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Essay: Why did European settlement in South Australia prove to be so destructive of Aboriginal society?

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Sierra Club

by Nicholas Klar

The destruction of the Aboriginal race due to the effects of European settlement has a common thread throughout all of the Australian colonies. South Australia was 'the colony that was to be different'. Unfortunately this was clearly not so, in fact the speed of decline was perhaps more striking in South Australia than any other colony. The South Australian Act of 1834 does not even mention Aborigines, and most attention on the subject has tended to focus on the direct physical destruction of Aboriginal society through disease and violence.

However, this was only one aspect because the damage caused to economic and spiritual structures in place for thousands of years also hastened the physical destruction of South Australian Aborigines. Therefore this work will also consider these different aspects. By giving an explanation of these systems it will show how the intrusion of the British destroyed them. It was these actions, along with blatant racism, that consigned Aborigines to the lowest common denominator and which brought destruction and a radical restructuring of traditional Aboriginal society. The writings of colonists like Crawford, Giles, Teichelmann, and Leigh confirm the poor attitudes of settlers.

Although the destruction of Aboriginal society is still relevant today, this essay will focus on approximately the first 25 years of colonisation. The colony was founded on the lie of 'terra nullius' as was the rest of Australia. New settler Thomas Giles commented that on his trip to Lake Albert there was seen 'a good many natives'. This conflicts with the South Australian Companies idea of land that was 'waste and unoccupied'. The number of aborigines seen by Giles belies the huge destruction already caused by disease before settlement. Charles Sturt had noted the effect of smallpox on the river tribes during his journey down the Murray in 1930, and also found the land, 'more populous than we had reason to expect'.

The South Australian Company also lied about not taking land that had not been ceded, and it's commitment to a 10% land sales levy for the welfare of the native peoples was quickly abandoned. Neither was it's promise to respect the rights of Aborigines and provide adequate welfare upheld. This was due in large part because of the common feeling by 1860 that the Aboriginal race was, 'doomed to become extinct'. Yet before settlement it was thought that even if no-one else benefited from colonisation the Aborigines would. Initial relations were encouraging. The government displayed the best of intentions but also the pervading ethnocentricity of the time. Some thought was given to the native welfare but this largely ignored basic Aboriginal life systems and customs.

There is a history of around 40,00 years of Aboriginal economic independence, both prior and subsequent to European settlement. Prior to 1836 there existed a situation amongst the Aborigines which is sometimes referred to as 'original affluence'. This analysis is based on the relatively small amount of time and energy expended by Aborigines to satisfy their physical and material needs. Their lifestyle did not generally demand excessive labour and they could spend long hours in social interaction with their kin.

The main economic unit in Aboriginal society was the band, a small group of families that had usury rights to the land. The band were not the 'owners' of the land, but were given the right by the 'tribe' to exploit it's renewable and non-renewable resources. There was a strict division of labour by sex and age within the band. Capital was mainly distributed in producer durables such as spears, stone axes, fish nets, digging sticks, dilly bags, and the like. Consumer durables were few and basically consisted of goods with ritual or religious significance.

Economic exchange between tribes was highly developed. The different types of products exchanged were many and included various types of stone, a range of pigments, special clays for treating fibres, hardwoods for weapons, a variety of sea shells, poisons, resins, and partly finished goods such as blades. This trade was carried out over vast distances with trade lines extending up to 1,600 kilometres. The tribes of the lower Murray engaged in intricate birth customs to ensure the continuance of trading links as far away as Swan Reach. With the advent of European settlement this traditional economy and trade was gradually destroyed.

The new settlers coming from industrialised Europe had quite a different set of attitudes and values regarding economic activity. They chose to control and develop the land, rather than exploit it as the Aboriginals did. The Aborigines were gradually dispossessed of their land and centralised onto government and mission settlements in isolated areas. Usually these were areas with scarce resources, and this led to 'false economies' very distinct from the Aboriginals traditional economies. In Adelaide many Aborigines were reduced to begging on the street.

It was noted by the South Australian Parliament that Aborigines were, 'while in undisturbed possession, [able] to supply all their physical needs, and of this ability they are deprived by our occupation'. Despite this basic disadvantage Aborigines did often try to re-establish their economic independence, and also adapt to European ways. Very early in the colony up to 300 Aborigines would gather at Encounter Bay for the whaling season. The mission that was set up at Poonindie near Port Lincoln was an excellent example of Aboriginal self sufficiency in the new ways. Despite the doubts of the 1860 Select Committee this community flourished for 30 years before it succumbed to pressure from local white settlers, when the residents were forced to suffer a second dispersal. This is despite the same report that considered Aborigines nomadic habits were, 'incompatible with steady industrial pursuits'.

Although many members of the community were praised for their outstanding competence in shearing, horsemanship, millering, and other skills, it was remarked that they led a mundane and joyless existence. By 1913, 64 of the 97 Aboriginal reserves in South Australia had been sold or leased to whites. The settlement at Port McLeay was less successful but it at least afforded the Aborigines some 'protection'. Aboriginal economic sufficiency became largely determined by government policy and Aborigines became dependent on the new settlers for survival.

There were few meaningful employment opportunities for Aborigines and even fewer chances of moving beyond menial tasks. During the goldrush period Aborigines ably filled positions vacated by those who had left for the goldfields. By 1854 there were upwards of 200,000 sheep being cared for by native shepherds in the South-East alone. Yet they were just as quickly replaced when new labour became available. Later in the early 1900s Aborigines would be refused loans and land grants for no substantive reason. Aborigines, despite their honest intentions and best endeavours to adapt, were exploited by those who employed them. Aborigines for the most part were refused health care, and immunisation against European diseases. This, along with a poorer diet, reaped drastic consequences. The only time whites paid any real attention to Aboriginal health was when it threatened white society.

Those trying to survive in a traditional manner gathered around degraded waterholes as their land was fenced in, and traditional food sources destroyed. Although Crown leases supposedly guaranteed Aborigines access to, and through rights on, traditional lands there was little way of enforcing this. The Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges adapted by taking sheep and cattle instead of the declining native fauna, and camping in places that whites found difficult to access. Settlers punished Aborigines who stole cattle on their way down the 'Ochre Trail' to Parachilna, rather than simply shifting the cattle well out of the way. With drought problems were aggravated and Aborigines were forced to accept rations and blankets, or steal which most often brought strong reprisal from local settlers. This had the effect of pushing Aborigines into centralised food ration depots and destroyed the entire base of their economic systems.

The dispossession from their lands, and destruction of the natural environment, also destroyed the basis of their spiritual and cultural and legal systems,

'In Aboriginal society, tradition was law. The social, moral, and religious values established in the dreaming provided the model for accepted social behaviour'.

The apparent lack of land conflict prior to European settlement could be attributed to the religious nature of ownership, rather than economic. The whites misunderstanding of this, along with the Aboriginal principal of reciprocity, made a huge contribution to native decline.

Thomas Giles wrote a letter talking of his experiences with 'blacks' in Lake Albert country, an area around the mouth of the Murray River. This country was occupied at the time by the Ngarrindjeri people. It was these people who had had the most prolonged exposure to whites. Jenkin claims that it was the Ngarrindjeri who in fact bore the brunt of early white settlement, being subject to the raids of sealers from Kangaroo Island. Giles noted the reciprocity of the Ngarrindjeri who were very glad to trade game for flour and tobacco. Reciprocity was the Aboriginal way of attempting to incorporate the white man into their way of life. The lawless sealers and whalers who had settled in the area and on Kangaroo Island prior to 1836 had abused this reciprocity. Against this backdrop we can see that the Ngarrindjeri were in all likelihood only taking sheep in a view of reciprocity. In turn Giles saw it as nothing more than a criminal act.

Edward Eyre noted that some Aboriginals believed that the whites were a reincarnation of deceased relatives, referred to as 'black fellow fall down, jump up white man'. They initially accepted these long lost relatives, but could not understand why they had forgotten customary law and language. Aborigines also tried to draw the British into their society, using the principle of reciprocity, by providing women to the settlers. The only effect of this was to confuse the intricate Aboriginal kinship system. The separation of bands and tribes destroyed the matrilineal moiety system of marriage. Many Aboriginal attacks on whites were for the misuse of women.

The government further confused the system by forcing children away from the 'evil influence' of their parents and into schools to gain 'proper' education. Many Aborigines wanted education as a means to adapt, whereas the churches gave education as a means to convert. Most Aborigines were hampered legally because they were not 'Christian', or 'legally recognised as British subjects' They could not be tried or give evidence, so they were simply declared to be in a state of war. This meant there was no need for justice and Aborigines could be dealt with under articles of war. Governor Grey accepted violence against Aborigines for the purpose of order and settler confidence. The British had brought their cultural baggage with them, including the class system, which placed Aborigines in the lowest class of non-citizen. The 1860 report acknowledges the lack of equity and justice toward the original inhabitants.

The first punitive expedition in South Australia was undertaken against the Ngarrandjeri because of the 'Maria massacre'. There are endless tales of Aborigines being killed by stockmen and overlanders without good reason or conscience. At Lake Albert Giles initially viewed the Aboriginal Billy Poole as, 'useful and trustworthy,...and a remarkably intelligent fellow', but was later glad to see him wounded as just punishment for abusing Giles' kindness. He was also glad to see that a young hutkeeper has brought local natives under firm control and into servitude through use of violence.

This was on ongoing theme throughout Australia. Many settlers tended to view the Aborigine as somewhat less than human, and were prepared to undertake violence to protect their holdings. Aborigines were poisoned and shot in the same way as wild animals. Many times settlers had set up farms apparently devoid of native occupation. Yet some months later Aborigines appeared on seasonal migration routes over traditional lands and violence often ensued.

Settler violence also shows a complete disrespect for Aboriginal rights and customs. This may have been exacerbated in South Australia because of Wakefield's 'natural order' theory, putting Aborigines into the lowest classes. The Aborigines reacted back with violence as each race sought to teach the other how to behave 'properly'. The British were frustrated by the apparent lack of aboriginal government, or King, to deal with. Yet there are apparently no records of officials conducting meetings with tribal elders.

Giles describes his attempts to bring sheep stealers to justice. In this is a pervading sense of the intrinsic superiority of the white man in arms, culture and tactics. This is highlighted by Giles' description of, 'The blackfellow who...seemed particularly impressed by my prowess'. There also precious few settlers who attempted to learn the local dialect. Even though several Aborigines had been beaten and wounded in the expedition Giles talks of, he considers that it was fair treatment, and justice had been seen to be done. By giving the natives a meal and letting them go, instead of sending them to Adelaide, he obviously considered himself humanitarian. His outlook is also reflected upon when he states that he, '...was very glad that neither blacks nor whites were killed at Lake Albert'. However when acknowledging later deaths on Yorke Peninsula he clearly blames the natives because they did not 'quiet down'.

The Select Committee of 1860 saw the causes of decline as related to alcohol, infanticide, initiation rights, syphilis, relations (including sexual) with settlers, a lack of finance, the centralisation of aborigines, nomadic habits, and a disproportion of the sexes amongst those remaining. The report surprisingly does not really make mention of the violence inflicted by settlers. This report could be considered as too little, too late. As early as 1840 Charles Sturt had vigorously pointed out how few of the instructions to safeguard the native population were being observed. In 1841 Judge Willis declared that it was,

'sufficiently clear that the Aboriginal tribes are neither a conquered race nor have they tacitly acquiesced in the supremacy of the settlers'.

The office of Protector was abolished in 1856, as the government view on Aboriginal society became overwhelmingly pessimistic. Both government and settlers could not, or did not, want to see the adaptability of the Aborigines that eventually brought a reversal in their decline. The 1860 Select Committee also largely blamed a lack of money to supply urgent necessities for the aborigines.

The destruction of Aboriginal society rests largely on the ethnocentric view of the South Australian Company and the British colonisers, along with their refusal to respect Aboriginal law, leading to drastic consequences. The insistence that British law would ensure the equality and rights of Aborigines, and that severe punishment would be taken against those settlers who disobeyed, was a hollow promise. The expansion of Christendom, along with Social Darwinism theories, excused the new settlers from seeking to work with Aborigines or respect their ways.

Governor Gawler had exhorted the new settlers to respect and pity the 'sable brethren', whilst urging the natives to love God, speak English, work, build huts, wear clothes and imitate good white men. The South Australian Aborigines, with no ability to organise against the onslaught, no resistance against imported diseases, and no real concepts of warfare, were swifter in their decline than their Tasmanian relations. Even though 42 of the 43 tribes in South Australia 'disappeared', they did not suffer complete extinction as the Tasmanian Aborigines did. They did so because had non-viable desert lands to remain on in the north of the state that did not interest settlers. That is why the Pitjantjatjara of the north-west are the only tribe that remain in some recognisable form.

Although it could be claimed that the South Australian Company had better planning for the Aboriginal 'problem', the settlers, whose views ran opposite to those of the S.A. Company, had no better attitudes than in other colonies, and ultimately the results were the same. Just as the land was to be mastered, so were it's inhabitants - with a complete disregard for their life sustaining economic and spiritual customs. Gibbs summed it up when commenting that,

'The dismal plight of the Aborigines...was a legacy of the settlers' ill-treatment of them and the poverty and ineptitude of official efforts to ease the adjustment between the two peoples'


J. Altman "The Aboriginal Economy" in R. Jones (ed.) "Northern Australia : Options and Implications" Canberra, 1980

Peggy Brock "Yura and Udnyu : A History of the Adnyamathanha of the North Flinders Ranges" Adelaide, 1985

Frank Crowley "Colonial Australia : 1788-1840" Melbourne, 1980

Brian Dickey and Peter Howell (ed.) "South Australia's Foundation : Select Documents" Adelaide, 1986

Fay Gale "Urban Aborigines", Canberra, 1972

R. Gibbs "Relations between the Aboriginal Inhabitants and the first South Australian Colonists", Royal Geographic Society of S.A., vol. 61, 1959-60

Thomas Giles "Race Relations on the Frontier", 1843 in History 3034 Documents, Flinders Uni. 1993

Graham Jenkin "Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri" Adelaide, 1979

C. Mattingley and K. Hampton "Survival in our Own Land" Sydney, 1988

Eric Richards (ed.) "The Flinders History of South Australia" Adelaide, 1986

J. Roberts "Massacres to Mining" Melbourne, 1981

Charles Rowley "The Destruction of Aboriginal Society" Canberra, 1970

South Australian Parliamentary Paper No.165 Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council upon the Aborigines, 1860 in History 3034 Documents, Flinders University 1993

N. B. Tindale "Aboriginal Tribes of Australia" San Francisco,

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "How did European settlement of South Australia prove to be so destructive of Aboriginal society?" - + date accessed

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