The fate of Australian Aboriginals – 1850 onwards

The once widely used catch-all phrase ‘Australian Aboriginals’ is being replaced by Indigenous Australians’. In fact, both descriptions are misleading, entirely failing to reflect the diversity of Australia’s first inhabitants. There were many distinctive ‘nations’ when English settlers arrived in the late 18th century, speaking 300 languages and spread throughout the continent and Torres Straits Islands.

Aboriginals had been around for upwards of 50,000 years, developing a unique culture and advanced hunter- gatherers’ survival skills. But they shared a catastrophic experience with native South Americans when a pandemic of diseases – notably smallpox – brought by the incomers proved devastating, killing half the indigenous population in the first decades of European settlement.

This was a major humanitarian disaster but insult was added to injury by the harsh treatment meted out to Aboriginals, showing that the new European colony cared little for its original inhabitants. Ancestral lands were expropriated throughout the 19th century and children were forcibly removed from families in large numbers between 1870 and 1970. The disrespect with which Aboriginals were treated is typified by the fate of Tasmania’s tribes. They were systematically hunted down or lured into camps from the 1820s and had effectively been wiped out by the 1850s. The last surviving Tasmanian Aborigine was Truganini, who died in 1876 – the Tasmanian language dying with her. As a final insult, her skeleton was put on public display.

The movement to grant proper recognition to Aboriginals began in the 1930s and gathered pace from the 1960s, but despite ‘official’ acknowledgment of past wrongdoings and relatively isolated examples of individual achievement, the vast majority of the downtrodden Aboriginal population still lives in Third World conditions, reflecting the inhumanity with which native peoples were always treated when Europeans arrived to create new colonies at the expense of long-established indigenous civilizations.

When: 1850 onwards

Where: Australia

Death toll: Impossible to calculate. Latest estimates suggest the current population of indigenous Australians to be in excess of 450,000, against a high estimate of 750,000 when Europeans first arrived and low point of some 100,000 in 1900.

You should know: Ironically, Australia’s jealously guarded reputation as a top sporting nation was initiated by an Aboriginal cricket team. It visited England in 1868 on one of the first-ever international sporting tours and performed creditably before large crowds, winning 14, drawing 19 and losing 14 matches. Delighted spectators were treated to boomerang- and spear-throwing displays after matches.

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