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Although the 'frontier' period of Australian history can be viewed in the terms of war, there were also many white settlers who were appalled at the treatment of the Indigenous people and wanted to help them. Some of those who tried to help were government officials, others were Christian missionaries. These people truly believed that the Aboriginal people needed their help and without it they would die out. Their somewhat misguided attempts to help the Indigenous people are known as 'paternalism'. Paternalism means looking after someone and taking care of their interests because they cannot do it themselves. Instead of hunting down Aboriginal people and murdering them, government policy changed to treat them as if they were children who had to be protected.

Charles Darwin's theories on evolution and survival of the fittest were wholly accepted by the settlers. They believed that Aboriginal people were weaker and inferior because of the colour of their skin. They judged the Aboriginal peoples by their own European standards and decided that they were primitive and uncultured. They refused to recognise or understand that the Indigenous people had a highly-developed culture and a traditional way of life that was just different from theirs. They saw it as their duty, as the superior, white race, to protect what was left of the Aboriginal peoples before they died out. See image 1

They became convinced that the 'black races' had to die out, and so they thought they could make that process better for Aboriginal people by placing them on government reserves or in church missions where they could die in peace. This new approach to Aboriginal affairs was known as 'Protection' policy. Unfortunately like many other initiatives to help Indigenous people, the protection policy did not protect their freedoms or their way of life - it only helped to further destroy them. See image 2

From the time they first arrived in Australia the white settlers had attempted to 'civilise' the Indigenous people. Making them wear clothes and attend church was only the start of it. The Native Institute was set up in 1814 by Governor Macquarie to educate Aboriginal people in the European way. Like Governor Phillip had tried with Bennelong and Colebee over 30 years before, Macquarie believed that if you educated some of the Indigenous population then they would take back what they had learned to their community. The Native Institute was never very popular with Indigenous people and was closed down by the 1830s.

An early example of protection policies and how they were misguided is the fate of the Indigenous Tasmanians. By the 1820s the effect of the frontier war in Tasmania had been devastating on the Indigenous population of the island. The local officials came up with the plan of confining the surviving Aboriginal people to islands off the coast, both for their own protection and to make it easier for the white settlers. Aboriginal people were convinced to move onto the islands off the Tasmanian coast by a well-meaning young Methodist preacher called George Robinson. Robinson believed that the Aboriginal people would die out unless they moved and he convinced them of this. By 1847 the remnants of a number of Tasmanian Aboriginal groups were living on Flinders Island north of Tasmania. Their numbers totalled only just over 200. Robinson truly believed that he was doing the right thing by them, but far from living a free, traditional way of life, the Indigenous Tasmanian people were now living under guard, forced to wear clothes and learn Christianity. By 1847 all but 47 of them had died from disease and despair. The last of them, a woman named Truganini, died in 1869. Genocide (the killing of an entire race of people) had taken place in Tasmania at first because of the frontier war, but also as a result of the new protection policies. See animation

In the 1830s, the British government said that more had to be done to protect the Aboriginal people from the white settlers. In 1838 four 'protectorates' were set up in Victoria to prevent any further mistreatment of Aboriginal people in the Port Philip area (near modern-day Melbourne). George Robinson and four other men were made 'protectors' and were given the very large sum of 20 000 pounds to spend on learning more about Aboriginal people. The protectorates set aside land for Indigenous people to stay on to be safe from white aggression, but they were not very successful in the long term. The scheme was eventually abandoned a few years later when the plans to educate and civilise the Aboriginal people had not worked. The scheme never received much support from the white settlers, either. They resented the money that was spent on the protectorates and they also resented that good farming land was given over to Aboriginal people.

As with many other of these paternal schemes to 'improve' the lives of Indigenous people, the instigators of the idea did not take into account the fact that Aboriginal people saw nothing wrong with their way of life. They had lived in complete harmony with the land for thousands of years. The only reason they were struggling now was because of the white settlers stealing their land.

After the failure of the protectorates, the next government initiative to 'protect' the Aboriginal people was the establishment of reserves. A reserve was an area of land set aside for Aboriginal people to live on. The first reserves were set up outside Sydney in 1816 as areas where Aboriginal people could farm land and grow their own food. But as the white farmers began to move into the area, Aboriginal people were moved off it and pushed onto land that was not as good. In the 1850s, the idea of reserves was adopted by the colony's governors as a way of easing the suffering of Aboriginal people. By this time disease and the frontier war had so decimated the Indigenous population of Australia that it was believed Aboriginal people were dying out. The reserves were seen as places for them to die in peace and comfort.

The reality was that the Indigenous population did not die out, it began to grow again. On the reserves they were now safe from attacks by white settlers, but this safety came at the price of independence. Although Aboriginal people did initially have some freedom of movement in the reserves, their traditional way of life was eroded as they became more and more dependant on white handouts just to survive. In the past they would have been able to move on to allow the food supplies in an area to regenerate. That was no longer possible. As the traditional way of life died out, Indigenous people were relying on white flour rations, rather than finding their own food.

In 1883 the Aboriginal Protection Board was set up to protect Aboriginal people and manage the reserves. Its main job was to hand out the food and clothing rations to the reserves, but the board eventually came to control the lives of all the Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Under the board's authority, thousands of people were moved from their homelands and put into reserves which were on land that had no spiritual connection for them. By 1894 there were over 114 reserves in New South Wales alone.

Like the reserves the church missions were established for the protection of Aboriginal people, but the missions also wanted to educate them on the 'Christian' way of life. The missions were run by many different churches, but they all had the same goal - to help turn Aboriginal people away from their 'pagan' way of life, towards Christianity. Like many of the people who wished to protect Aboriginal people, their attempts were well meaning, they truly believed that they were doing the right thing for the 'primitive natives'. What it meant for Aboriginal people was that they were denied the right to use their traditional names and languages on the Christian missions. In many cases their children were removed from them. The missionaries saw it as their duty to help Aboriginal people, but in trying to help they only hurt them more.

For many Aboriginal people who were starving and living in extreme hardship, they had no choice but to move on to a government reserve or into a church mission. By the end of the 19th century their way of life and their lands had been so destroyed by white settlement that they were now dependant on the government and the churches for their survival.

When soldiers began returning after the First World War, the government started giving away reserve land to the soldiers and their families to set up home. When the reserves closed, Aboriginal people could not go back to living off the land and they were forced into the towns and cities. As they were not wanted there by the white people, they became 'fringe dwellers', forced to live on the outskirts of the towns and cities.

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Question 1/5

1. What was set up in 1883?

The Aboriginal Protection Board

The Native Police Force

The Port Phillip Protectorates

The land rights movement


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