The settlers who arrived with Captain Stirling had their pick of Aboriginal land. The wealthiest and most influential were able to select the “best” land, and were advised to “keep up their Englishness” and maintain English traditions. As the colonists settled in, they held picnics, balls, and fox hunts. Many of those who had been on the lower rungs of English society were thrilled at finally being members of the upper echelons of their tiny new Australian society.
The English settlers’ obsession with maintaining their own traditions blinds them to the ways in which they are encroaching upon Aboriginal tradition. The settlers lack empathy or concern for others, and rely upon the insidious mechanisms of colonization to prosper while they decimate the land of their new colony’s indigenous population.
The Nyungar people—as well as the entire Aboriginal population—soon began to realize that the arrival of the settlers meant the “destruction of [Nyungar] society and the dispossession of their lands.” The hunters Bigdup and Meedo complain to Yellagonga that they can no longer access their hunting trails, as they have been sealed off by fences. The two worry that soon their whole tribe will be driven off their land. Yellagonga has no words of encouragement for his fellow tribesmen. He too is disturbed by the destruction of the wilderness and the now-ubiquitous tents, huts, and houses rising up in the bush.
As the English continue to spread their settlements across Aboriginal lands, the Nyungar people find that their ability to provide themselves with food is impacted. The settlers have sealed off vital hunting trails and sections of the outback, threatening the Nyungar’s survival.
Bigdup, Meedo, and the other hunters of the Nyungar tribe decide that because the English have settled upon their land and refused to share food with them, they will “help [them]selves.” After spearing a sheep, Bigdup and Meedo are sentenced under English law and taken away to Rottnest Island Penal Colony. They are never seen again. Hundreds of others, Pilkington writes, soon follow them. While some Aboriginal people are able to escape, many Aboriginals are incarcerated unjustly for the rest of their lives.
This passage contains a motif that will be repeated throughout the novel: the tragic and senseless pattern of cruelty against the Aboriginals and their homeland perpetuated by their colonizers. The settlers deprived the Nyungar of their food source, forced them to commit “theft” of their own resources, and then punished them with life imprisonment in a senseless and vicious cycle.
While the English settlers have the full protection of the government that is slowly forming around them, the Aboriginals have no protection, and are in fact forbidden from carrying out their own traditional sacred laws. The English attempt to “pacify” the Aboriginals with gifts of food, but it is impossible to ignore that they have established two sets of laws: one for themselves, and one for the Aboriginals. The Aboriginal people are helpless against the English settler’s muskets and swords, and soon they learn to “acknowledge the white man’s brutal strength” and accept the cruel and unusual “white system of justice and punishment.”
The English create laws which favor their own interests while simultaneously targeting the Aboriginal tribes. Aware of the cycle of violence and injustice they are creating, the English attempt to offset their cruelty, but continue systematically decimating and punishing the Aboriginal people. As the Aboriginals reckon with total destruction of the way of life they have always known, they are eventually forced to submit to their colonizers.
As the English settlers travel farther inland, they prevail against every tribe they meet. The Aboriginals, dispossessed of their land, their traditions, and their families, attempt to find secret and sacred sites where they can still perform their rituals and ceremonies. Nevertheless, and slowly but slowly, these rituals begin to fade from tribal memory and the Aboriginal seasonal calendar is eventually forgotten.
The long-term effects of colonization are beginning to be felt across the Australian continent. As the Aboriginals capitulate to the colonialist order, the violence does not stop—instead, they are further pushed out of their homes and forbidden from practicing important cultural traditions. As Aboriginal culture begins to slip away from the tribes’ collective memories, the colonizers become more and more powerful.
The British Colonies begin to enslave the Aboriginals, using them as servants. One colonist wrote in his diary that the English depend upon the Aboriginals for labor, as they could “never afford to pay English servants the high wages they expect.” The Aboriginals are paid only in food.
The colonialists continue to take cruel advantage of the Aboriginals, conceding that they must somehow “pay” the natives but doing so only with food, effectively enslaving them.
As a “further insult,” white invaders—acknowledging the “sorry” fact that they have driven Aboriginals off their land and “deprived” them of their own culture—begin an annual distribution of blankets to the Aboriginal people. A Melbourne newspaper, in 1861, describes how “grateful” the “miserable remnant[s] of a once numerous people” are to receive only “small things and scanty supply.”
The false altruism with which the settlers attempt to make reparations with the people they have slaughtered, imprisoned, and enslaved reveals how disdainful they are of the people they have colonized, and how hollow their commitment is to actually improve Aboriginal life in any way.