Genocide in Australia – unthinkable?

p2512 Genocide Unthinkable 300REVIEW by R.G. (DICK) KIMBER


Genocide is a difficult subject to read or talk about, given the amount of news on television which clearly indicates that it is occurring today on a large scale in Syria and at least one African country. It is even more difficult to write intelligently about it, but Professor Colin Tatz has managed remarkably well in his book, Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide (2017).


Left: Cover image showing Yosl Bergner’s Aborigines, also known as The Prisoners, 1944. NGV. See note at bottom. 


In Chapter 1 he suggests:  “The text may cause dismay. The nature of the material is distressing. It is confronting …”  (page 4). I found it so, but also found it illuminating. He gives us, as he promised, “a brief journey into the origins of genocidal ideas, the intellectual tradition of biological race theory and practice.”  (page 5). As he also says, “I want this book to be an example of novelist Tim Winton’s precept that ‘the past is in us, not behind us … things are never over.’” (page 6).


Chapter 2,  “Influences”, might seem to be a self advertisement, but is an accurate account of the many influences on Colin Tatz, a Jew who grew up in South Africa where, “[racial] distinctions were everywhere every day”.  (page 9).  He briefly discusses the appalling situations regarding apartheid. As is well known to older generations of Australians, Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a key figure in opposing this system which, with the application of sanctions by many countries, contributed to the downfall of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela becoming the first black President of South Africa.


As Tatz also indicates, the word genocide was only invented as a term by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, who “defined genocide as the purposeful killing or harming of specific groups – a much harder charge to prove.”  (pages 10, 35).


Chapter 3, “Policies”, continues his own research into Northern Territory and Queensland policies to do with Aborigines. He was appointed by Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, who was responsible for “a distinctively Australian policy” which read in 1963:


“[As] soon as their advancement in civilisation permits … all Aborigines and part-Aborigines will attain the same manner of living as other Australians, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs, and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes, and loyalties as other Australians.”


In those days, as Tatz records, the Department of Territories in Canberra had oversight of the Northern Territory, with the NT Administration based in Darwin. Its chief agency for Aborigines was the Welfare Branch.  Other agencies involved were the Commonwealth Department of Health, the NTA’s Crown Lands Branch and the police, while church missions also played an important role.


p2511 Colin Tatz 2016“There was always tension,” he writes, “between head office in Canberra and the Welfare Branch over three thousand kilometres distant.”  (page 17).


Right: Professor Colin Tatz in 2016. Supplied.


Tatz’s first task was to get up to scratch with reading on Aboriginal policy. He found this Australia-wide a very great mixture, much of it very dated and of little use. Amongst other things he discovered that the major focus in the Territory was on Aboriginal health in Darwin and near areas.  He further observes:


“Literal handfuls of papers on each of law, public health, education and political rights were to hand. Not a word on housing, sanitation, wages and working conditions, trade union connections or on civil and civic rights generally, nor – apart from anthropologist Donald Thompson’s critical newspaper articles on Presbyterian mission stations in Queensland – was there anything on mission society.”


“[There] was nothing of substance on the administrative lives of people in remote and rural communities …”  (pages 19-20).


“It took me a while to realise that Aboriginal administration on reserves was a totally closed world, sealed off by legal fences that prohibited entry except by way of special and difficult-to-obtain permits, guarded by special legislation rigidly enforced by often paranoid public servants and missionaries fearful of prying eyes …”  (page 21).


p2512 Tatz Bergner Fitzroy 350Tatz befriended many of the anthropologists and others with an interest in Aboriginal lives, and attended a conference in Canberra, the purpose being to establish an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, “a government-funded body that would ‘record the disappearing aspects of Aboriginal life before it is too late.’”


Left: Yosl Bergner, Aborigines in Fitzroy, 1941, AGSA. Image courtesy Colin Tatz.


“Not a single mention of why these people and their culture were disappearing, no talk of the special discriminatory statutes that had governed Aborigines (particularly) since the start of the century, no discussion of history, economic circumstances, welfare, social services benefits, health, education, land matters, political rights, legal standing and legal rights.” (page 24).


His research indicates that, “in this early 1960’s period, the formal administration of Northern Territory Aborigines was that of full-blood, traditional and often remote people only.”  (page 26).  A second point he makes is that there was no official wording about removal of part-Aborigines from their families; and third, “I neither saw nor heard the word suicide in any of the twenty-four communities on which I stayed as part of the research.”  (page 27). This was, as Professor A. A. Abbie (anatomist and anthropologist) indicates in his 1971 study, apparently because suicide was unknown and unthinkable to the then strongly traditional Aborigines living on remote communities.


Tatz completed his degree in early 1964 and was employed as a lecturer in politics at Monash University.  After seven years as a lecturer, and with the Aboriginal Advancement League, the latter an experience that gave him “insight into Aboriginal conditions in remote, rural, peri-urban and urban settings”, he comments “I had become an anthropologist who studied the white tribe – the bureaucrats.”  (page 28-29).


At the start of 1971 he was appointed to the foundation chair of politics at the University of New England; became chair of a project that monitored the social impact of uranium mining on Aborigines in the uranium province in Arnhem Land from 1978 to 1984; then in 1982 took the chair of politics at Macquarie University in Sydney.  (pages 29-30).


In 1984 a fellow historian, Tony Barta, convinced him “to start thinking beyond genocide, special legislation and harsh administration, but about genocide by decent colonists and good democrats, the unthinkable. He also made me aware of the need to look at the Holocaust as genocide and not some metaphysical or meta-historical event confined to Jews.” As a consequence, Tatz “introduced a course on genocide studies at Macquarie.” (page 30).


All of this is interesting background for anyone not knowing well the situation in Australia, and particularly in the Territory, since Colin Tatz commenced his research in 1960. However, the book really starts for me in Chapter 4, “Frameworks”. He writes:


p2512 Tatz Bergner Village 400“What could be more different than the Australian Aboriginal experiences as compared with that of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks between 1915 and 1923 at the hands of the Turks, or of the Jews and Romani of Europe and under the Nazis in Germany between 1933 and 1945, or the Tutsi as victims of the Hutu in a hundred days in Rwanda in 1994?  Even at this early point some readers will be indignant that Australians are bracketed in the same paragraph with these catastrophes.”  (page 33).


Right: Yosl Bergner, The Village on Fire, 1940. NGV. Image courtesy Colin Tatz.


This comment acknowledges the difficulty that most Australians have of considering the idea of genocide being applied to them.  As the greater part of the population are either the descendants of  migrants who arrived after the end of World War Two  (1945) or, if of older British background, have been born after the end of the Vietnam War (1975),  they understandably do not see themselves as directly responsible for any acts of genocide that may have occurred within Australia. This is in the sense of genocide being massacres of Aboriginal people, the last of such kind having been the Coniston massacre of 1928.


It also tends to mean that they reject any involvement in other forms of genocide, which Professor Tatz indicates includes such practices as “the forcible removal of children” [which] “ended at some point in the late 1980’s”.  (page  33).  He also states that  “where it persisted with the quarantining of Aborigines on isolated reserves, places of incarceration on government-run settlements and church missions stations”, these “regimens … caused them serious (and permanent) physical and mental harm, and came close to destroying their societal structures.”


This is too generalised a statement in my view, although quarantining of reserves was strongly the situation in Central Australia when I first visited Aboriginal communities in the 1970’s.  (It took me six months in 1970, via two applications to Harry Giese, the Director of Aboriginal Affairs in Darwin, to get permission to visit Yuendumu, and to follow explorer Warburton’s route of 1872 to1874 to the Western Australian border).


Tatz becomes very interesting in his section, “Defining Genocide.”  He comments that the historian Lemkin wanted “the newly established United Nations to inaugurate a convention (or treaty) to prevent and punish … three forms of genocide; the physical, the biological and the cultural.”  The final document, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed in December 1948,  did not specifically include “cultural genocide”.


He examines the numerous debates about the meaning of genocide, keeping in mind the Aboriginal peoples in particular, since 1948, and states as a first point, “generally one has to say that social death is not the same as physical death.” (page 37).  His second point refers to “the intentions of legislators and administrators, and whether, as the law requires, reasonable men could be expected to foresee the consequences of their actions”.   (page 37).  His third point refers to “attempting to destroy a targeted group in whole or in part.”  (page 37).  His fourth point, again keeping in mind that he is considering Aborigines, is whether the acts of genocide were “committed with intent to destroy.” (page 38).  As he states, there are numbers of people who consider that what happened to Aboriginal children “was ‘in their best interest.’”  (page 38).


p2512 Tatz Bergner FamilyFollowing on from this examination of the United Nations discussion, he makes the point that the Genocide Convention “is seriously deficient in dealing with the specific issues of prevention and punishment.”  (page 38).  As he further indicates, although Article11 (e) allows for broader definitions of genocide, most definitions limit themselves to the readily understood idea of “annihilation of a race”, which is only part of the original ideas about genocide.  However, when the founding editor of The Journal of Genocide Research, insisted that “genocide is in the act that puts the very existence of a group in jeopardy” this was, as Tatz writes, “so loose as to be meaningless.”  (page 39).


Left: Yosl Bergner, Aboriginal Family, 1942-43,  Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne. Image courtesy Colin Tatz.


In his next section, “Comparing Genocides”, he considers the meanings of ethnocide and democide, the latter indicating “the specific acts of killing by government.” (pages 40-41).  He continues:


“In the Aboriginal case, none of it was about forcible religious conversions.  A mix of motives was involved: some were land-centred, a little of it was reprisal for stock theft or sporadic attacks on settlers.  But most of it was because they were, that is, inhuman, and mostly as other than human, referred to as vermin.” (page 41). He well illustrates by use of examples what he means by this, and cautiously concludes that from the 1970’s there was “recognition, even (slow) appreciation, of their ancient civilisation, their stageful rather than stateless societies, their survival skills, social organisation, kinship systems, reciprocity mechanisms” [and  much more].


In Chapter 5, “Perspectives”, he states that genocide “is a planned, co-ordinated action that has intelligent and premeditated design.  Modern genocide stems from biological sciences … and in policies and practice that can become murderous”.  He traces this modern perception  back to the late 18th century, and perceives it as a devastating situation for the Aborigines in particular, who were regarded as “Palaeolithic”. As a result “Aborigines came to be removed, relocated, quarantined and ostensibly protected.”  (pages 55- 56).


The Northern Territory, which came under South Australian laws until 1911, gave a Chief Protector “care, custody or control [of Aboriginal people], if he thought it in their best interest; allowed him to take delivery of anyone he believed needed control; forbade non-Aboriginal entry to reserves; and allowed him to designate prohibited areas.”


Decent citizens perceived these rules as acceptable, but Tatz states that there has been “a capacity to embrace good and evil in the same breath …, or not wanting to see them in a conscious and wilful collective amnesia, Australia – like other nations – has a dark side.”  (page 63).  If most Australians, however, believe that the processes involved good intent only, this is a problem for the author, (which he acknowledges) given that genocide involves evil intent.  (pages 55, 64-65).


Chapter 6,  “Killings”, is straight forward enough. He gives well known examples of genocidal massacres which range, “from killing a dozen to ten dozen at a time.” (page 67).  However I believe that he has not been fair to Governor Arthur Phillip in suggesting that he sent out a troop of 50 men as “a reprisal exercise”, rather than an attempted arrest, for the spearing of his gamekeeper. Furthermore he uses one other instance of a massacre in the NT in 1884, known as the Coppermine murders or the Daly River murders, about which there is considerable doubt as to numbers shot. He gives the estimated number as 150 Aborigines shot, when “a local board of inquiry said it could find no proof that anyone was killed”. (page 79).  It is possible that the author has deliberately included such a case to encourage dissent from Andrew Bolt and Keith Windschuttle, who are both challenged elsewhere in the book.


(There are very few other errors of any kind in the book. However, they include the spelling of “Wilshire” on page 220, and failure to include this reference in the Index, which is otherwise correct on him under “Willshire”. There are several other omissions in the Index, including any reference to Andrew Bolt who is mentioned on pp. 136-137).


From this point on Professor Tatz is excellent in his analysis of “Harms” (Chapter 7) through potential genocidal acts, including “forcible child removal”. He puts up an excellent case for this being genocidal, but also, as always, he is honest in his statements about the legal problems in the Northern Territory. He comments:


“Aborigines were deemed citizens of the nation but minors in law, with no independent legal status, no right to sue or be sued, no right to enter into any contracts without a guardian’s permission, no right to make wills or own property and not able to give evidence on oath in courts.” (page 101). Such legislation means that it is almost impossible to conclude that child removal was, as in the instance of genocide, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part”.  (page 106).


He is similarly brilliant in his following chapters, “Removals”, “Denials”, “Apologies”, “Reparations”, “Legacies”, “Quandaries” and  “Accommodations”.  (He also includes as a final chapter “Readings”, in which he explains some of his major influences.)


His own conclusions are that, “What matters is that Aborigines today are a presence” (p.159); and that Australians must one day face up to the fact of “Our Genocide”.  (pages 202-207).


The book lacks one small chapter, given its trajectory. I believe it requires brief summaries of a few of the people mentioned who were always essentially good characters – people like Governor Arthur Phillip, Truganini and Alec Kruger.


In conclusion I believe that this is an important study for all adult people to consider.  I believe that it is worthy of some major legal prize, despite it being likely to cause many people (including myself) to want to defend themselves and their families’ stories.



Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide

By Colin Tatz

Xlibris, 2017


Note from Colin Tatz about the cover image: 


To the late Yosl Bergner, my gratitude. He was born in Vienna in 1920, lived in Poland, in Australia from 1937 to 1948, and then in Israel until his death in 2017. The obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald described him as Australia’s most important painter. Perhaps. But he was certainly the first major artist to depict the Aboriginal experience in quite that way. Some thirteen years ago, he gave me permission to use the reproduction of ‘The Prisoners’ as I saw fit, and I believe he would have approved of its use on the cover of this book.




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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Ian Sharp
    Posted March 13, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    Well said John Bell. I look forward to reading Tatz’s book now.

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  2. Posted March 12, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    This book review is a tribute to Dick Kimber’s meticulous fairness and integrity. While Professor Tatz presents contentious ideas and propositions, Dick Kimber is a scholar of impeccable honesty who treats every study – and every person – with due consideration and dignity.

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