Impact of Colonisation on Indigenous People


Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The process of colonization upon Indigenous Australians by Marcia Hewitt UWA


The effects of European colonialism on the social, economic and political structures of small-scale societies such as those found in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam.
Describe the process of colonisation ­ who how and why? Discuss also the responses to the changes imposed and the ways in which the social changes experienced impact upon the lives of the descendants of those colonised.

Question 2: Option 2 -Colonisation

In this essay I will describe the process of colonization upon Indigenous Australians, and very specifically I will describe the socio-cultural impact of European settlement on Indigenous health. I will also try to demonstrate why Aboriginal people have not acculturated successfully to European medical systems.

It is well documented that the poor health of Indigenous Australians in contemporary society can be largely attributed to the European invasion. After James Cook reached the shore of Sydney Cove in 1788 and colonization of the land began, the previous tranquility of Aboriginal people’s lives changed forever. Colonisation not only disrupted traditional Aboriginal lifestyle but it also has been identified as the most important factor contributing to the poor health status of Aboriginal people today..

It is essential to understand the meaning of health to Aboriginal people because contrary to the Western meaning of well-being, it is a multi-dimensional concept embracing all aspects of living. According to the National Aboriginal and Island Health Organisation the definition of health is as follows: “Not just the physical well being of the individual but the social emotional and cultural well-being of the whole community. This is a whole-of-life view and it also includes the cyclical concept of life.” (Eckermann et al 1992) Reports also suggest that Aboriginal people were relatively free of disease and they enjoyed better health conditions compared to the large proportion of the British population at the time of colonization.

The colonizers, usually Christian, had a dramatically differing view of health to that of the colonized, and so there is not good syncretism between Western medical practioners and Aboriginal people.. For example, an Aboriginal person might see (and often does) a hospital as a place to die, and so they will stay away from hospitals at all costs. They also don’t like to take medication since they don’t have the feeling that they should take things if they aren’t sick. So resistence in this particular instance takes the form of not going to the doctor, not taking medicine, or simply returning to their own community healers and making their own medicines, such as amarrh, which they make from blood and saliva.

In the hunter-gatherer semi nomadic lifestyle, Indigenous Australians had free access to the land and its resources with traditional medicine that made it possible to maintain f fairly healthy and well-nourished population. Within a few years, however this healthy population became the poorest and sickest minority group in Autralia. d

Dispossession of Aboriginal land and consequently the destruction of the economic sphere of Aboriginal people in conjunction with the range of introduced diseases had resulted in a rapid population loss. according to Smith’s analysis in Saggers and Gray, Aboriginal population in pre –contact time was approximately 314,500. Smith estimated the Aboriginal population in 1933 was 73.828 which is roughly 25 per cent that of the pre-colonial time. These data indicate the devastating effect of colonization on Indigenous Australians’ health status.

Colonialism destroys the cultural patterns by which traditional societies in ‘underdeveloped’ countries survive, and in the case of Australian Aboriginal people, in particularly the kinship bond… Many precolonial social structures, even if dominated by exploitative elites, had evolved systems of mutual obligations among the classes that helped to ensure a least a minimal diet for all. (Lappe’ and Collins (2001)..Once these patterns and infrastructures are disrupted all kinds of other imbalances occur. For example, within a few years of European settlement essential conditions in order to maintain good health were absent from Aboriginal peoples’ lives. The Better Heath Commission identified these conditions as a range of material and non-material factors such as adequate shelter, suitable nutrition, companionship, income and healthy environment. In addition to these things, Aboriginal people’s health was jeopardized by many so called introduced diseases against which they had not developed natural immunity as these illnesses were unknown in their tradition life. amongst these diseases were smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, whooping cough and leprosy which all had a disastrous effect on the health of Indigenous Australians. (Saggers and Gray 1991).

From the 1890’s under the government protection policy, segregation of Aboriginal people started which meant that indigenous Australians who had previously been forced to leave their traditional ‘countries’ became incarcerated in settlements, reserves and missions (Knowles 2001) Hundreds of people including adults, children

dn elders were squeezed in these institutions thereby creating an ideal environment for the transmission of communicable diseases. Living conditions in these institutions were intolerable in addition to overcrowding. The responsible government had no intention to spend any money on basic facilities such as water toilet etc. Dense population, poor nutrition all contributed to the distribution of diseases. In the case of infectious diseases, most particularly in the case of leprosy and venereal diseas, the response of European people was appalling. Instead of providing some sort of health care to Aboriginal people they instead requested to move them away. It was not until 1911 when the first medical examination was ordered for Aboriginal people. It was done in the fear of Europeans settlers that they might catch a contagious illness.

Aboriginal people had to endure the policies of these institution which also had the implication of loosing the freedom of choice, independenc and mobility. Many children were forcibly removed from their families and raised up on mission for settlements. Many of them suffered emotional distress as they were lost halfway between two cultures. Further, institutionalization had a negative psychological impact on Aboriginal people which took the form of depression and frustration and still has a devastating effect on contemporary Aboriginal life. They could no longer care for the land or for each other.

I have described the impact that colonlialism has had on Native Australians and why the Aboriginal people have not been able to adapt very successfully in the area of health (as well as many other areas). European colonization destroyed the kinship infrastructure and the access to bushfood that was necessary for the mainenence of Aboriginal health. In addition to this, moving Aboriginal people away from families has created long –term social and psychological issues for them, a form of dislocation in their own country. Neither have aboriginal people been able to fit into many of the existing economic structures, and few aboriginal people have their own homes. This is due to deficiencies in the economic theories that are not reaching Aboriginal people.


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