Injustice Down Under

The Painful Story of the Aborigines in Australia

Revolutionary Worker #1072, October 1, 2000

"We have taken away their land, have destroyed their food, made them subject to our laws, which are antagonistic to their habits and traditions, have endeavored to make them subject to our tastes, which they hate, have massacred them when they defended themselves and their possessions after their own fashion, and have taught them by hard warfare to acknowledge us to be their master."

English novelist Anthony Trollope,
in the late 1800s, after visiting Australia

"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. "

Karl Marx in Capital

The Aborigine people had inhabited the land now called Australia for around 60,000 years before they were invaded by English settlers in 1770.

When the first English ship landed in Botany Bay, between 300,000 and 750,000 Aborigines were living in the continent.

By 1911, 123 years after English settlers started colonizing Australia, the Aborigine population had been reduced to only 31,000 people.

The British colonists declared that before their arrival all of the continent was terra nullius-uninhabited by humans. And this was used to justify ripping off the land and taking whatever else they wanted. As more and more English settlers moved in and occupied fertile lands, the Aborigines were pushed off their lands into the country's harsh, arid interior.

The settlers also brought diseases the Aborigines had never had before. Within two years, smallpox had killed almost half the Aborigine population around the area which is now the city of Sydney. In April 1789, only 15 months after the first settlers arrived, a major smallpox epidemic broke out among the Aborigines. And many more Aborigines died later, in epidemics between 1829-31 and 1865-69.

But while new diseases killed many Aborigines, massacres by settlers were even more deadly. Records show only the tip of the iceberg: In the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre at least 28 Aborigines, mostly women and children, were roped together, taken to stockyards and murdered with swords. The same year hundreds of Aborigines were killed by the police in the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre. In 1940, in the Fighting Hills Massacre, some 80 Aborigines were slaughtered by settlers. In 1868, between 30 and 60 Aborigines were killed in the Jaburrara Massacre by a group of police settlers. In the 1886 Coppermine Murders, 150 Aborigines were shot by miners.

In Northern Australia, between 1860 and 1930, it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 Aborigines were murdered by settlers. In the Queensland colony, settlers considered Aborigines "wild animals" and "fair game." Between 1824 and 1908, white settlers killed 10,000 Aborigines here.

In Tasmania, an island off the Australian coast, the first white settlers came in 1803-and by 1806 systematic killing of the indigenous people had begun. In retaliation for the spearing of livestock, Aboriginal children were abducted for use in forced labor, women were raped and tortured and given poisoned flour, and the men were shot. In 1824, settlers were officially authorized to shoot Aborigines. In 1828, the governor declared martial law. Soldiers and settlers arrested, or shot, any Aborigines found in settled districts. Vigilante groups responded to any resistance with the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children. By 1835, between 3000 and 4000 Aborigines had been killed. Only 123 Aborigines were left on the island - and they were rounded up and resettled on another island.


In the 1840s, the settler government enacted so-called "Protection legislation" and appointed "protectors" to deal with the Aborigines. All this was based on the philosophy of "soothing the dying pillow" of a race near extinction.

Aborigines were put in "protective custodianship" and government-run settlements and Christian-run missions were established in remote, inaccessible places. Aborigines were coerced away from their communities so they could be Christianized and "civilized."

Missionaries actively carried out these government policies of segregation as well as enforced integration, and were given a lot of power over the Aborigine people. Mission boards became the sole civil authority in some areas. Missionaries ran schools, infirmaries, farms and gardens, provided water, sewerage and similar public utility services. They established dormitories, built jails, prosecuted people and jailed them, controlled people's incomes, forbade their customs and acted as sole legal guardians of every adult and every child.

The enforced segregation and degradation of Aborigines under "protection laws" continued well into the 1900s, and thousands of Aborigines were kept segregated for life in the most remote places. In the name of "Protection of Aboriginal morality" the government controlled the Aborigines' daily lives-their work, marriage, reading material, leisure and sports activities, and cultural and religious rituals.

In the Northern Territory, from 1911 to 1964, all "full-blood" Aborigines were declared "wards" and had to get permits to leave the reserves. "Protection rules" prohibited alcohol, inter-racial sex, and inter-racial marriage unless official permission was granted.

In Queensland, "protection" included banishment from one part of the state to another, for periods ranging from 12 months to life, for offenses such as "disorderly conduct" or being "uncontrollable."

Aborigines in Queensland could be imprisoned for up to three weeks for offenses like "being cheeky," "refusing to work, "calling the hygiene officer a 'big-eyed bastard'," "committing adultery," "playing cards," "arranging to receive a male person during the night," "being untidy at the recreation hall," "refusing to provide a sample of feces required by the hygiene officer and further, willfully destroying the bottle provided for the purpose, the property of the department."

Many of these type of protection-segregation policies and the institutions which enforced them didn't end until 1972.

A 1944 Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act allowed Aborigines to apply to a magistrate for "citizenship." But applicants had to show, among other things, that he or she had "dissolved tribal and native associations," that for the last two years they had "adopted the manner and habits of civilized life," that they could "speak and understand the English language," and had "industrious habits." And then, even Aborigines given citizenship could have their certificates revoked for something like having two convictions for non-criminal offenses - like cutting down trees, being untidy, leaving the laundry in a mess, or drinking too much. This statute was not repealed until 1971.


This story's right, this story's true
I would not tell lies to you
Like the promises they did not keep
And how they fenced us in like sheep
Said to us come take our hand
Sent us off to mission land
Taught us to read, to write and pray
Then they took the children away.
Took the children away,
The Children away
Snatched from their mother's breast
Said it was for the best
Took them away

The welfare and the policeman
Said you've got to understand
We'll give to them what you can't give
Teach them how to really live
Teach them how to live they said
Humiliated them instead
Taught them that and taught them this

And others taught them prejudice
You took the children away
the children away
Breaking their mother's heart
Tearing us all apart
Took them away

From Aborigine singer Archie Roach's song, "Took the Children Away"

"The loss, grief and trauma experienced by Aboriginal people as a result of the separation laws, policies and practices can never be adequately compensated. The loss of the love and affection of children and parents can not be compensated. The psychological, physical and sexual abuse of children, isolated among adults who viewed them as members of a 'despised race' cannot be adequately compensated. The trauma resulting from these events have produced life-long effects, not only for the survivors, but for their children and their children's children."

Link-Up, an organization which helps victims of the government's removal policies

In 1997, a national human rights commission released a report, Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. This three-year study looked into how tens of thousands of indigenous children - perhaps as many as 100,000-were forcibly taken from their families, under government policies that were in effect up to 1970.

The inquiry, which took in evidence of 535 personal stories, 1,000 written personal accounts and 242 other witnesses and concluded "with certainty on the evidence" that the predominant aim of the government's child removal policy "was to eliminate Indigenous cultures as distinct entities" and hence constituted "genocide"-as defined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

This official policy of stealing children was based on the idea that Aborigines were genetically inferior and should die out as a distinct group.

As early as 1858, there were official calls for treating "half-castes" differently from "full-bloods." The Protection Board said, in relation to "half-castes," that it had a duty to "interfere at once to prevent their growing up amongst us with the habits of the savage, as they possess the instincts, powers of mind and altogether different constitution of the white man."

In 1886, the Aborigines Protection Act declared that only "full bloods" and "half-castes" over the age of 34 were entitled to aid. And under this guideline, all non-"full-bloods" under 34 were forcibly expelled from missions and reserves and given a huge fine if they returned.

This Act laid the basis for at least 60 years of "Stolen Children." Under the government's policy of forced assimilation, Aborigine children were taken from their families and "relocated" to white foster or adoptive parents, or to special "half-caste" or "assimilation" homes.

In 1905, the "Chief Protector of Aborigines" in Queensland ruled that the "social status of half-caste children" had to be raised. He said, "In the future, all such infants taken from the camps should be brought up as white children."

In 1909, the "Chief Protector" in Western Australia wrote: "I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring."

Another "Chief Protector," who had jurisdiction in the West from 1915 until 1940, spelled out his "three-point" plan: First, the "full-bloods" would die out; second, the "half-castes" would be taken away from their mothers; and third, the government would control marriages among "half-castes" and encourage intermarriage with the white community. According to this racist-who was put in charge of Aborigine affairs in the West - this plan would make it possible to "eventually forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia."

In 1928, the Queensland "Protector of Aborigines" declared that those with 50% or more Aboriginal "blood," "no matter how carefully brought up and educated," will "drift back" to the ways of Aborigines. But, he said, those with less than 50% "Aboriginal blood" should be completely segregated so that they could "avoid the dangers of the blood call" and there should be complete segregation of blacks and whites "in colonies of their own" and "to marry amongst themselves."

This kind of racist genetics and genocidal thinking was also revealed in another administrator's report in 1933 which said: "The mating of an Aboriginal with any person other than an Aboriginal is prohibited. The mating of colored aliens with any female of part Aboriginal blood is also forbidden. Every endeavor is being made to breed out the color by elevating female half-castes to the white standard with a view to their absorption by mating into the white population."

When State and Commonwealth administrations met in 1937 to discuss control over Aborigines, they came to the unanimous conclusion that "The destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to this end."


"I never saw my mother's face. I don't speak my mother's tongue...Police, clergy, anyone with a social standing had the legal right to come into a home, to decide that the children were neglected and to take them. It was genocide, just genocide."

Julie Wilson, one of those now known as the "stolen generation"

"We can conclude with confidence that between one in three and one in ten indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970."

From the 1997 National Inquiry report

The vast majority of Aborigines in Australia today come from families which experienced the removal of children, in some cases over several generations. Many of these children never saw their parents again, and thousands are now searching for surviving relatives.

When children were stolen, their families and relatives were punished by law if they resisted the removal of a child. And stolen children were harshly punished if they spoke their parents' language or tried to escape to return to their families.

The government's policy of taking children from their families focused primarily on children of mixed race-those with lighter skins. Some were stolen from their families and then trained as domestics or farm laborers.

Stolen Children were taught to reject their Aboriginal identity and culture.

Kathy Rioli talked of feeling too shamed to dance in an Aboriginal ceremony because both her parents were stolen from their country and culture. She grew up in a kind of halfway house between indigenous culture and white society. Francene George, of Yirrkala, speaks of being too embarrassed as a young woman to reveal that she grew up on Palm Island, the community founded as a penal colony for "troublesome Aborigines."

Repeal of "removal" laws began only in 1964, and continued, one state at a time, through 1984.

Many white Australians responded to the National Inquiry in an unprecedented way. In May, 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbor Bridge calling for reconciliation with Aborigines-in the largest political demonstration in the country's history. Hundreds of thousands have signed "sorry books," thousands have stood in line to listen to Aborigine people talk about how they were taken from their families. And many thousands across the country have planted small wooden hands on their lawns or beaches -signifying guilt or sorrow.

In July, photographer Polly Borland refused to join the Prime Minister when he visited her exhibit, "Australians"-a collection of portraits of 50 prominent expatriate Australians.

Borland wrote in her exhibition catalogue that the history of Australian colonialism made her feel she had "blood on her hands." She said she wanted to take a stand against the Government's policies towards indigenous Australians. "I wouldn't want to meet the man," she said. "It would have been hypocritical. I don't want to be seen to condone this sort of person."

Borland wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, explaining why she felt "compelled to decline this invitation." The letter, which was passed out at the exhibition, condemns government policies "that created the stolen generations, the genocide..." and says, "This is not simply a matter of distant colonial history, but a shameful and ongoing part of our lives."

The pain of the "stolen generations" has also been addressed by other Australian artists. Three different plays recently staged in London are indictments of the government's removal policy. And at a weekend of readings and discussion by Australian writers, Germaine Greer said she could never return to Australia to live until Aborigines were granted land rights and an official apology.

A National Sorry Day is now observed by many. But meanwhile the government refuses to even say "sorry" to the Aborigine people.


John Howard, the Prime Minister, argues that it would be "inappropriate" to make an official apology for something that was done by an earlier generation. Howard has also said that he doesn't want to say "sorry" because it could lead to financial compensation claims.

In August, Australia's Federal Court took a cue from Howard's "no sorry" stance. A federal judge rejected the claims of Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner - two Aborigines who had been stolen from their families. This was a victory in the government's battle to refuse any kind of compensation to Stolen Children. And it set an ugly precedent for the 750 other cases of stolen children which are expected to come before the courts.

Peter Gunner, 52, was taken from his family in 1956 and sent to St Mary's Hostel in Alice Springs when he was seven or eight years old. In 1947, when she was only seven years old, Lorna Cubillo was taken from her family. Her grandmother had put soot on her skin to try and fool the authorities into thinking she was "full blood" - but she was taken away anyway and put in a home for part-Aboriginal children.

Prime Minister John Howard quickly used the court's decision to reiterate his denial - saying that the test case had failed to produce evidence of a "sweeping general policy of removal and detention" of half-caste Aboriginal children.


About 400,000 Aborigines live in Australia today. They make up only about 2.1% of the country's total population of 19 million-but account for a hugely disproportionate percentage of those who are poor, unemployed, in prison, and die young.

The unemployment rate among Aborigines is about 34%-nearly five times the national average. According to government statistics, 55% of Aborigines are on welfare and 11% have no income at all. Indigenous families are 20 times more likely to be homeless than non-Indigenous families. The life expectancy of Aborigines is 5 to 20 years less than white Australians. Unemployment among Aborigines is about 4 times the national average.

In one Tiwi Island community, attempted suicide is so common among the indigenous people that barbed-wire "crowns of thorns'' have been attached to all power poles to prevent teenage boys and young men from climbing them and threatening to throw themselves on the live power lines. In 12 months police were called out to 50 suicide attempts, and the local power supply was shut down more than 40 times in one year after many young men and boys climbed the power supply poles trying to kill themselves.

Aborigines also face unhealthy living conditions and a dangerous lack of health care. Diabetes affects 30% of people in some Aborigine communities, which is four times that of white Australians. The mortality rate among Aborigines is 3 to 5 times higher than that for other Australian children. Infectious diseases among Aborigines are 12 times higher than the country's average. The rate of admission for x-ray proven pneumonia was 80 times higher among Aborigines than for other children.

Less than half of Aborigine youth, 15 to 19 years old, are in school-compared with 90% of other youth. And only 33% of Aborigine children complete high school compared to a national average of 77%.


Aborigines in Australia are more than 17 times more likely to be arrested and the number of indigenous people in prison has increased by 61% in the last seven years -almost twice the growth rate of white Australians.

Aborigines are almost 15 times more likely to be imprisoned and more than 16 times more likely to die in custody than non-indigenous Australians.

And while "child removal" policies have officially been ended, there is a new generation of stolen Aborigine children.

At hearings during the National Inquiry, a number of Aborigine witnesses talked about how current juvenile justice and welfare laws have led to a continuation, in effect, of the government's practice of removing Aborigine children from their families. In one study cited by the inquiry report, more than one third of Aborigines removed from their parents as children had had their own children removed and placed in care, police custody or juvenile detention.

Statistics from 1997 showed that Aborigine juveniles aged 10 to 17 are 21 times more likely to be in juvenile detention institutions than the rest of the population of that age. In Western Australia, the rate is 48 times higher.

According to a June 1997 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, nearly half of all Aboriginal young people aged 18 to 24 have been arrested by police at least once.

Half of the young people jailed in Australia's juvenile justice system are Aborigines.

In the Northern Territory, there have been cases of 12- to 15-year-old Aboriginal children facing imprisonment because their families had not paid fines imposed repeatedly for minor offenses such as failing to wear a bicycle helmet. In another case from Western Australia, a 15-year-old boy was ordered by a magistrate to spend 30 days in custody "under observation" for stealing an ice-cream valued at A$1.90. He was released after 18 days by the Children's Court of Western Australia from a prison some 380 miles from his home town.


Under capitalist colonialism and imperialism, the Aborigine people have suffered tremendously since their continent was first invaded by colonial settlers in 1770. Their land was ripped off. Thousands were massacred. And racist government policies created generations of stolen Aborigine kids.

The genocide has gone on for over 200 years and today, the Aborigine people continue to face the most brutal, systematic national oppression. No Olympic 2000 hoopla and hype can cover over this truth.

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