by global capital. Patrick
Wolfe and others have identified three strategies of settler colonialism:
confrontation, incarceration and assimilation, which he has termed ‘the logic
of elimination’.3 To justify these acts, settlers created images and knowledge that
eulogised themselves as pioneers and wealth creators, and denigrated Indigenous
people as non-producers and not worthy of owning land. This discourse justified
dispossession, and was followed by a Civilising Mission to change those seen
not as different, but inferior. Albert Memmi termed this creation of false images
and discourses the ‘usurper complex’, by which those who take power unlawfully
have to justify such acts—to themselves and others. All these pathways of
dispossession and denigration led to the social, economic, cultural and bodily
impoverishment of Aboriginal people—and outcomes such as those following
Malcolm’s joy-ride. It was perhaps not inevitable—but the practices of colonialism

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EN DINGS AN D BEGINNINGS 3

narrowed and shaped the options of both Indigenous and settler Australians,
which this book will explicate.

ON WOR D S
This book will use multiple words to describe the historical actors. The original
owners will be referred to where possible by their own local names that stem
from traditional times, such as Eora and Woiwurrung. Also, local names will
be used that have been acquired, employed and accepted by Aboriginal people
since colonial contact—for instance, Lake Condah or Cherbourg people.
When the need arises to describe those in wider regions, Aboriginal names
that are widely, but not universally, accepted by original owners may sometimes
be used. These include names such as Koori, Murri, Yolngu, Nyoongar and
Nyungah, for those of the south-east, north-east, north, west and southern parts
of the continent respectively. Those in Tasmania now refer to themselves as
Palawa. Aboriginal names exist for non-Indigenous Australians, notably Gubba
in the south and east and Balanda in the north.4
When all original owners are referred to, which is necessary in a continent-
wide study, it is necessary to use European words, as no Indigenous word exists.
This book will use interchangeably: Aboriginal people, blacks, Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people, Indigenous people, original owners, Aboriginal
Australians and Indigenous Australians to describe all those whom Canadians
succinctly refer to as ‘First Nation’ peoples. The term ‘First Nations’ is emerging
in Australia with political intent and is used sometimes in Chapter 15. Those
who came to settle after 1788 will be called settlers, whites, non-Indigenous
people, Europeans, British, and other Australians, where appropriate.
This book was originally entitled Aboriginal Australians and this name has
been retained for this fifth edition. The word ‘aboriginal’, which comes from
the Latin ab origine (meaning ‘from the beginning’), emerged in seventeenth-
century English to mean ‘the original inhabitants of a land’. As an English word
of that era, it also became a colonial word to mean Indigenous people, as opposed
to the colonists.
The word ‘aboriginal’ was not at first used in Australia. The English discoverer
of the east Australian coast, James Cook, who claimed the continent for Britain in
1770, called the original owners ‘natives’ and occasionally ‘Indians’. Early colonists
mostly used ‘natives’, although ‘the blacks’ also came into use on the frontier, as
the language of race intruded. Both these terms remained in common usage until

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4 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

the twentieth century. On 4 May 1816, a government proclamation used ‘natives’,


‘black natives’ and ‘Ab-origines’, probably the first use of this last term.
The words ‘aboriginal’, ‘aborigine’ and their plurals did not become common
until the 1840s and existed along with ‘blacks’ and ‘natives’, which had a long
life. Indeed, ‘native’, which often became derogatory, was used until the middle
of the twentieth century, even in legislation. The word ‘aboriginal’ and its other
forms did not overtake ‘native’ in common usage until the late nineteenth
century. For much of its life, ‘aboriginal’ was used without a capital ‘A’, which
gave it a derogatory edge. However, it has been capitalised conventionally since
the 1960s, revealing new respect. It is now embraced by most Indigenous people,
especially its derivative form ‘Aboriginality’, which relates to the politics of
identity. ‘Aboriginal people’, which is used in this book, is now becoming the
term preferred to ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginals’, although ‘First Nations’ is gaining
favour especially among younger Indigenous people.
Words used in quotation marks, such as ‘half-caste’, are those of historical
speakers. Some of these are now offensive, but are used to explain the discourses
of settler colonialism. They should never be taken at face value, but seen in
their context as settler ammunition, used to construct the mythologies of the
‘usurper complex’.

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1
REFLECTIONS ON
A G R E AT T R A D I T I O N

Indigenous groups across Australia have many oral stories about their past,
which form part of a Great Tradition of knowledge. These stories explain the
Aboriginal genesis in different parts of the country and reveal the shaping of a
formless land by great ancestors. In some traditions, these ancestral beings broke
through the crust of the earth to begin the processes of life as the sun burst
forth and the wind and rains came. Other great ancestors formed the landscape
by rushing or writhing through it, by shaping beings from bark and breathing
life into them, as did Bunjil, or bearing a sacred dillybag from which life was
brought forth, as did the Djanggawul sisters. The stories are as numerous as the
500 or more Aboriginal languages and groups across ancient Australia, but the
significance is the same. Great ancestors shaped and breathed life into the land
and made it rich for the people. The stories stretch way back, for the people
believe they have always been in this land.
Those from another great tradition—that of Science—listen not to the
ancient stories of the great ancestors, but to what the human remains and rocks
say. The remains have been telling a shifting story for the past hundred years,
as more and more discoveries are made, and new techniques of interpretation
are invented. This story has been outlined recently in Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time
Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (2018). These finds are fitted into a
worldwide story by scientists who estimated from the evidence that early forms
of hominids evolved in Africa about four million years ago. Modern humans,
Homo sapiens, emerged some 150,000 years ago, and with great ingenuity and
fortitude migrated out of Africa and across the face of the earth in the last
5

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6 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

100,000 years or so. Those who reached Australia between 50,000 and 60,000
years ago did so before humans colonised much of the European landmass.
To reach Australia, they traversed islands and straits when sea levels were low.
Even at the lowest levels, they voyaged courageously at times in raft, canoe or
on flotsam, beyond the sight of land. It is likely that a number of migrations
occurred as people sought new lands, for the remains reveal that humans of both
a robust and a gracile frame lived here. At some stage in the last 10,000 years
the dingo reached Australia as well, as a semi-domesticated companion animal.
The remains and ever-improving techniques of dating rock, soil strata and
campfire charcoal tell us there were people living on the shores of an ancient and
rich Lake Mungo almost 42,000 years ago. They lived a prosperous but simple
life in the dunes by this inland beach. Skeletal remains mark their presence.
Recently, footprints have been discovered in petrified mud, which reveal a
wondrous glimpse of an extended family’s leisurely stroll by this fertile shore.
The Mungo people lived off marine life and foraged for fauna and flora in the
dunes. At night by the campfire, under a glorious star-filled canopy, they were
inspired to create and embroider their own Great Tradition. Skeletal remains
reveal this, indicating cremations of their dead, and burial practices enriched
by ochre and ritual positioning, to signify the importance, love and respect they
attached to their kinsfolk.
After a generation of tussle, the keepers of the stories and the keepers of
the human remains are reconciled to the value of each others’ knowledge.
Archaeologists in the 1990s agreed to return the remains for reburial in keeping
places, and Aboriginal elders in the region have used scientific study to prove
in a different way what they knew: that their ancestors possessed among the
earliest of human cultures.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people managed massive environmental
changes over at least 40 millennia in this land, greater than those facing
Australians today. Sea levels oscillated by scores of metres, and the continent
experienced periods which were significantly colder and wetter than today,
culminating 20,000 ago. A period of warming and rising sea levels followed,
and ancient coastlines shrank. The giant megafauna which roamed the land
when they arrived became extinct; debate still rages about the human involvement
in that demise. While parts of the ancient rainforests of the continent survived,
and coastal and riverine environments such as the Murray Valley remained
hospitable in the face of global warming, other groups were forced to adapt to
drier and arid conditions in the vast central regions of Australia. Mungo, among
many other fertile lake regions, dried, and desert areas expanded. Drought

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R E F L E C T I O N S O N A G R E AT T R A D I T I O N 7

Bunjil, the Great Ancestor, and his dogs; Grampians, Victoria. PHOTOGRAPH BY THE AUTHOR.

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8 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

became a feature of much of the landscape under the influence of the El Niño
Southern Oscillation, which affected surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean,
bringing periodic droughts to vast regions of central and southern Australia.
Australia, baked by the sun, and less frequently drenched by rains, developed
the lowest water run-off rate of any continent. Only the tropical north was well
watered, and periodically relieved by flooding rains.
The Australian continent, which separated from the great super-continent
Gondwana over twenty million years ago, slowly drifted north since that time
and became an arid, fire-prone and low-energy ecology. This reflected the
longstanding absence of tectonic and glacial activity on this ancient flat continent,
activity that usually refurbishes soils. The ancient land was leached by wind and
rain over millions of years to the point of low fertility, with poor soil quality
and subsequent modest fishing grounds due to poor rainfall and a low nutritional
run-off. This ecological poverty led to greater biodiversity of plant and insect
life, but poorer resources of larger faunal mammals, compared to, say, North
America, which is a more fertile, higher-energy continent. (However, some
species were in greater abundance, such as small reptiles.) Thus the drying, arid
and fiery continent presented significant challenges for human survival—and
yet Aboriginal people survived.
Aboriginal people managed this difficult environment, which still confounds
most current-day Australians, through adapting their economies and technology.
They learned to live with fire and to use it to shape the land to their needs.
Indeed, scientists, some of whom have called this ‘fire-stick farming’, have argued
Aboriginal people shaped the land by fire to aid the production of grasslands
for kangaroo grazing and to more easily trek through their country. By doing
so they expanded the natural fire processes of this parched continent, which
favoured a biota ruled by eucalypts, wattles and banksias and other sclerophyll
species. They learned to consume a large variety of bush foods, and so rarely
went without. They emerged from the so-called ‘stone age’ long ago, as their
tool kits became smaller, more refined and specialised, and were increasingly
made of bone and wood. Weaving string and ropes for bags and netting was
developed. Food-gathering strategies evolved using new technology such as
netting to trap birds, baskets to catch fish or eels, and bark or wooden canoes
and bone hooks for fishing. Those groups who needed covering to ward off the
cold sewed cloaks of animal skins. They experienced few diseases which racked
their bodies, except for an annoying and at times debilitating skin disease, yaws.
Life was not always easy when drought arrived, but they adapted.

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R E F L E C T I O N S O N A G R E AT T R A D I T I O N 9

It is often wondered why Aboriginal people did not develop agriculture.


But the question should be inverted to become: why should they have? What
makes agriculture particularly a superior economy? It might feed many, but
only if many need feeding. Agriculture, which developed in the Fertile Crescent
of modern-day Iran and Iraq, has lasted so far less than 10,000 years, whereas
the Aboriginal foraging economy was at least five times as old. Indeed, hunting
and gathering is in world terms several million years old. Aboriginal people
survived for over 50 millennia with a non-agricultural economy, which suited
the land, and was sustainable with the land. Farming in Australia after just 200
years is in significant trouble, causing such degradation as to demand a massive
rethink of agricultural and pastoral techniques.
Nor were conditions in Australia generally conducive to the development
of farming. Research has revealed that, while parts of Australia, North America
and South Africa have a temperate climate like that of the Fertile Crescent, these
ecologies lacked the building blocks of agriculture, which the Fertile Crescent had
in abundance. In Australia (and North America and other temperate zones, for
that matter), there were few of the favoured seeds for plant domestication, and
none of the animals that have been domesticated by humans to eat and to help
power farms: pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses. The largest animals in Australia
were the megafauna—large versions of kangaroos, wombats and the like, which
proved resistant to domestication. Thus Aboriginal people in general continued
to forage for food when they needed it and from where it grew—and success-
fully so. They developed an economy that provided all they desired, and which
some economists and anthropologists have since termed ‘affluence’.
However, about 5000 years ago, some Aboriginal groups experimented
successfully with creating food surpluses. On the fire-cleared western plains of
New South Wales, the colony’s Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, in the mid-
1830s saw vast fields of ‘hay ricks’, formed of millet grass, cut and drying so that
the grain fell into the middle of the stack. It would be collected, ground and
baked into bread by the ancestors of the Wiradjuri. This was clearly a clever
agriculture, a seed economy for part of the year at least, which was done with
minimal effort, without fertiliser, cultivation, threshing and with little further
impact on the land. At Brewarrina, extensive fish traps were formed in the
Barwon River by channels made of rocks carried and placed by the ancestors
of the Wiradjuri. Fish aplenty were farmed by the people.
Similarly, Gunditjmara in the Western District of Victoria made eel farms
through extensive labour with digging sticks, their shallow wooden dishes,
muscle and sinew. They shaped extensive channels and waterways over some

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10 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

hectares, even linking river systems. These channels directed migrating eels
into fenced barriers complete with woven baskets to trap more eels than
could  be eaten. So plentiful was this food that the people formed stoned-
walled houses with wicker and tuft roofs, held big gatherings and ceremonies,
and  lived off eels for months. The Budj Bim eel trap complex was granted
World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2019. Further north, some of the Torres
Strait Islanders became gardeners under the influence of Melanesians, but
remained fishers and foragers as well. Research on this incipient agriculture
has been synthesised in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or
Accident? (2014).
Scientists have called these new food strategies of rudimentary and intelligent
farming ‘intensification’. Such changes must have accompanied changes in
leadership to mobilise this activity for future gain. The farming was rudimentary,
in that its technology was simple, but it was efficient. It was intelligent, as it
emerged out of the local ecology and remained only a part of the food supply,
never exposing the people to famine. Bill Gammage in his The Biggest Estate on
Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) argued the people farmed without
farms, ‘making farm and wilderness one’. They escaped the experience of the
Irish when their agri-monoculture potato-cropping failed repeatedly and
disastrously before and during the Great Famine of the 1840s.
The general economic affluence that allowed most Aboriginal people to
gather food in three to five hours per day left time for rest, sociality and to
develop their Great Tradition. It was natural that this tradition revolved around
the land. Local country provided food and water, formed the wondrous space
through which they moved each day and the place they slept at night under a
starlit canopy. They invested the land with stories and formed a holistic
relationship with it. The great ancestors who shaped the land were also embedded
in it, and were still powerful. The people shared some of that power too. They
were connected to the land through totemic animals determined by their
birthplace and clan, and for which they were responsible. Through ritual and
ceremony the people played a role in revitalising the land and its abundance.
The great ancestors gave meaning to life and the rules by which life should be
lived. These rules were learned by each young male and female in initiations
that grew them into knowledge of the Great Tradition. This tradition—this
Dreaming or Tjukurpa as it is called in Central Australia—was all-encompassing
and never doubted. It was also a sustainable tradition, for people were in a
custodial, not exploitative, relationship to land.

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Women, the great food providers of the Aboriginal economy, digging rakai, a rush at
Matarauwaitji, Blue Mud Bay, Arnhem Land, in 1936. COURTESY OF THE DONALD THOMSON COLLECTION,
MUSEUM OF VICTORIA.

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12 A B O R I G I NA L AU S T R A L I A N S

Each family was attached to a landowning clan, which owned an ‘estate’ of


land that was theirs to manage and nurture. It had recognised boundaries,
denoted by hills, a river or some other recognisable landform. Through kinship
relations, marriage and other agreements, people moved beyond their owned
estates to forage across a wider range of land according to the season. Groups
used each other’s estates through reciprocal rights or ceremonies of permission
to form these foraging ranges. Thus land was owned and mutually recognised
as owned, the title deeds being the stories told and the paintings emanating
from those stories. The land of others was not coveted, for without ownership
of the story, ownership of land was meaningless.
The important rules of this Great Tradition revolved around land and
people, enmeshed into one. Thus all people were interrelated. The great
Aboriginal questions upon meeting were: what is your country and who are
your kinfolk? Kinship was the social cement of Aboriginal society. People lived
in small groups foraging across the land. They were part of a clan held together
by either patrilineal or matrilineal descent. These clans or landowning groups
were also part of larger cultural–linguistic groups we have called ‘tribes’. Marriage
rules sensibly required out-marriage into another clan, and sometimes even
another language group; for language groups were sometimes part of a larger
cultural confederation. Thus individuals had multiple identities, names and
social connections. This social system held people together through codes of
kin relations, which were invisible to the eye, but if mapped would form complex
grids on a page, far denser than maps of great city underground rail systems.
Aboriginal people knew these complex networks from a lifetime of practice.
These grids of relationship came with rights and obligations which kept
the people secure and insured against scarcity. Internal conflicts were managed
by these kinship systems, and while kin violence was part of their world, as with
any society, kinship acted to contain it. Kinship also protected the people from
outside dangers. Aboriginal society was one of friends and enemies. Kinsfolk
were friends, and all others beyond a language group or confederation of language
groups were enemies. Loyalties to one’s kin group meant enemies had to be
killed if they ventured close, as they might wield sorcery, the cause of all mature
deaths. Enemies might steal hair or faeces and work malevolent magic through
these things or ‘sing’ someone to death in other ways. Vigilance was necessary.
Clever men in each group were revered as they knew cures against sorcery. For
minor illnesses other elders knew countless bush medicine prescriptions.
For millennia the Great Tradition was renewed, refined and reinvented.
Ritual paintings on bodies, on rock shelters and bark were continually refreshed

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and retouched. Its current power and relevance was beautifully revealed in
an exhibition curated by Margot Neale at the National Museum of Australia,
Canberra, in 2018, its catalogue sumptuously published as Songlines: Tracking the
Seven Sisters (2017). Senior law woman of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara
lands, Inawinytji Williamson, a traditional owner of the story, stated that the
Seven Sisters travelled through the lands of four language groups in Central and
Western Australia. She added, the exhibition was held ‘so everyone can see and
understand that our Tjukurpa law stands strong today’.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries change—the possibility of
which always existed with the Great Tradition—quickened. Outsiders arrived
on the shores of the great southern continent. At first there were brief, almost
dreamlike, contacts with European navigators. The Dutch came, and then some
English and French visited, who were all borne like large ungainly birds across
the water, only to vanish the same way after brief landings.
On the northern coast from about 1720 men also came from the island of
Macassar in the Celebes to gather marine life: trepang or sea slug from the
shallow coastal waters. They came annually for a short season and stayed for
only a few weeks in any one place. The Macassans formed camps on the land,
cured the trepang in kilns and interacted with the people. They exchanged items
such as food, pipes and tobacco, glass and pottery for labour and sex. Then they
disappeared until the following year. The people interacted with the Macassans
and some journeyed to Macassar with them as wives or workers. A genetic link
exists today between these two peoples, which has been recognised in visits and
festivals. The touch of these contacts was light, however, for the Macassans
offered few threats to Aboriginal culture and none to their land. Some things
were learned—how to make dugout canoes—but the Great Tradition was
unaltered by almost 200 years of this contact.
Yet microbes also made the journey with these Macassans. It is without
doubt that the deadly smallpox virus, Variola major, made the trip on the
Macassans’ praus, to wreak havoc on Aboriginal groups as far down as the
continent’s southern coast. Possibly 50 per cent of those first making contact
with the disease perished, and Aboriginal society began to experience
unprecedented shocks.
One of the world’s greatest navigators, Lieutenant James Cook, searched
the Pacific in 1770 for the Great South Land of the European imagination. Cook
was also sent to the newly discovered Tahiti to record the transit of Venus across
the Sun. English astronomers sought to measure no less than the known universe
by readings in Tahiti and London. These two great European quests brought

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Cook to the east coast of what was then known as New Holland, the north and
west coasts having been found by the Dutch over a century earlier. Cook sighted
first Point Hicks on the south-east coast, named after his midshipman, then
coasted north observing people or their fires through his telescope. He stopped
at Botany Bay and tried to engage with the Eora. Cook and his men watched
from their small landing cutter as two brave Aboriginal men with raised spears
defied their landing.
This was a pivotal moment in Australia’s history as two groups encountered
each other for the first time across a cultural and ecological divide, ushering
irreversible change to the great southern continent and its original owners. A
shot was fired, wounding one warrior in the leg. He ran off—to survive or not,
we will never know. Cook visited some huts and left gifts, but to his amazement,
the gifts were untouched the next day—unlike in Tahiti, where the people had
traded voraciously. He thought less of the first Australians for it, as all ‘civilised’
people traded. He also saw no buildings or gardens, and remarked they roamed
the land in search of their subsistence ‘like wild Beasts’. Later, when the Endeavour
was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, Cook and his crew managed to beach the
ship at Cook Town, where it was repaired. Again, brief contacts were made with
the local people. Cook then sailed north and took possession of the east coast
at what became known as Possession Island.
As Cook voyaged north from the continent he wrote with humane insight
about his encounters with Indigenous people, critiquing with subtlety his own
society: ‘They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of
Condition. The Earth and Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things
necessary for Life. They covet not Magnificent Houses, Household stuff, etc;
they live in a Warm and fine Climate; and enjoy every Wholesome Air . . .’
It was a rare moment of openness to the ‘otherness’ of Aboriginal society.
But Europeans wouldn’t read Cook’s insight for a hundred years. The editor
of his journal, John Hawkesworth, thought the description nonsense, applied
as it was to the Indigenous people of New Holland. How could a backward
people live in ‘tranquillity’? But not wanting to waste fine words, Hawkesworth
attached them instead to Cook’s description of those he encountered at Tierra
del Fuego. A new editor a century later corrected the error, and restored Cook’s
observation of non-material oneness with the land to Aboriginal people and
their Great Tradition.1

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