Home .Culture Aborigines' first contact with modernity
Aborigines' first contact with modernity
Thursday, 16 February 2012 09:43

Perhaps globalization's greatest drama comes from the contact between traditional, indigenous societies and "modernity" or the West. In his brilliant book, "The First Frontier: the occupation of the Sydney region, 1788 to 1816", Peter Turbet, recounts the tragic story of Sydney's aborigines whose way of life, established over the previous 20,000 years, was well on the road to destruction within 30 years of British occupation.

The arrival of the first British settlers in Australia occurred in Sydney in 1788. They found several aboriginal "clans". The Gweagal and Bidjigal lived around Botany Bay. The Cadigal lived on the south side of Sydney Harbour. The Harbour's north shore was the home of the Gamaraigal. West of them lived the Walumedigal. To the inland near today's Cabramatta (Sydney's "Vietnam town") lay the lands of the Cahbrogal. Broken Bay to the north was in Garigal country. And the people of the Windsor district were the Buruberongal.

Two different aboriginal economies existed in the Sydney region. The coastal clans' food-gathering focused on spearing fish, and fishing with lines made from bark fibre and hooks made from turban shells. Inland clans practiced possum-hunting, and collecting vegetable foods and catching smaller game.  Inland people also wore possum skin rugs and threw the boomerang.

The many rock engravings that survive on sandstone outcrops, and eyewitness accounts of the coastal tooth-knocking ceremony, point to a culture steeped in spirituality and ritual.

As the members of the "First Fleet" spread out from Sydney Cove, there were monumental and often catastrophic changes to the lives of these indigenous peoples as they were dispossessed of their land. The next 28 years saw frequent flare-ups of violence, as disputes over precious resources erupted.  Competition for scarce food was one factor that destabliised relations, especially during periods when the new settlers were at near starving point. New diseases also played havoc, with an outbreak of small pox killing about half of Sydney's aboriginal population.  Another possible source of animosity was the sexual contacts between white men and aboriginal women.

Fundamentally, the aboriginal people's oneness with the land was challenged.  And aboriginal raids on isolated farms would often be followed by a totally disproportionate reprisals from the military and settlers.

Even during these troubled and bloody times, colonists and aborigines often knew each other well, could speak a little of each others' languages and were sometimes on trusting and friendly terms.  We are introduced to several aboriginal figures, such as Bennelong, who bequeathed his name to the site of Sydney's remarkable Opera House ("Bennelong Point") and its restaurant. Bennelong was befriended by Governor Phillip, traveled to England for a stay of three years, acquired refined table manners and even met King George.

Turbet's book provides engrossing detail of the progressive contact between Sydney's British occupiers and the local aborigines, and makes for almost surrealistic reading. One gets a sudden frisson for example at the thought of an aborigine spearing a fish at today's Bennelong Point -- because, to the untrained eye, there are no longer any visible traces from the presence of Sydney's former aboriginal inhabitants, unless you visit one of the very few Sydney suburbs where they are today congregated.

There are all too many analyses of the tragic impact of British settlement on the aboriginal culture and way of life, and here is not the place to delve into them.  But population figures may alone capture the tragedy better than any other indicator. Australia's aboriginal population at the time of British settlement in 1788 may have been of the order of half a million. And although the world's population has increased eightfold since that time, Australia's aboriginal population is basically unchanged, and very few of them are now full blooded.

Elsewhere today, Japan is greatly criticized for its closed society and strict controls on migration. Reflecting on the experience of Australia's aborigines, the Japanese, who are surrounded by countries with large and much poorer populations, may well be right in seeking to maintain their unique culture and life style.


Turbet, Peter.  The First Frontier: the occupation of the Sydney region, 1788 to 1816.


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