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© Tyson Yunkaporta
May 29, 2006
Was Australia's first Governor, by empirical definition and his own admission, a terrorist? And how does our current government compare?
Acknowledging The Thin Ice
Firstly I should say that I am not making arbitrary judgements and opinionated claims here. I am aware that painting the "early settlers" and "brave old pioneers" of colonial mythology as terrorists - the ultimate 21st century bogeyman - is tantamount to treason and strikes at the heart of dominant cultural identity. I really don't need to be lynched right now, so I will just stick to the facts, quotes and definitions. I apologise for any offense, but I am not changing history here - merely quoting it as it is recorded.
"Universal Terror" Statement
The quote (1790) from Governor Phillip that drew my attention and inspired this article is as follows:
"...strike a decisive blow, in order, at once to convince them of our superiority, and to infuse an universal terror."
Now, if I hadn't already situated this quote in an historical context, you may have imagined the words to be from some stereotypical fanatical Middle Eastern despot hiding out in a cave. You may have felt outrage, and immediately felt protective or supportive towards the intended victims of this "universal terror". But if you know that this quote is from the first British Governor of Australia, and is referring to the first planned military attack on Aboriginal people, do you still feel the same way? Surely you must.
Terrorism, By Definition
Keeping this feeling in mind, consider also that terrorism is generally accepted as the use of violence, or the threat of violence, in a civilian community to force political or religious change. Could Governor Phillip's statement and actions fit this definition? Could his orders to capture two Aborigines and decapitate ten more randomly from a targeted tribe be construed as an act of violence against a civilian community to force political change? Arguably, yes.
British Humanitarian Guidelines
But wasn't he just following orders? Not necessarily. The British Government repeatedly insisted that the colony be founded based on mutual agreement between natives and settlers as to areas of settlement, and continually stressed that force was not to be used. Even Captain Cook's first voyage included the following guidelines:
* "To have it still in view that shedding the blood of those (Aboriginal) people is a crime of the highest nature."
* "They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit."
* "No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent."
* "Conquest over such people can never give just title..."
* "They may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders..."
If this was indeed the attitude of the British administration that sent the colonists to Australian shores, then why the subsequent genocide? Why the Governor's blatant refusal to follow policy and instead decide to "infuse an universal terror"? Well, I don't speak for these people, so it's not my place to answer these questions.
But the fact remains that, as the systematic annihilation of Indigenous peoples on this continent was not sanctioned by the invaders' Government, then by definition the colony was built on, at worst, murder, or at best, war crimes.
It is possible that, at some level, everybody is aware of this. This might explain the fanatical and often violent opposition that still occurs towards any suggestion of Aboriginal Rights and Native Title. The stain of guilt is there, just below the surface, and to reveal it would be to destroy the nation's identity. Opposing Indigenous rights is therefore seen as a matter of ethnic survival for the dominant culture, and as such, violent or fanatical opposition is to be expected. But does any of this opposition these days still take the form of terrorism?
Scenarios For Discussion
We would have to examine individual cases of political actions in Indigenous communities to discover that. I will give a sample scenario below, for you to practise on. Compare the scenario to the definition of terrorism in the 5th paragraph, or even substitute an alternative definition. Please feel free to post your analysis or opinion in the discussion section below. Also feel free to post other scenarios for analysis, from anywhere around the world where suspected acts of terrorism are being committed against Indigenous people.
An Indigenous community is pressured by Australian government representatives to give approval for a tavern to be built in what is currently a dry town. Three referendums are held on the question, and the unanimous community response each time is "no!", despite a lot of pro-alcohol campaigning. Eventually the tavern is built anyway, against the wishes of the community. A few years later the government decides to take what it calls "tough measures" against the same community with regard to welfare and crime, in response to horrific problems caused by chronic alcoholism. Graphic reports of individual cases of child abuse by Indigenous alcoholics are presented in the media to shock the wider community into accepting the "tough measures" as the preferred solution. Could any element of this scenario be described as an act of terror?