This blog will be written on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I acknowledge that sovereign ownership of this country has never been ceded to any white government or sold to any white corporation, and I pay my respects to Eora elders past and present. I was born and have lived all my life on stolen land, and as such I feel it is my moral obligation to support Australia’s First Peoples in their struggle for sovereignty and justice. Despite my position of privilege as a white person, I have often been frustrated by the way that most formal “acknowledgments”, when given at all, are little more than trite banalities recited in a formulaic and unfeeling way. I feel it should be obligatory to say something which invites real reflection about Australia’s foundation and continuation as a genocidal state, and in my opinion the usual ritual does not adequately accomplish this. I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past – not always knowing what to say, it’s easy to fall back on the familiar phrases. Here’s an attempt to do better.
Gadigal country was the first in Australia to be seized by the fledgling British colony in 1788. Eora communities initially had peaceful relationships with settlers which included trade, work and marriage. However, as the real agenda of the white colony became clear, this relationship soured. The Gadigal people, along with the rest of the Eora nation, were prevented by the colony from accessing resources and from undertaking ceremonies on their land. The white invaders barred access to much of the harbour, important for both its supply of seafoods and a number of ceremonial grounds. Gadigal people became the target of brutal violence by colonists, which the whites justified to themselves as fair reprisal for the “savages” taking livestock and burning land, a traditional management practice. Eora people understood the use of their land’s resources and maintenance of its health as their responsibility, and rightly resisted their dispossession at the hands of the newcomers. Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man from the area around modern-day Parramatta, fought a famously fierce partisan war against the colonial authorities from 1789 until his death by British musket in 1802.
So great was the threat of Eora resistance (supported also by warriors from the Dharug and Tharawal nations, neighbouring Eora country to the west and south-west respectively) to the colony that in 1789, British naval officers ordered the use of smallpox as a biological weapon. Some of them had previously been stationed at the British colony in North America, where smallpox had previously been employed deliberately, and seen the devastating effect of the disease on people without immunity to it. The fledgling colony of New South Wales may have rapidly met with failure if not for the use of this unimaginably destructive virus, which spread rapidly and was responsible for the death of up to 90% in many communities. Through a combination of smallpox and rifles, every nation from the Eora in Sydney to the Wajuk in Perth was subjugated by the colony over the next hundred years or so.
White Australia likes to cultivate the fiction that despite the evils perpetuated in the past in its name, apologies have been made and accepted and progress is being made. Any remaining injustices, if acknowledged at all, are politely dismissed as the inevitable result of the clash of cultures, or perhaps more candidly as consequences of the inherent inferiority of Aboriginal people. I am disgusted, even as a white person, by the moral bankruptcy and intellectual disingenuousness embodied in such explanations and in the puerile, apologist big picture they serve. Indigenous people and communities still face brutal violence at the hands of a genocidal state. They are jailed at 20 times the rate of the rest of the population, and a police officer has never been convicted of an Aboriginal death in custody. They face yet further theft of their countries and destruction of the cultural value embedded in them, as even Native Title enshrined in the law of the colonial state is not as sacred as the desires of mining corporations. They face the everyday indignity of an Australian mainstream unwilling, or unable, to honestly face the horrible realities of its yesterday and of its today. However, I would argue that there is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs. Historical and contemporary genocide was and is enacted not by immutable, abstract historical forces, but by real people making identifiable choices. It is possible that white Australians might honestly confront these realities, learn from them, and enable the terrible past & present to be replaced by a just & respectful future. Let’s give it a go.
Here’s a reasonable introduction to the Eora nation put together by the NSW State Library:
Here’s a paper demonstrating that smallpox was used as a weapon:
smallpox sydney cove
For more on Aboriginal land management, see Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth.