Author: Professor Henry Reynolds
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing
Reviewer: Brian Morgan
I have met some wonderful people some of whom have white skin. Some have been Indigenous Australians, others, Native Americans and others have been of various races and creeds. All Australians know that Ash Barty is an Indigenous Australian. And Indigenous Australians who play sport at a high level are appreciated by their teammates and fans as equal to or better than many of their teammates.
Today, it seems that an Indigenous Australian who excels at sport is “one of us” but such attitudes do not, necessarily, extend to Indigenous Australians who are not famous for their sporting or artistic prowess? What about the appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians who fought in the military for their country but were, on their return, treated as second class? And what about the way in which the owners and original occupants of this land were treated from 1788?
Nearby to where I live in Maleny, Queensland, is a wonderful reserve, the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve. We are blessed to have Uncle Noel, an aboriginal elder, attend the various functions and events held there and oversee a welcoming ceremony. One can walk into that reserve and feel an immediate sense of belonging to the land, not owning it but being a part of it.
So, whenever I have cause to read or think about our history and how we treated the (earlier) inhabitants of this Country, I feel inadequate. I look for more information to help me to understand the reasons behind the murder, displacement and inhumane treatment of those who were here before any European.
Professor Reynolds, whom I have met briefly, several times over the years, is an acknowledged historian of early Australian history.
There is much history which explains the UK Government’s attitude to its occupation of Australia which is largely unknown and would remain so except for this excellent work.
Most of us have come to understand that it was the first white settlers who believed that they were the “owners” of this Country and their treatment of those, already living here, was based on that principle but, by any standard, the treatment of those long term Australians was reprehensible and, I suggest, unjustified in law.
In order to gain a better understanding of this history, Professor Reynolds has, in his usual manner, meticulously, identified, studied and collated much of the early correspondence between London and the State Governors; looked at why those Governors behaved as they did; and has left us with a sense of disbelief that the new settlers sought to dispossess those who had lived here for many Centuries, by the simple means of claiming the land by posting a flag.
I warn you that, as a lawyer, you will find yourself shaking your head at the lack of logic and the wilful ignoring of legal advice received from renowned lawyers such as Emerich de Vattel who, as early as 1758, said:
“The conqueror takes possession of the property of the State and leaves that of individuals untouched.”
The author adds the comment that the citizen caught up in a war of conquest suffers only indirectly because it merely brings them a change of sovereigns.
This theme was continued by Chief Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme Court in 1833 when he said:
“The modern usage of nations, which has become law, would be violated; that sense of justice and right which is acknowledged and felt by the whole civilised world would be outraged if private property should be generally confiscated, and private rights annulled. The people change their alliance; their relations to their ancient sovereign is dissolved but their relations to each other, and their rights of property remain undisturbed”.
Imagine, if you would, a ship load of foreign sailors landing in England in 1770 planting a flag and declaring that their Country is now the owner of Great Britain.
So, what is the difference? The answers to this question are, I suggest, revealed by this book.
That question and its answers tend also to explain the differing attitudes towards what we have come to call Australia Day, the 26th January, and why the traditional owners of Australia do not think of it as a day to rejoice.
Other countries were “settled” (my term), peacefully, and with the use of treaties. So why did this not occur in Australia? An Australian lawyer writing in 1847 declared:
“Successive Secretaries of State … have repeatedly commanded that it must never be forgotten ‘that our possession of this territory is based on a right of occupancy’.
A ‘right of occupancy’! Amiable sophistry!…….on what grounds can we possibly claim a right to the occupancy of the land?”
I suggest that this statement is as apposite today as it was then.
I do not find myself able to accept all the conclusions expressed by Professor Reynolds in this book, in particular, the criticisms of Sir Samuel Griffiths who when, as Attorney General of Queensland and later, is accused of being complicit in killing of Aborigines and personally responsible for it. I think that this accusation is made on the basis of his membership of Cabinet and later as Chief Justice of the High Court but, to me as a lawyer, this is drawing a long bow.
This book will, I am in little doubt, better inform you. It will require and allow you to re- consider your position in relation to the whole question of Aboriginal rights in Australia and the legality of their treatment even extending to the present time and it will help you to gain a better understanding that, if the occupants of the land were warlike, it was for the obvious reason of the need to protect their own land and culture. On the other hand, as the author suggests, if someone invaded our Country and sought to take it by force, what would we do? Surely, we would do our best to defend our rights.