Scots and Indigenous Australians

Looking out over Dja Dja Wurrung country from Pyramid Hill, south-eastern Australia, in 1835, the Scottish explorer and surveyor, Thomas Mitchell, seemingly unaware of the people his claims would displace, observed: ‘A land so inviting, and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains … I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and the animals for which it seemed to have been prepared.’

By the late 1840s, his vision had become reality, but not without consequences. Mitchell later saw that the introduction of livestock had been ‘by itself sufficient to produce the extirpation of the native race, by limiting their means of existence; and this must work such extensive changes in Australia as never entered into the contemplation of the local authorities.’

The European colonisation of Australia seemed ‘to involve, as an inevitable result, the extirpation of the aborigines; and it may well be pleaded, in extenuation of any adverse feelings these may show towards the white men, that these consequences, although so little considered by the intruders, must be obvious to the natives, with their usual acuteness, as soon as cattle enter on their territory.’ Indeed, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Indigenous population of Australia Felix – the landscape Mitchell had opened to settlement – had been decimated and reduced by 90 per cent.

‘Silently, but surely,’ wrote Mitchell, ‘that extirpation of aborigines is going forward in grazing districts, even where protectors of aborigines have been most active; and in Van Diemen’s Land, the race has been extirpated, even before that of the kangaroos, under an agency still more destructive.’

Scottish explorers such as Mitchell were at the forefront of both imperial and global European expansion, the necessary consequence of which was the removal of indigenous peoples from their land. This history is slowly, but increasingly, receiving its proper attention, but not without controversy.

Drawing on the example of the first Prime Minister of Canada – the Scottish migrant John A. MacDonald whom Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon praised in her Canada Day statement – the writer Calum MacLeòid argued recently that Scotland should do more to recognise its imperial and colonial histories. MacDonald was a key architect of assimilationist policies in Canada. His legacy – memorialised in place names, schools, and monuments – is currently under intense scrutiny.

Australia, spurred on by events in the United States, is in the midst of its own monument wars. Wrapped up in a movement to change the date of Australia Day – which falls on the day British authorities formally established a settlement in the colony of New South Wales – statues of Captain James Cook, the son of a Scottish labourer who charted and claimed the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, have been vandalised. There have been calls for statues of Lachlan Macquarie, the Scottish Governor of New South Wales, to be removed, and for streets, rivers, ports, harbours, banks, and universities named after him to be reconsidered.

Although Scots have often been cast as essential and proud partners of the British Empire, and pioneers in its outposts, little is said of the people they dispossessed and massacred across lands seized for the imperial project. In a recent commentary that highlighted six Australian statues as problematic because of the place of their subjects in colonialism, three (Thomas Mitchell, Angus McMillan, and Lachlan Macquarie) were born in Scotland, one (James Cook) was the son of a Scot, and another (John Batman) was funded by Scots. There are good reasons, then, for those at ‘home’ in Scotland to pay attention to these happenings around the world.

This is an excerpt from my essay — ‘Unsettling History: Scots and Indigenous Australians’ — in the new Scottish international affairs magazine, CABLE (Issue 4, October 2017). Click here to read the full article.

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4 comments

  1. Interesting. two thoughts – do you think the differences in land law between England and Scotland played a part in their attitudes? Scottish land law was still feudal, not based on freehold tenure and with no law of trespass – that might affect their attitude to Aborigines crossing their squatting runs (in accord with the rules imposed on pastoral leases). Secondly, did the history of Highland Clearances make them more ruthless?

  2. I am a direct descended of one of the colonialists who founded Bowen and Townsville, James Gordon (1822-1904) who was born in Dumfries Scotland. This is a decent account of the ‘expedition’ he co-led in 1859, where indigenous people where murdered – https://griffithreview.com/articles/no-simple-twist-of-fate/ Following the establishment of a white settlement at Bowen (Port Denison) an exclusion zone was established around the settlement where no Aborigines where allowed to be. From 1861 to 1871 the region was in open warfare between settlers and indigenous people.

  3. Look forward to reading more of your work. It’s so important that we as Scots or any other colonists(it continues though under different guises) know the history. As one arrived from Glasgow some decades ago am very interested to learn the history of the oppressed peoples including my fellow Glaswegians who are not so different in their health education situation from the indigenous peoples of this land.

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