Migration to the Colonies (Part II) – Aboriginal Australia

In the second post of this series on UK emigration, we take a pause to reflect upon Aboriginal family history – and the impact of European colonisation of the Australian continent.

“All people with the same skin grouping as my mother are my mothers… They have the right, the same as my mother, to watch over me, to control what I’m doing, to make sure that I do the right thing. It’s an extended family thing… It’s a wonderful secure system.”

Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, Gungalidda leader, Gulf of Carpentaria, 1996.

(See http://australianmuseum.net.au/Indigenous-Australia-Family for more information)

'Aboriginal family group on the Onkaparinga River near Hahndorf, South Australia, 1870' by William Thomas (http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4935828)

‘Aboriginal family group on the Onkaparinga River near Hahndorf, South Australia, 1870’ by William Thomas (http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4935828)

Family is a crucial part of Australian Aboriginal culture, which is strongly connected to the kinship network, which extends far beyond nuclear family structures. But when it comes to looking at Aborigine families, the colonial context can make for disturbing reading.

‘In this Colony, local circumstances have occasioned the total destruction of the Blacks within its limits… The un-matrimonial state of the thousands of male prisoners scattered throughoutthe country amidst females, though of another colour, leads them by force, fraud, or bribery to withdraw the Aboriginal women from their own proper mates, and disease, and death are the usual consequences of such proceedings. The Official return from one district gives only two women to twenty eight men, two boys and no girls!’

So wrote Lancelot Threlkeld, a Congregational minister and missionary in Australia in the years 1824 until his death in 1859. A strong proponent of Aboriginal rights, he placed the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of European emigration:

‘[The] cause of decrease amongst the tribes may be traced to the swelling tide of Emigration which has universally swallowed up the petty strains of Barbarism and the Aborigines have generally been either driven back to the forests, destroyed by force of arms or have become amalgamated with the overpowering people who thus: “Multiply, Replenish and Subdue the Earth.”

If your family has a nineteenth-century Australian connection, there is certainly a possibility that some of your ancestors may well be Aboriginal. Early settlers to Australia had frequent sexual relationships with the local women – often under conditions of force and coercion.

‘I have heard at night, the shrieks of girls, about 8 or 9 years of age, taken by force by the vile men of Newcastle. One man came to me with his head broken by the butt end of a musket because he would not give up his wife. There are now two government men that are every night annoying the Blacks by taking their little girls…’.

This can of course be difficult to confront as a family historian, but should not put you off finding out more about your ancestors.

Many Australian libraries and archives are now making efforts to make Aboriginal history more accessible to the general public – and the ‘good’ news is that the colonial state kept significant records about aborigines in the course of their projects to move, remove and ‘assimilate’ them. These make for uncomfortable reading – particularly when dealing with things like the Stolen Generation of children forcibly removed from their families and housed in residential schools where they often suffered physical and emotional abuse. Nonetheless, their history is an important part of the colonial and postcolonial history of Australia.

Taphoglyph (Aboriginal carved trees). As noted on the State Library of New South Wales' website, carved trees traditionally marked the burial sites of important men.

Taphoglyph (Aboriginal carved trees). As noted on the State Library of New South Wales’ website, carved trees traditionally marked the burial sites of important men.

For a more immersive experience, try these fiction and non-fiction representations of Australia’s early colonial history.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

  • Watch! Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) which is an excellent cinematic depiction of colonial Aboriginal culture, and the history of the Stolen Generations in Australia.
  • Read! English Passengers, a 2000 novel by Matthew Kneale, dealing with the early colonial history of Australia. The novel won the Whitbread Award in 2000.
  • Read! For a more historical account, see Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts (Allen and Unwin, 1998).

– Emily Manktelow

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