Tag Archives: terra nullius

The lingering infection of terra niullius

By JIM POULTER

EVERYBODY is familiar with the term “terra nullius”.

Australia was purportedly owned by no-one and the British used the term to justify colonisation.

Nowadays, almost everyone rejects the validity of this notion, but very few of us really understand its full implications.

We remain essentially unaware of how terra nullius still insidiously and unconsciously influences our thinking.

Aboriginal people hate the term terra nullius with a passion, and rightly so, because it strongly implies that Aboriginal people had a vacuous culture and achieved nothing.

After all, they were just a primitive bunch of people wandering around bumping into trees.

They did not use the land, had not even invented the wheel, and their only technological achievement was a bent stick that came back when you threw it.

Aboriginal people did of course cultivate the land, but not in the intensive, exploitative and unsustainable way that most other world cultures did.

All Aboriginal knowledge was integrated through the totem system to ultimately serve ecological purposes.

So whether it was knowledge related to science, art or religion, it was all focussed on ecological outcomes.

Even the nursery rhymes sung to little children had an ecological message.

Think of all the descriptors usually applied to traditional Aboriginal society.

Words like simple, primitive, pagan, uncivilized, nomadic, stone-age, hunter-gatherers.

These are all pejorative terms that put western civilisation at the highest level and Aboriginal society at the lowest level.

Never mind that western society has over the last 3000 years had a history of internecine war, conquest, rolling plagues, overpopulation, social inequality, gross disparities of wealth and poverty, plus religious and political persecution.

Aboriginal society had none of this, but ironically the sustained warfare of European and Asian history created the spur for technological achievement.

This technological advancement is then taken as a sign of a “higher” civilization.

Darwin put forward the idea of natural selection and this was immediately seen as a justification for western conquest and colonisation of others.

It was simply “survival of the fittest” in action. Many world cultures are so inured by their histories of warfare, that it is regarded as part of human nature. Many people therefore flatly refuse to believe there were never any wars of conquest or invasion in Aboriginal Australia.

The proof that there were no wars of conquest is simple.

Show me one myth, story, legend, dance or song from anywhere in Australia that depicts either the victories of a warrior king, the subjugation and enslavement of others, or an uprising against a despotic ruler. It just never happened.

The real problem is that spurious notions like this have seeped into our consciousness and we do not know how to challenge these received wisdoms.

This is the foundation of institutional racism, the process by which prejudicial ideas are ingrained into present day social perceptions.

However, this should not be interpreted as meaning that Australians are racist.

Australians are overwhelmingly fair minded people who meet and greet people as equals.

This is the cornerstone of our national culture. But what we fail to understand is how the prejudices of our forefathers continue to unwittingly shape our thinking.

The idea of terra nullius is in fact behind our inability to recognise a road or highway we are travelling on as an ancient songline.

It is behind our inability to recognise a river rapids area, like at Warrandyte township, as an original site for fish traps or a mussel farm.

It is also the reason why many historians make blatant errors when they try to interpret Aboriginal behaviours.

Their assumptions are often unconsciously based on ideas of European superiority.

Before giving a classic example of this fallacious thinking I will cite two facts.

First, Aboriginal people had ingrained cultural habits of listening and sound replication that made them gifted linguists. All Aboriginal children were brought up multilingual.

Second, Aboriginal people travelled extensively and safely through other tribal areas as long as they stuck to the designated songline and observed proper protocol.

However, when Aboriginal people tried to communicate these protocols to early colonists, it was wrongly assumed that Aboriginal people were frightened to leave their own country.

In 2008, AFL historian Gillian Hibbins, dismissed the possibility of any connection between Marngrook and Australian Football with the comment, “Aborigines….lived within quite clearly defined tribal areas, speaking a language different from those of other tribal areas.

“Aboriginal tribal strangers were regarded with suspicion and did not trespass without being killed.”

This comment clearly painted Aboriginal people as a simple, primitive, xenophobic and violent bunch.

Its roots were clearly embedded in the notion of terra nullius.

The comment is a glowing example of institutional racism by a historian who claims for herself the highest standards of academic scholarship.

Unfortunately, it is just one of many examples of the lingering infection of terra nullius.

Opening the door to reconciliation

THE COUNCIL chambers’ gallery was filled with friends, family and colleagues on April 24 as Doctor Jim Poulter was presented with Manningham’s Key to the City.

Jim’s important works with Reconciliation Manningham, as a social advocate and as a member of Manningham’s University of the Third Age is the reason Council chose to recognise him with one of the highest honours they can bestow.

Many Diary readers will recognise Jim’s name from his Indigenous history column, Birrarung Stories.

Manningham Mayor Andrew Conlon had this to say before presenting Jim with his award:

“Jim has made a significant contribution to the reconciliation movement.
“Jim has worked closely with Aboriginal Elders and Indigenous organisations to produce educational material on Aboriginal history and cultural practices… has published 25 books, including several acclaimed Aboriginal-themed children’s books, and sold more than 70,000 copies in the past 30 years.
“This includes several acclaimed Aboriginal themed children’s books.
“Jim was also a founding member of Doncare and the Manningham Community Health Centre.
“Since retirement, Jim continues to contribute to the community, giving talks on Aboriginal history and heritage as well as conducting history walks along the Yarra River in Manningham.”

“This is a vehicle to do more — if they are going to give me a key to the city, well it’s got to unlock something, even if it is only their minds.”

At an intimate reception held in the Manningham function rooms following the council meeting, Jim spoke about the significance of his award and his feeling that this is a positive step forward in recognising the rights of Indigenous Australians.

“It’s gratifying to have achievements recognised, but the reality is nobody achieves anything without the help and support of family, friends and colleagues.

“Life’s a journey and we are all involved in journeys with each other and some of our common journeys are for a short time, a long time or sometimes a lifetime,” he said gesturing to his wife of 60 years.

Jim later expanded on the significant role his wife and family have played in enabling him to give in the way he has and how his wife is there to “hose me down every now and again when I get too exuberant”.

Jim concluded his thank you speech with his vision of the future of reconciliation in Manningham.

“This is not the culmination of anything, this is the start of the next phase and gives us the opportunity to get the view of council of what we will be doing next, to make sure that the myth of terra nullius is put to bed in Manningham.

“Council has established a reputation as the leading municipality in reconciliation… so tonight is about building on that.”