Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.

Paul Theroux

The Indigenous Peoples of Australia & New Zealand 🇦🇺 🇳🇿


One of the things that has been both interesting and challenging at times has been exposure to different cultures, religions, values and the environments that new countries and cities have presented. Australia and New Zealand however are a little different. They are very much ‘Westernised’ countries with populations that now reflect that.

This was not always the case though, and when I arrived in Australia and New Zealand one of the things I was keen to understand was the pre-European culture, the people and how they lived.

I hadn’t known much about the background of either, and to be honest whilst my knowledge has increased a little, I still have a lot to learn. These are my observations, drawn from the places we’ve been to and seen, things I’ve read and the people we’ve met.

In both countries it is obvious that the respective indigenous peoples are starting to seek, and get, recompense for what happened to them and their lands when the first European settlers arrived. The way they were treated was varied, as is their own background as a people and this has affected how they live their lives now in their respective countries.

The Australian Aborigines arrived in Australia in the north, from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and spread both south and east down the coast of what is now Queensland and west through the Northern Territory to Western Australia and spread across the continent.

They traded among one another and used routes following ancestral paths from The Dreaming. The Dreaming is a set of beliefs about culture, country and the land, and this set of beliefs defines their spirituality and gives the aboriginal peoples a deep understanding of the flora and fauna and the ecosystems in which they live.

When Cook arrived in 1770, there are thought to have been over 300 individual Aboriginal Nations, many with their own distinct languages and lands. Homes were generally not permanent dwellings and the people moved around their lands following the animals or plants. Such was their understanding of their environment, that even in inhospitable areas food shortages were rare. Aboriginal peoples were inextricably linked to their natural environments. All across the land, mountains, desert and sea alike, their skills and knowledge were developed according to their environment and their lives shaped accordingly.

At this time, little seems to have been done by the British settlers to learn or understand the culture or the language of these peoples. As there was no locally written history or language, a great deal of our knowledge is down to a few individuals who befriended local people and documented some of this. One of these, Lieutenant William Dawes, befriended a young woman by the name of Patyegaran. They taught each other their respective languages with Dawes’ notebooks that documented this (which still survive today and can be found here) being one of the few records that we have from those early days.

In contrast, the Māori in New Zealand arrived on boats, probably from one of the Eastern Polynesian Islands. They found a land with no land mammals, only a few species of bat that are indigenous to New Zealand, but lots of big game. A number of species of giant moa (240kg!) who, having no real natural land based predators, were easy prey for the new arrivals. Soon these species were in dramatic decline and within a hundreds years or so a number had become extinct along with those creatures who had hunted them for food (a giant eagle, the largest that has existed, at 15kg for example).

As the Māori started to farm more, more communal cooperation led rise to the Māori tribes. When competition between tribes increased, fortified villages (or ‘Pa’) started to spring up. Gradually the cultural society of the Māori distinct from their Polynesian ancestors started to develop.

Similarly to Australia, traditional culture from this early period was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth as the Māori had no written language at the time.

When Europeans started to colonise the east coast of Australia in the late 1780s on, they drove the Aboriginals from their lands. The impact on the local people through conflict and disease (particularly smallpox which killed around half of the population in the Sydney area) was devastating. It is thought that around Sydney up to 90% of the local people were lost.

As new colonies were established (Brisbane, Adelaide & Melbourne) and new settlers started to push inland they began to settle on Aboriginal homelands. These settlers were known as squatters, and were permitted by the authorities to stay on these lands (for a rent). The local peoples resisted and conflict often ensued. Stories of the slaughter of local tribes and of vigilante reprisals are common. Ultimately, the local peoples often ended up taking low and unpaid work on farms. This was the only way they could remain on their own land. The relationship between European and Aboriginal seems to generally have been one of conflict and ultimately violence.

Conversely, in New Zealand, the Europeans found they needed the local knowledge and expertise of the Māori tribes, and vice versa. The Māori took imported animals and plants from the ‘colonists’. They also took muskets which, sadly, fuelled conflict between the local tribes. This happened as they moved from north to south through the north, and then the south, islands. Interestingly, interracial conflict between Europeans and Māori was relatively limited given the circumstances.

By 1840, the British wanted to secure their interests in the colony, and incorrectly, they believed that the Māori could not deal with the growing European contact. A treaty between the British and Māori peoples was was signed on 6th February 1840 at Waitangi. We saw copies of the original treaty, or one of them, in the Te Papa museum in Wellington. Many copies were made and carried around the country for the tribal leaders to sign.

The treaty is now heavily contested.

There is an English version, promising Māori British Citizenship with full equality in return for complete rights of government. The Māori translation also promised that they would retain their chieftainship, implying local rights of government. Whilst the European settlements were small, and the governing of these quite separate from Māori settlements, this was not an issue. But as the Europeans became more numerous and more interaction between societies took place, conflict due to this misunderstanding (or miscommunication) increased.

By 1840 the British government was overcoming its reluctance to undertake potentially expensive intervention in NZ. The British were eager to secure their commercial interests and they also believed, sincerely but wrongly, that Māori could not handle the increasing scale of unofficial European contact. In 1840 the two peoples struck a deal, symbolised by the treaty first signed at Waitangi on 6th February. The Treaty of Waitangi now has a standing not dissimilar to that of the Constitution in the US. However it is even more contested.

The original problem was a discrepancy between British and Māori understandings of it. The English version promised Māori full equality as British subjects in return for complete rights of government. The Māori version also promised that Māori would retain their chieftainship, which implied local rights of government. The problem was not great at first, because the Māori version applied outside the small European settlements. But as those settlements grew, conflict brewed.

Today, both countries are starting to recognise the wrongdoings of the past. In Australia reference is always made to the local tribes and clans of the areas. But, and this seemed true in the area that we visited, often little is really known of these peoples or their language and due to the transient nature of their homes little historical evidence is left. I understand that this is different in the centre of the country. The European invasion didn’t reach here, and today Aboriginal tribes still speak in their traditional language rather than English.

However, forced resettlement, removal of children and loss of land and culture cannot be undone. There is still, despite moves by current governments, disparity of the standards between the Aboriginal Australians and the rest of Australia. This includes; education, health, employment, living standards and life expectancy. Whilst indigenous population have maintained some identity, they have no real political voice. And whilst their place in the country is now clearly recognised, and their cultural heritage promoted, they are still struggling to gain legal and cultural rights. Any gains that have been made have been hard won, but there is still a long way to go.

New Zealand, due to the different political evolution has a different challenge. Māori culture surrounds you. Across New Zealand signage is in both languages. References to the Māori history and mythology are all around and multiculturalism seems to be promoted in many aspects of life. I think this has been helped by the Māori having a single language used across the north and south islands and a complex inter tribal society before the Europeans arrived. I didn’t see any open racism in New Zealand and communities seems to coexist fairly harmoniously. Realistically, I don’t think I can comment on Australia as I actually saw very few Aboriginals. New Zealand’s challenge is now to resolve the misunderstandings and governing conflicts arising from the Waitanga Treaty.

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