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Impact of European settlement on Indigenous people

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European settlement had a severe and devastating impact on Indigenous people. Their dispossession of the land, exposure to new diseases and involvement in violent conflict, resulted in the death of a vast number of the Aboriginal peoples. The small percentage of Aboriginal people who did not die during these early decades of the colony, were not unaffected. The impact of the white settlers changed their lives, and the lives of future generations, forever.

Colonisation or invasion?

In 1770, English explorer Captain James Cook claimed the eastern portion of the Australian continent in the name of King George III. While sailing from Botany Bay to Cape York, Captain Cook recorded in his journal a number of interactions with the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

It is believed that at least 750 000 Aboriginal people were living in Australia at the time of Captain Cook's arrival. These people were divided into around 600 different tribes and had hundreds of different languages. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the modern Indigenous people of Australia migrated to the continent more than 50 000 years ago. Isolated from external influences, the Aboriginal peoples developed their own way of life, in accordance with their religious and spiritual beliefs of the Dreamtime (Indigenous time of creation).

Despite knowing of the existence of these peoples, the British considered the Australian continent to be a terra nullius under English law. Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning 'land belonging to no one.' Eight years later, the British went ahead with their plans to establish a penal colony in New South Wales. On 26 January 1788, the First Fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Sydney Cove.

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Not long after the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales, colonial governments began to grant, lease and sell land to white settlers. As the prosperity of the colonial wool industry increased, more settlers arrived in the colony to stake their claims on grazing land from which they could amass their own fortunes. The diminishing availability of suitable land resulted in a number of expeditions to search for more fertile grazing land. New South Wales Governor Darling attempted to curb the spread of settlement in the colony. (Refer to Topic 1: Mass migration, Chapter 3: The life of the squatters). His efforts, however, were more to ensure that the settlers could still be controlled by colonial law enforcement, than out of concern for the original, Indigenous inhabitants of the land.

As squatters began to claim unoccupied land outside the boundaries set by Governor Darling, they began to encroach more and more on Indigenous sacred sites, hunting grounds and food supplies. The settlers completely ignored the deep spiritual connections the Aboriginal peoples had with the land. They believed that the Aboriginal peoples were happy to move on to new land, due to the nomadic (moving from place to place, without a fixed home) nature of the Indigenous lifestyle. The Indigenous peoples, however, always returned to the land after it had been given time to replenish itself.

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The dispossession of Aboriginal peoples from their land resulted in a drastic decline in their population. While many Aboriginal people were killed in violent clashes over the rights to settle on the land, a vast number also died from malnourishment. Since they were unable to access clean water or an adequate and nutritious supply of food, this made them more susceptible to fatal diseases.

The repercussions of Aboriginal dispossession continued for generations. A number of Aboriginal people were initially forced into government reserves and church missions. Around the middle of the 20th century, however, many reserves were closed due to overcrowding and increasing maintenance expenses. Aboriginal people were forced into cities and towns where they were had no other option but to live on the outskirts, or in public housing (subsidised by State governments).

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While the British settlers had a hand in the intentional eradication of the Aboriginal peoples, the settlers were also unintentionally responsible for their deaths during times of peaceful contact. When the settlers arrived in Australia they brought with them a number of European epidemic diseases. These diseases included chickenpox, smallpox, typhoid, measles and influenza. The Aboriginal peoples had no immunity (acquired resistance) to these unfamiliar diseases. Within a matter of weeks, the Indigenous population, particularly within densely populated communities, began to experience a rapid decline in numbers. The introduction of venereal disease was also an issue, causing Indigenous fertility and birth rates to be reduced.

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Violent conflict

At first, fear and curiosity were experienced by the Aboriginal peoples and the British settlers. Cultural misunderstandings over land, however, made the initial attempts to construct a peaceful relationship seem futile. Both the settlers and Aboriginal people felt they were fighting for their survival and so the war that erupted between them was desperate and brutal.

The 1834 Battle of Pinjarra in Western Australia, the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre in New South Wales and the 1843 Warrigal Creek Massacre in Victoria are three infamous confrontations in Australian history. There were massacres committed in all parts of the country, by both the Aboriginal people and the white settlers (supported by the white authorities, including soldiers and the police). The white settlers, however, had the superior firepower and in later times, as more and more Aboriginal people died from disease, the greater numbers.

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Sometimes theIndigenous resistance did work and the settlersabandoned their farms and moved on, but in the majority of instances the settlers just found new ways of eliminating the threat posed by the Aboriginal people. Instead of going out and fighting them, the settlers began poisoning their water sources, or giving them poisoned food.

Another method the settlers used to 'disperse the natives' was by setting up the Native Police Forces. This force was made up of onlyIndigenous men who were trained by the colonists' troops. The settlers used tribal rivalries to instigate violence between different clans of Aboriginal people.

Violence against the Aboriginal peoples continued, in some parts of Australia, until the third decade of the twentieth century. It has been estimated that between 1788 and 1900, violence, dispossession and disease caused the Indigenous population to decline by around 90 percent.

Impact on the surviving Aboriginal people

European settlement had a devastating impact on the entire Aboriginal population, not only those who died from disease and violence. This is despite the fact that some white settlers, including colonial government officials and Christian missionaries, tried to help Indigenous people. These people believed that the Aboriginal people were primitive and uncultured, and that without their help 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 in the belief that they cannot do it themselves.

Convinced that the 'black races' had to die out, the Europeans 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. Like many other initiatives to help Indigenous people, however, rather than protect their freedoms or their way of life, the protection policy only helped to further destroy them. On reserves, their traditional way of life was eroded as they became more and more dependent on handouts from the government and the church just to survive.

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From the time they first arrived in Australia, the white settlers had attempted to 'civilise' the Aboriginal 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 children in the European way. As Governor Phillip had tried with Bennelong and Colebee (two Aboriginal men who were taught the language and culture of the white settlers) 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.

By the 1930s, white Australians were no longer attempting to provide the Indigenous population with an education that they could take back to their community. Instead, a policy of assimilation was beginning to emerge. Assimilation was designed to integrate Aboriginal people into white society by forcing them to live in the same way and hold the same beliefs and values as white Australians. This led to the even further diminution (reduction) of traditional Aboriginal culture. The most unfortunate aspect of the assimilation policy was that it led to many children being forcibly taken away from their parents and families and placed in foster care or group homes. These children have become known as the Stolen Generation.



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