Review Blog

Oct 16 2017

Colonialism and its aftermath: A history of Aboriginal South Australia edited by Peggy Brock and Tom Gara

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Wakefield Press, 2017. ISBN 9781743054994
(Age: Senior secondary) Highly recommended. This book presents a series of regional histories of the impact of colonialism on the Aboriginal peoples of South Australia since 1836, based on the research of historians, anthropologists, and linguists, and the lived experience of Aboriginal elders. Each section includes documentation of colonial history as well as the personal stories and recollections of Aboriginal people who were impacted by the spread of white settlers into their lands. People of different regions fared differently - the Narungga people of Yorke Peninsula were able to maintain a level of independence negotiating a life between the Point Pearce Mission and their own lands, despite the murders committed by pastoralists. People of the far north faced starvation as land that was once well-grassed was overrun by cattle, native animals wiped out, and their water sources muddied and degraded. A repeating story through all the regions is one of dispossession and violence.
It is so overdue for the voices of Aboriginal people to be given equal credence with the non-Aboriginal sources that generally colour our history books. And so we learn the terribly unjust story of Tom Adams, son of educated Aboriginal woman Kudnarto and an illiterate non-Aboriginal settler, who petitioned to be allowed to farm the land granted to his mother at Skylogee Creek in the Clare Valley, but who was not allowed to farm land in his own right after her death - the land was granted to white settlers. Despite his farming skills, as an Aboriginal man he was not allowed to make an independent life for himself. This is just one of many stories of the impact of harsh and inflexible government policies.
There are other personal stories - Alice Rigney was a black campaigner for education equality and women's suffrage, but her legacy is not celebrated the way we celebrate Catherine Spence and Roma Mitchell. Stories of pioneering Aboriginal women have been neglected. It takes this book to collect such stories and bring them into the historical record.
The closing chapters tell of the Spinifex people and the Maralinga bomb tests. The old concept of terra nullius, land belonging to no-one, still coloured government thinking, and led to carelessness about the fate of the people living there.
In her epilogue, Peggy Brock writes that policymakers seem to have learned little from Australia's colonial history - in recent years the Northern Territory Intervention and the introduction of the 'healthy welfare card' are two measures that have been imposed on Aboriginal people with minimal consultation; punitive measures that take away autonomy and raise the threat of child removal once again.
This book draws on much material collected since the advent of native title in 1993, and tells of the ongoing struggle of Aboriginal people to maintain their culture and connection to land despite the toll of disease, warfare, destruction of food and water sources, and relocation of people without any consideration of their community structures and relationships. It is a history that should finally be recognised and given its proper place in our school curriculum.
Helen Eddy

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