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Monday, December 7, 2015

Australia: A history of racism & bigotry

Australia: A history of racism & bigotry

- by guest blogger, Willz

Well, they were standing on the shore one day

Saw white sails in the sun

Wasn't long before they felt the sting

White man, white law, white gun.

(Excerpt from the song, 'Solid Rock' by Goanna)

This song describes how the first Australians saw the arrival of the white man and how soon they felt the sting of the white man's legal system and guns. With complete disregard for the first nation people's ownership of the land, the white invaders declared the whole of Australia to be terra nullius; a Latin term meaning 'owned by no-one'. Not long after, the original inhabitants found themselves forcibly removed from their land at gunpoint, with any attempt at resistance met with a volley of musket fire.

This sparked what is now known as the Frontier Wars, which spanned 146 years, finally dying out in 1934. Accounts vary, but it is estimated that at least 20,000 aborigines were killed, while 2,000 Europeans were killed(1). It was hardly a fair fight, with sticks and spears against rifled muskets. It was nothing more than a series of one-sided massacres. The indigenous people paid a huge price simply for defending their land.

There were many massacres of whole tribes perpetrated by landholders and wealthy graziers that went unrecorded and unpunished. Queensland in particular, has the worst record of all with 'nigger hunts' regularly taking place right up to the 1930s. Mobs of white men armed with Lee Enfied .303 rifles shooting aborigines wholesale out of the backs of trucks. By 1930, over 250,000 aboriginal people had been massacred, some were poisoned when their water supply was deliberately contaminated.

There were incidents of whole tribes being rounded up and the men made to watch while their women were raped and killed. There was one particularly sickening account of aboriginal babies being buried neck deep in the ground while the white men took turns at seeing how far they could could a baby's head(2).

Don't remember reading this in the history books? Neither do I. The history of the barbaric treatment of the first nation people has been hidden and manipulated to make it seem like white man was doing them a favour.

Mounted police killing indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838. 

Far more devastating in their impact on the aboriginal population, however, were the effects of disease, infertility, loss of hunting grounds, starvation and general despair, loss of pride, and the impact of the alcohol 'remedy' for this devastation. Smallpox alone is estimated to have wiped out over 50% of the Australian aboriginal population. Diseases that aborigines had never seen, were introduced by Europeans and had a devastating effect on their bodies that had no defence against them.(3)

The Stolen Generation

Still from the movie, 'The Rabbit Proof Fence', 2002.

When we hear about the stolen generation, we think it happened between 1910 and 1970. In reality it started as early as 1814. In New South Wales, the policy of forcibly removing aboriginal children from their parents has left the indigenous population with a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to affect the community to this day. Sadly, it was all part of the ideology of assimilation which assumed that aborigines were inferior to white people and to make the aboriginal race either die out, be bred out or be assimilated into white society.

Children taken from their parents were forced to turn their backs on their heritage and culture. Their names were changed and they were forbidden from speaking their traditional languages. Some were adopted by white families, while others were placed in institutions where they were subject to physical, emotional and sexual abuse and discrimination.(4) (5) (6)

There are few, if any, aboriginal families who have not suffered the loss of a child through this barbaric policy. Stories abound of children being torn from their mother's arms at gunpoint, never to see them again.

An older aborigine told me a story that made me ashamed to be a white Australian. A truck and a police car turned up at their camp and two mothers and their children were forced into the back of the truck. The truck drove off and stopped about 10 miles down the road, where the mothers were kicked out without their children. It drove off with the children screaming for their mothers while the women wept uncontrollably. They never saw each other again.

A deep sense of sadness and loss haunts aboriginal people from that generation to this day. Unfortunately, many have resorted to the white man's drink to try to numb their minds from that dreadful past, often resulting in alcoholism and a shorter lifespan. This about this before you go pointing the finger at the people in public parks.

If you want to see a good movie about the realities of this abhorrent policy, I suggest 'Rabbit Proof Fence', a movie about three aboriginal girls stolen from their mother. The girls escape their captors and follow the rabbit proof fence back to their mother. It's a heart-breaking, but thought provoking movie.

Deaths in custody

Roebourne Prison inmates - sentenced for crimes such as 'absconding' from 'blackbirding' (slavery). Those who resisted were sent to Wadjemump (Rottnest Island). Most never survived, either killed by hanging or starved to death in overcrowded cells. 

A royal commission in 1987, investigated aboriginal deaths in custody over a 10 year period, giving over 300 recommendations which are still valid today, although very few have been implemented. Every year, aboriginal people continue to die in custody, many of them with physical and mental disabilities.(7)

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) conducted a major review of deaths in custody and found a substantial increase in the number of aboriginal people dying in custody over the past five years. The study found that the overall rate of deaths in State and Territory prisons has remained relatively steady over the past 20 years but there has been a spike in the number of indigenous deaths in custody, in line with almost doubling the number of indigenous Australians being locked up.

Around 30,000 people are behind bars and indigenous inmates account for a quarter of the prison population, while aborigines comprise only 2% of the general population. It hasn't been getting better. It is getting worse.

In addition, Australia imprisons thousands of indigenous people with mental and cognitive disabilities every year. A widespread lack of understanding and action underpins this shameful breach of human rights. Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities are being 'managed' by police, courts and prisons due to a dire lack of appropriate community-based services and support.(8)

The politics of racism

In a modern wealthy nation like Australia, one would think that the ills of the past would be a distant memory, but sadly this is not the case. The average life expectancy for an adult aborigine is 45 years. Infant mortality is still alarmingly high, aboriginal people living in remote remote locations do not even have access to the most basic health services, such as running water, electricity or safe housing. Third world diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and trachoma have been eradicated virtually everywhere in the world, except in remote aboriginal communities. People in these communities live in abject poverty. While politicians publicly sympathise with their plight, while little is done to help.

Why is this so?

The answer lies with the voting public. There are few votes in helping the first nation's people. Politicians who stand up for them are invariably voted out of office. Sadly this is because there are still a lot of racist white Australians who refuse to acknowledge their ancestors' misdeeds and racist policy enjoys popular support.

It's a sad indictment on a country that likes to see itself as a 'tolerant country'.


1. John Harris, 'Hiding the bodies: The myth of the humane colonisation of Aboriginal Australia',

2. John Pilger, 'Utopia', 2013.

3. N.G. Butlin, 'Our Original Aggression: Aboriginal Populations of Southeastern Australia, 1788-1850', Allen & Unwin, June 1984

4. Australians Together, 'The Stolen Generation',

5. Stolen Generations Testimonies,

6. Creative Spirits, 'A guide to Australia's Stolen Generations',

7. Creative Spirits, 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody '.

8. ABC News, Martin Cuddihy, 'Aboriginal deaths in custody numbers rise sharply over past five years', 24 May 2013,

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