By Bruce Pascoe
What was happening in the European mind when they built ships big enough to cross oceans?
The spread of Christianity, bringing light to the dark places? Or gold? Enough gold to gild a king’s palace or a priest’s church.
After Columbus and his journey to the Americas, Pope Alexander VI provided the answer in his papal bull of 1493, The Doctrine of Discovery, which deemed that Christians could lay claim to the territory of other nations on the grounds that the Indigenes did not know the name Jesus Christ. If they resisted the right of this most reasonable test, they could be justifiably killed.
Plunder and murder
European thought and spiritual imagination were declared superior to all others. There may have been humanitarian moves afoot in England but the result was the same, robbery under arms. So, the plunder began. And the murder. The invasions of Africa, North and South America and Asia were vicious and contemptuous.
Vasco da Gama was so confident of his greater virtue that he burned alive his Muslim captives, peering through the porthole to see the deed accomplished. As affirmation of this greater spirituality, he cut off the ears of their priest and sewed on the ears of a dog in their place. Not much good for the dog either but a vivid demonstration of the superior Christian spirit.
By the time the Christians reached Australia, the colonial methods were refined to a ruthless edge. Backed by both the Church and Crown, invaders felt impervious to the claims of the Indigenous population. They refused to acknowledge the rights to land and even to their humanity.
‘Explorers’ and ‘pioneers’ saw and recorded vast croplands of tubers and grasses. They reported dams and wells, villages and roads but the pope’s bull emboldened them in the certainty that they could take anyone’s land. And life.
Their confidence that any un-Christian abomination would be smiled on by the church and indulged by both the state and courts allowed explorer and pastoralist Angus McMillan to kill hundreds of Aborigines in Gippsland. Of course, there were many others involved in massacres all over Australia and these massacres are well documented, but even today, some Australians confect ways of denial.
That denial produces confidence in today’s law to turn a blind eye to deaths in custody, to people being shot in their homes in Yuendumu, to the explosion of the world’s oldest art and for the shares of the nationally respected perpetrating company to rise.
The rest of the world understands Australian theft and murder, mainly because of their participation in similar acts, but in Australia, we pretend bemusement or outright hostility to the mere suggestion.
And we are such fair-go, good-bloke larrikins that we become furious when a sportsman accuses others of racism. My father was aghast and demoralised when a football trainer refused to massage the legs of a black footballer. Dad was a Christian but he felt that God had deliberately walked out of that room.
This attitude to Aboriginal Australians continues today and pervades the assumptions of every institution.
While the public sentiment and colloquial banter maintain that Aborigines did nothing with the land and are just lucky that Europeans turned up, then that sentiment seeps subliminally into every school, every church, every court and every employment agency.
We have said sorry as a nation; we have urged our population to avoid racist talk, but it is not yet a thread in our national cloth. The loom is ready to weave a new one but the weaver has not been taught the pattern and in many cases, does not believe the thread exists.
Doesn’t our democracy look efficient when you compare it to the COVID-19 response in the rest of the world? Don’t we look peaceable when you look at the Speaker’s chair in our Parliament and see there no vandal wearing horns?
Yes, we do many things well but we are selective and most of all, we are selective about what we believe about the entry of Europeans into this continent and why they entered.
Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man and two of his recent books are Dark Emu and Loving Country.