The limits of colonial curiosity
The colonists' endeavours to describe and understand the customs of Indigenous Australians, including their customs of land ownership, were shaped by the kind of people they were and by the circumstances in which they were encountering Aboriginal people. Pre-historian John Mulvaney has commented on the initial constraints on the colonists' curiosity:
'RELIGION: "The early decades of the nineteenth century were a time of considerable Evangelical Christian missionary enterprise in the Pacific...Any suggestion that a fallen race awaiting its redemption possessed nobility of character was considered unchristian. Mission organisations stressed the abomination of savage society and spared no thought for investigating its past or recording its present." And "gospel-mongering...prejudices were largely instrumental in conditioning native policy of a generation - that generation which witnessed the decimation of the Aborigines. In 1858 a Select Committee of the Legislative Council of Victoria investigating Aboriginal welfare asked W.Hull the reason for the high mortality amongst Aborigines. His answer, 'that it is the design of Providence that the inferior races should pass away before the superior races...since we have occupied the country, the aborigines must cease to occupy it', must have been a comforting thought for the European settler."
A PENAL COLONY: "Perhaps a greater determining influence affecting attitudes in Australia towards the Aborigines was the nature of colonial society. New South Wales and Tasmania were penal colonies with Europeans divided into gaolers and gaoled, a condition hardly conducive to the elevation of the dignity of any man. The attitudes of these groups to one another must be considered in explaining the behaviour of them towards the Aborigines."'
Keywords: anthropology, colonialism, colonists, convicts, custom, land ownership, New South Wales, religion, Tasmania, Victoria, 1778-
Mulvaney, DJ 'The Australian Aborigines 1606-1929: opinion and fieldwork', in Janson, S and Macintyre, S (eds) 'Through white eyes', pp 12,16,13.;Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor
Source: Mulvaney, DJ