There can be no question that the effect of European occupation on the Indigenous Population whose ancestors had lived for 50,000 years was disastrous – European diseases, seizing of land that had been their food source and massacres led to a general demoralisation of the original inhabitants. The argument used then, and often still used today, was that ‘civilisation’ was being brought to the ‘uncivilised’ but of what value is a ‘civilisation’ if the cost is the destruction and even the intended annihilation of one section of humanity and of its own rich culture.
Of course human history demonstrates how easy it is for one group of humans to promote their own interests by denigrating another group of humans. In the southern United States in the nineteenth century White Christians were able invoke a concept of inferiority to provide a moral justification by making slaves out of Africans and many Americans still believe that African American lives are of less value. But the fact that such practices are common does not make it morally acceptable.
Such beliefs still persisted in the twentieth century. Baldwin Spence (1860-1929) was a leading Anthropologist who spent many years in Indigenous communities, but he was still influenced by evolutionary theory and wrote in the preface of a book on the Aranda people:
Australia is the present home and refuge of creatures, often crude and quaint, that have elsewhere passed away and given place to higher forms. This applies equally to the Aboriginal as to the platypus and the kangaroo. Just as the platypus laying its eggs laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making, so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad outline, what early man must have been like before he learned to read and write, domesticate animals, cultivate crops and use a metal tool.
Indigenous Australians were also at a great disadvantage in resisting the European occupation when compared with the Maori of New Zealand. In the latter case, Maoris had particular settlements to defend. For the Indigenous Australians each group’s territory had definite boundaries but these were not visible to Europeans and occupation and ownership did not fit into the European concept of property. This explains why Maoris have a treaty with Government. The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document and was signed on 6 February 1840 between the British Government and representatives of the Maori people. This day is now a public holiday in New Zealand.
In the European occupation of Australia the policy of terra nullius – land belonging to no one – was applied and the governments were free to allocate land as they wished, ignoring prior indigenous ownership and occupation. In
This was not overthrown until a High Court decision in June 1992 in what came to be called the Mabo Decision, after the main claimant, Eddie Mabo. This decision formed the basis for establishing Native Title, the right for Indigenous Australians to have ownership of land for which they could demonstrate a continuous affiliation.