[This article was originally uploaded on 26 October 2017 but has been reposted following restoration of the website.]
There has been a lot of heated talk in recent times, seeking to label the process of white settlement of Australia that began in 1788 as an ‘invasion’. To the extent that this term implies a concerted military campaign to subjugate the Aboriginal population and gain possession of the Australian continent by force of arms, such a claim is clearly unsustainable from historical evidence.
The arrival of the First Fleet with little more than 200 marines, whose primary duties were protection of the penal colony being established and to serve mainly as convict goalers, puts the lie to arguments that there was ever a comprehensive offensive strategy behind the military presence created at the outset—or even later, when British line regiments were added to the colonial garrison. A process of creeping encroachment, sometimes but only rarely enforced by military means, is a far more realistic description that comes to mind.
Representing white settlement of Australia as invasion is not just a flawed characterisation of what occurred, it totally fails to recognise that the British decision to colonise can only properly be viewed within the context of a much larger process undertaken by European powers around the globe from the 16th century—in the Americas, across Africa, India, Asia, and multiple points in between. Attempts to portray British policy and actions towards the continent’s Aboriginal inhabitants as somehow uniquely or specially brutal, harsh or immoral ignores the question of whether the native population would have fared any better under a coloniser other than Britain.
Based on historical evidence from the period during which Australia’s coastlines were first being probed and mapped by the major maritime powers of Europe, the answer to that question is probably negative. Voyages undertaken by the Dutch into what is now known as the Gulf of Carpentaria over a period of 150 years from 1606, all resulted in considerable bloodshed when ships crews clashed with native inhabitants along a strip of the west coast of Cape York Peninsula stretching from Port Musgrave to Edward River. The explorers Jansz (1606), Carstensz (1623), and Gonzal (1756) all shot and killed Aborigines—usually while trying to take tribesmen captive to interrogate them for information about their country.
Modern replica of the Dutch East India Company’s yacht “Duyfken” (Little Dove) which explored the Gulf of Carpentaria captained by Willem Jansz (or Janszoon) in 1606.
Britisher William Dampier had meanwhile had a similar experience on the opposite side of the continent in 1699, when crewmen from his Royal Navy vessel, HMS Roebuck, clashed with Aborigines in the vicinity of present-day Broome, Western Australia. When his attempts to capture a tribesman to discover the source of their drinking water resulted in a fracas, Dampier was also compelled to shoot for deadly effect while beating a hasty retreat.
Yet another episode—this time involving the French—occurred on the east coast of Tasmania only two years after Lieutenant James Cook took his ship HMS Endeavour along the east coast of Australia. In March 1772 Dufresne was forced to fire on Aborigines who resisted his attempts to land on the Forestier Peninsula to obtain fresh water for his two ships, with fatal results for at least one tribesman.
Marine lieuteant Watkin Tench, who arrived with the First Fleet in January 1788, recorded that the French naval expedition of La Perouse (which arrived off Botany Bay at the same time as the English) also found occasion to discharge firearms at the ‘Indians’ who displayed ‘a spirit of rapine and intrusion’ in the camp the French established ashore before departing in March. We only have his word for it that the French commandant ‘showed a moderation and forbearance’ on these occasions, so that there were no fatal consequences.
These incidents from pre-settlement history demonstrate that probably all the European powers involved in colonising the Oceana and Pacific regions held similar views towards dealing with native opposition to their activities. So it may be fairly be concluded that Australia’s indigenous peoples had little reason to expect different treatment regardless of whether they encountered Dutch, French or English. It can only be speculated upon what picture might have emerged if the Swedes had proceeded with their 1787 plans to colonise the south-west corner of the Australian continent (see blog post of 11 January 2017).