Australian Aboriginals

“The oldest living culture on Earth” – with a history dating back 60,000 years.”

When you visit Cairns and travel around North Queensland, the Northern Territory and other states of Australia you will also come into contact with Aboriginal people and possibly visit Galleries to see and maybe buy Aboriginal paintings and also artefacts – including didgeridoos, boomerangs, woomeras and other items. You may also visit sites to see original rock art dating back centuries, see a dance show and if you are lucky take a guided walk with an aboriginal elder into the rainforest to gain an understanding of the special relationship aboriginals have with ‘country’ – mother earth, the living spiritual land.

The Australian Aboriginal people in North Queensland call themselves BAMA, in southern Queensland, the MURRI people, and KOORI in the state of NSW. Other areas of Australia use other names that come from their own language.

Here in North Queensland you may hear country and rock music played by Australian Aboriginal musicians, and many aboriginal singers and bands have recordings on CD that you can buy.
If you love football you may also watch a match and see the amazing skills of Aboriginal sportsmen in action, or at a Rodeo see aboriginal riding skills.

At the same time you may also see Aboriginal people who appear drunk or hanging around in groups in a park – and this is can be quite confronting – the other side of Australian Aboriginal life today.

The Australian Aboriginal story of survival is not without issues or complexity, of good times and bad, of racial tensions, alcohol and drugs, education, employment, land rights, deaths in custody, the Stolen Children generation and more. There are also many positive stories too.

As a tourist, you mostly want to see the things of beauty – the Barrier Reef, fish, wildlife, resorts, rainforest, mountains and waterfalls, but as a traveller you also want to understand more about the society, the people, industry and history of the places that you see.

Aboriginal language, history and culture have played and continue to play an important role in defining Australia as it is today, and we hope that what is written here will help bring you a better understanding of Australian Aboriginals and Australia as a country.

When you see paintings by Aboriginal artists – the style, the subjects, the colours are all very different to the paintings that you might see by European, Asian and American painters. They have a unique style all their own – they are in themselves stories, and if you are lucky to hear those stories, you will also be experiencing a glimpse into a new spiritual world as seen through aboriginal eyes.


When English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and other ships set sail on expeditions from Europe in the 1500’s and right up the end of the 1800’s – they were in search of treasure, trade and new lands to conquer in the name of their god, king and country, and also to discover new plants, animals and knowledge to bring back to their homeland. In museums the world over, you can see treasures, artefacts and specimens of plants, birds and animals taken from the lands that the explorers made contact with. There were also skulls of people taken for scientific study at the time, and you would no doubt be aware of certain antiquities and other museum pieces being returned to where they were found, including aboriginal skeletal remains so that they could be buried in Australia according to traditional aboriginal burial rites.

Religion played a big part in European life too, and missionaries often followed explorers and settlers on the basis of converting ‘heathens’ into Christians and educating them in the virtues of a Christian life.

Right back to the first Century time of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, the idea of a ‘Great Southern Land’ had been born, the thought being that if Europe and the Arctic regions lay to the north of the revolving Earth, then there must be a great land mass to the South to provide a balance.

In some maps drawn in the 1500’s, a land to the south was drawn in theory with the land called ‘Terra Australis Incognito’ – the unknown land.

In 1616 the Dutchman Dirk Hartog had touched land in today’s Western Australia, and in 1642 Abel Tasman named ‘Anthoonji van Diemenslandt’ (Van Diemens Land – today’s Tasmania) in honour the Governor- General of the Dutch East Indies, Anthoonji van Diemen. The Dutch East India Company had been set up in 1602, with Batavia (today’s Jakarta) established as the capital for the company in 1619. In 1644 Abel Tasman had sailed near the north coast of Australia, naming it New Holland, but no settlement was made, though there is no doubt that islanders from the Torres Straight and other islands north of Australia also made contact with Aboriginal people. (See History section of this website)

In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed up the East Coast of today’s Australia, and in so doing sighted night campsite fires at points along the coastline, which he took to be signs of local indigenous tribes, and when the first contacts were made between Aboriginal tribesman and the Europeans, there was a mixture of apprehension and curiosity, no doubt on both sides.

Many explorers died in their travels when they encountered local Indian tribes, islanders and natives, and even Captain Cook, a seasoned explorer was killed in February 1779 as a result of a spear wound in the Sandwich Islands (today’s Hawaii). Four of his Marines also died, and seventeen Hawaiians.

In one sense this could be seen as a murder, but in another sense, a war between Hawaiians protecting their homeland and the English invading it. It could also be seen as a clash of cultures – as Cook’s Ship had been lying at anchor for close to a fortnight with an exchange of goods between the native Hawaiians and the English marines on friendly terms, until a point of time when one of their boats was taken by the Hawaiians. Theft was an established English concept, but was ‘theft’ also a concept that was also understood by the Hawaiians? What is clear however is that when one of their chiefs was killed, they immediately retaliated! The English however had guns, and the Hawaiians had only spears and clubs as their weapons to respond with.

Early encounters between Aboriginals and early settlers in Australia were both friendly and hostile – with many Aboriginal words and place names becoming part of Australia’s language as the two cultures confronted each other.

The white settlers were looking to build houses, grow crops and raise farm animals and they bought with them their boats, fishing lines, guns, steel axes, saws, nails, hammers and other farm and building tools, as well as sewing machines, cloth, clothing, cows, bullocks, dogs, horses and food supplies – things that the aboriginals had never seen before.

Aboriginal life for thousands of years had revolved around their campfires, hunting and finding food and they had developed special weapons such as the boomerang, nulla-nulla (club), the woomera (throwing stick), different types of spears, shields and woven fishing traps to do just that. They had developed amazing bush skills in tracking game, catching fish and finding foods and medicines in the bush, moving with the seasons and celebrating their traditions through dreamtime stories passed down through the generations. Corroborees and initiation ceremonies became celebrations while certain places were identified as ‘sacred land’.

Leaders of clans were called ‘Elders’, providing guidance to the clan and passing on their bush knowledge and hunting skills to younger men, handling disputes and providing the clan’s leadership, with women playing a role too, with ‘secret women’s business’ and cooking and care of children establishing their role.

The aboriginal clans had no written language, but in North Queensland alone there were over 40 different aboriginal languages spoken, out of the estimated 300 to 700 or so languages spoken across Australia. Many of these languages have been lost over time.

As a society, there was no sense of property ownership with the clan hunting and gathering food to share. The world around them and the earth – its rocks, soils, animals, fish, birds, shells, trees, flowers, plants, fruit, berries, bones and roots provided them with all that they needed to live and survive and also provide a spiritual home too.

When the English arrived, they simply proclaimed the land as theirs, mapped the land, established settlements and granted land titles and rights to settlers over the land. There was no sense of the local aboriginal people having existing land rights or having ownership or being compensated for the land – the English simply took it as their right, as the whole country was now a British Colony. They also saw their responsibility being then to protect “their land” from French or other Colonial Powers also potentially trying to claim ownership.

Even though the early settlers had secured land, it did not immediately bring them food, and you can imagine the hardships they went through in trying to grow crops, raise cattle and create an income. A hot tropical climate, torrential rain, mosquitos, limited supplies, hardwood timber to cut by hand and hand hoeing to dig soil and plant crops which might or might not survive meant a hard life.

Imagine then having your meagre supplies being stolen, or your crops or animals hunted and killed by Aboriginals. A cow in the field meant easy hunting; seed on a crop, simply came from the land. This became a clash of cultures, with the aboriginals outnumbering the white settlers many times over, and while some of the settlers tried to get Aboriginal workers to work the land, more often than not the Aboriginals would go ‘Walkabout’ – take what was offered in food or tobacco on the day and then would often never come back. This led to settlers bringing Pacific Islanders (kanakas) to North Queensland to work on the sugar and banana plantations, the first of the Pacific Islanders arriving in 1863.

The British Empire was well used to working with local indigenous people in Africa, Asia, India and elsewhere in the Empire – and so it was that the Native Police Force was established in Queensland in 1848 and given horses, uniforms, guns and knives to “disperse” problem individual Aboriginals and groups, providing protection to the Settlers from attack, theft and killing of cattle.

A white officer was in charge of around eight native troopers, and the Native Police Force continued in operation for about 40 years, during which time large numbers of “troublesome blacks” as they were called were killed by them.

Diseases were also brought into North Queensland by the new settlers as well as opium by both British traders and also Chinese gold miners and traders – the opium being in widespread use in China. Opium was in fact taxed by the Government at the time, and only banned in 1906. Opium also was used as a means of paying workers including aboriginal workers.

In the 1870’s the Queensland government began setting up ‘Aboriginal Reserves’, following the American example of ‘Indian Reservations’ being set aside for Indian Tribes. These Reservations had enabled the white settlers to take over land areas formerly used by Indian tribes, and keep the Indians and Settlers separated from each other.

The same situation arose in Australia as in the USA, where neither side was particularly satisfied – the settlers wanting to own land, grow crops and raise cattle, and the Aboriginal Clans wanting to preserve their land and roam freely to hunt just as they had before the settlers arrived.

Within a few years a number of Mission Stations and Reserves were set up across Queensland, including the Yarrabah Mission, set up at Mission Beach south of Cairns in 1892 and Palm Island further south.

In 1897 the Queensland Government instituted “The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction on the sale of Opium Act” – and this helped establish Mission Stations as a permanent part of Aboriginal Community life. Many of these mission stations were run by church organisations including the Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches and others by State Government, and later by Mission and Aboriginal Councils. Their role was both to provide a safe home area for the Aboriginal people, as well as provide housing, education, health and other services.

Not all Aboriginal people lived on missions, and many lived in and around towns and in the country, working on properties, as stockmen, boxers, with the railways, as Police trackers, on fishing boats and later with National Parks as rangers.

Throughout history, there has always been prejudice in all societies, with the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, the servants and their masters, the Indian Caste system and many other examples worldwide. Race, mixed race, religion, background, colour, age, gender, sex, language have all been used to denigrate a person and also whole groups of people and nationalities. Australian Aboriginals have suffered this more than most, and been subject to taunts, threats, name calling, verbal and physical abuse for more than a century.

Aboriginal children express some of the best smiles and laughter in the world, but by late teens that smile and laughter is in many cases gone as they encounter prejudice and stereotyping. All people on earth seek to take pride in their own achievements, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait are no different to any other people in this regard.

Pride, a sense of self-worth, respect, family, kinship – these are values that all people seek in life. Without pride, there is a sense of loss, and it is only in recent years that many Aboriginal people have taken pride in their own self and ancestry, rather than try to avoid identifying with it.

When the Commonwealth Government of Australia Constitution was written in 1901, Aboriginals were not counted, with a statement made that “In Reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted”. It took until 1949 for Aboriginals to be allowed to become Australian Citizens and it wasn’t until 1967 that a referendum to change the Constitution and allow Aboriginal people to vote was overwhelmingly voted for by over 90% of the Australian population.

Aboriginal people served in the Australian Armed forces in the Boer war as trackers, and also World War 1 and in World War II when around 3000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders served. Even so, they were not granted Australian citizenship.

During the years from 1883 to 1969, Aboriginal children could be taken into care and sometimes forcibly taken away from their mothers and family, and in recent years much has been written and said about “The Stolen Generation”, leading up to an official Parliamentary Apology by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd on the 13th of February 2008. “Sorry Day” was an historic day in Australian history, and recognized the injustices that had taken place for over a century. While many children were saved from unhealthy situations to be placed in foster care and mission schools, many were not, and the mental scars on these people in losing their family connections live with them forever.

In 1971, an Australian Aboriginal Flag was designed by a Luritja Clansman from Central Australia, Harold Thomas. When the Australian Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra in 1972, that flag was flown, and in 1995 it was recognized by Government, though it took until 2008 for it to be officially recognized as an Australian flag.

In 1982 a legal action was launched in the High Court of Australia by a Torres Strait Islander group (Meriam people) led by Eddie Mabo, seeking to establish their land rights over the Murray Islands at the far north of Queensland.

When Captain Cook claimed ‘New Holland’ in the name of the British Crown in 1770 this claim was made on the basis of the land being “Terra Nullius” the English translation of the Latin being “belonging to no-one”, even though the Aboriginal Clans had lived on the land for 60,000 years. In turn, when Queensland gained its own sovereignty from Britain in 1879, the Murray Islands and the rest of Queensland instantly became Crown Land owned by the Queensland Government.

It would take 10 years of legal wrangling through the Supreme Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia for Eddie Mabo’s claim to be recognized, and in the meantime he died. Even so, the ‘Mabo Case’ as it came to be called was a watershed moment in history, and a lasting legacy and many other land claims have since been followed.

While much has been achieved in establishing a better understanding of Aboriginal history and culture in the wider Australian community, equally there has been a change in the aboriginal communities too. Where once many aboriginal people would deny their heritage and culture, they are now embracing it with a new sense of pride – and in 2007 a new TV Station (NITV) The National Indigenous TV Station began broadcasting, the station dedicated to becoming the voice for Indigenous culture – with films, news, music, documentaries and other programs.

In one sense having a dedicated TV station may appear to be a small step forward, but it is an important one, as it gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a National voice and identity for aboriginals across Australia and allows non-aboriginal people a means of learning more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, thought and people, and that has to be a good thing.

There are still many social and economic issues facing Aboriginal people, just one of these being the number of aboriginal people being in Prison, and the number of aboriginal deaths that have occurred in custody. At the same time there is tremendous support and recognition of Aboriginal unique artistic painting skills, in sport, music and dance which have all found a world stage.

While you are in Cairns take the opportunity to visit the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park ( Tel: (07) 4042 9999 ). The Park is located near the entranceway to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway on Western Arterial Road in Smithfield.


Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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