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In which Netty officially says “Sorry” to the original occupants of the land in which she lives

December 20, 2009

So you think you don’t want to read a non-fiction work on land rights in Australia and the history of white settlement? Well, I’m here to tell you think again.

Of the dozen books Tasmanian academic Henry Reynolds has written on Australian Aboriginals, The Law Of The Land is perhaps his best-known. I read the third edition, updated in 2003, with a new conclusion to accompany the revised chapters on the famous Mabo and Wik land-right cases. Surprisingly, my local bookseller tells me TLOTL is currently out of print (I had to borrow Andy’s second-hand copy). Surprisingly, because if it isn’t already (and lack of availability suggests it isn’t), it should be mandatory reading on all high-school syllabuses in this country.

The Law Of The Land was a choice from Andy, always the more political of the two of us. As for me, well, I have to admit my own shameful lack of knowledge of indigenous history and politics. Before I read this book, I knew next to nothing about land rights and native title. I can’t remember ever hearing the term terra nullius (a land belonging to no one). And in 1992 I was way more preoccupied with Kurt Cobain than Eddie Mabo. Hell, I grew up in Tasmania (and even those of us who know little about the Aboriginals know full well what happened to them in nineteenth-century Van Dieman’s Land …) and I had never even laid eyes on an indigenous person until a particular visit to the mainland in my late teens.

So with my lack of credentials already established here, TLOTL was nothing short of an eye-opener for me. Sure, I knew white Australia had treated Aboriginals appallingly, but not to this extent and not this (albeit seemingly unwittingly) ignorantly.

It doesn’t seem to have necessarily been a problem brought about by the British, either – more attitudes having developed from the beginning of white settlement. This from the chapter ‘A Forgotten Legacy’:

“Although it was almost inevitable that the Aborigines would lose their sovereignty to one of the major powers, it was far from inevitable that they would be denied property rights to every inch of their territory. The radical dispossession was not the inescapable legacy of Australian history or of English law. We are legatees of a past that was, to a considerable extent, chosen by our forebears – not the past in general but a particular past, not the law in general but a self-serving version of the law, deeply tainted by the racism of colonial society and corrupted in its ways as the legal systems in the slave colonies of the West Indies. The particular problem of Aboriginal land rights may have had its origin in accident or oversight, but expediency ensured its perpetuation long after it was known that Australia was inhabited and that the native people were in possession of their ancient homelands.”

Damning stuff indeed.

It was tainted from the very beginning, of course. The botanist Joesph Banks, accompanying Captain James Cook on his initial expedition, reported back to the motherland, based on his observations, that the Aboriginals were scant in number and certainly contained to the coastal region, and that there was no life in the interior of the country. And as for the concept that the Aboriginals weren’t entitled to the land because they didn’t farm it properly, well, Jesus Christ almighty (and no, I’m not religious …)

Reynolds is to be commended for presenting the information herein – the majority of which is anchored in more than two centuries of legalese – simply and succinctly. He has taken an often-difficult topic and made it compellingly readable.

So, armed with my newfound knowledge (and a little of it is indeed a dangerous thing), how do I now feel about all of this?

I feel embarrassed that it has taken me 40 years to learn about the true origins of the caucasian settlement of my country. Ashamed on behalf of myself and my ancestors that any of this happened/was allowed to happy. Very, very, very sorry indeed. And it has made me want to do something about it.

Andy’s right. Read this book. Right now.

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