Australian Aborigines Changing Situation 19001945 Essay

This essay has a total of 3148 words and 16 pages.


Australian Aborigines Changing Situation 19001945




For Aborigines, Australia was a marginally better place in which to live in 1945 then in
1900. At the turn of the century, the Australian state governments neither had a uniform
nor clear Aboriginal policy. Treatment of Aborigines was consequently decided by society’s
individual attitudes, not law. While many people (white) were aggressive towards
Aborigines till well past 1945, a general more sympathetic attitude towards them started
to slightly ease the strong oppression they were shackled by. As the social stance towards
aborigines improved so did the political policy, leading to a small improvement in (or the
minor establishment of) Aboriginal economy, though in practise their actual situation had
changed little by 1945.


Colonisation (1788) ended traditional life for Aborigines and started a period of white
degradation, leading to their severely oppressed situation in 1900. Control over all
Australian land, besides the very remote areas, had been lost. Aborigines were not given
the chance to determine their own future and even their language was dying out. “Few
whites took the trouble to learn anything about Aboriginal life; many whites regarded
Aborigines as oddities or nuisances.”


To add injury to insult, aborigines were often the victims or violent racial crimes and
discrimination. Asked to make a report to the Western Australian Government in 1905, Dr
W.E. Roth revealed “a most brutal and outrageous state of affairs” in the northern part
of the state. As had been happening throughout the country for many years previous,
aborigines were treated with severe inhumanity. There was police corruption in
administering aborigines’ ration allowances; many arrested aborigines and aboriginal
witnesses and prisoners were chained together by the neck; aboriginal children were forced
into labour; aboriginal children and adults convicted of stealing cattle suffered unfairly
heavy sentences; they suffered discrimination in court proceedings; and a shortage of
food. “Along the frontier of settlement in the early twentieth century, relations between
whites and Aborigines continued to reveal conflict and inhumanity.”


The Aborigines who were forced to live on the Government reserves or mission stations,
mainly lived in squalor and poverty. There they received the minimum necessities -
medicine, shelter, a minimum of food that in most places was inadequate to sustain a
healthy life, and the customary blankets. In some places some schooling and elementary
training in practical skills was also provided. There was a very high child mortality rate
within the reserves. Whether the mission or reserve was church or government run, the
aboriginal people who were situated there were regimented and severely punished if they
did not obey the rules. Aborigines in 1900 had been stripped of their former way of life
and were treated like ignorant animals and slaves.


The lack of humanitarian care in the aborigines’ situation was encouraged by the common
held view in society that the aborigines were a dying race. Drawing from the Darwin
theory, white society believed that extinction of the Aborigines was a part of evolution,
‘survival of the fittest’. Such an attitude was confirmed by a decline in Aboriginal
population, with only 40 000 full-blooded aborigines estimated to be still alive in 1901.
Most of the survivors were shipped off to the reserves left to die out of the white public
eye. Australian society believed that the Aboriginal people were doomed to a natural
selection death at the hands of the ‘fitter’ Europeans, thus causing a general disregard
for Aboriginal wellbeing.


The Darwinist way of thinking led to the exclusionist policy of the 1901 Australian
Constitution, written up after federation in 1901. The aboriginal race, Australia’s
original landowners, was not even counted as a part of the nation’s population. As well as
not including them in the national census, the constitution excluded aborigines from the
federal vote, the law, social service benefits and post office employment. Aboriginal
affairs mostly remained an issue of the individual states rather than a federal one, and
federal policy towards them didn’t outline their rights (if any). Federation (January 1st
1901) was hoped to bring with it a better deal for Aborigines, but if anything it only
cemented the segregation and inequality.


The policies of the Federal government in its first decade of rule outlined that
Aboriginal culture was to be discouraged and ‘white’ values and practises encouraged.

A section of the ‘White Australia Policy’ (1901) contained policy “aimed to assimilate the
‘remnants’ [Chinese, West Indian, and African, as well as Aboriginal Australians] into
white society.” Assimilation was part of a policy of ‘protectionism’, in which the
aboriginal people were to be protected from their own culture and made ‘useful’ citizens
in white society. Dominant white society typically “assumed that the best policy for
Aborigines was to adopt white ways.”


The policy of assimilation was strengthened and extended in the Aborigines Protection Act
of 1909. The Act outlined a policy in which aboriginality was to be bred out of the
‘half-castes’ and encouraged their absorption into white culture. The full bloods were
thus seen to have no future and it became policy to restrict them totally to reserves. It
was this act that gave “the board [APB], with the approval of a magistrate, the power to
remove indigenous children [from their homes] and apprentice them to white upper-class
Australians.” This led to the travesty now referred to as the ‘stolen generation’.
Though most people remained on the reserves in pitiful conditions, the assimilation policy
granted a number of exemptions. By 1910, assimilation had replaced the government policy
of ‘smoothing the dying pillow’ for the ‘half-caste’ aboriginal people, though political
policy in regards to ‘full bloods’ greatly still followed the former.


In 1911 the federal government became more involved in aboriginal affairs due to taking
over the administration of the Northern Territory from South Australia. A policy of
protectionism was adopted for the highly aboriginal populated territory. The policy was
similar to policies exercised in the other states, carefully regulating the every aspect
of Aboriginal life with crude assimilation elements. While gaining responsibility for the
territory did not spur the federal Government to Aboriginal social reform, it was
beneficial as it brought the government closer to the aboriginal issue, thus increasing
their awareness.


The assimilation policies did not automatically result in Aborigines being welcomed into
white society or improve their actual, in respect to political, situation. Indeed, most
Aborigines remained on reserves. Their life was “centred on institutions established under
government control, where the opportunity to make personal decisions and live in simple
dignity was slight. Special conditions governed their employment, while their personal
property remained under the control of the government’s chief protector of Aborigines. The
protector, not the parents, was the legal guardian of the children.” Freedom was
miniscule and the life of an Aborigine greatly depended on the nature of their
‘protector’.


World War I added more fuel to the fire of Aboriginal fury over injustice. Aboriginal
soldiers, although only a relatively small number (300-500) were among the Australian
soldiers sent over for service in the brutal war. In the trenches, white people who were
sure to have strong racist misconceptions back home forgot racism when thy were “living,
eating, laughing and dying with these young [Aboriginal] fellas.” However, when the
accepted Aborigines returned home, they returned to the strong racism and oppression of
the time. They “were shunned, their sacrifices ignored and their families oppressed even
further” than before they left. The blatant ingratitude that the Aboriginal soldiers were
confronted with upon return indirectly helped Aboriginality by adding momentum to the
1930s Aboriginal Rights Movement.


Australian aborigines largely did not enjoy the benefits of a post war economic boom
during the roaring twenties, remaining exploited and abused. During the 1920s, it was
commonplace for aborigines to receive provisions for their wages rather than money. “In
those days the full blood aboriginal never got wages, just a shirt, trousers, boots and
hat, and a stick of tobacco. That was their payment. And tucker.” As the Aborigines were
not able to have an economy under the government’s harsh restrictions, an economic boom
affected them as a race very little.


Massacres of aboriginal people by whites continued in large to the late part of the
decade. The last recorded major massacre occurred in November 1928 at Coniston station,
near Alice Springs. In response to the murder of a lone European dingo trapper, police set
out on a series of raids to find the culprit. A number of aborigines were killed. It was
said to be 17 but the board that was appointed to inquire reported that it was 31. The
figure is now rumoured to be much higher. However, the police were cleared of the charges
“on the grounds that [the] group was not dealing with human beings, but with sub-humans
outside the consideration of the law.” Clearly, society’s arrogant, ignorant attitudes
towards aborigines had changed little since 1900. However, the Coniston massacre along
with “reports of killing elsewhere, such as in the Kimberleys, and of the miserable
conditions which many Aborigines were forced to endure, aroused… concern” by white
people, particularly city dwellers. The public uproar brought about an end to the blatant
massacres, or at least signified that it would no longer be easy to get away with killing
streams of Aborigines.


Although social reform for Aborigines was very limited in the 1920s, it was a time when
their rights were for the first time were starting to be considered and fought for. The
Aborigines’ Progressive Association (APA) in Sydney lobbied for the rights of aborigines.
The APA was formed in the 1920s in Sydney “by a number of white Australians who were
concerned about the state of Aborigines in this country. While they undertook their
activities Aborigines were still being slaughtered.” The situation of the Aborigines was
inhumane in the 1920s but at least some of society was starting to notice.


By the 1930s, white society’s attitudes towards aborigines began to improve. The views of
anthropologists that aboriginal society was not so much ‘inferior’ as different began to
be taken seriously. Writers emerged that favourably depicted aborigines and for once there
was aboriginal leaders to motivate and fight for their people. During this decade there
were various groups in society, both white and Aboriginal, that were working towards
amending Aboriginal policy for the better.


With the emergence of assorted protesting groups at the one time, social reform occurred
at the end of the decade. The Aborigines’ Progressive Association was one of the groups
that fought for Aborigines in the 1930s. It was re-established by William Ferguson, one of
the first aboriginal activists, in 1937. The APA publicised past injustices against
aboriginal people as well as the continuing inequality. They formed a delegation of
aboriginal people who met with the then PM Joseph Lyon, where they demanded better
housing, the old age and invalid pensions and maternity allowances for Aboriginal people.
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