The Experiences of Aboriginal Australians

dispossessed.PNGFor Aboriginal Australians the social changes of the 1920s brought little hope. The survivors of a century of dispossession dwelt on the fringes of country towns, on reserves and in camps on cattle stations, on land that had once been their own. The attitudes of most whites had softened towards them, as in most areas they were no longer seen as a threat to European occupation of the continent. Europeans controlled their lives and denied them the rights of Australian citizens, and even well-meaning white Australians regarded Aboriginal people as a dying race. Other whites were still able to inflict brutal treatment upon them and avoid the punishment that would have followed the same actions against a European.

How were Aboriginal returned soldiers treated?

On their return from the war, Aboriginal soldiers were denied war service benefits and found nothing had changed for their people. In the name of rewarding the nation’s digger heroes, further incursions were made on what little land had been set aside for Aboriginal use. For example, in New South Wales, between 1911 and the late 1920s about half of all Aboriginal reserve land was taken for whites, including soldier-settlers. The state government had told Aboriginal people that this land was theirs forever. Further, many Aboriginal returned soldiers were prevented by local land boards from gaining land as soldier-settlers.

Aboriginal Australia: the Stolen Generations
stolen boys in mission station.PNG
In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, government policy towards Aboriginal Australians was called ‘Protectionism’. Many Aboriginal people were removed from their traditional lands and placed in reservations or missions. White Australians accepted that these missions, usually controlled by the Christian churches, were a way of providing support for Aboriginal people. At the time, most white people neither knew or valued Aboriginal customs and traditions and in particular the vital bond between the Aboriginal people and the land.

As part of the protectionist policy of the time, there was also the belief that something had to be done to provide for the increasing number of Aboriginal children who were of ‘mixed blood’ (considered an offensive term today). A Commonwealth Report on Aborigines in 1913 had recommended that ‘mixed race’ children be taken from their mothers so they could become more like white Australians. Children of ‘mixed blood’ were considered to be not completely heathen (a person who does not believe in God) and to have a low-level ability to become ‘European’.

It was considered that the only means to do this was to cut these children off from their natural family completely. Children were sought out all over Australia at very young ages, before they had acquired much knowledge of non-European life. Many ‘experts’ believed that the best age to take light-skinned children from their mothers was in infancy and toddlerhood, and officials, missionaries, police and farmers were encouraged to deliver these children from their Aboriginal communities, stations and reserves. Educating these children in the European culture, re-naming them and often never telling them where they came from were considered ways of successfully assimilating part-Aboriginal children into society.
stolen generations.PNG
Many thousands of children were taken from their families and were not permitted to have any contact with the Aboriginal culture. Most never saw their mothers again. These people became known as the Stolen Generations.

Today it can be seen that, as a consequence of these policies directed towards Aboriginal people, profound suffering and injustice occurred. Aboriginal families were taken off land that was sacred and central to their spiritual health and placed in reserves. Government policies destroyed family bonds and led many people to grow up without any knowledge of their culture.

The placement of Aboriginal women and girls in domestic labour and Aboriginal men and boys into stations and manual labour gangs provided the government and European households with cheap labour, much like slavery. Aboriginal workers were paid much less than white Australians and sometimes were not paid at all. Violence against Aboriginal people was common and in many cases it went unpunished.

The Coniston massacre

On the cattle stations of northern Australia, Aboriginal workers provided a very skilled but cheap labour force. Aboriginal stockmen worked for long hours in dangerous conditions. On most cattle stations Aboriginal workers were segregated from their white workmates by being forced to eat and camp apart. The exploitation and discrimination was backed by violence. During the 1920s the newspaper reports of atrocities against Aborigines finally shocked white society enough to prompt a Royal Commission.

In August 1928 a white dingo hunter, Fred Brooks, was killed by Walpiri tribesmen near Coniston Station in the Northern Territory. Police Constable W. G. Murray was sent out with a party of eight men to track down the murderers. Two months later Constable Murray and his men had killed at least 31 Aboriginal men, women and children from the Walpari, Anmatjere and Kaytej tribes. It was reported that all the Aboriginal deaths were the result of the investigations, and were in self-defence.

Public outrage at the massacre of so many people, who it was clear had nothing to do with the murder of Fred Brooks, led to an investigation set up by the Commonwealth Government. Witnesses were reluctant to come forward and appeared unwilling to expose the horror of what had been happening. The investigation was concluded in only 19 days, ignored inconsistencies in the evidence that was given, and concluded that the deaths of the 31 official victims had been necessary. Constable Murray and his men were never held accountable by the law. The evidence given by the white missionaries who worked in the region painted a grim picture of deep racism and discrimination. Aboriginal oral history recorded the number of deaths as being closer to 90.

The investigation and verdict were widely reported by the press and condemned by the public. During the 1920s white Australia had shown little care for the plight of Aboriginal people. The Coniston massacre was one significant event that challenged the triumph of Australian nation building. Australia was shamed by this event and shown that the disgrace of racism could no longer remain hidden.