[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
The American Indians were not subjected to the same kind of annihilation as the Aztecs or Incas had been, but then the English had thought that the Spanish treatment of natives was cruel. One Elizabethan commentator thought that the Spanish were morally inferior ‘because with all cruel inhumanity…they subdued a naked and yielding people, whom they sought for gain….’ Were the English and then the American and Australian colonisers any better?
The American colonists found themselves in wars with the Indians without getting much help from England. The colonists long thought that London was far too tender toward the Indians. The line of the ‘frontier’ of white settlement kept getting pushed westwards until it finally disappeared about two hundred years later. One American mightily stirred by a royal proclamation limiting white expansion was a man named George Washington. He was a soldier and big-hitting landowner who had no time at all for the Indians – ‘a cruel and bloodthirsty enemy on our backs.’
The Founding Fathers had views in common about slavery and the Indians – the Indians must not be allowed to get in the way of the growth of America. When Jefferson submitted his draft Declaration of Independence to Congress, they struck out that inane clause about Negroes but they let stand a clause that referred to ‘the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages sexes and conditions’.
Well, the Indians need not have expected any mercy from that quarter, and for that reason, while both sides sought Indian help during the Revolutionary War, it was generally the British who got it. The Indians knew that the American hunger for land could never be satisfied. Any protection that they had had from England evaporated with the Declaration of Independence. Gunboats, and not just Gunboat Diplomacy, would be used to push the Indians across the Mississippi. The killing grounds under Andrew Jackson were blood-curdling. The well-known adventurer and sharpshooter David Crockett said simply: ‘We shot them like dogs’. This was ‘undistinguished destruction of all ages sexes and conditions’ that the whites had charged the Indians with in the Declaration of Independence. It was a form of bestiality that can only be explained on the footing that the white people regarded the Indians as having no more significance than being part of a hostile landscape that had to be cleared for white settlement.
It is hard to find a humane view, even a civilised one. Abraham Lincoln was the first to refer to Indians as ‘Native Americans’. Treaties were made, but not kept. In the end there was no land left to seize and no tribe left to betray. After the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn in the Great Sioux War, the massive reaction ended with the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890. A poet named Helen Hunt Jackson produced an itemised account of white breaches of treaties called A Century of Dishonour. In 1877, President Hayes had said: ‘Many, if not most of our Indian wars have had their origin in broken promises and acts of injustice on our part.’
We are talking about a ‘civilised’ nation depriving an ‘uncivilised’ people of their rights, of their very being as a people. The American Indians never resolved the dilemma of assimilation, and a kind of cultural death, or staying separate. Neither have our aboriginals.
It is as well to remember that the Europeans that the Australian Aborigines were to confront were not the flower of the Enlightenment. Most of these white people had been cast out of their own community. And they were held in line by a brutal and inhuman regime maintained by troops not far from the bottom of their own barrel.
The instructions of Governor Phillip were silent on treating with the natives about what we might call ownership or land rights. His instructions were predicated on the assumption that title to the land had vested in the Crown. The English at Botany Bay in and after 1788 proceeded on the footing that the land that they were now occupying had belonged to no one. The Latin term is terra nullius (‘land of no one’). In 1992, the High Court of Australia said that all this was wrong, and that it was simply false to say that in 1788 Australia belonged to no one.
But for more than a century after 1788, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia were deprived of their rights by a sustained course of conduct by the governments in London and Australia that was based on an expressly racist premise. The High Court of Australia said that the Aboriginal people of the continent came to be treated as ‘a different and lower form of life whose very existence could be ignored.’ From time to time, London expressed horror at what was going on, but it was easy to be pious at that distance. The Aborigines never had the power in combat that the Maoris showed in New Zealand, and they were never offered treaties of the substantive kind offered to the Maoris – and, it might be added, that the Maoris got more return from their treaties than the American Indians ever would.
A Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said: ‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the original way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.’ In 2008, the Parliament apologised. Many Australians were opposed to giving such an apology, and many others still mock it now.
Two things at least are clear. First, the Aborigines did not ask the white people to occupy this country and they did not consent to that course. Secondly, the Aborigines have suffered immense pain and loss as a result of the white occupation. What is there left to argue about? In both America and Australia, the white people came and took the land from the weaker native peoples who were already there and both God and humanity went clean out the window. The natives were, one American general said, just ‘destined to disappear with the forests.’
But moral outrage over sustained hypocrisy should not lead us to forget that de Tocqueville thought that whatever ‘we consider the destinies of the aborigines of North America, their calamities appear to be irremediable’, or that more recently Paul Johnson thought that the alternative to assimilation in the U S was ‘continuing friction, extravagant expectations, and new forms of exploitation by white radical intellectuals.’
How different was the American or Australian experience to that of the Boers in South Africa? They saw themselves as successors to the Hebrew Patriarch. They were the children of God in the Wilderness, and Jean Calvin had taught them that they were the elect ordained by God to rule over the land and all the natives that they found on it. Was a Bantu any more appalled by a Calvinist than an Iroquois was by a Lutheran or than a blackfella was by an Anglican?
In both America and Australia, a race that saw itself as superior annihilated whole tribes and cultures of what it saw as an inferior race; the one difference is that the American natives offered stronger resistance and that led to government responding with more armed force and duplicity.