Field Trip: Dark lessons from a colonial past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:38pm

On our way to Noosa, a beach resort on Australia's east coast, we came across a place called Murdering Creek and a road with a similar name.

They seemed out of place in what is now a pleasant town crammed with boutique hotels, designer clothes shops and a government-protected nature reserve. But Noosa, like many places in Australia, has a dark side to its history.

When my family and I lived in Beijing - before setting off on a five-month tour of Bali, Australia and New Zealand - we learned about the colonialism that had scarred China for more than a century.

Our eight-year-old son, Sam, and five-year-old daughter, Tilly, are being home-schooled along the way. But why people sometimes treat each other badly has been a difficult lesson to teach the youngsters.

Recently, we have been learning how colonialism touched Australia as well. And it had disastrous consequences for its original inhabitants.

Noosa sits about halfway up the Sunshine Coast, a strip of land to which people flock for holidays. Until the early 19th century, it was home to the Gubbi Gubbi people, who like many Aboriginal tribes, were hunter-gatherers.

The first European explorers arrived in 1823 from Sydney looking for cedar timber. They initially got on well with the Aborigines, but that soon changed.

More white men arrived to cut down the lush rainforest around Noosa, and then gold was discovered nearby. That marked the beginning of the end for the Gubbi Gubbi. The dates and facts seem unclear, but in the 1870s a group of squatters - settlers occupying Aboriginal land - and the police massacred a group of Gubbi Gubbi near a stream now known as Murdering Creek.

"Massacres, cheap alcohol, foreign diseases and the loss of our traditional lands bring our peaceful life and customs to an end," said one of the Gubbi Gubbi afterwards.

This story was repeated throughout Australia as new settlers from Europe and elsewhere moved into - and claimed - land that already had people on it.

When the British first arrived in Australia they declared this vast land to be terra nullius, a Latin legal term that effectively meant the land belonged to no one.

It was a convenient designation for the settlers, who could take land at will and ignore that it had people on it.

The island continent's original inhabitants have fared little better since the first settlers took over.

One policy forced Aborigines to give up their children, who were taken away and brought up as white children. And compared to white Australians, Aborigines are still more likely to be involved in violent crime, die early and suffer from alcoholism.

Aboriginal tour guide Rachael Arnold says the main problem is that Australia's original inhabitants went from "stone age to space age" in just a few years. Some Aborigines have adopted Western lifestyles, but others suffer from depression because of their failure to change.

"Few people have adapted successfully to living in both worlds," says Arnold, who operates safaris with her husband in the Kakadu National Park.

The tours give visitors a taste of how the park's original inhabitants lived.

During my family's 10-week tour of Australia, we had just a few glimpses of this huge country's traditional people, limited to a family eating in a park, an artist at a tourism spot and a didgeridoo player in the centre of Sydney.

Sadly, they seem little more than a sideshow in modern Australia. But Arnold believes that there is much we can learn from them.

Patience, respect for the land, and that happiness does not lie in material objects are some of the qualities Arnold thinks we should strive to adopt in our own lives.

Looking at Australia's great wealth - in part funded by the sale of raw materials to China - it is sometimes hard to keep those ideas in mind. But we are doing our best to show Sam and Tilly that there is a much longer and different history Down Under than might be noticeable at first glance.

Helen Leavey and her family are taking the long road home to Britain after more than seven years in Beijing