Future of aboriginal Australians

Problems such as alcoholism and drugs are proportionately higher among Aboriginal youth. The health problems of Aboriginal communities are worse

Future of aboriginal Australians


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and there are even communities in Sydney and Melbourne.

There are maybe 30,000 of these people. The descendents of the Melanesians (Kanaks) who managed to avoid deportation from Queensland between 1900 and 1910 have developed into a vigorous, self-confident community, nearly 20,000, mainly in Queensland centred on Mackay.

More recently, large communities of people from Polynesia have settled in Australia: Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders and others, and some Melanesians from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. There are now perhaps 40,000 people of this background from the Pacific in Australia. There are also about 60,000 Maoris from New Zealand and quite a scattering of descendants of Africans and West Indians, sent to Australia as convicts in the 19th century, or who came, like the black Americans at Eureka, during the gold rushes. (In an article in the Journal of Australian Studies No 16, Ian Duffield calculates that 1% of the convicts sent to Australia were African or West Indian blacks. This makes a total of almost 2,000 black convicts. In Watkin Tench's account of the early colony, there are nearly 20 mentions of different black convicts. In "Australian Race Relations 1788-1993" published in 1994, Andrew Markus records: "Sir Frank Villeneuve Smith, at various times attorney-general, premier and chief justice of Tasmania, and the first president of the Tasmanian Club, was of part-African descent".)

The complexity of the history of the infusion of people of colour into the Australian community is underlined by the nasty hullabaloo directed at the head of a well-known and successful Western Australian Aboriginal writer, Colin Johnston, and the noted academic, Bobbi Sykes, whose detractors claimed that they didn't have the right to classify themselves as Aboriginal because their coloured ancestor was actually from somewhere else, despite the fact that they had identified from childhood with the black community. If you take together all these people, plus the more than 350,000 people who now identify themselves as Aboriginal according to the census, you have a community in Australia of indigenous people of colour from Australia or the South Pacific, of more than 600,000 people.

The phenomenon that has taken demographers by surprise, and driven conservative racists to fury, is the explosive numerical expansion of the self-identified Aboroginal population at the past few censuses. At each census the number of Aboriginals has gone up far more rapidly than either natural increase or even intermarriage can account for. What has actually happened is that many Australians who have a family memory, often concealed for survival reasons, particularly in the rabidly racist 19th century, having rediscovered and come to terms with their Aboriginal ancestry, feel sufficiently at ease to acknowledge it to the census takers.

The racists, of course, ascribe this to the (very limited) financial advantages, available to people of Aboriginal ancestry, but the more obvious explanation is the same kind of thing that drives other people who engage in the now widespread, very human preoccupation with family history, to proudly proclaim the convict ancestry, which was once such a terrible stigma. Recently, Paddy McGuiness has put a new slant on these things, asserting that because a majority of Aboriginal people appear currently to marry non-Aboriginal people, the existence of Aboriginal identity is questionable and the rapid complete "assimilation" of Aboriginals is likely. This McGuiness slant is not very useful in making an accurate projection for the future.

The overwhelming majority of children of unions between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people tend to identify mainly with the Aboriginal part of their heritage, and even if they don't, are often forced to do so by the residual racism in Australian society. In real life there is no prospect at all of Aboriginal identity dying out because of intermarriage.


The stolen children


The stolen children is the issue that most sharply embodies the brutal history and the unacknowledged guilt of white racism in Australia. To assist in the process of the widely acclaimed "passing of the Aboriginals", the racist authorities in British Australia in the 19th century began a process of stealing Aboriginal children from their parents to turn them into a docile labour force for the emerging Australian capitalist society.

Over the past 150 years, nearly 50,000 Aboriginal or mixed race children were stolen from their parents in one way or another. The process of the descendants of this child stealing rediscovering their Aboriginality is a part of the explosion in Aboriginal numbers in the census. In addition to this, in the early years of settlement, and in fact all through the 19th century, other mixed-blood people disappeared into the underclass of white society, often into the Irish Catholic section of it, where they were more accepted and could partly avoid the rabid racism of the British ruling class in colonial Australia.

The extraordinary popularity among white Australians of Sally Morgan's wonderful bestseller, My Place (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987) about her experiences tracing her Aboriginality, clearly indicates that many people are beginning to come to terms with the sorry history of white Australia in these matters. Another very moving book on this topic is The Lost Children (Doubleday, 1989) edited by Coral Edwards and Peter Read, which is the life stories of 13 stolen children told by themselves.

The definitive overview of the whole question of the deliberate disruption of Aboriginal life involved in the stolen children policy, is the magisterial and comprehensive new book, Broken Circles. Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000 by Anna Haebich (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000).

Another feature of colonial Australia was the intermarriage with Aboriginals of some migrant groups that had few women among them. Quite a few Chinese married Aboriginals. In central Australia very many of the "Afghan" camel drivers (they were mostly actually from the north-west frontier of what is now Pakistan, but crude British shorthand classified them as Afghans) married Aboriginals, and there is a community in central Australia, which mainly forms part of the Aboriginal community, with Pakistani names, who are descendants of these unions.

The explosion of Aboriginal numbers in the recent censuses is obviously a coming together of the delayed results of all these past practices and events. The antagonistic response to it from some of the more backward and racist white Australians is obviously a product of a very bad conscience about Aboriginal relations in the past. For me, these matters have acquired a strong personal aspect in the last few years, because, as I describe elsewhere, an inquiry by one of my relatives into our family history has produced a hauntingly circumstantial, but difficult to document, inference of some probable remote Aboriginality, from an Aboriginal ancestor who may have deliberately disappeared into the more accepting Irish Catholic working class of the 19th century.


Indigenous Australia and white Australia


It is obvious that my starting point in these matters is the imperative need for Australians to take a determined stand in defence of the interests of indigenous Australia against the current explosion of racism and attacks on the material interests of Aboriginal Australians. It seems to me absolutely clear that it is a reactionary diversion for essentially conservative people such as Pauline Hanson and Paul Sheehan to make indigenous Australians, Asian migrants and others scapegoats for the problems of modern Australia. Such attempts must be opposed, fought and defeated.

Hundreds of thousands of white Australians are prepared to defend the rights and interests of indigenous Australia, as is shown by the enormous response to the events such as Sorry Day, Queensland pastoralists who have spoken up for Aboriginal reconciliation, the thousands of people who have spoken out against mandatory sentencing, and even the statements of conservative figures such as Malcolm Fraser.

Nevertheless, having said this, there are real, if episodic, conflicts of interest between some ordinary white Australians and some indigenous Australians, and that is one of the factors that gives momentum to the racist diversions of the people such as Pauline Hanson. These conflicts of interest are real and can't be glossed over.

For a start, many Aboriginals live either in poorer working class areas of major cities or in provincial cities or country towns of high unemployment, low income and limited facilities and prospects for everyone. Because of past oppression, and current social problems, the unemployment rate among Aboriginal youth, with the concommitant social dislocation, is much higher than that of any other social group.

Problems such as alcoholism and drugs are proportionately higher among Aboriginal youth. The health problems of Aboriginal communities are worse than those of whites, and the life expectancy of Aboriginals is lower than that of whites. In addition to this, and for all the above reasons, the proportion of Aboriginals in the prison system is far higher than the proportion in the community. (This has been the case for the last 30 or 40 years. Before that, for the whole of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, the Irish Catholics numerically dominated the prison system, out of all proportion to their numbers in society at large, much to the mock horror of upper-class British Australia, which got very worked up about the criminal propensities of Catholics. The reason

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