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In Australia’s ‘Stolen Land’, Aboriginals Still Fight For Recognition

Aboriginal Australians could be the oldest population of humans living outside of Africa, but they are still fighting for recognition

circa 1920: Australian aborigines gathered around a camp-fire during a carroboree, ceremonial dance.
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Terra Nullius—a phrase that literally means unoccupied land—is perhaps the strongest trope used by the colonisers that dispossessed millions of indigenous people of their land across the world. However, Australia happens to be the biggest victim. Evidence shows that the coastal land has been inhabited for not less than 65,000 years, the British settlers ‘discovered’ it as ‘unoccupied’ during their expedition in the late 18th century.

When Lieutenant James Cook reached coastal Sydney in 1770, there were at least 400 different nations and around 7,50,000 aboriginal people. Despite the presence of such a huge population, Cook only saw them as unfenced, says Aunty Beryl, a senior aboriginal activist in one of her interviews. Cook’s hypocrisy came to light when the first fleet reached Sydney Cove in 1788. Captain Phillip, who was leading the fleet, was astounded and said: “Sailing up into Sydney Cove, we could see natives lining the shore shaking spears and yelling.”

Upon arrival, Cook’s voyage named it New South Wales and declared it the property of King George III without the consent of the aboriginal people. The condescending and racist attitude of the European settlers could be found in the diary of Watkin Tench, who was one of the officers in the first fleet. “It does not appear that these poor creatures have any fixed habitation; sometimes sleeping in a cavern of rock, which they make as warm as an oven by lighting a fire in the middle of it, they will take up their abode here, for one night perhaps, then in another, the next night,” writes Tench.

The settlers used to compare the indigenous people with wild dogs. In the words of Bishop Polding: “I have myself heard a man, educated, and a large proprietor of sheep and cattle, maintain that there was no more harm in shooting a native, than in shooting a wild dog.” On the one hand, this attitude led to the indiscriminate killing of the indigenous people who were considered as ‘sub-humans’, on the other, diseases like smallpox, influenza and syphilis wiped out more than half of the population.

The indigenous population fought back. For many years, they fought a guerrilla war. One of the major resistances that the Europeans encountered came from indigenous leader Pemulwuy, who continued his fight for a decade but was shot dead in 1802. His head was severed from his body and was sent to Sir Joseph Banks for his personal collection. The loss of indigenous lives due to smallpox weakened their movements and gradually, they were dispossessed of both of their livelihood and lifestyle. The country was taken over by the settlers who still hardly repent even in front of the bold slogans by the aboriginal artist Richard Bell: “White Invaders—You are Living on STOLEN Land”.

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