When does a country, or land, belong to somebody or a group of people?
Is it after they have moved onto the land and not been ejected for a period of time, perhaps a generation? Is it when some changes are made by the newcomers to the environment which will make it more suitable for the newcomer: by settled agriculture or nomadic pastoral management, or by some other device imposed upon the environment? Or is it by displacement of the previous owners or settlers, by either warfare or by mass migration? Or is it when the land is purchased from the local group, whether by money or some other acceptable valuable?
Maybe the question should be extended a little further to include species, genus family, order, class phylum, kingdom, and domain. When and how does any part of the world belong to any group?
The question, of course, is not academic. It is a process that has been going on since life started on earth. Newcomers arise and displace the older group, environments change, due to either natural, or unnatural, processes, whether slow or sudden, and those best equipped to survive in the environment become dominant and may own parts of the earth.
We are well aware of the age of dinosaurs, the age of megafauna, the multitude of human species that arose and died out. Changing environments, changing species. We know of the rise and fall of civilisations: Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec, Comanche, Apache, Vikings, Romans, Assyrian, Babylonian, Celts, Mongols. What ethical or moral constraints were there during, or following, the change? As far as I can see there were none. The old were supplanted and life went on with people making the best of it as they could, as they had always done.
Consider Australia. When the first people moved into the land which we now call Australia, there were no other humans. Or maybe there were but they were displaced or killed off. Nobody knows because they are not part of Aboriginal story telling and no records have been unearthed.
But we do know that when the first people arrived, whether that was seventy thousand, or any other time in pre-recorded history, the land was not as it was a couple of hundred years ago. The country was full of megafauna and the climate and vegetation were different to today. The new landowners, who moved into an empty land, or who displaced the previous group who were here, lived through the death of megafauna, probably assisting in their demise.
Some ten thousand years ago another migration into Australia took place after the worldwide ice age had lowered all sea levels. This group brought the dingo into Australia, but whether the new group displaced or intermingled with the earlier groups is not known although it is most likely that they chased at least some of the earlier groups south until they were only left in Tasmania, an island which reappeared as the ice age receded and seas level rose. They altered the environment to suit their requirements, by fire management and developed some minor agricultural practices.
Then, five hundred years ago, or so, we had the worldwide expansion of Europeans, for both trade and conquest. There were empires being built all over the world, Americas, Asia, Africa, and the oceans, by European Nations, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, British, French, as well as fighting amongst themselves for control of Europe. The Dutch certainly reached Western Australia but they found nothing of value, just deserts and very hostile natives, not the spice islands to the north which they wished to visit. So they left. They did find Tasmania, Van Deimen’s Land but never colonised it. The big two European colonisers in the Pacific region were Britain and France and it is only by chance that Captain Cook claimed Australia before any French explorer. Cook never knew what Australia was really like, he saw so little of it and only stayed for a short time. He had other scientific work to attend in the Pacific.
The settlement of Australia by the First Fleet just beat the French by a few days. Again, the new arrivals never had any idea what they had found, they didn’t even know that Western Australia was part of the land which extended to New South Wales, as they proclaimed their settlement land on the east coast. It took many years before Mathew Flinders circumnavigated Australia and truly found what Britain had colonised, even if their colonies were scattered and very few. Most settlement was by free settlers, very few were convicts and the military were basically for the safety of the colonisers and control of convicts, not the subjugation of the local natives.
The new settlers were determined to create a new, better, life and develop the country in the way that they understood. They were farmers and graziers and builders and miners. They were connected with the rest of the world and had a world view on economics and the politics of power. These concepts appeared to be totally alien to the local inhabitants, who were overrun in many areas which were suitable for the new settlers, assisted by diseases that may have affected the new settlers but which were absolutely deadly to the indigenous population.
The new settlers prospered and grew in numbers. The local natives suffered and retreated or stayed in remote areas, or moved into the fringes of towns and cities, where they were given social security handouts. Many Aborigines assimilated into the new societies and are now part of the community. But many have been left on the outside, with their traditional lifestyle destroyed.
Australia is now a developed country with a modern economy. Land ownership has changed and is now regulated to maintain the new societies requirements. The old Aboriginal way of life is gone. There are too few who actually remember and who could live in the old ways, even if the land was available to them. Some Aborigines are actually purchasing some of their traditional lands and working them for grazing or other industrial activities. But they do not try and revert to the old indigenous native lifestyles. The social fabrics have been torn apart.
Aborigines constitute no more than 3 per cent of the Australian population, which includes a few thousand Thursday Islanders and many of these live in towns and cities and are part of the normal social fabric of the community. Many Aborigines live in Aboriginal communities but they do not live their old life styles. They are now sedentary; most have forgotten their bush skills and they are subject to first world advertising and lifestyles. These communities often consist of more than one original family group or tribe. They are losing their language and knowledge. Many are suffering from substance abuse and food choices which are unhealthy and few have any chance of improving their lot in life. Although the Constitution originally exclude aborigines from the political process, that situation was rectified in the referendum of 1964. They have full citizen rights, they can vote, they can be a political representative at all levels of government, a situation to which some have availed themselves. As an old culture they have been superseded.
And Aborigines proclaim that they did not own the land, they belong to the land, they are part of it. So, why are we so hung up about this situation now? Always was and always will be? History shows that expression to be a fallacy.
So, whose land is it?
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