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The Early Settlers

Throughout his book, One Blood, John Harris uses historical sources to expose mainstream settler attitudes toward Indigenous Australians in the early settlement period. 

In particular, newspaper articles provide telling evidence of the settlers’ attitudes toward Indigenous Australians. According to Harris, “Opinions such as the following were commonplace and newspaper editors, it would seem, happily published them:

 

‘Brutish, faithless, vicious, the animal being given fullest loose only approached by his next of kin the monkey… the Australian black may have a soul but, if he has, then the horse and the dog, infinitely superior in every way to the black human, cannot be denied possession of that vital spark of heavenly flame.’" (1) (pg. 28)

Harris notes an increase in this sort of derogatory writing in 1838, surrounding the trial of seven settlers for the cold-blooded murder of 28 Indigenous men, women and children at Myall Creek. On the 5th of October, for instance, the following article by “Anti-Hypocrite” was published in the Sydney Herald: 

 

‘...[The Indigenous people are] the most degenerate, despicable and brutal race of beings in existence, and stand as it were in scorn ‘to shame creation'’- a scoff and a jest upon humanity. They are insensible to every bond which binds man to his friend: husband to wife, parent to its child or creature to its God. They stand unprecedented in the annals of the most ancient and barbarous histories for the anti-civilising propensities they put forth.’ (2) (pg. 26)

The Myall Creek trials also reveal the partiality of the jury. Following the first two weeks of trials, one of the jurors remarked:

 

‘I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one. I knew well (the settlers) were guilty of the murder, but I for one would never see a white man suffer for shooting a black.’ (3) (pg. 27)

In the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Darwin’s theory of evolution gave scientific support to this common belief in the inferiority of the black races, and their inevitable displacement by the white race. Harris writes, “convinced of the physical, cultural and intellectual inferiority of the Aborigines, the scientific community came to the almost unanimous conclusion that evolutionary theory, based on the survival of the fittest, demanded that the Aboriginal race was doomed to extinction". (pg. 25).

Harris highlights that “objectionable as these views are…they are not just intellectual errors. They came to be part of a much more sinister rationalisation of reality. If Aborigines were not quite human, then killing one was a different act from killing a person.” (pg. 23-24)

 

The editor of the Colonist recognised this tragic logic, writing in 1839:

“Sordid self-interest is at the root of this anti-Aborigines feeling. Because the primitive lords of the soil interferes, in some of the frontier stations, with the easy and lucrative grazing of cattle and sheep, they are felt by the sensitive pockets of the graziers to be a nuisance; and the best plea these ‘gentlemen’ can set up for their rights to abate the nuisance by the summary process of stabbing, burning, and ‘poisoning’, is, that the offenders are below the level of the the white man’s species.” (4) (pg. 24)

Australian Anthropogist, William Stanner, described this awful reasoning as the 'the persuasive doctrine of Aboriginal worthlessness’ (6), and according to Harris, it pervaded settler society, influencing generations of white Australians. “Many people”, writes Harris, “their consciences eased, accepted the demise of Aboriginal society as inevitable, even if it were hastened by white aggression.” (pg. 26)


Want to know more?

Watch Sharing Our Story Episode 2 to find out more about this era of our shared history.

To watch the full Sharing Our Story series, click here.

 


References:

Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square

  1. Western Australian Advocate, February 1906. See also The Golden West, 1906, pg. 6
  2. Sydney Herald, 5th October 1838
  3. Australian, 8th December 1838
  4. Colonist, 16th January 1839
  5. Stanner, W.E.H. 1965, 'Religion, kinship and totenism', in Brendt R. and C. (eds) Aboriginal Man in Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, pg. 213

Images:

  1. "Group of Aboriginal Men in Chains”, State Library of Western Australia, reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia

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