Posted By Fran Farrall on June 14, 2011
Settlement in the Northern Territory, originally part of the state of South Australia, began in the 1860s and continued until the 1950s. The main reason for expansion into this region was to establish properties for the raising of cattle and mining, but these endeavours frequently, ultimately, failed due to the isolation, unreliable water sources and harsh desert climate. One of the largest travesties of the European expansion into the northern regions was the assault on the Aboriginal culture.The first experience the Aboriginals had of Europeans was when they arrived allowing their stock to drink at traditional water holes and the supplies required to establish a property. This resulted in the sometimes hostile competition for the available water sources and the loss of traditional ‘bush tucker’ for the Aboriginals for with the introduction of European farming techniques and animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, rabbits and camels native fauna was overgrazed and delicate ecosystems were damaged. With European expansion and settlement in the Northern Territory there was a major disruption, if not quasi-destruction, of the traditional Aboriginal society and dislocation from cultural ties with the land and sacred sites, although some clans were able to maintain their connection through their language, law, ceremonies and passing on traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. In some areas Aboriginals adapted their traditional hunting techniques to the introduced animals as a food source, although frequently an ‘understanding’ was reached between the Aboriginals and Pastoralists, usually with the agreement that stock would be left alone in exchange for hunting rights and gifts of blankets and axes.
As Aboriginals were often dispossessed from their traditional lands after the initial settlement by Europeans, and unable to maintain their way of life, they would then seek employment on the properties. The developing pastoral industry provided an avenue for Aboriginals to be involved with the European economic system as employees. The women were taken in as domestic servants and sexual exploitation was rife either as prostitutes, or on a more permanent basis as a concubine, referred to by the term ‘black velvet’. While the men were trained as stockmen for their knowledge of the surrounding country, tracking and hunting skills were adaptable to this lifestyle and working conditions. Although the European employers were not trusting of their Aboriginal employees for they were suspected of either being ‘spies’ or as a ‘food source’ for their families and communities, for their wages were paid in kind with tobacco, flour, tea, sugar, salt and offal from butchered stock that was not wanted for the European dinner table; vegetables were rarely supplied as “…considered above their natural requirements…”, although those employed as domestic servants had a slightly better diet as they had access to the ‘leftovers’ of the dinner-table. As part of their wages women were entitled to three dresses a year and sewing supplies from which they were expected to make their own clothes, while the men received trousers, shirts, hats, knives, boots and spurs. The Aboriginals faced the challenges of learning to conform to new and different cultural and social roles, the resulting change in their status in their traditional society and community, and adapting their skills, or learning new ones, suitable for their field of employment.
The treatment and relationship between Europeans and Aboriginals reflected the view of the late 19th Century, both in the spheres of science and society, which ranked intelligence according to racial hierarchy or status, and on this strict scale, this ‘scientific racism’, the Aboriginals were stereotyped and depicted as a ‘child-race’s10,if not called ‘mongrels’ with low intellect. For example Tasmania’s Governor Arthur noted that they were
“…designated the lowest order of human beings, removed but one shade from brutality…”
This view is also expressed by Harriet Daly, a daughter of the Government Resident of the Northern Territory, and then as the wife of Dominic Daly, who wrote and published the first account written by a woman of life in the region, titled “Digging, Squatting and Pioneering Life in the Northern Territory of South Australia.” . These early written accounts reflected the then accepted European attitude of ‘scientific racism’ : that Aboriginals were not considered as ‘people’, so an individual’s name and personal characteristics and traits were not noticed, let alone acknowledged and consequently recorded, for they were considered quaint and child-like. Their intelligence was judged upon their command of English, and although thought of as unreliable could with training and strict supervision undertake simple household tasks and chores. Features of Aboriginal culture that were unsettling or disturbing to the acceptable standards of European society could be and often were ignored and omitted from written documents and official records , whereas those features of the culture considered to be of utmost importance by the Aboriginals were considered exotic and primitive by the Europeans. As time passed training institutions were established so that those with ‘white-blood’ and with the ideal of ‘up-lifting’ those individuals by instilling European cultural norms and etiquette, thus enabling them with partial social mobility to rise in education and occupational status, for example from a maid to nurse’s aid.
In 1911 legislation was introduced by the Government that prohibited cohabitation between Europeans and Aboriginals, while in 1915 there arose the social concern regarding the preservation of the European racial purity. European women who ventured into the frontier were considered ‘heroines’ for in 1921 there were 1,610 men and only 318 women, for they were considered to personify civilisation and the acceptable standards of the era, custodians and agents of civilisation and bearers of morality and order, and most importantly protectors of the ‘purity of the race’.
Thus it is possible to observe in the history of the northern regions of Australia the challenges faced by both the European settlers and the local Aboriginal peoples, that are still major issues in and of modern Australian society.
- Lake, Marilyn; Frontier Feminism and the Marauding White Man ; Journal of Australian Studies No.49; 1996.
- McGarth, Ann; Born in the Cattle: Aboriginals in cattle country; Allen and Unwin; Sydney; 1987.
- Reynolds, Henry; Frontier:Aborigines, Settlers and Land; Allen & Unwin; Sydney; 1987.
- The Other Side of the Frontier: an interpretation of the Aboriginal Response to the Invasion and Settlement of Australia; James Cook University (History Department); Townsville; 1981.
- Riddett, L A; Watch the white women fade: Aboriginal and white women in the Northern Territory 1870-1940; Hecate, Vol XIX, No.i; 1992.