A for Aboriginal


A clip from the first indigenous TV show on ABC-TV 1973

This goes in Folder A for Aboriginal (as in Australian Aboriginal).

There is an interesting thing about how we think / how we thought about the indigenous populations of places (or entire continents) which have been taken over by

  • the Anglos
  • the Spanish
  • the Portuguese
  • the Belgians
  • the French…

The Europeans have been literally painting the map, a map on which we had white areas, and then somebody would paint there a Black guy, a naked black guy (or an “Indian”).

The story is that in 1788, on one day in January, this officer of the First Fleet finds himself in Botany Bay.

What’s the name of the officer? Tench. This man finds himself on the deck of a European ship.

This is at the end of the 18th century, we are in the decade of the French Revolution, a decade away from Napoleon, which shows you the technology level in Europe, as well as the cultural and political climate.

Officer Tench arrives in Botany Bay and he looks upon the natives, whom he calls “the Indians” (so stop making fun of Columbus for thinking that the Native Americans were “Indians”; it’s a common mistake, okay?).

Anyway, this guy Tench looks at the “Indians” and writes that the Governor is there to explain the transfer of land

between the old and the new masters.

That’s the framing. There will be a transfer:

We’re going to own this land.

Maybe you don’t have a concept of property in your language/culture; then it’s too bad for you.

But first we need people who speak our language, we need to find out what these guys are saying, we need to engage in dialogue. Naturally, this is not going to be a dialogue on equal terms.

Now try to imagine how the “civilised” Europeans tried to solve this kind of problem in the 1780s:

They captured people, they caught some Black fellows, the “Indians”, and subjected them to English language lessons.

By the way, a lot of the material I’m citing comes from a chapter in a book titled “Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia” edited by Michael Walsh and Colin Yallop; this is chapter 3 explaining about the first contact between the White fellow and the Black fellow.

This book is a must-read for any Anglo, or any Asian, or any Eastern European, or any Middle East person who is already living or who is looking forward to migrate to Australia.

Why is it necessary to read this book? Because you’re (going to live) on the land of people who’ve been treated as uncivilized brutes that were to be herded around.

Of course, we cannot apply our current understanding and morality to somebody from 1788, to officer Tench, but let’s look at what the Aboriginal folk thought about the White fellow.

The Aboriginal people were given “beads and toys”, right? The misunderstandings are incredible: We have these Black fellows captured, forced to learn English and then use them as interpreters.

Incidentally, this is (part of) my job description, so if I had lived in this period, then the colour of my skin would guarantee … what?

In Australia, a couple of Black fellows who looked smarter were “shackled”; there were hand cuffs to which a rope was attached, like you’d do with a monkey. They did this to the guy whom they told:

Okay, you’re going to interpret for us now.

Okay, how much do I get paid?

That was not a question you could ask, right? They would give him some food and shelter and that would be it.

That was the treatment and at some point one guy escaped, went back to his mob. Of course there were many, many, many others whose stories we’ll never know. What is interesting is the point of view of the Black fellows, because they feel that

“White fellow soon kill all black fellow. You good fellow, mob no kill you”.

Simply because they don’t understand you, simply because there is no common language. On the other hand, when the Black fellows fight back,

“stock-keeper shoot plenty, mob spear some”.

This is the situation, and not only in Australia, of course.

One of these Black fellows (the interpreters) is taught how to toast, forced to say every time they raise their wine glasses

“To the King!” “To His Grace” “Long live whatever!”

Accordingly, he imagines (pretty justifiably) that’s what the drink is called: The King, which results in the strange linguistic fact (but deeply revealing of the cultural background shared by these two societies which collided with each other) that

in a certain place in Australia an alcoholic drink is still referred to as “the King”.

We are at a point right now where we cannot afford to forget this kind of details, and building on these details we need to decide where we want to go from now. Let’s learn what they say. What they saw in us.

We know the accounts we have, even if you didn’t read any historical records, testimonies of people from that time, you can kind of guess the whole thing because we’re descending from the “modern man, civilised man” stock.

How did it feel on the other end? How did it feel at the other end of this dialogue? If it was bad (and I really hope you will not argue this point), I trust you understand what a huge leap we can now make by simply listening and learning more from the Black fellow.

We’ve captured the Black fellow and subjected him (and her) to our lessons for so long that for many of us this bad habit is very hard to shake.

The idea that the language barrier is surmountable through physical violence, the idea that some are superior to others by virtue of what they look like has been (let’s hope) put to rest with the Declaration of the Rights of Man;

it happened in 1789, around the same time officer Tench is sailing around Botany Bay.

We just need to keep to this path, the kaizen (Change-into-Good 改善) path, and extend our definition of man to include the Black fellow, to include the Red Skins, to include everybody else who is human, like us.


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