Howitt’s field notes, combined with contemporary Gunaikurnai knowledge of their country, has led to the rediscovery. The site is located on public land, on the edge of the small fishing village of Seacombe. Its precise location had been lost following decades of colonial suppression of Gunaikurnai ritual and religious practices.
Researchers from the Howitt and Fison Archive project and the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation began searching for the site in 2018. While it lacks archaeological traces, such as middens, rock art, stone arrangements or artefact scatters, the importance of such ceremonial grounds is under-recognised. They are a central feature of Australian Indigenous conceptions of landscape and have considerable historical and cultural importance.
In the first few weeks of 1884, the Gunaikurnai peoples of Gippsland were preparing for a historic gathering. After decades of discussion and negotiation with Howitt, who was also a local magistrate and power broker, they finally agreed to allow him to record their secretive young men’s initiation ceremony, known as the Jeraeil.
Last held in 1857, just a few years before Howitt arrived in Gippsland, the Jeraeil had ceased to be performed due to tighter governmental restrictions and stern dissuasion from Christian missionaries.
On January 30 1884, all the required Gunaikurnai people had assembled. Those coming from the Lake Tyers Mission came on the paddle steamer Tanjil. Those from Ramahyuck Mission, on the shores of Lake Wellington, arrived on the steamer Dargo.
Convinced that an Aboriginal initiation ceremony from this part of the colony would never be performed again, Howitt arranged and paid for his primary Kulin informants from the Melbourne area, William Barak and Dick Richards, to attend so they could contribute their commentary on Victorian ceremonies.
The event, which lasted four days, began with a series of preliminary
ceremonies involving men and women singing together. The women
kept time by beating on rugs folded in their laps and hitting digging
sticks on the ground. Many of the performances that followed were restricted only to men, with six youths eventually initiated into manhood.
“It was remarkable,” Howitt commented, that although he had known many of these men “intimately,” and for a long time, they had kept these “special secrets […] carefully concealed” from him for many years.
Howitt’s published description of the Jeraeil, along with the equally significant work on similar ceremonies in New South Wales produced by Robert Hamilton Mathews, went on to influence the way religious life and ritual in south-eastern Australia was understood.
Finding the site
Lacking from Howitt’s record, however, was a precise description of where the historic ceremony had been held. A recent project to work on Howitt’s field notes in collaboration with Gunaikurnai people has uncovered new details, including a sketch map of the ceremony ground, sparking community interest in finding the site.
Howitt’s drawing of the ceremony ground, along with his notes and newspaper articles, enabled the research team to positively locate the site, on the edge of Seacombe, near the McLellan’s strait, which links Lake Wellington with the Southern Ocean.
The site’s significance lies not in any immediately observable physical property, but in its historical and cultural associations. They span the story associated with this place, including the local creation stories associated with Bullum Baukan (a woman with two spirits inside her); the complicated relationship with Howitt; interactions with other colonial authorities and the status of the Jeraeil in anthropological literature.
Discovery of this site means it is now protected under the (Victorian) Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. All Aboriginal cultural heritage is protected in Victoria whether it has been formally registered or not and it is an offence to harm it.
The Jeraeil site is arguably one of the most significant of places in terms of the ritual and ceremonial life of Gunaikurnai people. However, the prospect of erecting signage at the Jeraeil site can produce mixed responses.
On the one hand, telling the world about these places might secure them. On the other, the Gunaikurnai live in a region dotted with monuments that remind people of the colonial violence enacted by men such as Scottish explorer Angus McMillian. One plaque brazenly describes McMillan as an explorer who achieved “territorial ascendancy over Gippsland Aborigines”.
Still, it is imperative places like the 1884 Jeraeil ground are better understood, recognised and protected. Not only does it tell a story of Aboriginal cultural practice but of shared Aboriginal and European interactions we should all know more about.
But where the earliest people moved across the landscape, how fast they moved, and how many were involved, have been shrouded in mystery.
Our latest research, published today shows the establishment of populations in every part of this giant continent could have occurred in as little as 5,000 years. And the entire population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people.
This translates to more than 3 million people in the area that is now modern-day Australia, far more than any previous estimate.
But whichever the route, entire communities of people arrived, adapted to and established deep cultural connections with Country over 11 million square kilometres of land, from northwestern Sahul to Tasmania.
This equals a rate of population establishment of about 1km per year (based on a maximum straight-line distance of about 5,000km from the introduction point to the farthest point).
That’s doubly impressive when you consider the harshness of the Australian landscape in which people both survived and thrived.
Previous estimates of Indigenous population
Various attempts have been made to calculate the number of people living in Australia before European invasion. Estimates vary from 300,000 to more than 1,200,000 people.
The 2016 census figures show an estimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of about 798,400.
But records prior to the modern era are unreliable because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were only fully included in the national census from 1971, after the historic 1967 Referendum.
Before 1971, population estimates were attempted by anthropologists and government authorities. For example, the 1929 census reported 78,430 Aboriginal people.
Then, in 1930, the first thorough Australia-wide survey of Aboriginal populations estimated a minimum population of 251,000 at the time of European invasion.
This was based on accounts of European settlers adjusted by anthropological concepts about group sizes and ideas about environmental productivity.
Yet almost all of these older estimates are uncertain because of haphazard or incomplete data collection, and even a healthy dose of guesswork.
A new approach needed
We developed an entirely different approach to tackle the question of how many people were in Sahul, and through which parts they would have moved first as they adapted to a range of challenging new landscapes.
We developed a simulation model grounded in the principles of human ecology and behaviour, based on anthropological, ecological and environmental data.
For example, we estimated the number of people the landscape could support based on climate and vegetation models that recreated ecosystems during the time of the first peopling of Sahul.
We also gathered real-world anthropological information on immigration and emigration rates, long-distance movement, human survival and fertility. We even looked at the probability of disasters such as bushfires and cyclones.
After running 120 scenarios of the model many times each, our research found that after expanding to all corners of the continent, the population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people, with initial entry most consistent with 50,000 or 75,000 years ago.
How good is our model?
We tested our predictions by comparing the model’s results against the ages and locations of the oldest known archaeological sites from Australia and New Guinea.
If the model predicts realistic movements (even though it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what occurred), we expect its results should at least partially match the patterns observed from the archaeological data.
That’s exactly what we found.
For example, while previous modelling says the northern route of entry through New Guinea would probably have been easier for people to negotiate, our model suggests the southern route through modern-day Timor and into the Kimberley was potentially the dominant entry point.
Why our estimate is higher than others
Our model covers the entire landmass of Sahul, including both New Guinea and the now-submerged continental shelves, which represent about 30% of the total landmass of Sahul. No previous population estimates have included this expansive region.
There is also plenty of precedent for the population densities our estimates imply.
If you divide our total 6.4 million population estimate by the land area available at the time (11,643,000 km²), it comes out to around 55 people per 100 km². This compares well to estimated densities of 34 people per 100 km² in some coastal regions of Australia, and 437 people per 100 km² in swidden-farming agricultural societies in New Guinea.
Population estimates immediately following European invasion are also likely to be low because of the heavy death rates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffered from exposure to European diseases such as smallpox, and the devastating history of genocide committed by colonists.
Our findings add to the new evidence constantly being revealed to paint a more complete picture of life so long ago.
With sophisticated modelling tools combined with an ever-increasing pool of data covering all aspects of pre-European life in Australia, and guided by Indigenous knowledge, we are coming to appreciate the complexity, prowess, capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people in Australia.
The more we look into the deep past, the more we learn about the extraordinary ingenuity of these ancient and enduring cultures.
Few archaeological sites date to these early times. Sea levels were much lower and Australia was connected to New Guinea and Tasmania in a land known as Sahul that was 30% bigger than Australia is today.
Our latest research advances our knowledge about the most likely routes those early Australians travelled as they peopled this giant continent.
Modelling human movement requires understanding how people navigate new terrain. Computers facilitate building models, but they are still far from easy. We reasoned we needed four pieces of information: (1) topography; (2) the visibility of tall landscape features; (3) the presence of freshwater; and (4) demographics of the travellers.
We think people navigated in new territories — much as people do today — by focusing on prominent land features protruding above the relative flatness of the Australian continent.
To map these features, we built the most complete digital elevation model for Sahul ever constructed, including areas now underwater.
We used this digital elevation model to understand what was visible to early travellers. Essentially, from each point in the continent we asked “what can you see from here?” This moving window calculates the largest “viewshed” map ever created. When our virtual travellers move, they reorient based on visible terrain everywhere they go. The figure above shows the prominence of features across the continent as increasingly yellow shades against the blue background.
You can clearly make out features such as the the New Guinea Highlands, the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, the Great Dividing Range in the east, and the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
But navigation using prominent landscape features isn’t enough to tell us where the most commonly travelled routes were.
For this we also need to take into account other factors, such as the physiological capacity of people travelling on foot, how difficult the terrain was to traverse, and the distribution of available freshwater sources in a largely arid continent.
Billions and billions of routes
We put all these different bits of information together into a mega-model, known as From Everywhere To Everywhere (FETE), and created more than 125 billion possible pathways from everywhere on the continent to everywhere else. Each route represents the most efficient way to move from one location to another. This was the largest movement simulation of its kind ever attempted.
This gives us an idea of the relative ease or difficulty of walking across all of Sahul.
We cannot possibly examine every metre of the 125 billion pathways we created, so we needed a way to weight the relative importance of likely pathways. To do this, we compared all plausible pathways with the distribution of the oldest known archaeological sites in Sahul, providing weighted probabilities for each path.
This provided a scale going from the “most likely” to the “least likely” chosen paths.
The most likely pathways in the map above are what we are calling the “super-highways” of Indigenous movement. The next most likely paths are marked by dotted lines.
This allows us to discard many of the billions of paths as less likely to be chosen, helping us focus on those that were the most probable.
We now have a first glimpse into where Indigenous Australians likely travelled tens of thousands of years ago.
Pathways well trodden
These super-highways might have been more than just routes used for the initial peopling of Sahul.
Several of the super-highways our models identified echo well-documented Aboriginal trade routes criss-crossing the country. This includes Cape York to South Australia via Birdsville in the trade of pituri native tobacco, and the trade of Kimberley baler shell into central Australia.
There are also striking similarities between our map of super-highways and the most common trading and stock routes used by early Europeans. They followed already well-known routes established by Aboriginal peoples.
These Aboriginal exchange routes and the relatively recent trade routes of early Europeans cannot be used directly to validate a map from tens of thousands of years ago. But there are strong similarities that might suggest an extraordinary persistence of routes across the entire time period of human occupation of Australia.
We infer that early populations spread across the broad plains on the western and eastern margins of the continent (now under water) and through the region that now forms the Gulf of Carpentaria, which connected Australia to New Guinea.
It is worth noting these early people traversed and lived in all environments of Australia, ranging from the tropics to the arid zone. The ease of adaptation to all ecosystems is remarkable and one of the reasons for the success of the human species across the globe today.
[This] modelling establishes the infrastructure for detailed local and regional studies to engage respectfully with Indigenous knowledges, ethnographies, historical records, oral histories, and archives.
The fundamental rules we described apply even to questions about how the first migrations of people out of Africa might have occurred, and how people ultimately proceeded to inhabit the rest of the planet.
This work might even have implications for humanity’s future, if climate scenarios require large-scale migrations. Learning from those who have been present in Sahul from more than 60,000 years ago could help us anticipate migration patterns in the future.
Stefani Crabtree, Assistant Professor for Social-Environmental Modeling @ Utah State University and Associate Investigator ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage and ASU-SFI Biosocial Complex Systems Fellow, Santa Fe Institute; Alan N Williams, Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Devin White, R&D Manager for Autonomous Sensing & Perception (Sandia National Laboratories) and Research Assistant Professor of Anthropology (UTK), University of Tennessee; Frédérik Saltré, Research Fellow in Ecology for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University
Aboriginal rock art unfolds stories about the present-past and emerging worlds, often described by an outsider as the Dreamtime. Some rock art, it is believed, was put in place by spiritual and mythological beings. Many of these Ancestral Beings travelled vast distances, and their journeys link places, clans and different rock art paintings.
Our new research into a 1972 painting made by Billy Miargu in today’s Kakadu National Park shows how rock art can act as an intergenerational media — even when no longer visible to the eye.
In December 1972, Robert Edwards and George Chaloupka, two acclaimed rock art researchers, came across Miargu camping at Koongarra in the heart of Kakadu. They took a photograph of his family. In the background, there was a newly made painting of a kangaroo. The researchers did not think much about this image, describing it as a “poor naturalistic representation.”
When Paul S.C. Taçon revisited the painting only 13 years later, it was gone (probably due to exposure to wind and rain). In 2018, we used state-of-the-art digital documentation methods to try to detect remnants of the kangaroo, but all in vain. We can no longer see the white kangaroo, as shown in the photograph below.
In June 2019, we returned to Koongarra with three of Miargu’s daughters, two of his granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.
We learned that Miargu was born in central Arnhem Land. He moved west to Kakadu around the time of the second world war to work at cattle stations — shooting buffalo, cutting timber — and emerging tourist venues. His clan was Barrbinj and his wife, Daphnie Baljur, was Barrappa. Together, they had six children: five daughters and a son.
Miargu and his wife were camping at Koongarra in 1972 while participating in a fact-finding survey on behalf of the Commonwealth government and the Australian Mining Industry Council for a planned uranium mine. They collected mammals and reptiles for this study.
Our conversations revealed that the place where Miargu painted the kangaroo had a special meaning for him. It is situated in his mother’s clan Country, and he had a ceremonial obligation to this place.
The original kangaroo painting referenced a local ceremony. Depicting this Ancestral Being in his mother’s Country shows that Miargu had undergone this ceremony and was keen to care for this Country. Today, his son and daughters have inherited some of these obligations.
Even though Miargu’s painting of the kangaroo can no longer be detected, this place holds a special meaning to his descendants. In fact, for the family, they say “our dad’s painting is hiding, in secret place”. They address the painting as if it is still there, visible or not.
Miargu passed away in 1990. This is the only place the family knows where he created rock art. His daughter Linda Biyalwanga said, “we don’t know any other paintings. Only one painting, that’s why we bring our children to show them this painting.”
And she explained:
My daddy, story, memory, like memories, memory for us, and [he] make [the rock art] for the grandchildren, yeah. He said when I passed away, then my daughters will come around and maybe my granddaughter, and grandsons, great-great-grandchildren come and have look at […] rock art […] When they have kids, they can show them the painting.
The tangible place, the intangible rock painting, and the family’s recollection of the happy times they spent together with their parents at this special place seem to have merged into a present-past and future which embrace Western concepts of space, but defy similar notions of time.
In an inexplicable but noteworthy way, Miargu’s painting seems more present today because it is absent.
To visit Koongarra and the rock art figure he created is vital for his family. It evokes cherished memories about their parents and feelings, but also sorrow and the loss of “the Old People who finished up”.
Joanne Sullivan, another of Miargu’s daughters, expressed this when she said: “I wish my dad sit here.”
When asked if there are other places where they can connect to their parents in this way, Linda Biyalwanga answered: “It’s the only place. It’s the only place we think about, like, his spirit, mum’s spirit.”
When we left the place, Miargu’s daughters called out to their parents’ spirits and asked them to remember them and take care of them. Even though the rock painting “is hiding”, it is still crucial — it lives on even when gone…
This research was undertaken in collaboration with the family members of Billy Miargu and Daphnie Baljur.
Last year, the Victorian government announced it would establish a Truth and Justice process to “recognise historic wrongs and address ongoing injustices for Aboriginal Victorians”.
Since then, the government has worked in partnership with the First Peoples’ Assembly to figure out how that process would operate.
Today, the government and the First Peoples’ Assembly co-chairs announced the process would be run by the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (named for the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba word for “truth”). The commission will be led by five commissioners and, importantly, will be invested with the powers of a royal commission.
The announcement was made at Coranderrk, a former Aboriginal reserve outside Melbourne. The site is significant. Dispossessed from their country, a group of Aboriginal people were allowed in the 1860s to settle on a small parcel of land deemed unsuitable for agriculture.
Rebuilding their community, the group farmed and sold produce into Melbourne. Their success caused resentment among non-Indigenous farmers and the Aboriginal Protection Board.
In 1886, after many years of increasing pressure from the board, residents issued the Coranderrk Petition to the Victorian government, protesting the heavy restrictions that had been placed on their lives. Their petition went unanswered. Residents were evicted, and the land was eventually reclaimed by the government.
The Coranderrk Petition is one example of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities actively resisted colonisation. It also shows governments can — and often do — act in ways that caused deep injustices. It is these, and many other events, that have motivated calls for truth in the present day.
we want the history of Aboriginal people taught in schools, including the truth about murders and the theft of land, Maralinga, and the Stolen Generations, as well the story of all the Aboriginal fighters for reform. Healing can only begin when this true history is taught.
Truth commissions have been set up in many countries around the world as a means to investigate and redress past human rights abuses. Since the first commission began in 1974, at least 40 national truth commissions have been established.
The most prominent truth commission is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Set up to investigate human rights abuses committed under apartheid, the commission’s hearings were broadcast live to a captivated nation. Controversially, however, the commission could grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed to their crimes.
Under this system, First Nations children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and put into boarding schools run by the government and churches. Similar to the Stolen Generations in Australia, the government had a mission “to kill the Indian in the child”, according to a national apology by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.
The South African and Canadian truth commissions are valuable examples, but the process in Victoria will need to be designed differently. Thankfully, the government has acknowledged this.
Two points stand out. First, truth commissions are often set up by a new government to investigate human rights abuses under a previous regime.
However, this isn’t comparable to the abuses suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Although the invasion and massacres happened many years ago, the consequences of colonisation continue to this day. This fact was recognised by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, which said,
so much of the Aboriginal people’s current circumstances, and the patterns of interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society, are a direct consequence of their experience of colonialism and, indeed, of the recent past.
In Australia, a truth-telling process should not simply document history and investigate “historic abuses”. Rather, it should serve as a bridge to “draw history into the present”.
Second, truth commissions often focus on individual human rights violations.
This also might not be appropriate in Australia, where many perpetrators of violence are likely to have died. More importantly, Indigenous peoples see little distinction between individual acts of violence, such as massacres, and the broader structural forces behind the laws, policies and attitudes that gave rise to and encouraged such violence.
A truth-telling process can help to identify those connections for non-Indigenous Australians.
How Victoria’s inquiry can be a model for the nation
The Victorian announcement places more pressure on the Commonwealth government to implement the Uluru Statement. After all, the call for truth and justice is made by all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, not just those in Victoria.
The Uluru Statement called for three steps to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
putting a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution
the establishment of a Makarrata Commission that would oversee a process of agreement-making and then a process of truth-telling.
The Victorian government shows this sequenced reform process can work. The First Peoples’ Assembly in the state worked with the government to develop the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. That commission and the truth-telling process will guide the push for treaties between Aboriginal communities and the state.
The Commonwealth government initially rejected the call for a First Nations Voice. Although its opposition has softened, it remains reluctant to put the Voice in the constitution.
This is concerning. Without constitutional entrenchment, the Voice is likely to struggle to be effective and a national process of treaty making and truth-telling may not occur. Further, a national First Nations Voice will be unable to protect important developments at the state level, like those in Victoria.
Challenges remain, but the announcement today is significant. As First Peoples’ Assembly co-chair Marcus Stewart noted,
never before have we seen a truth-telling process in this country or state.
In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley region, on Balanggarra Country, a two-metre-long painting of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.
In a paper published today in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the artwork as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years old — making it Australia’s oldest known in-situ rock painting.
We used a pioneering radiocarbon dating technique on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 different paintings from 8 rock shelters. We found paintings of this style were produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Our work is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating initiative. The project is based in the Kimberley, one of the world’s premier rock art regions. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of paintings, often with generations of younger artwork painted over older work.
By studying the stylistic features of the paintings and the order in which they were painted when they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers based on observations at thousands of Kimberley rock art sites.
They identified five main stylistic periods, of which the most recent is the familiar Wanjina period.
Styles in rock art
The oldest style, which includes the kangaroo painting we recently dated, often features life-sized animals in outline form, infilled with irregular dashes. Paintings in this style are said to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic period.
The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry colour. Unfortunately, no current scientific dating method can determine when this paint was applied to the rock surface.
A different approach is to date fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that happen to be overlying or underlying rock art pigment. These dates provide a maximum (underlying) or minimum (overlying) age range for the painting.
Our dating suggests the main period for Naturalistic paintings in the Kimberley spanned from at least 17,000 to 13,000 years ago.
The oldest known Australian rock painting
Very rarely, we’ll find mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying a single painting. This was the case with the painting of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.
We were able to date three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built on top of it. With these ages, we determined confidently the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely close to 17,300 years old.
Our quantitative ages support the proposed stylistic sequence that suggests the oldest Naturalistic style was followed by the Gwion style. This style featured paintings of decorated human figures, often with headdresses and holding boomerangs.
From animals and plants to people
Research we published last year shows Gwion paintings flourished about 12,000 years ago — some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic period.
With these dates, we can also partially reconstruct the environment in which the artists lived 600 generations ago. For example, much of the Naturalistic period coincided with the end of the last ice age when the environment was cooler and drier than now.
During the Naturalistic period, 17,000 years ago, sea levels were a staggering 106 metres below today’s and the Kimberley coastline was about 300 kilometres further away, more than half the distance to Timor.
Aboriginal artists at this time often chose to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and plants (particularly yams). As the climate warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall increased and sea levels rose, sometimes rapidly.
By the Gwion period around 12,000 years ago, sea levels had risen to 55m below today’s. This would undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.
This is when Aboriginal painters depicted highly decorated human figures, bearing a striking resemblance to early 20th-century photographs of Aboriginal ceremonial dress. While plants and animals were still painted, human figures were clearly the most popular subject.
While we now have age estimates for more paintings than ever before, more work is continuing to find out, more accurately, when each art period began and ended.
For example, one minimum age on a Gwion painting suggests it may be more than 16,000 years old. If so, Gwion art would have overlapped with the Naturalistic period but further dates are required to be more certain.
Moreover, it’s highly unlikely the oldest known Naturalistic painting we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future research will almost certainly locate even older works.
For now, however, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.
Acknowledgements: we would like to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for their collaboration on this work.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of deceased people.
Historical research of the last 20 years has confirmed the central importance of the killing times. They lasted far longer and were much more deadly than generations of Australians were led to believe.
For many years the truth was either deftly avoided or consciously suppressed. Aboriginal families kept alive their own memories of those terrible times, even if they were not necessarily aware of the broader national story.
A pioneer Queensland pastoralist who had worked for years with Indigenous stockmen came to appreciate the continuing legacy of the violent early years, or what he termed “the remembrance of the blood red dawn of their civilisation”.
Once anthropologists and linguists began to work in First Nations communities in the 1930s and 1940s, they too learnt how vigorously alive were memories of historical violence. They should perhaps have known more about it but often didn’t. Their education had let them down.
The violence, the “line of blood”, was well known in colonial society. It had been discussed and argued about from the earliest years in New South Wales and Tasmania. The central points of contention still confront us.
Was it an inescapable companion of colonisation? Was it a case of forced appropriation or none at all? Were all the colonists, including those with no experience of the frontier, complicit by remaining in Australia? Did the new societies bear a collective moral burden? Or was it necessary to distinguish the culpability of free settlers from that of the convicts and the Australian-born children?
At much the same time, the South Australian settler Francis Dutton thought that the claims of the blacks were “superior to ours”, although his contemporaries were “too eager on all occasions … to persuade ourselves that such is not the case”.
The Aboriginal question “gave rise to more argument” than any other matter in Queensland in the 1860s according to the editor of the Rockhampton Bulletin.
Running close to the colonial debate about the morality of settlement was the unavoidable question of frontier conflict. Was it a form of warfare even if of quite a distinctive kind? Or were the pioneer settlers murderers? Were they heroic pathfinders or criminals?
There were very few court cases where such questions might have been assessed and therefore publicised. On the other hand, war and homicide were matters widely understood, each with their own place in the popular mind. So there was no consensus, no resolution that has been passed down to us. We have to resolve the matter ourselves.
Our most important war
There were always settlers who opted for warfare as the way out of the moral quandary of colonisation. And many of the military men who lived and worked in NSW and Tasmania talked openly of war. Many of them were career officers with battle experience.
It is not surprising therefore that many of the historians who have rewritten the history of frontier conflict over the last 40 or so years have followed in their wake. More to the point is that since at least 1990, Australia’s professional war historians have both accepted and promoted the idea that frontier conflict must be considered alongside Australia’s overseas wars.
But that can only be the start of a significant transformation in the way we think about both the frontiersmen and the warriors of the First Nations who confronted them all over the continent.
Rigorous truth-telling will be of critical importance here, but that can only be part of the required transformation. The telling must be heard and treated with gravity. Changes in traditional accounts of national history will have to be accepted.
Above all, we must bring together the ways we think about and commemorate the two forms of national war-making … the many overseas campaigns on the one hand and the war fought in Australia for the ownership and control of the continent on the other.
The truth-telling will have achieved its ultimate purpose when Australian children are able to consider that the long-running and widespread conflict that accompanied Australian life for 140 years was arguably our most important war.
Aboriginal people on the frontier
But how can two such disparate narratives be spliced together? It will clearly take time and will need steady and persistent commitment. Many small threads will have to be engaged. Complexity will have to replace simple sagas of heroic settlement. For instance, few people appreciate that Aboriginal people participated from the earliest years in the outward thrust of the frontier.
The first expeditions that pushed out into the interior were invariably accompanied by Aboriginal escorts who acted as guides and diplomats. They were able to find their way across country, discover water, track straying horses, hunt and gather food. They could quickly construct temporary shelters and simple bark rafts to ford rivers.
Their value was so obvious that it became a settled custom for expeditions, both private and official, to recruit young men and women to act as valued auxiliaries. When the squatters surged out into the interior of NSW, Aboriginal people went with them and quickly developed the skills that made them valued and competent stockmen and women.
Children, often enough kidnapped, were taken along as personal servants and eventually sexual partners. Once the vast savannah lands of the tropical north were occupied, local Aboriginal people became the mainstay of the workforce, given the scarcity, cost and unreliability of white labour.
They were an essential component of the successful establishment of the northern pastoral industry and, consequently, the principal claim the settler Australians could make to prove they were in effective occupation of as much as a quarter of the continent.
The same skills made young Aboriginal men ideal troopers for native police forces in Victoria, NSW and particularly Queensland. Their bushcraft was essential to the success of the northern force in crushing the resistance of the First Nations over a vast area of the colony. They were also much cheaper to maintain than a comparable force of European troopers.
There seems to be no precise record of the number of Aboriginal young men who served in the force. In his history of the Native Police, The Secret War, Jonathan Richards listed just over 250 white officers who spent varying periods of time out in the field. But he provided no estimate of the equivalent number of Indigenous troopers.
There must have been hundreds and possibly as many as a thousand. The conclusions that follow from this are compelling. The troopers almost certainly killed more Aboriginal people than the settlers.
In total, they may have been responsible for up to a quarter of all deaths in the frontier wars all over Australia. This too has to be part of our truth-telling.
The response of many people when this matter is raised is to express amazement that the troopers could shoot their own people and assume they must have been coerced into killing. But the critical point is that the idea that the First Nations were members of one race or one people was a European one and had little bearing on the situation on the ground.
The young troopers were invariably campaigning far from their own homeland in country previously unknown among people foreign to them. And the locals were people to be feared. If the troopers were caught away from their detachment they would almost certainly have been killed, and this kept them together as much as the discipline imposed by white officers.
So whether as paramilitary troopers, workers, trackers, guides, servants and sexual partners, many hundreds of Aboriginal Australians were participants in the outward thrust of the frontier.
The implication is inescapable. Many Indigenous families have ancestors who were pioneers in the precise meaning of that term, both black and white, whether recognised and acknowledged or not.
Truth-telling allows us to weave new stories and to make old ones richer while, at the same time, more complex. This is particularly true when it comes to our understanding of frontier warfare. The common view is that the Aboriginal peoples were, for much of the time, passive victims of European brutality.
Such ideas help explain the one-time common view that the Aboriginal peoples were quite unable to put up a spirited resistance of the kind seen in New Zealand and North America, that they were “pathetically helpless” in their response to the invaders of their homelands.
Such opinions, common among professional historians until the 1960s, underpinned the idea that we had a uniquely peaceful history. Since then, the violence of the frontier has flooded back into the national story. But the overwhelming idea of Aboriginal people as victims of irresistible violence has lived on as a powerful political weapon, readily mobilised to assault the conscience of white Australia. Still, as is often the case, good politics makes bad history.
A few days’ research among the documentary records of the colonies would dispel these ideas. It was understood at the time that white fear was overwhelmingly important. The brave frontiersmen were terrified of the Aboriginal people. The evidence for this will be found everywhere.
A Sydney Morning Herald journalist who toured North Queensland in the 1880s concluded that “mere wanton slaughter would be unknown if the natives were not feared so much”.
Some years later, on the other side of the continent, the government resident at Roebourne reported that the “fears of whites are more the cause of disorder than the aggression of blacks”.
This should come as no surprise. In most frontier districts the invading force was spread very thin. The small parties were almost everywhere outnumbered by resident bands. They were in country they knew little about. It looked, felt and smelt dangerously exotic. They had no maps and had no idea where Aboriginal parties periodically disappeared to.
The people they were displacing had a profound knowledge of their own land. They were in many cases taller, stronger and better nourished than the Europeans, who got by on a very limited diet. And they were hunters trained from childhood.
They could track the intruders and stalk them without being seen or heard, and throw their spears with lethal force and accuracy. Guns were important, particularly late in the 19th century when men on the frontier carried revolvers and high-powered repeating rifles.
But it was the horse that had tipped the balance in the invaders’ favour. Their power, speed and endurance made all the difference on the vast open plains of inland Australia.
When speaking in their own defence, frontiersmen insisted that they acted in response to Aboriginal aggression. A typical argument was advanced by the editor of the Hodgkinson Mining News who wrote in 1877:
It is not the rule that the white men are the aggressors. The first settlers came peaceably onto the land they had got by right from the Crown, and no sooner had they done so than the hostilities of the natives compel them to adopt not merely defensive but offensive measures.
It was special pleading but there is no doubt the frontiersmen, like invaders anywhere, would have preferred to achieve a bloodless usurpation.
The editor’s comment nudges us, however, towards an enhanced understanding of the frontier wars. It was Aboriginal resistance that determined where and when conflict broke out and for how long it lasted. And that was clearly the result of innumerable political decisions, made often at band level, about how to respond to the white men.
Initially there was a choice of attempting to accommodate the intruders, avoiding them altogether or spying on them in order to gather information about them. The fateful decision to begin forceful resistance often took some time.
It may have begun with a compelling desire to carry out a revenge mission aimed at a particular individual for what would have been a crime in traditional society — the kidnapping and rape of a kinswoman, for instance.
From that point on, violence spiralled out of control. Attacks on vulnerable white men were often combined with the killing of sheep, cattle and horses; the burning of huts and crops; and the pillaging of undefended camp sites.
The fighting continued until the Aboriginal bands decided that the cost they were paying was too high. Once again there must have been intense and urgent debate about how to bring the merciless killing to an end.
And even then, the question of how to negotiate a capitulation must have occupied time and thought. But everywhere, sooner or later, the survivors were, in the victors’ words, “let in” to pastoral stations, mining camps or rudimentary townships.
Not everyone was willing to surrender, and small parties of what the white men called myalls continued to live independently in remote areas of their homeland.
‘We are at war with them’
The explorer Edward Eyre was one of the people who was able to look beyond the conventional view that the warriors were dangerous but lacking martial virtue. He observed that:
It has been said, and is generally believed, that the natives are not courageous. There could not be a greater mistake … I have seen many instances of an open manly intrepidity of manner and bearing, and a proud unquailing glance of eye, which instinctively stamped upon my mind the conviction that the individuals before me were very brave men.
From an admiration of Aboriginal bravery it required a further step to regard the warriors as heroic patriots defending their homelands, although that was one too demanding for most colonists. It required an even-handed approach difficult to sustain in times of conflict and that threatened to undermine the legal and moral foundations on which the Australian colonies rested.
It was the war in Tasmania in the 1820s that produced one of colonial Australia’s most provocative manifestos. It was printed in a Launceston newspaper at the very end of five years of conflict. The author J.E., assumed to be the young surveyor James Erskine Calder, posed what he called some solemn questions about the islands’ Aboriginal peoples. He declared:
We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies – as invaders – as their oppressors and persecutors – they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force.
Given the time that it was written that was provocative enough. But J.E. followed the logic of his position much further arguing:
What we call their crime is what in a white man we should call patriotism. Where is the man amongst ourselves who would not resist an invading enemy; who would not avenge the murder of his parents, the ill-usage of his wife and daughters, and the spoliation of all his earthly goods, by a foreign enemy, if he had an opportunity? He who would not do so, would be scouted, execrated, nay executed as a coward and a traitor; while he who did would be immortalised as a patriot.
Why then shall deny the same feelings to the Blacks? How can we condemn as a crime in these savages what we should esteem as a virtue in ourselves? Why punish a black man with death for doing that which a white man would be executed for not doing?
They were challenging questions then. They remain so today.
Warriors as patriots
I came across J.E.’s letter years ago and have used it in several books. I have also read it to audiences in many parts of Australia. In almost all cases people have found it a complete surprise. They are amazed that a colonist would publish such an enlightened letter almost 200 years ago. They correctly assess that his questions still confront and challenge us.
Can we, by which I mean Australia as a nation, regard the First Nations’ warriors as patriots? Can we immortalise their heroic defence of their homelands? We have a great deal of experience when it comes to remembering and commemorating our citizens who have died in conflict. No expense is spared. The phrase “Lest We Forget” is surrounded by a sacred penumbra.
But do we want to allow the heroes of the First Nations to join the chosen ones? Do we want to extend to them the honours we award to the war dead from all our overseas engagements?
Do we want to honour them with a place in the nation’s pantheon? Do we want to share the honours we have hitherto preserved for our warriors who fought on foreign soil? See it as a national priority? If the answer is yes, what would be required?
Memorials to our overseas wars can be found all over the continent, even in the smallest and most isolated villages. In his book Sacred Places, Ken Inglis estimated that there are more than 4,000 war memorials of one kind or another.
And then there are the tens of thousands graves cared for by the War Graves Commission in Australia and many places overseas. During the carnival of first world war commemoration we witnessed between 2014 and 2018, old monuments all over the country were refurbished and avenues of honour replanted.
A new museum costing $100 million was built in northern France to commemorate the achievements of the AIF. Meanwhile the Australian War Memorial had achieved an unparalleled place in national life. Visiting schoolchildren are taught that it is where they must go to understand what it means to be an Australian.
The memorial’s apotheosis has been achieved during the years when many aspects of Australian history were transformed and in particular our new understanding of the magnitude of the frontier wars.
But rather than embrace the new historiography, the memorial has turned its back on it, despite the highly relevant research and writing of many of the Canberra-based war historians, some of whom have actually worked inside the institution.
The reason for this recalcitrance has never been convincingly outlined. The most common explanation is that while frontier conflict has been accepted as part of the national story, it should come under the aegis of the National Museum rather than the War Memorial.
A new national museum
The War Memorial’s implicit disrespect for the warriors of the First Nations represents a case of profound moral failure. It has let us all down. It was made worse by a parallel political failure as a consequence of the complete lack of interest in the subject from all sides of the federal parliament.
The problem could have been resolved so easily. One formal ceremony would have woven the two traditions together. The placing of a tomb for the unknown warrior in the heart of the memorial next to the grave of the unknown soldier would have been an event of immense national importance, a symbol of respect, inclusion and reconciliation. What a difference that would have made to the way we feel about ourselves!
There seems little chance now that this will ever happen. We will have to persist with two separate stories of war. The inescapable implication is that the nation itself is deeply divided, its soul bifurcated and located in different places.
But if the two histories are to be told in different ways and in distinctive institutions, they must be given equal resources to not only continue the truth-telling, called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but to enable the truth to be proclaimed and illustrated in a compelling way.
The call must be: “If not inclusion then equality”.
What is clearly required is a new national museum dedicated to the frontier wars and supported with the same level of funding that is received by the War Memorial.
It will be expensive, but if $100 million can be lavished on building a museum dedicated to a few years of fighting in France, that is the least that should be expected to establish an institution here dedicated to the story of the conflict experienced in all parts of the continent over 140 years.
The new institution could then provide advice and encouragement to regional organisations to consider ways to research and commemorate the war fought within their own traditional boundaries.
Not every community would necessarily respond, but the variety of the chosen manner and form would likely provide an exhilarating experience for locals and visitors alike. In some places the descendants of the white pioneers might be invited to participate in the commemoration.
Museums and monuments are important instruments to both remember the past and to engage in truth-telling.
Two new Australian museums are emerging from old ones as the year draws to a close.
The new Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney assembles rich collections from across the campus, and the WA Museum Boola Bardip (Noongar for “Many Stories”) has opened in Perth. Museums remain relevant in a globalised world where stories of objects and collecting connect people, institutions, places and ideas.
Our Collecting the West Project, in collaboration with the Western Australian Museum, the State Library of WA, the Art Gallery of WA and the British Museum, explores the history of collecting in WA since the late 1600s.
We are tracing the role of collecting in histories of empire, exploration and colonisation; the relations between natural history and ethnographic collecting; the role of state instrumentalities and private individuals; and the networks between them.
Here, we highlight five objects, some displayed in Boola Bardip’s Treasures Gallery, to reveal how they can provide us with insights into history, values, emotions and power.
1. Everything was contemporary once — Corona Smoking Bucket, 2020
On March 26 2020, the WA government suspended tourist operations on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) to support the government response to the pandemic. Australian citizens aboard the Vasco de Gama cruise ship were directed to be quarantined on the island from Monday March 30.
Whadjuk monitors Ben Ugle and Brendan Moore were on the island to support conservation works at the heritage site — a prison that once held Aboriginal people from all over WA, where many died.
The two Whadjuk men chose to perform a smoking ceremony for the island’s transition to pandemic quarantine facility. Smoking ceremonies are often conducted to cleanse a place spiritually, such as after a death, to welcome people, and as a sign of respect to people including past elders.
A metal tin was found for the smoking ceremony — given the unplanned nature of the event, the only suitable vessel they could find was a Corona beer bucket. Seeing the irony in the serendipitous use of this object, the “Corona Smoking Bucket” was collected for The Wadjemup Museum on Rottnest Island in March 2020.
Like many objects, this bucket symbolises several histories: the fact of its collection, the impact of a global pandemic at a local level, growing recognition of Indigenous cultural practices and the connection between an Indigenous smoking ceremony and the island’s dark history of Aboriginal incarceration (circa 1838-1931).
These histories compete also with the island’s later use — as the site of decades of annual school leavers’ celebrations, reflected in the presence of the Corona bucket.
2. Collections carry emotions — Shell, Shark Bay, 1820
This watercolour and ink drawing of a beautiful shell — the Volute ethiopienne — was drawn from a specimen brought back from Shark Bay in 1820 as part of the French Freycinet expedition. It can now be found in the State Library of Western Australia.
Shells from WA were prized for their beauty, part of the Enlightenment’s love affair with discovering the diversity of the natural world.
Aboriginal people have long valued shells for ornamentation and exchange. Shells were also attractive items for some of the earliest European explorers of the WA coast.
In 1697, for instance, Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch sea captain working for the Dutch East India Company, collected a number of shells from Shark Bay, including a nautilus and a conch. He failed to find the shipwreck he was searching for, but helped to chart the coast. The English explorer William Dampier arrived in 1699 and some of the shells he collected in Shark Bay ended up in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
French explorers followed. Nicolas Baudin’s expedition took a considerable number of shells back to Paris, where they can now be seen at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
In his journal of the Baudin expedition, the naturalist François Peron described a mussel he found on the shore:
Of all the species of mussels known so far, the one that I discovered [in Shark Bay] is incontestably the most beautiful. Stripped of its marine coating, it shines with the most vivid colours of the prism and precious stones; it is dazzling, if I may say so.
3. Mokare’s place — Spear-thrower, King George Sound, (Albany), c.1831
This spear-thrower was collected by Alexander Collie, the government resident at King George Sound between 1831-33, who formed a close friendship with Menang Noongar man Mokare.
Such historic objects remind us that many collections of plants and objects were formed with the expert assistance of Aboriginal people who knew the land intimately.
The spear-thrower also highlights how objects can embody moments of unexpected friendships, such as the close relationship that developed between Collie and Mokare. Mokare lived with Collie in his hut in the settlement of Albany in 1831, and when near death, Collie asked to be buried beside his friend.
Collie had worked as a naval surgeon and sent objects he collected back to the Royal Navy’s Haslar Hospital Naval Museum at Portsmouth, to assist in naval education. In 1855 the admiralty disbanded the museum, depositing the spear-thrower and other objects in the British Museum.
In 2016-2017, the spear-thrower, along with other objects collected by Collie, returned to Albany to be displayed in the Yurlmun exhibition, which focused on the meaning of these collections to Menang Noongar people today. Despite these objects being only a temporary loan from the British Museum (where they are now in storage), the Menang people viewed their arrival as a “return home to country”.
The objects collected by Collie point to the role of the Royal Navy as a key network of colonisation; the agency of individual Aboriginal people in processes of colonial collection and the potential of these collections to highlight not only the role played by Indigenous people such as Mokare but also the cultural knowledge contained in the objects themselves.
A much earlier collection of weapons, also from Albany, hints at the complexity of collecting practices undertaken within colonial contexts. A Royal Navy surveying expedition, captained by Phillip Parker King, visited King George Sound in December 1821. The crew were engaged with the Menang people in a prolonged and intimate trading exchange for two weeks. In exchange for ships’ biscuit, the crew collected:
one hundred spears, thirty throwing sticks, forty hammers, one hundred and fifty knives and a few hand-clubs.
By contrast, at Hanover Bay on today’s Kimberley coast, a few months earlier, a cache of Worrorra weapons and artefacts were taken as a retaliatory theft for the spearing of the crew’s surgeon.
The crew members related this theft in their journals with the language of revenge: “taking possession of”, “riches”, “spoil”, “prize” and “treasure”, where they took pleasure in “capturing” an Aboriginal “depot”.
These collecting moments reveal different kinds of intimacies — of friendships and violence, trade and exchange — that occurred during early coastal encounters. They also explain why there is no early material from WA in Western Australian collections — most went to Britain as a result of these imperial networks.
4. Colonialism never dies — Wooden dish, Broome, pre 1892
This small wooden bowl carries a history that hints at the role of colonial state instrumentalities in collecting. It is part of a large collection at the WA Museum known as the Phillips Collection.
George Braithwaite Phillips was the commissioner of police between 1887-1890. His family was amongst the first colonists to emigrate to the Swan River Colony (now Perth), coming from Barbados, where they owned sugar plantations.
Phillips had been a high profile civil servant and the commandant of the Western Australian Military Forces. From those positions he was able to commandeer a large network of policemen throughout the colony to collect both Aboriginal material culture and human remains.
Many of the Aboriginal objects collected by police, though not the ancestral human remains, were displayed at International Exhibitions in Paris, Glasgow and Melbourne.
The collection, which included this bowl from Broome, made by Yawuru people, helped form the new Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery in 1894. (The bowl can now be seen at WA Museum Boola Bardip.)
Bernard Woodward, the museum’s first director, continued to ask Phillips for help in sourcing both ethnographic objects and human remains, many of them destined to be exchanged for natural history specimens and ethnographic material from other parts of the world.
So, this bowl is a powerful object. It speaks to Aboriginal cultural practices, the police as active agents of colonisation, and the complex terrain of colonial encounters and their aftermath that form part of the museum’s own inheritance — now slowly being addressed in consultation with relevant communities.
5. Collections are commodities — Red figure hydria, 350-320BC
This red figure vase (circa 350-320BC), probably from Bari
— then a Greek colony — was, according to the museum’s first art and craft register, given by Professor E H Giglioli in 1902. Giglioli (1845-1909) was the Director of the Museo Zoologico in Florence — a zoologist and anthropologist remembered as the father of Italian science.
He visited Australia in 1867, writing a book on Australian Aboriginal people. Giglioli understood the uniqueness of WA’s flora and fauna, seeking valuable specimens with which to build his own collection and to trade for other specimens from elsewhere in the world.
Giglioli sent Roman and Etruscan antiquities he acquired in Italy to Perth in exchange for natural history specimens, human remains and ethnographic material.
Collections circulated through collecting institutions, often exchanged or bartered. Giglioli exchanged the WA material with the Smithsonian Museum.
In Australia, antiquities from Europe had their own rarity value. Widely understood as the foundation of Western culture and aesthetics, antiquities were hard to come by in colonial society.
In 1904, Woodward wrote:
it is of paramount importance that the local craftsmen should have good examples to study, in order that they may successfully compete with their fellows in the older centres of civilisation.
The notion of civilisation was especially important in a young nation. Colonial societies, wanting to demonstrate their rightful place amongst civilised societies, often purchased copies of originals.
So it is not surprising Woodward wanted to exchange Western Australian natural history and ethnographic specimens for objects representing the high end of European artistic production or material representing the birth of European civilisation.
This was part of his effort to educate Western Australians into what they thought was the best that Western civilisation offered.
While this was a way for museums around the world to build their collections, it also involved practices that are totally discredited today and which many find deeply distressing. It is important to know about this history and address its legacies.
The collections made by early explorers and settlers, sometimes in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, are important for their role in the development of knowledge about WA, opening up areas of scientific discovery and knowledge about First Peoples, the richness of the state’s flora and fauna and our shared historical experiences.
They are also tangible symbols of colonialism and its legacy today.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and it relevance to politics today. You can read the rest of our pieces here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
William Cooper is not a household name, but he should be. This Yorta Yorta elder is one of Australia’s most formative political leaders.
In the 1930s, he began a remarkable political campaign, pushing for Indigenous rights and recognition, nearly all of which have significant implications for Australian politics today.
Cooper was born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in December 1860. He was profoundly influenced by his people, who had demanded and won a reservation of land in the 1880s, which they called Cumeroogunga.
Yorta Yorta people farmed Cumeroogunga into the 1900s, only to lose it and have their families and community broken up by repressive policies of the New South Wales Board for the Protection of Aborigines in the 1910s and 1920s.
Cooper escaped the most severe of state protection boards’ special laws at the time, which denied Aboriginal people basic rights such as freedom of movement, custody of their children and control over personal property.
But he knew the suffering the laws caused and still had a very hard life, denied the opportunities enjoyed by most non-Indigenous Australians. Apart from anything else, this meant he suffered enormous poverty.
Importantly, in his early life, Cooper also acquired the means to understand and fight against his people’s oppression. In his teens, he was taken under the wing of evangelical Christian missionaries, Daniel and Janet Matthews, at the Maloga mission on the banks of the Murray River.
Their teachings were fundamental to the political work Cooper would eventually
undertake. They had a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too. This provided a powerful antidote to the prevailing racial prejudice Cooper experienced and witnessed.
The Matthews saw God and religious principles as a higher order than government. And they provided a prophetic or predictive view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.
It is understood Cooper spent much of 20s on and off missions and then earned a living working as a shearer, drover, horse-breaker and general rural labourer.
He was a member of the Shearers’ Union and Australian Workers’ Union. He also acted as a spokesman for Aboriginal workers in western New South Wales and central Victoria, having a “longing to help his people”. After returning to Cumeroogunga in his 60s, he moved to Melbourne, so he could get the age pension.
Petitioning the King
Now in his 70s, Cooper began a remarkable political campaign. This had several strands, many of which continue to have significance in Australian politics today.
First and foremost, in 1933 Cooper drew up a petition to King George V. With more than 1,800 signatures by the time it was presented to the federal government in 1937, the petition’s central demand was representation for Aboriginal people in the Commonwealth Parliament. This call for a federal MP who would be chosen by Aboriginal people was, if you like, a demand for a Voice to Parliament.
Cooper believed this was crucial, as government laws about Aboriginal people were made without any consideration of their opinions. He argued Indigenous perspectives differed markedly from those of white Australians – which Cooper called “thinking black”.
Cooper was heir to a tradition among Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Victoria that held they had a special relationship to the British king or queen. Certainly, Cooper believed Aboriginal people had a right to appeal to the British Crown on the grounds that it still had a responsibility for them because of duties it had undertaken to perform in the past.
Regrettably, prime minister Joseph Lyons did not pass the petition on to Buckingham Palace, and it has never been found in any archive. But in 2014, a copy finally reached Queen Elizabeth, after his grandson Boydie Turner travelled to London.
Equal rights and ‘uplift’
In 1936, Cooper founded the Australian Aborigines’ League, which he envisaged as an organisation to represent all Aboriginal people.
Under his leadership, the league developed a program to call for the rights and privileges that other Australian citizens enjoyed, while also seeking the “uplift” of Indigenous people, so they could overcome the disadvantages they suffered.
“Uplift” entailed a claim for special rights for Aboriginal people — to land, capital and other resources — that rested on their disadvantage, rather than their status as the country’s Indigenous or First peoples.
But in the course of demanding the rights of citizenship and “uplift”, Cooper repeatedly sought to draw attention to his ancestors’ prior ownership of the land and their subsequent dispossession, displacement and decimation.
He did so in order to remind white Australians of their obligations to Aboriginal people, incurred as a result of this history. As Cooper noted in 1938,
Surely the Commonwealth, which controls all that originally belonged to us, could make what would be a comparatively meagre allowance for us, by way of recompense.
To remind people of Australia’s black history, Cooper called for a “Day of Mourning” to mark Australia’s sesquicentenary in January 1938 and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day.
Protest against Nazi persecution
Cooper and the League also rejected government policies advocating for the absorption of Aboriginal people into Australian society. Instead, he asserted a vision of Aboriginal people as a permanent and ongoing community in Australia. As he said in 1936,
all thought of breeding the half-caste white, and the desire that that be accomplished, is a creature of the white mind. The coloured person has no feeling of repugnance toward the full blood, and in fact, he feels more in common with the full blood than with the white.
Cooper and other members of the league identified very strongly as a persecuted racial minority and made common cause with others beyond Australia’s shores, including the Jewish people.
In the incident for which Cooper now seems to be best known by non-Indigenous Australians, in December 1938 he led a protest against Nazi persecution to the German Consulate in Melbourne.
Inspiring a new generation
Cooper’s life and work seem astoundingly relevant for today. But during his life his campaign for rights for Aborigines fell on deaf eyes as far as government was concerned.
As he lamented in 1937,
We asked [for] bread. We scarcely seem likely to get a stone.
Yet, by the time he passed away in March 1941, he had inspired a new generation of Aboriginal leaders, most notably his grand-nephew Doug Nicholls but also the Onus brothers, who became prominent in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the immediate post-war period.
His notion of “thinking black” would in time also catch the imagination of yet another generation of Aboriginal leaders, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
Most importantly, perhaps, Cooper is remembered above all else for his prescient call for an Aboriginal voice to Parliament.
Through this, and his fight to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, he continues to speak to us today.
For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.
Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.
But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.
The great flood
When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.
Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.
Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.
The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.
Landscapes under water
For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.
In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.
We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.
The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.
At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.
Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.
Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.
In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.
Underwater archaeology matters
The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.
Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.
The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.
Protecting a priceless submerged heritage
Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.
In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.
This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.
Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.
There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.
With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.
We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.