There’s a knock on your front door. You open it. There’s a stranger there, pleasant enough, say’s he’s looking around the neighbourhood for somewhere to live. You invite him in, give him a cup of tea. He goes on his way.
Some time later, he appears at the door again. This time with several friends, some of whom you really don’t like the look of. Somewhat reticently, you invite them in. Gradually, they begin to take over your house. Where you thought they only wanted to look around, it becomes obvious they’re not going away.
They bring in their own food, spread themselves around all the rooms, trash your furniture, clog up your plumbing and generally wreck your house while hardly taking notice of you.
Eventually you find yourself sleeping in the backyard.
They’ve taken over completely.
This is, more or less, what happened in what we now call Australia when the first Europeans arrived, although as an allegory, it doesn’t begin to describe the impact and the devastation that European invasion visited on the original Australians and the land that they had turned, over millennia, into what historian Bill Gammage has called ‘the biggest estate on earth.
First we barged in.
It was on the 12th of November 1777 that the ships which would become known as The First Fleet weighed anchor in the Cape of Good Hope and set sail for the country that they would eventually name Australia.
They had come half way around the world to an unknown land, officially to establish a colony. But that was not the real reason for the journey. As Robert Hughes writes, ‘In their most sanguine moments, the authorities hoped that it (the voyage and subsequent ones) would swallow a whole class – the “criminal class.”’
But there was another agenda, as expressed by Lieutenant Watkin Tench in his first book A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. As Tench saw it, upon leaving the Cape, they ‘soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarousland and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries’
A good start what? No pre-judging there. One could understand ‘remote’ but ‘barbarous’? How did they know that? The only reports they would have had from Cook and Banks’ visit eighteen years before did not indicate barbarity, rather temerity. The first indigenous Australians they saw threw rocks, or threw spears (darts Cook called them) or ran away. The first Europeans they saw fired guns.
As we have subsequently learnt, the original Australians had extraordinary methods of communication and doubtless stories like Philip’s capture and chaining of Arabanoo which, although the man came to no harm, would have been alarming. This was not how guests behaved to their hosts.
The first Europeans didn’t arrive empty-handed. Along with ‘trinkets for the natives’ they bought a considerable amount of food and livestock.
From England they had brought carrots, potatoes, lettuce, asparagus, onions, broccoli, beans, peas, watercress, wheat, barley, rye and oats. Also apples, pears, plums, cherries and a selection of citrus including navels, Seville oranges and Tahitian limes. Everything they needed to re-create home, including cattle.
So the uninvited guests arrived with their own food and their own methods of agriculture from the other side of the planet – methods that would prove disastrous. But first, they had to steal the land.
Then we stole their land
The British treated Australia as terra nullius—as un-owned land. Under British colonial law, Aboriginal Australians had no property rights in the land, and colonisation accordingly vested ownership of the entire continent in the British government. The doctrine of terra nullius (by whatever name) remained the law in Australia throughout the colonial period, and indeed right up to 1992.
By proclaiming the land empty, in the eyes of the law – and by extension, the eyes of the European populace – Aboriginal Australians did not really exist. How did this illogical and immoral doctrine come about in the first place? Nowhere else in the world, neither in New Zealand nor North America, had the British propounded or adopted such a policy. The reasons for the adoption of terra nullius are complex, and tied, in a great part, to agriculture: that is, its invisibility to the colonisers.
Those who arrived in Australia in the late eighteenth century believed that ‘a society without agriculture was therefore a society without property rights in land.’ Because the local peoples were assumed to have no agriculture, and therefore no farms, no fences, no stock, no gardens, they had no property rights. This was not a new way of looking at society, at property. European thinkers like Adam Smith posited that all societies passed through four stages: hunting, pasturage, farming and commerce. Each of these stages corresponded to a set of political and economic institutions, one of which was property. Hunter-gatherers, as the indigenous Australians were thought to be, owned no property, did not know the meaning of property and, therefore, had no property rights. As we have begun to discover, although these stages of society were essentially correct for the much of the world, Australia, before 1788, was the exception. But there was more to the application of terra nullius than the perceived lack of agriculture.
The first settlers damned the locals as dirty, indigent, lazy and not quite human. On returning to England, William Dampier reported ‘The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World…. setting aside their Human(e) Shape, they differ but little from Brutes.’ As for their diet, he wrote ‘There is neither herb, root, pulse, nor any sort of grain for them to eat that we saw; nor any sort of bird or beast that they can catch, having no instruments wherewithal to do so.’
Can the settlers be blamed for their disdain of the original Australians ? Can we judge them by the standards of today? A difficult but perhaps not a relevant question. By any standards they treated the people they found here as little better than animals and ignored their human rights. Not all agreed.
In 1802 the French explorer Nicholas Baudin was in New South Wales, and he took the opportunity to give Governor Philip Gidley King a piece of his mind about terra nullius. “To my way of thinking,” Baudin declared, “I have never been able to conceive that there was justice and equity on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of the Governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals which has been given them, whilst they were but the children of nature and just as little civilised as are actually your Scotch Highlanders or our peasants in Brittany….’ Baudin reproached King for “seizing the soil which they own and which has given them birth.”
But the prevailing viewpoint is expressed in this editorial from the Sydney Herald in 1838:
‘This vast land was to them (Aborigines) a common – they bestowed no labour upon the land, their right, was nothing more than that of the emu or the kangaroo…..The British people…took possession…, and they had a perfect right to do so, under the Divine authority, by which man iscommanded to go forth and people, and till the land.”
And verily they did.
Then we trashed their food.
In his book Tukka, Australian native food chef and restaurateur Jean Paul Bruneteau wrote ‘The total disregard of a civilisation’s cultural basis was evident from the theft and fencing of land within traditional cultivation areas. Unless a food could be cultivated, it was considered to be of no real value.’
We occasionally we ate native produce and game. Tench believed that a drink made from native sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphilla) saved many from scurvy. But we never really took to the native foods, treating them, as best, as substitutions for ‘the real thing.’ In Barbara Santich’s paper on early colonial experimentation with native produce, it is this idea of substitution which puts native produce in its place. In writing of her use of murnong (yam daisy), Santich quotes settler Katherine Kirkland remarking ‘ I have put it in soup for want of better vegetables before we had a garden.’
But how did we steal their food if we didn’t eat it? By trampling all over it with an imported and, as we are now discovering, totally unsuitable method of agriculture. Just one example.
The tubers of the Murnong plant (Microseris scapigera), or yam daisy, were an important food source. They were abundant and easily collected and one of the staple foods of Victorian Aborigines. G.A. Robinson, in north-central Victoria in 1840 saw ‘women spread over the plain as far as I could see them….I examined their bags and baskets on their return and each had a load (of murnong tubers) as much as she could carry.’18 But murnong grew in the rich soil of that country and favoured for grazing livestock. By 1831, 700,000 sheep were grazing across Victoria, eating the leaves and digging up the tubers of the murnong. In 1839, a Goulburn Aborigine Moonin-Moonin pointed out that ‘plenty eat it murnong, all gone murnong.’
The transformation of the land to grow more European food would lead to degradation. The cattle and sheep and imported agricultural methods did more than ruin the land: they broke a profound spiritual connection with it which enabled Aboriginal Australians to care for the entire continent – and to ensure an abundant food supply.
Then we took their culture and their health.
Gammage writes ‘Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused.’
You’ve probably heard of totems. Each individual in pre- 1788 society had a totem. This totem carried a multitude of responsibilities, primeary amongst them to ensure the survival of that totem. Gammage writes of one man he met whose totem was the maggot, a most important link in the chain of creation. Gammage’s book painstakingly gathers and lays out the evidence that ‘collectively (the original Australians) managed an Australian estate they thought of as single and universal…’
What exactly did we take from them? According to native Australian food merchant and nutrition scientist Vic Cherikoff, ‘The average Australian (today) would be eating 70 to 80 different foods a year – in the cities. The gourmand who’d be eating white asparagus when it came into season, all the mushrooms, Asian vegetables, herbs and spices – you’d be touching 100 ingredients a year. Move away from the city they’ll eat 40, sometimes less
The Aboriginal people in traditional times, in the western desert, 150 different foods in a year. Move up into the tropical north, 750 different foods.’24 And, according to recent CSIRO and RIRDC research, the nutritional density of these foods far surpassed our cultivated foods today.
And what happened to the diet of the original Australians when they were removed from their land, when they could no longer hunt or dig for murnong? Michael Symons writes that they ‘drifted into the mining settlements, stations and coastal towns’ and ‘became tragically dependent’, their diet came to ‘consist of white flour for damper, white sugar for tea, camp pie, salt and beer.’ Considerably less than 150 different foods. The result? Diabetes, third world mortality rates, and other problems only too well-known, many of which are specifically linked to poor nutrition.
Was that any way for guests to behave?
So we came and stole their land, their culture and cut off their food supply. To add insult to considerable injury, we refused, for over 200 years, to eat the food that grew here.
This began early – and in many ways, still goes on The annals and journals of those who explored the Australian outback make compelling reading for their encounters with native foods. They often ran out of the supplies they took with them, and had to make decisions about ‘going native’, often with disastrous results. The tragedy of Burke and Wills who refused, until the very last, to touch the food of the ‘savages’ is perhaps the best know of these stories.
Anne Gollan writes of the death of a man called Brooks at the Carlo Border Netting Camp near Mulligan River who insisted on eating only his European food. ‘It is strange and sad to think of him dying so bravely, in his lonely grave, when all around him were wild yams, anyeroo nuts, growing prolifically in the sand hills, and the various wild bananas and nuts of the region’
Have we changed? I recently interviewed Raymond and Jennice Kersh, two contemporary pioneers of Australian native cuisine in their three consecutive restaurants called Edna’s Table, the last of which closed in 2005.
At their first location in Kent Street, chef Raymond Kersh used native ingredients, but he told me ‘you couldn’t put it on the menu what you were using because nobody knew what they were anyway – we were just using them to create flavours.’ When they moved to their next restaurant, in the MLC Centre, they began to name the ingredients on the menu, and, as Raymond said ‘… that scared the living daylight out of the customers.’
Raymond went on to recount a story from that time. ‘We had a customer who was a real regular. He was a fantastic customer when we were at Kent Street. He came to the MLC and ate the same food and read on the menu what he’d been eating all along and he turned around and said to me “what are you using this Abo shit for?” That was the late 1990s, and that was, the Kershes told me, a common reaction.
So, finally, we stole their land, their culture, their spirituality, and their food. Which we not only refused to eat, but thought of as ‘shit.’
Have we been good guests? No. But all indications are that we’re getting better. Which is what I’m currently engaged in writing about.
(In this piece I’ve quoted extensively from Bill Gammage’s very important book The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia.)