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In the last few years Sven Lindqvist has become one of my favorite nonfiction authors. He probes some of the worst situations in human history, yet always ends up with giving us some hope for our future. In earlier books, such as Exterminate All The Brutes he chronicles the history of European genocides in Africa, and in The Skull Measurers Mistake he chronicles a history of men and women who spoke out against racism. In this volume, Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land, he chronicles the history of racism and systematic abuse against the Aboriginals from Australia, from the arrival of James Cook in 1770 to 1992 when the Mabo Decision in the Australian Supreme Court outlaws the concept of 'terra nullius'.

Like many of his earlier books it is written as part history and part journal. He chronicles events from the past, key places in this history story, and side by side with that is his journey to and fro across the Australian countryside to personally experience the places discussed in the history. He writes in a very fluid, lucid style. At times it appears to be stream of conscious writing, yet as the reader goes further and further into the book, you realize that it was nothing so random. Every history event portrayed has a specific purpose; each personal recollection brings to light either the preceding or following events; each portrait of either a victim or someone who attempted to help the victims has specific meaning and purpose to the whole.

What amazed me most about this book was that it was a story with which I was completely unfamiliar. I remember in school in the late 70's and early 80's that we often had lessons on apartheid and the situation in South Africa, and even Africa as a whole. Later in high school and into university I often encountered history around the Latin American situation and especially liberation theology, and again in film with such powerful movies as The Mission, Cry Freedom, Amistad and others. Yet never have I encountered these stories and events. Such as:

1911 In the Northern Territory, The Aboriginals Ordinance gives a protector appointed by the 'whites' authority to take any Aborigine of 'half-blood' into custody at any time. The ordinance remained in force until 1957.
1937 The Native Administration Act gives Chief Protector legal instruments with which to 'breed out' the Aborigines, the 'final solution' to the race problem in Western Australia.
1953 The Welfare Ordinance (NT) substitutes the racially neutral word 'ward' for 'Aborigine'. More than 99 percent of the Aboriginal population is declared 'wards' of the state.
1962 Aboriginal people acquire the right to vote in state and commonwealth elections, even though they are still wards of the state.
1964 Aboriginal people are no longer wards of the state, but in name only.
1967 Aboriginal people are included in the national census.
1983 Sixteen Year old John Pat dies in police custody; 5 officers are charged but acquitted.
1991 The Year of Indigenous People.

Lindqvist's book portrays brutal acts by individuals and by a people as a whole. It is not uplifting or enjoyable in the message it portrays. Yet it should be considered essential reading, for man's inhumanity to other humans must be remembered, and we need to remember those few who spoke out against it. Lindqvist's book is easy to read and flows well, but the subject matter and events depicted will be seared into your memory.

(First Published in Imprint 2009-06-26.)
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on 12 October 2010
Another great book from Sven Lindqvist. This is a unique blend of informed travelogue with historical analysis, social anthropolgy, and the origins of modern Australian art & literature.

Lindqvist accounts for how the white European settlement of Australia in turn resulted in the wholesale systematic dispossession of the indigenous aboriginal peoples. Of course it doesn't end there - not only were their lands and waters stolen but there was a conscious attempt to actually exterminate them altogether. Citing countless and varied sources he demonstrates how this peaked in the 1930s - one exponent even calls it 'the final solution' - and would even continue in many aspects well into the post-WW2 era.

Families are seperated, children interned in labour camps, boys made to pearl-dive, girls sent away as maids (often to repeated sexual & physical abuse), mothers would have their babies taken away, and the men would be utterly disenfranchised and often arrested, rounded-up, beaten, disappeared, and even shot. Time after time the authorities would turn a blind eye or even encourage these acts. The prison islands for supposed carriers of STDs were little more than concentration camps for the thousands...

Towards its end, Lindkvist's book explores how through art the persecuted peoples have made a sort of breakthrough into modern Australian identity and consciousness. The subject of restitution is an ongoing one and has clearly become a hot political issue in 21st century Australia.

As others will doubtless echo - all Australians should read this book, but it isn't a story unique to that country alone. We should all look at our own countries and ask ourselves did this happen here? Did we do it over there? Are we still responsible for it happening?
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on 3 January 2010
I had a general interest in the concept of 'terra nullius' before reading this book, but I had very little knowledge of Australia and still less of its colonisation by Britain.

In the form of a travelogue, this book provides a widely sweeping yet detailed account of the appropriation of Australia and the disregard and contempt of the invaders for the indigenous population, their customs, or their right to life. In graphic detail it recounts how the last of the surviving Tasmanians were rounded up and herded together before being mass slaughtered, thus effecting their total extermination by their civilised, Christian European invaders who wanted their lands.

As well as this detailed history of the theft of Australia, the author gives a vivid panoramic view of the geography of Australia and the lifestyle of its European settlers.
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Literary historian Sven Linqvist was introduced to Australia at a young age. An 1896 book described how white European invaders viewed and treated the Aborigines. The story depicted a trio of young European boys encountering a group of Aborigines at a meal. Tucked away in a deep cavern, which to the boys meant the Aborigines couldn't have hunted the meal, the boys immediately concluded the group was engaging in cannibalism. The result was inevitable, the boys opened fire with their carbines, wiping out the "natives". For Lindqvist, it launched a train of thought he pursued years later. Journeying around and through Australia, he brought in his swag a background of European literature dealing with "primitive" peoples. In this vivid account, he takes us on both a geographic and a sociological tour of Australia's historical dealings with its indigenous population. At each stopping point, he relates what occurred to the Aboriginal occupiers there. It's not a pretty story.

The Aborigines were the focus of a good many early ethnographic scholars, almost none of whom set foot on the southern continent. Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Bronislaw Malinovski, among others, read a few accounts of missionary or other observers to draw novel, if still Euro-centric, ideas of what Aborigine social structure was like and what it meant for human history. The common theme was that primitive societies represented a step on the way to "civilisation". According to Lindqvist, these scholars were uniformly incorrect. Instead of family, clan or even religion binding Aborigine society, it was the land they occupied. Europeans, who considered nomadic peoples as "landless", failed to observe the way land featured in family relationships, religion and the way a people who seemed to be constantly on the move, viewed the land. Aborigines may not have farmed the soil or used it to pasture animals, but that was because they understood how fragile that resource truly is. Europeans, under the influence of Christian dogma about "heathens" and academic dogmas about "primitive people", occupied Aborigine land with the view to "assimilating" or eradicating them. Assimilation was achieved by elimination of all ties to their own culture and a brief education leading to demeaning jobs as domestics or labourers.

The colony of New South Wales considered the issue of "terra nullius" ["land not occupied"] in the 1820s, but the author mercifully skips over the issue of whether displacing or killing Aborigines was "legal" or not. Instead, he views it as the attitude and the practice of Christian European settlers and miners as they crossed the continent. Until recently, only a few accounts made any effort to bring the Aborigines into historical narratives. Lindqvist makes the most of what he can find to depict the atrocities perpetrated against them. Beyond merely shooting them, Europeans also turned to the seizure of children to be trained in "mission" stations to be domestic servants or road and farm labourers. In addition to simply breaking up families with this tactic, the removal of children dismantled the entire social structure of the culture. With firm ties to particular areas of the countryside and ancient traditions regarding who could marry among the various "moieties", Europeans demolished millennia of finely-tuned cultural foundations.

As a literary historian with a broad outlook in philosophy, the author carefully examines the options facing the white population of Australia. How much guilt is to be recognized when you're living in a place so blatantly wrested from an indigenous population? How much responsibility is there for an individual in those circumstances to consider or bear? It's interesting that Australians have had sufficient sense of conscience to implement a "Sorry Day" in recognition of the injustices done to original peoples. Court cases finally introduced [almost] full citizenship, some justice for recent murders and, most significantly, recognition of what "land rights" implied. Regrettably, the federal government of the time [recently overturned after an over-long tenure] immediately attempted to impose new restrictions on access to sacred places. Even so, some halting first steps have been taken. It will be interesting to watch whether Lindqvist's account provokes Australia into more constructive steps into the future. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 23 February 2013
Sling another Abo on the barbie, Bruce, and round up a few of their Sheilas...
How Australia was built on the backs of its indigenous people. A shocking account, stark, original and humane.
Lindqvist doesn't waste a word or a moment of your time as he transforms your outlook and scorches the facts into your imagination.
A remarkable historian who thinks with feeling.
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