Sunday, May 11, 2014


Q: What are aboriginal people asking us to do? 

A few years ago I spent five days on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait – an island of wild and rugged beauty. (Certainly wild: 65 known shipwrecks lie around these islands)

We were there on a ‘pilgrimage of listening’ – twelve of us – to worship, pray, listen to aboriginal people, think in silence, and to repent…

I shared in some new experiences, like eating muttonbird, seeing the milky way in all its glory, and writing a poem. We concluded, Taize-style, kneeling around a cross formed with candles in the shape of the Southern Cross…

Were you taught Tasmanian aborigines died out with Truganini in 1876?

The Anglican priest appointed by his bishop to minister to aboriginals on Flinders Island told me there are 7000 Tasmanian people who call themselves ‘aboriginal’…

So what happened? 

  • Worldwide colonialism began in the 1500s.
  • Since then the world’s 300 million indigenous and tribal peoples have suffered terribly from European conquest of their ancestral lands, through diseases and alcoholism and particularly through the loss of dignity, identity and self-respect.When the ‘first fleet’ arrived in 1788 there were an estimated 750,000 Aboriginals in Australia (7000 in Tasmania). In 1920 that number had fallen to 60,000. In 1971 Aboriginals were included in the national census for the first time.
  • For our purposes, here’s what you need to know about what happened to the Tasmanian aboriginal people (I’ve culled some of the following from Henry Reynolds’ new book Fate of a Free People: A Radical Re-examination of the Tasmanian Wars Penguin, 1995).
  • British settlement began in Van Dieman’s Land in 1803-4. Massacres began 3 May 1804 at Risdon when the 102 Regiment of the British Army shot dead 50 Oyster Bay people, including women and children. The Tasmanians had approached without spears and with green boughs in their hands, as a sign of peace. The commanding officer said afterwards he didn’t think the Aborigines would be any use to the British. 
  • ‘The Black War’ lasted seven years – 1824 to 1831. Atrocities were committed by both sides, but although black men were castrated and black women raped, there wasn’t any record of rape committed by Aboriginals against any white woman.
  • Governor George Arthur mobilized all available settlers and convicts to form the infamous ‘black line’, with 2200 men moving across the island over a six-week period, to try in a pincer movement to herd the remaining Aboriginals to the south east. They captured an old man and a child.
  • By 1831, 175 Europeans had been killed, 200 wounded, 347 houses plundered or burnt. At least 700 Aboriginals were killed in the war. Meanwhile the European population grew from 5000 in 1820 to 24,000 in 1830.
  • Many (most?) of the Europeans believed Aboriginals were an inferior race; some that they were the missing link between monkeys and humans; some that they were ‘savages’ who ought to be exterminated…
  • In 1830, a builder and Methodist lay preacher, George Augustus Robinson went on a ‘Friendly Mission’ to negotiate a settlement. The Aboriginal remnant agreed to vacate Tasmania, and moved to Flinders Island (1833-1847). There Robinson tried to make the Aboriginals into Black Englishpeople, built East-London type terrace cottages for them, and taught them a catechism (with graphic questions and answers about heaven and hell). Eg. ‘What will God do to the world by and by?’ Burn it. What sort of place is heaven? A fine place. What sort of place is hell? A place of torment. But the exile was a disaster: over 200 Aboriginals died, and the 47 survivors were relocated back to Oyster Cove, on mainland Tasmania. 
  • Reynolds’ book centres around a petition presented to Queen Victoria signed by eight Aboriginal men who described themselves as a ‘free people’ who voluntarily gave up their country to the Governor (and complained that though they’d kept their side of the deal, the whites hadn’t)
  • In 1870 the last full-blood male Aboriginal Tasmanian (William Lane) died; in 1876 Truganini, the last full-blood female died.
  • But nine Aboriginal women had been abducted by sealers, and two married sealers voluntarily, and their descendents form the present Tasmanian Aboriginal population.
  • Flinders Island Hotel had a separate bar for Aboriginals until the 1950s. They told us of a Chocolate Waltz won by group of Aboriginal young people, and the MC had to be forced to give them the prize!
  • At Wybelenna (which means ‘Black Man’s Houses’) a few years ago, some aboriginal people put markers on the aboriginal graves. They lasted two days: someone dug them all up and destroyed them one night, but the white graves were left undisturbed…
  • The UN proclaimed the years 1990 to 2000 as the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.
  • There has been remarkable progress since 1945 (then since 1989 in Eastern Europe) It’s one of history’s success stories.
  • In the 1980s over 100 Aboriginal people died in the custody of the Australian police and prison systems. Finally, in 1987 the Australian Government formed a ‘Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’. Four years and $30 million later it released a damning report. One of our retreatants is a prison chaplain. He said, ‘Aboriginal people need each other. When they are isolated in an institution – any institution – they die…’ 
  • In the Mabo case (1992), the High Court of Australia exploded the myth of ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no-one).
  • We have been talking recently about a treaty between white and Aboriginal Australians. Mr Galarrwury Yunupingu from Arnhem Land has said: ‘What we want from a treaty is the creation of a just and mature society which black and white Australians can enjoy together. A treaty which recognizes our rights and our status will provide the basis for building a society in which people live in mutual respect. To those people who say they support the concept of ‘One Australia’ I can only say that I agree. There should be one Australia and we should be part of it. But our part should be on our terms.’  
  • Realize, with Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’
  • And realize, sure, that we can’t turn back the clock. But, whatever our political views (left-wing, right-wing, or wingless) we can agree with Prime Minister Paul Keating when he launched the International Year for the Indigenous 10 December 1992: ‘[We must] recognize that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. As a nation, we face the challenge of the consequences of dispossession, conquest, brutal treatment and equally inhuman neglect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – the first Australians.’
  • Following two invitations in the 1980s to speak to national Aboriginal Christian conferences, I wrote to 40 Aboriginal Christian leaders, asking them this question: 'If you had the opportunity, what would you like to say to Australian - especially Christian - leaders? Their views on land rights varied across the political spectrum from very radical to quite conservative but they were unanimous about one thing: ‘Please, we would like white Australians to listen to our pain’
  • Then we can agree (and is this too big an ‘ask’?) that aboriginal people ought to be consulted about their present and future. (‘White Australians have done so much to/against/for us but forgot to ask us ‘Is it OK?’) 


Australia is the most multi-cultural country in the world. One in three Australians were born overseas or their parents were born overseas


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