‘Empty’ settler landscapes on Aboriginal Country

By Alyssa Madden

When Europeans began expanding into Queensland Aboriginal people were—politically speaking—”invisible”. This invisibility was deeply ensconced in national ideological frameworks, including Terra nullius and the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the census. Historically, Australian First Nations peoples were largely ignored, or relegated to the status of being part of the landscape.

In contrast, in an effort to directly connect white settlers to the Australian setting, a white nationalistic rhetoric was widely adopted. Early Australian nationalism manifested in the exemplars of the swagman, bushman, or frontier pioneer (Figure 1). Such expressions of “Australianness” were patriarchal characteristics of the white men who “battled” against the harsh conditions of the colonial frontier, while forging a deep connection to the land.

Figure 1 The Sundowner and His Doings (Sleap 1885; State Library of Victoria ID176588).

Within the emerging white nationalistic ideology, the landscape was presented as one of sheer potential: an empty space waiting to be industrialised. The notion that the landscape was empty was widely evident in early settler imaginations. This concept should have allowed the pastoral, mining and settlement frontiers to progress without challenge. However, the harsh reality that a multitude of Aboriginal nations had already occupied this landscape for millennia proved more than a little “inconvenient”. Rather than treaty-colonialism, settler-colonialism was a proven strategy to directly bypass the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

This consigned Aboriginal people to “nothingness”. The so-called empty space had been the homes of many different Aboriginal nations for millennia, though leaving few permanent traces visible to colonial Europeans who did not understand how to read the landscape or the signs of Aboriginal presence and occupancy. Rather than creating large, rapacious industrial imprints on the landscape, Aboriginal people had subsisted with more sustainable, less visually discernible practices.

Continual expansion caused many Europeans to seek protection from Aboriginal resistance to their incursions. Urgent pleas were regularly sent to the Commissioner of Police by settlers, petitioning time and again for police assistance:

I would beg leave to represent through you to the proper authorities the desirability of a detachment of Native Police being established on Coopers Creek … Removing the force to the proposed site on Coopers Creek would be protection alike to the pastoral occupants as well as to the aborigines protecting the latter from molestation and injustice at the hands of unscrupulous whites and at the same time the presence of the police would deter the blacks from spearing and appropriating beef, which they are strongly tempted to do when Coopers Creek is in flood (1878 Letter to Commissioner of Police, from Commission of Crown Lands.)

Based on previous examples of Indigenous policing  in other colonies, as well as international models, the Qld NMP were tasked with “dispersing” (i.e. killing and removing) Aboriginal people in order to make way for white settlement. Essentially, their task was to “create” the mythical empty landscape—whether by removing local Aboriginal people, or assuaging the guilt associated with invasion by offering superficial protection to “helpless” local Indigenous peoples.

Although the NMP was comprised of Aboriginal troopers, often they were not associated in any way with the Indigenous people they were “dispersing”. By and large, the troopers originated from very separate Aboriginal cultures, from different parts of the continent.

When the northern parts of ‘Queensland became more settled by the squatters, it was found necessary to employ other aboriginals to track the wild black to their native fastnesses [sic], as the ordinary police were powerless to effect their capture. These black trackers formed the nucleus of the Queensland native police, who are composed exclusively of young natives in the prime of life, and generally taken from the southern tribe to be employed against their northern brothers … The instructions given to the inspectors by the Government were simply, “Keep the roads clear of the natives,” and very few questions, if any, were asked by the Government, carte blanche was given to the native police as a body throughout Queensland.  (Northern Star, 29 March 1879, p4.)

The NMP were seen by many as conducting an essential service: maintaining order and protecting people from the dangers inherent in the colonial landscape. “Dispersals” were conducted in much the same way that dangerous fauna or flora would be culled from an area to ensure a population’s safety. While there were some dissenting voices, Australian Indigenous peoples were seen as an inherent part of the landscape, not as people in their own right.

The “empty” landscape that Europeans settled was not the landscape experienced and occupied by Aboriginal Australians. This is evident in the escalating frontier violence over two competing ideologies of space: fallow land primed for industry, and the opposing spiritual landscape of Country. As a subjugating mechanism, the NMP was a direct manifestation of the need for the white invaders to subvert the original occupants of Australia.

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