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Pay the Rent: The Unfinished Business of Australia Day

Monday, 30 January 2012  | Barbara Deutschmann

Last week we celebrated Australia Day. Being Australians, we celebrate in a very understated way. Not for us the veneration of the flag, starchy ceremonies or sentimental anthems. But we are proud of the achievements of our nation in the short time since white people first settled on these shores. We have achieved a multi-cultural society of high wealth. We have a flourishing economy, law and order, a thriving art and musical culture. We have punched above our weight in sports, science, literature. We ought to celebrate more than we do.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the day is not one to be celebrated. For them, 26 January is Survival Day or Invasion Day. Their sorrow on this day reminds us that all is not well within this nation, that we have some unfinished business. I want to talk a little about 1788 and what it meant for Aboriginal people, particularly in this area, and help us to come to a sober recognition of our history that might help us move forward. The question for me is, what does the Lord require of us at this time as his people in this place?

When early settlers arrived in the area we now know as the city of Melbourne, they were impressed by the beauty and abundance of the landscape. Robert Hoddle wrote in the 1830s:

“Prettily situated upon gently undulating hills… picturesque and park-like country, which the most fastidious observer of Nature’s beauties cannot be insensible to.  The soil in the immediate neighbourhood of the town is most excellent, which, with the park-like appearance of the surrounding country, forms a great contrast to the barren scrub and sandy rocks of Sydney…”

Reading the journals of early settlers, we get a picture of a carefully tended landscape of hills and streams, with grassy patches with fresh green grass, patches of sheoak and eucalypt forest, swamp areas alive with bird life. If you stood on top of what is now Flagstaff Hill, and looked west over what is now Docklands, Bolte Bridge, Westgate Bridge and into Spotswood, this is what you would have seen: a beautiful green lawn extended for 3-4 miles around ‘a small saltwater lake…generally covered with swans and wild fowl. On the bank of its margin the sheoak is thinly scattered, giving the whole the appearance of an extensive English park.' To the west of this was land ‘of the most excellent quality… a very rich alluvial plain… unrivalled for sheep and cattle…parts bear a strong resemblance to a gentleman’s park kept for ornament’. These are John Batman’s words from his journal. Further west across Kingsville, Footscray, Sunshine, Melton, Werribee, he described the land as ‘one-third grass, one-third stone, one-third earth, mostly new burnt. It was exceedingly rich and beautiful in the extreme. It was ‘thinly-timbered, richly grassed… The soil was of a fine, rich, oily, decomposed whinstone (basalt)… The trees were thinly scattered in a park-like form, averaging five or six to the acre… Its general character presents like that of cultivated pasture for centuries past; the few trees appeared as though they owed their plantation to the hand of man.'

The word that most often crops up in these journals is the word “park”. Early settlers were struck by a landscape that looked as though someone had tended and managed it. And so it was. We now know that Aboriginal people managed the land using different types of fire to produce areas of grass where kangaroos might come, bounded by places where they could hide and hunt, places where they could gather to talk and trade and do ceremony. They returned in yearly cycles to particular places where they knew food could be found. While they were not farmers in the sense that we know it, they did tend the land to make it produce certain characteristics. They knew that careful use of fire would cause green shoots (“pick”) to emerge at a time when kangaroos would be grazing. They knew when to burn and when not. They knew how to limit the burn. They knew that land unburnt would produce wild undergrowth that would be in danger of hot conflagrations that do untold damage. Each of the tribes had its own district known to neighbouring tribes. Each clan had their own area within this and people could clearly point out their land. Three different but related tribes live din the Melbourne metropolitan area and particular clans within these tribes cared for smaller areas. This was tied to a totem—a feature of that landscape that they deeply identified with and were responsible for—be it kangaroos, goannas, or a type of bird. They were not just wandering nomads but deeply tied to particular places.

In 1788 the east coast was formally settled by Britain and for many years the colonial government tried to keep people close to Sydney and forbad expansion of settlement beyond the limits of location. But there soon came people to the southern coast looking to settle in Port Philip. Early settlers were not just looking for beauty. They were looking for land so they could graze sheep and cattle. Ironically, it was the landscapes of Victoria’s central and western regions that had been so carefully managed by Aboriginal peoples that allowed them easy access and plentiful feed. They brought flocks of animals from Van Diemen’s Land and began to move across Port Philip. So began one of the biggest and fastest unlawful land grabs in the world.

One local example is the Chirnside family, Scottish settlers who took up large sections of western Port Philip including the Werribee area. Thomas Chirnside gained freehold of 80,000 acres in the Wyndham (Werribee) area. He also purchased a large area of land which is now the suburb of Kingsville. On these parcels of land he grazed sheep and cattle.

From 1837-42 the population of Port Philip rose from 1,000 to 20,000. Sheep numbers increased to well over a million in that time. Aborigines were dispossessed of an area the size of England in just five years. The areas most suitable for grazing were also those areas most needed by Aboriginal people to sustain their lives. Aboriginal people began to succumb to malnutrition. Weakened bodies succumbed to infectious disease. The birthrate dropped. In 1835, there were probably about 10,000 Aboriginal people in Victoria. By 1853, less than twenty years later, there were less than 2,000. The settler population grew while the Indigenous population fell.

While the Chirnsides grew rich, local Aboriginal leaders died. Derrimut, of the Yalukit-willan clan, was one such leader. When first known to settlers, he was a strong, proud man. From 1839, people noticed he became depressed and began to drink. He said: You see... all this mine, all along here Derrimut's once; no matter now, me soon tumble down. Why me have lubra? Why me have piccaninny? You have all this place, no good have children, no good have lubra, me tumble down and die very soon now.

Some may say: Why didn’t Aboriginal people just share the land? Wasn’t there enough for all?  At the heart of this story are two very different ways of looking at land. The settlers brought ideas of colonisers: they used words like profit, property, resource, improve, develop, change.  Aboriginal people had no way of talking about what land meant to them. Anthropologist Bill Stanner said:

No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between and aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word ‘home’, warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the aboriginal word that may mean ‘camp’, hearth’, country’, everlasting home’, ‘totem place’, ‘life source’, spirit centre’, and much else all in one. Our word ‘land’ is too spare and meager…The aboriginal would speak of earth and use the word in richly symbolic way to mean his ‘shoulder’ or his ‘side’.

When settlers took their land, they took not just space they walked and lived on, not just the space they gathered food and water from, although that would have been heinous enough. Settlers took the spiritual centre of their lives. Aboriginal people had tended their area of land because of a deep sense of responsibility for it, connected through their totems.

Since that time, Australia’s economy has grown on the back of sheep and wool, cattle and grain, on the back of rich mining deposits, all of it based on land taken from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Meanwhile, the damage done to the soul of our Indigenous people has meant they have fallen behind in education, health and just every indicator of well-being you can count. The result is that the life expectancy of Indigenous people is about 11 years less than that of non-Indigenous people in Australia.

Some may say that current generations of Australians need feel no guilt because they were not the ones who did it. But we have all benefitted from it. Our wealth has been at their expense. More than that, we do identify with things that happened in the past and see it as “us” or “our” past. The two world wars were “us” even though none here directly participated in it. We identify with the valiant efforts of Australian troops, the oceans of pain of the dead and wounded and their families, the triumphs of wins and the horrors of loss. For better or worse they were ”our” wars. Many Australians gather at Gallipoli to remember fallen ANZAC troops in 1916 because we identify with their sacrifice. We also share in the triumph of Australian scientists and artists and in Australian sports heroes. We do have a strong sense of “us”.

But sadly, when it comes to past treatment of Aboriginal people it was “them” and not “us” even though we still see the results of that theft on subsequent generations of Aboriginal and Islander people.

Where do we go from here? No Indigenous person I know wants us to leave. They know that our futures must track together in this land.  They do want people to acknowledge the stolen-ness of the land and they will keep coming back to this. This church is built on a crown grant. We did not pay for this land. The church received it from the government, who took it from local clans. That is why acknowledgements of country are so important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is not just empty symbolism. When we acknowledge country we acknowledge prior custodianship and respect the care those people took of the land. At the very least we can acknowledge that our homes, schools and churches are built on land which had once been carefully tended by Aboriginal clans and which was taken from them.

Many of us have long come to terms with this, happily acknowledge prior custodianship but still don’t know where to go from here. As someone said to me once: “How many times should I say sorry for what my ancestors did? When is enough?” Behind that question lies the gnawing feeling that there is another step to be taken.

The next step is repentance. It is different from just saying sorry. It is a recognition that what we have done has offended God – not just the victim. We can be very sure that God is offended. We know from our Bible that God allocated peoples to different areas of land. Acts 17: 26-27 “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live.”  Our Bible makes it very clear that God is offended when boundary markers are moved or when land is taken by force. Ahab’s whole family was punished because he took Naboth’s land. Repentance is a conviction that it shall not happen again and turning of life around to face another direction.

The Bible makes it clear that once a wrong has been done and responsibility acknowledged, there is another step to be taken – that is restitution. The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 is an example of someone who seeks to make generous restitution for past theft. Jesus responds with: “Salvation has come to this house…”

What are some ways we could begin to make restitution?

  • Think about the land that you live, work and worship on. Is there some way you can acknowledge the early custodians? Some people have given a gift of money to an Aboriginal Christian cause or organization when they bought a property in acknowledgement of Aboriginal prior ownership. How could we do this as a church?
  • We need to think about the fact that the Indigenous history of this land has been imperfectly told.  I was taught a number of myths in my education: that Aboriginals were nomads with little connection to particular pieces of land, that it was good for them when European setters came, that assimilating into settler culture was the best thing. Can we be brave enough and humble enough to relearn Indigenous history?
  • I know some small groups which have set themselves to learn local history and also to invite Indigenous people to sit and talk with them. Can we invite some local Indigenous people to come and talk with us?

Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ’You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’, or any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Most of these commandments were broken by our ancestors in the early days of settlement. It is time not only to acknowledge these past wrongs but to respond in love.

(This is the text a talk given at St Mark’s Anglican Church Spotswood on 29 January 2012.)


Howard Groome
February 1, 2012, 1:38PM
Thank you Barbara for a very well argued essay which presents some new approaches and insights and covers the topic in a very fresh manner. The practical challenges are especially powerful.

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