Aborigines

Aborigines and the Question of Genocide

There was almost certainly a significant decrease in the total size of Australia’s Aboriginal population between 1788 and the late nineteenth century, but was this an example of genocide? Certainly some historians and Aboriginal spokesmen claim that it was. For instance, Nathan Mudyi Senance, described as “a Wiradjuri librarian and essayist”, and the author of the Australian Museum’s online posting “Genocide in Australia”, argues that it was indeed a case of genocide. “If you examine Australian history, you can see that the brutality of the ongoing invasion and colonisation fit” the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1951

in several different ways … Because of colonial genocidal actions like state-sanctioned massacres, the First Nations’ population went from an estimated 1–1.5 million before invasion [that is, in 1788] to less than 100,000 by the early 1900s.

This claim, and many others similar to it, strike me as palpable nonsense, and it is useful to examine objectively the actual facts of the matter.

First, what is “genocide”? The UN definition adopted in 1951 includes five components, any of which “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national ethnical [sic], racial, or religious group” constitutes genocide: “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”. But this definition and criteria seem to me, and would surely seem to most people, to be very wide of the mark if not wholly misleading. (Causing “serious mental harm to members of a group” would mean that the supporters of a losing side in the Grand Final are victims of genocide.)

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

“Genocide” plainly consists of killing, or attempting to kill, all members of a defined group. The Nazi attempt to kill all Jews during the Second World War and the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in 1915 were paradigmatic examples of genocide. In every or virtually every case, a valid example of genocide must be carried out by the troops or other armed officials of a government or government instrumentality, which alone has the capacity and authority to attempt to kill all members of a group, the Nazi SS, the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, the Stalinist NKVD (the “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia being clear-cut examples of state-sponsored instruments of mass murder and genocide. Along with this, there must be a central director or directors of any authentic case of genocide: Hitler, Himmler and the other SS leaders; Stalin, Yezhov, Beria and others in the Soviet Union; Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Other purported criteria beyond these two, such as those others set out above, strike me, and would surely strike many others, as not fitting any accurate definition of genocide. Moreover, “genocide” cannot reasonably be said to include deaths from epidemics and pandemics, regardless of how deadly—such as the Black Death of 1348 or the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, nor deaths from limited but deadly instances of terrorism, such as 9/11, or even large-scale killings in wartime whose intent was not to wipe out an entire people but to wreak havoc and interfere with military production, such as the Luftwaffe’s Blitz on British cities during the Second World War—only deliberate attempts to wipe out an entire people.

Before coming to whether it is appropriate to apply the term “genocide” to the situation of the Aborigines after European settlement, it is necessary to look carefully at the best estimates of the population of Australia’s Aborigines in 1788 and subsequently. Here we immediately encounter what might be termed the Incredible Ever-Increasing Estimate of the Pre-Contact Aboriginal Population. The first careful and detailed discussion of this question was made in the Commonwealth Year Book for 1924, which concluded that the total number of Aborigines in Australia when Europeans arrived in 1788 was only 150,000. This figure was accepted until 1930, when the distinguished anthropologist Professor A.R. Radcliffe-Brown put forward an increased estimate (without any supporting reasons) of 250,000 to 300,000. Another estimate, in the Commonwealth Year Book for 1931, broadly concurred, giving the figure of 250,000 “as a minimum” and “over 300,000” as a possibility. By the late 1970s, experts such as Professor Frank Lancaster Jones gave 350,000 as the most likely figure. But from the 1980s onwards, the skies became the limit, with astronomically higher figures of pre-contact Aboriginal numbers being touted, from 750,000 to, as noted, the figure of “1–1.5 million”.

It is very difficult to see how these higher figures can be even remotely plausible. If an average tribe consisted of 200 individuals—probably an overestimate—there would have had to be 5000 separate tribes for the Aboriginal population to have been as high as one million, let alone higher, a population density, if true, which would have been widely noted by explorers and settlers.

As I have repeatedly stressed in this series of articles in Quadrant, Aborigines were invariably nomadic hunter-gatherers who scratched out a barren living as best they could, and apparently murdered 30 per cent of their new-born babies because they were unable to feed them. They built no permanent structures of any kind, let alone cities, and to repeat a point made in my previous articles, did not domesticate livestock or grow crops for food. Attempts to show that they did engage in more sophisticated forms of agriculture and food production, for instance by Bruce Pascoe, have been clearly shown by Peter O’Brien in Bitter Harvest (2020) and by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021) to be highly inaccurate if not actually mendacious.

Some objective recent anthropologists have accepted “half or, at most, three-quarters of a million” as the best estimate of the Aboriginal population in 1788, to quote Josephine Flood in her excellent The Original Australians: The Story of the Aboriginal People (2006, page 35), but even this seems far too high, simply because babies were killed on a vast scale owing to the reality that there was no food to give them. The 1970s estimate of 350,000 still seems to me to be the most plausible figure.

Obtaining an accurate figure is important to this discussion, since by the late nineteenth century the total population of Australia’s Aborigines had apparently declined, perhaps very sharply, and the higher the pre-contact figure the more likely the white man could be blamed for “genocide”. It is certainly true that there was apparently a very considerable decrease in the Aboriginal population in the 100 to 130 years or so after 1788. Aborigines were counted fitfully, if at all, in Australia’s censuses down to the First World War, or even afterwards. The 1911 Census found the total population of Australia to be 4,474,944, of whom 19,939 were “full-blooded” and 10,113 “half-blooded” Aborigines, a total of 30,052. Taking even a low estimate of 350,000 Aborigines in 1788, this suggests a decrease of 91 per cent in the Aboriginal population since 1788, and even an extremely low estimate of 150,000 Aborigines in 1788 indicates a decline of 80 per cent. However, even if the figure of 30,052 Aborigines in 1911 is seen as an undercounting of their actual number, omitting remote tribes, the data indicates a very considerable population decline. That there was such a decline was agreed by almost all nineteenth-century observers of the Australian scene, who often wrote of the Aborigines as a “disappearing race” which could well become extinct within a few generations.

There is still the central question of how this population decline came about. It was not the product of deliberate slaughter and mass murder, that is, of genocide according to our definition. Henry Reynolds, one of the best-known proponents of the so-called “black armband” view of the dire effects of European settlement on the Aboriginal population, estimated that 20,000 Aborigines were killed by white settlers in frontier conflicts, clearly only a fraction of the total decline in Aboriginal numbers, however measured. It is, nevertheless, worth looking more closely at how the Aboriginal deaths in “frontier conflicts” came about.

Perhaps the most accessible presentation of these deaths can be found on the “List of Massacres of Indigenous Australians” on Wikipedia, which is taken from a research project headed by Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle, also a well-known “black armband” historian. She estimated that 12,000 Aborigines, “a minimal number”, were killed by Europeans. Broadly speaking, the alleged perpetrators of these killings fell into three categories: British troops; white pastoralists and agriculturalists acting by themselves; and the various mounted police forces of the Australian colonies. It appears that most of these killings were in revenge for Aboriginal attacks on European men, women and children, or for the theft of settlers’ livestock.

After the late 1830s, probably the largest number of alleged massacres, with arguably the majority of Aboriginal victims, were carried out by the Native Mounted Police. These had first been established between 1837 and 1839, and consisted of groups of Aboriginal men, each headed by a white officer. It is said that most of these Aborigines were recruited from places remote from where their detachment of Mounted Police operated, so that their families would be protected from revenge attacks. The Aborigines of the Mounted Police were responsible for killing or wounding many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Aborigines who were seen as threats by the authorities. They apparently felt no ethnic loyalty to their fellow Aborigines, and were often more lethal than the whites alone might have been. Possibly they saw these police activities as a continuation of the endemic tribal wars before white settlement. One particularly clear-cut example of this apparently occurred at Goulbolba Hill in central Queensland in late 1866 or early 1867, in retaliation for the hunting for food of settlers’ livestock. According to an account in the Maryborough Chronicle of July 17, 1867 (“Shooting of Blacks on Morinish Diggings”), an unnamed police inspector told the anonymous author of this report:

…just before daybreak he started for the black camp, ordering his troopers to load their carbines, which were double-barrelled, one barrel with a blank cartridge to disperse the mob, and the other with [a] ball cartridge to use in case they met with resistance. According to that gentleman’s statement … it appears that on reaching the camp a blank volley was fired as he supposed, on which Tommy [an Aboriginal known to the Inspector but who had joined the “mob”] who was killed, sprang up and showed flight, throwing a nullah nullah [a hunting stick] at one of the troopers, nearly hitting him. This, he said, so enraged the troopers that they, without his orders, delivered their second volley, shooting six of the natives.

According to a report of this event made in 1899, 300 Aborigines were then killed.

It would appear that by the 1860s, or even earlier, the Native Mounted Police carried out most of these massacres. The office of Protector of Aborigines, first established in South Australia and in the Port Phillip District in the late 1830s, was supposed to protect the Aborigines from hostile illegal acts aimed at them, as well as advancing their interests through education and in other ways. However ineffective they might have been, the very fact that their positions existed sets the Australian situation apart from actual examples of genocide: Hitler did not establish a post of “Protector of Jews and Slavs”, nor did Stalin appoint a “Protector of Kulaks and Enemies of the People”.

The British authorities were always generally sympathetic to the Aborigines. Throughout the British Empire, the British ruled, and ruled successfully, by co-opting and working through the local elite structure of native princes, local rulers and high priests, and merchants, especially in India, but also in Africa and elsewhere. This British pattern of rule was so successful that in 1947 it was the Princely States of British India—where the local maharajahs had been left in place—which wanted the British to stay, knowing that the socialist government of Nehru in independent India would sweep them away.

In Australia, there was no established princely authority through whom the British could work, only an enormous patchwork of pre-literate, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, while, unlike India and in many other parts of the British Empire, the lands of Australia were, where possible, to be occupied and put to productive use by permanent pastoral settlers from Britain, and by miners. The Native Mounted Police might perhaps be seen as an attempt to co-opt the Aborigines, a parallel to what occurred elsewhere, under very different conditions.

It was apparently the case that Aboriginal tribes exterminated each other, the winners literally wiping out every member, or nearly every member, of the defeated tribe. There are at least two reports of tribal genocide, from opposite parts of Australia. A Robert Brothers, in an article entitled “Travelling Teeth: An Aboriginal Custom”, published in the Australasian Anthropological Journal, Volume 3 (1) (1897) stated:

About eighty years ago [c. 1817] or more, a certain tribe near Manero [Monaro, New South Wales], numbering about two thousand people, were exterminated, man, woman, and child, for having killed a Myell-wallin who was travelling. They called this tribe mountaineers for they lived in the mountains, [and] were said to be cannibals. Warriors came from all parts, even from Bathurst side and from the Tweed, and they mustered around the cannibals in five armies, each numbering three or four thousand men, and they slaughtered the whole of them. The white people at the station nearby were uninjured, but the warriors flocked through the house searching for their victims. An old man who died at Ulladulla a few years ago is said to be the only one who was not killed, and was a child at the time, and escaped notice by being hidden in a tea chest.

Writing in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Western Australia, Volume 1 (1915), W.D. Campbell, a civil engineer, and W.H. Byrd noted in their article “The Natives of Sunday Island, King Sound” (pages 55–56):

The Sunday Islanders [off the coast of the Kimberley region of Western Australia] are the furthest branch of the “Barda” tribe that live on the western side of King Sound, while further south-westerly are the “Nyool Nyool” of Bingle Bay. The Islanders are known as “Ewenu”; they are smaller in stature than the inhabitants of the coast … they also differ somewhat in language. The latter [former is apparently meant] race, being the most powerful, have practically exterminated the smaller race on all the islands which they could reach by means of their rafts, and only a few individuals now remain, and they live mostly at Sunday Island, which became a place of refuge through it being more remote from the eastern shore.

Apart from actual killings, the other main source often seen as the cause of major population decline among the Aborigines was the introduction of virulent infectious diseases, to which the indigenous population had no immunity. Epidemics of smallpox (in 1789, 1828–32, and the 1850s–1860s) have been documented, as have epidemics of measles, tuberculosis, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases. (See Peter Dowling, Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples, 2021.) It is clearly reasonable to see these as the major cause of Aboriginal population decline, although such statistics as exist can only be approximate at best. However, as Josephine Flood (on page 150) has argued, the suggestion that Aborigines were deliberately killed through “biological warfare” via bottled smallpox scabs is “not merely implausible but impossible”. Other frequently cited alleged causes of Aboriginal population decline include the loss of traditional hunting fields, taken over by the colonists for cultivation, and the subsequent loss of small animals and plants traditionally eaten by indigenous tribes.

The best-known and most widely discussed alleged instance of genocide against the Aborigines is said to have taken place in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania, where (it has long been widely suggested) the entire Aboriginal population was wiped out from the time of the first European settlers in 1803 and especially in the “Black Wars” between 1823 and 1834, so that no full-blooded Aborigine was supposedly alive after the death of Truganini in 1876. Proponents of this view claim that at least 878 Aborigines were killed by colonists (and 201 colonists by Aborigines) during this period. The accuracy of this view of Tasmanian history was famously questioned by Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Australian History, Volume One: Van Diemen’s Land, 1803–1847 (2002), which led to the subsequent “history wars”. The Aboriginal population of Tasmania was probably in the range of 3000 to 4000 when Europeans arrived in 1803—possibly even less—and such a small population might easily experience a severe decline in numbers. Flood (on page 89) sensibly claims that Tasmania’s “catastrophic death rate was due to new diseases, particularly pulmonary and sexually transmitted ones”. Bizarrely for a people allegedly extinct since 1876, the 2011 Census found that 19,627 Aborigines lived in Tasmania, a figure that rose to 23,592 in the 2016 Census. In that year, Aborigines constituted 4.6 per cent of Tasmania’s overall population, actually a higher figure than for the percentage of Aborigines (2.6 per cent) in Australia as a whole. This would seem to be prima facie evidence that Tasmania’s Aborigines were never exterminated.

One of the most striking facts about the Aboriginal population during the past century, and especially since the 1960s, has been its remarkable growth. The 1933 Census estimated there were a total of about 81,000 Aborigines in Australia, of whom 60,101 were “full-blooded”. Of these, 36,300 were stated to be “nomadic”. Subsequent censuses showed fairly similar figures for the total size of the Aboriginal population until 1966, when it rose to 102,000. It then increased to 115,953 (1971 Census), 160,915 (1976), 227,645 (1986), 265,492 (1991), and then to 548,400 in 2011, and to no less than 786,689, including a Census Bureau addition for supposed undercounting, in 2016. Such a rate of population growth, in the absence (obviously) of immigration, is demographically impossible, and must reflect previous large-scale undercounting of Aboriginal numbers. The Census Bureau openly admits that this extraordinary apparent rate of growth reflects “a growing willingness of people to identify themselves as Aboriginal”.

If the estimate of at least 350,000 Aborigines living in Australia in 1788 is actually an overstatement, and the actual number was only about 150,000—as was suggested before about 1930—it may well have been the case that there was only a surprisingly small decline in Aboriginal numbers, even during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Given the absence of hard evidence, however, it seems improbable that the actual figure will ever be known. What does seem clear is that there was no Aboriginal “genocide” in the sense that this term is accurately used.

Recently there have also been widespread allegations that Europeans committed “cultural genocide” against the Aborigines. This term is virtually meaningless, and would appear to apply equally to any non-English-speaking group which settled in Australia, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, and which adopted the language and mores of their new host population.

As my recent articles in Quadrant have documented, Aborigines engaged in infanticide and cannibalism on a large scale, and Aboriginal women were treated appallingly. In 1788, no Aborigine could read or write, while their treatment of illness was conducted by tribal witch doctors. Had the Europeans left the Aborigines entirely alone, they would doubtless today be severely criticised by the same sources for failing to bring the Aborigines literacy, education or Western medicine, or a stable food supply which made the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle unnecessary, or which put in place the rule of law and Western democracy. More generally, the notion that an entire continent, the size of Canada or the continental United States and twice as large as Europe, would, after the late eighteenth century, not be colonised by a European power is absurd: it is a certainty that Australia would have been colonised by one of the European states, or perhaps later by Japan. Its annexation was inevitable. Of these possible annexers, rule by Britain was unquestionably the best, most humane, and democratic.

William D. Rubinstein held chairs of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales. He wrote on cannibalism in traditional Aboriginal society in the September issue, on the mistreatment of women in Aboriginal society in November, and on infanticide in traditional Aboriginal society in December

17 comments
  • NFriar

    Another great paper Bill.
    Thank you – well argued.
    Keep up the writing and exposing the fabricated aborigine history since 1788.

  • mariehfels

    I too have followed Professor Rubinstein’s articles with interest, and mostly agreement. This one though is a bridge too far for me. The sweeping statement that the Native Mounted Police were responsible for most of the massacres is simply not true. Professor Rubinstein quotes only Queensland evidence. I am the author of the only monograph on the Native Police of the Port Phillip District (MUP, 1988) and there has been no serious criticism of that work, not even internationally. The Native Police in the Port Phillip District in the 1840s were La Trobe’s main policing force. The men were trained, mounted, uniformed, armed and disciplined, and much of their work was routine European policing – serving warrants, guard duty, ceremonial duty, election duty, Pentridge duty, despatch riding for La Trobe, goldfield duty, escort duty for dignitaries such as the Bishop of Melbourne, carrying the mail from Gippsland to Melbourne and so on. Their relationship with the Commandant Henry Edmund Pulteney Dana was one of pride and joking and respect – they liked him, and he called them his Good Men and True. They walked out when he died as a result of pneumonia caught while chasing bushrangers on the Mornington Peninsula. Native Police records are truly vast, and all their actions were scrutinised by La Trobe and by the four protectors and the Chief Protector, all of whom were highly critical of the fact that the Aboriginal men, like their officers, drank like fish. La Trobe’s obituary for Dana gives his considered view on the Native Police- they were of benefit to Aborigines because they taught them that if they took and killed sheep, the police could and would track them. If they put up a fight, they were likely to be killed; if captured, gaol was inevitable. And by the way, deaths in attempting to capture were usually hand to hand combat deaths, using their guns as clubs in the traditional manner – not deaths from a barrage of gunfire. More than 100 men were recruited from all over the Port Phillip District, and all were trained at HQ at Nerre Nerre Warren.

    The model of policing in Victoria was totally different to the Queensland model: the sweeping statement is too broad.

    It is possible of course, that I could have missed a massacre in my research, but massacres were not the norm. On the contrary, in our recent joint article published in Quadrant, David Clark and I have corrected the record on one so-called massacre – Loddon Junction has now been removed from the massacre map. There are still others as yet unchallenged.

  • wdr

    I thank Marie Fels for her important correction- many thanks. I hope to produce a book on the subject of Aborigines, using the material I have published in Quadrant, but expanding on it, later this year. I would welcome any information or suggestions- send me an email at : wdr@aber.ac.uk (I use my old UK email number, although I live in Melbourne.) William Rubinstein

  • Claude James

    The idiocy of the Left’s/ALP’s “Sorry” is part of all of this.
    It is very destructive for the future of Aborigines that whites must say “Sorry” for an earlier generation of white social workers trying to save Aboriginal babies, infants, and children from the misery and terror of neglect and violence put upon them by their parents and other Aboriginal adults.
    Awful.
    Meanwhile, any murder of Aborigines by whites would not have been more than a tiny, tiny blip in the numbers of Aboriginal deaths caused by other Aborigines as influenced their violent culture.

  • brennan1950

    Surprisingly, groundwater drilling was not undertaken in Australia until early to mid 1880’s according to a Water Resource; government source.

    Is it possible that disease spread widely from whites to the aborigines because they interacted at watering points which were few and far between before the development of groundwater bores.

    For instance, before Burrendong Dam filled in the mid to late 1960’s it was very common for the Macquarie River to dry up excepting for a few very deep pools.

  • rosross

    Another excellent article.

    Genocidal acts litter human history, past and present. We should be grateful that with an Armenian diaspora and many, perhaps most Jews living outside Europe and safely in many countries around the world, during the Second World War, that the genocidal attempts by Germans and the Ottomans were limited in their power even though horrific in their effects.

    Perhaps the saddest thing is how we have learned nothing from previous genocides.

    However, the claim of genocide by the British against Aboriginal peoples makes no sense given that the records clearly demonstrate, British and later Australian Governments worked hard to keep them alive.

    If the British had wanted Aboriginal peoples to die out and disappear it would have been very easy – they would have done none of the following:

    Provide medicine, shelter and food to keep them alive.

    Set up hundreds of ration depots around the country to follow groups and keep them alive.

    Rescue babies left to die and take them into care.

    Rescue the old and sick left to die when the tribe moved on.

    Set up hospitals to treat sexually transmitted diseases which, left untreated, would kill Aborigines or leave them infertile.

    End child marriage, infanticide and initiation practices which often killed boys and girls or left them infertile.

    There is a long list of things done to keep Aboriginal peoples alive which make any claim of genocidal intent ridiculous.

  • rosross

    It would be interesting to compare massacre claims, and most are not forensically proven, between Europeans against Aborigines, Aborigines against Europeans and Aborigines against Aborigines. If one can sift through the propaganda.

    Everything must be understood in context and these were violent times in a world very different to our own.

  • rosross

    Just to clarify the point I was seeking to make in light of references to genocidal attempts toward Armenians and Jews, as example of genocide:

    While neither the Germans or the Ottomans could have exterminated every Jew or Armenian on the planet, but demonstrably had policies of genocide, the simple reality is that the British could most certainly have exterminated every Aborigine on the planet if that had been their intent. And they could have done so by omission and not commission, in ways which left no real trace,i.e. do nothing to help them and their tribal practices combined with new diseases would have had them disappear.

    The fact that history records a litany of attempts to keep them alive, indeed, to preserve them from intermixing with Europeans in some instances, makes it patently clear that claims of genocide in Australia by the British, or later Australian Governments have no substance.

    And I recall reading, but have no source for confirmation, that for the 19th century anyway, financial support for Aborigines came from the general public as donations, thereby indicating a desire from the public that Aborigines survive. The records abound and attest to a sentiment of grief for what was happening to Aboriginal peoples and a desire for their welfare and betterment.

    None of those influences at work in a nation can indicate genocidal intent let alone allow it to happen.

  • NFriar

    @ RosRoss
    It would be interesting to compare massacre claims, and most are not forensically proven, between Europeans against Aborigines, Aborigines against Europeans and Aborigines against Aborigines.

    We have this at dark emu exposed which covers your points listed:
    ‘A significant part of Truth-Telling is an open discussion about the massacres and killings that occurred between Aboriginal people and the settlers.
    https://www.dark-emu-exposed.org/home/2016/2/6/chairs-for-the-foyer-yrkzx

    And Christophe Damangeat has produced an interactive intertribal fightings map:
    https://cdarmangeat.ghes.univ-paris-diderot.fr/australia/map.php?fbclid=IwAR3emmYG8nZuxRRYYWcVXG2bynY6il0durGSM8RNV-HkfNHSoawQD5MY-Mo

  • vicjurskis

    William, I haven’t been following your series so i dunno if this has been discussed, but i’m pretty sure that the most significant decrease after 1788 was in 1789 when smallpox swept from Torres Straight to Bass Straight. The demise of Aboriginal management in South Gippsland set the conditions for our first megafire around 1820 which generated the great scrub that almost claimed Strzelecki. Surveyor General Mitchell in 1830s/40s described brigalow scrubs in Queensland that can only have arisen in a similar way. Robinson described a similar process in NE TASs after sealers introduced flu. Mitchell estimated the total population in the one-seventh of the continent that he explored as less than 6000. I dunno how you’d find a better researched estimate than that.

  • rosross

    I would be interested to know more about reports of pock-marked older Aborigines in NSW, SA and WA, indicating Smallpox had been around before the British arrived. This would not be surprising with some levels of trading with Macassans etc.

  • vicjurskis

    rosross the 1789 epidemic almost certainly came from Macassan trepangers and i don’t think there’s any evidence of smallpox before that.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    The figure of 350,000 prior to contact does seem to be the best, albeit somewhat generous, interpretation of the population situation before strong political elements came into increasing the numbers. This is the number, and AR Radcliffe-Brown’s authority on it, that I used when asked about the pre-contact situation during a visit to Stanford University in the USA in the mid 1980’s. It was thought by some experts there that this was reasonable for an arid continent under hunter-gatherer conditions.
    The extraordinary growth in ‘aboriginal’ populations since then is a reminder of how much general sexual relationships were normalised in the post-contact period, with many aboriginal and white marriages being solemnised, as well as the usual situation of all contact periods of some unusual liasons being formed in frontier settlements with lonely male settlers, and of prostitution also existing. A lot of rural Australia could thus find some aboriginal ancestry. Most denied it, wishing to move fully into the white community. Later, I was told in a Western NSW township the usual mantra by an ordinary working-class woman whom I was interviewing for a film: “there’s a lot of white ones turning black since they brought in the housing allowances’.

  • rosross

    @vicjurskis,

    There are reports from various States in the early 19th century of Aborigines having names for Smallpox and of older people seen with pockmarks. Surely if Smallpox arrived with the British they would have picked up the English name for it, while a name in their own language indicates earlier exposure to this particular disease.

  • Peter Marriott

    As Vic has identified Mitchell’s estimate of 6000 for a seventh of the country he explored, and as I’ve visited every cattle Station worth mentioning in the N.T. right out to the Simpson and down into S. Aust. plus up to Arnhem Land and out into the Kimberleys and plenty in Qld as well I’d put a figure of 50,000 to 100, 000 Aborigines at time of settlement as the absolute tops. They just didn’t encourage large families in their own group and most of the country just couldn’t support a hunter gatherer existence beyond the minimum, & the slender women who had to do the carrying refused to carry many children anyway, because they knew it could well mean their own death….in my opinion.

  • Tricone

    All very interesting.
    .

    It should also be understood that even without any violent contact, establishment of settlements with stable food supply will mean the death of any nomadic hunter-gatherer culture, as they flock or drift toward the settlements and intermingle.
    .

  • subrosa

    Tricone’s point is well supported by primary sources like Georgiana’s Journal (Melbourne 1841-1865).

    I only have to look at Victorian architecture to know they were not genocidal.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.