Ways of seeing indigenous Australians
There were a number of ways that the colonists could acknowledge Aborigines' prior and continuing occupation of the continent without discrediting their own sovereign power and colonial virtue.
For example, some colonists found a way to see the original occupants not as owners but as something less. This depreciating perception was possible because many colonists brought to Australia a notion of 'property rights' which turned on a distinction between hunting and cultivation. It was clear that Indigenous Australians did not cultivate the land. If they merely hunted and gathered over the land, it was argued, then the Aborigines did not make the land their property. Only the colonists - who cultivated the land and increased its productivity by planting crops, erecting buildings and fencing it as pasture - were entitled to be called the lands' owners.
The moral and legal dilemmas of colonisation were not acknowledged or pondered by all colonists, but some were thoughtful, such as Justice Willis in 1844:
'According to the commission whereby this colony is governed, the sovereignty of the Crown is asserted over the whole of the territory...There does not appear to be any specific recognition in this commission of the claims of the aborigines, either as the sovereigns or the proprietors of the soil: although it is in the recollection of many living men that every part of this territory was the undisputed property of the aborigines.'
Another, more dismissive, colonial view was that (in the words of a letter to the Sydney Gazette in 1824) the Aborigines 'had no civil polity, no regular organised frame of society, on the regulations of which the distinction of landed property depends...They were inhabitants, but not the proprietors of the land.'
Some colonists, however, allowed themselves to see that Aborigines's actions were governed by their customs of land ownership.
'In 1839, the Reverend J.D.Lang told an enquirer that 'every tribe has its own district, the boundaries of which are well known to the natives generally; and within that district all the wild animals are considered as much the property of the tribe inhabiting, or rather ranging on, its whole extent, as the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that have been introduced into the country by adventurous Europeans...'
Keywords: colonialism, colonists, crown land, land boundaries, land ownership, recognition, sovereignty, Sydney Gazette
'Dispossession', Allen & Unwin, 1996, pp 68-69,71,74.
Source: Reynolds, Henry