Over 2 weeks have passed since I left Australia, and my thoughts are still with the immense country. During my travels I started wondering about why I couldn’t see Aboriginals in the coastal areas and started researching. I discovered a “world behind the postcard” and this article is an attempt to describe to my observations and explore some historical facts. I’m aware that this might be a controversial post and I can’t consider it complete, given the amount of information available on this matter. This article is a personal opinion and an attempt to express my thoughts after visiting Australia for the first time.
I travelled over 10000 Km, visited Sydney, drove from Melbourne to Adelaide, passed Woomera and travelled up to the mining town Coober Pedy. I drove back down to the east coast, passing Broken Hill and Cobar. I arrived back to the coast close to Nelson Bay, followed up the coast a bit more, then back down to Sydney. It was great, although I had hardly seen all of “Australia”, I now had a rough idea. Meeting friendly and welcoming Australians and many fellow travellers, I traded my work with great people, felt safe and welcome, surrounded by stunning nature. Even so, when I first arrived in Sydney I questioned myself about how and where the Aborigines lived, perhaps because I couldn’t see many traces of the traditional owners of the land anywhere. What I could see was that Australia’s tourism is driven by promoting the richness of the Aboriginal heritage, the native craftsmanship and art, traditions and rituals. Many places across the country are defined by this heritage and it is mentioned everywhere in tourist information. But where were they? In the Outback? Surely the natives wouldn’t still live like the hunter gatherers shown on tourist boards.
The coastlines are inhabited by a multicultural mix of many countries from all over the world, while many are descendants of Europeans, a big majority are British (I read that “in 2001 nearly 1 in 4 Australians was born overseas”). A lot of people live in considerable wealth, and as I drove down I was often impressed by the rich lifestyle. Expensive cars, beautiful houses located in even more beautiful bays and many that apparently have most of the (material) things humans thrive for. Australians seem blessed by a rich nature with a strong economy, apparently hardly hit by the global financial crisis.
As I drove north, towards south Australia and by visiting the Outback I started seeing Aboriginal communities, sometimes living in poor conditions, sometimes homeless and often with hopeless and unhappy expressions in their eyes and faces. I felt intimidated and didn’t quite dare to interview the ones I met about how life was going. It looked like the “white man” occupied the beautiful coastline and lived in considerable wealth and the Aborigines were left out living mostly poorly in the deserted empty spaces. I needed to know more as it didn’t quite feel right.
During my time in Melbourne, I took some time to visit the Immigration museum and did some more research to connect the dots. A short (incomplete) trip back in time: Australia was discovered by the Dutch around 1606 but claimed by Great Britain in 1770. British colonisation began only in 1788, as did the transportation of convicts (which stopped in 1868). It’s assumed that Aboriginals arrived as far as 40000 to 50000 years back, and might “have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human population”. Before European Settlement, there once existed 500 to 600 tribes of 100 to 1000 people and there where about 300 distinct Australian languages and many of these had several dialects.
The continent was explored, six colonies established and the population grew steadily, while aboriginal population declined dramatically, mainly due to infectious diseases brought in by the whites. The new government started with a policy of “assimilation” beginning with the “Aboriginal Protection Act” in 1869, removing Aboriginal children of mixed race from their families and communities, also known as “The Stolen Generations”. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a public apology in 2008.
Australia was declared a Commonwealth in 1901, when the six colonies were federated, a time where the “White Australia policy” was in place, giving priority to all white mostly british immigrants. In the 1967 referendum the government gained power to make laws to respect the natives and in 1975 the “Racial Discrimination act” forbid all racial discrimination. The traditional ownership of land – Aboriginal Title – was only recognised in 1992, removing from common law the fiction that Australia was uninhabited before James Cook claimed the Land, formerly named Terra Nulius. Unlike Australia’s sheep, the Aborigines were not counted until the late sixties. Unfortunately, some land claims are still being undermined from what i read in John Pilger’s chapter about Australia in his book “The New Rulers of the World”.
And there was more… I read about the Maralinga nuclear tests between 1956 and 1963, where the british did many nuclear trials near Woomera in South Australia. Apparently the trials performed without taking all possible measures to protect the natives, cleaning the areas where the bombs exploded twice afterwards and allowing inhabitants to repopulate. Some Aborigines that couldn’t be contacted about were in the area while those tests proceeded, from what some reports suggest and the debate over long-term health effects continues.
Many of the housing projects for Aboriginals failed, a good example being the story of “The Block” in Sydney. The recent documentary “Utopia”, also by John Pilger, is a must watch regarding the topic and it reveals more truly shocking events in the past, varying from racist acts to the defamation of whole communities for political reasons. It shows that not much has changed for the last 20 or 30 years for some of the communities living in very poor conditions with health and housing problems that could easily be solved. A curious fact is the a lot of Australians celebrate “Australia Day”, celebrated annually on the 26th of January, the day of arrival of the British fleet. Aborigines made it a day of national mourning, sometimes mentioned as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day”.
I could go on, citing from the numerous examples I’ve found. It’s history repeating itself all over the world regarding colonisation and occupation of land by other nations, but what I see is one of the wealthiest countries of the world having a pretty disastrous way of handling the situation with its native inhabitants.
Several housing projects have failed, racist acts have been committed, integration has often failed, drug and health problems grew… and this continues to the present day. Some Australians seem to think that Aborigines should adapt to their lifestyle (to the western one), rather than trying to find solutions for Aborigines to continue to live like they did for thousands of years. But I’m not even sure if this is possible, since I feel like the natives in Australia are now stuck between the worlds. Going back to the way it was seems impossible because the white man brought many new things and systems, and living by those could mean losing their cultural identity, way of life and connection to the land.
The whole situation looks like a huge challenge to overcome, deeply enrooted in current social and political systems. I have some obvious questions. – How is possible that one of the wealthiest countries of the world – the 12th-largest economy with some of the highest per capita income, maintaining shiny free BBQ areas along the whole coast with park officials cleaning those almost every day – can’t provide infrastructure, healthcare and benefits for its native inhabitants? Given the size of the Aboriginal population the financial effort would be minimal compared to many of the national expenses and investments. Why does it feel like some sort of modern colonialism with an ongoing Apartheid-like system where the native population is kept poor and with less possibilities? Why haven’t I heard this from other travellers visiting Australia, it seems so obvious to me?
These a tough questions and it’s a strong opinion, I’m aware of that. I need to emphasize that I’ve just seen parts of Australia and read and seen very little of the existing information on this topic. My opinion can only be limited and I’m not trying to offer a full picture, but rather a few of my thoughts on my observations and research. There surely is the other side of the medal, the dozens of initiatives fighting for Aboriginal rights and integration, their success, their trials and programs in many areas of Australia. I’m currently in New Zealand and I see Maori culture very integrated in the schooling system and part of general life, while many white Australians wouldn’t know much about the Aboriginal heritage, unless they searched by themselves. Like my Australian friend wrote to me “The key to change is education, not just for Aboriginal people who now exist with such ingrained disadvantage that has led to cycles of violence, abuse and lack of education, that affects individuals and whole communities, but also education and integration of native values into contemporary Australian life”.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.