It started raining in Sydney on Friday morning and didn’t stop until late Saturday evening. Not just drizzly rain. Proper, verging-on-monsoon, soaked-to-the-skin-in-two-minutes rain. So outdoor activities were off the agenda and I decided to go to the Australian Museum. Most of it was okay, but a bit ordinary, especially when you’ve been spoiled by huge and very well put together museums in the UK like the Natural History Museum or the Museum of Scotland. But it did have one exhibition that was particularly affecting and moving: Indigenous Australians.
I was actually quite surprised to see this in the first place as there is very little acknowledgement here of the fact that Australia even existed as an inhabited island before the late 18th century. Where the 40,000+ years of pre-colonial history is recognised, it’s often in a tokenistic or patronising way, so my hopes weren’t high for the exhibition.
Thankfully I was wrong to be so pessimistic and it turned out to be a very moving, sensitive, thoughtful and frank exploration of the pretty awful history of colonisation, exploitation and abuse of people that has taken place over the last 200-odd years.
No-one knows exactly how many indigenous people lived in Australia before white settlement – estimates are around 350-500,000 or more. Within decades of the Europeans arriving, this number had been decimated and may have been as low as tens of thousands, with those who did survive being forced into pretty uninhabitable environments and/or ‘reserves’. This was partly because of the impact of new diseases like smallpox and TB, which the indigenous population had no resistance to. But it was also due to the large-scale intimidation and effective starvation of indigenous communities, as well as slaughter of “the blacks”, which was considered a “frontier sport” by many and was by and large sanctioned by the governing authorities (i.e. the British).
Although the worst of this behaviour did get reined in eventually, official policies of forced assimilation of indigenous people with white culture continued right until the 1970s. The most painful of these to read about was the forced separation of indigenous children from their families, known as the Stolen Generation. Over a period of around 100 years, from around 1869 until the 1970s, somewhere in the region of 100,000 indigenous children were removed from their families and either placed into institutional care or fostered and adopted by white families. Motivations for this appear to have been a mixture of well-intentioned attempts to protect children from abuse (no-one knows how misguided or not this was), and more sinister beliefs about ‘purifying the white race’ by breeding out “the blacks”. Whatever the reasons behind it, reading and listening to the personal accounts of some of the children who were taken in this way was harrowing, to say the least.
In Australia today, indigenous people have a significantly lower life expectancy than other groups, have worse health, get much poorer school results, are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned and are more likely to be homeless.
I haven’t got nearly enough of a handle on the issues involved to say much more than this at this stage, but what I will say is that it is really challenging to deal with a) the reality of barely concealed prejudice and discrimination that bubbles just beneath the surface of ‘civilised’ Australian society and b) the complexity of potential options from here and how to develop these, given the history of imbalances of power, the fact that it’s tricky to hold today’s Australians to account for the ‘sins of the father’ and the need to avoid over-sensitivity towards cultural differences. I’m also highly aware of my own advantaged position in Australian society, which has come about by virtue of my own colonial forefathers (in some from) and is even today, down to the fact that I come from the UK rather than, say, Vietnam or somewhere unlucky enough to be off the immigration target list for Australia.
The museum exhibition ended with a full reproduction of the newly-elected Australian Government’s apology to indigenous Australians for what has gone before. I hadn’t fully appreciated the symbolic power of this until I’d been through the exhibition and it made me glad that I’m here at a time when this apology has taken place and there is, whatever the challenges inherent, a willingness and a desire to change things for the better. I’d recommend anyone to read the full text of the apology. Some of it’s a bit political and/or cringe-inducing, but put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s family and community has experienced some of the things described above, and I imagine you will feel some impact from it.