Did they or didn’t they?

When one thinks of Australian history, the First fleet and white settlers conquering the bush spring to mind and are infamous features when imagining Australia’s past.

However Indigenous Australians and genocide always seems to slip everyone’s mind. Indigenous Australia’s and their place in history is contested ground, as how they fit into Australia’s past is part of a debate. Historical literature identifies the concept of genocide as being part of Australian history that has challenged the popular understanding of the past. One main source of debate on whether genocide has a rightful place in Australian history is whether or not the Commonwealth and State governments intended policies to result in genocide. Did they or didn’t they intend to eliminate the Aboriginal race?

Based on the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (Genocide Convention) of 1948, Article II defines genocide as a commitment with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, through acts including ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [1] The Stolen Generation, which involved the forcible removal of aboriginal children, is under this definition an act of genocide.

Intent is difficult to prove since there is a popular social mindset that rejects the idea of genocide being recognised as part of Australian history. Historian Dirk Moses calls this the ‘Gorgon effect’, which refers to the willing blindness of society towards acts of hate, violence and onslaught such as the act of genocide.[2]

This relaxed conscience towards the genocidal treatment of Aboriginals is embedded in Australia’s social psyche since white settlement. A letter by William Hobbs to E. Danny. Day, the magistrate at Muswellbrook on the 9th of June 1838 is evidence of such a psyche. The letter provided an account of the Myall Massacre, to which Hobbs stated  “ I should have given information earlier, but circumstances having prevented my sooner coming down the country”.[3] This culture of viewing frontier violence as natural causes contemporary society to forget or ignore the significance of the Myall Massacre. This indicates that intent of genocide is difficult to prove as contemporary society has inherited this conscious that cannot view frontier violence as acts of genocide.

The argument that the crime of genocide against Aboriginals cannot be officially recognised is based on the view that policies did not intentionally result in genocide. This argument is flawed as Article III of the Genocide Convention states that ‘genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempts to commit genocide and complicity in genocide to be punishable offences.’[4]

Article III strengthens the historical argument that no intent, does not mean genocide did not occur. Genocide was an effect of assimilation and protection policies.

Historian D.C Watt wrote, “what distinguishes murder from manslaughter and accidental death is the motive of the killer. This is equally true for genocide.”[5]Henry Reynolds addresses the issue of whether or not significant numbers of settlers sought the total destruction of the Aboriginal race[6]. Reynolds states ‘it is impossible to determine what percentage of the colonists advocated the deliberate extermination of the blacks.’[7]

Were Indigenous Australians solely targeted due to their aboriginality?

It is this ambiguity that disenables a social consciousness to grasp the concept that genocide occurred in Australia. An article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, written by Henderson in relation to the removal of children as an act of genocide stated that this “was contrary to the everyday meaning of genocide, which connotes a wilful attempt to murder whole people.”[8] The article also reveals a focus on compensation, which identifies government reluctance to truly face genocide and Australia history.

It must be remember that genocide involves the ‘whole’ and ‘in part’ destruction of a group.

Historian Colin Tatz identifies that an exploration into the intent of genocide is difficult as politics advocates that genocide is an inapplicable action of Australia’s past. This is evident in the Federal governments apology for the mistreatment to the Aboriginals by past governments, as it did not include to word genocide.

When asked why the term genocide was not used in the Australian Federal Government apology to the Stolen Generation, Kevin Rudd stated that genocide ‘has a specific definition in international law and I don’t believe [it’ is either appropriate or helpful in describing the event [s] as they occurred or … in taking the country forward.’[9]

Can a nation move forward, when Australia’s  governments ignores a main event such as genocide and the issue of intent?

Indigenous Australians history including genocide cannot remain socially forgotten and ignored in politics. Whether or not genocide was an intended result of past governments does not diminish the fact that genocide is apart of Australian history.

[1] Moses A Dirk. “Genocide and settler society in Australian history”: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history. Edited by Dirk A Moses. New York: Berghahn Books. 2004, pp23

[2] Moses A Dirk. “Genocide and settler society in Australian history”: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history. Edited by Dirk A Moses. New York: Berghahn Books. 2004, pp3

[3] Blanch Russ. Massacre: Myall Creek Revisited. Delungra New South Wales: Grah Jean Books. 2000, pp61

[4] Behrendt, Larissa. “Genocide, the distance between law and life”. Aboriginal History, v.25 (2001) http://search.informit.com.au/fullText;dn=200211168;res=APAFT pp134

[5] Reynolds Henry. “Genocide in Tasmania?” in Genocide and settler society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history, edited by Dirk A Moses. New York: Berghahan Books. 2004, pp128

[6] Reynolds Henry. “Genocide in Tasmania?” in Genocide and settler society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history, edited by Dirk A Moses. New York: Berghahan Books. 2004, pp54

[7] Reynolds Henry. “Genocide in Tasmania?” in Genocide and settler society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian history, edited by Dirk A Moses. New York: Berghahan Books. 2004,p.55

[8] Henderson Gerald. “Middle ground may be hard to find.” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 15, 2008.pp9

[9] Cassidy, Julie. “Unhelpful and Inappropriate?: The Question of Genocide and the Stolen Generations”. Australian Indigenous Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2009) http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=250582865284428;res=IELHSS pp114


3 comments on “Did they or didn’t they?

  1. chrisdumaine says:

    Hi kastley,

    This is an interesting and well written article. I also wrote about Indigenous Australians, mainly regarding Pemulwuy’s resistance. I enjoyed, and completely agree with most of the concepts in this paper. However I would argue that the outgoing message would be more prominent or original twenty years ago, and is not an ideal vocal point for reconciliation.

    From the ‘history wars’ of the 1980’s onwards, The Keating ’apology’ and Mabo, to the Rudd Governments’ apology and problems with the Federal ‘intervention’. The fact that this topic is extremely sensitive, both politically and socially, is completely based on the difficult history that accompanies it and the general public’s knowledge of it. I would argue most Australians know that Aboriginal peoples got the short end of the stick during the frontier wars. The problem with this history is that most of the massacres were done by land owners and militia style groups; it was extremely rare for the federal government to condone such actions. As for the colony days, would you suggest that the British should take some political responsibility as well?

    After the introduction of the word genocide in the 1940s (after ww2); Raphael Lemkin and most other comparative genocide scholars, basing their analysis on previously published histories, present the extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a text book example of a genocide. Writers such as Henry Reynolds have been instrumental in educating Australians on this history. However, many Australian experts, such as Keith Windschuttle, are more circumspect band recent detailed studies of the events surrounding the extinction by historians who specialise in Australian history have raised questions about some of the details and interpretations in the earlier histories. As you have stated the level of genocide that occurred is contested ground. Of course it may be due to the huge compensation potential that the government is resisting further debate on the issue. It was a war, but we must remember, disease killed more first Australians then war. Reynolds suggests around 20 000 Aboriginals (violent) deaths, and 2000 white deaths. Wouldn’t official national recognition entail the same regard to the white deaths? Would this be beneficial to the Indigenous cause?

    There are some huge economic, social and cultural problems in Australia’s Aboriginal community. I would agree that increased politicizing of these issues is not “helpful” for reconciliation and the quality of life for Aboriginal people. Sadly Aboriginal people are poorly represented in the professional and educated sector of our community; Of course they have been historically oppressed and lack the same opportunities as non-indigenous people. However, I feel that our sad history allows Aboriginal people to cultivate more cultural and social resistance, and this is completely unhelpful to improvement of their life. The Aboriginal community needs more lawyers, more doctors, builders, town-planners etc. This is only going to happen with better, more thoughtful policy, not money grants, which are poorly distributed, or providing the framework to entail the indigenous community to feel sorry for itself; I fear more collective national guilt is not the answer to reconciliation.

    Great read! thank you.

  2. lauraj11190 says:

    Hi there,
    Thank you for a very interesting analysis of the applicability of the term genocide to the Australian fronteir conflict. I think that you have presented a very well balanced report which looks at both the irrefutable evidence that genocide did occur in Australia’s past, even if it was not institutionalised like other genocides which we are all well versed on, and also the sensitivity of the issue which prevents it from being recognised on a political level.
    I think that the inclusion of the 1948 UN convention on genocide clearly lends itself to an analysis of the Australian fronteir as a genocidal period. The stolen generations exemplify this and your mention of this aspect and its relation to the convention is definately warranted!
    I also wanted to thank Chris for your extremaly valuable comments! The fact that much of the slaughter on the Australian frontier was carried out by farmers and bands of bushmen definately complicates the issue further so thank you for pointing that out!
    Over all a great read in an area which I hope to read about further!

  3. amelia1710 says:

    The notion of genocide occurring in Australian history always creates debate. As an Indigenous Australian who had family members raised away from their own people, culture and language, I feel strongly that the assimilation policies of the 20th century were a deliberate attempt to commit genocide against Indigenous Australian’s. I am biased, due to my experience of cultural, spiritual and language loss as a result of past policies, however this bias aside, I do believe that the assimilation policies can be categorised as genocide under the UN definition of forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Assimilation policies created the Stolen Generations by forcibly transferring children from one group to another group, this is indisputable. I struggle with the notion of saying this wasn’t genocide, because they didn’t mean it. I feel that whether intent to destroy was or was not there, does not affect the end result. Hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people died as a result of the European invasion, and an unknown number of people were forcibly removed, in turn future generations have continued to suffer. A partial genocide did occur, whether the European invaders intended this or not, I feel doesn’t affect this assessment.

    The genocide debate can also be applied to various instances of Aboriginal and settler interactions. Attempts to wipe out the Aboriginal population of Tasmania via the abolition of Marshall Law, the black line and frontier violence provides a strong example of genocide in Australian history. Frontier violence committed against Aboriginal people in the form of massacres, murders, poisonings and the push of land away from food sources furthermore can be argued as an example of genocide. This is especially arguable in the context of the ‘gorgon effect,’ as coined by historian Dirk Moses and raised within your essay as authorities often turned a blind eye to Aboriginal deaths, as did the majority of society.

    That this debate continues to occur is I think, a reflection of societies inability to come to terms with the past or take responsibility for the occurrence and perpetuation of injustices against Australia’s Indigenous people. Thank you for posting this article, it was an interesting read, which presents an argument that needs to be heard.

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