Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: that the following article contains names of deceased persons and references to violence and traumatic events.
… is a term that refers to the right and the power of a governing body (any group of people that represent themselves or a wider population) over itself and without interference from other sources or other governing bodies. Many Indigenous populations around the world continue to be subjected to the rule and governance of other bodies, foreign states or the settler-colonial powers that occupy their territories. This is also the case in so-called Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, many Pacific nations and West Papua.
… is a process in which a powerful nation/state dominates the land and the resources of other peoples, whether they are nations or states, tribes or families.. While it occurred in most places in the world across human history, the largest and most recent acts of colonisation have been and continue to be perpetrated by Western European countries and so-called Western states. Colonisation has historically been tightly connected to the pseudoscientific theories of race and racial differences that set up the stage for white supremacy, colonial violence, the Atlantic slave trade and other atrocities. The impacts of this continue to this day, making colonisation an ongoing process rather than a historical event.
When Britain started to invade and settle Australia, New Zealand and other smaller islands, they often regarded those territories as ‘terra nullius’ – ’empty land’ in Latin. They used the absence of European farming techniques as proof that the land was unaltered and therefore uninhabited, despite their full knowledge of the presence of Indigenous populations. ‘Terra nullius’ was a legal fiction employed as a pretext to conquering and claiming lands and resources in those newly colonised territories. Back in 1788, when the Australian continent was colonised, ‘terra nullius’ was one of three ways in which a colonising nation could legally gain sovereignty over new territories. The other two instances of conquest and Indigenous population’s ‘voluntary’ giving up of sovereignty required reparations for alienated lands. With the claim of ‘terra nullius’ the British colonial powers circumvented negotiating treaties and paying compensation for acquired territories.
Above map shows the locations of recorded massacres against Indigenous Australians. The colonisation of Australia was a brutal and deadly process. In the 10 years that followed invasion by Captain Cook, in 1788, it is estimated that the Indigenous population of Australia was reduced by 90%! One immediate consequence of colonisation was a wave of epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza, killing whole communities. The introduction of those diseases was often a purposeful type of warfare on Indigenous people, eg. when blankets infected with smallpox were handed out to the communities. Land theft meant that sources of shelter, food and water were diminished. On top of this, many colonists engaged in poisoning Indigenous people, mass shootings and driving groups of people off cliffs. The country is littered with massacres and many horrible acts of violence committed by European settlers.
Along with massacres, there were policies of assimilation, and miscegenation (or, ‘breeding out the colour’, influenced by the same eugenics movement that inspired the Atlantic slave trade and the Nazis). Indigenous people were removed from their homes and placed in missions and cattle stations where their lives were surveilled and controlled. They weren’t allowed to speak their language or practice their law.
Bringing them home report of 1997 showed that as many as one in three Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and the 1970s. This was based on the assumption of black inferiority, which proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to ‘die out’ or, if possible, should be assimilated into the white community. Children taken from their families were taught to reject their heritage and forced to adopt white culture. Abuse, violence and neglect were common practices on the missions, not to mention forced and unpaid child labour. Despite of the official 2008 ‘apology’ and the so-called ‘National Sorry Day’, the number of Indigenous children in out of home care has doubled since 2008. Today, the theft of Aboriginal children is more widespread than at any time in the last century. This is an incredibly touching documentary portraying stories of ongoing stolen generations and the tireless work of Grandmothers Against Removals.
Adult imprisonment rates per 100.000 of total population in 2015 were 152 for all Australians, but 1.356 per 100.000 of Aboriginal Australians. This is higher than rates of imprisonment in the US (666 per 100.000) which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, although it’s comparable to the rates of imprisonment of African-Americans.Youth incarceration rates among Indigenous people in Australia are 26 times higher than the general population. The disproportionate rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people contribute to high rates of deaths in custody. In March 1987, the now-defunct Committee to Defend Black Rights began counting Aboriginal deaths in custody as part of a national campaign and it found that one Indigenous person died while incarcerated every 11 days. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987) identified prejudicial policing, higher rates of arrests, not granting bail and higher rates of prison sentencing as contributors to disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal people. Over 30 years later, the recommendations of the commission have not been implemented and Aboriginal people are still being killed in prisons with police impunity.
The next invasion… the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report
Following allegations of widespread child sexual abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ inquiry was led in 2007. It found the allegations about Aboriginal pedophile rings to be false while recognising that sexual child abuse was present in the communities. Instead of enacting the recommendations of the report, which included empowering Aboriginal people within their communities and better education, the government called a National Emergency Response and sent the army into communities. They suspended the Racial Discrimination Act in order to fast track a policy package which included forced confiscation of land, restrictions on studying Indigenous languages, and paternalistic and vilifying policies including alcohol and pornography bans. The Northern Territory Intervention was the ‘worst response’ possible to the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, according to the man who chaired it.
Still without a treaty
So-called Australia is the only commonwealth country that still doesn’t have a treaty with the First Nation people whose land it colonised. The colonial government invested millions of dollars into pushing a campaign to recognise Aboriginal people in their constitution, derailing Indigenous calls for a treaty.
Whilst the famous 1992 Eddie Mabo case in the ‘Hight Court’ acknowledged that the lands of this continent were not ‘terra nullius’, it is incorrect to perceive the ruling as the progressive turning point for addressing land rights which it is heralded to be. What the court was to eradicate any claim to land which has been occupied (where freehold title existed). The court simultaneously recognised the existence of native title and extinguished it where land has been freeholded, leased or used for some government purpose. The process of establishing native title is complicated, costly and requires Aboriginal people to prove their ‘maintained connection’ with the land, thus making it impossible for all who were forcibly removed and relocated to succeed in any claims. This is exemplified by the Yorta Yorta case in which the “(…)claimants acknowledged at trial that, as a result of European settlement, the way in which the Yorta Yorta people exercised their laws and customs had changed dramatically.” Additionally, The Native Title Act contains no right of veto for Aboriginal people against mining or development on their land leaving them without benefits and a destroyed environment. As a result, the incentive to reach an agreement is compelling and puts a lot of pressure on Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations. More info: ‘Native title issues & problems’ by Creative Spirits & ‘Native Title is not Land Rights’ by Gary Foley
Land theft is ongoing
The dispossession of lands and culturally significant areas continues throughout the continent. One such example is the Victorian Labour Party’s planned highway extension that is set to destroy sacred birthing trees and landscapes on Djap Wurrung country. Deebing Creek Mission in so-called Queensland which contains burial grounds is another example of a decades long struggle against one planned development after another, currently under threat from Frasers Property. There is Leigh Creek and Copley on Adnyamathanha Country in the Northern Flinders fighting against a UCG (Underground Coal Gasification) plant; the Water for the Rivers campaign fighting to reverse the pumps and revive the Murray Darling Basin and bring the Darling River system back to life; No Dump Alliance of various Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities opposing plans for multiple nuclear waste dumps on their lands; a Northern Territory-wide network of Traditional Owners and communities campaigning against fracking and many, many more land based struggles across this continent.
Colonisation in the Pacific
The European invasions and land grabs were world-wide and did not spare the rest of the Pacific region and its many islands, no matter how small and remote.
In Melanesia, as previously described, the island of New Guinea was artificially split in half with no regards for the Indigenous people who suddenly became ‘nationals’ of different countries. It was used militarily and for resource extraction by a number of ‘Western powers’ and while the occupation is ongoing in West Papua, the government and the powers in ‘independent’ PNG have ongoing relationships with previous colonial powers and mining magnates, pushing further land grabs from Indigenous and local communities. Fiji and Solomon Islands were both colonised by the British Empire. New Caledonia is a territory under French dependency and Vanuatu was split between France, Spain and Britain before gaining independence.
In Polynesia, the biggest island – Aotearoa (New Zealand) was also colonised by the British and the Indigenous Maori people continue to struggle with ongoing issues arising from land dispossession and discrimination. Samoa was partitioned to share British control with Germany and the US. The Cook Islands, Niue, Suwarrow, Nassau and Tokelau initially under British rule, became New Zealand’s colonies. Nauru was initially controlled by Germany and later by the British Empire, Australia and New Zealand. It was heavily exploited for the phosphate mining and today continues to be used by Australia as another offshore processing centre. Nauru’s currency, defence and aid depend on Australia, making it effectively a neocolonial relationship between the two. Tonga and Tuvalu were also colonised by the British Empire. Various islands of what is now called French Polynesia were colonised by several European powers, until they all came under the rule of France, which used some parts of it for nuclear testing, stirring up widespread protests.
In Micronesia, since the first contact with Westerners, starting with the Portuguese and Spanish explorers, the islands have been colonised by various European and Asian countries. Parts of Micronesia are still territories under US rule, which continues to exploit them. The most egregious example of US militarism in Micronesia is the extensive nuclear testing there which exposed inhabitants of the Marshall Islands to the testing of 67 atomic bombs over twelve years, and to 1.7 times the radiation of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The US also maintains unlimited military access to the supposedly independent nations of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia.
Another detention centre ran by the Australian government is located on Christmas Island, which is geographically much closer to Java than mainland Australia. It was also used for its phosphate since 1881. Back then the British Empire brought indentured workers to work on the island (after slavery was explicitly forbidden by law, indentured work was a new way in which colonial powers supplied cheap labour for various industries, shipping people from one colony to another under “contracts” which weren’t necessarily adhered to).
Modern example of Australian expansion and further colonisation in the region is the support Australia gave to an Indonesian annexation and occupation of Timor Leste, followed by Australia’s claims to the waters off Timors south coast. Australia continued to claim a maritime border that was in violation on international agreements but used its power in the region to enforce it, gaining access to reserves of oil that would otherwise belong to Timor.
Shared struggles towards decolonisation
Many of the Indigenous populations of Australia and Oceania (Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia) share common ancestry, a history of trade and pre-European contact, a history of colonisation and exploitation by foreign powers and hopefully, a future of sovereignty and freedom. The Indigenous Rights movement in the Pacific is not only localised in all the various territories affected but it is also transnational and connected. In 1997, delegates from 18 Pacific Island peoples and nations established an Indigenous Rights Working Group under the regional NGO umbrella organisation Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations. The movement was a response to the West’s colonial domination in violation of the UN recognition of Indigenous peoples and their rights. Despite the UN’s calls for decolonisation, the years following the end of the Second World War saw numerous nuclear testing in the Pacific by the US, UK and France. The IRWG’s priorities included support for Kanak, Maohi, Maori, Kanaka Maoli, East Timorese, West Papuan, Bougainvillean and Australian Aboriginal self-determination and resistance to colonialism and it understood that the anti-nuclear as well as other environmental movements had to strive for decolonisation to achieve their goals for the health of the Pacific region. 350 Pacific is a youth led grassroots network working with communities to fight climate change from the Pacific Islands.
350 Pacific works with organisers across 15 Pacific Island nations to highlight the vulnerabilities of island countries to climate change while showcasing strength and resilience. Another climate change adaptation action combines education and cultural exchange to combat the crisis. The Climate Challenger Voyage was launched with 10 crew in one canoe for a voyage of 4,000 kilometers, with the purpose of connecting 25 Pacific communities to share climate change adaptation practices. The Titan tribe of Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, coordinated the traditional voyage to connect culture, conservation, and climate change adaptation in the Pacific. On its initial voyage, it visited various communities to share educational material about climate change and to serve the community with an exchange of initiatives by fellow Pacific Islanders to realise their human rights. The Wai Ron canoe is a double hulled canoe that began its journey on the Island of Biak in West Papua all the way to Voco Point, Samarai. The canoe and its journey celebrated the many cultures of Papua New Guinea and West Papua and their connectedness. The West Papua Freedom Flotilla and other aspects of the movement for West Papuan independence and the Aboriginal struggles in Australia are examples of ongoing dialogue between Indigenous peoples in the region.
The Sail4Justice freedom flotilla hopes to highlight some of the many ways in which the struggles for self-determination across the Pacific and the Australian continent, the struggles for climate justice in the region and the fight against the violent and colonialist border regime policies of the ‘white’ Australian government – are inseparable.
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