Scotlands History\|Scots and Australia

Impact on Aboriginal peoples

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In 1788, when the First Fleet of British convicts arrived, around 500,000 Aboriginal people lived in Australia.  Today there are only around 270,000; most live in cities and towns.

The Eora people lived around what is now Sydney. The word Eora simply meant ‘here’ or ‘from this place’. When the British asked local Aboriginal people where they came from they were told ‘Eora’. Central Sydney is still referred to as Eora Country.

The traditional Aboriginal owners of the Sydney City region are the Cadigal band. There were 29 bands, or clans, around Sydney including the Cammeraigal, the Kameygal, the Birrabirragal and the Illawarra. Different bands spoke different dialects or even different languages, including Dharug and Kurringgai. They had their own stories, traditions and initiation rites.

Indigenous Australians in New South Wales and Victoria refer to themselves as ‘Kooris’ (or Koories) meaning ‘person’ or ‘people’.

In Queensland Aboriginal people identify themselves as Murri. Tasmanian Aboriginal people call themselves Palawa. The Nyungar are the Aboriginal people of Western Australia while the Aboriginal people of the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory are the Yolngu.

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Leonie Smallwood, Museum Co-ordinator, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney: Before the British arrived in Sydney the area that we call The Rocks today was lived in by people called the Gadigal. They would make canoes out of bark. They went fishing to get their dinner. They had fires to cook the fish. They were really, really clever at using the natural tools around them to make what they needed. 

Allen Madden, Cultural and Education Officer, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Sydney: The ships have arrived, not far from where we are right now, just across the bay there. Aboriginal people of this area have never seen these before. There was a lot of confusion with a lot of the Aboriginal people around. They’ve got men running up and down the masts on these tall ships; the Aboriginal people think they’re possums running up trees. They have no idea what they are. Across the bay they land. They were welcomed to this country. We thought they would have just been coming in for water, supplies, but to our shock and our horror, they stayed. 

Leonie Smallwood: I think that it must have been a really hard thing for the Gadigal people when those Europeans first arrived, because they were such a really different culture and a really strong culture that impacted on the Gadigal life. The Europeans wore clothes and tried to insist that the Gadigal people did as well. They brought disease that would have really, really impacted on their communities. And of course, the natural resources that the Gadigal used, like the fish to eat, suddenly had to be shared with hundreds more people, and I think it would have been a really hard time for them.

Allen Madden: They started cutting down all the trees. Our Tank Stream of freshwater here was polluted in the first six months that they arrived. Some of the things that the Europeans brought in in the way of glass, steel, and the best thing that we’d ever seen in this country was bread. And along with bread come grog; the rum.

Aboriginal people couldn’t understand the cruelty that these fellas were doing to their own kind; floggings, jails, hangings. There were diseases; smallpox that ravaged the Aboriginal population. Aboriginal people had no resistance against this disease and it spread like wildfire. Aboriginal people were told what to do and how to do it; where to go; where not to go, and that angered a lot of Aboriginal people. A lot of people think that when the Europeans come here the Aboriginal people just give up. Not true. There was resistance here and there still is resistance here for a fair go to Aboriginal people, the first Australians of this country.

The Britons that colonised Australia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries brought sheep and cattle, and took land from Indigenous people. If Aboriginal people took livestock they were often hunted down and killed. Settlers and former convicts, including Scots, were responsible for murders of Indigenous Australians.

As Tom Devine, Professor of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, says:

Scots pioneers in Victoria were often land-grabbers and squatters who were notorious for their ruthlessness, and the Scots, like the English, Welsh and Irish, played a full part in the harsh treatment of the Aboriginal peoples. It was ironic that some of those most notoriously involved were Highlanders who had themselves suffered clearance...

People on a ship bound for Australia

The British brought new diseases to Australia. A year after the arrival of the First Fleet almost half of the Kooris around Sydney died during a smallpox epidemic. Accounts tell of dead bodies floating in the harbour and lying in rock shelters along the coast. The epidemic decimated the Eora people, leaving them grief stricken and devastated.

Many of the survivors from different groups came together and formed new bands. Around 200 Kooris lived in Woolloomooloo. In 1817 Governor Lachlan Macquarie re-dedicated the site as a protected area.

Governor Macquarie believed he could ‘improve’ the Aboriginal people. He set up the Native Institution, a school for Aboriginal children, to provide ‘Civilisation, Education and Morals’.

Macquarie’s Native Institution was a boarding school in Parramatta. In 1815 a number of Aboriginal children were placed in the school. Their parents would only be allowed to see their children on one day a year. In 1816, Koori parents kept their children away. British soldiers were sent out to capture Aboriginal children and take them to the school. Fifteen Koori boys and girls were taken by force to the school. The Native Institution was closed in 1833 when many of the children died from smallpox.

The Native Institution was the first time that the Government in Australia forcibly took Aboriginal children from their parents. It would not be the last. Between 1869 and 1969 more than 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken away from their parents. Most never saw their families again.

They became known as the Stolen Generations.

In 2008 Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a National Apology to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian Government.