reading Henry Reynolds

Three themes run through Frontier: widespread violence on the frontier, the pervasive impact of racism on colonial society, and the absolute importance of land ownership. Considered together, they provide a picture of the Australian frontier experience as it was revealed in the relations between a new white society and the Aboriginal people.

Reynolds says that the pastoral industry was the single most important agent in the destruction of aboriginal society and the squatters were often the most persistent advocates of racist theories (p. 106). For the authorities in colonial Australia nothing could hinder economic development of the colonies, and that development dependent on the easy and continuing acquisition of Aboriginal land. That acquisition required the annihilation of the Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people occupied the land and therefore stood in the way of progress, profit and personal enrichment.

am, Benbibuta camp

The latter were seen as violent, wily and treacherous savages: the lowest of the low in the great chain of being in the first half of the 19th century; and living fossils (ie., relics of the early history of mankind) in the evolutionary theory of the 2nd half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Social Darwinism held that the destruction of aboriginal society was due to the superiority of the white race in the struggle for survival. Human progress was achieved by survival of the fittest race and the Aborigines were a vanishing race: distant ancestors who had overstayed their time on earth.

Racism made it so much easier to take Aboriginal land without negotiation or purchase, to crush any resistance to the dispossession, and to keep the survivors in their place as a subjugated or enslaved people.

The 1834 act of the British Parliament which established South Australian gave no recognition to Aboriginal land rights. Both the legislation and the charter incorporating The South Australian Colonizing Commission referred to the territory in question as terra nullius: as ‘waste and unoccupied lands which are supposed to be fit for the purposes of colonization’. The act declared that all lands in the province were to be regarded as public lands which were open to purchase by settlers and investors. Land remaining unsold was to become security for the colonial debt.

Mt Chambers

The land rights issue only reached Australia’s courts in 1971 with the Milirrpaum v Nabalco case concerning the ownership of land on the Gove Peninsula. The judgement by Justice Blackburn in the Northern Territory Supreme Court held, like the settlers before him, that native title was not part of the law of Australia, and even had it existed, any native title rights had been extinguished. The original British claim of sovereignty extinguished all Aboriginal rights to property: the map was wiped clean of traditional tenure in 1788 and the only source of property was the Crown. Aboriginal occupation and ownership stretching back 50,000 years amounted to nothing.


I am currently reading a chapter on frontier conflict in the Flinders Ranges in Fatal Collisions: The South Australian frontier and the violence of memory by Robert Foster, Rick Hosking and Amanda Nettelbeck, (Wakefield Press, Mile End, 2001.) It is about vigilante raids on the Yura (Adnyamathanha) people in a gorge between the Heysen and ABC Range near Youngoona that was conducted by a J.F. Hayward when working as a manager at the pastoral Aroona Station in the 1850s. These raids were reprisals for the killing of R. Richardson, a shepherd on the Aroona Station in 1852. These reprisals are known as the Aroona killings.

This landscape is now seen in tourist terms as pristine wilderness and brochures at the ruins of Youngoona Hut refer to the golden age of pastoralism. The Aroona killings are glossed over and forgotten.

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