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“They appear actually to vanish from the face of the Earth.” Aborigines and the European project in Australia Felix

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“Australia Felix” was an exclamation, an inspiration, a propaganda coup, and an enduring myth. As a description it was accurate for European pastoralists and fatal for the people who watched the Europeans arrive. The name, as a geographical designation, had a very short life. The Aboriginal owners and inhabitants of the country lost their land and their lives within the same short years. When Melbourne was founded in 1835 there may have been more than 10,000 Aborigines in the Port Phillip District that would become the state of Victoria. Two decades later, less than 2,000 remained. A decline of 80% in 20 years—some peoples suffered a 90% loss in less than ten years—is for most historians no reason to raise a question of genocide. The historical record suggests reconsideration is overdue. The views and actions of settlers who achieved the total displacement and near extinction of the Aboriginal peoples in a few short years are only part of the story. Official records show that both the government and parliament of Imperial Britain foresaw such a terrible outcome, and took steps, however inadequate, to avert it. They knew the relations of genocide—“extinction”—were endemic to colonization. Conscious of being responsible for the lives of colonized peoples, their clear intention was to prevent more deaths. The concerned authorities who instituted an undermanned and short-lived Protectorate were less clear about the way their larger intentions made them complicit in destruction. By ideology and pragmatism they were as much engaged in the great historical venture as the settlers they sought to curb. The British civilization that engendered their Christian concern was the same civilization destined to extinguish the indigenous world. Thus did even the most informed and idealistic men of influence help doom the peoples they worked so hard to save.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2008-12-01

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