Apology, anthropology, and colonial genocide

A review of Terra Nullius, A Journey Through No One’s Land, by Sven Lindqvist

Terra Nullius – a Latin expression meaning ‘no one’s land’ – was a legal fiction used to clear the way for the colonial occupation of Australia, and the consequent trampling of the rights of the indigenous peoples of that continent. Under that doctrine, the Aboriginal peoples occupying the continent at the time Europeans arrived were deemed non-people, their humanity denied, their culture and ancient history erased from the Australian narrative. It remained in legal currency until 1992, when  it was finally overthrown by the Australian Supreme Court.

Sven Lindqvist
Photo: Ulla Montan

In Sven Lindqvist’s Terra Nullius – a journey through no one’s land, the author recounts a journey he made through central and western Australia in the early years of the present millennium. Lindqvist begins in Adelaide on the south coast, travels north through Alice Springs in the centre of the continent to Darwin in the north. Then he heads west and south along the western coast to Perth, and finally back across the southern coast to his starting point.

Along the way, he seeks out places of significance in the 250-years-long Aboriginal resistance to the European encroachment, both historic and recent, and gives striking descriptions of the landscapes and the towns he visits. He ponders the use of Aboriginal lands as testing grounds for missiles and nuclear weapons, and the replacement of the Aboriginal detention centres of the past by detention centres for migrants and refugees in the present. He reviews some of the distorted reflections of Aboriginal life in Australian literature, and recounts the recent flowering of Aboriginal art. In all these ways, the author creates an exceptionally vivid sense of the ways in which the weight of the unacknowledged past bears down upon the present.

Even finding the places is not easy. Moorundie, near Adelaide, was the site of one of the first known armed confrontations between Aborigines and Europeans in South Australia. None of the local tourist offices, nor the museum, know of the existence of the place. He encounters the same phenomenon in other places: ‘local history walks’ and tours promoted by tourist offices that suffer from a strange amnesia in respect of Aboriginal history, especially where it concerns conflicts with the European settlers.

Eventually Lindqvist locates Moorundie, on the Murray River, a place with trees, fertile soil, and abundant water. When explorer John Eyre purchased land here in 1839, the Ngaiawong people had been living there for at least five thousand years, and had every intention of staying. After conflicts with European cattle-herders, a murderous spree by colonial troops  in 1841 left thirty Aborigines dead (by official records – Aboriginal accounts put the death toll much higher). “A few decades later, an entire people had vanished.  No one spoke their language any more. No one preserved their holy sites. There is not so much as a memorial left.”

At Alice Springs, Lindqvist quotes nineteenth-century police chief Henry Willshire, who has left a written account of his exploits. “Willshire recalls… how his police patrol happens on a ‘beautiful maiden savage’, who runs away screaming. She is caught, but attempts to escape during the night by jumping into the river. The constable who apprehends her exploits her sexually until, as Willshire put it, she is ‘over head and ears in love with the tracker who caught her.’

Henry Willshire, c 1895. Photo: State Library of South Australia (public domain)

Reporting a white man for rape in Willshire’s police station was not advisable. The blacks were punished on the spot for their crimes; trials were considered unnecessary. No suspects were arrested, no reports were filed, the natives, guilty and innocent, were summarily dispatched… The total number of black people killed during Willshire’s time at Alice has been estimated at between five hundred and a thousand.”

South Australian Register 29 April 1891. Willshire was eventually arrested and charged with murder. Cattle farmers raised £2,000 for his defence. He was defended by Sir John Downer (grandfather of Australian politician Alexander Downer) and was acquitted. More details here.

Heading north from Alice Springs, Lindqvist encounters a contemporary form of Aboriginal resistance. “Live More! Drink less!” runs the slogan in giant letters above the road into town. With fourteen pubs, of which eight are also off-licences, Tennant Creek is the Australian town with the greatest density of drinking establishments. But it is also the town in which Aborigines have declared was on alcohol.

“Most Aborigines in Tennant Creek don’t drink alcohol. But those who do, drink too much. The drinkers are drawn to each other, so whole suburbs are laid waste by alcohol abuse. The children grow up without parents, and are alcoholics before they start school.

“How did things get like this? Tennant Creek was once called Junkurrarkur and was a holy site where the Warumungu people’s songlines and footpaths intersected. The whites built a telegraph station there in 1872. White sheep farmers took over the land. What little remained was set aside as an Aboriginal reservation in 1892.

“In 1932, a black boy called Frank Jupurrula found a nugget of gold ten kilometres south of the telegraph station. Three years later, a locust swarm of white prospectors had drained the waterhole dry, destroyed the hunting and grazing grounds and made the ‘reservation’ a joke. The booze flowed and prostitution became a major industry.

“In 1934 the anthropologist William Stanner discovered that mining rights had been granted illegally inside the reservation in some fifty cases, and that the telegraph station had five hundred cows grazing on Aboriginal land, exploiting their waterholes. The following year the reservation rights were simply annulled, and the Warumungu people forced to move forty kilometres north to Manga Manda, notorious for its scorpions, red spiders and perpetual water shortage. Twenty years after that, the Warumungu were moved on again, to Ali Curung, far from their traditional lands…

“Times got even worse at Tennant Creek when the abattoir closed and mining declined. The population shrank from 9,000 to 3,500. Pubs and liquor stores lost a large proportion of their customers. To stay in business, the pubs began offering credit. The first drinks were free of charge, but the pub owners charged all the more once the customer was drunk.

“In the 1990s the Aborigines started a campaign against the pubs. The whites don’t shoot us any more, they poison us with liquor. They’ve always wanted to be rid of us. Alcohol is just the latest ploy for achieving a terra nullius. The unregulated sale of alcohol in Tennant Creek, according to the Julalikari Council, is a ‘state sanctioned act of genocide against Aboriginal people.’

2015 rally in Tennant Creek protesting slowness in the provision of adequate housing.

“The Julalikari Council represents Aborigines from sixteen different language groups in ten different suburbs. The programme of the organisation has four main points: The fight against drug abuse, Education and employment, Land and Housing, Culture and traditions. The first point is seen as critical for the other three….

“On the way home, beneath the pink neon lights of the main street, I pass the Fernandez Bar and Restaurant, which entices customers with ‘shooters’ at $6 a shot: ‘Slippery Nipple’, ‘Blow Job’, ‘Cock Sucking Cowboy’ and ‘Orgasm’.

“The pub war continues. Above the road out of town flutters the slogan ‘Drink Less! Live More’.”

Kahlin Compound, for Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents, Darwin, 1928.

Large sections of the book are devoted to the history of detention centres and ‘compounds’ established for various punitive purposes, especially that of separating the children of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers, the so-called ‘half-castes’, from their families, while at the same time keeping them far from the ‘white’ suburbs.

Aboriginal stockmen, Wave Hill Station, owned at the time (1957) by the meat giant Vestey. Photo: Rob Sampson. Lindqvist writes: “…northern Australia’s meat production was achieved by use of a native labour force whose pay consisted in the right to remain on the land that had been stolen from them.” He documents a major fight for equal pay that broke out in the 1960s, partly inspired by the US Civil Rights movement.

Perhaps the most harrowing and tragic of these is the story of the detention centres on Bernier and Dorre, two long, narrow red sandstone islands off the western coast near Carnarvon, with almost no vegetation and no reliable source of water.

“At the start of the twentieth century, these two islands were selected for the forcible internment and treatment of Aborigines suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, above all syphilis. This illness was unheard of before whites arrived, and the infection was mainly spread by male white settlers chasing after black women, but it was considered more appropriate to intern the natives, especially women, in order to reduce the risk for white men.

“The proposal was put forward in 1903 by the Aborigines’ Protector in Western Australia. He claimed coercive measures needed to be taken against the Aboriginal women to prevent them ‘pandering to the lusts of Asiatics, who are so numerous and ubiquitous’. …

“In the villages of the outback, it was the police who made the diagnoses and decided which of the indigenous people needed treatment. The police lined up the men and above all the women, and inspected their sexual organs. Those who were considered sick were treated as criminals and held captive in neck-irons during long marches through the desert. The number of arrests was determined by the number of neck-irons available on the chain. They were marched from place to place until all the neck-irons were taken. It was not unusual for women in neck-irons to be raped by the police or fellow-prisoners. Those who weren’t sick when they were seized fell ill on the march.

“The police were in no great hurry to deliver the patients they had rounded up to the hospital. Some of those taken prisoner because of sickness remained in chains for three years, carrying out hard physical labour in tropical heat. As late as 1958, the police of Western Australia were defending the use of neck-irons by claiming the natives preferred them.

“A large proportion of the costs to the state of Aboriginal welfare went on salaries for a doctor and a couple of nurses for several hundred black patients on the two islands. The first of these arrived in October 1908. The method of treating sexually transmitted diseases involved painful injections and operations, usually ineffectual. Experiments were carried out on the patients; they were given a series of different injections, some of which probably killed more than they cured. The majority of those taken to the islands never returned.

“Framboesia, from the French word for raspberry, is a tropical skin disease which occurs and spreads particularly among undernourished children living in conditions of primitive hygiene. Spongy, raspberry-like growths decompose, leaving sores. In 1914, a new doctor found that most of the patients on Bernier and Dorre were suffering not from syphilis but framboesia. The diagnosis had been wrong, the treatment misdirected, the internment unnecessary, and the alleged threat to the white population far less than had been feared. Financial support was cut drastically, and by 1918 there was nothing left on the ‘Islands of the Dead’ but the graves of all the patients who had died during treatment.”

It was in this detention centre that the anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown conducted his studies of Aboriginal kinship terms on the captive population, assisted by a journalist, Daisy Bates. Bates has described the patients in her autobiography:

Daisy Bates with a group of aboriginal women, c 1911

“They were frightened of the hospital, with its endless tests and injections. They were frightened of each other, both alive and dead. They were frightened of the sea [which they had never seen before] and of the hurricanes that heaved the sea in over the islands. They were undernourished, as weeks could go by without essential supplies when stormy weather prevented the ships from putting in. Many succumbed to mental illness and tried to walk on the water to return home, or sat for days on end pouring sand over their heads. Others cried night and day in an interminable monotony of grief. Even death offered no consolation, since their souls, so far from home, would be among none but enemies.”

Radcliffe-Brown, who later became Australia’s first professor of anthropology, was himself less forthcoming when describing the conditions under which he gathered his data. Anthropologists, and the science of anthropology in general, come in for a great deal of criticism in Lindqvist’s book, as a key element in the ideological justifications of the genocidal crimes against Aborigines.

Lewis Morgan 1818 – 1881, founder of evolutionary anthropology

The discipline of anthropology arose out of European colonial expansion, which brought Europeans into close contact with primitive classless societies in North America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The anthropologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to study these peoples, before they became extinct, for clues to the origin of human society. Extinction of these peoples, their languages and cultures – whose lower technical level rendered them unable to hold back the tide of European encroachment –  was widely regarded as inevitable, by anthropologists no less than the rest of the European population. Anthropology was at the outset deeply influenced by Darwinism, in that it sought the origins of humanity in the animal world, and explained the history of human society in terms of the evolution of higher forms out of lower, and in its belief in the inevitability of extinction as the ultimate fate of the lower forms of society. Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, took a close interest in the findings of the early anthropologists, especially those of Lewis Morgan, and, using Morgan’s data, made their own contributions on the origins of institutions of class society such as the state and the family.

As with any infant science, anthropological theory could only be as good as the data upon which it was based. Lindqvist makes some valid and important criticisms of the pretensions of anthropology. Has any academic anthropologist ever made a comparable critique of the highly questionable context in which Radcliffe-Brown’s data were gathered? I doubt it.

But Lindqvist goes further – too far – in dismissing the whole thrust of early anthropological investigation, in particular its evolutionary basis. Paraphrasing the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowsky, but expressing a view that seems to be his own as well, the author says “[Malinowski] rejected the validity of the very question that everyone else was trying to answer. He doubted that all humans had passed through the same stages in their course of development. Conditioned by their climate and their environment, the Aborigines created social institutions exerting mutual influence over each other. Their society is worth studying for its own sake – not as a preliminary stage of Europe, but as one of many potential solutions to the basic problems common to all humankind.”

There is a place for the monograph in anthropology, just as in biology. But to reject any comparative studies, to reject looking at what human societies in different environments have in common as well as where they differ, to reject placing human societies on an evolutionary sequence, would be like trying to explain biology without Darwinian theory. It leaves the big questions of anthropology – the origins of class society and its institutions – unanswered.

The genocide against Aborigines was not driven by anthropological ideas – whether they were right or wrong ­– but by the capitalist hunger for land and resources for exploitation, and by the fundamental incompatibility of capitalist social relations with pre-capitalist societies. The ideological justifications for the genocide came after the fact, and they owe far more to age-old class and racist myths and prejudices than to erroneous scientific ideas. Nor, for that matter, did the genocide slow down in the least when anthropology as a whole adopted the anti-evolutionary outlook advocated by Malinowsky.

A more serious error in Lindqvist’s book in bound up in the author’s loose use of the term ‘white people’. Aboriginal Australians, or ‘black people’ in the Australian context, share many common interests as an oppressed nationality, and these terms and categories consequently have some validity. The same is not true of the category ‘white people’.

‘White people’ as a whole were not responsible for the dispossession of the Aborigines, but only a small wealthy minority of the Europeans. The spoils of the plunder of Aboriginal lands fell into the hands of this layer, which soon emerged as the Australian capitalist class. (It is worth recalling that some other ‘white people’ also wore irons, arriving in the country as convict-slaves of the incipient capitalists). It is this capitalist class, and this class alone, that should be held responsible for the genocide today. The term ‘white people’, by implying that there are some common interests among all those who have a white skin, conceals this fundamental class antagonism and confuses the issue.

International Workers Day, 1967, Queensland. Builders Labourers’ Federation supports call for full citizenship rights, equal pay, and decent living conditions for Aborigines.

Lindqvist examines in depth many aspects of the political arguments surrounding the long-running, long-resisted campaign to force the Australian government to recognise the injustices committed against the Aboriginal peoples under the law of Terra Nullius, apologise for them, and make reparations. Such questions as whether people can be held in any way responsible for crimes that were committed before they were born are important, and need to be discussed out. But this aspect of the book is weakened by Lindqvist referring to ‘white people’ in an undifferentiated way.

Sorry Day 2016. Since the landmark “Bringing Them Home” report in 1997, the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care has increased six-fold.

What the situation demands of the working class majority of the Australian population is not hand-wringing apologies, but active solidarity and support to Aboriginal demands, including the demand for government recognition of the historic injustices, apology, compensation, and measures to overcome the heavy legacy and prevent its continuation.

Thousands march in Canberra to mark National Sorry Day, 26 May, 2017. Photo: Ian Cutmore, ABC

A key part of this remains the task of breaking what anthropologist William Stanner called, nearly fifty years ago, the ‘Great Australian Silence’: the erasure from history of the violent colonial encounters – invasion, massacres, ethnic cleansing and resistance – between European settlers and the indigenous population. Stanner described this as “a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”

In the years since the legal overturning of Terra Nullius, momentum has been gathering to break the great Australian silence. Increasingly, academic historians have re-discovered and revealed the history of Aboriginal resistance – though not without meeting continuing determined opposition on the part of others who seek to uphold the old mythology. (A really fascinating recent development has been the re-discovery,  by indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, of accounts by early European explorers and other evidence of large-scale Aboriginal agriculture and permanent villages, which could upturn the established picture of Aboriginal society as being exclusively a society of hunters and gatherers.) Of the greatest importance, surviving members of the stolen generations, children forcibly removed from their families, are themselves speaking out. (Video and written testimony of some of these can be seen here).

In spite of its weaknesses, Sven Lindqvist’s Terra Nullius makes a valuable contribution to this effort.


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