An unsettling history of racism in NSW

Issue 

Unsettled Places, Aboriginal People and Urbanisation in New South Wales

By George Morgan

Wakefield Press 2006, 162 pages, $24.95

Unsettled Places shows how New South Wales Aboriginal people battled as they were pushed and pulled into urbanisation. George Morgan argues that the construction of settlements, towns and cities was more than a physical process, it involved imposing European systems of law and morality.

"For much of Australian history the presence of Aboriginal people in towns and cities was incompatible with that order and system", he writes. Aborigines symbolised "wildness", he says, and confronted European notions of superiority.

From European invasion, Aborigines were excluded, controlled or forced to abandon their culture and identity if they wanted to live with whites. Morgan shows that they have resisted all the way.

Early colonial administrators wanted to keep out all disturbing traces of Aboriginality from the large settlements. However, large numbers of Aborigines remained in Sydney. Officials saw them as "fallen" from their previous life in the bush: they were regarded as passive, demoralised and unable to shape their own destinies.

Morgan presents another view: "Their presence on the fringe, far from signifying cultural attrition, was evidence of their resourcefulness as they struggled to survive in the wake of dispossession and cultural genocide."

Herded into reserves for their "protection", Aborigines disappointed the authorities by failing to perish. "When it became clear that the Aboriginal race would not die out of its own accord the state pursued child removal and dispersal policies to hasten the breakdown of the Indigenous Social order", Morgan writes.

In the 1930s the reserves changed into centres for "confinement and cultural indoctrination" under the policy of assimilation. Aborigines were to be prepared to live in country towns alongside white neighbours — except that the white towns fought tooth and nail to prevent it and NSW governments lazily went along with it.

Post World War II, Aborigines suffered under a regime of undeclared apartheid. There were rising standards of living, welfare payments and state-sponsored housing — but not for them.

From 1969, NSW officially allowed Aboriginal people to live in cities and towns without having to abandon all their family links. But, unofficially, government housing bureaucrats still practised assimilation. Most Aboriginal people, Morgan shows, resisted the social-engineering pressure.

Morgan provides a chapter of oral history accounts of several Aborigines who lived through this period of urbanisation. These are tales of battlers who made it through an impossible situation where they were expected to demonstrate levels of sobriety, cleanliness and morality that their white neighbours clearly violated.

Out of this shared experience of racism and social disadvantage has been forged a contemporary Aboriginal culture that is "far from being a facsimile of ancient tradition", as Morgan puts it. This solidarity is "no less Indigenous culture than are corroborees, dreaming stories and body paint".

Morgan's book is a well-researched contribution to the struggle to confront the social problems of Aborigines without being sucked into romantic ideas of Aboriginality and reactionary debates over who are "real" Aborigines.