Why Did Forced Separation from the Land Have Such a Devastating Impact on Australian Aboriginal Culture?

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Essay Question: Why did forced separation from the land have such a devastating impact on Australian Aboriginal culture?

For an estimated sixty thousand years Indigenous people lived, surviving off the land, in what is now known as Australia. On January 26th 1788 the first British to settle Australia arrived at the location that is presently called Port Jackson near Sydney. This arrival marked the beginning of a new era in Aboriginal history that saw over the next two hundred years the forcible separation of indigenous people from their traditional homelands. It caused widespread devastation to their culture. This essay will examine why forced separation from traditional lands had such a devastating impact on Australian Aboriginal culture. Firstly, I briefly examine the history of British settlement and the land policies implemented. I will then establish that land for Australian Aboriginals was the base upon which their cultural practices rested. It follows that by not being able to access their land, they effectively were rendered unable to continue these traditions. The devastation this caused was compounded by the fact that Aboriginal societies were oral societies, meaning once knowledge was lost it was lost forever. It is for these reasons forced separation from the land had such a devastating impact on Aboriginal culture.

The British brought a very different view of land ownership to Australia when the arrived in 1788. Over the last two hundred years in England new land reforms had began which “put the property rights of an owner above that of the liberty, even the life, of another person.”[1] This meant that when settling colonies British forces had the lawful right to deny access to land they claimed as their own. In the case of Australia the British saw Aboriginals as savages without government or law. Captain Cook reflected this view when saying they were “like wild beasts.”[2] Being accustomed to growing crops and raising livestock in order to feed themselves, the colonialists did not understand traditional indigenous use of the land. Also because the land was not broken up into easily distinguishable plots, as was in England, they saw it as a no mans land they could claim.[3] The British began giving Aboriginal land they claimed as their own to settlers and freed convicts.[4] They deemed their own use of the land more important than the indigenous populations and “traditional hunting grounds were taken over for agricultural and pastoral uses.”[5] This process continued over the next two hundred years, in one way or another, until the majority of Aboriginal groups over the country were forced off their traditional lands.

County for Australian Aboriginals was, and still is, the center point of their respective traditional cultures. Before settlement in 1788, Richard Broome writes, “Local country provided food and water, formed the wondrous space through which they moved each day, and the place they slept at night under the starlit canopy.”[6] As their livelihood depended on the land, it follows they had a very close relationship with it. With this in mind it seems natural that each Aboriginal group’s culture revolved around the land they inhabited. It formed the base on which their lifestyles and cultural practices were built upon. These cultural practices included traditional law, songs, stories, survival knowledge, language, ceremonies and custodian obligations to the land. The history of who they were was told by referencing the land they lived on.[7] Ancestors were embedded in places on traditional lands, their spirits still living.[8] Ceremonies and custodial practices to revitalize the land were held on specific times of year at specific places. The ritual burning ceremonies by the South Western Australian Noongar people are an example of this.[9] They were done every few years in order to revitalize the land to bring new plant growth and attract new game....
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