Most of us have been taught about the supposedly traumatic impact of British colonisation on Aborigines. But what if colonisation was not entirely traumatic? What if Aboriginal people wanted to leave their ancestral land and benefit from their European ‘oppressors’? To argue sch a case would not only go against the established opinion of mainstream media and contemporary literature, it would also prompt accusations of ‘victim blaming’ and, inevitably, racism and white supremacy.
But academic research done by one of Australia’s most renowned academics, William Stanner, paints a much more complicated picture of Australia’s colonisation. Famous for popularising the concept of the Dreamtim’, Stanner’s career included that of an Oxford academic, being a leader of the successful 1967 referendum campaign, a member of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, and an architect for the first native title handover. Significantly, it was Stanner who coined the term ‘The Great Australian Silence’ in reference to the historical neglect regarding the mistreatment of Aboriginal people.
Despite being a vocal progressivist, he was also responsible for documenting the migration patterns of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and found regions ‘entirely empty of its former inhabitants.’ The remarkable thing about this migration was that it was not primarily caused by disease, violence or dispossession but instead occurred voluntarily. Ironically, his research into this issue has now received its own ‘silence’ from modern activists who do not want to confront the complex reality of Australian colonisation.
In his book ‘White Man Got no Dreaming (1979), Stanner notes that many Aboriginal people had migrated to cattle stations while others went as far as Darwin. He argued that there was no evidence the migration was anything other than voluntary. European settlement was miles away. There was no forced labour or dispossession of land. Police violence was absent too. In fact, so remote were these communities that inter-tribal Aboriginal warfare was a greater threat to Indigenous communities than colonisation. Interestingly, this is not Stanner’s explanation, but of the Aboriginals themselves:
They say that their appetites for tobacco and, to a lesser extent, for tea became so intense that neither man nor woman could bear to be without. Jealousy, ill will and violence arose over the division of the small amounts … Individuals, families and parties of friends simply went away to places where the avidly desired things could be obtained.
Stanner goes onto to make the observation this likely occurred across the country.
… for every Aboriginal who, so to speak, had Europeans thrust upon him, at least one other had sought them out. More would have gone to European centres sooner had it not been that their way was often barred by hostile Aborigines. As late as the early 1930s I was able to see for myself the battles between the encroaching myalls and weakening, now-sedentary groups who had monopolised European sources of supply and work.
Stanner never encountered an Aboriginal who ever wanted to return to the bush and their traditional way of life, even in cases of miserable urban circumstances. They simply ‘went because they wanted to, and stayed because they wanted to.’
What’s more, this was also true of intermarriage. He observed that ‘the Aboriginal women single or married, were eager for associations with Europeans and Chinese. While ready enough for casual affairs, they tried by any and all means to make semi-permanent or permanent attachments.’ Even their husbands, with few exceptions, ‘not only did not object but often pushed them to such service, which always led to a payment of tobacco, sugar, and tea, and might lead to a steady real income…’
As Stanner points out, not enough work has been done to properly account for the numbers and scale of this migration. Instead, scholars are prone to reductionist models of explanation which place all the weight on ‘dramatic secondary causes’ such as ‘violence, disease, neglect, prejudice, or on the structure of Aboriginal society, or both.’ Observers who are ‘blinded either by interest or preconception’ fail to appreciate that Aboriginal people have their own agency and self-will to change their own cultural practices. To argue that all Aboriginal people are destined to remain culturally static not only goes against the patterns of voluntary migration across Australia but is also a form of reverse racism.
Some critics use the connection Aboriginal people have to country to justify Aboriginal cultural stasis. This ignores the simple fact that Aboriginal people can both have a connection to their land and want to migrate to improve their living condition. For example, Stanner saw ‘a man, revisiting his homeland after an absence, fall on the ground, dig his fingers in the soil, and say: ‘O, my country.’ But he had been away, voluntarily; and he was soon to go away again voluntarily.’ As Stanner acknowledges, ‘Country’ is of high interest, ‘but there are other interests; all are relative, and any can be displaced.’
Injecting our own sentiments onto Aboriginal people and ignoring their ability to adapt with modern civilisation is a misunderstanding of Aboriginal migration history. Many Indigenous people have voted with their feet, and not only choose to live in urban societies but also intermarry with many different races and cultures. This does not in any way diminish from the traumatic experiences some Aboriginal people went through, but it does show that not every Indigenous person responded to colonisation in the same way.
If Australians have any chance of reconciliation, we should acknowledge the significant voluntary nature of Aboriginal assimilation into broader society, and especially understand the distinctive nature of Aboriginal culture and its ability to adapt and change.
Luke Powell is studying English Literature and Modern History at Sydney University